--By Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor
When Cruise West went bankrupt in 2010, the nine ships in its fleet, each able to carry between 72 and 138 passengers, were snatched up by other small lines. Yorktown, bought by Travel Dynamics International (TDI) in 2011 and launched for the 2012 season with U.S. and Central American itineraries, comes from this lineage. It entered service as Yorktown Clipper (under Clipper Cruise Lines) in 1988 and became Cruise West's Spirit of Yorktown in 2006.
Few people end up on Yorktown by booking directly through TDI. Instead, the ship caters almost exclusively to groups booked through educational tour companies like Smithsonian Expedition Journeys or the American Museum of Natural History, consolidated operators like Adventure Life or college alumni networks -- with multiple groups onboard the same sailing. As a result, there's not much TDI "branding" on the ship; people wear nametags with their affiliate tour, and representatives from those groups have a presence on the voyages.
While this could be jarring -- on our Central America cruise, it seemed as if each tour operator had given its guests different information about the activities involved -- the various loyalties didn't cause as much division as you might expect. Since 1959, TDI has carved out a niche with themed itineraries that are heavy on enrichment, guided tours and lectures, and this overriding interest in education united all passengers, regardless of how they booked. Our cruise director, John Frick, has a master's degree in Science Education, and three naturalists and a visiting scientist and archaeologist filled in the gaps.
And Yorktown is well suited for this type of educational travel. While it will never be described as a luxury vessel, the service and enrichment make it a step up from the sparsest expedition ships, and that's fine with most of its passengers. (Nearly everyone we talked to said they wouldn't be caught dead on a larger cruise.) The places where the ship fell flat -- the quality of the food, for example, and the lack of cabin amenities -- seemed to be outsourced to a management company, V Ships. A generator had failed before our trip, which led to some cabins lacking air-conditioning; our tour operator Adventure Life warned us well in advance (not every operator did so), and TDI provided fans for the people who were the most affected.
Overall, your enjoyment of Yorktown will depend on what your priorities are. If you want luxury digs, free time and a feeling of autonomy, this is not the outfit for you. But if you're seeking an enrichment-oriented voyage on topics that go beyond the basics -- often into the esoteric -- and don't mind the tour group mentality, your time on Yorktown will be a true learning experience.
Yorktown Fellow Passengers
Because most people book their voyages through tour groups affiliated with TDI, the makeup and demographics vary. Passengers professed loyalty to their booking group, such as the Smithsonian or Orvis, rather than the line itself. That being said, the type of person who chooses an enrichment vacation is a little self-selecting. On our cruise, we met a New York City public school teacher, a timekeeper for the Indy 500 and a wide range of physicians.
Although Yorktown is billed as an expedition vessel, our shipmates seemed less athletically inclined than those we've met on similar cruises with other companies. Many passengers complained about the itinerary being too difficult, and at a few stops, a fair number of people stayed onboard. Most fell within the 60-to-80 age range, although a few people were in their 50's.
Yorktown Dress Code
As with most expedition cruises, the ship eschews formal nights, and sport coats are not required, although several men wore jackets at the Captain's Welcome Dinner. Your daytime clothes will depend on the itinerary. On my Belize trip, passengers wore loose pants and tops designed to be comfortable and cool, as well as hats to protect from the sun. At night, men wore slacks to dinner (no jeans or shorts), and women wore nice pants, skirts or dresses that still fell on the casual side. While there's no need for heels, women may find themselves packing a variety of shoes -- hiking boots or sneakers, water shoes, flip-flops and sandals -- and wearing all of them.
American dollars are the ship's currency. Gratuities for the crew are paid at the end of the trip, in cash or with your credit card as an addition to your total bill. The company pools tips, and you're not encouraged to give individual amounts to waiters or housekeeping staff. The recommended amount is $16 per person, per day.
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This is my first review of a cruise via Cruise Critic, so fellow cruisers here is my opinion of what our cruise on the Yorktown was like. I have identified good points, bad points and where I think they could make improvements. The ships ...continue