The Return of Swan Hellenic

July 10, 2007

On a "best in a lifetime" cruise a few years ago on Swan Hellenic's Minerva II -- a lovely ship that was formerly Renaissance Cruises' R8 (and now operates as Princess Cruises' Royal Princess) -- our editor was surprised to hear Swan regulars gripe about how big the 710-passenger vessel was and about how they missed the original 350-passenger Minerva.

Well, they need gripe no more: Swan Hellenic was put up for sale earlier this year when its owner, Carnival, transferred its only ship to Princess. After no buyers were found, former P&O Chairman Lord Sterling bought the Swan name (Carnival had inherited Swan when it merged with P&O Princess Cruises in 2003). Many of Swan's loyal passengers, fearing the death of the brand, applauded his move. But, wanting a ship similar in size to the original Minerva, Lord Sterling had a hard time finding a suitable vessel with which to re-start the legendary brand.

Here's the good news: He managed to land a ship -- and it happens to be the original Minerva!

That ship -- now cruising in the winter as Explorer II for Abercrombie & Kent, and in the summer as Alexander von Humboldt for Germany's Phoenix Reisen -- had been announced to sail as Explorer II for another small British line, Voyages of Discovery. Stay with us on the fine print: Lord Sterling wound up selling the Swan Hellenic name (and concept) to Discovery's parent company, All Leisure Group plc.

As such it has been decided that the ship will enter service once again as Swan Hellenic's Minerva in May 2008, a much sooner than expected return to the market for the Swan brand. A brochure containing full 2008 itineraries and prices (in British pounds) will be released next week. The ship's already-planned 2007/2008 Antarctica cruises for Abercrombie & Kent and Regent Seven Seas Cruises will continue and according to Voyages of Discovery Managing Director David Yellow, the company is "concluding arrangements for [2008/2009] and beyond as we see this cooperation on a long-term basis."

Lord Sterling will remain chairman of Swan Hellenic under its new ownership, and the line will be maintained as a separate brand alongside Voyages of Discovery, which will continue operating its 700-passenger Discovery, formerly Princess Cruises' original Island Princess.

All Leisure Group is planning an initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange's Alternative Investment Market later this year, and may expand further. According to Lord Sterling, one avenue being considered is a return of Swan Hellenic to river cruising, an area where it had been successful in the past and in which he had already expressed interest before the All Leisure tie-up; the company will also continue searching for another suitable ship to join the Swan fleet.

In the meantime, Swan loyalists should be thrilled that their former ship has come full circle. "Minerva, the only new-build in Swan's history to date, was built in Italy in 1996 off an unfinished Russian hull intended for a research vessel. (That conversion was successful enough that it paved the way for the same shipyard to undertake a similar but larger project a few years later, building Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Seven Seas Navigator off another unfinished Russian hull.) A favorite of Swan passengers, Minerva brought modern comforts that were missing from the line's previous vessel, Orpheus, while maintaining the cozy atmosphere of a small ship.

Before re-entering service with Swan, the ship will undergo an extensive program of "soft refurbishment" including carpets, curtains, bedspreads, mattresses, French polishing or replacement of the wooden chairs and tables and other cosmetic work that should leave the ship in pristine condition as it welcomes aboard many of its former fans once again.

Its replacement with the larger Minerva II was widely considered a mistake as many of Swan's loyal passengers disliked the much larger ship despite such advantages as alternative restaurants and many more private balconies than the original Minerva, and the larger vessel proved difficult to fill without discounting, a practice Swan traditionally didn't engage in.

Swan Hellenic was formed in 1954 when Swan's Travel Bureau offered an educational cruise to Greece in cooperation with the Hellenic Society of London. Over the next five decades Swan became the premier name in what the company would later term "Discovery Cruising" -- a unique style of cruising focused on learning and enrichment, with well-educated, well-traveled passengers and highly distinguished guest speakers: senior diplomats, professors, bishops and the like. Despite competition from newer lines like its new partner Voyages of Discovery and Saga's new Spirit of Adventure product, it has remained the best known and most respected company in its unique market segment, with legions of mostly British fans who would never dream of sailing with any other line. With its old ship back, Swan should be in a strong position to once again take up its prominent position at the top of the enrichment cruise market.

--by Douglas Newman, a maritime writer in New York specializing in passenger ships and ferries.