Because lecture programs are Swan Hellenic's great strength, there is little in the way of typical cruise-ship entertainment. In the Main Deck's expansive Darwin Lounge -- featuring a wooden dance floor; bandstand; lounge seating; oriental-style carpets and fluted, white, ionic columns -- a young, classically trained quartet sings and plays a variety of instruments in the evenings. One or two may also put on special solo concerts. The house band plays after dinner, and the crew puts on one show during the cruise. Team quizzes also attract a following.
But the main attractions in the Darwin Lounge are the lectures. Most cruises carry four or five guest lecturers to cover several disciplines appropriate to the cruising region and theme. They give 40-minue talks during the time at sea, and if there is an entire day of cruising, there will be three or four talks to attend in the Darwin Lounge or to watch in the new Livingstone Lounge on big screens.
On a trip that included English, Irish and French ports, speakers included a historian, writer, military specialist and an Anglican clergyman. Destination-specific presentations covered Ireland's Catholic-Protestant and British-Irish conflicts, Viking and Celtic culture and religion, Irish literature, the Tresco Abbey Gardens on the Isles of Scilly, wars between England and France (beginning with 1066 and the Battle of Hastings), the Channel Islands during World War II and the Normandy landings at the end of World War II. On cruises to the Mediterranean and Middle East, onboard lecturers may specialize in topics like archeology, architecture, mythology, ornithology, language, maritime history, food and wine. On my cruise, the lecturers were both informative and entertaining, though, despite the lecturers' best efforts, a couple of topics remained beyond the understanding of most of the audience.
One of the biggest aspects of the refit is the new Orpheus Lounge on the Promenade Deck, a comfortable observation lounge with a bar, stage and big dance floor, as well as soothing burgundy and cream decor. Lighter music -- jazz and sometimes pop and rock tunes (geared to the age group) -- is offered there in the evenings for dancing.
A popular spot for pre-dinner drinks is Shackelton's Bar on the Main Deck, best typifying the ship's unhurried, country-hotel atmosphere. The roomy, light-paneled lounge features polished-wood floors and oriental-style carpets. Red-and-cream striped and olive green, wood-framed chairs and reddish couches face glass-top tables, while the bar is surrounded by five stools. On the walls, a large set of stunning black-and-white photographs depicts Ernest Shackleton's aborted Antarctic expedition and rescue. A pianist provides entertainment and background music. The lounge was extended in the refit and has a more open, welcoming feel now.
On the Bridge Deck, portside, opposite the Veranda Cafe, the Wheeler Bar pays homage to Sir Mortimer Wheeler, a scholar and intrepid traveler, who was one of Swan's founders -- and later its chairman. The aft section of the room contains a bar area with stools for barflies and a set of wicker chairs, set on a polished, wooden floor amidst potted palms. The larger portion of the room is taken up with groupings of armchairs and couches in three shades of green, surrounding low mahogany tables. Sir Mortimer Wheeler's portrait at one end faces a stunning half-model of P&O's SS Caledonia at the other. A harpist plays before and after dinner.
Drinks prices at all the ship's bars are reasonable, with a 175 ml glass of Sauvignon Blanc (Vanel) setting you back £3.50, a Gordon's Gin & Tonic at £ 2.75, a pint of Carlsberg at £2.60 and a bottle of beer (330 ml) at £1.75.
Also forward of the library on this deck is the new Livingstone Lounge, the former cinema. This refurbished venue hosts events like wine-tasting or singles' parties and shows lectures from the Darwin Lounge on a big screen.
On the same deck, next to the library on the port side, is the card room. Its seven tables are often filled with bridge players, and instruction in the game is offered onboard. A paneled smoking room sports seven brown leather chairs and two couches.
Shore excursions are included in Minerva's cruise fares, often with multiple options per port. Extra-special tours are offered in certain ports for an additional cost, though I found them fairly priced. However, most passengers lean toward the included tours or, if time permits, take a free tour, followed by a for-fee excursion. Shuttle buses between the ship and city or town center are always complimentary. In general, passengers choose their excursions in advance of embarkation, rather than booking onboard. After attending the onboard lectures, I found that visits to such sites as the Normandy beaches, the Bayeux tapestries, Celtic stone circles and illuminated manuscripts (such as the Book of Kells) took on far more meaning.
The Main and Bridge Decks are the hubs of passenger life on Minerva, housing nearly all of the public spaces. One of the outstanding features aboard Minerva is the inviting long gallery library on the Bridge Deck, very possibly the largest such space at sea, vying with Cunard's Queen Mary 2 for sheer number of books. This spacious, paneled room offers open book shelves, comfortable wing-back chairs for reading and the occasional catnap, a reference-book table with space for opening large atlases, and three computer stations for Internet. The per-minute rate for multi-hour Internet packages is remarkably cheap for a cruise ship. On my cruise, the 12-hour package cost $34 (£21). The puzzle table is the site of much activity, and passengers typically finish a puzzle in two days before embarking on a new one.
The lecturers' spouses serve as the librarians, tidying up the place and returning borrowed books to their proper shelves.
On the same deck, next to the library on the port side, is the card room. Its seven tables are often filled with bridge-players, and instruction in the game is offered onboard. The small Internet lounge is just forward of the Wheeler Bar, having been moved from the library. Internet charges are as follows: £2.50 for 30 mins; £4.40 for one hour; £12.60 for four hours and £21 for 12 hours.
A small boutique and sundries shop on the Main Deck sells jewelry, perfumes, Swan logo souvenirs, essential toiletries and sunscreen.
A free passenger laundry with washers, dryers and ironing boards is located on the Aegean Deck. Laundry and pressing service (same-day service available if handed over before 9 a.m.) is also available for an extra fee.
The aft pool on the Bridge Deck is surrounded by outdoor, varnished wooden chairs and tables on three sides, with umbrellas and a new, permanent canopy for shade. The wraparound Promenade Deck is now a vast expanse of mock teak (replacing the former green astroturf), with ample sunbathing space on wooden steamer chairs.
The beauty salon and gym were moved in the refit and are now aft on Aegean Deck. The salon offers massages, facials, manicures and pedicures, while the gym, although small (and not much used), has a treadmill and an exercise bike.
There are rarely children onboard, and no facilities are provided for them.