Peter Newall experiences life aboard Swan Hellenic’s unique cruise ship MINERVA on a fifteen day cruise from Civitavecchia to Athens.
All photos by and copyright Peter Newall and Julie Kingston 2014.
“Welcome aboard MINERVA!” The affable master of MINERVA Captain Neil Broomhall greeted us at the gangway when we arrived at Civitavecchia on a beautiful moonlit night at the start of our unforgettable Realms of the Mediterranean cruise. For the past sixty years Swan Hellenic has offered a unique, all inclusive cultural cruise experience which is quintessentially British. A personal welcome aboard is a tradition started by Ken Swan the late founder of the company and is just one of many personal touches which make Swan guests feel extra special.
Compared to the behemoths of today the 12,892grt. MINERVA is tiny and only carries 350 passengers. She also has an old fashioned passenger ship profile with her funnel placed amidships. This traditional style continues throughout the ship with her British country house interior décor. Named after Minerva the Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts, MINERVA first entered service in 1996 as a replacement for ORPHEUS, the forty-six-year-old 5,078grt. veteran which had been used by Swans for twenty-one years. Her small size is also perfect for visiting destinations such as the narrow Corinth Canal, not normally accessible by larger ships.
MINERVA only has six passenger decks and is very easy to get around. The main passenger cabins are on the lower decks, Baltic and Aegean. Two thirds of the 146 cabins on these decks are outside with either windows (Aegean) or portholes (Baltic). The 44 teak-deck-balcony cabins, which include two 34.30m² Owner’s Suites, are on the Bridge and Sun decks. All cabins have British-style sockets, centrally controlled air-conditioning, flat screen TVs, dressing gowns, slippers, hair dryer, pair of binoculars and a range of luxurious complimentary L’Occitane toiletries.
The main public rooms are on the Main and Bridge decks. At the forward end of Main deck is the Darwin Lounge which is used during the day for lectures and at night for dancing, film shows and for major events such as the Captain’s welcome party. It has plenty of deep, comfy armchairs which are ideal for a post-lunch snooze – hopefully not during one of the many fascinating lectures!
MINERVA has three bars. The spacious, horse-shoe shaped Shackleton Bar and lounge on Main deck celebrates the achievement of the great polar explorer. Its stylish décor includes wooden floors and intricately-woven carpets and it is a perfect venue for pre-dinner cocktails listening to music played on a grand piano by one of Minerva’s talented musicians. The standard of music aboard the ship is outstanding. During our cruise all the artists were British and included a pianist, classical guitarist and an amazing jazz quartet with a female bassist who played a ukulele bass with an astonishing sound. The cosy Wheeler Bar port side aft on the Bridge deck is named after Sir Mortimer Wheeler the renowned archaeologist, television personality and former Chairman of Swan Hellenic. It offers easy access to the pool area. At the forward end of the Promenade deck is the light, spacious, 145-seater observation lounge, the Orpheus Lounge, with its jazzy carpets and panoramic views overlooking the sea on three sides. This is also used for late night music and dancing.
Dining aboard MINERVA is a treat. Not only is it open sitting, there is also a choice of two restaurants. The more formal oak-panelled, 250-capacity Swan Restaurant, with its Chippendale-style dining chairs, is situated aft on Main deck. For those who prefer more casual dining there is the Veranda on the deck above which opens onto an open-air teak-decked lido area with its sheltered awning for al-fresco dining. It has wicker-style seating and a relaxing ambiance. Complimentary coffee and tea making facilities are available throughout the day with a fine selection of Twining teabags. Both restaurants offer the same menu with meals, especially at lunchtime, reflecting the places visited. During our call at La Goulette the Tunisian dishes included chilled fig soup and almonds and Izgara Orkinoz (char-grilled sardines with cumin and red peppers). Not only were there pool-deck barbeques but the variety of dishes on offer for dinner was outstanding from lobster thermidor and fillet wellington for the Farewell Gala Dinner to baked fresh pollack with a lime and coriander crust and whole oven roasted goose with black cherry sauce on other nights. There was also plenty of fresh fruit including grapes and even two types of passion fruit. For traditionalists there is a Sunday roast lunch whilst grilled chicken, salmon and sirloin steak is usually available as an alternative to the main menu for dinner.
I travelled extensively with Swan Hellenic in the 1980s and although the tiny ORPHEUS had a lot of charm the cabins were small and the food was pretty dire. However, what made these voyages memorable was not only the quality of the lecturers but also the enthusiasm of my fellow passengers, many of whom were regular Swan travellers who came from all walks of life. Although MINERVA is so much better than ORPHEUS, the Swan passengers are the same mix of interesting people. Among those we met was a former head of a famous British shipping company, a well-known knighted diplomat and a school teacher who carefully saved her pennies for her annual Swan cruise. All shared a passion for learning and seeing new places which made conversation during the day and evening so interesting. For those who wish to know even more MINERVA has one of the most impressive libraries afloat with over five thousand books on a variety of topics. There are also around a thousand paintings, etchings and prints dotted around the ship.
MINERVA’s Captain Neil Broomhall has had an extraordinary thirty-five-year career at sea. He worked with Cunard for seventeen years and served on a variety of ships from tankers, reefers, container ships to QE2 and CUNARD COUNTESS. He was also master of RADISSON DIAMOND, SAGA ROSE, SAGA RUBY, SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE, DISCOVERY and VOYAGER.
One of the main bugbears of modern cruising is the hidden extras which sometimes equate to the original cost of the cruise. When Swan Hellenic was formed in 1954 it was one of the first companies to offer all inclusive fares. These include not only the cost of transfers, on-board gratuities but also tailor-made shore excursions worth up to £650 per person on a 15 day cruise. Knowing that all these have been taken care of makes a great difference to the overall cruise experience. The excursions on offer are varied and are usually more extensive, less rushed than with other cruise lines, and with excellent local guides.
These are a few of the highlights of our fifteen day cruise which followed in the footsteps of the ancient Romans and Greeks.
However, the greatest joy of all was returning at the end of a long hot day ashore and being welcomed back to our friendly floating boutique hotel by smiling staff with cold towels and water. The combination of a small comfortable ship with good food, an interesting variety of cultural excursions and, above all, the attention to detail of an ever-helpful and cheerful crew, sums up perfectly what it is to be a Swan traveller.
Swan Hellenic cruises now extend beyond the Mediterranean to Asia, the Caribbean and South America.
A well-known shipping writer, cruise journalist and cruise ship lecturer, Peter Newall is a former British Airways executive who has, in the past 57 years, visited and travelled on many famous ships. As well as numerous articles he has written nine highly acclaimed books including the definitive histories of Union-Castle, Orient and Cunard Line. He also owns the Newall Dunn Collection, the extensive collection of historic merchant shipping images.
A well-known shipping writer, cruise journalist and cruise ship lecturer,
Peter Newall is a former British Airways executive who has, in the past 57
years, visited and travelled on many famous ships. As well as numerous
articles he has written nine highly acclaimed books including the
definitive histories of Union-Castle, Orient and Cunard Line. He also owns
the Newall Dunn Collection, the extensive collection of historic merchant