There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.Ratty to Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’
I am very much inclined to agree with Ratty. And whenever I spot an opportunity while travelling to take to the water, I am eager to set sail. A whale-watching trip; a cruise around a harbour; an afternoon on a city’s river. Count me in for any of those!
And yet, I have never been convinced about the appeal of a cruising holiday. Maybe it’s the expectation of long dull days at sea rather than spending time exploring new places. Maybe it’s the huge size of modern cruise ships that seem to me to be very un-boat-like. Or maybe I have simply too often had other more pressing travel aspirations.
But there have been exceptions. So for guest host Natalie’s Sunday Stills challenge theme of ‘Afloat’ I thought I would share my three cruising experiences to date, all of them very different from each other.
Cruise #1: the Antarctic
Unless you are in a position to spend a very large amount on one of the very few Antarctic trips that fly into the White Continent, you need to get there by sea. Looking back on our 2003 trip I regret somewhat that we didn’t opt for a more expensive expedition cruise, perhaps taking in South Georgia.
But our budget was limited, as was our time, so we found a more economical option on the Marco Polo. This relatively small ship had a passenger capacity of 820 at the time (compared to the large ships of today carrying over 5,000). But for an Antarctic cruise she carried ‘just’ 400; international law prohibits ships from landing more than 100 people at a time on the Antarctic Peninsula or islands. It is feasible to land four groups of 100 in shifts in a day, but more than that would mean too short a time on land to give any sort of real experience.
Many will argue that we missed out by not having longer on our shore excursions, and that’s possibly true. But certainly at the time I didn’t feel short-changed, because even while on board ship there was plenty to see. Majestic icebergs drifted by; smaller ones carried groups of penguins or maybe a predatory leopard seal; whales were often spotted; or albatross wheeling overhead.
We also had a programme of interesting talks. A team from a research station came aboard to tell us about their work tracking the impact of tourism on penguin colonies. A resident ornithologist led early morning Seabird Watches on deck. There was a slide show one evening about ‘Seabirds of the Southern Ocean’; and on another a screening of a documentary about Antarctic exploration with amazing footage from Scott’s doomed expedition.
But the highlights of course were the shore excursions. We landed on several of the islands just off the Antarctic Peninsula, and once on the mainland. We visited an Argentine scientific base, and saw penguins galore, mostly Chinstrap and Gentoo. We’d been told not to get too close to them; but no one had told the the penguins themselves about the 10 metre ‘exclusion zone’. So many waddled right up to me, as if posing for photos! It was a wonderful week and is among my most treasured travel memories.
Cruise #2: the Rhine
Chatting idly with my mother-in-law Teresa one evening during a visit to Newcastle, she mentioned the travelogues she and my father-in- law used to see at the local newsreel cinema while courting. Back then she never dreamed she would see those places, but she had since been thrilled to visit Rome and Paris with us. The only other place from those old films that she’d dreamed of seeing was the Rhine, along with the many castles that line its banks. That evening an idea was born – to take her on a Rhine cruise for her forthcoming 80th birthday. And so the following July saw the three of us, plus one of her friends, travelling to Strasbourg to board a Croisi Europe cruise boat, La Bohème.
Our route took us first north from Strasbourg, leaving the evening we boarded and sailing through the night to arrive in Rüdesheim am Rhein in the early afternoon. After spending the rest of the day there, we sailed after breakfast to follow the Rhine through the stretch often called the ‘Romantic Rhine’, because of the very many beautiful old castles that line the river here. We arrived in Koblenz just after lunch and moored in the Moselle, which meets the Rhine here.
The next day we sailed again at breakfast time. We retraced our route through the ‘Romantic Rhine’ back to Rüdesheim in time for lunch. From there we went on a coach excursion to Eberbach Monastery. The ship left Rüdesheim in the early hours of the next morning and docked in Mannheim from where we took another optional excursion, this time to Heidelberg. As soon as we were back on board, at about 6.00 PM, we sailed for Strasbourg, where we arrived and disembarked the next morning – the end of a very pleasant cruise.
This is not a trip that either my husband or I would normally have chosen for ourselves. The pace was very leisurely. Apart from the stops in the charming if touristy village of Rüdesheim am Rhein and Koblenz, at our route’s most northern point, much of our sightseeing was done from on board, watching the lovely scenery drift past. We saw steeply sloping vineyards, pretty villages, and of course the many castles for which this stretch of the Rhine is famous.
Germany was in the grip of a heatwave and of football fervour, as the 2010 World Cup was taking place and the country performing well. So I quite welcomed the slower pace and embraced life on board, especially the delicious food and wine!
Cruise #3: the Galápagos Islands
I have written elsewhere in this blog about our experiences on our Galápagos cruise, which was one of my favourite trips ever. This was my sort of cruising – a small boat (eight cabins, sixteen passengers); landings twice a day and snorkelling in between; loads to see and photograph; and very informal (bare feet, help yourself to a beer informal!)
We sailed on the Angelito, by no means a luxury vessel. Our cabin was tiny, but who wants to be in a cabin when the atmosphere on deck is so relaxing and the wildlife of these unique islands is all around. My favourite spot to relax and catch up with my diary or read was the aft deck; here the loungers were shaded and the view of frigatebirds and others following our wake always enticing. On shore we were guided expertly by Fabian, a native of the Galápagos Islands. And on board we had plenty of tasty food served by a super-friendly chef and a helpful and ever-smiling crew.
As I said, this was my sort of cruising, and I would very happily repeat the experience. It seems that for me, small is best when it comes to getting afloat!
I visited Antarctica in 2003, the Rhine in 2010 and the Galápagos in 2012