Bow of ship sailing towards snowy coastline
Antarctica,  Galapagos Islands,  Germany,  Sunday Stills

The thoughts of a very occasional cruiser

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’
Lady in a boat with spray
Me in the Spirit of Orca, WA

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!)

Seal on a beach with a small white boat moored offshore
On Chinese Hat with the Angelito off shore

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

25 Comments

  • rkrontheroad

    Three very different cruises, each interesting in its own way. Although I’ve taken some day trips by boat, the only cruise I have ever done was Galapagos, because that’s the way you need to do it to get around to the islands. Otherwise I prefer to stay in local places and eat in local restaurants to truly get the feel of a place. I have friends who love that way to travel.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, it has to be a cruise if you’re to see the Galapagos properly. I especially loved the outer islands and they’re impossible to reach by day trip. And of course Antarctica really needs some sort of cruise although there are a few fly-in and camp options – but no local restaurants 😂

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Well you’re three ahead of us Sarah – we haven’t even touched the world of cruises. At this stage it doesn’t appeal, though we’re open to the thought that things may change in that respect one day. It probably boils down to the fact that we don’t like being organised by others, or even told what to do! However it’s good to see that an independent traveller like you has had good experiences despite reservations. And these certainly sound like good experiences!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks – they were indeed all good experiences in their way, although the Rhine cruise mainly for the pleasure it gave my mother in law 😃 The other two were very special because of the locations and a cruise is definitely the best way to see those places I reckon even if you wouldn’t normally choose to travel that way.

  • rosalieann37

    Two of the cruises you took cannot fairly be called cruises – they were expeditions. I’m about to go on the Galapagos expedition myself and am looking forward to it. And hope I can keep up enough to do at least some of the excursions.

    In 1950, I did two cruises when I was 12 – they were trans-Atlantic, with no ports of call other than New York, Southampton and LaHavre. This was in a time when mostly people didn’t fly. There are still transatlantic cruises if the impact on ports is your problem.

    Up until 1973, my husband did a lot of cruising – in the big grey boats of the U.S. Navy. He visited a lot of places that he wanted to revisit.

    Then in1998, we bought a sailboat. His idea was that we would sail out to Bermuda and down to the Virgin Islands. We did cruise on it, up and down the east coast and into the Bahamas for four years. This became very stressful when my husband had a heart attack at an uninhabited cay in the Bahamas. (There are a lot of places in the Bahamas where the cruise ships don’t/can’t go. Even places on some of the island where the cruise ships do go, but the passengers never get to see) The responsibility for piloting the boat and docking or anchoring each night is massive. We still have the boat but we have not sailed her for several years – it got to the point where I could not even walk down the dock to her.

    When my brother-in-law died, I took my sister on a short cruise to Bermuda. She didn’t like it. But I am past doing the packing and unpacking of a regular land trip. I can’t carry anything and I can’t walk far. I love the river cruises – smaller boats and the scenery comes to me. Even a big ship gives me the chance to meet and talk to other people, since at home except for Bob, I mostly only see the doctors or the rehab people (and it was not much different during the pandemic).

    I do not subscribe to the POV that you should not spend money. I don’t like those kind of people either. We always spend money locally and even though there is food on the ship, we will at least eat lunch on shore. And of course I am going places on where most tourists don’t go – very few cruise ship people visit cemeteries like i do.

    I think Venice is an unfair comparison. Venice is in trouble with or without cruise ships. Some places are over-visited – like Key West – but no one complains about that because it is in the USA. Also St. Thomas (USVI) Many of the Caribbean islands depend a great deal on the cruise ship money. Cruise ships provide some infrastructure and after hurricanes (or earthquakes), the big ships are an efficient way to provide aid, water, medical supplies, a place to stay.

    Eventually most people will get to a place where they either don’t travel, or they have to figure out how they can have help in traveling. My little sister (who is 81) has stopped wanting to travel. I don’t want to stop. A cruise gives me a way to keep on traveling. All I have to do is figure out who can help me get to the cruise. I can handle the ship – I just can’t do airports by myself.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks for your thoughtful and lengthy comment Rosalie. I see what you mean about the Galapagos trip in particular being called an expedition – I would probably term it an ‘expedition cruise’, and maybe the Antarctic trip fits that description too even though we were on a regular cruise ship rather than an expedition one. I also totally get your point that at a certain stage in life cruising can be the best, or only, option available if you want to carry on travelling. I admire the way you have managed to do that and I hope I will be the same – if so, I will happily use cruises if that seems the best solution for me as it has been for you 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I’m with you on cruises, or rather, not on cruises! When my husband died ten years ago I was persuaded by a friend to go on a cruise (You’ll love it) but I came back more than ever determined never to go on another one. I have since done so, but I didn’t really consider them cruises as they were so different. I did a Fiord cruise with Hurtigruten – and this is the only way to really see the fiords and then I did a 5-day UK cruise with Hurtigruten which was less about eating and drinking and more about learning about wildlife. Now as I get older and wonder when my next holiday will be I begin to wish I could enjoy cruising as it seems that I may have to resort to a cruise in the near future if I want to travel. Woe is me!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Agh, I forgot – I don’t really think of it as a cruise but of course we did Hurtigruten when we went to see the Northern Lights. How stupid of me, I should have included that too 😡 Oh well, never mind – and I have written about that already elsewhere.

      I know what you mean about future travel, but there are cruises and cruises, and hopefully you (and I if necessary) will find some to suit 🙂

  • margaret21

    I’ve always been massively against cruise ships for the damage they do to the communities they visit (Venice!) for so little economic return. ‘It’s marvellous’ cooed someone I know ‘You don’t have to spend a thing on land’. Even once, as a landlubber visiting the Rhine, I felt crowded out by cruise passengers who happened to land as we were in town. However, I trust your judgment, and if you report positive experiences, I should take notice. Nevertheless, like you, I’d sooner be on a smaller vessel. Whale watching near Vancouver Island produced but one whale, but such a variety of other wildlife. Unforgettable. But not for too long please. I can do seasickness with the best of them!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I do know what you mean Margaret, although those concerns don’t apply to the Antarctic (nowhere to spend money and no communities to damage apart from the penguins, which is why numbers are so tightly controlled). Nor to the Galapagos where you pay an entry fee to visit and where the small boats are crewed by locals, thus benefitting the economy of the islands and contributing towards their protection. The Rhine one was a little different. As I said, isn’t a trip we would have chosen for ourselves, but for my 80 year old disabled MiL it was perfect, bringing the scenery to her 🙂 And we did spend some money on land, drinking in the towns we visited and having a meal in Rudesheim with a friend who lives in Germany! But I do agree about the huge ships destroying Venice and to a lesser extent other places they visit. And we had that same problem with the influx of cruise passengers in Ocho Rios and in Muscat, so I know what you mean about that too.

      If ever I feel the need to resort to cruising in order to be able to continue travelling, I will stick to the smallest vessels I can find and be careful about where they go and the impact they make.

  • Anne Fraser @theplatinumline.blog

    I did a cruise round Britain on the Marco Polo, she was a very friendly ship. I was sad to hear that she had been scrapped.

  • Natalie

    The three cruises look and sound fantastic, Sarah. It’s such a treat to see non-threatening wildlife up close. If I was to take a cruising holiday, the smaller boats appeal more to me too. The river cruise is perfect for your MIL’s milestone birthday, fulfilling her dreams and making family memories at the same time. Thank you for sharing your story and beautiful photos with #SundayStills.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Natalie, I’m glad you liked my contribution to your challenge theme 🙂 I had several ideas about what to post and I may use one of the others in the next day or two!

  • Pat

    I agree that small is best. We did Alaska on a small ship (30 passengers and 10 crew) and it was wonderful. We went to many places where the big ships couldn’t go, it was green (producing its own water and purifying waste water, running on battery at night so we didn’t sleep to engine noise), and it was relaxed.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      That sounds like a great trip, and the way I would want to see Alaska too : Did you manage to see any of the more inland parts, like Denali, or did you just do the coastal areas?

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