Unusual Cruises

By Ann Dermody
Published: February/March 2013

Last year, almost three-quarters of the 15 million cruise-ship vacations worldwide were taken by Americans. While the enormous super-ships continue in their competition to outdo each other in the "faster, bigger, newer" sweepstakes, another facet of the industry has been quietly developing.

Niche cruising to more exotic locales on smaller, more interesting ships is gaining popularity, especially with our members. Here are some of their ideas for your next holiday!

Norway To The Top Of The World

By Richard Jost, New York

Photo of Richard and Diane Joust cruised to Norway on the Finnmarken
Richard and Diane Joust cruised to Norway on the Finnmarken.

In the Fall of 2008, my wife Diane and I and two friends cruised up the beautiful west coast of Norway to above the Arctic Circle, only a few miles from Russia. It was an 11-night cruise on the MS Finnmarken, a combination passenger, mail, and freight vessel. The Finnmarken is 454 feet long with a beam of 70.5 feet, but twin bow thrusters and azimuthing stern thrusters make short work of docking. She has cabin capacity for only 638 passengers. In addition to passengers, the ship transports 1,100 square meters of cargo and 47 cars. There are few car dealers in north Norway, so people order cars, then wait for them to arrive on the ship.

Finnmarken offers many comforts. Fish was part of every meal, all very good and tasty. While the bar prices ($14 for a beer) didn't faze a lot of passengers, we acted on advice and got our wine and spirits at the government liquor store before we left Bergen. As might be expected of Power Squadron members, we requested a tour of the bridge. It's manned by two people at all times, and even though a paper chart is available, the officer at the helm has a GPS chartplotter with a screen as large as my home television. We also toured the engine room, which was spotless. For the gearheads reading this, the ship has a 9-cylinder and a 6-cylinder Wärtsilä diesel for each of the two shafts.

The Norwegian coast is made up of hundreds of fjords, and around 75,000 offshore islands that the ship winds in between. Often you come within 200 feet of shore. The scenery goes from broadleaf trees around Bergen, to hardier pines, until you cross the Arctic Circle, after which the vegetation turns to mosses and stray shrubs. At one point, we saw a herd of reindeer running along the shore. You see occasional fishing boats and fish farms, mostly unmanned and completely computer-controlled with automatic feeders, only needing to be visited occasionally to collect the adult fish.

One of the high points of the trip north took place at 10:30 p.m. one night when we entered the Trollfjord, a fjord only 100 meters wide. The ship is 21.5 meters wide. Out on the bow it was pitch black with only the silhouette of the mountains ahead of us. The Finnmarken was doing her normal 15 knots when, all of a sudden, she slowed and a single spotlight shone down from the bridge onto a small point of land. The ship made a sharp turn to port. In darkness we entered the fjord, and traveled the two kilometers to the end. At that point, the ship spun 90 degrees and they turned on the floodlights at either end. It looked as if you could touch the rocks at both the bow and stern. The occasion is celebrated by drinking a special Trollfjord soup on deck. It's an admirable bit of seamanship and I was so happy we all got to see it.

Planning: Prices in May 2013 start at $2,605 per person for an outside-window cabin. www.cruisenorway.com

In The Footsteps Of Gauguin

By Jim & Sheila Majka, Virginia

Photo of Jim and Sheila Majka
Jim and Sheila Majka

After taking a few cruises on 1,000-foot gigantic cruise ships with more than 5,000 passengers, we decided to try a cruise in French Polynesia onboard a smaller ship, the M/V Paul Gauguin, with only 300 passengers. Our "all-inclusive" cruise package began and ended in Los Angeles, with two days at the beginning to acclimatize to island time and tour Tahiti before boarding. The ship was exactly as it was described — beautiful with large staterooms, dining rooms with exquisite food and drink, activity areas, Polynesian hosts who, by day, were our guides to activities on the islands and, by night, performed magnificent Polynesian dances on the ship's stage. The islands we visited were Raiatea, Taha'a, Bora Bora, and Moorea. At each island we went snorkeling, windsurfing, or kayaking — all part of the package.

The ship never had a crowded feel. There were no lines for meals, quiet decks in the evenings, and beautiful empty beaches. It almost felt like you had a private yacht and crew on call at all times. We did take a couple of "pay as you go" land tours, set up by the ship's staff, and guided by local folks born and raised on the islands. We were told the islands are much as they were nearly 100 years ago -- uncrowded, unspoiled, and inhabited by self-sufficient Tahitians. We learned more of the history of the area and the people than we ever came close to on all the other cruises we've been on. We're already starting to fill the piggy bank to fund another trip to Tahiti!

Planning: Promotional fares for a seven-night cruise to Tahiti and the Society Islands start at $4,495 for a porthole cabin in February and March 2013. www.pgcruises.com

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