Saturday, January 11, 2014

South America & Falklands - part three

Years ago, I was on the Royal Yacht Britannia. The first occasion was a reception hosted by Charles and Diana. My second visit, as Britannia neared retirement, was for an interview about the ship.

This is mentioned because I’m on a vessel oddly reminiscent, for me anyway, of Britannia. Here's Swan Hellenic's MV Minerva off Coro, Venezuela. Unintentional I'm sure, but, bar the funnel, there is a similarity in colour scheme.

First, though, a potted history of a very British cruise line and its one ship.

Swan Hellenic started as Swans Hellenic Cruises in the 1950s. Founded by W.F. Swan, the London company offered trips to the ancient and classical world of the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean. One of Swan's earliest - and most popular - vessels was the Ankara. Originally an American hospital ship, she was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

After the war, Ankara became a passenger liner and, for many years, was under charter for Mr. Swan's tours. She catered to more than just a sun-and-sand-mindless-holiday-in-the-Med crowd. Lecturers accompanying voyages were among Britain's most distinguished academics. Archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, something of an early television celebrity, was a regular attraction.

Passengers included the great and the good. Mixing with Lord so-in-so, Lady what's-it and Sir somebody-or-other were former prime ministers (Harold Macmillan) and famous actors (Celia Johnson of Brief Encounter). Many knew Greek and Latin. All immersed themselves in studying ruins. Each cruise season, a heavy, hardcover cruise tome was issued. The one below, crammed with esoteric information on temples, inscriptions and obscure pagan cults, resides on my Toronto bookshelf.

The formula stands. Minerva is small, only 12,449 gross tons, a minnow on oceans where cruise ships now reach 225,000 tons. She carries about three hundred passengers, many loyal to a fault. Her size (and - yikes! - price) allows for social exclusivity and ports inaccessible to maritime monsters with, by Minerva's genteel standards, rowdy, uncultured crowds. Lecturers on my voyage range from a former British ambassador to retired Royal Navy admiral and a Nobel prize winner.

An unkind critic might caricature the clientele (the ship even issues a passenger list) as a pith helmet and dinner jacket (even white dinner jacket) brigade. Rather like Britannia, some English passengers seem from an earlier era. Americans can find them - how shall I put it? - rather confusing. Canadians, as usual, find themselves in the middle. Fortunately, this Canadian - having lived many happy years in England - muddles through.

Launched forty years after the ‘yacht’, Minerva evokes Britannia’s restrained, English country house gravitas mixed with homey comforts. Rummaging through an album at home, I found some old film photos. They show Britannia’s ante-room and drawing room, dining room and (very) low key sun lounge where the Queen and Prince Philip would relax.

Here's a sampling of Minerva's public - public in the most limited sense! - spaces. The main dining room with oriental carpet and faux Greek statuary at far end.

Sunday lunch means roast beef and Yorkshire pudding followed by black current crumble with custard. Accompanied by a decent claret.

Afternoon tea - small sandwiches with crusts cut, scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam - reminds me of the old QE2. A Ritz London Smoked Salmon Sandwich or Opera Gateau? Caramelized Choux Chantilly?

The Wheeler Bar honours the late Sir Mortimer, who presides over gin-and-tonics from a congenial corner.

The bar also features a model of the splendidly imperial P&O Caledonia, launched in 1894.

The ship's pride is not a casino, climbing wall or - shudder! - multi-screened sports bar, but library of impressive size. Not many vessels can boast Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Folk Costumes of Norway and Oman Under Quaboos. Earnest souls - myself included - spend hours sifting through the stacks. Silence reigns or is swiftly restored with a crotchety glance.

Homey touches include post-Christmas poinsettias and carefully tended potted plants ...

... a Royal National Lifeboat Institution (worthy British charity) donation box sitting on the ship's reception desk ...

... and, in the cabin passageways, watercolours, pen-and-ink drawings and photographs by passengers.

I'm particularly taken by a charming Greek Orthodox priest on a scooter.

This is from a previous stop on Corsica.

On Minerva, a harp or flute recital (Sonata in F (op. 1 no. 11) - Handel) or perhaps communal movie night (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) are appropriate entertainment.

Walkers display British bulldog grit ...

... birds mean birdwatchers proliferate ...

... and Minerva's the only ship I've been aboard on which the captain announces he's 'chasing dolphins' and then makes a full circle. Our morning lecture on 'Life & Art Among the Ancient Moche & Chimu' is abruptly terminated and everyone (some less politely than others) races for the open decks.

Minerva's bridge is superintended by a cheerful mascot ...

... and well stocked with Union Jacks. The royal yacht may now be a floating museum, but Britannia still rules on this small outpost of empire.