BAY OF BENGAL — Back in Evansville, Ind., about a year ago, attorney John Clouse had been trying to figure out how to reach the Laccadive Islands off southern India.
The Laccadives, along with Albania, the British Indian Ocean Territories (Aldabra), Midway and Wake islands are the only five places Clouse needs to visit to complete all 308 countries and territories listed by the Los Angles-based Traveler's Century Club. He's racing two other men for the title of the most traveled person in the world.
As it turned out, all he had to do to get to the Laccadives was sign up for a cruise.
While Clouse was filling out endless paper work applying to Indian officials for permission to visit the islands, T. C. Swartz, president of Society Expeditions, was looking for an alternative port of call to replace troubled Sri Lanka on his 34-day Oriental Passage itinerary for the World Discoverer.
Swartz and his team hit on the Laccadives, and Clouse, his wife Georgia and son Chauncey, the world's most traveled family, booked the journey. Along with nearly a hundred other veteran expeditioners, they helped Capt. Heinz Aye and his crew celebrate the 10th anniversary of the World Discoverer in April while crossing the Bay of Bengal between Rangoon and Madras.
Just as the Clouses are not your average American family, the World Discoverer is no ordinary vessel. Georgia Clouse has traveled in 153 countries and 7-year-old Chauncey is listed in the "Guinness Book of World Records" as the world's most traveled child, with 123 countries visited.
Society Expeditions ships are the exotics of the cruise world, the true dreamboats for any erstwhile Walter Mitty hungry to see faraway places with strange-sounding names. Since April 7, 1977, the World Discoverer, the largest and most luxurious of the expedition ships, has taken 11,500 passengers on 200 cruises from the Arctic to the Antarctic and almost every point in between.
In his 10 years aboard, German-born Capt. Aye has called at 121 countries and sailed 608,319 nautical miles, the equivalent, he says, to 28 times around the world. Among his proudest accomplishments are completing the first passenger ship west-to-east crossing of the Northwest Passage and landing the first passengers at tiny St. Peter Rock in Antarctica.
He's performed four weddings on the ship, including one in Antarctica and one in the Northwest Passage; he named an iceberg in Baffin Bay after the latter couple. A shipboard wedding is so romantic that no one seems to mind that the whole thing has to be done all over again on land before the union is legal.
As enthusiastic about expeditions as his passengers, the captain will turn the ship around to get a good look at a whale or iceberg or land with inflatable rubber boats at a deserted tropical island to let everyone go exploring like Robinson Crusoe.
Dick and Mary Lou Moersh of San Bernardino, Calif., who spend 10 or 12 weeks a year traveling, are finding that "it's very difficult to get into some regions by yourself," and they consider expedition ships the most convenient and comfortable way to get off the beaten track.
Moersh, a cardiac specialist and a member of the Explorers Club, enjoys river rafting in places such as Madagascar and Tibet or going on a camel safari in the Sahara with the Tauregs, but admits that "sometimes it is kind of nice to be clean and have a hot shower at night."
The World Discoverer manages to combine a Magellan mood of exploration with the creature comforts of far larger ships. Except for a handful of suites, the cabins are compact; three's not company here, it's a crowd. Public rooms are prettily decorated by designer Carlton Varney, who created a dining room in rose silk and linen to complement the elegant cuisine of executive chef Hans Baumhauer.
This ship serves some of the best food on the seven seas, with delectable treats such as daily fresh fruit sorbets served at the buffet lunch, fresh-baked cookies and pastries still warm from the oven at teatime, homemade whole-grain breads and apple strudel, hearty European soups and grilled breakfast steak with fresh herb butter.
Society Expeditions adds lectures, slide presentations and videos about the region being visited. Daily life at sea may include a morning exercise class, several lecture sessions, sunning or swimming, snorkeling lessons or bridge games.
When the ship anchors off a small port or uninhabited island, passengers climb into inflatable rubber boats for a bit of exploring or go ashore for a good look around, with observations and discoveries reported at the cocktail hour "recap." There is no live music or entertainment on board, and many of the passengers have a tendency to turn in after dinner and get up early.
Reasons to Return
While the exotic destinations are doubtless a primary attraction, many passengers, especially older couples and singles, come back time and again because they enjoy the ambiance and the serious, almost scholarly, travel attitude.
Shore excursions are usually thoughtful and well-planned, and are almost always included in the basic fare. Expeditions are not cheap; per-diem costs begin at around $330 for most voyages.
From November through February, Society Expeditions will be in Antarctica, the line's most popular destination, with both the 140-passenger World Discoverer and the 100-passenger Society Explorer.
Prices start at $4,990 per person, double occupancy, for a 15-day cruise, plus air fare of about $1,200. All cabins are outside with two lower beds and a private bath with shower and built-in hair dryer.
Some sailings will include a close look at the Aleutians and the Alaska wilderness in June, July and August on the Explorer; Iceland and Greenland aboard the World Discoverer in June and July, and September and October Amazon River cruises aboard both ships.
For information and reservations, call Society Expeditions at (800) 426-7794.