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Hellenic Guests Whoop It Up, Go Shopping


Things have changed this year for one of the world's oldest cruise travel companies, England's Swan Hellenic Cruises. They have a new ship, more North American clientele and a new attitude.

"Oh, we've lightened up a lot," says managing director Rupert Morley. "The passengers are now allowed to go shopping," quipped Morley, who meant that shopping time during shore excursions was seldom scheduled.

Swan Hellenic is a subsidiary of London-based P&O, as is Los Angeles' Princess Cruises. Unlike the "love boat" ships, Swan Hellenic's sailings have always taken a scholarly approach to ports of call, carrying credentialed lecturers from universities and the clergy.

Over the years, everyone from the archbishop of Canterbury to the deputy keeper at the British Museum has taken a turn at lecturing on subjects such as archeology, mythology, history, geology, military history, astronomy, marine biology, art, music, drama and medical history.

The beginnings of Swan Hellenic go back to 1918, long before any of today's expedition cruise lines were offering ice-crunching cruises to the North Pole, explorations of the Antarctic or bird-watching forays to the Russian Far East. A British entrepreneur named W.F. Swan organized tours to the Continent under the auspices of the YMCA, so the widows and orphans of World War I could visit war graves. Gradually, as the demand slowed in the 1920s, the YMCA bowed out, and Swan and his son began to offer British tourists escorted European trips under the Swan Travel Bureau name.

In 1952, a group of Greek scholars called the Hellenic Society approached the Swans to create tours to Greece for their British membership. Swan decided to offer ship-based tours rather than overland visits since the war-torn countries of the area had little tourism infrastructure. The first Swan Hellenic cruise departed in 1954.

Until this year, Swan Hellenic had chartered various older, Greek-owned ships, most recently Epirotiki's 300-passenger Orpheus, which they used off and on for more than a decade for their mostly Mediterranean cruises.

Now they have a brand-new ship, the 388-passenger Minerva, which they christened in England in April. Designed to resemble an English country hotel, the ship is filled with warm, understated decor, wood floors covered with Oriental rugs, a large wood-paneled library with wing chairs and sofas to settle into for a little reading.

"We've always catered perfectly to the age market that remembers a banana as a treat," Mortimer says; the average passenger age last year was 62. "Now we're seeing more passengers in their 40s and 50s, accustomed to fine dining."

On the new ship, there's more time aboard devoted to dancing and to social cocktail gatherings, he says, adding that the original ship design even included a casino, which the company replaced with a library and games room. In addition, Mortimer says he's added more diplomats and journalists to balance the preponderance of ancient history lectures with a contemporary perspective.

The new ship also allows Swan Hellenic to operate their first year-round cruise programs, with winter sailings scheduled in the Gulf of Arabia, India and the Far East.

The winter season starts with a Pillars of Wisdom sailing departing Nov. 24, and beginning in the Gulf of Aqaba, Jordan, with a visit to Petra, then calls at Safaga, Egypt, for an overland trip to Luxor. During a stop in Yemen, passengers visit the ancient city of Zebid, and in Oman, journey to Salalah. Other ports on the 15-day cruise include Musqat, Oman, with optional excursions to Nizwa and the fortress of Jabreen. Other unusual winter destinations include Vietnam and India.

Most shore excursions, all guide services on land and all tips are included in basic fares aboard the Minerva, which, depending on length of cruise and cabin category, range from $2,895 to $9,545 per person, double occupancy. The lowest fares are for an inside twin-bed cabin, the highest for an owner's suite with sitting area and private balcony. Third and fourth passengers can be accommodated in some cabins aboard, with a 60% to 70% discount.

To get free color brochures and schedules for Swan Hellenic's Minerva, call Classical Cruises and Tours at (800) 252-7745.

Slater and Basch travel as guests of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears the first and third week of every month.

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