Now that the America’s Cup excitement is behind us, let’s calm down a bit, shall we, and discuss the other type of boat—not fast boats, but slow ones, where the goal is taking time to savor each moment, exploring exotic destinations along the way.
“River cruising is getting big,” says Maryles Casto of Casto Travel. “It is one of the most relaxing ways to travel, and you get into villages where you normally would not go.”
In early 2014, Aqua Expeditions will launch a gorgeous 20-cabin river boat on the Mekong River offering
expeditions between Cambodia and Vietnam with a crew-to-passenger ratio of one-to-one. Guests will have the opportunity to visit family homes and Buddhist monasteries along the way. Aqua has also recently completed a refurbishment of their original Amazon river boat, a mere five years after launch, in keeping with the company’s dedication to impeccable standards.
Another travel destination that is becoming popular is Myanmar, formerly Burma (“the British always have to tell you what a place was ‘formerly,’” travel writer Georgia Hesse quipped during a reading at a recent Weekday Wanderlust gathering at the Hotel Rex on Sutter Street). Orient-Express has launched a new ship which offers seven- or 11- night voyages on the Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers and joins the company’s other romantically named vessel, the Road to Mandalay.
Orient-Express CEO John Scott, an alumnus of San Francisco University High School, is excited about the new river cruiser whose cabins feature floor-to-ceiling glass doors. Reached at company headquarters in London, he said Orient-Express Hotels has been “the expert in river cruising in Myanmar for more than 18 years and our latest ship, Orcaella, is a natural evolution for the company, at a time when we are seeing unprecedented demand for travel to this fascinating country.”
Marin historian and philanthropist Edith Piness, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the subject of British colonial administration of Burma, fondly recalls being on the Irrawaddy back in the days “when a Burmese friend was able to get the use of a fine boat for the afternoon for a trip on the river. Payment was a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label!” Piness recommends a visit to the ancient capital of Pagan, which is “almost as awesome as Angkor,” she says, “a fairyland of temples spread over the plain.”
Among the trends noted by Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief at Cruise Critic, is that of upscale cruise companies with a focus on a demographic shift. “Luxury lines have really started to court a younger audience who may be more active than in the past,” she says. “The ships have a more dynamic vibe to them. Crystal has done an amazing job of upgrading their ships. You’re seeing more active, contemporary, shorter voyages.”
Crystal Cruises has recently partnered with USC’s School of Cinematic Arts to teach digital filmmaking classes on board. Using the iMovie app for iPad, guests create their own short documentaries, receiving expert instruction on camera angles, graphics, and editing.
Brown says that Regent Seven Seas Cruises has also successfully updated the look of their vessels. Regent’s Voyager will enter dry dock this month for a multi-million dollar refurbishment. San Francisco soprano Hope Briggs, who debuted with the San Francisco Opera as Duchess of Parma in Busoni’s Doktor Faust, has performed on board Regent in the Mediterranean.
It’s not only the fleets that are getting fresh looks these days, Celebrity Cruises even wants to freshen your drink. Celebrity is unveiling a new artisanal cocktail menu created by the guys at Hawthorn Beverage Group. Josh Durr and A.T. Howe developed the line of drinks incorporating high-quality ingredients and lesser-known spirits from around the world. Their Spanish Mule, which Howe calls “a riff on the classic cocktail the Dark & Stormy” incorporates St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dran liqueur along with the ginger beer, aged Virgin Islands rum and fresh lime.
More providers have begun offering itineraries to the Galapagos islands. Silversea is launching a new 100-passenger expedition ship, the Silver Galapagos, which will sail for two different weeklong itineraries through the islands year-round. The cruise line is a favorite of San Francisco developer Thomas R. Owens, who likens a Silversea ship to “a floating five-star hotel, with none of the stuffiness you might associate with that luxury. The staff gives impeccable service, but with a friendly and casual manner that makes the whole cruise experience pure delight.”
Well, exactly. Catamaran, schmatamaran. Come find me lounging on the top deck with my Spanish Mule.
Fredric Hamber was raised in Napa and San Francisco. His chapter on the Amazon River will appear in the forthcoming volume Great Boat Journeys of the World.