Swan Hellenic’s Old World Gateways 

There’s nothing more stimulating than thumbing through a cruise brochure with an appetizing menu of exciting travel destinations. As I perused the myriad of expedition cruises offered by Swan Hellenic, one itinerary caught my wandering eye. How could I resist the opportunity to explore the treasures of the Iberian peninsula, combined with the rugged beauty of Brittany in France?

Although I’ve visited the ports of Spain’s Costa del Sol numerous times, I’d never had the chance to cruise to the alluring destinations that line the northern coast of the country. An eleven-day itinerary beginning in Lisbon, Portugal, and ending in Portsmouth, England, was exactly what I was looking for.

If you’re not interested in listening to my cruise travelogues, you may not want to invite me over for dinner. With seven decades on this wonderful planet, my cluttered memory bank of travel experiences can sometimes be slow to respond. While I may not recall what I ate yesterday, ask me about the wine we had in Portugal, the charm of Santillana, Spain, or the exquisite food on this Swan Hellenic cruise, and I could write a story about it. (So, I will!)

Let’s start with the ship, the SH Vega, which has a capacity for 156 passengers. This would be my third time enjoying Swan Hellenic’s unique no-fuss, no-formality atmosphere, filled with refined touches that make you feel like you’re in a luxury boutique hotel. The understated Scandinavian design, furnishings, and public areas create a welcoming ambiance that’s enhanced by the hospitality of the amazing staff and crew.

Imagine sinking into the comfort of a virtual reality fireplace at the foot of your bed in a balconied suite, complete with an adjacent sitting area. It’s a true indulgence that validates the boutique feel of the vessel. Every detail is meticulously designed to provide a high-end experience, from the beauty shop and library to the gym, spa, and sauna with stunning views of the passing scenery.

The heated infinity pool overlooking the aft of the ship is another highlight, and it’s all part of the all-inclusive concept that includes free-flowing wine and beverages, complimentary excursions, and gratuities. You won’t have to worry about a single expense.

Swan Hellenic has also focused on gastronomy, partnering with JRE-Jeunes Restaurateurs, a prestigious organization of acclaimed chefs. On select cruises throughout the year, a rising chef will join the ship as a celebrity chef, preparing signature dishes throughout the voyage. The experience culminates with a Gala Dinner that showcases their culinary creativity.

To add to the cultural experiences on this cruise, Dutch Chef Arjan Kuipers was onboard to share his talents with dishes such as Avocado Crab and Crème Fraiche, Grilled Dorado with Green Curry, and other plates of passion. Each course was expertly paired with wines, making for a truly unforgettable culinary experience.

In addition to the exceptional onboard experience, it was the unique itinerary of undiscovered ports that initially drew my attention. A pre-cruise stay in Lisbon allowed me to explore the city’s colorful streets and architecture, as well as indulge in the famous pastel de natas, a Portuguese custard pastry. As we set sail from the port, passing by the UNESCO Belem Tower, the Vega embarked on a voyage of Iberian discovery.

The itinerary was a non-stop parade of ports, offering new insights into history and culture. We strolled along the picturesque riverside promenade of Porto, visited the charming village of Tui and its magnificent cathedral, and explored the UNESCO pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela (optional tour).

One of the amenities that make Swan Hellenic so appealing is the complimentary excursions in every port. We took a tour from Ferrol to La Caruna, which offered a glimpse of The Tower of Hercules and Maria Pita Square. La Caruna’s hundreds of windows on the seafront have earned it the nickname “Crystal City.”

We also visited the historic buildings of Gijon, Spain, and sampled the endemic cider of the region, making the visit even more memorable. From Santander, we took a short drive through the picturesque countryside of Cantabria to visit Santillana Del Mar, one of Spain’s most beautiful villages.

Leaving Spain, we navigated northward to Brittany and Normandy in France. We walked along the ramparts of St. Malo and explored the charming streets of Le Mont Saint Michel, experiencing a dramatic change of scenery. In Cherbourg, we learned about the war-time history of Utah Beach in a fascinating excursion to St. Mere Eglise. We finished our 11-day cruise with a visit to the colorful city of Honfleur and an optional excursion exploring the WW2 history of D-Day and Omaha Beach.

Although this classic cruise experience was a departure from Swan Hellenic’s expeditionary-style cruises in the Arctic and Antarctic, it still retained an element of adventure. Our guest lecturer presented enrichment conversations, and we enjoyed complimentary excursions that sought out destinations far removed from traditional cruise ports.

I’ll miss the warm hospitality and 5-star service provided by the staff, but revisiting Swan Hellenic’s brochure of far-reaching destinations has already convinced me to return soon. The intimate size of the 5-star rated SH Vega is perfect for validating the company’s mantra: “see what others don’t.”

As a former Cruise Director, Steve has been cruising the world for the past forty years. Bringing a new dimension to cruise journalism, he continues to spin the globe searching for off the grid cruise adventures and unplugged destinations to share with Porthole Cruise Magazine readers.