Having spent nearly two weeks on the Swan Hellenic Minerva, we are able to give a Cygnet’s opinion (as first time Swan Hellenic travellers are known) of life on the Minerva.
Overall we were very impressed with nearly all aspects of the boat and its crew. We cannot think of any negative comment of significance which would be valid about any of them, their cheerfulness, their service and their obvious wish for us to have a good time.
Booking direct was very easy and we were offered what seems to be the standard discount for doing so. It seems that discounts increase as the date of the cruise is imminent and those who booked at the last minute spoke of higher discounts being offered to them. Regulars spoke of being given upgrades after booking. That said, the cruise after ours was fully booked and therefore if you leave it too late, you might miss out. A 5% discount is offered to repeat clients, I do not know if this is offered in addition to other discounts.
Booking the included tours was also very easy and this is covered in more detail below.
Our cabin A49 was on the Aegean Deck which was on Deck 5 (below was Baltic Deck 4). We chose this location because we had heard that those towards the stern were noisier and those towards the bow.
We can imagine that those towards the stern would be noisier because one is closer to the engines but we cannot confirm or deny this. It is also likely to the the case that the lower down you are, the noisier it gets but we wanted windows rather than portholes and therefore we were not on the lowest deck.
We wanted windows because the portholes looked rather small (and indeed did seem small when we looked into a Baltic Cabin). That said, Portholes are cheaper than Windows, and Inside with Nothing is cheaper than Portholes.
When we were moored in port, there was some sort of pump running somewhere below us but we did not find this a problem at all. We had also heard that the stern suffered more in rough weather but we had no rough weather so we do not know if this was true.
The cabin was larger than we had imagined it to be. When we booked we were asked if we wanted
the beds together as one bed or separate as two beds and when we went opened the door, they were just as we wanted them - together. The TV was rather too small to be easily viewed and of a poor screen quality. The Cabin Windows did not open (obviously !). Air Conditioning control was rather crude - a handle in the ceiling which when turned, adjusted the amount of air coming into the cabin but it worked provided you were not too fussy. Temperatures throughout the ship were centrally controlled. The Wardrobe came with 34 coat hangers (most impressive), two very fluffy dressing gowns, disposable bedroom slippers and life jackets. The safe was very easy to use but too small for a laptop. There was more than enough storage space for clothes. Our suitcases easily went under the beds. The hairdryer was quite efficient.
The shower was very good and there was always hot water. The toilet was a vacuum type with severe warnings about the consequences of putting large items into the toilet basin. On the one occasion it went wrong (the flush broke), an engineer was there to stop it overflowing within minutes. There were more than sufficient soaps and potions in the bathroom and towels were replaced daily if you left them on the floor.
There was one UK style 3 pin socket (to the right of the safe) and for safety reasons, this was incapable of taking anything other than a light electrical load. We managed to keep our things recharged by constantly swapping plugs over although next time I might be tempted to bring an expansion block on a small lead.
The cabin was cleaned twice a day by our superb Stewardess and she always seemed to manage this when we were elsewhere. We heard no noise from other cabins although there was noise from the ship's generators when we were in port and obviously noise when we were at sea (we had no trouble sleeping though).
Our bed clothes were always laid out in the evening ! when the evening tidy was done.
Other than on the top decks where a kettle is provided, you are forbidden from bringing your own for use in your cabin. We found we could get tea / coffee ourselves 24 hours a day from the Veranda Restaurant two decks above us. Teas were Twinnings Herbal (practically all flavours) plus Yorkshire, Coffee came out of a machine and was occasionally a bit bitter. There was never any problem with bringing drinks / food etc down to the cabin and the crockery was cleared whenever our Stewardess appeared.
We once ordered Cabin Service food and this was delivered within about 15 minutes of our order. You can choose from a special Cabin Service Menu or ask for one of the dishes on that day’s Restaurant Menu. There was a “Door Hanger Breakfast Request Form” for breakfast in bed. As is always the case and is made very clear in all brochures, no tips are expected by the crew or offered by the majority of passengers.
During the day a News Summary appeared on our bed and sometime in the early evening,
the next day’s programme was slid under the door, thus enabling us to plan our next day without hurry.
Laundry, Gym, Salon and Shops
The Ship’s Laundry is on A Deck Starboard Rear and was open 8 am to 9 pm, four washers and four dryers, two ironing boards and two slightly worn irons. It was very busy on "days at sea” and sometimes there was a queue to use it. The laundry and its equipment were well maintained and cleaned. There were baskets to carry your clean clothes in and soap powder was provided. The instructions for use were written in a simple enough language for most husbands to understand.
There is a small Gym and a Beauty Salon - we did not use either and therefore cannot comment other than that the equipment in the underused gym looked ok and I was told that the prices we saw for the Beauty Salon looked towards the upper end.
There is a small shop selling toothpaste. sweets, headache tablets, general souvenirs and the like plus a slightly larger shop selling perfumes, clothes etc. They seem to have different sales daily, prices were either much higher than on land or much lower than you might have expected. Neither were open when the ship was in port.
There is Satellite Internet available at very reasonable cost (when compared to the larger cruise ships) and we purchased a 12 hour package for £21. There are wifi zones scattered around the ship and an internet room of six PCs. Compared to the few other ships we have been on which had satellite internet, we found the performance of the Minerva’s system very poor and very slow. Frequently it went off air, you could be waiting a very long time for basic emails to download, and you should forget uploading or downloading anything of size. To be fair to the crew, we were carefully and specifically warned that it was satellite and likely to be slow when we purchased our internet pass but we had not expected it to be that slow or poor. By the time we left, we had not been able to use all of our package time. A member of crew said that they usually waited until the ship was in port and then looked for free wifi in the port offices - this certainly worked well for us in two ports. Although our cabin came with an IDD phone, we did not use it for this.
There are three bars on the ship. We mainly used the smaller Wheeler Bar
because we enjoyed its atmosphere.
Usually there was quiet live music here for part of the evening. Bar prices were very reasonable (Lager £4, G&T around £3.75 depending on size, cocktails similar) and about the same as we pay in a pub in our town. There were always nibbles on the tables and orders were taken and drinks brought to you by one of the staff. The other two bars were very similar to the Wheeler but larger. Late on most evenings, dance music was played somewhere on board.
We found that the meals offered were always very good. Meal times were adjusted slightly on many days to fit in with tour times. Breakfast usually was on offer in the Veranda Restaurant (self service) and the Swan Restaurant (waiter service) from 7 a.m. You could also eat it out on the deck at the rear.
Almost anything you might want (with the exception of Kippers was on offer). Egg dishes were freshly cooked to order and if you had a regular habit (for me a vegetarian omelette), they would start cooking it as soon as they saw you appear. Waiters were very keen to take your plate off you and show you to a table, perhaps a policy dictated by the elderly nature of some of the passengers and the dangers of carrying a plate when the ship is rocking a bit whilst at sea.
Biscuits usually appeared around 10 am in the Veranda to have with morning tea / coffee. Lunch started around 12 noon and again the offer was more than comprehensive and could be eaten inside or out.
Afternoon tea appeared about 3 pm with too many cakes for a reasonable diet.
Dinner started in both restaurants at 7 pm. We found it particularly nice to be seated at a different table each night, thus meeting and talking to new people. It is an accepted thing on the Minerva that not only can you turn up at any time the restaurant is open without reservation (there are none), you can also request to join a table with spare chairs. We met the most interesting people this way and always enjoyed the conversations. This also meant that single travellers never had to eat on their own.
I am a vegetarian (this counted as a special diet on the Minerva) and therefore every evening I was given the next day’s menu and asked to choose what I wanted to eat. They asked me to do this so that they could be sure it was available. They also were willing to adjust an item so that it became vegetarian (Chicken Caesar Salad with no chicken !). Other more specialist dietary needs were coped with the same way. Nothing seemed to be too much trouble for them. Very impressive.
Regulars said that in their opinion the quality of the food had deteriorated over the years and also was very dependent upon which chef was on-board. All we can say is that we were very satisfied with what was offered.
Originally two black-tie evenings were on the schedule but the second one was turned into a “Black Tie if you want to but Smart Casual will be perfectly ok” evening because we were heading into rather hot areas of the Caribbean and it was too hot and sticky for Black Tie and comfort. If you ate in the Swan Restaurant you were expected to make an effort with your dress style and those who dressed very casual looked out of place.
The library was just as comfortable and useful as it looks.
It runs on a trust system and the coverage of the non-fiction books was excellent and there was a reasonable range of fiction available, many left / swapped by previous passengers.
The library is also the home of the Jigsaw. A couple were always out for any passerby
to attack and they certainly were very hard. Not only was there a lot of detail,
the box image usually was in reverse.
We went on 11 tours chosen by us from the tour package document sent to us about three months before we left. Our tickets were waiting for us on our bed when we arrived. There were a team of Swan staff on-board involved in the management of the tours and they tried to arrange tour swaps, additional bookings, changes etc whenever they could. Those who wanted to change their tours or had made mistakes when booking them were sometimes left disappointed and certainly the late bookers had a more restricted range of tours available to them. That said, you could put your name onto a wait list and they then counted those who actually went left the ship on a tour and filled any un-notified vacancies from the wait list.
The tours booklet describes the physical difficulty of each tour and we found this to be more than accurate in all cases bar one when it had been underestimated. In general, the tours followed the published itinerary but not in the given order - useful because it meant we did not all arrive at the same spot at the same time. Boarding the buses for tours was done by deck, a message went out over the ship’s tannoy but the deck order varied for each tour so every deck got a fair share of first, middle or last buses during the course of the cruise. A number of tours took place at a different time to that originally advertised because of difficulties in obtaining buses, when a number of cruise ships are in a port at the same time, there is bound to be a resource issue.
All tours used local guides and they were well used to giving the standard cruise passenger talk which on occasion we felt was not sufficiently detailed for Minerva passengers. Usually we had attended a talk before hand on a destination and therefore already knew much of the general information already and were interested in more of the detail than perhaps the average cruise passenger. On a few occasions, the tour guides were poor. Swan staff were on many of the buses used but their role was usually that of an additional shepherd or they were there for their own enjoyment / education.
A Bridge Tour was offered three times by the Captain and he was at the bottom of the gangway to welcome us when we arrived and when we finally left. He certainly promoted the good image of the Minerva.
Whenever the Minerva arrived at a port, basic maps always seemed to be available from Reception for use if you had decided not to go on an organised tour but to do your own in the city. Sometimes a courtesy bus was provided to take you either into town or to the port gates.
In the opinion of those who had been on a number of Minerva cruises before, the much vaunted lectures and lecturers on this trip were not as good as they previously had been. They said that it may have been more difficult to get Lecturers over Christmas than at other periods. We do not know if this is true but if we compare the Lecturers to the average NADFAS Lecturer, some of them were not as good.
Lectures were given in the Darwin Lounge (we counted nine screens so no matter where you sat you could see a screen) and were also relayed to other lounges, shown live on cabin TVs and later shown as recordings on a continuous loop system.
A number of managed activities (Water Colours, Photography, Keep Fit etc) were offered during the cruise. We went to some of these and they were good. The on-board Opera Group (who performed a number of times) also formed a choir from willing passengers and included them in one of the late night concerts. The crew did their own Dance / Singing review for passengers one evening and this was entertaining.
As first timers, we were invited to a reception where they thanked us and reiterated the Swan Hellenic philosophy. About 25% of the 292 passengers on our cruise were first timers - a 75% repeat rate must indicate something. It was very common to meet people who had already booked their next cruise or were doing this one as part of a back-to-back set of cruises.
Also offered was a reception for single travellers to enable them to meet each other. It seemed that there were a lot of singles on the ship, not uncommon we were to learn.
The ship is a cashless ship, you get an account when you board and once you have activated it with your credit card details, all purchases are charged to your account in UK pounds. Halfway through and at the end of our trip, a detailed listing appeared under the door and the total bill appeared on my credit card about one week after I got back.
One small but really useful service is that they will post your postcards for you. You simply hand them in, £1 is charged to your account for each postcard and within a few weeks (in our case), the postcard arrives at its destination. For us this meant that we could send postcards from anywhere without worrying about having to buy stamps.
We were unfortunate enough to have to visit the Ship’s Doctor. The service was efficient and achieved its objective and the cost to us was similar to that which I have read as being the norm at sea.
We are in our mid-60s and were probably at the lower end of the age profile on-board. It is definitely not a ship for children, there are no facilities at all for them and none of the activities offered would be suitable.
Travel to and from the Minerva
The organisation and quality of travel from Gatwick to Barbados was appalling and that back from Cartagena was only a little better. We have never encountered such a dreadful travel experience in all of our many years of travel and this view was held by everyone else who experienced it and it became a common talking point between passengers.
We wrote to the Group Chief Executive of Swan Hellenic with detailed comments and just over a week later we received a reasonable response from him which indicated amongst other things that they would not be using the outbound airline again. His view was that our experience was not of the standard we should expect and was unlikely to happen again.
Would we go again?
A common theme in the Minerva reviews which you can find on the web seems to be that “it is not as good now as it was xxx years ago”. Obviously we have no experience to bring to this statement other than to say that were very pleased with and enjoyed practically everything on the Minerva. If you have done your research and understand that this is a small ship catering to a particular type of traveller then we feel that you are likely to have a very good time. Surely the large number of repeat clients is evidence that the Minerva is still better than the average cruise ship?
In summary, we thought our first Minerva experience was Five-Star, travel "to and from" was Zero Star. We will go again and will believe the Group Chief Executive that our travel experience was a one-off (it had better be!)