Overall Review of the SH Vega Land of the Celts (British Isles: Ireland, Scotland & Isle of Man 12-Day Expedition Cruise): Beyond Excellent and Looking Forward to Another Voyage!
In early June we had the opportunity to board the Swan Hellenic SH Vega in Galway, Ireland, for its continuing expedition cruise through the British Isles. Having never been on an expedition ship, I was anticipating a minimalist ship with just a few of the creature comforts to which I have been accustomed on a cruise ship.
The Swan Hellenic SH Vega and sister-ship SH Diana visit Antarctica, the North Pole, the British Isles, and an assortment of other destinations around the world. I absolutely would travel on either of these ships to any remote destination based on my recent wonderful expedition cruise experience on the SH Vega.
How does one communicate in a succinct way this unbelievable adventure? I will try to do so with this evaluation of the SH Vega and its voyage to ports in the UK, Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. To sum it up, it was perfect!
If you have never experienced this part of the world from an expedition ship, be prepared to be amazed at the rich history you will encounter in these lands. Not to mention the sea creatures, other wildlife and abundant vegetation that nature has displayed in the Scottish Highlands and Ireland.
This ship and the British Isles destination were of particular interest, as my father was born in Scotland, our ancestral home. While I have been on nearly 100 cruises, I had never experienced the beauty and majesty of these countries.
Overall Score 100/100
Evaluating the Cruise
Scoring is done across 10 categories with a maximum of 10 points per category.
- Boarding and disembarking. Boarding took (literally) about 5 minutes. Boarding involved showing ID, security clearance and boarding the ship. The hotel manager and several crew members were standing, awaiting our arrival. They handed us warm cloths to wipe our hands and cool, refreshing drinks. By the time we reached our cabin, our luggage was already there. Outstanding process! 10/10.
- Ship Design. SH Vega is a small ship, with a capacity of just 152 guests and very well designed to allow ease of moving throughout the vessel. All locations, including the cabins, the spa, (which in my opinion does not get enough credit in the website description), 2 dining rooms (on decks 4 and 7) and the observation lounge were very easy to find. This new and modern ship is only 10 months old and even smelled new. The staircases were of contemporary design as was the elevator. 10/10
- Lectures and Entertainment. The Insights lectures are one of Swan Hellenic’s crown jewels. They had excellent speakers, covering such topics as future travel itineraries, astronomy, sea and land creatures, and motivational themes. They had an excellent singer and piano player who performed each evening. More details in the Highlights section. 10/10.
- Expedition Team and the Zodiac Boats. The expedition team was trained and approved to maneuver and drive the Zodiac fleet. They are beyond knowledgeable about natural history and have credentials worthy of being a part of Swan Hellenic’s expedition cruises. They are patient, agreeable, conscientious, and always friendly and willing to assist the guests in every way. From knowing many interesting facts about the ports we were visiting, to taking your photos and to assisting with climbing in and out of Zodiacs, the expedition staff is top notch.
About the Zodiacs
Durable, stable and fun to ride in, a Zodiac is a rigid inflatable open-air boat-usually between 13 and 30 feet-that can act as a tender to deliver people efficiently to rugged shorelines or a comfortable cruiser when taking the scenic route. The key qualities of a Zodiac are its rigid hull and inflatable pontoons, which double as seating or luxurious recliners. Because they are nigh-impossible to sink, maneuverable and adept at nosing up to treacherous terrain, these boats have developed avid followings within military, commercial and recreational boating spheres.
Our ship had 12 of these Zodiacs, all elevated and lowered from the aft of the ship via a crane.
The vessels themselves were relatively easy to board and disembark, although most expedition cruise lines recommend that passengers are sufficiently able-bodied to get in, get out, and potentially navigate uneven or slippery ground. Expedition team members also provided the guests with a steady arm. 10/10
- Villages and Ports of Call
5/28 Sunday – Galway, Ireland – Such a beautiful drive from the city of Dublin to the departure port. Perhaps most interesting was the park the American ambassador and the president of Ireland call home. They don’t cut the lawn (to allow the wild deer that roam the grounds, ample feeding opportunities). A stunning place to see.
5/29 Monday – Portrush, Northern Ireland – This resort town elevated high in the hills seemed to be a surfing town a bit of an anomaly in this cold part of the world. People of all ages roaming the streets with children and families made this a very comfortable place to visit. Quaint shops and little restaurants to pop into for a quick refreshment were everywhere to be found.
5/30 Tuesday – Craignure, Scotland
The Duart Castle – The current residence of a local clan leader – is under partial renovation but offered a fascinating tour, nonetheless. It was one of countless memorable tours that are all included as part of the overall cruise package. There was also a tea room serving local treats, as well as a little gift shop.
5/31 Wednesday morning – Stornoway, Scotland
We walked throughout this very cute town where we did most of our shopping. The Harris Tweed Store offers handmade products from artisans on the Outer Hebrides islands. Bottles of Scotch from local distilleries were also high on our purchase list!
5/31 Wednesday late afternoon – Loch Ewe, Scotland – Inverewe Gardens exclusive visit
During the early evening, we went on a second tour – taken by Zodiac to magnificent ornamental gardens. Insulated by the North Atlantic Drift, countless plants from around the world thrive here. Swan Hellenic had reserved a private tour for the guests on the SH Vega. Among flower species that were particularly well represented were rhododendrons – over 400 varieties of them!
Inverewe Gardens, created in the 19th century, celebrates the best of human achievements in a natural environment. This was a feast for my senses.
6/1 Thursday – Portree, on the Isle of Skye – Another village with easy walking access throughout, aided in our case with an accompanying cab ride from the former chief of police. During his police tenure he saw (so he insists) the Loch Ness monster and showed us an official document referencing his sighting. Lovely hotels and grounds to view and a bar serving hundreds of different ales.
6/2 Friday – Isle of Man – As our sleek ship docks in the midst of town, you see a half-moon beach with what appear to be townhomes surrounding the beach. These are actually small hotels, most having their own private restaurant. What a fabulous vacation place! Our driver, Jane, escorted us throughout the island, showing us such sights as the Laxey water wheel, Laxey Woollen Mill, huge gravestones and Viking remnants at St. Peter’s Churchyard, as well as numerous other iconic sights.
The Isle of Man is known for its stunning natural beauty and unique cultural heritage. While it may be relatively small in size, it offers a range of excellent restaurants that showcase local flavors and international cuisines. To name a few:
The Boatyard: Located in Peel, The Boatyard is known for its superb seafood dishes, including fresh lobster and crab caught from the surrounding waters. The restaurant offers a relaxed atmosphere with stunning views of the harbor.
14 North: Situated in Douglas, 14 North is a popular choice for both locals and visitors. It offers a diverse menu featuring locally sourced ingredients, including Manx beef and seafood. The restaurant has a modern and stylish setting.
Tanroagan: This restaurant in Douglas focuses on using seasonal and local produce to create a menu inspired by the Isle of Man’s culinary heritage. Tanroagan offers dishes such as Manx rarebit, smoked kipper pâté, and local lamb.
Little Fish Café: Located in Douglas, Little Fish Café is a charming seafood restaurant known for its creative and delicious dishes. The menu changes regularly to incorporate the freshest ingredients available.
6/3 Saturday, Dublin, Ireland – Day of our departure from the ship. We stayed at the Conrad Dublin: The hotel is situated on Earlsfort Terrace, just off St. Stephen’s Green, which showcased a countless array of beautiful flowers. We were within walking distance of popular attractions such as Grafton Street, Trinity College, and the National Museum of Ireland.
Dining Options: The hotel boasts several dining options to cater to different tastes. One of the notable restaurants is The Coburg Brasserie, which offers a contemporary Irish menu featuring locally sourced ingredients. The Coburg Bar provides a relaxed setting for drinks, cocktails, and light bites.
I had the best ever coffee (Caffe Molinari, from Modena, Italy) and shower (Satinjet, made by Methven ) at this hotel.
- Hotel Staff & Officers. From the cabin steward to all of the staff on the ship, smiles were abundant and contagious. One of the crew members drew a gorgeous map of our voyage, which was subsequently auctioned off at the “Captain’s Farewell” on the last day of the cruise.
We were offered on several occasions to see the bridge and speak with the captain and the officers steering the ship. The bridge is extraordinarily modern with state-of-the-art equipment. 10/10.
- Our Stateroom. Upon first entering our cabin, there was a backpack containing a water bottle – an extremely nice touch. We were fortunate enough to have a Balcony Suite, which was more than impressive. The fireplace was an added feature not found on any other ship. The closet space was well thought out, with more space than we even needed (even with our 9 suitcases!) and the bathtub and accompanying panhead shower were perfect. There is a refrigerator in the cabin and fresh fruit is delivered daily. The balcony deck space was enormous and had lovely furniture – a table, two chairs, and a lounge recliner. 10/10.
- Shopping in the ports was surely a highlight of the trip. If you are seeking items indigenous to the part of the world you are visiting, they are to be found here. One example: the sporran (/?sp?r?n/; Scottish Gaelic and Irish for “purse”), a traditional part of male Scottish Highland dress, is a pouch that performs the same function as pockets on the pocketless kilt. Of course, you cannot leave this part of the world without checking the distilleries where families still make the local Scotch whiskey. We found a numbered bottle to bring home. 10/10.
- Food & Drink. Dining Choices are Abundant. Ambiance *****All 10/10
There are massive windows to watch the ocean scenery as you dine, not to mention the very attractive fireplace in the Club Lounge. With so many options to choose from there is no chance you will ever be hungry on this ship. There are options for vegan, vegetarians, gluten free, plant based, low sodium, sugar free, and diabetic offerings are available. Just ask or tell the ship in advance on your medical history form. 10/10.
Swan Hellenic partners with JRE-Jeunes Restaurateurs, which is a culinary organization of restauranteurs and chefs with one goal in mind: to share their talent and love for food with like-minded people.
The chef hailed from a Michelin 2-star restaurant.
With 375 restaurants and 160 hotels, spread over 15 countries, JRE offers outstanding gastronomic experiences. The chef on our ship was Manu Nunez, who was part of the experience as he and his wife mixed and mingled with all of the guests. It was a wonderful experience.
You can expect a few showstopper dishes like lobster on the menu multiple times, Beef Wellington and souffles, regardless of your dining room choice.
Swan Restaurant – The lovely dining room with window seats overlooking the ocean is amazing. The pretty Swan Restaurant serves full lunch and breakfast. Although it is buffet style the waiters are there and are delighted to bring your plate to the table. Personally, I like the buffet as it offers so much eye candy to choose from for breakfast and lunch. Dinner is a sit-down event and the food ranges from casual to high cuisine, and everything in-between. 10/10
Club Lounge with a contemporary fireplace in the middle and booths for a cozy meal
Distinctive area with coffees and other specialty drinks, with delectable dishes ranging from an amazing pot roast to Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese dishes that cater to every palate. The décor is Contemporary in style. 10/10
Observation Lounge – Lovely bar and if you feel the need for a snack, they will deliver it with impeccable service, which is ubiquitous through all restaurants. The service surely exceeds the norm and sent me over the moon. 10/10
The Pool Grill & Bar – Al fresco dining serving BBQ fare, fresh fish harvested from local pristine waters, and grilled steaks and burgers served most any time. 10/10
High Tea – a nice surprise to see on an expedition ship, with an assortment of teas (Darjeeling, Earl Grey – you name it!), finger sandwiches of ham and mustard, salami and cheese, egg salad and watercress and of course crème cheese and cucumber. Always fruit and other items such as pizza, with specialty dishes available. 10/10
Not to mention room service which is 24/7, as well as delicious coffee and club sandwiches.
- The Spa, Pool Fitness Center and Hot tub
While the spa is small, there is virtually every service you would want. The cosmetologists will go out of their way to make you happy.
The heated outdoor pool is on deck 7 where there are some of the most comfortable and attractive couches to be found on the ship. You will also find al fresco dining alongside the pool area.
The hot tub is on Deck 8, where we could enjoy the warmth as we watched the unforgettable glow of the Highlands of Scotland slowly sliding by.
The fitness center was thoroughly equipped with free weights, cardiovascular machines and views that would make anyone forget their workout.
The Scottish Highlands are the mountainous regions of Scotland north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault. The Great Glen divides the Grampian Mountains to the southeast from the Northwest Highlands. The Highlands are popularly described as one of the most scenic regions of Europe. 10/10
- The Insights lectures. For those with a thirst for knowledge
The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute and Swan Hellenic have partnered to offer cruise guests expert insights into the history and latest discoveries in astronomy, astrophysics, astrobiology and planetary science, and the quest to find other forms of life within and beyond our solar system.
This quest takes SETI Institute researchers to the planet’s most remote and inhospitable corners to explore life, including Antarctica, where the Swan Hellenic fleet is present for several months every year.
Outlining the agreement with Swan Hellenic, SETI President and CEO Bill Diamond explained, “The SETI Institute’s work brings humanity’s relationship with our planet, our solar system, and the Universe beyond into focus. Over 100 Institute scientists strive to understand humankind’s place in the cosmos. Outreach and public engagement are also central to the mission, and they are delighted to have their scientists and thought leaders interact with the curious-minded adventurers who explore with Swan Hellenic.”
Swan Hellenic’s lecturers and guest speakers are carefully selected to give engaging and stimulating talks on a wide range of subjects that are relevant to each itinerary.
- The mixing and mingling of the officers and the expedition team. This was not totally unlike other cruises; however, they were a very fun and exciting part of the voyage and shared many interesting stories.
- Deck chairs (these are now passé) – Our ship had very luxurious seating everywhere from tightly designed bamboo chairs to lounge chairs with high end cushions to little cozy caves. You will find sitting outside a treat!
- Afternoon Tea. This was a surprise. The Afternoon Tea menu included light cakes, scones and sandwiches. Traditional sandwich fillings with cucumber, smoked salmon, coronation chicken and egg mayonnaise, served with the crusts cut off – Anne, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, was quite insistent on this point!
- The launderette – Loved that this was available to all guests – so nice to be able to do laundry with high-end washers and dryers. No quarters or loose change required!
- The Zodiacs. Seriously! One of the primary benefits of travel on the Swan Hellenic SH Vega (guest capacity: 150) is the opportunity to visit small ports of call inaccessible to larger vessels. Access to most of these ports from the ship is made via Zodiacs, a surprisingly fun experience enhanced by the safety-conscious crew members that help you get on/off.
- The Ship – Practically brand new, the SH Vega is only 1 year old just out of the Helsinki Shipyard. It is a Vega Class ice-strengthened cruise ship that cost over USD 115 million (EUR 98 million) to build.
Areas for Possible Improvement:
- Internet access. Through no fault of Swan Hellenic, there are no cell towers in the middle of the ocean. While internet access is included, it is not always consistent. If you are planning to work on the ship, it may take a little longer as a result.
In Summary: As you surely realize by now, we had an overall outstanding experience and are looking forward to our next voyage! We are considering the interesting Mediterranean and Arctic/Antarctic destinations. If you have an interest in booking a Swan Hellenic cruise, please contact me directly. firstname.lastname@example.org or CruiseCompete.com Support email@example.com
I would love to assist you with choosing a cruise.
About Swan Hellenic
Dedicated to guests with a passion for adventure and cultural exploration, the company’s meticulously planned itineraries explore the wild landscapes, wildlife, people and unique cultures of the world’s less travelled regions.
Swan Hellenic was relaunched in July 2020 to proudly continue the spirit of cultural expedition cruising the company pioneered in the 1950s. Building on its British roots, the new company has a global cultural cruising outlook dedicated to providing guests with the opportunity to “see what others don’t” – a key theme and mantra of Swan Hellenic.
The fleet consists of three 5-star polar PC 5 ice-class expedition cruise ships. The SH Vega and SH Diana accommodate 150 guests in 76 spacious staterooms and suites, the majority with large balconies. A larger PC 6 ice-class vessel, the SH Minerva, accommodates 192 guests in 96 staterooms and suites in the same distinctive comfort and style as its smaller sister ships. All three new ships were built in full compliance with SOLAS Safe Return to Port requirements.
All 3 ships feature elegant Scandi-design interiors, extensive outdoor spaces and dedicated expedition facilities. The crew includes an expedition team comprising expert guides, speakers and lecturers, and numbering 120 and 140 respectively almost equals the number of guests, reflecting the high levels of attentive personal service provided.
Thank you so much to Swan Hellenic and All Things Cruise!
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