Ultra-luxury cruising distinguishes itself from premium cruising in many ways, and our 11-night voyage aboard the Swan Hellenic ship Diana through the Greek Islands was a revelatory experience in this regard. Allow me to delve into the exceptional qualities that made our journey from Athens to Istanbul truly exceptional.
Overall Score: (99/100)
Swan Hellenic boasts a fleet of two ships, with the SH Diana, the largest at 12,000 tons. Accommodating a maximum of 192 passengers and manned by 140 crew members, it stands in stark contrast to the colossal 150,000-ton ships carrying 2,500 passengers and even the behemoth Oasis-class cruise ships with over 5,700 passengers.
Swan Hellenic’s signature destinations include the polar regions, namely the Arctic and Antarctica. These ships are engineered with icebreaker technology, enabling them to reach places where conventional docks are non-existent. When not embarking on polar expeditions, they voyage to more familiar ports in between. This is how our journey from Athens, Greece, to Istanbul, Turkey, materialized.
When a vessel resembles a yacht more than a cruise ship, one’s expectations naturally evolve. Here are the particulars of our recent voyage aboard the SH Diana:
The Ship: (Score: 10/10)
Named after the Ancient Roman goddess of light, the moon, hunting and the wilderness, SH Diana is specially designed for worldwide cruising to explore the most inspiring and inaccessible places on Earth. Building on the outstanding amenities of her sister ships, she adds a dedicated Card Room next to the Observation Lounge, a Private Dining Room for special occasions, and two tenders that bring guests for expedition landings. A Polar Class 6 ice-strengthened hull combines with extra-large stabilizers to make your journey as comfortable as possible. Features an inviting pool for brisk yet relaxing laps, a spa offering an array of indulgent treatments, and a bubbling hot tub where you can soak up the captivating scenery as it gracefully unfolds before you.
The Staterooms: (Score: 10/10)
Balcony cabins on typical large cruise ships typically measure around 180-200 square feet. In contrast, the SH Diana’s balcony cabins are generously spacious, spanning 28 square meters or 301 square feet. We were fortunate to have the largest suite, measuring 47 square meters or 506 square feet.
Our suite was divided into five distinct areas, including separate bedrooms and a living room, occupying the majority of the floor space. Both rooms featured sliding glass doors leading to an expansive balcony running the length of both areas, furnished with a sturdy metal table and two chairs. The bathroom, accessible through the bedroom, included both a shower and a tub. Notably, the shower design allowed temperature adjustment without standing under the water.
Our suite also featured a walk-in closet, and the back walls of the closet and the bathroom formed a corridor from the cabin door to the living room. At the farthest point from the door, a counter held a refrigerator, coffee maker, and storage for plates and glasses. Illy coffee was provided, and the refrigerator served as a complimentary mini-bar, restocked daily.
Flatscreen TVs adorned both the living room and bedroom, offering about 28 channels with excellent reception. The ship provided a daily program and an in-room dining menu on the second channel. Ordering room service breakfast was an option, facilitated by filling out a paper form before retiring for the night.
The Food: (Score 9/10)
While the onboard dress code adhered to a country club casual standard, the dining experience was of an exceptionally high standard.
Breakfast: Both the casual and formal dining rooms offered buffet-style breakfasts. Similar to upscale European hotels, the buffet included a rich selection of over 50 items. The formal dining room, in particular, offered creative dishes such as Eggs Benedict, Eggs Florentine, and Eggs Royale, in addition to an array of bread, cereals, muesli, fruit options, cheeses, sliced meats, and hot dishes like the full English breakfast. A variety of fruit juices, smoothies, coffee, lattes, cappuccinos and teas were also available.
Lunch: Given that shore excursions concluded in the early afternoon, lunch was thoughtfully provided. The buffet in both dining rooms offered similar selections, with the formal dining room typically offering a more substantial spread. The offerings included salads, cold and hot dishes, soups, and daily-changing international cuisine themes, such as French, Spanish, Japanese, and British. Additionally, the outdoor grill at the casual restaurant provided daily grilled fish, shrimp skewers, burgers, sausages, and an assortment of desserts.
Dinner: Dinner onboard was a culinary highlight, served in the formal dining room. Comprising five courses, the dining experience extended into a delightful evening for food enthusiasts. Swan Hellenic occasionally invites Michelin-recognized chefs onboard, while our cruise featured dishes crafted by their specialty chefs. The menu boasted chef specialties marked with a chef’s hat icon, offering a diverse range of options. Some highlights included Wasabi prawns, deep-fried poached eggs, Quinoa salad, Chicken Karaage, Aubergine Parmigiana, Fresh Local Snapper, Fine Herb Roasted Angus Beef Tenderloin, and ribeye steak as an always-available option. Dessert selections were equally impressive, with the Vanille Souffle being a personal favorite.
Overall, while breakfast and lunch adopted a buffet format, dinner was a standout meal featuring a menu and table service.
Wine, Beer, and Spirits: (Score: 10/10)
One notable advantage of Swan Hellenic is its all-inclusive cruise fare, which covers beer, wine, spirits, and soft drinks. Wine enthusiasts will appreciate the thoughtfully curated selection, and we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the offerings. Casual daytime drinking featured a selection of approximately half a dozen wines.
Dinner, on the other hand, presented a different wine selection with options like Malbec from Argentina, Bordeaux from France, Pouilly Fume and Pinot Grigio from Italy. A reserve wine list catered to serious wine aficionados, priced at around twice the US retail store prices – a superb value considering the absence of additional tax or gratuity charges.
Recognizable US spirits brands were available, and the ship’s bartenders skillfully crafted delightful mixed drinks. The experience of savoring a frozen piña colada on the deck under the shade is a vivid memory.
Incidental Costs: (10/10)
Swan Hellenic’s commitment to an all-inclusive experience is evident in its reluctance to nickel-and-dime passengers. Tipping is thoughtfully included, and it’s challenging to find instances where extra expenses are required. Optional shore excursions do come at an additional cost, but daily four-hour tours are already included, making it easy to stay within budget. Unlike some cruise lines, where onboard expenses can accumulate significantly, our account balance at the end of the voyage remained at zero, except for additional gratuities we personally extended.
Shore Excursions: (10/10)
A significant facet of the Swan Hellenic experience revolves around shore excursions. One daily excursion is included in the cruise fare, with optional additional tours available for a supplementary fee. Solo travelers, in particular, will appreciate the streamlined experience provided by Swan Hellenic. Their onboard tour guides, who socialize with passengers, ensure continuity from day to day. The tours commence at approximately 8:30 AM every port day, managed by ship staff to ensure a seamless experience, from headcount to group management. A smartphone app equipped with the guide’s voice offers flexibility, and the ship provides smartphones for those with incompatible devices. Evening orientations provide insights into the following day’s tour, and academic lectures enhance the educational aspect of the journey. On our voyage, a geologist illuminated the history and construction of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, complementing our visits to three of them. Tour difficulty levels are rated on a 1-3 scale, making it easy for passengers to choose excursions suitable to their preferences.
Swan Hellenic’s unique ship size and capabilities open doors to experiences not available on larger vessels. Transiting the Corinth Canal, an endeavor possible only for smaller ships like the SH Diana, was an unforgettable highlight. “Despotiko Island, inhabited on by a few hundred goats and daily visits by the archeological team, stands as a testament to Swan Hellenic’s capability to reach remote locations. Our private ferry transfers and excursions further exemplified the distinctive experiences offered by the cruise line. These moments are unparalleled and defy traditional tourist circuits.
The Staff: (10/10)
The staff aboard the SH Diana exudes a genuine desire to provide exceptional service. Many familiar faces quickly learn your name and preferences, creating a personalized and welcoming atmosphere. The crew’s dedication to ensuring a memorable experience is noteworthy. Requests, no matter how specific or seemingly unusual, are met with enthusiasm. The onboard team orchestrated a cabin party for us seamlessly, surpassing our expectations. Their attention to detail and proactive approach contribute to a delightful cruise experience.
You must be very careful what you ask for, because the staff will do their best to make it happen. I asked if I could have Steak Tartare for lunch. They checked and said: “Tell us which day.” I asked for ice cream at the casual restaurant lunch buffet. They didn’t have any. That was fine with me. Shortly afterwards, someone comes over and says: “What kind of ice cream would you like? How many scoops?” They are very accommodating.
Swan Hellenic places a significant emphasis on passenger health and safety, perhaps more so than any other cruise line. This focus is especially crucial given their voyages to remote polar regions. Comprehensive health declaration forms and, if necessary, forms completed by one’s doctor are required in advance. Upon arrival, a simplified health form is submitted. The cruise line recommends health insurance covering international travel, a testament to their commitment to passenger welfare.
Boarding and Disembarkation: (10/10)
Our journey commenced at the airport, where we were greeted by a courteous representative holding a sign. He arranged a taxi that took us to a centrally located hotel in Athens, thoughtfully included as part of our cruise package. Notably, the hotel featured a Swan Hellenic desk in the lobby, providing personal service. On our departure day, we congregated in the lobby, observed our luggage being expertly loaded onto the bus, and proceeded to the port to embark on our voyage. The entire process was remarkably seamless.
A Typical Day
A typical day aboard the SH Diana is a testament to the diversity of activities and experiences available:
7:00 AM: Wake up refreshed, step onto the balcony to witness the ship’s arrival at a new harbor and prepare for the day.
8:00 AM: Enjoy breakfast in the main dining room, where encounters with new friends often lead to enjoyable shared meals.
8:30 AM: Embark on the day’s tour, which typically spans over four hours.
1:30 PM: Return from the tour, drop off belongings in the cabin, and head to the outdoor dining area for a delicious lunch. Other options are available including dining inside, cabin service.
2:30 PM: Utilize the ship’s excellent internet connection in the cabin, nap, or contemplate a visit to the gym.
5:00 PM: Attend an educational lecture in the Observation Lounge, complemented by cocktails and engaging discussions.
6:00 PM: Learn about the next day’s port during the Expedition Leader’s presentation.
7:00 PM: Embark on a culinary adventure during dinner, featuring a diverse menu with chef specialties.
9:30 PM: Enjoy post-dinner drinks and conversation in the Observation Lounge, serenaded by the piano player.
10:00+ PM: Return to your cabin, where the bed has been turned down, the next day’s program displayed on the TV, and chocolates await on your pillows.
In summary, Swan Hellenic offers a unique luxury cruise experience that stands apart from premium cruising. If your ideal vacation includes exploration and learning during the day and relaxation with fine dining and cocktails at night, Swan Hellenic might be the cruise line that perfectly aligns with your preferences.
There were numerous highlights during the journey, each day offering its own memorable moments. Here are some of the noteworthy aspects:
Exceptional Internet Connectivity: At sea, we enjoyed the best internet connection I’ve ever encountered. Remarkably, internet access was included in the fare.
Wine Delight: Wine flowed abundantly throughout the voyage. On the last night, it was revealed that an astonishing 1,324 bottles of wine had been consumed in just ten days! That averages out to around two bottles per passenger per day, not even accounting for beers and cocktails. Surprisingly, neither of us woke up groggy or sluggish the next morning.
Attentive Staff: The ship’s crew was consistently cheerful and accommodating, always eager to fulfill our requests.
Cozy Cabins with Fireplaces: Our cabins were equipped with electric fireplaces, a comforting touch that added to the overall experience. We learned that all cabins would soon have this feature.
Exceptional Tours: The quality of the daily tours was outstanding, and they were all included in the package. Despite being in a group, the intimate atmosphere made it feel like a small gathering.
Expeditions:Here are some specific highlights:
- The Corinth Canal: It was a remarkable start to the journey as we traversed this iconic canal on day one. The small size of the ship allowed us access to unique locations.
- Ephesus: Visiting this ancient site felt like stepping back in time. The sight of the Celsus Library was reminiscent of an Indiana Jones adventure, and the restoration of the terraced houses was simply fabulous.
- Delphi: Exploring the Temple of Apollo and the history of the Oracle at Delphi was a wonderful experience.
- Despotiko Island: We had the privilege of visiting a place few others have explored. Witnessing an active archaeological team at work and engaging in conversations with them was a unique opportunity.
Areas for Improvement:
- Tour Intensity: While daily tours may appeal to some, they can be quite intense. Swan Hellenic’s focus on education and exploration might not suit everyone’s preferences.
- Shore Excursion Ratings: The physical ratings for shore excursions, on a three-point scale, sometimes felt inaccurate. It might be more helpful to provide detailed descriptions instead of numerical ratings.
- Library: The ship’s library is rather limited and could benefit from expansion. Those who enjoy reading novels or mysteries should consider bringing their own material.
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