Sailing British-Style to Hong Kong
Exotic ports, informative lectures, and weathering a monsoon in the South China Sea
“The Remnants of the Raj seem to be fading,” I said to my husband, Joe, as we watched the sun go down over Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of the Sultanate of Brunei. That day we had seen—only from the outside—the enormous gold-domed Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque; had gotten a closer look at the sultan’s gaudy coronation chariot; and had perched in our stocking feet eating gelatinous pastries in a house on stilts smack in the middle of the Brunei River. It was the fourth day of a two-week cruise this past January that had begun in Singapore and would take us next to Malaysian Borneo, Cebu City, and Manila in the Philippines, and Hong Kong. Now we were lounging on the Bridge Deck of MV Minerva, flagship of Swan Hellenic, an agency that has been carrying English gentlefolk (and the odd American) all over the world since the 1954.
We have been among those odd Americans four times. Three previous cruises (to India, Central America, and the Black Sea) had been lightly peppered with the Remnants—tall, wobbly gentlemen with walking sticks and military moustaches who actually said “By Jove!”, and titled couples who talked excessively about their horses. But the current passengers, while mostly speaking proper BBC English, were a bit more contemporary—flocking to dance on deck in the evenings when the Minerva Dance Band played disco favorites of the 70s, even forming a conga line for “YMCA.” Still, it was not impossible to imagine that Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, hand in hand, would be stepping off the elevator any minute to join us.
Why would Americans want to travel in a group where they are guaranteed to be a minority (on this cruise there were 17 of us among 320 passengers; on the previous one, there were only 5 Americans).
Let’s start with an illustrative anecdote. On our first Swan cruise, the most distinctive passengers were a pair of men who always wore matching expensive leisure outfits and went about carrying a ventriloquist’s dummy similarly attired. Everyone who’d been on that 2005 cruise to South India remembered them (repeaters make up 80 percent of Swan’s passengers), and one night at dinner this time a British tablemate asked, “Were they British or American?” “American,” I said, “surprisingly, considering the well-known British tolerance for eccentricity.” “Oh,” she answered, “but we don’t put ourselves forward.”
Just about nothing on Swan puts itself forward, which is powerfully appealing to travelers who shun large cruise ships. Note first what isn’t there: no casinos, no bingo games, no trendy restaurants run by Nobu Matsuhisa, no Vegas-style nightclubs—in sum, no glitz whatsoever. Minerva has all the basic shipboard amenities, plus a hair salon, modest gym, small pool, and promenade deck. Swan’s food is abundant, fresh, and pretty good, best at breakfast and lunch, with plenty of smoked fish, curries, crêpes suzette and crème brûlée—enjoyable, but not a reason for booking.