BACK ON THE HIGH SEAS, SWAN STYLE

Fierce loyalty is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discussing Swan Hellenic passengers, past and present. On a recent Swan cruise from Dover, fully 75 per cent were repeat passengers. And, after five Swan cruises myself on three different ships, I am right in the midst of the fray.

Swan Hellenic dates back to 1954 when the brothers Swan started Swan Travel and soon began chartering elderly Greek and Turkish ships to take mostly British passengers on serious cultural voyages to the Hellenic world, centered on the Eastern Mediterranean.

The accommodations in those days would be considered primitive by today’s standards. Aboard Ankara, built way back in 1927 and chartered from 1959-73, most cabins had a wash-basin only and the lowest category included separate dormitories for men and women. I have met a couple of Swans (past passengers) who, having sailed on Ankara, felt they were the true blue Swan travellers.

But, when one got beyond talking about the ‘boat’ and its sometimes strange food, for most it was the destination and guest speakers that really mattered. Britain’s educated elite, and those who wanted to be, relished in attending up to four lectures on full sea days and scampering to the highest row of seats in the amphitheater at Aspendos to test the acoustics as a Byzantine scholar recreated the atmosphere of watching a Greek tragedy under an unrelenting sun.

When Swan began chartering Epirotiki Lines’ Orpheus, the rather snug cabins all had en suite facilities. So, to keep her forever simple, passengers relished in hearing the officer of the watch during a bridge visit describe the original life of the ship as an Irish Sea boat that carried cattle and sheep amidst first and second-class passengers.

It is aboard Orpheus where I came in. Twenty years ago, I joined a Mediterranean and Red Sea cruise that called at Greek, Turkish, Syrian, Egyptian and Jordanian ports. At breakfast on the first morning, I was shown by the Maitre D’, as was the custom, to a table in the restaurant and soon two others arrived to take the remaining places.

The couple turned out to be Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and his wife, he travelling as a guest lecturer on Byzantine history. If this was a taste of the Swan style, I was going to like this voyage.

A two-day overland trip to Damascus and Aleppo, and being amongst the ruins at Jordan’s Jerash archeological site at sundown were just two of the highlights.

In 1996, Swan Hellenic took on the charter of the Minerva, a vessel that had been originally destined to serve as a spy ship but was then completed to Swan’s specifications. While more than twice the size of the dear Orpheus, Swan promotions made much of the fact she carried no more passengers, so the 350 enjoyed a new-found spaciousness.

Gone, though, were the Greek d