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Best world-class cultural cruises from literature and palaces to wine and ballet

Author: Lesley Bellew

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Travel broadens the mind but some journeys are more rewarding than others. If you love art, history or music, enrich your holiday experience with our selection of world-class cultural cruises.

We’re in the tiny fishing port of Djupivogur on the east coast of Iceland. By the light of a few flickering candles we can just make out the silhouette of local singer Berglind Einarsdottir. Otherwise we are in total darkness – but that’s what you expect when you’re sitting inside a giant oil tank.

At this most unusual of concert venues – once used to store fish oil but thankfully now scrubbed clean – Viking Jupiter’s guests are treated to a recital of traditional songs, with Berglind’s voice reverberating off the circular walls to create the most haunting sound. Hairs stand up on the back of my neck at the beauty of this moment and, in the finale, a powerful rendition of the Pie Jesu from Andrew Lloyd

Webber’s Requiem brings tears too. This truly is a cruise memory to treasure. Berglind, who teaches singing and Icelandic literature, explains that she discovered these extraordinary acoustics by chance when she looked inside the tank and heard her voice echo around the empty shell. ‘I once sang in Iceland’s National Theatre – now I sing in a tank,’ she laughs, with typically quirky Icelandic humour.

Not listed on the ship’s tour itinerary, this impromptu recital is a wonderful surprise for guests on a guided walk to see the Eggs of Merry Bay – a group of 34 granite sculptures by artist Sigurdur Gudmundsson that grace the harbour.

Enriching experiences are a Viking Cruises speciality, and passengers can pursue their cultural interests on board, ashore and at private access events in world-class galleries (don’t miss the chance of a behind-closed-doors viewing at the Munch Museum in Oslo).

But that’s the joy of cruising – whether your passion is for history, art, literature, music, opera or ballet, there’s an itinerary built around it – not to mention wine-tasting, gourmet dining, visiting grand palaces and discovering churches and monasteries in destinations not easily reached unless by cruise ship.

Get on board

Viking seven-night ‘Iceland’s Natural Beauty’ cruise aboard Viking Star, round trip from Reykjavik, departing June 12, 2023, from £2,790 including flights

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High culture and history

Exposing the Soviet Union’s use of prison camps in his famous Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that the Solovetsky Islands were chosen because ‘a scream would never be heard’ from such an outpost.

Just 100 miles below the Arctic Circle in Russia’s far north, the islands are certainly remote. And when the early-morning mist rises to reveal the dark onion domes of the 15th-century Solovetsky monastery, there is still an eeriness hanging in the air. Today this is a stop on Crystal Cruises’ epic ‘Northeast Passage’ cruise – but that’s more or less the only way you could ever get here.

Susan Robison, Crystal Cruises’ vice president, says: ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure through the Russian High Arctic and the New Siberian Islands and can be experienced aboard our new 200-guest luxury yacht with a 1-to-1 passenger/crew ratio.’

Another destination that’s easier to explore by cruise ship is West Africa. Guests aboard Azamara Journey can meet the chief and elders of Duakor on Ghana’s Cape Coast, and visit Elmina Castle – another place with a dark history via its links to the slave trade.

Get onboard

Crystal Cruises 28-night ‘Northeast Passage’ cruise aboard Crystal Endeavor, from Tromso to Anadyr via Murmansk, Solovetsky Islands and Wrangel Island, departs August 2, 2023, from £46,317

Azamara 21-night ‘Western Africa Voyage’ aboard Azamara Journey, from Lisbon to Cape Town via Tenerife, Banjul, Takoradi (Ghana), Luanda and Walvis Bay, departing November 29, 2022, from £3,896.

The dark onion domes of the 15th-century Solovetsky monastery. Credit: Shutterstock

Red letter days

Many cruises are timed to coincide with arts festivals and cultural anniversaries, but these sailings are hugely popular so early booking is recommended.

Performances of the once-in-a-decade Oberammergau passion play take place from May to October 2022, and guests on Uniworld’s luxurious river ship SS Beatrice can see 2,000 actors, singers and musicians participating in this famous event, first staged in the 17th century.

Another decennial event next year is Floriade, Holland’s famous international horticultural show, which starts near Amsterdam in April. Visitors can explore the 150-acre site with its huge greenhouse and plant pavilions, as well as riding in a cable car over the Floriade park. The theme for the show is ‘Growing Green Cities’, so expect it to be packed with inspiring ideas.

Titan Tours offers a range of river cruises to Floriade, and senior executive Rob Stapley says: "Our managers and expert local guides are on hand to help guests understand the story behind each destination, allowing travellers to truly immerse themselves in the holiday.’"

Titan also includes many excursions in its cruise prices – and whoever you’re sailing with, that’s always something to look out for. Many cruisers find that once the cost of tours, drinks, tips, wi-fi and other extras are accounted for, an all-inclusive cruise is actually better value, despite the higher fare.

Get on board

Uniworld seven-night ‘Delightful Danube’ cruise aboard SS Beatrice, from Budapest to Nuremberg departing May 25, 2022 (pre-cruise stay required to see Passion Play), from £4,409.

Titan Travel seven-night ‘Floriade and the Delights of the Dutch Waterways’ cruise aboard MS River Discovery II, from Amsterdam to Cologne via Enkhuizen, Hoorn and Kinderdijk, departing April 13, 2022, from £1,549 including flights.

The Floriade is Holland’s famous international horticultural show. Credit: Shutterstock

Stars onboard

There’s no need to disembark for cultural activities on Queen Mary 2, where book-lovers can celebrate the written word while crossing the Atlantic from New York to Southampton in December 2022. Authors Ian Rankin, Maggie O’Farrell, Sathnam Sanghera and Simon Winchester headline Cunard’s Literature Festival at Sea, participating in workshops, discussions and Q&A sessions.

Expert speakers always add depth and enjoyment to a cruise, and Eric Knowles – best-known for his appearances on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow – will give a series of talks during Saga’s ‘Danube Discovery’ voyage next year. Guests on the July 3 departure, sailing aboard new ship Spirit of the Danube, will also get to enjoy an evening concert of music by Mozart and Strauss in Vienna’s baroque Palais Auersperg.

Oenophiles will love AmaWaterways’ 2022 wine programme featuring guest wine hosts and vineyard owners on river sailings to Bordeaux and along the Danube, Rhine and Portugal’s Douro. Ama’s ‘Enticing Douro’ cruises include visits to historic wineries to learn the secret of vinho verde’s unmistakable sparkle.

Get on board

Cunard seven-night ‘Literature Festival at Sea’ aboard Queen Mary 2, from New York to Southampton, departing December 3, 2022, from £1,609 including flight from UK.

Saga 10-night ‘Danube Discovery & Vienna’ cruise aboard Spirit of the Danube, from Budapest to Vienna, departing July 3, 2022, from £2,569 including flights.

AmaWaterways seven-night ‘Enticing Douro’ cruise aboard AmaDouro, round trip from Porto, departing August 6, 2022, from £3,315.

Spirit of the Danube guests will get to enjoy an evening concert of music by Mozart. Credit: Saga

Access all areas

When in Russia, it pays to skip the queues for the Hermitage Museum’s priceless art collection. You’ll find it’s worth every penny to join an after-hours tour on St Petersburg sailings with cruise lines such as Silversea and Viking, allowing you to view paintings and sculptures at leisure and listen to a classical concert by the State Hermitage Orchestra.

If you’re mad about Egyptology, look out for Viking’s new ships on the Nile, offering daily excursions to see some of the ancient world’s most amazing monuments. And speaking of which, everyone should visit Athens at least once.

The Acropolis, on a rocky hill topped by the famous columns of the Parthenon, can be admired during Regent Seven Seas’ tours of the city. Athens Archaeological Museum, with the world’s finest collection of ancient artefacts, is also on the itinerary, as are the atmospheric winding streets of the Plaka – the city’s oldest quarter. For a deeper insight, guests on Regent’s ‘Coast to Coast Mediterranean’ sailing can also join a four-day extension, which includes ancient Delphi and the Meteora Monasteries.

Finally, if you love all things Caledonian, don’t miss a trip on one of Hebridean Cruises’ small ships. Their crews are incredibly knowledgeable and you’ll get to see some of Scotland’s finest castles and mansions on a gloriously scenic Hebridean cruise.

Get onboard

Silversea six-night ‘Copenhagen to Stockholm’ cruise aboard Silver Moon, via St Petersburg, departing June 21, 2022, from £4,860 inc flights.

Viking 11-night ‘Pharaohs & Pyramids’ cruise aboard Viking Ra, round trip from Cairo, departing August 19, 2022, from £5,615 inc flights.

Regent Seven Seas 12-night ‘Coast to Coast Mediterranean’ cruise aboard Seven Seas Voyager, from Athens to Lisbon, departing October 31, 2022, from £5,772 inc flights.

Hebridean Cruises seven-night ‘Mansions & Castles’ cruise aboard Hebridean Princess, round trip from Greenock, departing March 8, 2022, from £2,730.

Step inside the Sistine Chapel to admire Michelangelo’s famous fresco. Credit: Shuttersotck

Holy of holies

Lucky guests on Celebrity L Reflection can uncover the secrets of the smallest state in the world on a ‘Vatican Behind the Scenes’ tour that includes the Pope’s summer residence and the Governor’s Palace. Catch your breath in the beautiful Vatican Gardens, then step inside the Sistine Chapel to admire Michelangelo’s famous fresco The Creation of Adam before taking advantage of fast-track access to St Peter’s Basilica.

As the official cruise partner of UNESCO World Heritage, Seabourn offers excursions to some of the international body’s most important sites. Seabourn Quest’s ‘Adriatic Treasures’ cruise features a maiden call to the UNESCO-listed island city of Trogir, on Croatia’s beautiful Dalmatian coast, which combines a tour of palaces and churches with a visit to a local family’s rural home.

Get on board

Celebrity 11-night ‘Italy Turkey & Greek Islands’ cruise aboard Celebrity Reflection, round trip from Rome, departing May 28, 2022, from £1,448.

Seabourn seven-night ‘Adriatic Treasures’ cruise aboard Seabourn Quest, round trip from Venice via Trogir, Dubrovnik and Zadar, departing May 28, 2022, from £3,799 including flights.

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