Swan Song

DAILY TELEGRAPH    17 March 2007

The last days of Swan Hellenic     

There are few opportunities to see the former Bishop of Oxford partnering a bare-breasted Indian girl in a ritual wedding dance in a remote Panamanian village, whose inhabitants live much as they have done for thousands of years.  This, however, is precisely what happened to me and fifty or so other privileged passengers on a recent Swan Hellenic cruise to the Caribbean and Central America. 

Such seredipitous displays will sadly be no more.  Swan Hellenic, the doyen of cultural cruise lines, is being closed by its American parent company, Carnival.   Minerva II sets sail today from Barbados to Spain, where it will be refitted as one of Carnival’s regular fleet, the large library and tranquil lounge replaced by bars and casinos in a bid to attract the all-important American ‘buck.’

Notwithstanding the recent boom in both cultural tours and cruising, Swan Hellenic remains unique.  Since 1954 when the father-and-son team of travel agents, W.F. & R.K. Swan, took 128 passengers to Athens and the Greek islands, the company has offered its distinctive brand of holiday, described by one recent passenger as ‘a third Butlins, a third Claridges, and a third Open University’.

For the first twenty years, ‘Hellenic’ was integral to the company’s identity, but, with the introduction of larger and more powerful ships, Swan’s extended its operations across the globe, first round the British Isles and the Red Sea, then to the Baltic and the Gulf, and finally, with the arrival of Minerva II in 2003, to Central and South America, as well as Africa, Asia and the Far East.

One feature of Swan’s cruising that has remained constant is the central role of its lecturers.  In the early days, these were exclusively Oxbridge classicists like Maurice Bowra and Owen Chadwick.  In recent years, the field has widened to include figures such as Robert Runcie, Douglas Hurd and Roy Strong. Even the former archbishop was no match for the cruise director of the time, the formidable Doreen, who, when he was late for one of his talks, bellowed down the tannoy:  ‘Where’s that ruddy parson?’

I myself have lectured on six cruises on subjects ranging from Hans Christian Anderson and Finnish mythology in the Baltic, through Dante and Casanova in the Adriatic, to Chekhov and Greek tragedy in the Black Sea.  Meanwhile, my association with Swan’s has informed my own writing.  My recent novel, A Sea Change, although set in 1939, benefited immeasurably from my experience on board ship.

My final Swan Hellenic assignment was the aforesaid cruise around the Caribbean and Central America this Christmas and New Year.  My fellow lecturers were Graham Archer, a retired diplomat, who spoke about the history and politics of the region;  Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, who spoke about the conquistadors and the slave trade;  Steve Kershaw, a musician and classicist, who spoke about jazz and salsa;  Penny McCracken, an art historian, who spoke about Mexican and colonial art;  Chloe Sayer, a NADFAS lecturer, who spoke about Mayan civilisation;  and Jean Stubbs, the Director of the Caribbean Studies Centre, who spoke about Caribbean culture and economics.

Richard Harries reminded us, only half in jest, of Owen Chadwick’s advice that he should remove every book on his subject from the library the moment he stepped on board.  Graham Archer admitted that his guiding principle was to assume that there was someone on the ship with a greater knowledge of the topic than himself.  My only challenge came from a man who attended my lecture on the history of Carnival expecting a rundown on the cruise line rather than the Trinidadian festival.

Our trip took in ten countries, from New Orleans to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados.  The realities of cruising meant that we were often limited to glimpses of a site, but, as Anne Belton, a retired teacher and veteran of sixty-three Swan tours, put it:  ‘With Swan’s, you always know that they’re the right glimpses.’   The guides were knowledgeable and informative, with odd exceptions such as the ones in Panama who, in the morning, claimed that the Jesus Christ lizard was so called because it walked on water and, in the afternoon, because, when it bit you, you shrieked ‘Jesus Christ!’.

Every guide was effusively grateful for our visit, none more so than Charlene in New Orleans, who complained that many foreigners believed that the city was still under water.  The Mississippi may have receded, but it feels like a ghost town with only a quarter if its pre-Katrina population.  The signs of devastation are all around, most markedly in the symbols of death and destruction that the National Guard scrawled on the doors, one of which Charlene informed us, her son-in-law has had tattooed on his back.

Among the few areas to escape unscathed were the city’s cemeteries.  Charlene disturbed many of her elderly audience with her long account of New Orleans’ unique above-ground burial system, in which the front panels of the tombs were often blown open by gases that built up during the summer heat.  Cemeteries later became a feature of our trip, with visits to an ancient Jewish cemetery in Venezuela, and the St Benedict’s monastery and Drunk Man’s cemeteries in Trinidad, prompting one passenger to ask plaintively whether ‘Swan’s are trying to tell us something.’ 

From New Orleans we sailed to Mexico and the first of several encounters with Mayan civilisation at Chichen Itza (or ‘chicken pizza’ in the guide’s mnemonic).  These ancient ruins were all the more awe-inspiring for being set on what looked like an English village green.  We saw the remains of the stadium in which two teams representing the gods and the underworld played a ballgame to determine the fate of the world, at the end of which the winners were sacrificed (a practice some of us felt might be usefully applied to today’s celebrity sportsmen). 

Although there was undoubted sacrifice of both friend and foe (the former encouraged by a heavenly reward system not unlike that of Islamic terrorists today), we learnt that the Mayans were far more than the bloodthirsty warriors of Mel Gibson’s film, Apocalypto.  They were a sophisticated people who, until threatened by Aztec expansion, lived peaceably on the land.  They employed a highly developed astronomical code and a numerical system that included the concept of zero.   All of which made one lady’s comment on returning to the ship – ‘At last, back to civilisation!’ – particularly unfortunate.

We visited further Mayan sites in Belize and Guatemala:  Lamanai, with its huge pyramids concealed by vegetation;  and Quirigua, with its intricately carved stellae.  Meanwhile passengers with more stamina and deeper pockets took a flight to the ruins of Tikal.  Lamanai was accessible only by a long trip upriver, on which we spotted crocodiles, basilisks, iguanas and all manner of birds.  The journey was punctuated by the raucous cries of howler monkeys.  The way in which the dominant male asserts himself by out-shouting the opposition put many of us in mind of home.

After a stop in Costa Rica, where the guide wryly pointed out the island where in 1502 they discovered Columbus (‘I’m sorry, amigos, but I have to tell you that we were here first!’), we sailed to Panama, which was for me the highlight of the cruise.  I eschewed a day on the canal in favour of a trip in a dugout canoe along the Chagres River to a remote village inhabited by the Embera Indians, one of only seven native peoples remaining in Panama. 

Everything about the day contrived to induce enchantment, from the still waters of the river, stirred only by crocodiles and giant turtles, through a vast lake surrounded by verdant rainforest, to the village itself.  My fears of being treated to a tourist-pleasing spectacle were soon assuaged.  After offering us food (including the most succulent pineapple I’ve ever tasted), they performed ritual dances, later inviting the more able-bodied spectators – including the Bishop – to join in. 

After Panama, we were grateful for a day at sea when we could read, relax, swim, enjoy the spa (and listen to the lectures!), before moving on to Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados.  My own favourite of the three West Indian islands was the last.  Tobago is too sleepy, with hens so free-range that they roam the main street of the capital.   Trinidad is faster and feistier with spectacular vegetation and bird-life;  but, while the guide was at pains to promote it as a racially harmonious paradise, the Black Supremacy graffiti and kidnap posters told another story, one which, as his refusal to address my questions made clear, he considered it ill-mannered of me to bring up.  Barbados, on the other hand, is an isle of beauty, charm and churches, 400 for its population of just over a quarter of a million, a sign, as the guide remarked with typical self-deprecation, that ‘We may not be good Christians but we’re great churchgoers.’

For all but a handful of remaining passengers, the cruise and, indeed, their association with Swan Hellenic ended in Barbados.  The ship was rife with rumours of rescue attempts and wealthy investors but none has materialised.  Here is yet another example of a respected British institution falling victim to the power and ethos of global finance.  The problem is not that the company failed to make money, but that it failed to make enough money to satisfy its American masters.  Meanwhile, the shape of cruising to come was seen all too clearly when we docked in Trinidad alongside the Blue Moon.  For ninety minutes we were deafened by the bingo caller’s patter broadcast over the tannoy.  There was no escape on our own ship, let alone theirs.

The end of Swan’s leaves a huge gap in the cruising market.  There is no doubt that recent years have seen a shift in the balance of Swan’s activities.  Steve Kershaw, who has lectured on 26 cruises, explains that ‘the educational content of the cruise has diminished in proportion to the increased size of the ship and the scale of the operation.’  In part, this is an inevitable result of going further afield to countries which, however fascinating in themselves, cannot boast the same density of culture as is found in the Mediterranean.

The shift began with the arrival of the first Minerva in 1996, prompting protests from diehard passengers, who equated austerity of travel with acuity of thought.  But it soon found a place in peoples’ hearts, as did the larger, more luxurious Minerva II, and, however nostalgic some may be for Swan’s previous ship, Orpheus, few I spoke to were willing to give up the lavish cabins with roomy seating areas and balconies, the four speciality restaurants or the well-appointed spa, for what one hardboiled ex-Orphean described as ‘a converted cattle-ship that used to transport cows between Dublin and Liverpool.’

The expanding passenger list has not been without problems.   One ‘Old Swan’ lamented that:  ‘In recent years, with all the advertising, there’ve been a lot of types who don’t want lectures.  The lectures used to be packed.’  It is these same types who, dismissing the programme of classical music and theatrical performance, have complained that there is little to do in the evenings.  Their behaviour has been looked on askance by the other passengers who refer to them bluntly as ‘NMs’ (not Minervas) and, still worse, ‘DNMs’ (definitely not Minervas).

While some passengers refuse to transfer their allegiance (Anne Belton, for instance, insists that she will now holiday at home), others are willing to try new lines, several of which, notably the Saga-owned Spirit of Adventure, are emulating the Swan brand.  Their success will depend on their ability to cater for a highly demanding but uniquely responsive clientele, whose outlook is summed up by the story of an elderly passenger whose sister fell and broke her arm when visiting a site.  The next morning she went to the reception desk and explained that they would not be able to take the full-day excursion they had booked.  The receptionist expressed the hope that her sister would feel better after a day of rest.  ‘Oh no,’ the old lady replied, ‘we don’t wish to stay on board.  We’d like to go out on two half-days instead.’