Some places on the map are still best reached by ships. Voyages with exciting and exotic itineraries that remove most of the travails from travel are even better. It’s hard to resist the appeal of an itinerary where you claim a generously sized cabin, unpack once and let the destinations come to you. These four luxurious voyages aren’t for people who need to get somewhere in a hurry; they’re for those who relish drifting along peacefully as the world floats by.
The Volga, Europe’s longest river, doesn’t just thread through the center of Russia; it threads through its history and culture as well. Few ships are better fitted to explore the Volga than the MS Volga Dream, which embarked on its first tour in 2007. The 13-day, 12-night Platinum itinerary, offered between May and September, includes six nights aboard the vessel (the other six are in luxury hotels) and features highlights of Moscow and St. Petersburg like the Red Square, the Fabergé Museum, the Hermitage Museum, Catherine the Great’s palace and the reconstructed Amber Room within it. The Russophilic program continues on board with Russian tea ceremonies and an evening devoted to Russian cuisine, with a menu of borscht, beef stroganoff, chicken Kiev and a vodka tasting.
The Grand Russian Cruise, a new itinerary that spans September 29 through October 18, 2018, and will be offered again in 2020, provides a broader survey of the cities along the banks of the Volga. While it includes St. Petersburg and Moscow, it also takes in the painted churches of Nizhny Novgorod, the mosques of Kazan, the space museum at Samara, the World War II memorials of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and the port of Astrakhan, where the Volga meets the Caspian Sea. In 2019, the company will offer an abbreviated 11-day Grand Volga Program of voyages, and it will also begin offering the Imperial itinerary, an even more luxurious version of its Platinum program that caps touring group sizes at 10 and arranges accommodations at the Four Seasons hotels in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
The Best Cabin: The 260-square-foot semicircular Owner’s Suite, located at the fore of the ship, features a private wraparound terrace, a series of floor-to-ceiling windows, a sitting area, a private bathroom with shower and a double bed. For those interested in that space for the 2020 Grand Russian Cruise, book now; passengers tend to claim it 18 months to a year ahead of time.
The Star Clippers fleet revels in anachronism. Each of its three vessels is a tall ship full of modern fittings such as baby grand pianos, libraries, swimming pools, observation lounges, spas and fitness centers. The most anachronistic vessel of all is the Royal Clipper, a five-masted, full-rigged, 439-foot ship launched in 2000 boasting 42 sails. While the Royal Clipper is built for leisure, one can indulge all manner of high-seas fantasies by donning a safety harness and climbing the mast to the crow’s nest to enjoy the glorious view from the comfort of a settee installed 32 feet above the deck.
The Royal Clipper normally plies the waters of the Caribbean and the Western Mediterranean, but at least once a year it sails a route through the Panama Canal. The November 2018 voyage departs from Barbados and visits Bonaire, Grenada, Venezuela, Aruba, the Grenadines, Curaçao and Colombia before devoting a day to traversing the famous canal. The company has scheduled a November 2019 sail as well.
The Best Cabin: The Royal Clipper features two Owner’s Suites at the stern of the ship. Each has a pair of double beds, a separate sitting area and a marble bath with whirlpool. The two 430-square-foot suites can be combined into an 860-square-foot space that sleeps eight. Book 18 months in advance to secure an Owner’s Suite.
Don’t be put off by the term “backwaters.” A voyage through the backwaters of Kerala, a network of waterways off the southern coast of India, provides a relaxing contrast to the bustle of the mainland. From October to April, Oberoi Hotels and Resorts offers two- and three-night Kerala voyages aboard the eight-cabin MV Vrinda. It explores the lagoons, rivers and canals where farmers tend rice paddies that lie below sea level, and fishers catch the karimeen fish, a local delicacy. Lunches can feature karimeen fish curry or karimeen pollichathu, a dish where the fish is marinated in spices, pan-seared and served wrapped in banana leaves with a side of coconut chutney.
In the places that are too narrow for the MV Vrinda to sail, the 18-seater Kairali takes over. Built to traditional design from teak and mahogany, and fitted with cane chairs and a bamboo-thatched roof, it resembles a rice boat. Land excursions can include a visit to the village of Karumadi to see a ninth-century granite statue of Lord Buddha that’s missing its entire left side and is a place of pilgrimage. Those up for a 15-minute walk can also view a Sarpakkavu, or shrine to the snake gods, which contains idols carved from black granite and dusted with offerings of turmeric powder.
The Best Cabin: The eight deluxe cabins on the MV Vrinda are identical, measuring 133 square feet and featuring king-size beds, air conditioning, a 42-inch television, a DVD player, high-speed Wi-Fi and the services of a 24-hour butler. The most pleasant times to sail the Kerala backwaters are between November and February. While you can wait as late as a week before sailing to book, you’re better off making arrangements at least a month in advance.
To enjoy an African safari while expending the absolute bare minimum of personal effort, book a two- or three-night voyage on the Zambezi Queen. The 137-foot luxury houseboat glides along the waters of the Chobe River, with Namibia on one side and Botswana on the other. The vessel sails year-round but is busiest between April and late November, when game-viewing is at its best. Board a tender to take a catch-and-release fishing safari or a bird-watching excursion to see African skimmers, bee-eaters and other birds. Visits to the Namibian village of Ijambwe are also offered. Those who book at least six months ahead can secure the use of the ship’s customized photographic safari boat and capture the wildlife on camera.
It’s also possible to enjoy visions of Africa without leaving the suite. If getting up to head for the balcony is too strenuous to contemplate, simply watch the birds and beasts drift by from the comfort of bed. With nothing more strenuous than a lift of the head, catch sight of a herd of elephants taking their morning drink, splashing hippos, grinning crocodiles and groups of antelope. Sail at the right time of year, and if luck holds, impala, lions, giraffes, warthogs, baboons, kudus and even leopards might appear. But if watching the animals eat and drink whets your own appetite, you will have to get dressed and visit the top-deck dining area because there’s no room service on board.
The Best Cabin: The Zambezi Queen has 14 suites, four of which are Master Suites. The 10 Standard Suites measure 215 square feet and are identical in design. The four Master Suites, which are located at the front of the vessel, measure 325 square feet and feature the same fittings in each. All 14 are air-conditioned and have private balconies, but the Master Suites’ balconies are large enough for two deck chairs and a table. The Master Suites also have sliding doors at the front and the side, which create a more panoramic view of your surroundings.