ON TOP OF THE WORLD
A hundred years ago, Captain Richard With sailed the SS Vesteraalen on her maiden voyage to Hammerfest, the world's northernmost town, thus pioneering the Hurtigruten or coastal steamer 'fast route'. Steamers still leave the old Hanseatic port of Bergen, in Norway, for the 1,000-mile voyage into the Arctic Circle to Kirkenes, three miles from the Russian border. They sail every day of the year, through the storms of midwinter to the long days of the midnight sun.
The round trip takes 11 days, stopping at 35 ports in each direction. For many of the isolated communities along the way the steamers are the only lifeline, delivering everything from mail to dishwashers. They also carry passengers; locals returning home and tourists, too. Between May and the end of August there is a guide on board and shore excursions. The ships are first and foremost working vessels, so apart from the awesome spectacle of fiords and glaciers, fishing villages and fortress towns, cliffs and eagles' nests, there's no entertainment. The midnight sun is usually visible from mid-May to the end of July.
There are 11 ships in the fleet: the older, more traditional ones carry up to 250 passsengers; the two new ones, the Kong Harald and Richard With, both launched in 1993, carry 700 people and have larger cabins and more passenger facilities.
The 12-day trip with one night ashore in Bergen costs from pounds 1,027 to pounds 2,074, travelling to Bergen by air. Car ferry packages are also available, as are shorter trips.
Details from Norwegian State Railways, tel: 071 321 2048/9.
THE LAST TRAMP
The modestly named brochure Cargo Ship Voyages conceals untold delights for would-be Conrads who've always dreamt of seeing the world from the deck of a tramp steamer, taking a slow boat to China, circling the continent of Africa or hugging the shores of South America.
There are more than 60 voyages listed from 35 companies, and yes, there is a genuine 9,700-ton Cypriot tramp steamer, one of the last traditional cargo boats still afloat. She travels mainly to the Far East and South Pacific, carrying her cargo, crew and 12 passengers. Costs are from about pounds 35 a day (excluding the air fare).
The 27,000-ton MV Author sailing from Felixstowe carries six passengers on her 42-day round-trip voyages to the Caribbean, Central and South America, at around pounds 3,000 a head and a little more for the Owner's Cabin. A 100-day round-the-world voyage, also from Felixstowe, going via Australia and New Zealand, on one of Belgium's ABC Containerline 42,000-ton ships carrying between three and nine passengers, costs from pounds 6,000 to pounds 7,000, with one-way trips available.
Standards of accommodation and food on most cargo boats are high, and some have pools and libraries shared with the ship's officers. Such voyages, however, are not all plain sailing; there is no organised entertainment, and sailing dates and ports of call can be changed at a moment's notice as the freight is always the priority.
Voyages can get booked up years ahead. In some cases the age limit for passengers is 75. Cargo Ship Voyages is available from the Strand Cruise and Travel Centre, tel: 071 836 6363.
The 8,700-ton MS Inowroclaw leaves Tilbury every Monday, calls at Middlesbrough on Tuesday and reaches Gdynia early on Friday morning, leaving there the same evening for the return journey to Tilbury. She carries containers, cars, helicopters and 12 passengers, who can take the round trip or a one-way voyage combining the sailing with a few days in Warsaw, at a Polish beach resort or a tour of the countryside; passengers can take their own cars.
Accommodation is comfortable rather than luxurious; all passengers have outside cabins with private facilities, and they eat with the ship's officers. Prices for the round trip, including all meals, are a very reasonable pounds 135 per head until 31 March, pounds 246 during the summer.
Gdynia American Shipping Lines, tel: 071 251 3389.
SULTANS AND DRAGONS
MV Spice Islander is an 844-ton, twin-hulled, shallow-draft catamaran built for slipping in and out of unfamiliar creeks in the South China Sea. The islands are unspoilt: 35 Dutch, British, American and Australian passengers were the first Western tourists ever to set foot on the little pearl divers' island of Adonara, and most of its inhabitants walked for two hours over a mountain to greet them. They were also the first Western visitors ashore on the beautiful volcanic island of Flores after the earthquake and tidal wave in December 1992, the ship carrying supplies of rice to the population.
Such incidents are not uncommon on P & 0's Indonesian Expedition Cruises, which visit some of the 17,000 or so islands that make up the world's largest archipelago. Following the footsteps of Arab, Portuguese, Chinese and Dutch seafarers, the ports of call and cruise itineraries vary; a 'Sandalwood and Dragons' voyage sails east for seven days from Bali across the Wallace Line, the scientific demarcation separating Asia and Oceania, to Nusa Tenggara, a necklace of 600 islands that are mostly inaccessible.
In Sumbawa the slaves of the last sultan's daughter were freed only in 1959; Komodo is the home of 3,000 foul-breathed dragons - the giant two-metre monitor lizards which devour whole goats, their own young and, in 1979, a Swiss baron who was left behind by his fellow explorers.
Zodiac boats carry passengers to untrodden beaches for shell-gathering and diving, or ashore for displays of folk dancing or ikat weaving. There's no entertainment on board, but there are nightly talks on Indonesian culture and wildlife. The cabins are comfortable, with shower, WC and air-conditioning, the food both Indonesian and Western.
These voyages can be combined with a week's holiday in Bali or other Far Eastern destinations. Other cruises leave from Jakarta for the rainforests of the Ujung Kulon National Park and the remains of the Krakatoa Volcano. The one-week cruise costs approximately pounds 1,620 (fares extra).
P&0 Indonesian Expedition Cruises, tel: 071 831 1616.
The 1,420-ton Hebridean Princess carries 46 guests in a 'country-house atmosphere', provided by a fireplace and deep armchairs in the lounge. The 30-strong crew pampers its passengers on three-, four-, seven- and 14-night voyages from Oban, round the Hebrides and Western Isles, between March and November. There are usually two stops each day. The ship moors in quiet inlets overnight.
A new cruise this year includes the Mull of Kintyre and Rathlin Island, off the north coast of Ireland. There are also more voyages to the far north and Cape Wrath to explore the secrets of Sutherland. Average weekly prices are from pounds 1,500 to pounds 3,900, with short breaks of five nights in March from pounds 540, and 10 rooms (note, not cabins) for single travellers.
Hebridean Island Cruises, tel: 0756 701338.
On a more rugged six-day adventure, Lorne Leader, a 101- year-old, 47-ton Brixham trawler plies similar waters from Craobh Haven, 20 miles south of Oban. She's a two-masted, gaff-rigged ketch that will carry 12 passengers, who help to sail her. Itineraries are flexible, dependent on weather and passenger preference, though some extended voyages take in Orkney and the Shetland islands. There are five crew members: the skipper, mate, two cooks and a fifth person who may be a birdwatching, wildlife or even music or painting expert.
Bunk-bed accommodation, very informal atmosphere. The six-day voyages cost pounds 310 to pounds 395, plus the cost of getting to and from Craobh Haven. Lorne Leader, tel: 08525 212.
THE FROZEN SOUTH
David Attenborough's television series Life in the Freezer has helped launch flotillas of ships heading for the Great White Continent, carrying inflatable boats, some even helicopters, to take adventurers ashore to look at the amazing varieties of birds, mammals and fish. Longer expeditions also include the Falklands, South Georgia and the Chilean fiords. The season for these sailings is from November to the end of February.
Abercrombie & Kent (tel: 071 730 9600) uses its own purpose- built Antarctic vessel, the Explorer, for 11- to 16-night sailings with at least three landings on most days, and like most of the other ships has expert lecturers aboard. The Explorer carries up to 96 passengers. 1994/95 prices start from around pounds 5,300 for the 11-night cruise, from pounds 5,600 for 16 nights.
Clipper Line Voyages (tel: 071 436 2931): sails the purpose-built World Discoverer; prices range from approximately pounds 4,800 for the Antarctic cruise, to about pounds 5,750 when the Chilean fiords and the Falklands Islands are included.
Twickers World (tel: 081 892 8164) uses converted Russian ice- breakers. Prices, from pounds 6,000 to pounds 12,000, to include helicopter excursions. Columbus Caravelle (tel: 071 839 3701) offers voyages from 11 to 16 nights, carrying a maximum of 250 travellers. Prices from around pounds 3,030 for the 11-13 night adventure.
Others offering Antarctic cruises and/or Galapagos Island voyages include Journey Latin America (tel: 081 747 8315) and Noble Caledonian (tel: 071 491 4752).
Clipper Voyages' 1994 programme for its three exploration ships - the 139-passenger World Discoverer and Yorktown Clipper and the 100-passenger Nantucket Clipper - features remote coasts and waterways that traditional cruise liners rarely reach. Wildlife-rich destinations include the Arctic Circle and Alaska, the natural treasures of Costa Rica's Pacific coast and the Marquesas, Pitcairn and Easter Islands, retracing the route of Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki Expedition.
Other voyages focus on waterways of historic or cultural interest, such as the 16-night 'Colonial America and the Battlefields of the Civil War' tour on the Nantucket Clipper. Ships have high American standards of comfort, 'healthful nutritious American food', but 'definitely no organised games or bingo'. The voyages last from eight to 24 days and cost from pounds 1,398 to pounds 6,000 plus, including return flights from the UK.
Clipper Voyages, tel: 071 436 2931.
HEY, MR TALLYMAN
Banana boat voyages to the West Indies made by Geest Line are so popular that one ship is already fully booked for 1996. The two 7,700-ton vessels leave Southampton for the 23-day round trip, carrying cars, tyres, spare parts and other machinery to Antigua, St Lucia, St Vincent, Grenada, Barbados and Dominica, loading up and turning round for the return with bananas.
The 12 passengers live in style, with dressing for dinner de rigueur. Organised entertainment is limited to bridge and listening to radio reports, though there should be yarns a-plenty.
Round voyages cost pounds 2,915 and one-way trips are available.
Geest Line, tel: 0703 334415.
Not all companies include flights to and from the UK in the price
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