How Swan Hellenic is preparing to offer a sophisticated cruise experience

In November this year, the classic British cruise ship Minerva will be reborn. Jon Ingleton asks Swan Hellenic’s Andrea Zito how he is reviving the vessel’s original expedition cultural spirit

How Swan Hellenic is preparing to offer a sophisticated cruise experience

When All Leisure ceased trading back in 2017, the cruise industry lost Minerva, an iconic ship with a rich heritage. Four years on and Andrea Zito, the man who managed the original Minerva during his time with V-Ships in the 1990s, is bringing back the Minerva spirit.

Minerva’s rebirth comes following the wider renaissance of the Swan Hellenic brand. “I knew the brand deeply, having being involved with it in my time with V-Ships,” explains Zito, who is now CEO of Swan Hellenic. “We were delighted when the brand became available – we managed to secure control early this year.”

Originally established in the 1950s, Swan Hellenic earned a reputation for being quite different to commercial cruise lines. An expedition brand through and through, it frequently visited unusual destinations, affording guests the opportunity to explore places that at the time remained unknown to the intrepid traveller.

“At that time, such a journey was indeed an adventure – and it appealed to a lot of academics, lovers of history and people willing to enrich their lives through travel,” says Zito. “The brand was incredibly successful, and eventually built the Minerva vessel in the mid-1990s. Its light ice-class hull allowed the vessel to perform several expeditions in Antarctica and in the Iceland-Greenland Arctic regions.” It’s the totality of this heritage that Zito wants to revive. “Bringing back the original expedition cultural spirit is an incredible opportunity, and will allow us to differentiate from others. We want to take our guests to see what others don’t,” he explains.

This is no exaggeration. While traditional expedition companies tend to focus on the polar regions, Swan Hellenic plans to offer cultural expeditions to all seven continents. “In the North, we are working on exclusive itineraries in the Russian Arctic. Other countries on our itineraries include New Zealand, Japan, Papua New Guinea and Canada,” says Zito. “In addition, we will create a unique combination of ocean-based and river expeditions through our partnership with Vodohod Russian River Cruises. These have never been available to the public before.”

Swan Hellenic’s itineraries have been carefully developed to minimise days at sea. “The destinations have quite intense programmes, so guests will welcome the rare days at sea as an opportunity to relax and prepare for the next adventure,” says Zito. “You see, we don't just take our passengers to explore the most extraordinary places on earth. We also give them the company of like-minded people and renowned experts, who offer eye-opening lectures and are on hand to answer informal questions and discussions throughout the cruise. So, when they choose Swan Hellenic to ‘see what others don’t’, they can be sure they will do so with the full perspective of real insight into the history, culture, wildlife, flora, geology and geography of the place. Briefings before and recaps after each disembarkation supplement these lectures and talks, stimulating a relaxed social environment that encourages the sharing of experiences.” Swan Hellenic’s curated itineraries combine well- and lesser-known destinations. “The aim is to bring our guest to travel comfortably ‘deeper’ in the destination – going as far as possible from the beaten path,” explains Zito. “Antarctica remains a bestseller, but – perhaps quite surprisingly – the Pacific Ocean Islands and Russian Far East are in great demand.”

The re-birthed Minerva will be built at Finland’s Helsinki Shipyard, which has specialised in ice-breakers and cruise vessels for over 100 years. “Unlike the majority of our competitors, we have chosen the Polar Code 5, a class that allows year-round operation in polar water. This will extend our presence in the polar regions and offer increased safety thanks to a highly reinforced hull and propellers,” says Zito. The five-star expedition ship will feature a modern Scandinavian inspired design, showcasing unobstructed views and generous outside space. “Most of the ship was designed in-house – we felt it was important to have a great deal of input since we have 20 years of operational experience,” says Zito. “The interiors have been designed by Tillberg Design of Sweden and we have also had great contribution from the naval architect Robert McFarlane.”

It is this combination of expertise that has resulted in something truly unique. “We have a direct understanding of what is really important to guests while onboard,” says Zito. “They want to be fully immersed in the beauty of the destination, without any barriers. They want an authentic experience and they want to be outside for the majority of the time, getting as close to their surroundings as possible. Whether they are witnessing sea-life encounters, bird watching, stargazing or simply admiring the immensity of uninhabited land, we want our guests to have a great experience, no matter what the weather.”

With this in mind, Zito’s design brief was simple. “We wanted a lot of large windows, both in cabins and public spaces, accessible outside decks for wildlife watching at any location and an elegant yet unobtrusive décor. We wanted the centre of attention to be the outside – the ship is simply a tool to get there. From the comments and the attention we have received so far, I believe we have achieved what we set out to do.”

Minerva is already proving to be appealing to a very international audience, a demographic made up of culture seekers – individuals considering themselves citizens of the world who are willing to share experiences with like-minded people. “Fundamentally, our passengers are people who enjoy travelling in sophisticated elegance and who have a deep-rooted thirst for knowledge,” says Zito. “I cannot wait to welcome them onboard.”

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

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Jon Ingleton
By Jon Ingleton
16 April 2021

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