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LUXURY CRUISE: Minerva 
Style: Classy country-house style. A perfect-fit for The Queen Mother.
Scene: A garden cruise on Swan Hellenic's Minerva called 'Gardens of the Celtic Fringe'.
Seen on Board: genteel gentle-folk with well-rounded vowels, (some distinctive dialects), retired academics, medicos, military, professionals and landed gentry. All very polite and courteous. Voices seldom raised above room temperature.

When it comes to the art of small ship sailing and cultural enlightenment, Swan Hellenic's Discovery Cruises are in a class of their own. For more than 50 years, they have appealed to those 'With a Mind for Travel' and they certainly deliver, so much so their 70% repeat guests are affectionately referred to as 'Swannies' after founders, the Swan brothers.

Swan Hellenic's winning formula is the ship itself - Minerva - a small 350 passenger vessel that has recently undergone an extensive, and hugely successful makeover, and the outstanding Speakers Program. But if you are looking for a casino, slot-machines and showgirls, this is not the ship for you. People choose Minerva precisely because she does not offer these attractions.

They prefer something more cerebral, but they do love a good laugh, and there are plenty to be had - mostly from the guest speakers, some of whom are wonderful raconteurs. Then there is the staff show which is utterly hilarious.

It is all 'teddibly Bwitish' , too much for some, but not without plenty of in-jokes as long as you are PLU ('People Like Us') as writer Nancy Mitford was fond of saying.

Minerva delivers luxury sans glitz preferring to place the emphasis on quality, comfort, refinement, good manners and simply top-drawer cuisine. The food is innovative and contemporary in style and presentation, and outperforms many a five-star ship. The quality and freshness of the produce is faultless and chef Sebastian Gnida and his team can turn their creative talents to any challenge. For the duration of my cruise, I don?t recall a dinner menu repeated twice. And that goes for the buffets too.

Often buffets look decidedly weary by the end of a cruise - but somehow chef always managed to present a new and different, appetising feature along with old favourites.   Minerva's cult following means things like Yorkshire pud, and bread and butter pudding have to be included. Table wines are uniformly good - some outstanding if you have the $$$, but on average, prices were affordable. Most were French, but New World wines were suitably represented.

There are two dining rooms, Minerva's signature Swan restaurant   and the more relaxed Verandah Restaurant which opens on to the canopied pool deck for al fresco dining. (There are also, thoughtfully positioned patio heaters to keep chill winds at bay).

Besides the in-depth speakers programs which relate to each themed, cruise destination, Minerva delivers an exceptionally high-standard of service and comfort within an ambient country-house environment. The chintz has gone, but tasteful soft-furnishings and fixtures are still an important feature of the ship.

While on housekeeping subjects, I must mention the laundry. It is the best laid-out and-equipped laundry I have seen on any ship. There is also a spa, beauty salon, and small gymnasium.

Following Minerva's multi-million dollar makeover, 32 balcony cabins have been added. Our twin cabin survived the test of two women vying for wardrobe space and makeup mirrors, and we still managed to amicably roster turns for the couch, writing desk, and the balcony furniture.

On sea days, it is often Full House in the capacious Darwin Lounge when the speakers? programs were in full swing. While this was a garden cruise, it was also a rare opportunity to see and learn much about Irish history and culture, as we completed an almost entire circumnavigation of Ireland before crossing to the Scilly Isles, Jersey, and lastly Rouen in France, before we returned to Portsmouth.

Our itinerary comprised 10 ports. The emphasis was clearly on some of the great gardens of the world. First up was Powerscourt Gardens just outside Dublin. Powerscourt is renowned for its spectacular Italianate garden, glorious rose garden, and arboretum. At Portrush, a garden of different calibre awaited - the Giant's Causeway. My personal favourite was the island garden of Ilnacullin (off Glengarriff), which boasts a Martello Tower, just like Sydney's Fort Denison, while others showed a keen interest in the Poison Garden at Blarney Castle.
We cross to the Scilly Isles and Tresco Abbey and find familiar Australian natives flourishing happily, nurtured by the warm waters of the gulf stream. For romantic garden fanciers, Monet's garden at Giverny, with the showpiece waterlilies and iconic bridges were the piece de resistance.
We cross to the Scilly Isles and Tresco Abbey and find familiar Australian natives flourishing happily, nurtured by the warm waters of the gulf stream. For romantic garden fanciers, Monet's garden at Giverny, with the showpiece waterlilies and iconic bridges were the piece de resistance.

Returning triumphant from each day's excursion, we fluffed ourselves up then headed for our favourite bar, the Shackleton Bar. Named after the famous explorer, wonderful black and white photographs chronicle his momentous voyage (and survival) in the Antarctic. Similarly, the Wheeler Bar, is named after the famous archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler.

However, we became 'fixtures' at the Shackleton Bar for pre and après evening entertainment where the gorgeous Clare played and sang fabulous Cole Porter classics (and Hoagy Carmichael and'many more), and we worked our way through the Martini menu.

On alternate nights, a quartet of engaging young singers performed light opera or musical comedy favourites, and others tripped the light fantastic to the big band sounds emanating from Minerva's fabulous new, wrap-around Orpheus Lounge. Or we could, and often did, sit outside on Bridge Deck, gazing at the stars, aglow with contentment as we recalled the many highlights of this amazing cruise.

Check in: Phone (02)9959 1382 www.swanhellenic.com.au
Ultimate Luxury:  A library with 5000 books.
Most Indulgent Moment: Kippers for breakfast
Insider Secrets: Ensuring you have a possie in the fabulous, new wraparound Orpheus Lounge when Minerva is sailing in, or out of port.
The Little Things: The little courtesies extended by the ship's staff - even calling the elevator for you. 
Junior Luxies: Not really
Dress code:  Well-established British brands. Not too flashy. And yes, twinset and pearls do put in an appearance, but there is plenty of well-heeled designer apparel on view.
Dent in the platinum:

Maggy Oehlbeck,  16/10/12

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