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Cruise Ship Information

MV Discovery (formerly Island Venture, Island Princess, Hyundai Pungak and Platinum) is a cruise ship, which formerly operated by Voyages of Discovery and was last in service for Cruise & Maritime Voyages.

Atmosphere on board

Along with the QE2 and Titanic, the MV Discovery must be among the most familiar looking passenger ships in the world. As the former Island Princess, she was the sister ship of the old Pacific Princess, TV's "Love Boat," and even stood in for her more famous and almost identical sibling on some episodes.

I love this ship. It was built during a time when vessels had graceful lines, when staterooms were designed to fit the shape of the ship and not manufactured in mass quantities, and it should be declared a historical landmark. A superb refit in 2003 has retained most of its original charm, and if you didn't know this vessel was more than 35 years old, you'd never guess it by its condition. They really don't make ships like this anymore, and it's a shame.

It has recently been announced that Discovery will enter dry dock later this year and will undergo an extensive refurbishment before entering service under the Cruise & Maritime Voyages brand in 2013. Voyages of Discovery will take delivery of another ship at the end of 2012, the 15,721-ton, 540-passenger mv Voyager. Voyager has undergone a multi-million dollar refit and will enter service in December with 270 cabins, 30 of which have balconies.

Discovery began its service as the Island Venture in September of 1971 for the Norwegian company Flagship Cruises, where it made the New York-to-Bermuda run. In 1972 it was renamed Island Princess when it joined the Princess fleet, where it stayed until it was sold to the Korean company Hyundai Asian Cruises in 1999. Briefly known as Platinum in 2001, it was bought later that year by Gerry Herrod's Discovery Cruises and launched as their only ship in 2003.

Voyages of Discovery describes itself as a "soft adventure" experience, a way for passengers to go to seldom visited destinations without the rigorous shore excursions and spartan accommodations of the "hard adventure" competitors. Exotic destinations include Greenland, Iceland, Faroe Islands, Norway's North Cape, Spitsbergen, the Amazon, Devil's Island, Easter Island and Robinson Crusoe Island. It is the only non-Ecuadorian cruise ship with a port of call in the Galapagos Islands. It even cruises to Cuba; those trips are marketed only through its British brochures and Web site.

Discovery carries four or five times more passengers than many other excursion ships, but this doesn't tell the whole story. Discovery has a passenger capacity of more than 800, but the line says it never carries more than 650. Further, the Ecuadorian government allows only 500 passengers when it visits the Galapagos.

Family with Kids/Teens

This was the easiest category to rate because the company's written policy is direct and unambiguous: "There are no recreational facilities for children aboard the MV Discovery, and reservations for those under eleven are not advised." The interesting itineraries and varied activities present an opportunity for an out-of-the-ordinary multigenerational bonding experience for adult family groups -- if the younger members have time for the longer-than-average voyages -- but this definitely did not seem to be a crowd that would appreciate the presence of O.P.K. (other people's kids) acting their ages.

We did get an opportunity to talk with 12-year-old Ryan and his father. Ryan was one of the few young passengers on the voyage, and while he assured us (none too convincingly) that the lectures were "alright," it was evident he really did enjoy the Antarctic Zodiac and shore excursions. He was particularly well behaved and unobtrusive around the adults on the voyage. ("He's an only child," his dad told us), but I had to wonder if he felt an isolation these two weeks that had nothing to do with the remoteness of the continent we were visiting.

Past Passenger Programs

Discovery is essentially the same ship that sailed 35 years ago, with only a few notable modifications. There are spacious wooden decks, a couple of indoor lounge areas in which you can relax and socialize, a small library, shop, and a bridge club. An exhibition gallery has been added, replacing the underused casino (but there are still a few slot machines in the Hideaway Bar).

An Internet center has been added, which is operated by the cruise line instead of a concessionaire. The good news is that the prices are about the cheapest we've seen aboard a ship, from 15 cents per minute at most down to less than four cents per minute for multi-hour packages for past passengers. The flip side is that there was almost never anyone around to help with problems, and problems were many -- some no doubt the result of our weather (mostly heavy overcast) and location (a latitude far from the equator where the satellite's signal was marginal at best), but some of which I suspect were caused by the company's server problems and the ship's outdated terminals.

Fitness And Spa

The Spa Atlantis is operated by Harding Brothers, an English company that also provides services for such British lines as P&O, Ocean Village, Saga, Fred. Olsen, Island Cruises and Thomson Cruises. The personnel were friendly and cheerful. Not all advertised services, such as foot reflexology, are available on all cruises. There were free "seminars," which were in essence just sales presentations for pricey treatments.

An exercise room, not part of the original ship design, overlooks the Riviera Deck and stern of the ship. The treadmills and other exercise machines are not the most modern or sophisticated, and for whatever reason the fitness room appeared to be one of the more underused spaces on the ship. There were some free exercise classes, and Pilates and yoga classes for a small fee ($8).

There are two pools, one on the Lido Deck and one on the stern of the Riviera Deck, but I never saw anyone in them. The hot tubs, on the other hand, got a workout, even in Antarctica (I suspect as much for bragging rights as anything else).

Food & Dining

Our welcome-aboard buffet featuring mystery-meat loaf and lunchroom fish set the tone for cuisine on the cruise. If you start with low expectations, you're pleasantly surprised when the level rises to average or above. But I will say quite candidly that it's clearly not the food that brings the substantial number of repeat passengers back.

Dining venues are limited, as you would expect on a ship of this size. There is the Seven Continents Restaurant, with menu service for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Lido Cafe serves a standard English buffet breakfast, theme lunch, and afternoon tea at 4 p.m. The Yacht Club, a free alternative restaurant, has an "early risers" Continental breakfast and a reservations-only Italian or Oriental dinner. Some of the most appetizing offerings, both sweet and savory, showed up at the late night snack in the Palm Court at 11 p.m. There is room service from breakfast through 11 p.m., but it only offers items from the room service menu.

The dining room has open seating for breakfast and lunch, and assigned tables for a 6:30 or 8:30 p.m. sitting. There is a vegetarian meal and sugar-free desert for both lunch and dinner. The restaurant's luncheon menu is usually an abbreviated version of the Lido buffet spread. The chef's recommendation for the Captain's Welcome Dinner was Surimi crab salad in a filo basket with honey dill sauce, cream of lobster soup with shrimps, champagne sorbet, beef Wellington, and black and white chocolate terrine with berry coulis. The Seven Continents restaurant always offers hamburgers, cheeseburgers and hot dogs as an alternative for lunch and minute steak and grilled chicken breast for dinner.

The Lido buffet offers theme lunches, like "Pasta Festival," "French Baguette" (sandwiches), "Burger Shack" and "Oriental Lunch." The late night snack in Palm Court also has themes, and on our cruise they included Arabian, Japanese, Italian, Greek, South American, Scandinavian, "Vol au Vents" and "Lolly Pops and Chops."

The best thing about the food was that I managed to weigh the same disembarking as I did coming aboard -- but then again, I limited myself to three meals a day and skipped most deserts and the late-night snack.

While the food is plentiful and acceptable, the same can't be said for the service. It was okay from the dining room staff, who were "accountable" -- and by that we mean not only that you knew their names but also that their gratuities are charged to your onboard account -- but service in the Lido buffet was frequently as cold and dismal as the Southern Atlantic. It did lend a certain drama to the voyage across the Drake Passage to see septuagenarians carrying their own trays across the wooden deck in ten-foot swells while being ignored by nearby stewards, but those are the kind of thrills I can live without. Want a glass of water with your meal? Good luck! The wait staff shares only the bar tips, so you'll fare better trying to get something with that automatic 15 percent gratuity added on.

It was the service that dragged the dining rating down, and (along with the Internet center) was the cause of the most vocal complaints we heard from other passengers.

Entertainment

Discovery had plenty of live music in the Discovery Lounge provided by Perfect Mood Duo, Cafe Concerto Strings trio and Discovery Orchestra (the show band), and even provided male dance hosts. This venue, next to the Explorer Bar, offered a panoramic view through two-story glass windows looking onto the spacious Riviera Deck, and an unimpeded view of the scenery over the stern of the ship.

There were also nightly shows in the main Carousel Show Lounge, which ranged from cabaret acts by the cruise director and featured vocalists, to extravaganzas performed by the company of seven young British singers and dancers -- a challenge, considering the size of the stage. While not always my "cuppa" (if George Gershwin had wanted lyrics for Rhapsody in Blue his brother would have written them) they nevertheless played to an appreciative audience, although not always a full one, and at times both the material and the performances rose to excellence.

The cruise director, social hostess and entertainers hosted the activities you'd find on a cruise ship of an earlier, classic era -- shuffleboard, deck quoits, boules, golf putting, trivia contests, bingo and dance classes, among other things.

It was the enrichment lecturers, though, that brought the crowd in (and you learned quickly that if you wanted a good seat, you had to get there 15 minutes early). There were seven Antarctic experts -- nine if you counted the ice and beach masters -- who presented standing-room-only presentations in the main lounge, with lectures like "A Beginner's Guide to Penguin Appreciation," "Introduction to Southern Seabirds," "The Antarctic Ecosystem: A Cool Web of Life," "Antarctic Landforms: The Geography and Geology of the Far South," "Disaster and Luck: The Remarkable Story of the Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1901 - 1903," "Masters of Submergences: How Antarctic Animals Dive So Well", "Climate Change and the Fate of Antarctica," "Antarctic Conservation Issues," "Antarctic Art: Painting, Poetry and Passion," "The Art of Navigating Through Ice" and my favorite title, "Hairy Slugs on Ice: The Seals of Antarctica." The lecturers have worked together as a team for several years, and it shows.

This team was also responsible for the excursions in Antarctica -- we had two landings and one Zodiac cruise -- and Expedition Leader Peter Carey provided excellent commentaries as we were cruising through Antarctic waters.

I'm giving the enrichment program a reluctant 5 rating -- reluctant not because of the quality of the lecturers, who deserve a 5+, but because of technical limitations that shouldn't persist in a vessel used for adventure cruising. Our expedition leader's running commentary could be heard on the outside decks and in some of the lounges, but never in your cabin, even on the TV channel devoted to the bridge camera and announcements. It was possible to pipe the commentary into the hallways on the passenger decks, but this usually wasn't done. So, if you're in your cabin and a humpback whale is breaching off the port bow, you might not find out about it until hours later at dinner.

There was another enrichment lecturer, representing the Mayo Clinic at Sea program, and tour presentations on the ports of call outside Antarctica. The shore excursions in Buenos Aires, Tierra de Fuego and Punta Arenas were excellent.

Tipping

All gratuities on Discovery cruises are included in the fare. On Discovery and Marco Polo: £5 per passenger night is automatically charged to your shipboard account (£4ppn for cruises over 16 nights).

Fellow Passengers

Passengers come from all corners of the former British Empire. On our cruise, which a spokeswoman for the line said was typical of a winter cruise, more than a third of the passengers were from the United Kingdom, a third were from the U. S. or Canada, and 20 percent were Australian or New Zealanders. She added that summer cruises tended to be about 60 percent British with the remaining balance from those same countries mentioned above.

Cruises are longer than average (10 to 48 nights in the current schedule), and it's no surprise that the great majority of passengers have passed the half-century mark. According to the cruise line, repeat passengers typically comprise 20 to 25 percent of passengers aboard. The exotic destinations and excellent enrichment programs tend to attract a well-traveled and intelligent crowd for which "soft adventure" is adventure enough.

About five percent of the passengers on our cruise were with a tour group from Japan, which I was told is not unusual. There were some announcements in Japanese and a Japanese-language version of the daily program. However, when one Japanese-American passenger who was not a part of that group booking requested copies of this daily program, a group representative refused to give them to her, and only after eventual intervention from the purser's office was the passenger provided with this amenity. I'm surprised that the hotel department took days to rectify the situation, and amazed that the Japanese travel company would go to such lengths to alienate a potential customer.

Our recommendation

We stayed here for a few nights and were very impressed with the level of cleanliness! The size of the room/bed/bathroom was excellent. Felt very at home. As we are from New Zealand our Spanish is very poor but the staff were so helpful. Especially Gus, he went out of is way and spent a lot of time organizing a flight for us. We also found the best taco stand around the corner.

This place is excellent value for money!! We will definitely be back next time we are in Tijuana.