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Land-Tour Firms Take to the Water

<i> Slater and Basch are Los Angeles free-lance writers</i>

Hardly a month goes by without an announcement of another new ship or cruise line. People are wondering where the new passengers are going to come from to fill these new berths.

One lure for passengers is the land-tour company, once a strong competitor with ships for the cruising dollar.

These companies charter small vessels and set up ship- and shore-excursion programs tailored for their clientele.

People on mailing or membership lists of a university alumni association, a natural history or an art museum or a cultural group, may receive invitations to join one of these charter sailings. Before signing up, they’ll be invited toin-depth lectures, audio-visual shows or seminars with celebrity guests.

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Three Ships Chartered

This year, for example, Connecticut-based Tauck Tours, which has specialized in motor-coach tours of North America since 1925, chartered three vessels for 83 cruise and tour programs in Canada, New England and the South.

“The first time we tied tours into a cruise was with the Mississippi Queen about six or seven years ago,” said Arthur Tauck Jr., president of the family-operated tour company.

“We looked at the seven-day round-trip cruise out of New Orleans up the river and back, and figured since they’d see the same river in both directions, we’d split it into three- and four-day cruises with a land program. That’s a perfect one; the price (from $1,175 per person, double occupancy) works out well.”

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Three years ago the firm added Clipper Cruise Line’s Newport Clipper, with a seven-night New England historical land and sea package that includes a cruise to Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

A sample tour package that includes port taxes, tips and shore excursions costs $1,460 per person, double occupancy, while the regular seven-day New England cruise aboard the Newport Clipper is listed at $1,795 in the Clipper’s brochure.

Aboard the Illiria

This summer we joined one of the 15 Tauck charter sailings into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and sailed on the 140-passenger Greek-flag Illiria.

The Illiria is usually operated by New York-based Travel Dynamics, with group charters from university alumni groups, museums and the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History.

Last winter Lindblad Travel chartered the Illiria in the Antarctic and Los Angeles-based Hemphill Harris is looking at two Antarctic charters for this year.

Perhaps because it was a new offering, Tauck’s Illiria sailings sold out almost immediately, and some dates into fall carry a waiting list. For the first time the company has not incorporated motor-coach tours into the cruise package except as shore excursions aboard buses in Canada.

Virtually all our fellow passengers were veterans of one or more Tauck tours; many were taking their first cruise. The average passenger was between 55 and 75 years, and shore excursions tended to be sedentary, with long bus rides in the ports of call.

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Smooth in the Water

The Illiria, built in Italy in 1962, is long and low, with yacht-like lines and a fairly deep draft, 21 feet, which adds to the ship’s stability.

The cabins vary in size and configuration, many of them quite compact, but the bathrooms are spacious, with built-in makeup mirrors and terry-cloth robes. As on other Greek-flag vessels of this size, the cabin decor is understated and monochromatic.

Stateroom prices are $270 to $393 per person a day, double occupancy, which includes transfers, one hotel overnight in Canada and motor coach between Montreal and Quebec City.

The ship is scheduled to dry-dock for redecoration sometime this fall.

The public rooms were quite attractive, especially the large, comfortable library with its collection of reference books about the region.

High Service Ratio

The service ratio aboard is high, with 87 officers and crew for about 140 passengers. Dinners are served in one open sitting, which makes the tables a little crowded; alternative breakfast and lunch buffeta are available on deck. The menu designates certain dishes as salt-free for diet-conscious passengers.

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No smoking is allowed at any time in the library or the dining room, and smoking is not permitted in the lounge during lectures or slide presentations. Pipes and cigars are allowed only outdoors.

Deck space is generous aboard the Illiria, with sheltered tables and chairs adjacent to the buffet area, plus a large top deck with loungers, chairs and umbrella tables. However, there is considerable motor vibration on this deck when the ship is underway.

With lots of hand-rubbed wood and polished brass, you feel as if you’re aboard a private yacht. A trio plays for dancing before and after dinner, a definite plus for a ship this size. (Some of the first-time cruisers, however, were disappointed that there wasn’t more entertainment.)

A couple of awkward spots could be improved--the news headlines, menus for the day and passenger announcements are posted right at the top of the stairs from a lower passenger deck and the crowded little gym is not conducive to long exercise sessions.

On the other hand, food is generally good, with vegetarian main dishes and Greek specialties a better bet than beef or lamb (unless you like well-done meats).

Some of the younger waiters still grappling with basic English deliver mysterious things you never ordered, but cheerfully go back again to fetch the right dish.

While plans for next season are not final, Tauck is considering another charter of the Illiria, perhaps for his company’s first venture out of North America into Europe.

For more information on Tauck’s cruises/tours, call (203) 226-6911 or write to P.O. Box 5027, Westport, Conn. 06881.


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