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IRT Abroad: Tracking South America’s Newest Rail Stars

21 Apr
Like its older relative (pictured here), the new Belmond Andean Explorer also boasts an open-air platform. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

The new Belmond Andean Explorer boasts an open-air platform. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

IRT President Eleanor Hardy makes tracks next week for South America.

Her mission?

Ride the continent’s two newest rail stars: Ecuador’s thrilling Tren Crucero, and Peru’s ultra-luxe, brand-new-for-2017 Belmond Andean Explorer.

She’ll also stay at some of the region’s finest Virtuoso partner properties, including Mashpi Lodge — one of National Geographic’s “Lodges of the World” — deep in Ecuador’s ethereal cloud forest.

In Peru, her lodgings include a covetable series of 5-star gems: Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba, Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado, Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel & Belmond Hotel Monasterio.

“Nice work if you can get it,” you might say.

But it’s not all fun. Eleanor will be hard at work documenting her surroundings, the better to help South American-bound IRT travelers.

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Mashpi Lodge, deep in the Ecuadorean Andes.

IRT was last in the Peruvian Andes almost 10 years ago to the day — long before Belmond’s latest venture came on the scene. Says Eleanor,

“I can’t wait to rediscover Peru — and to experience Ecuador for the first time.”

IRT’s June group trip to Peru featuring the Belmond Andean Explorer is long sold out. But not to worry.

Independent departures are still available through early December. And we’ll announce departures for next year as soon as we have the info.

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Double-bedded cabin on the Belmond Andean Explorer.

Meanwhile, independent journeys featuring the Tren Crucero are available year-round (click here for IRT’s suggested itinerary) — and pair perfectly with our Galapagos Islands cruise.

So keep a sharp eye out for updates from Eleanor.

Follow her progress on Facebook and Twitter. And check back here on Track 25 for her in-depth report when she returns home.

Meanwhile, email us for more information on how to book your own Peruvian or Ecuadorean adventure. Space on both trains is limited and sells out far in advance.

Or call us at (800) 478-4881; (502) 897-1725. We look forward to helping you make your South American dream trip a reality!

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Ecuador’s Tren Crucero.

A Few Spots Left on Sea Cloud, World’s Last True Sailing Yacht

13 Apr

A few prime spots — including Deluxe Suites A & B — remain  on the Sea Cloud, Marjorie Merriweather Post’s 1931-vintage sailing yacht, for the September, 2017 voyage exploring the Dalmatian and Greek coasts.

(Check with our tour desk for other dates this season and next year.)

If you’d like a lo-res PDF outlining the trip, please click here.

IRT Society President Eleanor Hardy and I made this trip two years ago, and we both agreed: It was one of our all-time peak experiences. To see a photo album of our trip, click here.

Our Sea Cloud voyage is an

Like the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Sea Cloud is a one-of-a-kind antique Grand Dame.

She’s in beautiful shape, but she can’t last forever. And her dance card fills quickly.

So email us for info on our special Sea Cloud 2017 voyage; we can help you with other dates and itineraries as well.

Or call us at (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725.

To read about our adventure two years ago on the Sea Cloud, click here.

National Geographic Endeavour II: The Apogee of Expedition Cruising

8 Apr
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A larger than average fleet of Zodiacs allows guests on the Endeavour II a great deal of flexibility when choosing daily activities. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

I spied sea lions while running on the treadmill in the gym, glimpsed manta rays and sea turtles on my walk to the dining room, and ogled schools of flying fish while browsing in the gift shop. Never a dull moment.

National Geographic Endeavour II just began service in the Galápago Islands after undergoing a multi-million dollar refit — and last week, I was lucky enough to be one of the first guests on board.

(To see Ms. Hardy’s report about her Galápagos shore adventures, click here.)

I can now say with confidence that Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic’s latest collaboration is a work of art –and the ideal base from which to explore the famous Galapagos Archipelago.

State-of-the-art equipment and homey surroundings are essential to the Endeavour II, but style plays an important supporting role — evidenced in the rich wood paneling and variegated ocean blues in the upholstery and carpeting.

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Suite C on the National Geographic Endeavour II.                   Photo by Lindblad Expeditions.

52 cabins, all with large picture window and en-suite facilities, accommodate up to 96 guests. There are nine dedicated single-use cabins, nine cabins with optional space to sleep three (in either a drop-down Murphy bed, or, in the suites, in a sofa bed), and seven sets of connecting cabins that sleep up to four between the two rooms.

Three spacious suites have an extra-large bathroom, extra closet space, and enormous floor-to-ceiling windows. The largest of these, Suite C, is located on the bridge deck and also has a separate sitting area with arm chairs and convertible sofa.

My cabin, #205, was a dedicated single-use room — comfortable and functional in every respect. The designers used every available space for storage, which meant I did not have to do any creative juggling with my things. I could have easily shared the space with another person, but traveling alone, I was able to spread out and live like a queen!

My cabin included two twin beds, short chest of drawers in between beds that doubled as a night stand, desk and chair, leather armchair, two-prong outlets, USB outlets for charging iPhone, iPad, etc., wardrobe for hanging clothes, wall hangers that fold flat when not in use, and many hooks / hangers for wet clothes.

The bathroom was small but perfectly serviceable, with biodegradable shampoo and shower gel installed in handy dispensers in the shower. Hot water and water pressure in my shower tapered off considerably at peak hours — right before lunch and again right before dinner — but this was never so pronounced as to be uncomfortable.

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The “theater-in-the-round”-style lounge on the Endeavour II. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The social center of the ship, the lounge on the third deck, was designed for a “theater-in-the-round” experience, with a podium in the center of the room, retractable video screens along the walls, and fully rotating armchairs. 360-degree windows allowed beautiful natural light in during the day. We met here for daily “re-caps,” nightly cocktail and appetizer parties before dinner, and fascinating presentations from our naturalists and guides.

The dining room was laid out to encourage mingling — four-, five-, six-, and eight-person tables abounded, with just one or two tables for two. Breakfasts and lunches were buffet-style and featured bountiful fresh produce and Ecuadorean staples like cassava rolls — a real hit. Dinners were also casual, but served at the table.

As a vegetarian, I was very well-looked after. For dinner, the cremini mushroom gnocchi and root vegetable stack were especially memorable — and bountiful salads and produce were always offered for breakfasts and lunches. Any time a meaty soup was served, I received a veggie version without having to ask. Similarly, my lactose-intolerant friend received dairy-free options.

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The lovely top deck of the Endeavour II — site of one festive barbecue dinner, a sunset wine tasting, and numerous animal sightings. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Other public areas included a library with several computers for guest use, an open-air observation deck with lounge chairs and tables, fully equipped gym, gift shop, and spa.

Finally, an “open bridge” policy allowed guests to wander in and out of the navigational heart of the ship and talk to the captain and officers about the instruments and controls aboard the Endeavour II.

On the last night, the crew led dozens of us crammed into the bridge in a countdown as we approached the equator. Captain, officers, and guests alike burst into exuberant cheering as we finally reached zero degrees latitude on the digital chart. The camaraderie was palpable!

The Endeavour II was a phenomenal home base for my week in the Galapagos — but the ship would be nothing without the Lindblad Expeditions & National Geographic staff who work tirelessly to make each guest’s experience the “trip of a lifetime.”

To see our Lindblad Galapagos Islands cruise itinerary, please click here. For more information or to book, contact me at (502) 897-1725, (800) 478-4881; to email me, click here.

Read more about the Galapagos experience itself in my companion blog here.

(Rachel M. Hardy, travel consultant and marketing associate with The Society of International Railway Travelers, has traveled the world testing out adventures — all the better to inform our guests.)

Following in Darwin’s Footsteps: My Adventure in the Galapagos Islands

8 Apr
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A playful Galapagos sea lion. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

“We could be standing here 500,000 years ago, and things would look exactly the same,” a fellow traveler commented during my recent Galapagos Islands adventure with Lindblad Expeditions.

I understood the sentiment.

But the Galapagos are all about change — slow, ceaseless adaptation — rather than permanence.

As Charles Darwin observed almost 200 years ago, these adaptations are nowhere more apparent than in the variety of endemic species that call the Galapagos home.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get up close and personal with many of these amazing creatures.

Along with 90-odd other guests, I was aboard the newly-refitted National Geographic Endeavour II. A Lindblad team of naturalists, crew and staff ably assisted us.

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Hot and rewarding hike on Española Island. IRT photo

“You are not on a cruise,” said Paula, our expedition leader, immediately setting the tone for the week. “You are on an expedition!”

Some of the more cynical rolled their eyes. But everyone under 18 visibly straightened their backs in excitement.

Though we were surrounded by all the modern conveniences and comforts of a traditional luxury cruise, these small linguistic flourishes helped set the stage for a cerebral and engaging week of discovery.

We guests ranged in age from six to 80. Like me, most were Americans. But there were a few Canadians, as well as a South African, two Guatemalan sisters and a Swede.

We were academics, mailmen, research scientists, poets, lawyers, pastors, salespeople, librettists, administrators of different stripes, journalists and travel advisors (me!).

What was the tie that bound this relatively diverse group of explorers? Mostly, it was a love for animals — and a palpable enthusiasm for experiencing them in the wild.

Indeed, I quickly learned the surest way to bond with fellow travelers was to excitedly point out an animal.

Animals excited all of us. And everyone went to great lengths to share their sightings with as many others as they could.

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A Sally Lightfoot crab walks delicately across the volcanic rocks of Genovesa Island.                    IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The naturalists, many of whom are themselves “endemic” to the Islands, had extensive backgrounds in chemistry, geology and biology. And no less than their guests, they were passionate about the natural world. They were eager fonts of knowledge — and never off duty.

In one of our rare “rest times” during the early afternoon, I encountered Lenin, a naturalist. I wildly gestured toward the open ocean, where I could see movement a few hundred yards away.

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A male frigate bird impressively puffs up his gular pouch in an attempt to attract a mate.             IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Handing me his binoculars, he told me they were manta rays, taking turns jumping out of the water.

“We are not certain why they come to the surface like so,” he said. “Some scientists think they are ridding themselves of parasites. Others think they are just enjoying themselves.”

I certainly was enjoying myself. I took advantage of every hiking and snorkeling opportunity I could.

Snorkeling was a vigorous, thrilling experience. Every outing was unique.

Over the course of 15 hour-long deep-water snorkels, I swam with playful sea lion pups, sea turtles and diminutive Galapagos penguins.

I saw white-tipped reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays the size of breakfast tables, graceful spotted rays and hundreds of species of tropical fish.

Hikes were challenging — largely due to the Galapagos’ unforgiving heat and humidity in March. But they also were rewarding, with each day offering a new island and a new alien landscape to explore.

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A challenging mid-day hike. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Giant land iguanas, marine iguanas and bird species for which the Galapagos are famous — the Nazca, blue-footed and red-footed booby, to name three — added to the islands’ otherworldly vibe.

The island’s creatures acted as if we didn’t exist, not bothering to move off the trail even when we stepped within inches of them.

Some guests struggled with the most punishing midday hikes. But the vast majority seemed to know what they were in for.

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And the kids on our departure (more than usual, I was told, because it was spring break for many school systems in the U.S.) really enjoyed themselves.

That was thanks in no small part to a pilot program that the National Geographic Society introduced on our trip specifically geared towards young people — and their constant need for stimulation and apparent inability to nap. Their parents, all nappers themselves, seemed thrilled.

The snorkeling and hiking schedule left me little time to sleep in my comfortable cabin. And I had just enough time to enjoy the bountiful meals served in the ship’s dining room.

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One last hike on Genovesa Island. IRT Photo

Other memorable snapshots that underscored the amazingness of the Lindblad operation:

  1. Stargazing with Jean Roche, a naturalist, on the top deck when the moon was still hidden under the horizon. (I can now use the Southern Cross for navigation, if I ever find myself lost in the Southern Hemisphere!);
  2. Enjoying delicious, freshly-squeezed naranjilla juice that was waiting for us as we re-boarded the ship after long outings;
  3. The head waiter, Carlos, greeting every guest by name, three times a day, in the dining room, starting with our very first dinner (he also knew our dietary restrictions by heart);
  4. Crossing the equator on our last night. A slew of us crowded into the “open bridge,” the ship’s navigational heart, to which guests have 24/7 access. (And, Captain Garces, here’s a big “thank you” for always being so friendly and welcoming!)
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Marine iguanas — endemic to the Galapagos Islands — are incredible underwater swimmers, diving to depths of 9 meters. Here, they pile on each other and rest. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The only glitch — if you could call it that — occurred on our last day, just before our flight to Ecuador’s mainland. A few wayward land iguanas had wandered onto the tarmac, delaying our takeoff.

No one seemed to mind.

After all, we had only a few more hours to enjoy our newfound friends. And Lindblad had seen to it that we were well fed, watered and “WiFi-ed” in the VIP airport lounge.

Three hours later, the iguanas abruptly wandered away.

So off we flew, the Galapagos Islands rapidly shrinking as we rose, until they disappeared completely beneath the cloud cover.

I was already planning my return.

Click here for the second part of my blog about the newly-refitted Endeavour II.

To see our Lindblad Galapagos Islands cruise itinerary, please click here. For more information or to book, contact us at (502) 897-1725, (800) 478-4881; to email us, click here.

(Rachel M. Hardy, travel consultant and marketing associate with The Society of International Railway Travelers, has traveled the world testing out adventures — all the better to advise you!)

Your 2017 Luxury Rail Planning Guide: A Train for All Seasons!

23 Dec

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To our friends worldwide: Greetings!

A luxury train tour makes a great gift. Below is a ‘curated list’ of client and staff favorites:

January
Eastern & Oriental Express: Bangkok-Singapore

February
Golden Eagle: Russian Winter Wonderland
Deccan Odyssey: Delhi-Mumbai

March
Blue Train: Cape Town-Pretoria-Kruger Nat’l Park 


April
Al-Andalus: Tour of Southern Spain
Golden Eagle: Heart of Persia

May
Golden Eagle: Trans-Siberian Express 

June
Belmond Andean Explorer: Peru by Luxury Rail 


July
Belmond Royal Scotsman: Grand Tour of England, Scotland & Wales

August
Belmond Grand Hibernian: Grand Tour of Ireland 

September
Golden Eagle Danube Express: Sicilian Odyssey
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE): Istanbul-Venice


October
Rovos Rail: Cape Town to Dar es Salaam
VSOE: Venice-Vienna-Paris-London

November
Kyushu Seven Stars: Deluxe Japan Rail Journey 

December
G. Eagle Danube Express: New Year’s in Vienna


For more information, or to book:

email tourdesk@irtsociety.com

or call (800) 478-4881 (US & Canada) or (502) 897-1725 (everywhere else)

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IRT On Luxury Safari

3 Jun

If you’re planning an adventure on Africa’s Rovos Rail or the Blue Train – two of our World’s Top 25 Trains® – don’t make the trek without adding a safari extension for some up-close animal encounters.

That’s our conclusion after our recent study tour to East Africa with one of the world’s top safari partners — Micato.

Read on for highlights!

          An elephant family on its daily march to the swamps in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.                     IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Scene 1:
Trundling along in Kenya’s dramatic Laikipia Conservancy, our guide stops suddenly to admire a giant male elephant with enormous tusks playing in the river below, splashing and spouting.

         A mother and her cubs watch us with casual curiosity in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.              IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The elephant swims across the river, lumbering through a pod of dangerous hippos. He trumpets angrily, seeming to scream, “Let me pass!” The hippos scatter.

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Wildebeests leap across our path in the Serengeti. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

Scene 2:
Quietly approaching a female lion in our Land Rover, we admire her from about 20 feet away. She looks at us placidly, and then, deciding us worthy, she pads into the woods and returns — with her two-month-old cubs.

Scene 3:
Perched on a road in the middle of the Serengeti, we witness an incredible sight: the beginning of the great migration — 1-2 million wildebeests and about 600,000 zebra and other hooved animals —heading north to grassier, wetter Masaai Mara. The roaring wildebeests cross single-file in front of us.

Scene 4:
Lying in our luxurious tents, we listen, enchanted, to the sounds of nature all around us: weaver birds flitting and chirping, hyenas crunching the bones of their prey, the honk of a hippo in the river right outside our tent, the seemingly thousands of birds waking us in the morning.

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A rainbow comes out over Amboseli National Park during our nightly “sundowner,” where our guides serve us drinks and snacks atop a lookout point. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

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          A Maasai welcome for IRT’s Rachel Hardy as we step off our bush plan and into the                        Maasai Mara Reserve. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

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Giraffes in Serengeti National Park. IRT Photo by Eleanor Hardy.

For both of us, traveling together made everything extra special: seeing our lodgings for the first time, admiring the beauty of the zebras (Rachel’s favorite) and spying our first family of elephants (my favorites!).

We hadn’t gotten to spend so much time together in years!

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We loved what our guide called the “little five hundred.” A sampling of the feathered little five hundred: top left: guinea fowl, center left: mating crowned cranes, bottom left: weaver bird, center:                          malachite kingfisher, top right: saddle-billed stork, bottom right: ostrich.                                IRT Photos by Eleanor & Rachel Hardy.

 

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We loved visiting a Maasai village in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Here, the women prepare to greet us with a traditional song and dance. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Interested in joining one of our South or East African departures? Space fills up early and quickly for journeys on Rovos Rail & the Blue Train – and of course for all the prime safari camps. Call us: (800) 478-4881 or (502) 897-1725. Email us: tourdesk@irtsociety.com Or vist our web site: http://www.irtsociety.com

Eleanor Hardy, IRT President & co-owner, and Rachel Hardy, IRT’s newest travel associate, were honored to be invited to join Micato’s study safari in Kenya & Tanzania. Many warm thanks to Micato owners Jane & Felix Pinto and the entire Micato team!

 

My Place in the Sun: French Polynesia with Paul Gauguin

6 Nov
Swimming peacefully with the lemon sharks in the Lagoonarium. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Swimming peacefully with the lemon sharks in the Lagoonarium. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Can you swim with sharks and still feel completely relaxed on the same vacation?

“No way!” I would have said before traveling to French Polynesia.

But having just returned from cruising aboard the Paul Gauguin, I can confidently say it’s not only possible, it can happen the same day.

My 7-night “Tahiti and the Society Islands” cruise departed from Papeete, Tahiti. It made stops at the surrounding islands of Huahine, Taha’a, Bora Bora and Moorea amidst spectacular scenery.

The unbelievable blues of the ocean beckoned, but the m/s Paul Gauguin itself vied for my attention.

One of the m/s Paul Gauguin's many features: a rear watersports deck. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

One of the m/s Paul Gauguin’s many features: a retractable water sports marina. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The 9-deck ship carries only 332 guests. It features three restaurants, a retractable water sports marina, a small pool and four bars. And with a crew to guest ratio of just 1 to 1.5, all my worries easily floated away.

The crew, in fact, was a highlight of my cruise. Most come from the Philippines, and they were consummate professionals.

They quickly learned and remembered our names, drink orders and other preferences. Their service always came with a smile.

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IRT’s Angela Walker and Shawn Bidwell. IRT photo

In addition to the pampering staff, the all-inclusive policy aboard ship made life worry-free. The most difficult decision each day for me and my partner, Shawn, was where to dine. Luckily, all the ship’s restaurants were good choices.

La Veranda offered indoor and alfresco seating, serving French-inspired dishes in an elegant dinner atmosphere. Le Grill was poolside, serving a more relaxed and intimate dinner with local specialties in an open-air setting.

L’Etoile was the elegant main dining room, open for dinner only, with a diverse menu offering a range of international cuisines. When dining in L’Etoile, Shawn and I chose from a range of starters, soups, salads, pastas, entrees and dessert. The poisson cru, a Polynesian specialty similar to seviche, was particularly tasty.

Breakfast and lunch were buffet-style, served in La Veranda and Le Grill. The buffets were varied and choices were plentiful. Themes of the lunch buffets changed daily – Greek, Italian, French, Pacific and International.

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Angela and Shawn sip drinks “island style” – from coconut shells. IRT photo

For those very picky eaters, there were “always available” menus, with familiar choices like a Rueben or pizza for lunch and steak or chicken breast for dinner. In addition, complimentary room service was available 24 hours a day.

In short, no one went hungry on this ship. Or thirsty for that matter.

Alcohol was included in the cruise price (save for select top shelf liquors and reserve wine list), so the bars were always lively. The daily itinerary included an alcoholic and nonalcoholic “cocktail of the day,” often featuring tropical juices, which was always worth a try.

All cabins on the Paul Gauguin have ocean-facing views. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

All cabins on the Paul Gauguin have ocean-facing views. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The ship’s cabins were just as inviting. They ranged from 200-square-foot staterooms (some with two portholes, some with picture window) to the 588-square-foot owner’s suite.

All cabins had an ocean view, and nearly 70% had balconies. All included a minibar stocked with soft drinks, beer and water and were replenished daily.

And the storage! I was shocked at the amount of cabinets, shelves, drawers and cubbyholes for all our things – even in the bathroom. We easily unpacked everything and tucked our suitcases under the bed for the duration of the cruise.

The atmosphere on board was informal. During the day, many of the excursions featured swimming, hiking or watersports, so casual, comfortable dress was standard.

After 6 p.m., the restaurant dress code was “country club casual” (skirt or slacks with a blouse or sweater for women; slacks and collared shirts for men).

The wait staff aboard the Paul Gauguin proved to be especially friendly and professional. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The wait staff aboard the Paul Gauguin proved to be especially friendly and professional. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Bartender Rey Amor practices his delicate art. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Bartender Rey Amor practices his delicate art. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

The hot spot for before-dinner drinks was the pool deck, with entertainment by the house band Santa Rosa or the on-board Tahitian ambassadors, called Les Gauguines & Gauguins.

After dinner, guests retreated to the piano bar for music by Marius or blackjack with Sean (one of the most personable croupiers I’ve ever met) in the small on-board casino.

Others headed to La Palette, on the top deck, where drinks were served by another of my favorite staff, Rey, who was not only extremely personable but also entirely professional. And he made great drinks!

Live music, karaoke and DJ tunes alternated in La Palette, which opened to the back deck and offered indoor and outdoor seating. This was also the spot for the special Tahitian blessing ceremony, which took place our first night in Bora Bora.

Traditional Tahitian blessing ceremony. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Traditional Tahitian blessing ceremony. IRT Photo by Angela Walker

Those celebrating honeymoons and anniversaries gathered as cruise director Michael Shapiro read a Tahitian poem and blessed their marriages, followed by a Polynesian tradition of wrapping the couple in a quilt to symbolize their union.

It was a beautiful — and popular — ceremony.

For more information on this or any of the Paul Gauguin cruises, or to book, please contact The Society of International Railway Travelers®: (502) 897-1725 or (800) 478-4881; or email tourdesk@irtsociety.com.

Click here for Paul Gauguin, part 2: Off the ship fun and excitement.

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