I’m sitting on the sun deck of the charming riverboat, Bengal Ganga, chartered for an inspection trip by the rapidly expanding riverboat company, Haimark. Based in Breckenridge, Colorado, Tom Markwell and Marcus Leskovar, both former executives with Pandaw River Cruises and Giang Hoang Hai, an experienced ground operator in Southeast Asia, have partnered to launch the company that is now building six new riverboats to sail the waters of Asia. Two are destined for India. The Ganges Voyager, a luxury 56-passenger all-suite ship is to be completed in January 2015, and its sister ship, the Voyager II, will follow later that year.
For now, the Bengal Ganga, a lovely teak and brass colonial replica, is transporting our group of travel professionals in more modest style, acquainting us with the shore excursions and fine cuisine that will be offered to future passengers on the Voyager. From my perch looking out on the Ganges, simple villages rim the shoreline, Hindu temples poke up from the treetops and women in colorful saris descend steps into the river to bathe and wash clothes.
This is daily life in India—away from the chaos of the cities, the density of its people, the endless honking of car horns. All I hear is the sound of the wind, children shouting to us from the shore and faint Hindu prayers broadcast from distant villages. This is the India I’ve come to see and this is the India that Haimark’s Ganges Voyager will offer its passengers. It’s a window into India’s river villages and colonial towns, as enchanting as the Ganges herself.
The Ganges River–Ganga in Hindi– is 1,500 miles long and flows from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. Its river basin is one of the most fertile and densely populated regions in the world, and its water is the lifeblood of more than 600 million people in India and Bangladesh. Farmers depend on the river for their crops. Millions depend on its water for washing, cooking, and drinking. And many worship the Ganges as a goddess, whose waters will cleanse them of sin and help them attain salvation by carrying their ashes to heaven. The Mother Ganga, as she is called, is a magnet that pulls her people and whether it’s sunrise or sunset, they come. It’s like no other river in the world.
Surprisingly, the only commercial vessel on the river is the one I’m on. As we sail past fields of jute, sugar cane, banana trees and tumeric, we share the river with the occasional ferry, transporting villagers to the distant shore. Raj Singh, owner of the Bengal Ganga and Haimark’s India-based partner in the Ganges Voyager, explained why.
“We’ve pioneered cruising on the Ganges after two hundred years. After the railroad came into India in the 1800′s, transportation shifted and almost all river navigation disappeared.” But that is about to change. With support of the government of India, Singh’s India-based company, Heritage River Cruises, will be operating and managing the new Ganges Voyager for Haimark.
“People said cruising the Ganges couldn’t be done. Water levels were too low and currents were too strong. There are so many misconceptions about it that we had to work against,” continued Singh. Sophisticated navigational systems and government monitoring of river depths has changed all that. “But what makes this river unlike any other in the world,” Singh told Travel World News, “is its religious character as a Mother Goddess, a symbol of life.” Not only does the river have spiritual significance, it has historic, natural and agricultural significance as well, all explored on an eight-day Voyager cruise.
The Ganges Voyager is a 28-suite 56-passenger ship scheduled to sail in January 2015. The first luxury vessel of its kind in India, the Voyager’s ambiance reflects the grandeur of India’s British Colonial past. The promotional catalog for the ship, now being built in the shipyards of Kolkata, is filled with color photographs reflecting the grace and style of this classic, though thoroughly modern, vessel. Well-appointed suites rival the luxuries offered in the finest hotels in India with spacious rooms, flat-screen televisions, spa-quality robes and bath amenities, fine bed linens and a pillow menu.
The elegance of colonial India is reflected in The Maharaja Suite, the most luxurious on board, offering over 400 square feet of cruising grandeur with floor to ceiling doors opening to a balcony, daily butler service and in-room dining. The Viceroy Suite, also furnished in opulent traditional Indian decor offers 360 square feet of living space also including a French balcony and a spacious spa-like bath. The Heritage Suite, located at the bow of the upper deck is 280 square feet, with unparalleled views of the river landscape from its balcony. An exquisite hand-carved four-poster bed and luxurious seating add to the refined nobility of this suite. The Colonial and Signature Suites offer more than 260 square feet of living space, perfect retreats after a day’s activities. The Voyager‘s Spa facilities and fitness center are both state of the art. Imagine a morning’s run on a treadmill while watching out the window as local women collect their holy water and toss marigolds into the river.
Haimark’s Culinary Director, New Zealand-based Chef Jorg Penneke, has created a menu to satisfy even the most discerning palate. Breakfast and lunch are sumptuous buffets, with dinner a multi-course formal meal with elegant table service. Dinners start with freshly baked naan bread, one of many delicacies that emerge from the ship’s bakery. Appetizer selections are both Indian and western, including samosas (traditional homemade Indian pastries stuffed with curried vegetables), as well as pears marinated in white wine and anise. Main course entrees include grilled salmon filet with sauteed leek, pistachio risotto and mango ginger salsa or lamb shanks osso bucco style, braised with tomatoes and herbs, served with polenta. The dessert menu includes international cheese board selections, plus a western and Indian dessert. Local beer and spirits are complimentary. The Voyager kitchen has a water purification system that is used for all cooking. Clients can be assured that they can enjoy gourmet dining without any worry.
Though time on board can be pampering and relaxing, the shore excursions are the highlights of the day. Usually following breakfast and lunch, each tour features highlights of the city—or village—we disembark at. A Kolkata city tour includes a visit to Mother Teresa’s orphanage and the Victoria Memorial Museum. But when arriving at Kalna, a small river town, bicycle rickshaws are waiting to transport the group to the Rajbari complex, an ancient Hindu temple compound. An excursion to the handicrafts village of Matiari includes a visit to a bazaar to purchase brass and other locally-made items. Our boat docks at Murshidabad where we tour the palace of a thousand doors, the Hazarduari Palace, a dramatic colonial era structure that houses an astounding collection of artwork and antiques. In Chandernagore, an old French colony, we explore the French Governor’s residence, now a museum, and visit an old French bakery that still bakes fresh baguettes each morning. Each day, shore excursions introduce us to another aspect of India’s spiritual life, its daily rituals, its colonial history and architecture.
Pre- and post-cruise extensions are offered to Delhi & Varanasi and The Golden Triangle of Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. In Delhi, Jaipur and Agra accommodations are at the luxurious Oberoi Hotels. Whether staying at The Oberoi in Delhi, the Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur or the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra, where every room has a view of the Taj Mahal, each hotel is unique in design but consistent in its level of elegance. Prices for the 8-day/7-night cruise begins at $2799pp with pre- and post-cruise extensions starting at $1,199pp.
A sign of growing demand for India’s river cruising, eighteen departures on the Ganges Voyager were sold out in ninety days, contracted as charters by both U.S. and Australian tour operators including Vantage and Travel Indo-China. Six 2015 departure dates remain, to be sold as charters, FIT or FAMs. The Ganges Voyager II, its sister ship, will launch in Fall, 2015 and will be booking on a charter basis in early 2014.
Today Haimark connects all the pieces of the puzzle to make a cruise ship possible. “We’re filling an interesting niche,” Tom Markwell, Haimark’s managing partner and head of sales and marketing told Travel World News. Their third-party product is the fastest and easiest way for a tour operator to grow a destination and diversify their brand.
“The key is, we’re able to deliver a product at a price point that’s profitable,” Markwell said. “Our price allows mainline companies to sell and make money.” And they make it easy. “It’s a turn-key solution,” explained Haimark partner, Marcus Leskovar. “Everything is included in a charter—excursions, food, everything. What’s most important is our ability to partner with any companies to customize product to sell under their own umbrella. It’s an A-Z seamless third-party solution in Asia,” added Leskovar. “We give them the product and manage their risks. That has enabled us to grow. Now we’re the first ones in India to make it possible for large companies to be part of this classic third party arrangement.”
Haimark has been closely aligned with the travel-agent community realizing that travelers don’t book river cruises independently. They offer up to 20 percent commission on groups for their Ganges product though there is a sliding scale from 10-20 percent depending on volume. Haimark products can be booked through Tom Harper Journeys, Lueftner Cruises, Travel Indochina, Scenic Tours, Vantage Deluxe World Travel, and others tour operators.
New for Haimark! For those clients who have always wanted to cruise the Amazon but demand luxury, Haimark has signed a contract to build beyond the rivers of Asia. A yet unnamed luxury vessel will ply the waters of the Peruvian Amazon, operating 6-night round trip sailings from Iquitos. Haimark will be selling on a charter-only basis at this time.
A unique approach to a fascinating destination…the boutique twelve-cabin Mekong Princess, offering a specialized cruise itinerary from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap will visit areas never before explored by cruise operators on the Mekong. Launching in January 2015, the Princess will offer seven-night cruises.