Varuna's shore excursions -- sometimes up to three short trips per day -- are a highlight, taking passengers from the midst of bustling cities to remote areas only accessible from the Ganges. In addition to the G Adventures' CEO, each trip is accompanied by an expert historian (ours had an encyclopaedic knowledge on every subject he spoke about) and naturalist, both of whom stay on the ship for the entire cruise. Some tours are also supplemented by local guides. Traveling in such a small group, passengers are totally immersed in Indian culture and will pick up a wealth of in-depth knowledge that far exceeds the amount of information provided by the majority of mainstream river cruises.
Tours are a combination of coach trips followed by walking tours to temples, palaces, mosques, gardens and other places of interest, and walking tours of villages next to where the ship is moored. The latter usually involves a short ride to the shore on Varuna's tender. In remote villages, where tourists are a rarity, passengers can expect to be followed in Pied Piper-fashion by curious small children. In larger towns, they will be asked to pose for selfies by teenagers and adults or attract good-natured stares and shy waves from others who are unused to seeing anyone from outside their own country.
Passengers need to be prepared for the fact that timetables can be changed due to weather conditions, sometimes starting early to avoid the heat of the day, and longer trips will probably not run to time due to delays on the often congested roads (in India people always talk about the length of time a journey might take rather than its length in miles). This should all be viewed as part of the adventure.
Some tours involve a fair amount of walking, which is always outlined in the previous day's briefing. However, if passengers have mobility issues, the CEO will organize transport on a tuk-tuk -- the Asian motorized scooter -- where practical.
Excursions are flexible and personalized, so if passengers spot something they want to see along the way, this will be accommodated if possible. For example, one day of our cruise coincided with a women's festival and the tender boat made a detour so we could stop off and go see it.
Complimentary bottled water is provided on shore excursions.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
On off-the-beaten-track expedition-style river cruises, there is even less organized entertainment than cruises in popular destinations such as Europe. The ever-changing scenery and shore excursions are the main attraction on the Varuna.
After we commented on the intricate napkins and the tasty onboard cuisine, the cruise manager organized an impromptu napkin folding class with a cooking class, complete with a printed recipe to take home, the following morning. Another day our CEO did henna hand painting in return for a donation to Planeterra.
On some nights, unannounced surprise acts come aboard to perform on the Sun Deck before dinner. During our cruise, they included a magic act from a local teenager training to be an engineer. He originally stood by the dockside in Murshidabad doing magic tricks for Varuna passengers in exchange for "selfies." This proved so popular that the ship invited him to perform onboard. At another port of call, a troupe of Indian musicians and dancers performed traditional and contemporary song and dance routines.
On other evenings, Bollywood films and documentaries on India were screened in the saloon.
There are no set onboard lectures or workshops. However, the CEO hosts a daily port talk and the Varuna's informal atmosphere means that the expert guide and naturalist, who also join passengers for meals, are always happy to answer specific questions or talk at length about any topics of interest.
Saloon (Deck 2): The main lounge is situated forward on the Upper Deck and is also home to Varuna's inside bar. It is a lovely area, and the internal heart of the ship. A small rectangular bar, with three stools, is situated in one corner of the room and remains open until the last passengers go to bed (which is usually not very late after a day of sightseeing). The bar menu is fairly priced with Kingfisher beer costing IND200 ($3) for a 330ml bottle or IND300 ($4.60) for a refreshingly large 650ml bottle. Indian Sula Chenin Blanc white wine or red shiraz (described as an unpretentious wine from the vineyards of Maharashtra for everyday drinking) is IND1,500 ($23) per bottle and very palatable. Australian Jacob's Creek chardonnay or shiraz costs IND2,000 ($31). Cocktails, such as bloody mary, Cuba libre, cosmopolitan, pina colada and screwdriver, are all IND450 ($7), with sodas, mixers and juice all at IND100 ($1.50). Spirits -- whiskey, vodka, gin, brandy and rum -- are all 250 ($3.90) for a single 30ml measure or IND400 ($6.25) for 60ml doubles. Tequila is IND300 ($4.60) for 30ml and 550 ($8.60) for a double shot. There is no automatic gratuity on the prices. Passengers sign a tab each time they order a drink and the bar bill is totalled up at the end of the cruise.
With its panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking across the front of the room, the lounge is a perfect spot to watch the world float past in air-conditioned comfort. And if you need to take a photo, you can slide open the window and step outside. Both side walls have two large picture windows. The saloon reflects the tranquil decor of the rest of the ship with its wooden walls and polished teak floor. There are comfy rattan armchairs and sofas with cushions -- enough to accommodate all passengers -- which are surrounded by small circular rattan tables and larger glass-topped tables set out with coffee table books about India and its wildlife. There are lush potted plants and the walls are decorated with wood carvings, historic illustrations, pictures of birdlife and a large map of India. Next to the entrance is a bookcase with books about India and the Ganges, novels set in India and general fiction that can be borrowed by passengers for the duration of the cruise, along with packs of cards. (For passengers who want to carry on reading about India at home, both G Adventures and the ship provide a suggested reading list.)
The lounge also has a flat-screen TV set on the wall, which is used to screen films and documentaries, and a music system. There is also a writing table and chair.
Sun Deck Bar (Deck 3): The small alfresco bar behind the wheelhouse serves complimentary tea, coffee and cookies during the day and sundowners in the evening. The bar menu is the same as the one in the saloon.
The gorgeous Sun Deck covering most of the topmost deck is a standout feature. The gleaming teak deck is edged with potted plants and set out with more than enough cushioned rattan loungers, chairs and small tables, both in the shade and sun, to accommodate all the passengers and never feels crowded. Tip: The best spots are the two pairs of loungers tucked away in the shady area at either side of the wheelhouse, which are fanned by a breeze as the ship sails along the river.
The Varuna does not have a gym or any other fitness facilities, but the large Sun Deck is ideal for stretching, tai chi and yoga and some passengers head there early in the morning for their preferred form of exercise.
The ship does not have a dedicated reception area, but a "farewell" and "welcome" party -- comprising the manager and members of the crew -- line up when passengers embark and disembark the vessel from Main Deck. At the beginning of shore excursions, they collect cabin keys, hand out complimentary 500ml bottles of water and, if required, umbrellas and stand on the deck waving everyone away. On return, they will be waiting back in line to return cabin keys and give out cold towels and a complimentary soft drink, usually a juice. Passengers are requested to take off their shoes on return for the free shoe cleaning service. Within around 15 minutes, shoes are back outside the cabin door.
The cruise manager's office is situated at the front of the Main Deck, where there is also a bathroom.
Two small display cases are located on the Sun Deck and are stocked with locally made souvenirs including intricate tooled leather purses, priced at IND600 ($9.50), and jute shawls costing IND1,800 ($28), along with items of jewelry, ornaments of elephants and other creatures plus postcards and stamps (opportunities to buy postcards ashore are very limited). The shop is staffed by the bartender and items can be purchased at any time of day and added to the onboard account. Postcards can also be handed in at the bar for posting. A limited choice of batteries, toothpaste and other items can be purchased from the cruise manager.
Complimentary Wi-Fi is available in the lounge, generally from 6:30 to 10 a.m. and 6 to 10 p.m., and on the Sun Deck from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (the mobile hot spot device is moved between the two). Connectivity was patchy at times and sometimes nonexistent. It was generally better when the ship was moored in port rather than sailing. It is possible to rent an internet wireless data card for IND600 ($9.50) for 60 minutes use, which can be used on passengers' laptops or the computer inside the cruise manager's office. Due to the remote nature of the cruises, Wi-Fi cannot be guaranteed. Note: There is mobile phone coverage throughout the region, but service providers do not have roaming agreements with any overseas networks.
Cleaning and ironing services are available for a very reasonable fee. The price for laundry ranges from INR 10 ($15 cents) for a handkerchief, INR 20 ($30 cents) for a pair of socks and INR 40 ($60 cents) for underwear to INR 120 ($1.80) for a pair of pants. Items can be left in a bag in the cabin for collection and are normally returned on the same day. The ship describes its laundry dhobi as overzealous with the tendency to iron absolutely everything! So, if you do not want something pressed you need to let him know.
The Varuna has no elevator and all three passenger decks are accessed by rather steep sets of stairs. The ship carries first aid equipment and basic medicines
Smoking is only allowed outside on the upper Sun Deck.
The Nirvaana Spa is located forward on the Main Deck (deck 1). With bamboo walls, shelves of products and ornaments, a row of different colored gowns and photographs of therapies, it is a very pleasant area and far more than just a cabin set aside for massage services. A total of 12 treatments are available, including Swedish massage, a mint and camphor foot spa (refreshing after sightseeing trips) and traditional treatments such as Indian head massage. The price structure is uncomplicated and fees start from IND1,200 ($18) for six of the treatments on offer, such as foot reflexology, head massage, the foot spa or a pressure point massage for the hands or feet, all lasting 30 minutes, or a 45-minute facial. A 45-minute full back massage is priced at IND1,500 ($23.50) and a 45-minute neck, back, head and shoulder massage is IND1,800 ($28). The signature 100-minute "Triple Delight" is priced at IND3,000 ($46) and comprises a full body massage, facial massage and head massage. Appointments can be booked through the ship manager.
There is no gym and the ship does not carry onboard bicycles.
Cruises are adult-only (18 years and older), and Varuna does not cater to children.