West Coast Wanderings

Cruise West’s Spirit of Yorktown plies the Napa River

By: Ginger Dingus

There’s something exciting about cruising to a familiar place with an old friend and discovering things you never knew about either of them. In my case, California’s Napa Valley wine country was the place. A small cruise ship was the old friend with a new name: Spirit of Yorktown. She also had a new owner, Cruise West.

Cruise West, best known for soft-adventure cruises in Alaska, acquired the 138-passenger Yorktown Clipper along with the 102-passenger Nantucket Clipper from Clipper Cruise Line in January 2006. The new names, Spirit of Yorktown and Spirit of Nantucket, now appear in brochures.

The two ships were a natural match for Cruise West. In fact, the Spirit of Nantucket was originally built in 1984 as a sister to the line’s Spirit of Endeavour. Meanwhile, Spirit of Yorktown has taken over several of Spirit of Endeavour’s traditional itineraries, offering fall cruises to California’s wine country in 2006 and 2007, and trips to Mexico’s Sea of Cortes in the 2007-2008 winter season. Summers will be spent in Alaska.

I found the Cruise West “up-close, casual and personal” approach to cruising firmly in place during my early November wine cruise, a four-night roundtrip from San Francisco.

The itinerary took us across the San Francisco and San Pablo bays, then up the Napa River, one of only a handful of navigable rivers in California. In fact, this particular trip retraced the route twice, giving passengers double exposure to river cruising and the unique experience of timing the ship’s travels with the tides.

On board Spirit of Yorktown, the all-American crew of 42 provided the personal touch. Even glitches in the galley didn’t dim their friendly smiles and eager-to-please attitudes. Dining, including dinner at tables nicely set with white cloths, was as casual as I have experienced on a ship. Let your clients know that anything goes in the dress department, from jeans to T-shirts to shorts.

Where the line excels is in exploring interesting, but less-traveled ports through specially designed shore excursions included in the fare. In the Napa Valley, we attended a cooking class, as well as a fascinating wine-blending seminar at the Culinary Institute of America. We also enjoyed a delicious lunch with wine at the upscale Auberge du Soleil’s vineyard-view restaurant. In the Sonoma Valley, we indulged in a wine and food pairing at St. Francis Winery that, when available, costs a casual visitor $20. The pairings are a new tasting-room trend.

Though Spirit of Yorktown has the largest passenger capacity in the nine-ship fleet, it is more country inn than resort or even hotel. For those who have traveled on large ships, the small ship experience is a whole new world. There’s nary a pool, whirlpool, gym, spa or casino to be found. There is just one public room, the Observation Lounge. It triples as the bar, library and lecture hall. On sunny days, the Sun Deck provides open-air relaxation.

The 69 cabins come in four categories, ranging in size from about 110-200 square feet. All cabins face the water with some doors opening to an outside deck and others to an interior hallway. The furnishings are no frills, homey and comfortable. Closet space is more than adequate. Bathrooms are the functional, shower-only kind.

A fresh new look is in the works for the Spirit of Yorktown. When the ship emerges from dry dock this spring, cabins will sport new bedding and window blinds. Future plans call for queen beds in a few cabins, creating an option not possible with the original built-in, all-twin bed configuration.

“We are upgrading all of our vessels so they’ll look and feel similar,” said Jan Sheeley, the line’s marketing director.

It’s part of the line’s five-year refurbishing program. TVs may soon join binoculars in Spirit of Yorktown cabins. Stay tuned. v


The 138-passenger, 257-foot-long Spirit of Yorktown is the only ship currently offering California wine country cruises. The three- and four-night cruises sail roundtrip from San Francisco, Sep. 17 to Oct. 19. Prices start at $1,299 for three nights and $1,949 for four nights.
Almost everything is included in the fare, such as most shore excursions, tips to the crew and port charges. No service charge (typically 15 percent) is added to beverages purchased on board. And, there is no corkage fee for wine purchased ashore and enjoyed in the dining room.