The Varuna is owned and operated by Assam Bengal Navigation, the first company to set up long-distance cruising in India, and chartered for up to 75 percent of the time by Canadian-based tour operator G Adventures.
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With a shallow draft designed to navigate the twists and turns of the Lower Ganges, the 24-passenger Varuna is an intimate vessel that offers high levels of comfort for passengers that want to explore India's most celebrated and mystical waterway. Compared with the number of ships now sailing on the Mekong through Vietnam and Cambodia and along Myanmar's Irrawaddy, the Ganges is the least well-known of Asia's exotic rivers and Assam Bengal Navigation owns two of only five ships offering cruises on the Ganges.
It offers a totally authentic experience for passengers that want to venture off tried and tested tourist routes in an ethical way that doesn't have any detrimental impact on some of the remote places that are visited. For example, passengers are requested not to give money, pens or other items to children who have no concept of the begging culture in India's larger cities. Instead, they are asked to talk to the guide about giving a single donation to the village "headman" or school, or support G Adventures' Planeterra initiative. This is a nonprofit foundation created to make a positive difference in communities visited on the itinerary through building sustainable social and environmental solutions to combat poverty.
Furnishings onboard Varuna have been hand-woven by Bodo tribal villagers and also use laminated bamboo to conserve India's forests. The rattan chairs in cabins and public areas are also made in the region. Passengers are encouraged to embrace ecological awareness by reusing towels and refilling their water bottles from the supply of clean drinking water carried onboard.
The ship, which has traditional teak decks throughout, was originally called Sukapha, after the first king of the state of Assam. This remains its registered name, which is written on the side. When it was first chartered by G Adventures the name was unofficially changed to Varuna, after the Hindu god of sky and water, and this is the moniker under which the ship is marketed.
Culture, genuine experiences and food are the main themes of the sailings. Aside from breakfast items such as cereal, omelets and toast, the buffet-style meals all feature freshly prepared regional cuisine, which is tasty, spicy but not overly hot.
With as many, if not more, crew members than passengers (there were just seven on our sailing) the level of service is outstanding. Unlike cruise lines where multinational crew members go through corporate training programs or might have previously worked in hotels, Assam Bengal Navigation has opted to benefit one of India's least developed areas by recruiting local villagers and training staff from scratch, rather than bringing in fully trained crew members from elsewhere. In an embarkation letter from the cruise manager, passengers are asked to help them overcome any "temporary rough edges" if there are any. There was certainly no need on our cruise as the members of staff were all delightful with ever-present smiles and eager to please. Indeed, they were a major contributory factor in making the cruise so memorable.
The main public areas on the ship are a spacious lounge, dining room and large, shaded Sun Deck that provides uninterrupted views of the passing scenery.
The Varuna sails on three G Adventures' Ganges itineraries -- 9, 12 and 16 days -- from January to the end of April and July to December.
G Adventures has its headquarters in Toronto and offices in the U.K. and Australia so the majority of passengers come from these core countries, with around 60 percent coming from the U.K. The cruises also attract passengers from other English-speaking countries, such as New Zealand, along with folks from mainland Europe, including Germany and Scandinavia. G Adventures does not penalize solo travelers with single supplements; instead passengers traveling alone will be paired in a cabin with someone of their own gender. (If they wish to have a cabin to themselves they can opt for the "My Own Room" option at a higher fare). As a result, singles are never likely to be in the minority (three out of the seven passengers on our cruise were solo travelers). The company also attracts a very wide age demographic from 18 to people in their 80s or sometimes older. The main requirement is to have a sense of adventure and be reasonably fit.
Varuna Dress Code
There is no dress code and casual, informal clothing is the norm both onboard and ashore. The most important thing is to bring practical, comfortable clothing according to the season. During the cooler months -- October to April -- it can sometimes get chilly on the Sun Deck in the evening so pack layers or something warm. During the day, breathable, loose cotton clothes are ideal as temperatures can be very warm and humid. Women should remember to dress modestly for temple visits, so bring clothes that cover the shoulders and knees as a mark of respect. In some temples long pants -- covering ankles-- are required for both men and women. Rubber-soled shoes and flip-flops are ideal for wearing around the ship. Comfortable sneakers or shoes are best for shore excursions as many surfaces are uneven. This is particularly important during the monsoon season -- July to September -- when sudden showers can make conditions underfoot muddy and slippery. It is also advisable to bring a light rain jacket or waterproof poncho. Visitors have to remove shoes when going inside temples, so on the days of these visits it is best to wear slip-ons or shoes that can easily be removed.
The top deck is ideal for sunbathing in hot weather; however, passengers should note that if they are wearing bathing costumes or other types of swimwear, they should not be visible from the shore. Sunglasses and headgear are a must (although umbrellas are freely available from the ship and are also ideal to use as parasols to shade from the sun as well protection from the wet during rain showers).
The fares include all meals and snacks, drinks on return from shore excursions, unlimited bottled water and tea and coffee with meals and throughout the day. Fares cover arrival transfers from the airport to the hotel used for the first night, internal transfers and all excursions. Cruises begin and end with a complimentary welcome and farewell cocktail.
Gratuities are not included in the fare and the recommended guideline is $10 per passenger, per day, which is divided equally between all the crew members. A separate tip is recommended for the G Adventures' CEO (Chief Experience Officer) at a rate of $20 to $30 per passenger, per week. At the end of the cruise, envelopes for gratuities are left in the cabin and can be placed in a box at the reception desk. Passengers are not encouraged to tip individual members of the crew directly. Gratuities can be paid in rupee, U.S. dollars, British pounds, euros or any other major currency. The cruise manager will advise of the conversion rate on that day so the appropriate amount can be left. Tips can also be added to the onboard account and settled by credit card. There is no gratuity on drinks or spa services.
If you have a local guide or driver on a shore excursion, you are advised to tip the equivalent of $2 to $5 per person in local currency. The CEO will provide specific advice.
The onboard currency is the Indian rupee (IND) and onboard accounts can be settled in cash at the end of the cruise or by Visa or Mastercard. Note: American Express is not accepted.
The ship does not offer money changing services, but there are ATMs in ports of call and the CEO will point these out if required. Travelers' checks can only be exchanged (and very slowly) at the State Bank of India in Kolkata.
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