2012 London Olympics: Down the Thames in ‘Spirit’

The main dining cabin of the Spirit of Chartwell river cruiser offers a luxurious way to take in the sights up and down the River Thames.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

As much fun as covering the sporting events of the 2012 London Olympics provides, the side trips for journalists aren’t exactly backbreaking misery, either.

To give media types a chance to explore the British capital by the great waterway coursing through it, they were invited for a lunchtime Thames River cruise on the Spirit of Chartwell. Recently, that luxury river barge served as the official transport for Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Family during the 1,000 vessel regatta that marked the opening of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee.

The Spirit of Chartwell is technically a hotel barge because folks can bunk in the luxurious, wood trimmed state rooms below deck.

It’s owned and operated by the Magna Carta Steamship Company, and it can be rented out for luxury cruises along the Thames. According to Magna Carta, she was designed in the style of the Côte d'Azur Pullman Express de luxe train (ala The Orient-Express). She carries artifacts from that original train and some famous ocean liners.

For the Jubilee celebration, she was specially decorated with layers of festoonery. The Chartwell has been stripped down now and returned to its original calling as a very fancy river-bound hotel and dining venue.

The Chartwell collected its camera and notebook-laden passengers at St. Katherine’s Pier near the Tower of London and almost directly under the Tower Bridge with its special Five Rings Olympic adornment.

While passengers sip champagne, she cruises first under Tower Bridge and past the HMS Belfast (now a floating museum), The Shard (the tallest building in Europe) and the headquarters for MI6. I made sure to wave to M as I passed.

The Chartwell then turns with slow grace and heads back down river past its origin point and down through the stylish burgh of Greenwich and the famous Cutty Sark – now a newly refurbished floating museum. Finally, she comes about again and returns to her St. Katherine’s Dock home where her passengers can take more photos of Tower Bridge and disembark back toward the Tower of London and the rest of their UK day.

Many of the travel-themed press trips scheduled during these Olympics were intended to promote a certain region or activity – such as trips to Dorset, Bristol, Nottinghamshire and Oxford. The regional tourist authorities in all of those areas welcomed the chance to bring in journalists from around the world who were already in the country for the Olympics to check out their local wares and attractions.

But the journey aboard the Sprit of Chartwell was a pure celebration and a bit of media-friendly indulgence. The staffs for VisitEngland and a few Olympic officials were on hand to enjoy the afternoon and catch their breath a bit as the London 2012 fortnight arrived at its halfway point.

The food – Beef Wellington, of course, followed by chocolates and various deserts – was perfectly paired with the right local wines (as the UK is starting to muscle its way into the vino world). The Thames provided a complete overview of British weather, with everything from sun to rain to thick clouds and occasional choppy wind greet the Chartwell. It was a quick education on what a powerful churning beast the Thames can be.

But, the vessel shook it all off without a care, carrying a very happy cargo through a celebration of Great Britain and its Olympic Games.