Category Archives: Semester at Sea

SEMESTER AT SEA Study Abroad: Ship Life


If you’ve never lived on a ship for nearly four months, you would think I’m crazy when I say I prefer “ship life” to “land life”, but it’s true.

They can’t keep me away. After sailing as a student on the Spring 2011 study abroad academic voyage, I then sailed again on the May 2013 Enrichment Voyage around Northern Europe last year!

I am a Semester at Sea fanatic and my hope is that by sharing my knowledge and experience with SAS, I can convince some of you to sail around the world too.

Ocean view from the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

A big part of the Semester at Sea experience is SHIP LIFE.

The MV Explorer, the current ship in use by the study abroad program known as Semester at Sea, has been transporting students around the world since 2004. The current ship is the fifth floating university since the program first began 50 years ago in 1963.

MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

While the ship is not the most massive cruise ship you’ll ever come across, it is a perfect size for international travel. For example, we were the largest ship ever able to enter the Amazon River, a milestone that occurred for the first time during my Spring 2011 voyage.

The ship is made up of six accessible decks (Deck 2 – Deck 7) with the bottom three decks being strictly residential.

A Deck 2 Outside Cabin on the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

View from a Deck 2 Porthole on the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

Here is a brief description of Decks 5-7.

Deck 5: Dining room (a large buffet dining setting with inside seating only); Tymitz Square (a good meeting area that is equivalent to a student center — with an activities desk and Purser’s desk); Staff offices (like the Executive and Academic Deans).

Deck 6: Garden Lounge (a casual buffet dining setting with inside and outside seating); Two campus stores (one with SAS-themed attire and the other with school supplies and hygiene products); Library; Computer lounge; Piano lounge (a hang-out spot for students); the Union (a large lecture hall); and a dozen or so classrooms.

Deck 7: Pool and recreation deck; outside fitness center with free weight machines; inside fitness center with treadmills, bikes, and ellipticals; wellness center that offers (for a fee) hair & nail services, massages, waxing, a sauna, and more; Glazer lounge (the faculty lounge off-limits to students during academic voyages).

MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

The ship itself is impeccably clean both inside and out. It is taken care of by the incredible crew, which is managed by V.Ships, the largest supplier of ship management in the world.

I truly have nothing but praise for the endless hard work that is showcased by the MV Explorer’s crew, who are usually seen with a big genuine smile. Shout-out to my favorites — the Jamaicans, Peter and Jerry!

My favorite crew member, Jamaican Peter, on the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

Extracurricular Activities include…

– Intramural sports (like basketball and volleyball)

– Group exercise (like yoga, zumba, P90x, and more)

– Musical groups, dance groups, theater groups

– Spiritual and religious services

– Model UN

– Greek clubs (fraternities and sororities)

– LGBTQA club

– and a LOT more…

Basically if you have a skill or interest you would like to share with others, you can create a club or meeting. For example, Cherie King of the Travel Bee, was a deaf student from Idaho during my voyage and she taught American Sign Language to students interested in learning.

Students onboard the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from the Spring 2011 Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

There are always many things going on around the ship. Daily announcements are made by…

“The Voice”: a selected staff-member that reminds the shipboard community of activities and usually with a corny joke thrown in there for good measure. I can’t believe I actually miss being woken up by the ding-ding-ding-ding each morning.

Preport: A meeting held in the Union (and also broadcasted on the TVs in each cabin and some public areas like the Piano Lounge) that covers useful information for each port the evening before arrival. An example of what pre-port covers would include: helpful phrases in the local language, currency exchange, location of highlights to see and explore, cultural norms, history as well as recent news in the country, etc.

A world map from the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

Sea Olympics: This fun day takes place during a day-off from classes usually taking place around the time the ship crosses the equator. The residential areas of the ship are split into seas — Aegean Sea (the best), Mediterranean Sea, Baltic Sea, Red Sea, and so on.

The Aegean Sea at the Spring 2011 Sea Olympics of Semester at Sea via

A committee, which you can join early on in the semester, organizes the variety of competitions to be held throughout the day. Some students even choose to shave their heads in celebration of crossing the equator, a tradition established by the Navy.

I participated in the Synchronized Swimming event and had a total blast making a fool of myself with 5 of my friends as we choreographed a dance to 90s hits like Britney and N’Sync. Our 6am practice for over a week paid off and we came in 2nd place.

SAS Sea Olympics onboard the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

Extended Families: Nearly the entire ship community signs up to be placed into dozens of “families”. The groups organize events like family dinners, in-port activities, after-port reflection and discussion, etc.

Part of Bonnie Fletcher's Extended Family on the Spring 2011 Semester at Sea voyage in Stellenbosch, South Africa via

I have remained close with my “SAS-mom”, Bonnie. We have gone to see the Backstreet Boys in concert, to Disneyland, to Semester at Sea events toether and more. The Extended Families program introduces you to new shipmates you may have never met otherwise and I definitely appreciate the relationships I formed through participating.

Education: Oh yeah, that thing we all came here for. The academic opportunities offered by Semester at Sea are incomparable. Being that SAS is sponsored by the University of Virginia, the academic aspect is top-knotch.

Classroom on the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

Classes are intimate, with most containing less than 40 students. Class is only held when the ship is at-sea, never when the ship is in-port. Time in each country is reserved for field-practicum, Semester at Sea trips, and independent travel. You literally never stop learning from the moment you step on the ship.

Highlights of my academic journey…

I experienced an overnight with a South African family in their township home.

I learned about the history of China while standing ON the Great Wall.

Alexa Rae Johnson on the Great Wall of China during the Spring 2011 Semester at Sea voyage via

One afternoon I stared up in disbelief at the Taj Mahal. The next morning I watched the sun rise from a boat on the Ganges in Varanasi, where I observed Hindu pilgrims bathe themselves in their holy water.

A boy rowing on the River Ganges in Varanasi, India taken during Spring 2011 Semester at Sea voyage by Alexa Rae Johnson via

I waved back and forth with tribal locals on the Amazon, rowing in their canoe-like boats while trying to keep up with the speed of the MV.

I held the hands of Ghanian orphans while we taught each other games and songs.

I learned how to barter at Cambodian and Vietnamese markets.

You simply cannot beat the education you will receive on Semester at Sea. It provides knowledge that is just not accessible through a textbook or hour-long PowerPoint in a classroom at your home campus.


Lastly, you need to know the official RULES to being a member of the shipboard community:

1) It’s a VOYAGE, not a cruise.

2) It’s a SHIP, not a boat.


If you’re a Semester at Sea alumni, what was YOUR favorite thing about ship life?

And if you’re a prospective student and have any questions about ship life, feel free to ask them below!

Penguin Colony at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town, South Africa

Penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town outside of Capetown, South Africa via

I’d first heard about the penguin colony in South Africa via Pinterest. You’re probably thinking… wait a second, is that even real?! Do penguins really hang out on the sunny beaches of AFRICA? Turns out it is very real. Penguins have been migrating to these particular southern shores since the 1980s.

Naturally I had to go see for myself.

Penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town outside of Capetown, South Africa via

(Heads up: excuse the less than fantastic photos — these were taken with a sad little point-and-shoot nearly 3 years ago)

Penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town, South Africa via

So this is how the beginning of the day went:

On my one free day in Capetown during the spring of 2011 I made plans with my new friend Rachel to take a train out to Simon’s Town in search of those adorable, tuxedoed Antarctic natives. Rachel and I had met only a couple days before when we were put together as “sisters” for a stay with a host family at a township outside of Capetown.

While we were grabbing breakfast onboard the MV Explorer we ran into Jonathan, a guy I had never met before but who was interested in seeing the penguins also, and we felt it wouldn’t hurt to have a guy apart of our group — it turns out this serendipitous meeting would later become one of the best things to ever happen to me, because Jonathan helped save my life this same evening, but more on that later.

The three of us started out at the Capetown train station where we bought round-trip tickets to Simon’s Town.

Timetable at Capetown Train Station in South Africa via ZaagiTravel.comWe boarded the train and off we went, on our quest to be as close to the south pole as any of us had ever been — not that we were close, but we were in the southern hemisphere and that itself was cool.

Out the window of the train we could view breath-taking landscapes at every turn.

Out the window of the train heading to Simon's Town, South Africa via

We arrived and began leisurely walking towards Boulders Beach, stopping to get ice cream and look inside shops along the way.

After crossing the street and strolling along the wooden boardwalk we came to a viewing area where we could see the penguins, who shook themselves free of water and waddled toward us.

Penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town outside of Capetown, South Africa via

We turned and walked back the way we came to see if we could find another place to view these little guys.

Penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town, South Africa via

Down one of the paths we came across a protected beach which required an entrance fee. We paid the fee, bought ourselves a South African “Iron Brew” soda, and started down the walkway towards the sand.

Drinking an Iron Brew Soda While Penguin Watching at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town, South Africa via ZaagiTravel.comI rolled up the ends of my jeans and waded into the water. With a few quick maneuvers I climbed up onto a rock next to a group of the penguins and sat there for ten minutes, enjoying the view and the good vibes.

Penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town outside of Capetown, South Africa via

Penguins at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town, South Africa via

After leaving the penguins we headed back to the Simon’s Town train station in order to catch the last train back to our ship in Capetown…

Walking back to the train in Simon's Town, South Africa via

We were completely unaware that I was about to encounter a near-death experience — check back later this week for that story!

In Search of the Big Buddha: Lantau Island, Hong Kong

The giant Buddha and monastery on Lantau Island near Hong Kong is a captivating sight. It’s easy to feel entranced by the misty allure that surrounds the meditating statue. The Buddha sits on top of a lush mountain bordered by velvety emerald water; his open-facing palms deliver a message of balance and tranquility.

I had a mere 24 hours to spend in Hong Kong. Visiting Buddha was an obvious choice. Getting there… now that was a different story.


It was the first day of April. I struggled to wake up after one of the roughest night at sea. I’d been living on the MV Explorer for nearly three months, sailing around South America, Africa, and Asia on a study abroad program called Semester at Sea.

Sitting up, I stretched my arms up above my head leaning side to side and glancing out the porthole.

Outside stood an army of high-rise buildings, swimming in misty fog.

Good morning, Hong Kong.

I threw on a pair of jeans and a cozy sweater and ran out the door, down the hall, and straight to cabin #2003. I pounded on the door with both fists until the door swung open seconds later. My shipmate and friend, Anna Christina, smiled back at me. She was ready to go.


As we bought our tickets for the Star Ferry that would take us across Victoria Harbour we met up with Jonathan, the guy who helped save my life in South Africa weeks prior (don’t worry, I’ll address this in a future blog post).


It was quite the complicated journey. We began in Kowloon, where the MV Explorer was docked. First we took the Star Ferry to the MTR subway. Then it was on to Tung Chung station. Then, after a 45 minute wait, Jonathan, Anna Christina and I boarded a Ngong Ping 360 cable car.

TIP: If you’re not deathly afraid of heights request a cable car with a see-through floor. It offers another extraordinary view of the island and surrounding water.



Gliding over the water towards Lantau Island felt like a dream. We were slowly being drawn towards the large Buddha statue somewhere in the distance.

DSC02137DSC02141We kept our eyes focused on the horizon, waiting to see the bronze statue appear before us.


Finally, we saw it.Buddha on Lantau Island via

Anna Christina and I jumped for joy. Literally.

DSC02158As we walked through the Ngong Ping village we poked our heads into shops and restaurants. A combination of foreign languages and the scent of tea filled the air.


Soon we found ourselves face to face with the largest seated bronze Buddha statue in the world, the Tian Tan Buddha.

DSC02173 The statue, which took 12 years to complete, has been watching over China since 1993. It stands over 110 feet tall and sits at the top of 268 stairs.

DSC02175The top of the stairs offered a vast view of the valley below.

DSC02186Even though finding it wasn’t as simple as we had anticipated, I’m glad that we spent the day trekking around Hong Kong in search of the big Buddha. I would do it again in a heart beat.

I hope to one day return to Hong Kong and have more time to spend exploring some of the other treasures hidden in that misty fog.

Have you been to Hong Kong? What would you recommend to see and do? Comment below and let me know your personal insights.