Whenever I encounter someone who proclaims, "I love to travel but I wouldn't be caught dead on a cruise ship!!" my response is, "I have a ship for you!" Then I steer them towards small ships where they will encounter nary a typical cruise ship activity like formal nights, floor shows, discos, assigned seating, art auction, etc. As the president of Windstar Cruises once told me, "our most popular activity is conversation."
While the behemoths make the news -- "bigger is better!" -- small cruise ships carrying 200 and fewer passengers deserve special praise. They are perfect for those seeking an up-close look at nature, the most exotic itineraries, unspoiled ports where the big ships can't visit and greater camaraderie with other passengers and crew. Aboard these ships you frequently find guest lecturers and very knowledgeable staff offering in-depth information about the unique flora, fauna and marine life outside the ship.
If Alaska beckons and your heart is set on an up-close experience with mother nature, your odds increase dramatically when cruising aboard a small vessel. However, since Cruise West went under last year, the pickings are slim.
The Small Ship Experience:
The major on-board activity aboard a small ship is conversation. The only time I really get to know fellow passengers is aboard small ships because, with single open seating dining and typically one lounge, there are none of the diversions one finds aboard a conventional cruise ship. Packing is easy, since standard attire is L.L. Bean or Land's End.
But the main reason for taking a small ship is discovering the few remaining places on earth untouched by tourism; many of them are only accessible by small ship. For example, interested in visiting Greenland? Hurtigruten (formerly Norwegian Coastal Voyage) visits the island plus both the North and South Poles.
Note: while the luxury cruise lines Seabourn and Silverseas Cruises operated small cruise ships, they aren't on this list due to formal dress policy.
Top Small Ship Cruise Lines
American Cruise Lines. Cruising regions include historic New England, the Hudson River, Antebellum South, Chesapeake Bay, great rivers of Florida and the coast of Maine. The America-flagged fleet includes four vessels -- the American Star, Eagle, Glory and Spirit -- all carrying fewer than 200 passengers. Aboard each cruise are "enlighteners" -- naturalists, historians and other experts -- who also lead shore excursions. Most cabins have private balconies with television, several lounges and an all-American crew.
American Safari Cruises. If you've always dreamed of owning a private yacht, this cruise line may be for you. The 12-passenger Safari Spirit and Safari Escape cruise in Alaska from May to September then reposition to Mexico's Sea of Cortes. Or, opt for the 22-passenger Safari Quest or 36-passenger Safari Explorer which also sail in Alaskan waters and make fall wine cruises. These are luxury yachts with naturalists onboard, kayaks and water sports equipment.
Celebrity Xpedition. The mainstream cruise company Celebrity Cruises operates one tiny vessel, the 90-passenger Celebrity Xpedition, on year-round Galapagos itineraries. Devoted to exploring the Galapagos' unique flora and fauna, passengers hop on and off the vessel into zodiacs for excursions ashore lead by naturalists.
Lindblad Expeditions. Lars-Eric Lindblad set out with his first expedition in the late 1950's and his son Sven-Olaf Lindblad runs the operations today. Lindblad and the National Geographic Society partnered to create some of the best, most exotic cruises on earth lead by top professionals. Cruising regions cover the entire globe, from Alaska to Antarctica, Europe, the Nile River, Central America and South America. Ships include the 148-passenger National Geographic Explorer and Endeavour, Sea Bird and Sea Lion, Polaris, National Geographic Islander, Sea Voyager, the elegant tall ships Sea Cloud II and Panorama, the River Cloud, Triton (a Nile river boat) and Lord of the Glens for visiting Scotland's locks.
Hurtigruten. Formerly Norwegian Coastal Voyages, this cruise line has grown from Norwegian coastal ferries to hearty expedition cruises in Spitsbergen, Greenland and Antarctica plus a world cruise with stops in exotic ports of call, including Antarctica. There are nine ships in Hurtigruten's fleet, all modern and comfortable, with lounges, cafes and a restaurant. Theme cruises include a killer whale safari, opera, folklore and culinary cruises, and stays at the Alta Igloo Hotel made completely of ice.
Swan Hellenic This British company has has offered cruises and travel excursions for 50 years to travelers who want the most in-depth visit to a port that is possible. The 350-passenger Minerva cruises in Europe, the Baltic, Asia, India and the middle-east. Think polished wood bar and country house, pre-dinner martinis and lectures by the top experts in their field. It's also a good value: the fare includes shore excursions and gratuities.
SeaDream Yacht Club Now we're getting into my idea of the ultimate fantasy cruise. The two small cruise ships -- Seadream 1 and 11 -- carry 56 couples and 95 crew, visit the most exclusive ports on earth, and boast incredible cuisine and pampering. But unlike the other luxury cruise ships (Silversea, Regent, Seabourn) passengers don casual clothes and trade floor shows and casinos for a mellow piano bar. In the winter, the two yachts sail in the British Virgin Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, Windward and Leeward Islands and then head for the Mediterranean and a season in the Aegean and Adriatic Sea. In a previous life, the ships were SeaGoddess vessels, considered the ultimate luxury cruising experience.
Quark Expeditions. The ultimate in adventure cruising, Quark's ex-Soviet ice breakers plow deep into the Arctic Circle and Antarctica for those who want to venture where no one else can go. The company also offers soft adventure cruising aboard the Clipper Adventurer, a small ship with more creature comforts.
Windstar Cruises The two 148-passenger ships Wind Star and Wind Spirit and larger Wind Surf, carrying 312, are motorized sailboats (i.e., small cruise ships with sails). In the Caribbean you'll visit some ports you never heard of, and in Europe, the chicest spots typically frequented by private yacht. The style is casual and laid back, the cabins comfortable and the food exquisite. One of my best memories is dining under the stars on steak and lobster off the coast of Bodrum, Turkey.
While I love small ships, they're not for everyone. Can you imagine yourself aboard one of these smaller vessels?