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Afraid of Cruising? Smaller Ships Are My Passion

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There is another report of a Mega Cruise ship with power problems (read: bathrooms overflowing, no A/C) in the Gulf of Mexico. This time it is the Carnival Dream with 4200 passengers on board.

In Titanic-scenarios we all wonder if there are enough life boats for all, and now there are (but listing ships are another problem). This time I immediately think of the small St. Maarten airport and wonder how you could funnel 4200 weary travelers home from there?

The bottom line is if you are cruising on a city-size ship, it will take more than a village to save you from many days at sea under possible adverse conditions. And this is the problem we have seen with apparent increasing frequency. So what is a cruiser to do?

To me, the solution is easy. And this will not appeal to those for whom the ship is the destination. If that is your goal, along with the endless buffets and sometimes endless queues, then read no further. But, if you are the new "experiential" traveler we all hear about, cruising might still be for you. But with one qualification -- look for ships with no more than 400 passengers.

Ships this size used to be considered mid-size but are now "small." There are great choices at all price points and having cruised on every size and level of luxury, my choice is for small.

In fact, my very favorite ship of all time was Lindblad's original expedition ship, The Explorer, or the "Little Red Ship." (Full disclosure here -- my favorite ship did finally end its days by sinking in Antarctica, but that is another story.) All were rescued, as can be done with a ship with 100 passengers, even in Antarctica. (Lindlblad did not own the ship at the time.)

Why do I rate this ship so highly? The bathrooms were basic, you had to sit on the toilet to use the hand held shower and the entire bathroom flooded. But the water was clean, very hot and powerful. The heat and A/C were always worked perfectly. Maybe I was lucky, but I think it is because the chief engineer knew every inch of the ship and he and his crew had been on board for over 10 years.

The Expedition staff was the best in the industry. All scholars who were experts at engaging and fascinating all ages. This is a very hard mix to find in scholars! They ate every meal with passengers as did the officers. After a 10-day cruise, you knew the entire staff and couldn't help but share their passion for the little red ship.

Did I mention the Open Bridge policy? This is a luxury fast disappearing from cruising, and post-September 11 dealt it a blow as well. But it is still possible on some ships and if you really want to understand the perspective of ancient explorers, if you want to experience each port as they did, you need to watch from the bridge.

And then there are the ports. Itineraries for most smaller ships are designed to be "Port Intensive." They are arranged around the destinations, and not around having sufficient days at sea to meet art auction sales goals. You might even have two nights in one port, which means you will spend your evenings dining on land, often with the crew and staff of the ship. This is luxury to me.

You will also dock in the smaller city ports instead of the larger commercial ports that can add 1-2 hours to your excursions.

I have been fortunate to sail on almost all of the five star cruise lines sailing today and have sailed most itineraries. While I would choose an ocean liner for any ocean crossing, for everything else, I look for small. I check the expedition staff ratio per passenger as closely as the cabin crew ratio.

And then compare the itineraries. You might become a fan. Hopefully the Carnival Dream's problems will be resolved before you read this. But they won't be the last. I know of several cruise lines now building exciting new smaller ships. Hopefully the trend will continue. Do you have a favorite smaller ship? Where did you sail? I am always ready to head to sea, but am very picky about what ships I choose.