When I sailed on Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 several years ago, one particular daily ritual truly emphasized the enormity of the 2,600-passenger ship. Every day, hundreds of people would descend on the ballroom for afternoon tea. And the experience reminded me, as we shuffled shoulder-to-shoulder toward the grand room, of watching cattle being corralled into the barn. I enjoyed that cruise immensely, but not right at that moment.
Such are the realities of large-ship cruising, where the amenities are plentiful and varied – casinos, waterslides and dining venues with celebrity-chef affiliations – but the crowds can also be abundant. And so at a time when the big ships are getting much, much bigger, some companies are offering smaller options of anywhere from four to 100 passengers.
Tour companies Exodus Travels and Intrepid Travel have added small-ship itineraries – the former offering a new luxury Amazon sailing with stops at riverside markets, and the latter island hopping across Southeast Asia. Outer Shores Expeditions just revealed 2020 Haida Gwaii expeditions with a vessel that can be chartered by just six people. Scottish company the Majestic Line recently launched its fourth ship, which takes 12 passengers on up-close tours of the Outer Hebrides and St. Kilda. And early next year, Uniworld will sail the S.S. Mekong, an “eco-friendly” 68-guest ship that will go from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
While itineraries and highlights vary, the small ships offer something large cruise ships almost universally aim for but may never completely master: a greater sense of intimacy – with fellow passengers and crew, and with the destination.
Mary Chong, an editor in Mississauga who has taken many cruises of all sizes, says she appreciates the “more immersive and personal” aspects of a small ship. “On a large ship, it’s easy to blend in with the crowd,” she says. “[Small ships] are more relaxing and casual, and that makes you want to share the story of your life as you experience a new destination together.”
On an August sailing in Alaska with UnCruise Adventures – which offers several ships with fewer than 100 guests – Chong’s insomniac husband particularly appreciated being able to visit the bridge any time. “He sat with the crew for a few hours while they chatted about the ship, Alaska and the stars,” she says. “You can't do that on a large ocean liner.”
That kind of personal touch is a huge part of why small-ship cruising is “growing like crazy,” says Todd Smith, president and founder of AdventureSmith Explorations, which has helped clients arrange small-ship sailings since 2003. “When I started doing this, people would tell me that they wouldn’t be caught dead on a big ship, and I would have to say, no, no, it’s not like that.” Now, he says, there’s a “baby boom” of tiny ships being built, particularly those geared towards expeditions in places such as Alaska, Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands.
The key difference, according to Smith, is that “the smallest ships are focused outwards, on the destination and the culture and history, while the biggest ships are more focused inwards, with the big shows and midnight buffets and casinos.”
Smaller ships can also provide a level of customization, says Beth Butzlaff, vice-president of cruise sales at Virtuoso, a global network of luxury travel advisers. She recalled one client sailing with SeaDream Yacht Club from Venice to Athens who wanted to do something for his wife’s birthday. He connected with Aman Resorts and asked the ship to anchor so they could celebrate with a bonfire before returning to the vessel.
The staff on small ships sailing in Hawaii or Alaska might decide, upon seeing a pod of dolphins, to shut down the engine and follow them for a while. Oriana Smy, guest services and marketing co-ordinator of Outer Shores Expeditions, says the extremely small size of the company’s ships allow them to be nimble. “Our itineraries are incredibly flexible without a ‘Point A, Point B’ type layout,” she says. “We do not have docks or ports to check in with, but rather secluded coves and inlets to anchor down for the evening.”
Robin Brooks, PR and marketing manager for Exodus, also notes that guests can interact directly with expedition staff and experts such as ornithologists, marine biologists, anthropologists and archaeologists, often joining them for meals. “[The experience] is far more immersive and interactive, and strips away all of the distractions,” she says.
The intimacy of a small ship can sometimes prompt concerns among prospective passengers uncertain about spending time with a few strangers who will necessarily become part of the narrative rather than blending into the background. It’s easy to imagine, on a catamaran easing its way through the waters just off Belize, an entire sailing being ruined by one misplaced opinion about Brexit.
But Smith describes more of a summer camp vibe than strained small talk. “On the first day, everyone’s a bit nervous, but people become fast friends,” he says. “On the last day, there’s hugs and tears and everyone’s upset that this little group is breaking up. People have bonded and the next year they’re traveling together again.”
Just as the biggest ships don’t appeal to everyone, the smallest ships can have their downsides. There’s typically less variety – fewer dining, shore-excursion and on-board options – because there simply isn’t the space or numbers to support them. But what these ships lack in diversions, they can make up for in focus.
Chong says she chose a small-ship sailing to Alaska because large-ship itineraries she looked at mostly seemed to stop in “cities made up of jewelry and souvenir shops that are only open during cruise season.” On a small-ship excursion, she and her husband hiked and kayaked almost every day, the ship often laying anchor in coves with no one else in sight except the seals. “We experienced natural Alaska – the real Alaska – every minute of that voyage,” she says.
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