WHAT WITH air travel being such a zoo, I guess it’s natural that we look back to the days of elegant travel by sea—the evening wear, the staterooms, the courtly service. Even though most cruises are not like that anymore, neither do they have to be 5,000 people crammed into a ship that resembles a combination of an enormous apartment tower lying on its side and a mini-mall.
While there’s a generous in-between—large but not super-large ships that steam through the oceans—there’s also a much smaller world. That’s the one I’m fond of. I’m not an expert, but I’ve taken half a dozen cruises on small ships, nothing larger than 200 passengers, and I’ve come up with some ideas for picking and choosing.
Ships of all sizes boast two of the key advantages of a cruise: Your luggage doesn’t get lost because you yourself present it at the dock, and you have to unpack only once! (Please share your tips in the Comments section, because I’m sure there are things I haven’t thought about. Thanks.)
River or sea?
The first decision you need to make when searching for a cruise is, obviously, where you want to go. That alone may make other decisions for you. Some cities, in Europe, Asia and South America, are on river-cruise lines; other cities require open-sea sailing. And of course some cities are not part of either watery network. Simple as that.
River-cruise ships are much, much smaller than those oceangoing and island-hopping behemoths we often associate with cruising. Rivers are not the ocean, folks, and the boats have to be much more modest in size.
Several years ago, I cruised with family, hopping off at spots all along the Dalmatian Coast, on the Adriatic, from Athens to Split, aboard Grand Circle Cruise Line‘s M/V Athena, which held only 50 passengers. The newly redecorated yacht was great for those placid waters and frequent port stops (including a stop in Albania!).
Our most recent outing, though, was on the 212-passenger M/V Star Legend, part of the Windstar Cruises fleet. We sailed out of Lisbon through open seas to the Portuguese island of Madeira, then the Spanish Canary Islands, then French-and-Arabic-speaking Agadir, Morocco, and back to Lisbon. If switching languages was a challenge, the Atlantic Ocean was even more so—let’s just say the dining room was not full on a couple of nights.
When it comes to choosing the best cruise ships, a small ship is great
Cruises aren’t only about travel and fine dining. No, they’re about the “pets,” made from towels, that await you when you return to your cabin after dinner. I didn’t think to snap a picture of the elephant, our first treat on our Windstar cruise out of Lisbon. But here’s the floppy pup that followed the next night. / MyLittleBird photo.
Adorably grumpy, this gorilla made his appearance on Night 3. / MyLittleBird photo.
Ribbit! I wish my photography skills were as good as the cabin steward’s towel-twisting skills. / MyLittleBird photo.
The last night at sea we returned from dinner the find this chimp hanging from the curtain rod. Kinda weird, no? / MyLittleBird photo.
My friend Mary found this TV-surfing bunny sprawled on the bed when she and husband Robert returned from dinner on a recent cruise to Mexico. Cheers! / MyLittleBird photo.
in terms of service and easy mixing with people, but in open water it’s possible that the 500- or 600-passenger Seabourn yacht we saw at dock in Lisbon—quite a bit larger—may have had a smoother ride. I’m no sailor, so that’s just a guess; but if you worry about seasickness, you might ask for some guidance.
The bottom line when searching for the best cruise ships: Small is good, but not always.
One case in which small was definitely good was some years back when I traveled with friends around the Galápagos Islands. Our yacht, chartered by Mountain Travel Sobek, carried only 16 passengers (and we were 11 of the 16) and therefore had a much greater choice of small islands to explore without deploying a fleet of Zodiacs. (I guess I’ll never know how they made such delicious food, including a snack every time we came back on board from examining mostly inert marina iguanas and blue-footed boobies, in such a small space. But they did!)
The size of the ship determines where you can dock without ferrying passengers to land on inflatables. / iStock photo.
Some ships feature real beds in ample staterooms. Others have smaller cabins with upholstered benches that convert to beds at night—not very comfortable beds, at that (not-so-deep mattresses atop wood slabs; if you like a supremely firm mattress, you’ll love this setup).
If the mere possibility of discomfort gives you pause, take a good look at the glossy pictures for each ship you’re considering. Sure, look over the dining room and the fitness areas, but pay close attention to the cabin and suite pictures.
Many cruise lines list the square footage of their different levels of accommodation. It’s worth learning what 277 square feet looks and feels like. If you can’t tell, and if all the flowery promotional language doesn’t clue you in, call the cruise line’s customer service folks. They should know and should be honest with you.
For the record, cabins on the all-suite M/V Star Legend and Star Pride, two ships with Windstar Cruises, were a very comfortable 300 square feet, room for a separate curtain-divided “living room” and “bedroom,” with what several lines call “hotel-style beds” (I think that’s code for “comfortable.”) The basic-level Veranda Suite on Seabourn’s all-suite ships is 300 square feet as well; more-expensive suites range from 450 to 989 square feet, the latter end perhaps larger than the average Manhattan apartment. Different ships on Viking River Cruises‘ trips are special to different rivers; the Elbe River Veranda Suites are 250 square feet, still enough for a separate sitting area. And premium accommodations on most lines will be even larger (and, of course, more expensive).
It’s useful to note that cruise lines defining themselves as “luxury” lines have ships configured to have only exterior cabins, all looking out on the water, some with balconies. Some larger lines, such as Holland America, offer much larger ships that also feature less-expensive “interior” cabins, some of which can be between 151 and 233 square feet. (On Holland America, that means you can do a 12-day Caribbean cruise visiting Havana and Cienfuegos in Cuba, and other spots, for as little as $1,399 per person. Depending on your online shopping habits, it could cost more to stay home.)
There’s also a matter of style: The Viking river and more recent ocean ships promote their “serene Scandinavian spaces,” whereas the overdecorated Royal Suite on Uniworld‘s S.S. Catherine would satisfy any latter-day Marie Antoinettes who may be lurking out there.
The food on many ships vying for your custom is worth noting. Windstar features recipes from James Beard Award-winning chefs. Seabourn has partnered with chef Thomas Keller, he of the famous (and sensational) French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York.
But there is a consideration beyond the food (believe it or not). Some ships offer restaurant-like facilities; your party of four will be seated at a table for four, two people at a table for two. Other cruise lines, such as Seabourn and Grand Circle, offer open seating: You can join others at large tables, getting to know your fellow passengers in a relaxed setting.
If sitting with strangers horrifies you, choose ships like the Windstar fleet, where the maitre d’ will seat your group (and if that feels too boring after a few evenings, arrange during the day to dine with others so you can pronounce yourselves as a party of six or eight or whatever).
On many ships some eateries are more equal than others. There may be a special restaurant that has people vying for a place; cruises routinely limit passengers to one evening in the special restaurant per cruise (but tables do open up). Do some homework after you’ve decided on your ship to see whether you can reserve before you even board.
Activities range from the cultural to the active, and beyond. / iStock photo.
Most cruise lines, so far as I’m aware, offer information about the various ports where the cruise will be stopping. But there are very different levels of engagement with the countries and cities visited. Viking, Tauck and Grand Circle pride themselves on extensive programs aboard ship to share the cultures to be visited—cooking lessons, fun language lessons, performances by cultural troupes. Grand Circle even includes a visit to one of the schools or other institutions its Grand Circle Foundation supports, encouraging passengers to bring educational materials to donate. There’s even a dinner-with-a-family event on most itineraries for which the passengers fan out to various homes (in rural Russia an elderly couple in a small dacha on a working farm offered a group of 12 of us an afternoon tea).
Shore excursions, as you can gather from above, can be quite elaborate and involving. No one forces anyone to do anything, of course, but if you just want to sun yourself and relax, you may want to choose a cruise line with a different approach to travel. Trips sponsored by organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution (Smithsonian Journeys) or a university tend to charge a premium, but they also have full programs of lectures and discussions led by experts in their field. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve come to think of the Windstar cruises as “information lite”: There’s a “port talk” the evening before each stop and an optional bus excursion with a local guide, but no dedicated tour directors ginning up excitement while on board.
But even information-lite works if you let it. John and Katie, fellow passengers on the Lisbon cruise, simply rented a motor scooter each time we docked and went on their way, in their own way.
If you are interested in cruises, even if you thought you never would be, there is definitely something for everyone. Just do your research and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
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