Small-ship cruising: Experiences the big ships can’t easily deliver

It's odd that some otherwise worldly travellers think of cruising as an amorphous entity that involves megaships, pool parties and ports of call swamped by shore excursionists in baseball caps. Cruising is, in fact, as diverse as any other form of travel. If a megaship might be likened to a skyscraper resort, a small ship is a boutique hotel or even a B&B: what it sacrifices in amenities, it might make up for in character and intimacy. A megaship is an A380, albeit vastly more entertaining while on board. A small ship  – generally considered to carry 200 passengers or fewer – is more akin to a private jet, with champagne popping and an interesting airstrip up ahead with the promise of somewhere unknown.

Each type of experience has its own merits, and on occasion the two overlap. Small-ship cruising doesn't necessarily mean escaping the mainstream unless you're on an expedition ship, and not always even then. Small-ship companies sail around Japan, the Mediterranean, Pacific islands and the Caribbean just as the mid-sized and megaships do, and their vessels call in at the same ports from Nagasaki to Nassau and Naples. But not all ports can accommodate large cruise liners, which is where small ships have a distinct size advantage. Indeed, some destinations don't even have the appropriate docks: passengers are tendered ashore using the ship's own Zodiac boats, or perhaps a local ferry shuttle.

While megaship launches grab most of the media attention, small ships have meanwhile been quietly multiplying. Among others, Windstar Cruises doubled its ship numbers last year, Lindblad Expeditions has two ships launching next year, and French luxury company Ponant has announced four new ships for 2018. Crystal Cruises is creating an entire new small-ship arm, starting with the launch of Crystal Endeavour in 2018. Scenic makes its first foray into ocean cruising with the 228-passenger "discovery yacht" Scenic Eclipse, also slated for mid-2018. 

A dizzying array of new small-ship destination choices is designed both to fill these new ships, and lure back repeat customers with something different. (Small ships are notable for itineraries that often change from cruise season to season, unlike the more predictable, regularly repeated routes of megaships.) This year alone sees 13 new itineraries from Voyages of Discovery, and 15 in Europe alone from Lindblad. Silversea tempts with new scuba-diving cruises in locations such as Australia and the Maldives on its 120-passenger Silver Discoverer. Both tall-ship sailing specialist Star Clippers and Australian cruise line Coral Expeditions enter Asian waters for the first time; Ponant has maiden voyages to South Africa and the Seychelles. And APT has new small-ship cruises in Tasmania, South America and (from 2017) in the Kimberly. The company is now offering an entire Expedition Collection Cruising range.

There are numerous reasons for this surge in passenger enthusiasm for small-ship cruising, not least the surge of interest in cruising overall. As Australians became more seasoned (and increasingly more youthful) travellers on the seven seas, they're starting to look for new destinations and new – and especially more active – experiences that mainstream big ships can't easily deliver.

"People no longer want to spend their holiday time being passive spectators," says Daniel Skjeldam, chief executive of Norwegian small-ship specialist Hurtigruten, which is also launching four new ships in 2018. "The new adventure traveller is looking for authentic experiences, which is why sedentary, standardised travel packages are becoming less popular and active adventure travel is booming."

Small ships have physical advantages that enable them to provide such adventures. Small stature alone means such ships can dock where megaships can't. SeaDream Yacht Club's Mediterranean cruises, for example, visit small ports such as Elba, Portofino and Sorrento in Italy, and Calvi and Bonifacio in Corsica. Other advantages might include ice-strengthened hulls for polar waters, and shallower draughts that enable small ships to enter intimate bays or sail close to coastlines. Some are even able to tackle rivers. Hurtigruten is initiating cruises on the Amazon River. Azamara Club Cruises (whose ships are admittedly rather more mid-size than small) sails up the Thames River as far as Tower Bridge and the Garonne Estuary into the centre of Bordeaux, a French city usually only visited by river-cruise vessels.

Small ships tend to have more flexibility built into their itineraries, meaning they can divert to suit the circumstances of weather, wildlife or local festivals. They can cruise in remote places that might otherwise be logistically difficult for individual travellers, and impossible for big ships catering to thousands of passengers. Many small ships also carry Zodiacs on board, further extending their reach, and some carry scuba-diving gear, kayaks and other water-sports equipment. 

"Australians are among our most adventurous guests, and take enthusiastically to our off-the-beaten-track cruises that get us away from the crowds," says Bob Lepisto, president of SeaDream, whose 112-passenger yacht cruisers are introducing more Caribbean itineraries, thanks partly to growing Australian interest in the region.

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Other trending destinations include the Galapagos Islands, Greenland, Papua New Guinea, the polar Svalbard Islands, Alaska and Central America, all of which are seeing significantly more small-ship visits (and some large-ship visits too). Companies such as Silversea, Lindblad and Hurtigruten are also redeploying or launching ships to meet increased demand in the Arctic and Antarctic. This isn't to say that all small-ship cruises focus on remote locations or adventures in the wild: destinations are as diverse as the British Isles, Asia, the eastern seaboard of the US and the Baltic and Pacific oceans. 

Small ships are favoured in mainstream locales for the alternative experience they can provide away from mainstream crowds. "Once you cruise on a small ship you never go back. It's like travelling to an idyllic beach by car, compared with arriving at a famous beach on a train full of passengers. Picture Melbourne's Flinders Street station at 9am and that's the big-ship experience," says David Bowen, general manager of Heritage Expeditions.

On the downside for some, small ships are unable to fit in the wide range of amenities available on large cruise liners. The focus tends to be on the destination not the ship, so small-ship cruises aren't for those travellers keen to immerse themselves in the on-board experience: not much chance of finding casinos, multiple swimming pools, expansive spas, big evening shows or a plethora of restaurant choices. 

Still, many offer high standards of luxury and service and a greater focus on educative travel through programs aimed at passenger enlightenment. Expedition cruises in particular are usually accompanied by staff who are experts in areas such as geology or biology, but even small ships travelling to regular destinations might have experts in archaeology, history or politics on board. Not only are you usually in the company of like-minded travellers, but you get to know many of them as the voyage progresses; there's a small-ship camaraderie that you don't find anywhere else.

BEST SMALL-SHIP CRUISES

SOUTH-EAST ASIA

WHY HERE Despite the popularity of Thai and Balinese resorts, the myriad islands of south-east Asia remain relatively unknown to Australians, yet offer enormous cultural variety, natural beauty and impressive wildlife.

THE EXPERIENCE The cruise visits the Philippines, Malaysian Borneo, Indonesia and East Timor, all well-suited to the small-ship experience. Enjoy white-sand beaches, cruise along the Menumbar River by Zodiac to spot wildlife such as long-nose monkeys, snorkel on remote reefs, and visit the villages of Torajaland.

HIGHLIGHTS Ample opportunity for wildlife spotting including the infamous Komodo dragons, plus visits to orang-utan and sun bear conservation centres.

DO IT Seventeen-day Southeast Asia Adventure cruise from Manila to Darwin with APT. From $17,240pp. Phone 1300 196 420. See www.aptouring.com.au

AMAZON RIVER

WHY HERE Small ships are versatile, and this journey proves it on a five-day, in-depth exploration of the Brazilian Amazon, followed by a meander down the Brazilian coast to Uruguay. 

THE EXPERIENCE This cruise starts in Manaus deep inside the Brazilian rainforest and sails down the immense Amazon River for an up-close encounter with its unique environment and wildlife that includes tapirs, howler monkeys and caimans. Passengers have the opportunity to canoe, hike and visit the riverside trading town of Santarem.

HIGHLIGHTS Amazon apart, the cruise calls in at the World Heritage colonial-era town of Paraty in Brazil, attractively wedged between jungle-clad mountains and offshore islands.

DO IT Sixteen-night Expedition to the Amazon Rainforest cruise from Manaus to Montevideo with Hurtigruten. From €5253pp ($7670pp). Phone 1800 623 267. See www.discovertheworld.com.au

WESTERN MEDITERRANEAN

WHY HERE Though it has many big-name destinations, the Mediterranean merits exploration away from regular cruise routes into lesser-known regions that still offer glorious port towns and islands. 

THE EXPERIENCE The Italian coast at Lirici has a string of charming fishing villages, and the island of Elba is associated with Napoleon's exile. Four days in brooding, cliff-ringed Corsica culminates at Bonifacio, whose dramatic, almost land-locked harbour requires Zodiac transfers. The cruise also calls in at chic French beach resort St Tropez.

HIGHLIGHTS During the port call in Monaco, the ship is docked a walk from the Grand Prix race course, where time trials allow passengers to experience Formula One thrills.

DO IT Seven-night Monaco GP Trials cruise from Cannes to Cannes with Star Clippers. From $2990pp. Phone 1300 295 161. See www.starclippers.com

PAPUA NEW GUINEA

WHY HERE PNG's rugged coast, multiple islands, dive reefs and wrecks, and relatively undeveloped cruise infrastructure, make it an ideal destination for more versatile small-ship cruises.

THE EXPERIENCE Though it also visits Palau, Micronesia, Vanuatu and the Solomons, the core of this cruise is PNG, with visits to Murik lakes, the Sepik River and the villages of the remote Tami Islands, all only accessible by boat. There are also calls at the towns of Vanimo and Madang.

HIGHLIGHTS Hard call, but rugged Fergusson Island is remarkable for its hot springs and geysers as well as startling bird life that includes parrots, sunbirds and birds-of-paradise.

DO IT Fourteen-day Koror to Honiara cruise from Palau to the Solomon Islands with Silversea. From $12,465pp. Phone 1300 306 872. See www.silversea.com

BRITISH ISLES

WHY HERE Though Britain and Ireland are mainstream destinations for Australian travellers, small-ship cruising shows how you can get off the beaten track, and how such cruises often focus on specific themes and educational experiences.

THE EXPERIENCE This is a look at the British Isles' coastline where large ships rarely go, and features remote castles, Zodiac landings to visit villages and private gardens, and calls at Scottish islands such as Iona, with its ancient abbey and tombs of Scottish kings. There's also a visit to the Scilly Isles off Cornwall.

HIGHLIGHTS A horticultural theme, with visits to beautiful gardens at Inverewe, Bodnant and Tresco among others, and a lecture from TV gardening personality Monty Don while docked in Dublin.

DO IT Eleven-day British Isles, Castles, Gardens, History and Birdlife Cruise cruise from Edinburg to London with Botanica World Discoveries. From $13,890pp. Phone 1300 305 202. See www.botanica.travel

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

APT, phone 1300 196 420, see www.aptouring.com.au 

Azamara Club Cruises, phone 1800 754 500, see www.azamaraclubcruises.com

Botanica World Discoveries, phone 1300 305 202, see www.botanica.travel

Coral Expeditions, phone 1800 079 545, see www.coralexpeditions.com

Crystal Yacht Cruises, phone 1800 251 174, see www.crystalcruises.com  

Heritage Expeditions, phone 1800 143 585, see www.heritage-expeditions.com

Hurtigruten, phone 1800 623 267, see www.discovertheworld.com.au

Lindblad Expeditions, phone 1300 361 012, see www.expeditions.com  

Ponant, phone 1300 737 178, see www.ponant.com

Seabourn Cruise Line, phone 13 24 02, see www.seabourn.com

SeaDream Yacht Club, phone 02 9958 4444, see www.seadream.com

Saga Cruises, see www.travel.saga.co.uk  

Scenic, phone 13 81 28, see www.scenic.com.au

Silversea, phone 1300 306 872, see www.silversea.com

Star Clippers, phone 1300 295 161, see www.starclippers.com

Voyages of Discovery, phone 1800 623 267, see www.discovertheworld.com.au

Windstar Cruises, phone 1300 857 43, see www.traveltheworld.com.au

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