There’s a growing demand for smaller ships with fewer passengers and a bespoke vibe. Sally Macmillan discovers six classic favourites.
If you’re dreaming about a sea voyage on ships that offer traditional cruising, you’re in luck. And you don’t have to go five-star luxury or hardcore expedition if vast ocean liners don’t float your boat. Several lines are specialising in cruises that sail to destinations inaccessible to megaships, spend more time in ports, and offer imaginative cultural activities onboard and onshore.
The attractions of cruising on smaller ships include a relaxed, sociable atmosphere; no queues when you disembark or embark; small groups for excursions; a knowledgeable crew or expert speakers; and classic accoutrements such as a promenade deck, library, and wood and polished brass fittings.
The ships we are looking at accommodate a maximum of 380 passengers and are not new. They’re tried and tested favourites among the cruising community, but there are lots more small and mid-size vessels to choose from. Have a look at Azamara Club Cruises and Oceania Cruises’ 684-passenger ships, Ponant’s luxury expedition fleet and Viking Ocean Cruises’ four new 930-passenger ships – and remember, small ships fill up quickly!
APT Hebridean Sky
This smart little ship is as popular with Antarctic voyagers as culture-loving cruisers, in a delightfully unstuffy way. Everyone is up and about first thing to take stimulating shore excursions, included in the fares, and lectures in the main lounge are well attended. Hebridean Sky has been sailing for 26 years, but you wouldn’t guess from its appearance, particularly since it had a facelift last year. Traditionalists love the ship’s wood panelling and polished brass, and its heritage is celebrated in stunning wildlife photographs taken by the expedition teams. Each deck is named after a famous polar explorer and a new observation platform was added to the Shackleton Deck in the refit. Meals are a real pleasure, and a proper afternoon tea is served every day. Hebridean Sky will be sailing in the Mediterranean, Norwegian Fjords, the British Isles and Northern Europe this year.
Windstar Cruises Star Pride
Avid cruisers always enjoy the chance to visit the ship’s bridge and chat with the captain, and one of the highlights of Windstar’s ships is their “open bridge” policy. Star Pride is one of three former Seabourn ships that accommodate up to 212 passengers and sail to exotic, mostly warm-climate destinations. Fellow passengers tend to be fit, active and aged between 30 and 70. Possibly because the fares aren’t as all-inclusive as on other lines,
there are plenty of people in the 40 to 50 age bracket and the atmosphere is laid-back and convivial. The watersports marina is well patronised and there are scuba-diving courses available for beginners as well as certified divers on select cruises. Windstar is definitely a line that is worth getting to know better.
Lindblad Expeditions National Geographic Orion
Orion joined Lindblad Expeditions’ fleet in 2014 and is much loved by seasoned cruisers who got to know the ship when it belonged to an Australian line. NG Orion is now the youngest in the Lindblad fleet and more elegant than its sister ships. However, it’s not just an attractive vessel – it was designed to navigate icy polar regions as well as the tropics, and sports state-of-the art expedition equipment. Inside, the overall look and feel is more contemporary than traditional and the cuisine is seriously good. If you’re looking for an expedition-style cruise in the world’s remotest destinations combined with luxury, NG Orion could be the one for you.
Voyages to Antiquity Aegean Odyssey
British cruise line Voyages to Antiquity operates just one ship, the Aegean Odyssey. It dates back to 1972 and has been meticulously refurbished. Today it is a comfortable, far from
When you’re cruising in warm climates you can sleep on deck, in special Balinese beds. You can even get monogrammed pyjamas.
flashy ship and repeat cruisers talk about its relaxed, sociable atmosphere. You’re likely to meet British, American and Antipodean cruisers who are well travelled, well educated history buffs – the itineraries are built around exploring sites that have centuries of history, in the Mediterranean, Aegean, Adriatic and Northern Europe. Each cruise has a lecture programme led by speakers who are experts in fields such as history, archaeology, art, cuisine and culture. Don’t expect a quick cruise, though – the shortest are 12 days.
SeaDream Yacht Club SeaDream I and II
Sailing on these twins is like being onboard your own private yacht. Each ship caters for a maximum of 112 passengers, looked after by a 95-person crew – the barman at the Top of the Yacht Bar will know your favourite tipple by day two. Outdoor living is big on SeaDream; meals are served in the open-air Topside Restaurant as well as the dining room, and when you’re cruising in warm climates you can sleep on deck, in special Balinese beds. You even get personally monogrammed pyjamas. The crew act as guides on shore tours that involve biking and hiking – the ships carry bicycles as well as having an onboard marina stocked with water toys such as jet skis and Hobie cats.
Paul Gauguin Cruises Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin has been sailing French Polynesia for 20 years and its owners and crew know the region intimately. It attracts sophisticated travellers of all ages who enjoy all the watersports on offer but have a keen interest in marine biology. This year the cruise line is introducing an impressive line-up of lecturers, in conjunction with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Many crew members are Tahitians who sing, dance and tell stories for passengers, in between their regular jobs around the ship, and are among the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. Dining is a major highlight – as soon as you board, book for dinner at La Veranda, where you can indulge in fabulous French cuisine. Just the thing after a hard day’s snorkelling with reef sharks and stingrays.
Visit your cruise specialist to learn more about these small-ship journeys.
Hebridean Sky passengers on a Shores of Southern Europe cruise can visit Mont-SaintMichel in France.
Staff on the Paul Gauguin. Aegean Odyssey.
National Geographic Orion.
SeaDream II in the Corinth Canal, Greece.