Small ship adventure cruising is the Goldilocks of nautical holidays. Smaller than a floating casino, but more spacious than a 40-foot schooner or catamaran.
You’ve got your own room, your own bed, your own shower and ensuite, but there aren’t 17 decks to navigate every time you want to get a coffee. You can enjoy a breakfast buffet or an a la carte dinner, but it’s hardly the Bacchanalian food-fest you’ll find on the larger liners (that being said, the food is excellent – bring some forgiving pants). Basically, small ship cruising is for anyone who doesn’t feel at home on a large cruise liner, but can’t face the sometimes cramped quarters of a smaller yacht. A happy medium that’s better for travellers, and for the environment.
Peregrine Adventures has just launched their own range of small ship adventures (in partnership with award-winning Variety Cruises), and it’s fair to say they’re pretty excited. Here are seven reasons to ditch the big cruise liners and try something a little more intimate.
1. See places the big ships can’t reach
This is the big one. Because smaller cruise ships and yachts don’t have casinos, gyms, theatres, swimming pools and all the rest, the focus is actually on the destination, not the boat (which is why you flew halfway around the world in the first place, right?) There’s more shore excursions, more dining in local restaurants or dancing in local bars, more time spent stretching your legs. And the beauty of small ship cruising is that you can do all of this on islands where the big liners never go.
Every man and his dog crowds into the alleyways of Mykonos and Santorini, but how many get to see the charming town of Poros, or the island of Aegina? How many explore Kynthos and Poliegos, or stop off for a dip on some uninhabited island that Google’s never heard of? That’s the real advantage of a small ship cruise – you leave with memories of places, not just pools.
2. Get on and off as you please
A small practical difference that adds a lot to your itinerary. And it’s one you get to actually observe in real time. When you disembark on Mykonos, you can walk straight into town and, as you do, you can look out to see and watch the huge cruise liners parked a kilometre off shore, their decks already crammed with people queuing for the sea ferries and little boats to shuttle them to the island. If they forget their sunglasses, or feel like a quick afternoon nap, it’s a real hassle to get back on board. But not with small ship cruising.
Each time you disembark you’re given a small card; just flash that card and you can walk up the gangplank and onto the ship. Come and go as you please. Do a little shopping on Syros, drop it off in your cabin, then hit the town again for a retsina and a plate of Cyclades olives. It’s a little luxury the big boats don’t get.
3. It’s better for the environment
Big cruise brochures always do a good job of promoting pristine environments and crystal clear waters, but the reality isn’t really so sunny. This year it’s estimated that 24 million people will cruise the world’s oceans on board 220 different liners. Each of these is usually powered by an enormous diesel engine (some as tall as three storeys), and emits dangerous levels of sulphur dioxide, not to mention the sewerage from about 3000 people each day.
Now adventure cruising is not 100 per cent emission-free (but Peregrine offset 100 per cent), but it is far less damaging to the environment, and a greener alternative for those who are environmentally conscious.
4. Swimming off the boat
Many people will take diving into the clear waters of the Mediterranean over a crowded pool of chlorine any day. Small ships may not have on-board pools, but a shallow draft allows them to pull right into secluded bays on uninhabited islands where a cruise ship could never dream of sailing.
When we were cruising in the Greek Islands, we sailed beneath the Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion, rounded a corner, and dropped anchor near a little beach. Everyone got changed and dived into the water (which was a balmy 23 degrees). The staff were on standby with kayaks, noodles, fresh towels and a warm shower to wash off the salt. We splashed around and watched the sun go down, then dried off and settled down at the back bar for a game of Uno. There wasn’t a single boat in sight. All we could hear was the wind and the sound of Adrianna the bar lady mixing drinks. Not a bad way to end the day.
5. Personalised service
Because adventure cruising is limited to around 50 people (the numbers differ with each boat, but on average you’ll probably be sailing with around 35 people) you actually get to know the staff. They become your friends, your family. For our cruise we had Joseph, our intrepid guide and leader (with a truly wicked sense of humour), Yannis the hotel manager who looked after the restaurant and our rooms, Adrianna behind the bar (who quickly became everyone’s favourite person) and a whole crew of waiters, deckhands, navigators, chefs and room service.
The service is personal and attentive (there’s even a laundry on board) and we really felt pampered from start to finish. It’s a nice change from the anonymity of larger boats, where you may not see the same people from day to day, and the staff have no hope of remembering your name.
6. More space and comfort
Large cruise ships are run a little like airlines: it’s a volume game. The idea is to cram as many paying customers per square inch as possible. Sailing on a small ship though, you get the feeling the cabins were designed with real people in mind. Each one is roomy and light, with its own ensuite. There’s air-con if you get warm, a cupboard to hang your suits and a safe for valuables (just don’t lose the key). If you had to put a star rating on it, it’d be around 4-star.
There are sacrifices that you make for being on a smaller ship – you can usually hear the engine running in the background, there are only a handful of communal areas, the corridors are narrow and the pitch of the boat can be severe in rough weather – but the advantages more than make up for it. It’s the difference between staying in a boutique B&B and a big hotel chain.
7. Fresh local flavours
Eating on a big cruise ship is an almost industrial enterprise. The flavour doesn’t matter quite so much as the metric tonnage. For a buffet fiend, you’re certainly left with a feeling of tremendous value, but it’s a stretch to come home and say you tasted anything that could be described as ‘authentic’. Adventure cruising is a bit different. There are still buffets, but they’re prepared with care by a small team of local chefs who really know the region’s food. They’re made from market-fresh produce, and designed to reflect the traditional flavours of a destination. That means they change depending on the cruise.
In Greece it might be char-grilled octopus with lemon, Cyclades olives and handmade dolmades (washed down with some ouzo that will clear your sinuses from now until eternity). In Spain? Perhaps fresh paella and crispy patatas bravas. There’s even a special themed night on each trip, where the chefs go all out and whip up a feast of fresh local fare. And the good food doesn’t end when you step off the gangplank.
Because you’ve got your own local Cruise Director, it’s easy to get tips on the best market stalls to visit, the bars with the punchiest grappa, or (in my case) a little taverna in a shady alley on Syros, overhung with blushing bougainvilleas.
Have you been sailing on a small ship? Tell us your story below.