Small Ship Cruise Experience

With big, mass market ships the passenger's total cruise experience is very much the same from ship to ship. About the only things that differ are the decor and the quality of food and service.

Small ship experiences, on the other hand, vary a great deal. There are basically five kinds of small ship cruise experiences you might consider. They are:

  • “Soft” Adventure Cruises
  • Expedition (“Hard” Adventure) Cruises
  • Masted Sailing Ship Cruises
  • River Cruises
  • Luxury Cruises

Let's look at an overview of each.

Soft Adventure Cruises

Of all the categories, this is the one, which will attract the greatest number of travelers. That’s because, in some ways, soft adventure cruises have the most in common with the large, mass- market cruises. But the differences are critical.

  • The key to the soft adventure experience: It’s truly up-close and personal. Because the ships are smaller, with shallower drafts, they can go where the large ships can’t. This provides you with the most important benefit of small ship cruising – the ability to experience the destination in an intimate, colorful, and immediate way.
  • The focus of soft adventure cruising is on the destination. This kind of cruise furnishes its guests with an intensive, up-close experience of the things they’re most interested in: nature, culture, history and learning.
  • Lecturers and expert guides enhance the learning experience on most soft adventure cruises, providing information which helps guests understand and fully appreciate what they’re seeing.
  • Bow ramps and/or inflatable excursion craft allow shore landings where larger ships can’t dock, giving guests safe and comfortable access to a variety of unspoiled areas.
  • Off-the-beaten path, remote and unusual locales where small-ships go, offer guests access to engaging and otherwise inaccessible areas. These ships visit such remarkable, fascinating and out-of-the-way destinations as the Alaskan fjords, the Bering Sea, Mexico’s Sea of Cortés, and the South Pacific Islands.
  • Soft Adventure cruises attract an interesting mix of passengers, permitting interaction between people of similar interests but with different backgrounds.
  • These cruises also offer varied shore excursion and pre- and post-tour options, which allow cruises to be easily combined with air, motor coach or train trips to interesting or related inland destinations.


Uncruise Adventures

Expedition (Hard Adventure) Cruises

The biggest difference between expedition cruises and soft adventure cruises is a “hint of discomfort”, permitting expedition cruise guests the illusion of “roughing it,” while enjoying the most important creature comforts and all the safety such cruises ensure. Interest in these cruises has been growing steadily fueled by the baby boomer desire to do things they haven't done before.

  • The key to the expedition cruise experience is high adventure, from the wildness and remoteness of the destinations to the special outfitting of research type ships.
  • Another major difference between soft adventure and hard adventure cruising is that some of these expedition vessels can go where even soft adventure cruise ships can’t. Quark Expeditions’ Russian icebreakers, for example, can maneuver through heavy ice fields, enabling one particularly well-equipped vessel to circumnavigate the North Pole.
  • All expedition ships are equipped with bow ramps or inflatable excursion craft, providing guests access to pristine natural beauty and small, usually isolated villages or wilderness areas.
  • These cruises require guest willingness and ability to undergosomewhat more exertion and discomfort than soft adventure cruises, providing hardy, adventuresome passengers with authentic, exciting, but safe, shore experiences otherwise unobtainable.
  • The lecturers and guides who provide education in nature, science, culture, and so on are often experts in their fields. Guests receive accurate and detailed information on what they’re seeing and experiencing. As with soft adventure cruises, the focus on expedition ships is education and learning.
  • The style of most expedition cruises tends to be casual, withinformal dress and a relaxed and natural shipboard environment, maximizing the focus on the destination rather than on glitz and glamour.
  • Some expedition vessels are surprisingly luxurious, and provide an impressive number of guest facilities, including pools, fitness centers, and other amenities usually associated with large ship cruising.


Lindblad Expeditions

Masted Sailing Ships

These are fully masted, sometimes historically accurate vessels capable of being powered by the wind alone, but always equipped with auxiliary power for practical and safety reasons. Some of these ships, however, use only sail-power during most voyages, to provide you the romance and excitement of experiencing what it was like to go “down to the sea in ships”. While this product appeals to a small group, it is more popular than you might suppose. Here are some of the specific features and benefits of masted sailing ship cruises:

  • The key to the experience is the fulfillment of your fantasies of the wind and the sea.

Two kinds of experiences are available, each providing a slightly different measure of authenticity:

  • Low-tech, highly authentic sailing vessels, that generally sail fully rigged under wind power only.
  • High-tech sailing vessels with computer controlled sails, that sail under both wind and/or engine power.
  • Both types of sailing vessels provide the unique experience of “sailing the high seas” in a ship that feels very much as ships did hundreds of years ago.
  • High-priced to moderately priced versions are available, providing you with a choice of how much to spend to achieve their seafaring dreams.
  • Most ships provide amenities similar to soft adventure vessels, furnishing guests with the thrill of sailing minus the discomforts.
  • On some sailing vessels, guests can help the crew, hoisting and trimming sails, and even taking a turn at the helm, allowing them to experience the real adventure (and work) of sailing.


Windstar Cruses

Star Clippers

River Cruises

Various kinds of river-going vessels ply the inland waterways of major rivers and their tributaries worldwide, and offer travelers a unique way to experience a nation or culture from the inside. There are basically four kinds of river craft that provide these opportunities:

  • River-specific Cruisers
  • Paddlewheelers/Steamboats
  • “Soft” Adventure River Boats
  • Barges

Each of these river cruisers provides its own individual form of river experience, and some are unique to the regions, and even the river, in which they operate. Here are some of the most important points to consider:

River-specific Cruisers until recently were mostly popular among European travelers. In the last few years there have been a number of changes that cater to U.S. clients. The changes include larger cabins, more English speaking crew, and sailings dedicated to the US market. As Americans discover their wonderful possibilities, the market for these cruises is growing rapidly.

  • The key to the experience: a leisurely pace. The traditionally slow pace of river travel provides guests with an opportunity to relax and take in the scenery, which passes by – not as the blur train train passengers perceive – but as intimately and invitingly as it would on a casual walk in the countryside.
  • These are small, but well-appointed ships, furnishing guests with many amenities commonly found on larger vessels, including private baths, bars, lounges, etc.
  • Interesting and culturally important river ports offer fascinating shore excursions, and even shopping opportunities.
  • These cruises can range from informal to formal, casual to luxurious, which affords you a variety of style and price choices.


Avalon Waterways

Viking River Cruises

Soft Adventure River Cruises provide the same kinds of up-close and personal experiences provided by soft adventure ocean-going or sea vessels – the difference being that the exploration is of a river’s shores, not an ocean’s. Here are some of the advantages of this type:

  • The key to the experience: up-close and personal.
  • Exotic and/or pristine riverside destinations draw many visitors, and provide cruise guests with a close-up look at such remote river locales as the tributaries of the Amazon.
  • An informal, unregimented style gives guests a sense of light adventure coupled with relaxation and comfort.
  • An interesting mix of intellectually-curious and nature-minded guests provides a friendly and companionable atmosphere, and the opportunity to share a fascinating experience with others who are interested, too.
  • Onboard local experts provide destination insights.


Barges are a subset of river specific cruisers. While a river cruiser will seldom hold more than 150 passengers, a barge is large if it holds 12. Some advantages include:

  • Their small size permits barges to access even smaller canalsthan the river cruisers.
  • Many barges would be considered luxurious in their appointments.
  • The small canals can take you to parts of the countryside that would be hard to reach from the highway if you were driving.


Abercrombie and Kent

Luxury Cruises

There are several cruise lines or particular ships that "sort" of fit under the other categories but are best described under the heading Luxury. Aside from the extra cost associated with the term luxury, these cruises are characterized by:

  • Extraordinary attention to detail. From food service to cabin appointments to shore excursions, these few companies and ships just have it all.
  • Destinations are already special with all small ship cruisers. With this small group of luxury specialists, destinations are even more interesting and exotic.


The Yachts of Seabourn

Seadream Yacht Club