If you read the headlines, it may appear that the cruise ship industry diversifies one way: big becomes bigger, becomes biggest. Royal Carribean’s Symphony of the Seas, deployed in 2018, is currently the largest with a maximum capacity of 6,680 passengers plus 2,200 crew, 18 decks¹, and 25 pools or water activities.¹
But monolithic ships with Vegas-style attractions are not the only way to cruise. Intimate voyages on smaller excursion ships, with opportunities to meet other passengers, is a popular alternative. Instead of a menu of homogeneous activities, these trips can match personal tastes or interests, from music to history to wellness cruises. Or if adventure calls, remote excursions with landings on untouched islands are available in almost any region on Earth.
“Smaller luxury and expedition ships offer a totally different experience than the 6,000 passenger mega-liners and attract customers who otherwise might never cruise on the larger vessels,”2 said Emerson Hankamer, president of Vacations to Go, which sells ocean-going cruises.
Tranquil, immersive experiences on board and off, as well as numerous ports of call, may well define the smaller cruise ship itinerary. Some, like Viking, cater to adults only (children younger than 18 are not allowed on board) and most highlight their attentive service and high quality dining. Ready to tick your next cruise off your bucket list? Here is a wide-ranging survey of smaller cruises by interest.
Expanding your horizons through cultural cruises
Geography, history, and culture are obvious lenses through which to examine exotic locales. And in 2020 they find thematic harmony in Beethoven’s 250th birthday cruise along the Rhine. One of the itineraries offered by Public Radio Custom Travel, this Rhine river cruise explores the food, music, architecture and art of Germany’s Rhine region and France’s Alsace.
Also along the European watershed, starting on the east or west ends of the Danube, Crystal Cruise’s Danube river cruise visits traditional Christmas markets in Budapest, Vienna, and Passau, Germany.
If a tour down under sounds more alluring, Oceania cruises offers 14-day trips from Sydney to Auckland or the reverse and includes nine stops. It’s flagship, the Regatta, carries 684 passengers and was recently renovated.
Food and wine as a cruise's focus
Fine dining and premier wines are the interests du jour aboard any number of Epicurean Tours’ cruises. Tour to Tahiti, along the Rhine, or along Alaska’s inside passage with recognized winemakers, sommeliers, and master chefs as hosts. While Epicurean offers mid-size ships with approximately 680 passengers, UnCruise Adventures promises “uncompromising commitment to going places and doing things others can’t” with small cruisers of 90 passengers and expert adventure guides. Their Columbia River wine and culinary cruise includes wine and craft beer tastings along the Columbia River gorge.
Half a world away, luxury river cruise company Abercrombie & Kent offers a tour of the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River. Passing through the towering cliffs of this spectacular 120-mile region, the trip includes shore excursions and educational programming by on-board China experts.
Themed cruises bring people with similar interests together
Sometimes it’s not where you’re going but with whom you’re traveling that makes the greatest difference. Themed cruises that cater to fans, particular hobbies or specific interests are bound to give you a social set with whom you’ll find a lot in common.
With A Prairie Home as your companion
For a down-home Midwestern-flavored cruise, fans of public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion can set sail for the Caribbean with host Garrison Keillor March 18th through 25th with a whole radio theater cast of musicians, actors, and singers on board to entertain guests. Prairie Home Companion fans have enjoyed his cruises for many years.
Self-care on the seas
If you want less revelry and more downtime, then a wellness cruise may be to your liking. Luxury line Seabourn, with a fleet of small (450-600 passenger) cruise ships, offers two cruises led by integrative medicine expert Dr. Andrew Weil and includes mindful meditation workshops, yoga, and seminars on health and healthy aging.
The golden age of sailing
For a cruise that takes you back to the golden age of sailing, tall ship cruising is available on board the Sea Cloud, an historic sailing yacht originally owned by stock brokerage founder E.F. Hutton and his wife, Marjorie Merriweather Post. This four-masted ship from the 1930's is sailed by hand, so its 64 passengers can watch the crew go aloft nearly 184 feet³ to pull in or let out the 29 sails.
Something for stargazers and Trekkies, too!
And what about travelers who want something cosmic in scope? Some cruise lines, like Cunard and Viking, offer star gazing-themed cruises (both have planetariums aboard their flag ships) and Viking’s Orion cruise ship includes a resident astronomer among the staff. Meanwhile in 2020 Star Trek fans (otherwise known as 'Trekkies') can boldly go on a Star Trek: The Cruise IV trip to the Caribbean celebrating the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: Voyager and featuring stars from the show including Kate Mulgrew, Jeri Ryan, and Robert Picardo.
Enjoying the show
Music festivals are now setting sail, giving fans all the entertainment they crave while traveling to sun-splashed destinations. Ranging between country, folk and rock, music lovers can find their groove and their tribe. Starting with the “hippest and coolest music event of the SEAson,” the Blue Note at Sea cruise from Miami to Aruba and Curacao in 2021 will feature big names in jazz including composer and trumpetist Chris Botti and saxophonist David Sanborn.
For country music lovers you can hear great music on the 5th annual Outlaw Country Cruise, sailing from Miami to Key West and Falmouth, Jamaica. It features five music venues on board and more than 30 performers (including Lucinda Williams and Kris Kristofferson). The Flower Power cruise, which makes ports of call at St. Thomas, the British Virgin Islands, and the Bahamas, features 25-plus bands and musicians performing top hits from the 1960's and 1970's.
Adventuring via cruise ship has the double advantage of being as rugged and remote as possible while still being supremely cozy and comfortable. Whether it’s deep sea fishing, scuba diving, Arctic exploration, or experiencing Ecuador and the Galapagos, there are plenty of ways to get out into nature and then return to man-made elegance aboard these smaller cruise lines.
Starting in the far south aboard the True North, which specializes in adventure travel in the southern hemisphere, the outfit’s eight-night Southern Safari includes sea fishing, snorkeling, a visit to an animal refuge, and cage diving with great white sharks. With no on-board casinos or swimming pools, True North caters to the “experience seeker” who likes the idea of jumping into one of six motor boats or an on-board helicopter for closer views of sea and land life.
Seeing sea life in their natural habitat
For a personalized tour of Hawaii’s marine sanctuaries and wild terrain, Uncruise Adventures offers a small boat cruise of Molokai, Lanai, Maui, and the Big Island. Sightings of Humpback whales, giant Pacific manta rays, whale sharks, dolphins, and green sea turtles (depending on the season) are all on the itinerary, plus hiking, paddleboarding, kayaking, and snorkeling.
Moving south into colder climes, many cruise lines offer trips along the Patagonian coast, with penguin sightings and vistas of the Chilean fjords at the continent’s southern tip. Swoop Patagonia, which books a variety of travel in the area, partners with small cruise line Australis for breathtaking voyages through the Magellan straits with stops in Tierra del Fuego and at Cape Horn. Passengers can zip in via inflatable Zodiac boat for closer looks at glaciers and wildlife.
In the far north, Ponant cruises will offer a tour in 2021 of the Arctic, from Iceland to Greenland, aboard a new hybrid electric ship outfitted for arctic sailing. The 15-day trip includes a pass through the Scoresby Sund, the world’s largest fjord network, and its spectacular sculptural icebergs.
Like Iceland, Newfoundland offers unspoiled wilderness and scenic vistas. Adventure Canada offers an 11-day cruise around the country’s easternmost island with walks guided by locals and an on-board expedition team that includes folk musicians and naturalists.
Small Cruise Ship Advantages
Itineraries on big cruise liners often limit port excursions in favor of time spent on board (hence them being dubbed “cruises to nowhere”). Although traveling on a smaller cruise ship may mean sacrificing splashy amenities (like water slides and big show numbers), it does mean more flexible itineraries and a greater choice of ports of call.
Shallower hulls (or “drafts” in sail lingo) mean smaller ships can dock in ports prohibited to bigger ships. Often, smaller cruise lines give their captains license to alter the schedule if, for example, a pod of whales is seen nearby and the boat has the option to sail closer and give her passengers a good view.
The goal is to give passengers as immersive an experience as possible.
“With their more intimate atmosphere, increased levels of service, flexibility in their itineraries and unique ‘personalities,’ small ships have a tendency to win cruisers over almost instantly,” wrote Ralph Grizzle on his Cruise Specialists Blog.
Whatever the scope of your trip or itinerary, whether adventure-oriented or designed for quieter delights, fans of smaller cruises report that the experience has given them friends and memories to last a lifetime.
“We were immersed in Alaska both physically and spiritually and came home both renewed and at peace,” wrote one UnCruise Adventures client on Facebook. “...the small number of passengers and incredible crew made being on-board feel like an extended family reunion.”
¹ Symphony of the Seas fact sheet, Royal Caribbean press center.
¹ASymphony of the Seas by the numbers, Royal Caribbean press center.
² "The Cruise Industry’s Boom is Primed to Continue,” Forbes, Sept. 1, 2018
³ Sea Cloud technical data