Compact Cruising

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Compact Cruising

Not keen on a brand name cruise? Then set sail on a small, luxury boat.

Google the Dorado-Warmi River, a narrow canal that snakes off the Yanallpa – one of the Amazon’s Peruvian tributaries – and you’ll pull up exactly 20 search results. By my standards, that makes it as undiscovered a place as you can get on this planet now. That was verified by the fact that one day into cruising the region, I’d seen families of wide-eyed owl monkeys peeking out from termite holes in the trees lining the water, but not one other human aside from my 16 fellow passengers and 21 crew members on the M/V Aqua.

It’s not what you picture when you envision a cruise, nor is the Peruvian Amazon probably a place you’d imagine cruising to – if you’re even imagining taking a cruise in the first place. According to the American Affluence Research Centre, an organization that tracks the purchase attitudes and spending habits of the top 10 percent of Americans, interest in cruising is at an all-time low, no doubt fuelled by a number of recent “bad news” stories. But for a certain type of traveller, cruising, with its big buffets, splashy shows and waterslides, has never been all that appealing. “Big ships are for resort people,” says Anne Campbell, the author of several editions of Fielding’s Guide to Worldwide Cruises. “You might go to some ports, but the experience is really about being on your ship, which is a giant resort at sea.”

For people who aren’t keen on the traditional cruise, there’s an alternative. Companies are now offering more intimate cruises on small, luxury boats.

For people who aren’t keen on the traditional cruise, there is an alternative. A number of companies are now offering more intimate cruises on small, luxury boats. The Aqua, which I was on, holds up to 24 passengers in spacious accommodations – at 240 square feet, suites are about a third bigger than standard cabins on the Carnival Dream – with wall-to-wall windows, marble bathrooms and decor that feels like a chic boutique hotel. At 130 feet in length, it’s easy to imagine the entire boat might fit onto the pool complex of one of the mega ships. Other small lines, such as Silversea, carry just a few hundred passengers at a time on ships one-tenth the size of the biggies. In both cases the experience smaller ships offer will buck every one of your resistances to cruising.

Kristine George, a tourism executive from Whistler, B.C., never had a desire to take a cruise. In 2007, though, she found herself aboard the Wind Surf, a sailing ship that belongs to the small luxury cruise line Windstar, after her then-husband won a trip as an incentive reward from the pharmaceutical company he worked for. The ship sailed to popular ports like St. Lucia and St. Maarten, but for the most part it docked at smaller islands that are generally inaccessible to larger ships.

The mainstream ports, she says, “were way more touristy and way more commercial. They were all set up and ready for the cruise ship passengers.” But the smaller stops were entirely conducive to the type of travel experience she generally seeks out. “When we were in St. Barths, we had to rent a car for the day, we had to figure it out for ourselves, which we loved. We loved the intimate side of being able to get lost and find our way around and explore.” What’s more, she and her husband enjoyed coming back to the ship and hearing about what her fellow cruisers had gotten up to all day, conversations she doesn’t feel would have been nearly as interesting if everyone had had the same cookie cutter experience.

“People who go on small ships have already been there and done that,” Campbell says. “They’re serious travellers going for a real immersion in the destination. If they’re in Alaska, they’re the kind of people who are going to want to be out on deck and watching everything at eye level or getting into a kayak because you might spot a whale.”

When you do find yourself amid a pod of orcas, as happened to Scott Tucker, a friend I made on the Aqua, small ships often have the flexibility to allow passengers to get more out of the moment. “We were on our way to Glacier Bay, but the captain got on the loudspeaker and asked who wanted to stay for a while and watch the whales or stay on course. The whole ship let out a yell for the whales,” he says. “We actually saw a big cruise ship go right by us. I don’t even think they noticed that there were whales.”

While small ships lack the extensive amenities of the larger ones – the smallest may not have a gym or pool – they offer one particular asset the big boats can’t match: their people. It’s not uncommon to have a one-to-one ratio of guests to crew. “For every 100 passengers you’ll have 100 crew. On a mass market cruise ship, you might have 30 crew to every 100 passengers,” says Dean Barreca, a Toronto-based cruise agent.

But it’s more than just a numbers game. On small ships, staff are handpicked, many locally and specifically for their personalities. Whether referring to an expert guide or the waiters in the dining room, every small cruise fan I interviewed for this story counted moments with the crew among their highlights. Of course, you’re paying for a higher level of service – while mainstream cruises have dipped to as low as US$38 a night as of late, three nights aboard the Aqua start at $2,685 per person (all-inclusive, which the large ships are not).

On the Aqua, all three of our guides grew up in Amazonian villages and the boat crew were all Peruvian, making lectures or watching the bartender shake up a Pisco sour part of the immersive experience. On the last night of the trip, after we got back from visiting with the residents of a tiny riverside community and showered and dressed for dinner, all the passengers and crew gathered in the lounge – a living room with its comfy couches and Amazonian art and coffee table books. Thomas, my cabin attendant, brought out his guitar and Johnny, one of the guides, played the drums and for a good hour everybody, guests and crew, danced and sang to a mix of Peruvian songs and Gypsy Kings covers and other Spanish tunes we all knew. And when we finally made it down to the dining room, we pulled all of the tables together so that we could have one final dinner as a group. It was the only time during the entire trip where bigger seemed better.

Get Out There!

Smaller doesn’t mean fewer options – there are a number of cruise lines that specialize in small, intimate trips all around the globe.

Aqua Expeditions

Fleet: Two architecturally designed riverboats, another launching in 2014
Sails to: The Peruvian Amazon. The M/V Aqua Mekong will offer a similar experience in Vietnam and Cambodia starting in 2014


Fleet: Three sailing yachts, one motorized yacht
Sails to: Italy, the Black Sea, Greek Isles, Northern Europe, the Caribbean and Tahiti, among other destinations


Fleet: Seven small luxury cruise ships
Sails to: Mauritius, South Africa, Australia, Ghana, Iceland, Northern Europe, the Canadian Maritimes, Caribbean and more

Star Clippers

Fleet: Three tall ships
Sails to: North Africa and Spain, Costa Rica and Panama, Northern Europe, Caribbean, Mediterranean

Lindblad Expeditions

Fleet: 10 expedition ships, six of which are operated in partnership with National Geographic
Sails to: Australia, Antarctica, the Baltics, Galapagos, Alaska, Baja California, the Amazon, Vietnam and others

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