To those who shudder at the idea of a 3,000-passenger floating resort, small-ship cruising is what it’s all about. Stylish. Friendly. Real. On a small ship, you commune with the sea. You bond with fellow passengers and befriend the crew. There’s no bingo, no theme nights, no shopping, nobody trying to sell you anything. Small ships sail all over the world, to ports in Arabia, South Africa, Asia, the small Greek islands, Croatia, the Grenadines, the Amazon. They can slip into exclusive harbours, out of bounds to their bigger relatives, and the locals don’t sigh with resignation (or rub their hands together with glee) as the gangway is lowered.
Admittedly, small does equal exclusive and therefore expensive, but not always. A small ship may be an expedition vessel, or even part of a cargo fleet. But whether you choose a mega-yacht, a clipper, or a humble supply ship, the voyage will inspire a sense of adventure, and new appreciation of the addictiveness of life at sea.
Norwegian Coastal Voyage
(020 8846 2666; norwegiancoastalvoyage.com)
A fleet of hardy ferries chugs up and down the fjord-indented coastline of Norway delivering mail, cargo, supplies and passengers. There are limited facilities and very expensive drinks, but for many, sitting in the hot tub on deck watching the northern lights dance across the sky is more dazzling than any Broadway show. Ships sail year-round calling at every tiny village and fishing hamlet, stopping several times a day. See the midnight sun in June, or experience the deep, dark and startlingly dry cold of the Norwegian winter, when the aurora borealis is at its best. The Winter Northern Lights Voyage costs from £695 for five nights, Bergen to Tromsø, including flights and half board.
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises
(023 8068 2282; rssc.co.uk)
These are larger ships than rival Silversea, carrying 700 passengers, but in cruise terms this is still small. Acres of space is one of the big selling points; on Seven Seas Voyager and Seven Seas Mariner, every cabin is a lavish suite with balcony. One reason you might need room to expand is the opportunity for fine dining aboard. These two ships have the only Cordon Bleu restaurants at sea, as well as Latitudes, where a menu is prepared in an open galley, as well as classic and fusion dishes in the main restaurant and a casual Mediterranean bistro. Fortunately, there’s also a gym and a Carita de Paris spa to redress the balance. A week in the Baltic in July costs from £2,361 in a suite, including wine with dinner and flights.
(0845 456 1520; celebritycruises.co.uk)
Celebrity Cruises operates a fleet of large, rather grand ships and one tiny one, Celebrity Xpedition, with only 45 suites. This is based year-round in the Galapagos Islands, the unique destination 600 miles off Ecuador that was Charles Darwin’s inspiration. Itineraries vary from seven to 11 nights, travelling at a satisfyingly leisurely pace, admiring giant tortoises, frigate birds, blue-footed boobies and iguanas under the guidance of Ecuadorian ecologists. Life aboard is relaxed and informal, with surprisingly sophisticated facilities, including a small spa and a restaurant the cruise line describes as ‘five star’. Pricing is fluid but expect to pay anything from £1,300 to £3,000 per person for a seven-night cruise, including flights. Whether you choose a mega-yacht, a clipper or a humble supply ship, the voyage will inspire a sense of adventure and a new appreciation of the addictiveness of cruising.
Hebridean Island Cruises
(01756 704704; hebridean.co.uk)
Voyages on Hebridean Spirit (98 passengers) and little sister Hebridean Princess (49) are like jolly house parties with an endlessly generous host. Expect friendly but attentive service, spectacular food with a Scottish influence (including a ‘wee dram’ with the porridge at breakfast) and generously sized cabins with proper bathrooms. Instead of trying to sell shore excursions, which are included in the price anyway, the daily newsletter is full of gossip about the passengers. Spirit sails in the Med and South Africa, and also the Baltic and as far north as the Arctic Circle. Hebridean Princess meanwhile potters around the Scottish coast and islands. Seven nights cruising the Hebrides and mainland Scotland in May costs from £3,020, all-inclusive. The company also offers land and cruise options in conjunction with ITC Classics. For example, you could combine a ten-night Red Sand Seas of the Namib cruise with a four-day holiday to the Western Cape, from £4,710 per person.
(0870 333 7030; silversea.com)
Four sleek, beautiful, all-inclusive ships carry either 296 or 382 passengers in style. Silversea is Italian-owned, as you might guess by the Aqua di Parma bathroom goodies, the gourmet ‘slow food’ La Terrazza restaurant, Lavazza coffee and the appointment of Isabella Rossellini as the cruise line’s ‘ambassador’. Staterooms are superbly equipped with marble bathrooms, DVD players, complimentary drinks cabinet (far superior to a minibar and restocked daily) and pillow menus. Some 80 percent have a private balcony. Clientele is mainly American, seriously rich and usually highly entertaining company. Itineraries worldwide. Prices from £2,841 for a week in Alaska, excluding flights.
Elegant and formal
The Yachts of Seabourn
(0845 070 0500; seabourn.com)
A no-expense-spared small-ship holiday in a glamorous setting, on three 208-passenger yachts which roam the world, taking in Asia, South America and the South Pacific as well as the more standard cruising fare of the Mediterranean and Caribbean. Bring slinky gowns (or your best tux) and serious bling – there are two formal nights every week. Guest lecturers travel with most cruises and other features include personal shoppers, mini-opera performances on board and movies on the open-air deck. Menus are designed by American celebrity chef Charlie Palmer and drinks are included in the price. A 16-day Indian Ocean cruise in November costs from £3,317 per person.
Young and hip
Seadream Yacht Club
(0800 783 1373; seadreamyachtclub.com)
Deliciously decadent cruises on two 100-passenger mega-yachts with a decidedly younger and hipper clientele than other cruise lines. Unforgettable features include the sexy double sun beds on the top deck (where you can sleep under the stars if you like), the gorgeous, clubby Top of the Yacht bar and the weekly Champagne Splash, in which waiters in black tie plunge into the pool and serve bucket loads of champagne and caviar from a lifebelt. Cruise the Med in summer, and in winter head for the Caribbean or, new for 2006/07, South America. Nine nights sailing from Rio to Buenos Aires costs from $3,999, excluding port charges ($585) and flights
Relax in style
(020 7940 4480; windstarcruises.com)
Three elegant yachts (two carrying 148, one taking 308) which motor, even while under sail. Windstar passengers would rather sip a Cosmopolitan than hoist the sails, which is done by computer in any case. Cabins have luxuries like fluffy bathrobes and DVD players and the biggest of the fleet, Wind Surf, has a smart spa. A special platform is lowered from the aft end (the back) of each yacht for watersports when the vessel is anchored in calm water. All three sail in the Caribbean, Central America, the Med and Aegean. From US$2,949, excluding flights, for a week in the Aegean in July.
(01473 292029; starclippers.co.uk)
A life-changing experience for many, when the wind’s in your hair, the teak deck is warming your bare feet and 16 huge, white sails are billowing overhead. The company has two perfectly recreated clipper ships and the world’s only five-masted square-rigger, which roam the Med, the Aegean, the Caribbean and, in winter, south-east Asia. Cabins are compact – these are real sailing ships – and life on board informal and unstructured. You can even help sail the ship if you want to, or shin up the mast. Fellow passengers are sophisticated Europeans, Australians and Americans, either incurable romantics, sailing fanatics, or both. Seven nights sailing from Phuket to Singapore in December costs from £1,065 (cruise only).