Cruising: Why Bigger Isn't Better

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The cruise world is currently awash with news on the biggest mega ships. With thousands of passengers, mall-like shopping arcades, Broadway-style shows, and more restaurants than there are days of the week, these ships are like floating cities -- some even have their own zip codes. But while they offer something for just about every resort-lover, just try going off the beaten path when you're carrying more than 3,000 passengers.
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Why Cruise? Small Ships

The cruise world is currently awash with news on the biggest mega ships. With thousands of passengers, mall-like shopping arcades, Broadway-style shows, and more restaurants than there are days of the week, these ships are like floating cities -- some even have their own zip codes. But while they offer something for just about every resort-lover, just try going off the beaten path when you're carrying more than 3,000 passengers. Take a big-ship cruise, and you'll probably have to "tender" (a cruising term for taking shuttle boats in from the harbor) at ports where the ship is too big to dock. In addition, large ship lines have to take into consideration whether thousands of passengers will overwhelm a destination, so they tend to visit larger, more-established ports.

"I really prefer the small ships. Bottom line, you should never feel like a number, or part of a mass -- onboard but also on land. That's what I miss when I'm on big ships," says Carolyn Brown, Editor-in-Chief of CruiseCritic.com.

So if you're looking for something more intimate, check out these ten diminutive ships, none of which carry more than 350 passengers.

Why Cruise? Small Ships

What It's Like: The two 148-passenger and one 312-passenger vessels that make up Windstar Cruises are all sailing ships, with tall masts and white sails that look grand against a blue sky. These vessels have all the trappings of a sailboat: cabins with portholes, a teak deck, a staff that sometimes feel a bit like camp counselors, and a casual dress code. In some ports, the staff opens up the water sports marina, which has water skis and banana boats, and you can explore the port on your own from a kayak or a sailboat. The ship also provides complimentary snorkeling gear, so in some ports you can walk down the gangway and along the beach to get in some swim time without signing up for an excursion.

Where to Go: These ships sail around the Caribbean, Europe, and the Middle East, and in each part of the world they focus on smaller ports. One Caribbean itinerary, for example, starts in Iles des Saintes, and calls on two small islands in the Grenadines -- Bequia and Mayreau -- that passengers on large ships only get to see by shore excursion. There, you'll find empty white-sand beaches and water so clear you can watch a spiny lobster crawl past your toes. www.windstarcruises.com

Why Cruise? Small Ships

What It's Like: American Safari Cruises has three yachts that are as small as cruise ships get, ranging from 12- to 40-passengers each. As a result they provide a totally different experience from a mega ship or even a 200-passenger ship. Return from a day of exploring and the crew may be waiting with wine and trays of hors d'oeuvres. With as few as a dozen people onboard, the plan for the day can unfold based on your whims and the weather, rather than following a rigid schedule. And it's not like you're tied to the other guests; the yachts have loaner kayaks and snorkel gear so you can explore the harbors and inlets on your own.

Where to Go: These ships sail the Sea of Cortez and visit Mexico's Baja Peninsula. You may have the opportunity to jump off the back of the boat and swim with sea lions or snorkel through schools of fish. You can also watch from the deck as thousands of dolphins and whales swim by on their way back to Alaska at the end of the season (starting in April). www.americansafaricruises.com

Why Cruise? Small Ships

What It's Like: On Star Clippers' three ships you can get into the bowsprit net (if you dare), and watch the waves rolling below, climb the rigging, or take classes in knot tying or celestial navigation. Cabins have wood paneling and portholes, too. The 227-passenger Royal Clipper, a five-masted ship, can also turn off the motor and let the wind power the sails.

Where to Go: The new Costa Rica itineraries are made up entirely of smaller ports, making them ideal for adventure-seekers and nature-lovers as well as divers and snorkelers. The Star Flyer sails two seven-night itineraries round-trip from Puerto Caldera in Costa Rica to either Panama or Nicaragua. Both routes call at the National Reserve of Curu, where you can explore the mangroves and see spider and howler monkeys, iguanas, macaws, and various species of tropical birds. www.starclippers.com

Why Cruise? Small Ships

What It's Like: The 90-passenger Celebrity Xpedition is part of the larger Celebrity Cruises fleet. This ship, formerly known as the Sun Bay 1, sails the Galapagos Islands year-round. Considered one of the most exciting itineraries in the world for environmentalists, the ship offers the first opportunity to sail these waters on a regularly scheduled itinerary with a major cruise line. Since the ship is here full-time, there are little nods to the region onboard -- the formal dining room, for example, is called Darwin's Restaurant, the casual restaurant is the Beagle Grill after Darwin's ship, and the lounge is named the Blue Finch Bar (the Galapagos Islands is home to 13 species of finch). The activities also reflect the surroundings: Sit in on a lecture about local wildlife, or join a group on a search to see iguana and frigate birds.

Where to Go: On these Galapagos cruises, the focus is on conservation. Unlike on Celebrity's big ship cruises, all shore excursions are included in the cost. Follow naturalist guides into the national park on scouting expeditions to see sea lions, giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies and 200 different types of starfish. You'll explore by water, and hike over the islands' black lava rocks, too. www.celebritycruises.com

Why Cruise? Small Ships

What It's Like: These cruises are as much about education as they are about relaxation. Cruise to Alaska on a Cruise West ship, and you'll attend lectures that offer insight on, say, how to get the best photograph of the local wildlife or how environmental protections are working to preserve the natural beauty of the Inside Passage. Captains have the option of slowing down and going off the itinerary when, for example, dolphins decide to play in the ship's wake, allowing passengers the chance to admire and photograph these graceful creatures, (or majestic whales, or sea otters) whenever the opportunity arises.

Where to Go: These ships sail around the world, and wherever they go they take their smart approach to travel and their adventurous spirit with them. Cruise in Alaska, and you'll be loaded into an inflatable craft in order to see the glaciers up close. www.cruisewest.com

Why Cruise? Small Ships

What It's Like: SeaDream Yacht Club's two 112-passenger ships aim to make cruising feel a bit more like yachting. The ships themselves are elegant yet casual -- there are no formal nights, no seating times at meals, and the water sports platforms make it easy to kayak or hop on a Jet Ski or sailboat whenever you please. Beverages (including wine and cocktails), tips, activities (from the watersports to loaner bikes on land), and shore excursions are all included, adding to the feel that you're on a private ship.

Where to Go: The ships sail in Europe and the Caribbean, and they make a point of stopping in smaller ports that the big ships would overwhelm. In Greece this summer, for example, the ship is calling on the quiet islands of Paros and Sifnos, both of which have similar architecture to Mykonos (whitewashed houses with blue doors and shutters) but fewer crowds. The itineraries are also flexible, so the ship may make an unannounced visit to a beach bar or pull out of port ahead of schedule if it rains, just as you would choose to do if you were the captain. www.seadreamyachtclub.com

Why Cruise? Small Ships

What It's Like: The Yachts of Seabourn focus on offering luxury to a select few. The 208- and 416-passenger ships are made up entirely of suites. Charlie Trotter, the celebrity chef behind Aureole in Manhattan, helms the restaurant. Guestrooms have the same amenities you'd expect in a luxurious hotel, including flat-screen TVs, DVD players, Bose stereos, well-stocked bars and beds topped with duvets and feather pillows.

Where to Go: Seabourn sees Asia up close and personal. While larger ships have to dock at ports that are an hour or more away from major cities, these ships can get to the edge of town. The Seabourn Pride, for example, sails up the Chao Phraya River into Bangkok and docks a mere 20 minutes away from the city center; it can tie up just minutes from Ho Chi Minh City on Vietnam itineraries, too. www.seabourn.com

Why Cruise? Small Ships

What It's Like: The Paul Gauguin has been based in French Polynesia for a long time, and that's reflected in the ship's interiors. The 332-passenger ship is full of French Polynesian art and artifacts, and the spa is an offshoot of the InterContinental Thalasso Spa on Bora Bora. Onboard, you'll see Polynesian performances and have an opportunity to sample the local fare as well. Since so many people come to the South Pacific to dive, the ship also offers a water sports marina that specializes in diving and provides scuba lessons -- the only Padi-certified courses on a ship in the region -- in addition to windsurfing and waterskiing. For children, there's a Jean-Michel Cousteau-designed kids program that focuses on environmental issues.

Where to Go: The ship no longer stays in French Polynesia year round, but the exotic islands she now calls in are just as exciting: choose between tours of the Cook Islands, the Society Islands, New Zealand, the Marquesas, and the Tuamotus. www.pgcruises.com

Why Cruise? Small Ships

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