When it comes to the size of the boat you’re on, big doesn’t necessarily mean best for a great getaway at sea, as HEIDI SARNA discovers.
I’ve travelled on more giant cruise ships over the years than I can count, mingling with thousands of other passengers in sprawling buffet restaurants and multi-storey show lounges. Don’t get me wrong, my family and I have enjoyed the big ships and their climbing walls, water slides and ice-skating rinks. When they were younger, my children loved the playrooms and activities, my husband was impressed by the huge gyms and I loved the retro-style song and dance reviews, the pomp and circumstance of dinner, and the people-watching. There’s no denying that the mega cruise ships are fun and exciting places – destinations unto themselves – but the glitz and glamour come with a price: all those other people.
On a big-ship cruise, queuing takes up a fair part of each day. You’ve got to line up and wait your turn to make reservations for dining, to book a shore excursion, to ask a question at the front deck, and even to get off and on the ship in port.
Small ships avoid the nasty stuff associated with mass-market travel. Mini cruise ships carrying no more than a few hundred passengers are intimate, quirky and personal, like boutique hotels, and have a stronger focus on the ports – their size enables them to access river deltas, bays and coastal areas the big ships can’t squeeze into; there’s also less emphasis on entertainment. I’ve been on dozens, from sailing ships in the Greek Isles and the Indonesian archipelago to riverboats in Myanmar and oceangoing mini-vessels in the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas. By far, these small-ship cruises have left the most indelible impression on my travel psyche.
Windstar Cruises and SeaDream Yacht Club are two small ship cruise lines with vessels carrying just a couple of hundred passengers each on casually elegant jaunts all over the world (though predominately in Europe and the Caribbean). Both have a no-jacket-required dress code and are geared to adults who appreciate the convenience and romance of travelling by ship, but who shun crowds and queuing. Their ships have mini-marinas at the stern for easy access to kayaking, sailing and swimming when at anchor in some ports, plus each has a small pool, fitness centre and spa – just enough diversions, and no more. I’ve cruised with both lines multiple times; here are accounts of two recent trips.
Windstar Cruises’ trio of 212-passenger Star-class ships: Star Pride, Star Breeze and Star Legend
On a 10-night cruise aboard Star Pride from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City with an old college friend, we set sail from the docks near Hong Kong’s famous old Star Ferry terminal, where only smaller ships can dock, and sipped champagne on the top deck as the ship glided past the famous skyline and into the South China Sea. It was chillier than we’d expected, but we were warmed by the alcohol and the thrill of watching one of the world’s most famous cities backlit against a smouldering sunset. Star Pride’s roving photographer snapped pictures of happy couples and groups of friends in holiday mode, and eventually everyone meandered back to their suites to get dressed for dinner.
Typical of small luxury ships, all of the Star-class ships’ cabins are mini-suites with a sitting area, a mini-bar, a walk-in closet and a bathroom with double sinks, a tub and a shower. The suites have either large windows or French balconies – sliding glass doors with a railing and small ledge you can stand on. The three 212-passenger Star ships formerly belonged to Seabourn Cruise Line and in 2014-2015 were folded into the Windstar fleet, joining its three motorised sailing yachts that carry between 148 and 310 passengers.
We had the choice of two restaurants, one buffet-style with indoor and outdoor seating, the other inside on a lower deck with a more formal feeling. Highlights included delicious seafood skewers and Portobello mushroom and lobster cappuccino appetisers. Before and after dinner, entertainment revolved mostly around cocktails and chats at several lounges, or in the tiny casino, with a singing duo providing the background sounds.
Most entertaining and enriching were the lectures. On sea days, Geoff Devito gave one or two presentations about Vietnam with slides and a witty and informative narrative. Armed with several degrees, including a Master’s in the anthropology of tourism, and years spent living abroad and working on ships, Geoff was a confident and engaging speaker. He talked about UNESCO World Heritage sites in Vietnam as well as how tourism affects the local culture, keeping our attention by injecting fun quips into his presentations. (“You may wonder why I have so much energy,” he joked. “It’s because I had a cup of Vietnamese coffee two weeks ago.”)
In each port, Geoff accompanied one of the ship’s shore excursions, including an interesting tour of Hanoi where he shared his insights from previous trips. He also mingled with passengers on deck, answering questions as we cruised into port or passed interesting places, such as the scenic limestone forest of Ha Long Bay. With such a small passenger contingent, it was easy to chat to Geoff around the ship. On huge vessels, if they have lectures (which they often do not), they are delivered in giant theatres or show lounges and it’s certainly not easy to fraternise with the speaker throughout the cruise.
The Windstar fleet sails all over the world, including Costa Rica and French Polynesia, but most of its itineraries are focused on Europe and the Caribbean. Pricing includes soft drinks and meals, and one free shore excursion on every cruise.
SeaDream Yacht Club’s pair of 112-passenger Dream Boats
Like a shoe that fits just right, for me SeaDream Yacht Club’s 112-passenger mini cruise ships offer the ideal mix of sporty and adventurous with luxe touches like an open bar, great meals and a crew of charming ex-model waiters and bar staff who follow passengers around with trays of Prosecco.
On my last SeaDream Yacht Club cruise (with the same friend from college), we met a fun family that captured the SeaDream vibe so well. Worldly and well-travelled, yet unpretentious, they included a 60-something jet-setting mom and dad, their grown daughter and a family friend with the cool swagger of Mick Jagger. We dined with them many times and shared drinks on deck and at dinner, along with lots of laughs.
Built in the mid-1980s as the luxurious Sea Goddess I and II, the ships changed hands a few times and were extensively renovated and relaunched in 2002. They’re classics, with lovely brass fittings and lots of wood, from the decks to the cabins, furniture, doors and bar tops.
Breakfast and lunch are typically enjoyed in the alfresco Topside Restaurant, where you can sit by the railing with sea views and stroll back and forth to the generous buffet for tropical fruit and fresh-baked things, or order something hot off the menu. At lunch on my recent cruise, we filled our plates with shrimp, salad and more fruit, and sometimes ordered a yummy Indonesian noodle or seafood dish from the waiters, handsome Hawaiian-shirt-wearing pros who you could imagine as maîtred’s in a five-star hotel in Europe somewhere. Dinner highlights included homemade potato gnocchi, halibut, wonton soup and a vegan cheesecake.
With these fun-loving folks and the friendly but professional waiters and bartenders, the ship felt like a big private yacht, as though we had been invited to a party thrown by a rich uncle. This cruise took us from Singapore to Bali, while on an earlier SeaDream cruise in the Caribbean I sailed from Puerto Rico to St Thomas. One of the highlights of both was the line’s signature champagne and caviar splash, a young-at-heart free-for-all for where adults in bathing suits enjoy plastic glasses of champagne from waiters wading through the water with trays and serving dollops of caviar scooped out of a silver bowl floating on a surfboard
“A SeaDream cruise is all about being social and enjoying the casual vibe,” a very contented passenger told me as he took another swig of his wine.
Seeing the menacing giant lizards lumber about on our guided tour in Komodo National Park was memorable, and the beaches of St Barts were amazing, but mostly, the gist of a SeaDream cruise, no matter where it goes, is hanging out on the decks, reclining on a wide sunbed (and hoping the ash from the nearby funnel isn’t blowing the wrong way), soaking in the hot tub at the open stern deck or installed at the open-air Top of the Yacht Bar, sipping endless glasses of rosé and revelling in your good fortune. There are rarely enrichment lectures on a SeaDream cruise, though films are shown from time to time in the lounge – it’s all about relaxing on deck with the wind in your hair and a glass in hand.
To get ready for dinner each evening, we’d head down to our 195-square-foot foot cabin, a comfortable, bright room with blond wood panelling and a large window, a sitting area and long wooden credenza where the electronics and mini-bar resided. The bedding was plush (though the beds were narrow for anyone on the large side) and the bathrooms with showers were small but efficiently designed. Not over-done and not cookie-cutter St. Regis décor; the cabins are elegant in an old-world nautical way.
SeaDream’s rates include meals and all wines, spirits, soft drinks and tips.