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Best Small Ship Cruises for Bicycling

Best Small-Ship Cruises for Bicycling

By John Roberts.

Cycling offers a unique sense of freedom when exploring a destination.

Sitting high in a bike seat and pedaling through European countryside and historic villages and cities lets you see these places in a different way. Few experiences are quite as exhilarating as hopping onto your bike to work up a bit of a sweat and get your heart pumping during a day in port on your cruise.

Whether you are an avid cyclist looking to pile up big mileage on a daily ride or just an active traveler who loves a good ride to get away from the crowds and cover more ground in a new and interesting place, cruise lines are offering more options every year for travelers to love.

I love to include fitness into my travel and have been on dozens of small-ship cruises and racked up hundreds of miles in the bike seat to visit cities, villages and the countryside. It’s always a thrilling experience.

Check out our roundup of the top cruises for cyclists based on the 88 small-ship lines (and counting!) that we cover on QuirkyCruise.com.

Most of the small-ship biking opportunities are available in Europe, but you can also find some lines that can get you pedaling in places like New Zealand, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, as well.

AmaWaterways

The river cruise line has led the way for years when it comes to active travel. All AmaWaterways’ ships in Europe carry bikes onboard that passengers can use at their leisure or as part of active shore excursions that are offered in certain ports.

Best Small Ship Cruises for Bicycling

All AmaWaterways’ ships in Europe carry bikes onboard. * Photo: John Roberts

AmaWaterways also has a revolutionary partnership with Backroads to offer specific sailings for avid cyclists. On these partial-ship charters, Backroads guides lead groups of up to 30 cyclists or more on daily rides along the Danube, Douro or Seine Rivers, for examples.

I took a Backroads cycling cruise on the Danube, and we piled up about 150 miles over the course of the weeklong voyage. This meant that I didn’t feel guilty at all about all that food and beer that I also enjoyed.

Here’s Ama Waterways website for more details.

Click the photo below 👇🏼to see John’s video about Ama Waterways’ cycling chops!

Best Small Ship Cruises for Bicycling

AMA Waterways has led the way for years when it comes to active travel. * Photo: John Roberts

Scenic Cruises

Scenic also carries bikes onboard its ships in Europe for independent passenger use and for guided tours on designated group excursions. These are e-bikes, which means you can add a little boost of electric power to assist you over the hills, if needed. This makes the activity more accessible for all ages and fitness levels and allows you to enjoy glorious days pedaling amid vineyards or along river paths.

Best Small Ship Cruises for Bicycling

Scenic partners with Trek Travel, a biking company that offers group cycling charters on Scenic ships on the Danube and Rhine Rivers. * Photo: John Roberts

Scenic also partners with Trek Travel, a biking company that offers group cycling charters on Scenic ships on the Danube and Rhine Rivers. I did one of the Danube bike tours, and this was easily the most physically challenging cruise I have been on to date.

Here’s Scenic’s website for more details.

Click the photo below 👇🏼for John’s video about Scenic’s bicycling options! 

Best Small Ship Cruises for Bicycling

Scenic carries e-bikes onboard its ships in Europe allowing you can a boost of power if need be (John never needs the help of course!). * Photo: John Roberts

Ponant

The French cruise line has a new fleet of luxury expedition yachts and makes good use of the 184-passenger vessels through its partnership with Backroads, a well-established active tour company that runs biking cruises on select Ponant cruises. The partial charter groups come onboard to explore exotic destinations and undertake challenging bike rides in places like New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden and Russia.

Best Small Ship Cruises for Bicycling

Ponant partners with Backroads for special small-ship biking cruises that explore exotic destinations and undertake challenging bike rides in places like New Zealand, pictured here. * Photo: John Roberts

I rode with my Backroads group of 24 riders in New Zealand on routes that went up to 24 miles along stunning coastlines and through quiet farmlands. The mid-ride meals and wine tasting at the vineyards were, needless to say (!), a great way to refuel. Read John’s article! 

Here’s Ponant’s website for more info.

Click the photo below 👇🏼for selfie stick-wielding John’s video about his Ponant-Backroads adventure!

Best Small Ship Cruises for Bicycling

New Zealand is an ideal place to cycle! 🚴🏻‍♂️ Photo: John Roberts

Tauck Cruises

Tauck’s fleet of European river ships features bikes, as well as regular guided biking excursions at its port stops. We enjoyed our outings pedaling with an intimate group of riders during our Tauck cruise on the Rhone River in France, taking rides in Lyon, Arles and Avignon.

Passengers can also experience scenic cycling amid the windmills in Kinderdijk in the Netherlands or take a spin around Antwerp or Ghent in Belgium.

Here’s Tauck’s website for more details.

Check out John’s video about his Tauck river cruise along France’s Rhone River.

Avalon Waterways

Avalon Waterways offers 10 bikes that are free for passengers to use on each of its ships in Europe. The line also offers “Active” optional bike tours (for a fee) that let cyclists explore a region that offers especially good riding routes in a more thrilling way. These outings are led by certified, expert guides.

Check out Avalon’s website for more info.

Best Small Ship Cruises for Bicycling

Cycling is a great way to explore Europe; here John poses in Rotterdam. * Photo: John Roberts

Emerald Waterways

The river line carries 20 bikes onboard its ships for passenger use, and guided cycling tours are offered in several locations on Europe itineraries. The line features at least one “active” shore excursion per cruise, such as the popular Melk-to-Durnstein route in Austria on Danube voyages, which I have ridden several times.

Here’s the Emerald website for more details.

Best Small Ship Cruises for Bicycling

John & Colleen biking in port in Budapest. * Photo: John Roberts

Uniworld Boutique River Cruises

Another river cruise line that features a fleet of bikes onboard, Uniworld has a partnership with Butterfield and Robinson, a travel company focused on active touring. Butterfield and Robinson charter space on certain Uniworld sailings for special cycling-themed cruises, offering a luxury experience as you cycle along routes that highlight Europe’s Old World heritage.

Check out the UniWorld website for more info.

Rhine River Family Cruises

You can bike every day in port on a Rhine cruise. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

CroisiEurope Cruises

CroisiEurope’s offerings include its “Cruise ‘n Bike” voyages along five waterways in Europe. These sailings are designed specifically for cycling enthusiasts who want to explore the idyllic landscapes under pedal power along the Danube, Rhine, Rhone, Loire and Gironde Rivers.

You can bike in Bratislava and Budapest or amid the forests, pastures and orchards that inspired artists in Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Go to CroisiEurope’s website for more details.

Best Small Ship Cruises for Bicycling

Biking in Bordeaux on a CroisiEurope river cruise. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Grasshopper Adventures

This company is not a small-ship cruise line, but a well-respected bicycle tour company operating in Asia since 2004.

Grasshopper Adventures has started getting into small-ship cruise and bicycling combos they call “Bike & Boat Tours.”

They’ve chartered three charming and intimate colonial-style river boats for upcoming week-long cruises on the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam; Thailand’s River Kwai; and India’s Brahmaputra River — the boats are your base and each day you’ll spend time exploring on shore via guided bike excursions.

Here’s a video from Grasshopper that provides a great overview.

Most days schedule a total of 30 to 50 kilometers of pedaling for morning and afternoon cycling jaunts — choose to do both or just one ride a day, it’s up to you. There will be non-biking excursions offered as well if you want a break or if your spouse or traveling partner has no interest in biking. Everyone’s happy!

Best Small Ship Cruises for Bicycling

Pedalling over Thailand’s River Kwai. * Photo: Grasshopper Adventures

 

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Galapagos Islands Overview

By Heidi Sarna.

The Galapagos Islands are one of the most coveted and stunning small ship cruising regions in the world thanks to the unique wildlife (from sea lions and seals to turtles, iguanas, penguins and birds of all feathers) and the scientific legacy of Charles Darwin. The naturalist first spent time on the remote Pacific Ocean islands in the 1830s (see below) when his theory on natural selection took seed.

The endemic Galapagos marine iguana

The endemic Galapagos marine iguana. * Photo: Michael S Nolan

A volcanic archipelago of 20 main islands, and 100 or so more islets, the Galapagos Islands are one of the original 12 UNESCO World Heritage sites established in 1978. They represent an incredibly diverse range of habitats — from hauntingly desolate volcanic landscapes to lush green highlands, mangroves, and sandy beaches, both gorgeous arcs of white sand and fascinating black lava swathes.

Off shore, there are coral reefs and lagoons, and diving and snorkeling is excellent in many places. Since 1966, most of the land and surrounding waters — 97 percent to be exact — were set aside by the Ecuadorian government as a national park.

Major ocean currents come together at the Galapagos archipelago, some 600 miles west of Ecuador, creating a rich stew of nutrient rich cool waters from the south (Humboldt Current), warm currents from the north, and a deep cold current from the west, all of which in turn support a vast array of interesting flora and fauna from diverse environments.

“The Galapagos Islands are home to some of the highest levels of endemism (species found nowhere else on earth) anywhere on the planet. About 80% of the land birds you will see, 97% of the reptiles and land mammals, and more than 30% of the plants are endemic. More than 20% of the marine species in Galapagos are found nowhere else on earth. Favorites include the giant Galapagos tortoise, marine iguana, flightless cormorant, and the Galapagos penguin — the only penguin species to be found in the Northern Hemisphere.”

— Galapagos Conservancy

Wild Galapagos giant tortoise munching grass on Santa Cruz Island, on a Lindblad Expeditions trip. * Photo: Michael S. Nolan

Wild Galapagos giant tortoise munching grass on Santa Cruz Island, on a Lindblad Expeditions trip. * Photo: Michael S. Nolan

To try and keep the islands as untainted by tourism as possible, Ecuador regulates the number and size of ships (100 passengers or less) permitted to cruise in the waters of the Galapagos Islands, and also limits the number of times a particular ship can visit an island (once every 14 days). Cruising between islands usually takes place at night, so daytime is spent on shore or in the water on excursions. Naturalists guides, all licensed with the Galapagos National Park, lead excursions, give talks on board and mingle with passengers.

Ships in the Galapagos are equipped with Zodiacs (small inflatable boats) to take small groups of passengers to shore, along scenic coastlines and on snorkeling expeditions. Snorkeling equipment is routinely provided and diving gear can often be arranged. Some ships, like the Lindblad boats, have underwater cameras shooting videos that are then shown in the ships’ lounges. Some ships also have kayaks for use on guided jaunts.

Time on board is spent listening to lectures from the naturalists and standing on the decks chatting with other passengers, officers and crew as you keep an eye out for wildlife. Before dinner passengers usually gather in the lounge for a drink to discuss the day and what’s in store for tomorrow.

It’s just under a two-hour flight between Guayaquil on the Ecuadorian mainland coast and the airport on the island of Baltra, next to Santa Cruz, or the airport on San Cristobal Island. Cruises can be as short as three or four nights, are as long as two weeks, though most are 7 to 10 nights, not including the one- to two-night hotel stay in Guayaquil or Quito on either end that is necessary to make most flight connections.

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Ports of Call

Here are highlights from a handful of islands; most have multiple sights on shore and off.

Bartolome. It’s considered the most visited and most photographed island in the Galapagos, namely for Pinnacle Rock — a cool rock formation you can ogle from a nearby bluff. The picturesque beach below it is popular for snorkeling and swimming; keep your eyes open for Galapagos penguins, herons, Galapagos hawks, green sea turtles, spotted eagle rays, and white- and black-tipped sharks

Espanola. This is the island for seeing Albatross — we’re talking 25,000 to 30,000 Waved Albatross doing their goofy mating dances between April and December. Many other bird species nest here as well, including blue-footed and Nazca boobies. Flocks of tamed Darwin’s finches and Española mockingbirds sometimes land on tourists’ heads and shoulders. Bright red and green marine iguanas are also part of the show. On the beach at Gardner Bay, adorable sea lion pups congregate on the beach while mom goes fishing.

Fernandina. The archipelago’s youngest and most volcanically active island, here you can see marine iguanas and flightless cormorants, as well as penguins, sea lions and Sally Lightfoot crabs. The lava cactus growing on young lava is another cool site. Divers off shore will be thrilled to spot sea horses, sea turtles, and many types of sharks and rays.

Floreana. There’s so much to photograph on this island, from pink Galapagos flamingoes to pintail ducks, stilts, large-billed flycatchers, several species of finch. Devil’s Crown is the remnants of a volcanic crater that pokes up through the water of shore; strong swimmers and confident snorkelers can jump off zodiacs right into the crown for a close up look at sea lions, king angel fish, balloon fish, hawkfish, yellowtail grunts, tiger snake eels, white-tipped sharks, eagle rays, wrasses, hammerhead sharks, and sea turtles. Birds also like Devil’s Crown, from boobies to pelicans, and frigatebirds.

Blue footed boobies have, as you would expect, blue feet. * Photo: Lindblad Expeditions

Blue footed boobies have, as you would expect, blue feet. * Photo: Lindblad Expeditions

Isabela. The largest of all the islands at about 75 miles long, Isabela has several active volcanoes, including 5,600-foot-high Wolf Volcano, the highest point in the archipelago. The island has more wild tortoises than all the other islands combined, according to the Galapagos Conservancy, and the west coast of Isabela is considered the best place to see whales, from humpbacks to sperms, sei, minkes and orcas. The island is also home to birds of all kinds, from flamingoes to paint-billed crakes, white-cheeked pintails, common gallinules, flightless cormorants, penguins, pelicans and lava herons, plus land birds the likes of finches, hawks, yellow warblers, large-billed flycatchers and occasionally the woodpecker finch. There are also a handful of excellent dive sites offshore.

Rabida. This small, arid island is home to scads of marine iguanas and sea lions, as well as brown pelicans, and blue-footed and nazca boobies. Large pink flamingos, pintail ducks and common stilts feed in the shallow water of a saltwater lagoon, while finches, Galapagos doves, yellow warblers, and mockingbirds dart around.

San Cristobal. The island where Darwin first went ashore in 1835, San Cristobal is the second most populated island in the Galapagos with about 6,000 permanent residents and it also has an airport with daily flights to the mainland. Otherwise, the island is a wonderland of natural sites including Punta Pitt, a dramatic bluff with great views of a sea lion colony and the communal nesting place of red-footed, blue-footed and Nazca boobie birds. The coral sand beach at the base of the gorgeous Cerro Brujo tuff cone is popular for swimming and snorkeling and Kicker Rocker is a spectacular volcanic offshore rock formation where blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, frigatebirds, and sea lions roam.

Santa Cruz. The most populated of the Galapagos, Santa Cruz is the islands’ tourism hub thanks to the airport that most tourists go in and out of on neighboring Baltra Island, a 10-minute ferry ride away. Top sites on Santa Cruz include the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center to have a look at the many different species, from hatchlings to juveniles to old timers. (Thousands of giant tortoises lived on the islands until the 19th century when sailors and pirates began to kill them for food and oil.) Other island highlights include: Cerro Crocker, the highest point on the island with great views; Las Bachas beach, a major nesting site for sea turtles; South Plaza islet for sea lions, land iguanas and lots of seabirds; and offshore dive sites teeming with sea lions, sea turtles, sharks, eels, manta rays, eagle rays, fur seals and lots of fish.

Santiago. Once the scene of thriving salt mines in the early to mid 20th century, today there are several great visitors’ sights, including James Bay where you can see nesting sea turtles, flamingoes, Galapagos hawks, white-cheeked pintail ducks and fur seals. In Sullivan Bay, you can walk across a recent (late 19th century) lava flow and check out the interesting volcanic cones and formations. There is also an excellent snorkeling site in the channel between the shoreline and a small islet called Chinese Hat, where you can take a gander at sea lions, penguins, rays and sharks.

For more details, the Galapagos Conservancy is a great source.

When to Go

You can cruise the Galapagos Islands year-round. The peak season is summer — mid-June though early September — and mid-December though Mid-January, when prices are highest and islands are the busiest.

December through May is warmer (mid 70s to mid 80s Fahrenheit), sunnier and rainier (expect a daily afternoon shower). Since temperatures are warmer both in and out of the water, and there’s little wind, snorkeling is appealing, except that there are fewer fish swimming around. It’s breeding season for land birds, sea turtles and sea lions (in March and April, you can see adorable newborn seal pups crawling on the beaches), so you can watch mating rituals and ooh and aah over babies.

June through November is cooler (low 70s Fahrenheit) and windy (seas can be rougher), but it rarely rains during these months. The Humboldt Current is to thank, it reaches the Galápagos from the south and brings colder water and colder weather with it. BUT it also brings water rich in nutrients and plankton, so there are more fish in the sea at this time of year (divers and snorkelers love it), and because there are more fish, there are lots of seabirds fishing, from Albatrosses to Penguins, Blue-footed Boobies and owls.

Lindblad Expedition's National Geographic Endeavour in the Galapagos. * Photo: Sven Olof Lindblad

Lindblad Expedition’s National Geographic Endeavour in the Galapagos. * Photo: Sven Olof Lindblad

Company Reviews

We’ve written cruise line profiles of a number of major small-ship companies cruising in the Galapagos — AdventureSmith Explorations, Celebrity Cruises, EcoventuraG-AdventuresGreenTracksLindblad Expeditions, Silversea ExpeditionsTauck, Un-Cruise Adventures,Zegrahm Expeditions and Quasar Expeditions — with a reviews of Kleintours of Ecuador and Latin Trails coming soon.

And here we offer a brief round-up of even more companies, which may be tour operators and/or travel agencies, that sell Galapagos cruises and can help with other aspects of trip planning. They may charter entire ships or have just a cabin or two allotted to them, it all depends; nevertheless, it doesn’t affect the experience for you.

All of the following companies are members of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA) and are required to be insured and bonded. 

RELATED: Randy Mink’s Article about his Galapagos cruise aboard Latin Trails’ 16-passenger Sea Star Journey,

Eclipse Travel

This Australia and New Zealand owned and operated tour operator specializes in travel to South America, Central America and the Poles. In the Galapagos Islands, they offer four different trip levels for every wallet — budget, standard, superior and deluxe. The budget packages, for example, include a $2,500 USD 7-night cruise aboard the 16-passenger AIDA MARIA with simple bunk-bed cabins to $6,700 USD for a 7-night cruise on the brand new 16-passenger motor catamaran PETREL with posh twin- or double-bed cabins and suites, all with balconies.

Contact:  Level 6, 115 Pitt St, Sydney, NSW 2000 Australia USA; (+61) 2 8199 9465 and www.eclipsetravel.com.au.

Journeys International

Founded in 1978 by Will and Joan Weber, former Peace Corps volunteers, teachers and conservationists, this family-owned business was one of the original “eco tourism” companies before it was ever the ubiquitous term it is today. Journeys International continues to thrive on personal, small-scale encounters with interesting places around the world, including the Galapagos Islands.

Most cruises are 7 nights long and many are on the 20-passenger LETTY, ERIC or FLAMINGO I, a nearly identical trio of sister ships also used by other companies, including Natural Habitat Adventures. During the summer months of June, July and August, plus December, the trio offers special family-friendly cruises for families with children ages 5 or 6 and older.

Contact:  107 Aprill Drive #3, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48103 USA; 734-665-4407 and www.journeys-intl.com.

Mountain Travel Sobek

This travel company is the merger of two adventure outfits — Mountain Travel that formed in 1969 and a year later organized its first Galapagos cruise (for the Sierra Club, and the first North American company to go there) and Sobek Expeditions, which was founded in 1973. The combined company has continued to offer adventurous travel ever since, including groundbreaking hiking, rafting, skiing, kayaking and sailing trips over the years in China, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Libya, Ethiopia and other places.

Its Galapagos cruises are aboard the 16-passenger REINA SILVIA; 48-passenger LA PINTA with a hot tub, four triple cabins and six connecting cabins ideal for families; or the 16-passenger GALAXY, all with all en-suite cabins.

Contact:  1266 66th St, Suite 4, Emeryville, California 94608-1117 USA; 510-594-6000 and www.mtsobek.com.

Natural Habitat Adventures

In business for more than 30 years, this company offers Galapagos trips focused on families, photography, and hiking & kayaking, and offers classic general interest trips as well. Choose from the 20-passenger expedition yacht LETTY with teak wood cabins (including a pair of triple cabins ideal for families) and interiors; the 16-passenger motor catamaran ATHALA II with four balcony cabins and also a hot tub; and the brand new 20-passenger luxury yacht ORIGIN, with two triple cabins, a small gym, hot tub and open bar.

All cabins on the three vessels are en suite and each boat carries two naturalist guides on board for intimate excursions with no more than 8 to 10 passengers per guide. Natural Habitat Adventures is an official travel partner of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which gives them an edge in itinerary planning.

Contact:  PO Box 3065, Boulder, Colorado 80307 USA; 303-449-3711, www.nathab.com.

Wilderness Travel

Wilderness Travel, a founding member of IGTOA, operates active adventures that are hiking, wildlife and/or culture focused in more than 75 countries worldwide and has been offering small-ship cruises in the Galapagos since the company was founded in 1978. Founder and president Bill Abbott says that almost 70% of their clients have traveled with them before or are direct referrals from those who have.

Their 8- to 17-night Galapagos trips, which include two night hotel nights in Guayaquil, are aboard the romantic 16-passenger square-rigged sailing yacht MARY ANNE, the 12-passenger yacht PASSION with a hot tub and two suites with a marble-clad bathrooms, and the 12-passenger yacht REINA SILVIA. Wilderness offers extensions to the Ecuadorian highlands, Peru/Machu Picchu and the Amazon.

Contact:  1102 Ninth Street, Berkeley, California 94710 USA; 510-558-2488, www.wildernesstravel.com.

Charles Darwin in More Detail 

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

An excerpt from Galapagos: Both Sides of the Coin, by Pete Oxford and Graham Watkins (Imagine Publishing, 2009).

Of all the scientists to visit the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin has had the single greatest influence. Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, England. In 1831, having studied medicine at Edinburgh and having spent time studying for Holy Orders at Cambridge, with nudging from Professor Henslow, Darwin convinced Captain Robert FitzRoy to let him join him aboard the H. M. S. Beagle as the ship’s naturalist. FitzRoy was taking the Beagle on a charting voyage around South America. On Sept 15, 1835 on the return route across the Pacific, the Beagle arrived in the Galapagos Islands. Darwin disembarked on San Cristóbal (Sept 17-22), Floreana (Sept 24-27), Isabela (Sept 29-Oct 2) and Santiago (Oct 8-17). FitzRoy and his officers developed updated charts of the archipelago, while Darwin collected geological and biological specimens on the islands.

At the time of his visit, Darwin had not yet developed the ideas he presented later; it was only in retrospect that he realized the full significance of the differences among Galapagos species. Noteworthy about his visit were his observations of three different species of Galapagos mockingbirds on different islands and what the acting governor, Englishman Nicholas Lawson, told him about the differences among the giant tortoises from different islands.

While in the archipelago, Darwin focused as much on geology as on biology, collecting many geological specimens. Later, when he grasped the significance of the differences among the mockingbirds and tortoises, he resorted to the collections of his crewmates to look for inter-island variations among birds, plants, and other species, having failed to label all the specimens in his own collections, by island.

On the Origin of Species (published in 1859) changed the way we look at and understand the world. The book focused on the transmutations of species and explained, in detail, the mechanism that underlies evolutionary change. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin countered the predominant view of the time by presenting observations on the high number of endemic species found in the islands, the close interrelatedness of these species, and the absence of some groups of species. All of these observations ran contrary to the reasoning behind “Special Creation,” then the dominant explanation of the distribution of species.

Critically, Darwin suggested a highly logical alternative mechanism to explain the distribution and types of species, which he termed “natural selection.” His argument was that if individuals vary with respect to a particular trait and if these variants have a different likelihood of surviving to the next generation, then, in the future, there will be more of those with the variant more likely to survive.

In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin offered a compelling answer to the outstanding question of biology, which was “how life on earth had evolved.” The book was, as Darwin commented, “one long argument” that stemmed from his five-week visit to the Galapagos Islands and attempted to include all life on earth. On the Origin of Species linked Darwin and Galapagos inextricably and changed the islands forever.

Breathtaking Machu Picchu -- both the beauty and the altitude. * Photo: Mountain Travel Sobek

Breathtaking Machu Picchu — both the beauty and the altitude. * Photo: Mountain Travel Sobek

Machu Picchu

If you’re going to the Galapagos Islands, you may want to consider a trip to Machu Picchu, many lines offer add-ons to the amazing Inca site in the Andes Mountains of Peru. Most trips are 4 to 8 days, allowing for a day or two to acclimatize in historic Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire at about 11,800 feet above sea level, before hiking, training or helicoptering to the stunning remains of the 15th-century Machu Picchu, which are set dramatically on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba River some 50 miles from Cusco at almost 8,000 feet.

The best way to experience Machu Picchu is to hike at least one way — consider a two- or three-day trek, with porters to carry your stuff, set up the tents and cook your food — though may people opt to take the train to the site from Cusco. When you first lay eyes on the well-preserved ruins of temples, alters, fountains and staircases, you’ll be blown away. Machu Picchu was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. Peru’s capital Lima, with its gorgeous 16th-century old town is the oldest Spanish colony in South America; Lima is less than an hour’s flight from Cusco and less than two hours by air from Guayaquil.

 

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The dancers of French Polynesia are mesmerizing and so is the backdrop. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Small Ship Cruise Line Reviews by Destination

We’re the ONLY travel site out there that covers so many small-ship cruise lines in reviews, feature articles and photos — we’re up to 91 small-ship cruise lines and counting. QuirkyCruise.com offers original, quality writing about this wonderful corner of the travel world. Go ahead, have a look around!

And if you’ve been on a small-ship cruise lately, we’d love to hear about it in our Reader Reviews!

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Africa
(including Egypt)

Deep Blue Holidays YASAWA PRINCESS (Coastal, Expeditions)
Grand Circle Cruise Line (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
Hapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises (Expeditions)
St. Helena Line (Oceangoing)
Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.) (Expeditions, Rivers, Oceangoing, Sailing, Coastal)
Ponant (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)
Silhouette Cruises (Sailing)
Silversea Expeditions (Expeditions)
Swan Hellenic (Oceangoing, Rivers)
Tauck (Tour Operator) (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises (Rivers)
Viking River Cruises (Rivers)
Zegrahm Expeditions (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)

Alaska

Adventure Canada (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Coastal)
AdventureSmith Explorations (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing, Coastal)
Alaska Marine Highway
(Coastal)
Alaskan Dream Cruises (Coastal, Expeditions)
American Cruise Lines (Coastal, Rivers)
Atlas Ocean Tours (Coastal)
Lindblad Expeditions (Expeditions, Rivers)
Marine Link Tours (Coastal)
Pacific Catalyst (Coastal)
UnCruise Adventures (Coastal, Expedition)
Zegrahm Expeditions (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)

Antarctica
(including Falklands, South Georgia & Tierra del Fuego)

Abercrombie & Kent (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing)
Adventure Canada (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Coastal)
AdventureSmith Explorations (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing, Coastal)
Aurora Expeditions (Expeditions)
Australis (Expeditions, Coastal)
G Adventures (Expeditions, Rivers, Sailing)
Hurtigruten (Coastal, Expeditions)
Lindblad Expeditions  (Expeditions, Rivers)
Oceanwide Expeditions (Expeditions, Sailing)
One Ocean Expeditions (Expeditions)
Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.) (Expeditions, Rivers, Oceangoing, Sailing, Coastal)
Polar Latitudes (Expeditions)   
Ponant (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)
Poseidon Expeditions (Expeditions)
Quark Expeditions (Expeditions)
Seabourn Expeditions (Expeditions)
Silversea Expeditions (Expeditions)
Tauck (Tour Operator) (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
Zegrahm Expeditions (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)

Arctic Regions
(including Iceland & Greenland)

Abercrombie & Kent (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing)
Adventure Canada (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Coastal)
AdventureSmith Explorations (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing, Coastal)
Aurora Expeditions (Expeditions)
G Adventures (Expeditions, Rivers, Sailing)
Hurtigruten (Coastal, Expeditions)
Lindblad Expeditions (Expeditions, Rivers)
Oceanwide Expeditions (Expeditions, Sailing)
One Ocean Expeditions (Expeditions)   
Polar Latitudes (Expeditions)
Ponant (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)
Poseidon Expeditions (Expeditions)
Quark Expeditions (Expeditions)
Seabourn Expeditions (Expeditions)
Silversea Expeditions (Expeditions)
Swan Hellenic (Oceangoing, Rivers)
Zegrahm Expeditions (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)

Asia: East Asia
(including China & Japan)

Abercrombie & Kent (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing)
AdventureSmith Explorations (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing, Coastal)
Avalon Waterways (Rivers)
Hapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises (Expeditions)
Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.) (Expeditions, Rivers, Oceangoing, Sailing, Coastal)
Ponant (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)
Silversea Cruises (Oceangoing)
Tauck (Tour Operator)  (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises (Rivers)
Vantage Deluxe World Cruises (Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing)
Victoria Cruises (Rivers)
Viking River Cruises (Rivers)
Zegrahm Expeditions (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)

Asia: South & Western
(including India, the Indian Ocean & the Middle East)

Abercrombie & Kent (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing)
Deep Blue Holidays YASAWA PRINCESS (Coastal, Expeditions)
Crystal Yacht Cruises (Oceangoing, Expedition)
G Adventures (Expeditions, Rivers, Sailing)
Hapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises (Expeditions)
International Expeditions (Rivers, Expeditions, Coastal)
Pandaw River Cruises (Coastal, Rivers)
Silhouette Cruises (Sailing)
Silversea Expeditions (Oceangoing)
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises (Rivers)
Vantage Deluxe World Cruises (Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing)
Variety Cruises (Oceangoing, Sailing)
Zegrahm Expeditions (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)

Asia: Southeast Asia
(including the Mekong & Irrawaddy Rivers)

AdventureSmith Explorations (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing, Coastal)
AmaWaterways (Rivers)
Aqua Expeditions (Rivers)
Avalon Waterways (Rivers)
Coral Expeditions (Expeditions)
CroisiEurope (Rivers)
G Adventures (Expeditions, Rivers, Sailing)
Grand Circle Cruise Line (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
Hapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises (Expeditions)
Lindblad Expeditions (Expeditions, Rivers)
Pandaw River Cruises (Coastal, Rivers)
Scenic Cruises (Rivers)
Seatrek Sailing Adventure (Sailing)
Silolona Sojourns (Sailing)
Silversea Expeditions (Oceangoing)
Star Clippers (Sailing)
Swan Hellenic (Oceangoing, Rivers)
Tauck (Tour Operator)  (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises (Rivers)
Vantage Deluxe World Cruises (Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing)
Viking River Cruises (Rivers)
Zegrahm Expeditions (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)

Atlantic Ocean
(including Azores & Canary Islands)

American Cruise Lines (Coastal, Rivers)
Blount Small Ship Adventures (Coastal, Rivers)
Crystal Yacht Cruises (Oceangoing, Expedition)
G Adventures (Expeditions, Rivers, Sailing)
Hapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises (Expeditions)
Hurtigruten (Coastal, Expeditions)
Lindblad Expeditions (Expeditions, Rivers)
Pearl Seas Cruises (Coastal, Rivers)
St. Helena Line (Oceangoing)
Sea Cloud Cruises (Sailing)
SeaDream Yacht Club (Coastal, Oceangoing)
Silversea Expeditions (Oceangoing)
Star Clippers (Sailing)
Swan Hellenic (Oceangoing, Rivers)
Variety Cruises (Oceangoing, Sailing)

Australia & New Zealand

AdventureSmith Explorations (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing, Coastal)
Aurora Expeditions (Expeditions, Coastal)
Coral Expeditions (Expeditions)
Hapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises  (Expeditions)
Murray River Cruises (Rivers)
Ponant (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)
Silversea Expeditions (Oceangoing)
Tauck (Tour Operator) (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
Zegrahm Expeditions (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)

Caribbean Islands
(including Cuba)

Abercrombie & Kent (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing)
American Cruise Lines (Coastal, Rivers)
Blount Small Ship Adventures (Coastal, Rivers)
Hapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises (Expeditions)
International Expeditions (Rivers, Expeditions, Coastal)
Island Windjammers (Sailing)
Lindblad Expeditions (Expeditions, Rivers)
Pearl Seas Cruises (Coastal, Rivers)
Ponant (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)
Sea Cloud Cruises (Sailing)
SeaDream Yacht Club (Coastal, Oceangoing)
Silversea Expeditions (Oceangoing)
Star Clippers (Sailing)
Tauck (Tour Operator) (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
Variety Cruises (Oceangoing, Sailing)
Victory Cruise Lines (Coastal, Oceangoing)
Windstar Cruises (Oceangoing, Sailing)
Zegrahm Expeditions (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)

Central America
(including Mexico, Belize, Sea of Cortez & Panama Canal)

AdventureSmith Explorations (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing, Coastal)
Adventure Canada (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Coastal)
Blount Small Ship Adventures (Coastal, Rivers)
Grand Circle Cruise Line (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
International Expeditions (Rivers, Expeditions, Coastal)
Lindblad Expeditions (Expeditions, Rivers)
Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.) (Expeditions, Rivers, Oceangoing, Sailing, Coastal)
Sea Cloud Cruises (Sailing)
Silversea Expeditions (Oceangoing)
Tauck (Tour Operator)  (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
UnCruise Adventures (Coastal, Expeditions)
Variety Cruises (Oceangoing, Sailing)
Windstar Cruises (Oceangoing, Sailing)
Zegrahm Expeditions  (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)

Europe
(including Rivers & Oceangoing)

Adventure Canada (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Coastal)
AdventureSmith Explorations (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing, Coastal)
AmaWaterways (Rivers)
Argyll Cruising (Coastal, Oceangoing)
A-Rosa (Rivers)
Aurora Expeditions (Expeditions, Coastal)
Avalon Waterways (Rivers)
Barge Lady Cruises (Rivers, Canals)
CroisiEurope (Rivers)
Crystal River Cruises (Rivers)
Crystal Yacht Cruises (Oceangoing, Expedition)
Emerald Waterways (Rivers)
Gota Canal Steamship Company (Rivers)
Grand Circle Cruise Line (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
Hapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises (Expeditions)
Hebridean Island Cruises (Coastal)
Hebrides Cruises (Coastal)
Hurtigruten (Coastal, Expeditions)
Le Boat (Rivers)
Lindblad Expeditions Expeditions, Rivers)
Magna Carta Steamship Company (Coastal, Rivers)
Majestic Line (Coastal)
Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.) (Expeditions, Rivers, Oceangoing, Sailing, Coastal)
Patricia Cruises (Coastal)
Ponant (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)
Puffer Steamboat Holidays (Coastal)
Riviera River Cruises (Rivers)
St. Hilda Sea Adventures (Coastal, Sailing)
Scenic Cruises (Rivers)
Silversea Expeditions (Oceangoing)
Swan Hellenic (Oceangoing, Rivers)
Tauck (Tour Operator) (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
Trinity Sailing (Sailing)
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises (Rivers)
Vantage Deluxe World Cruises (Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing)
Viking River Cruises (Rivers)
Windstar Cruises (Oceangoing, Sailing)
Zegrahm Expeditions (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)

Europe: Mediterranean
(including the Greek Isles & Croatia)

AdventureSmith Explorations (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing, Coastal)
G Adventures (Expeditions, Rivers, Sailing)
Hapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises (Expeditions)
Lindblad Expeditions (Expeditions, Rivers)
Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.) (Expeditions, Rivers, Oceangoing, Sailing, Coastal)
Ponant (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)
Sea Cloud Cruises (Sailing)
SeaDream Yacht Club (Coastal, Oceangoing)
Silversea Expeditions (Oceangoing)
Star Clippers (Sailing)
Swan Hellenic (Oceangoing, Rivers)
Tauck (Tour Operator)  (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
Vantage Deluxe World Cruises (Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing)
Variety Cruises (Oceangoing, Sailing)
Windstar Cruises (Oceangoing, Sailing)
Zegrahm Expeditions (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)

North America
(including Alaska, US Rivers & Canada)

Adventure Canada (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Coastal)
AdventureSmith Explorations (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing, Coastal)
Alaska Marine Highway
(Coastal)
Alaskan Dream Cruises (Expeditions)
American Cruise Lines (Coastal, Rivers)
American Queen Steamboat Company (Rivers)
Atlas Ocean Tours (Coastal)
Blount Small Ship Adventures (Coastal, Rivers)
French America Line (Rivers)
Hapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises (Expeditions)
Croisières Jacques-Cartier (Rivers, Coastal)
Lindblad Expeditions (Expeditions, Rivers)
Marine Link Tours (Coastal)
Ontario Waterway Cruises (Rivers)
Pearl Seas Cruises (Coastal, Rivers)
Ponant (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)
St. Lawrence Cruise Lines (Rivers)
Silversea Expeditions (Oceangoing)
Tauck (Tour Operator) (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
UnCruise Adventures (Coastal, Expeditions)
Victory Cruise Lines (Coastal, Oceangoing)
Zegrahm Expeditions (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)

Pacific Ocean Islands
(including French Polynesia, Fiji & Hawaiian islands)

Blue Lagoon Cruises (Coastal)
Captain Cook Cruises (Coastal)
Coral Expeditions (Expeditions)
C.P.T.M. & the Arunai 5 (Oceangoing)
Hapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises (Expeditions)
Haumana Cruises (Coastal)   New!
Paul Gauguin Cruises (Oceangoing)
Pitcairn Island’s Claymore II (Coastal, Oceangoing)
Ponant (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)
Silversea Expeditions (Oceangoing)
UnCruise Adventures (Coastal, Expeditions)
Windstar Cruises (Oceangoing, Sailing)

South America
(including Galapagos, Amazon & Tierra del Fuego)

Adventure Canada (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Coastal)
AdventureSmith Explorations (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing, Coastal)
Aqua Expeditions (Rivers)
Aurora Expeditions (Expeditions, Coastal)
Australis (Expeditions, Coastal)
Avalon Waterways (Rivers)
Celebrity Cruises Xpedition (Expeditions)
Delfin Amazon Cruises (Rivers)
Ecoventura (Expedition, Coastal)
G Adventures (Expeditions, Rivers, Sailing)
GreenTracks (River, Expeditions)
Hapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises (Expeditions)
Hurtigruten (Coastal, Expeditions)
International Expeditions (Rivers, Expeditions, Coastal)
Lindblad Expeditions (Expeditions, Rivers)
Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.) (Expeditions, Rivers, Oceangoing, Sailing, Coastal)
Ponant (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)
Silversea Expeditions (Oceangoing, Expeditions)
Tauck (Tour Operator) (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)
UnCruise Adventures (Coastal, Expeditions)
Zegrahm Expeditions  (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)

 

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© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Roughest 8 Cruising Regions

By Ted Scull.

For small ship cruising, it is not always fair winds and calm seas. Some parts of the world see more chop than others, and to be in the know before booking, here below are the regions that have a bit of a reputation.

Now let’s begin with the good news. Advance weather forecasts give ship captains ample warning to steer clear of a hurricane’s track by altering course. A diversion may result in skipping a port or two and substituting others, and while you might still feel the swell from the storm, it is unlikely that the ship’s movement will be more than a gentle rise and fall.

Roughest 8 Cruising Regions

Some major white water in the Atlantic, off Patagonia. * Photo: Ted Scull

Stabilizers help reduce side-to-side rolling, but not the up and down pitching motions into oncoming swells. The smaller the small ship, the less likely it will have the stabilizing fins. Large cruise ships’ massive blunt bows tend to slam into head seas, and to lessen the unpleasant sensation, the captain may drastically reduce his speed to lessen the impact.

The bodies of water below have the potential for the being the choppiest in world; in no particular order:

1)  Caribbean

The Caribbean’s hurricane season (roughly June to October) tops the list in terms of the number of passengers potentially affected because of the large number of ships cruising here. However, with so many alternative routes and ports of call, in most instances, ships can avoid the storm’s fury and still provide a satisfying cruise.

2)  North Atlantic

The North Atlantic is notorious for its storms at almost any time of the year, and the further north the track the more likely it is to encounter some rough seas along the multi-islands’ passage between the North of Scotland, Shetland/Orkney, Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland and the Canadian maritime provinces and/or the U.S. East Coast. It is positive thinking to note that all islands have a lee side.

The ships that reposition seasonally via the Atlantic between the Mediterranean/Iberia and the Caribbean/Florida are much less likely to encounter storms. However, ships that sail between Northern European ports, Iberia and the Mediterranean pass through the Bay of Biscay. This body of water, west of France and north of Spain, has a long anecdotal history especially with Brits.

In my experience — 16 passages — only one (Santander to Portsmouth) was truly tempestuous and that was quite enough for everybody on board, including me who likes a bit of chop.

3)  Mediterranean

Speaking of the Mediterranean, the Mistral that roars down the Rhone Valley in France and then across the Western Med can stir up heavy seas in winter and spring as does the Meltemi in summer in the Greek Islands. I was aboard the ROYAL CLIPPER during a powerful Mistral and the sail-laden ship reached its maximum hull speed. It was exhilarating and more than a bit dramatic.

4)  Drake Passage

The dreaded Drake Passage between Ushuaia, Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula has a well-deserved reputation, and happily any storm that does occur rarely lasts more than 12 to 24 hours. If you are susceptible to mal de mer, be prepared to deal with any eventuality because the expedition is well worth it.

Longer itineraries that include the Falklands and South Georgia expand the chances for stormy weather.

Cowabunga dude!! That's some wave action on the Drake Passage. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cowabunga dude!! That’s some wave action on the Drake Passage. * Photo: Ted Scull

5)  Gulf of Alaska

The Inside Passage to and from Alaska may be well protected apart from a few short-open sea stretches, while ships traversing the Gulf of Alaska to Seward, on the other hand, may encounter North Pacific storms or swells from a more distant storm.

6)  Southeast & East Asia

Typhoons are an occasional worry in Southeast and East Asia from the South China Sea north to Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan, but course alterations can minimize discomfort unless the ship must call at a disembarkation port, then arrivals may be delayed until the waters calm.

7)  Trans-Tasman Passage

The Trans-Tasman passage between Australia and New Zealand and the Bass Strait between Southeast Australia and the island of Tasmania can kick up a mighty storm, but few small ships venture into these southern waters.

8)  Point Judith

The only time I ever felt I might be seasick was standing at the bow of a small ship rounding Point Judith where Narragansett Bay meets Long Island Sound. The sea becomes confused here due to colliding waters, and by simply moving amidships, the unpleasant sensation eased.

Charles Darwin was seasick more than not during his three-year voyage on the Beagle, but back then there were few remedies, and today they are many. A truism is that everyone reacts differently, so there is no easy answer. Still, for the small percentage that do experience mal de mer, it is no picnic. Get professional advice before you go.

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UnCruise USC Kayaking

Cruising Alaska on a Small Ship

By Ted Scull.

Alaska, America’s largest state, is 2.5 times the land area of Texas and 430 times the size of Rhode Island, and unlike all the other states, except Hawaii, its mass is not contiguous to the Lower 48. For many folks, it appears to be two different states — the huge central portion that is most obvious on a map and location for the major cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks and Denali National Park, and the longish Alaskan Panhandle that juts southeast along the British Columbia coast. I

t is to the latter that most visitors go for the majestic sights of snowcapped mountains, deep fjords, the multiple moving tongues of ice in Glacier Bay, forests habitats to bears and moose, varied activities such as fishing, kayaking, paddle boarding and hiking, visiting native Alaskan communities and walking amongst those tall colorful totems, some recently carved to carry on the tradition.

The big cruise ships depart northbound for the Panhandle from Seattle or Vancouver or southbound to one of those two cities from Seward, a port just south of Anchorage. Many cruises are round trip from Seattle or Vancouver. Steaming time between the Panhandle and any of these three ports is two nights and one day each way. That necessarily limits the number of Alaskan port calls to three or four.

For the small ship fleet featured in QuirkyCruise, nearly all departures are from a prime Panhandle port, usually Juneau, the state’s capital, or Ketchikan. Both cities have direct flights from the Pacific Northwest. Being positioned in Alaska the week is spent entirely in the Panhandle making one of two port calls or landings a day.

These voyages are more expedition-style than the mainstream mega-cruise ships. Some small ships sail the Inside Passage to position themselves in the Panhandle for the summer, with a single voyage up in May and down in September, while most others spend the winter layup in Alaska.

Why Go? 

To experience America’s vast last frontier, a natural wonderland of fjords, mountains, forests, glaciers and wildlife.

The Panhandle’s prime cruising area is relatively small requiring just a few hours of sailing time each day to locate sea lions, sea otters and harbor seals basking on the rocks, watching black bears and moose come down to the water or spotting pods of whales and dolphins in Icy Strait. Getting close up views without putting them in danger is easy for highly maneuverable small ships.

While sailing along narrow fjords beneath steep cliffs you may spot a small herd of mountain goats high above you and ease close enough to waterfalls to feel the spray. At the far end of Misty Fjord come face to face with a calving glacier that gently rocks the ship as a block of ice drops into the sea.

When to Go?

The Alaska cruising season begins in May and tapers off in September. The earlier in the season the more snow that will be present on the lower mountain slopes, but the higher peaks are snow-capped year-round. Newborn wildlife will be clearly evident in the spring and early summer. Whales migrate north to Alaska in late winter and early spring, hence the May to September whale period coincides with the cruise season. There are fewer tourists early and late in the season and many more, including families, from mid-June to August.

The Alaska Panhandle has a maritime climate, which means more clouds and possible rain at any time, but little of the searing heat that visitors may face in Alaska’s interior. Mid-summer has the least amount of rain.

Cruising Alaska Itinerary Options

While most expedition cruises last a week, some are longer and others combine two different non-repeating itineraries to make two weeks. Coming all this way, think about adding a land package that takes in Denali National Park and the Alaska Railroad. The train operates between Anchorage, the state’s largest city, Denali and Fairbanks and is equipped with sightseeing dome cars. Denali, the tallest peak, at 20,310 feet (6,190 meters) can be viewed on a clear day from a low base camp altitude that is 1,000 to 3,000 feet, making the mountain’s vertical rise one of the world’s highest. Caribou, moose, Dall Sheep, wolves, and maybe grizzly bears, may be seen in the valley below the park’s access road. Fairbanks is the gateway to sternwheel steamer trips, rafting and a visit to a native Alaskan community above the Arctic Circle and the wilds of the Brooks Range.

Small vs Very Small in Alaska

The ships that we cover may carry as few as a dozen passengers on up to a couple hundred. A group of friends or extended family groups may like chartering their own small yacht with lines like Alaskan Dream Cruises. Those traveling on their own, as singles or as one or two couples, may prefer a larger vessel with more people to meet and a wider variety of activities offered at any one time, yet still small enough to call at isolated ports without the big cruise ship infrastructure that serves thousands.

Alaska Small Ship Port Overview

Many of Alaska’s destinations are not the ports but the majestic fjords, landing at wooded islands for mountain hikes and glaciers, including Glacier Bay that combines several glaciers with abundant wildlife. What follows is a brief description of the main port towns, all but Juneau relatively small, but be warned that some many have more population from the big cruise ships on big boat days than local residents.

  • Ketchikan. Starting from the south end of the Alaskan Panhandle, Ketchikan may be one of the most crowded port call when several massive cruise ships are tied up, and what you see is mostly a shopping mecca. Some small ship operators use this port and for embarkation or disembarkations. While Ketchikan has a lot of mining history and is known as the salmon capital of the world, the most worthwhile sights are the Tlingit village of Saxman, displaying totem poles and the town’s cultural past and the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, educating all ages life-like displays of rainforests, salmon streams, and native buildings.
  • Petersburg. A much smaller town, Petersburg has a Norwegian heritage that is kept alive with culinary, musical and dancing events with participants (often children) wearing traditional celebratory Nordic clothing. However, it is the fishing industry that is the lifeblood of the economy and the locals give small-group tours.
  • Juneau. Built up against a mountainside, the state’s relatively isolated capital with no road access to the outside world, offers a couple hundred miles of hiking trails, the large and receding Mendenhall Glacier just out of town, the Mt. Roberts Tram for spectacular views, several museums touting the state’s and immediate area’s cultural and gold-mining history, and plenty of shops to peruse. Juneau is often the start and/or end of the small ship cruises. If you’re hankering for a “flightseeing” floatplane excursion above the glaciers and mountains, Juneau is the place to do it because there’s a better chance of clear weather (they’re offered in Ketchikan too, but it rains a heck of a lot there).
Downtown Juneau with Mt Roberts Tramway. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Downtown Juneau with Mt Roberts Tram. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

  • Sitka. Its main claim to fame was serving as Russian America’s capital, and a thriving place Sitka was during that period. Then in 1867 the U.S. bought Alaska and the deal took place at Castle Hill, an historic site with remnants of fortifications and Baranof’s Castle was located. St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church is the most impressive holdover and an active center for church services. The original 19th century structure burned in 1966, and then rebuilt in pretty much its original style. If open to the public is well worth visiting for its religious artifacts. Just outside town, Sitka National Historical Park displays a collection of totems set in an attractive 100-acre heavily-wooded forest and the Haida and Tlingit peoples’ cultural heritage is on display here.
  • Skagway. The most northerly of the Panhandle towns, tiny Skagway was once the only coastal point to access the land routes to the Klondike region of northwestern Canada’s Yukon Territory — on foot over the Chilkoot Pass and White Pass or via the White Pass and Yukon Route, a narrow-gauge railroad that stretched all the way to Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon Territory. After gold was discovered in 1898 the railway line became the principal access route to the Klondike. The remaining portion of the line is Skagway’s main attraction for cruise passengers offering a highly scenic mountain and lake ride. The train also serves small groups of hikers. Architecturally, the town retains much of its gold rush atmosphere in spite of the hordes of milling tourists.

Alaska’s Fjords, Straits, Bays & Arms

Icy Strait. Located due west of Juneau and south of the entrance to Glacier Bay, the waterway teems with sea life because of its rich nutrients, orcas and humpback whales that come north in the spring to feed here, and coinciding with the start of the Alaska cruise season. Sport fishing is also a draw, and it is not uncommon to see bears and deer on the nearby shorelines. Small ships have the advantage of being much less of a danger to sea life, while their relaxed schedules permit extended dawdles to perhaps take a position in the very midst of a pod of whales.

Misty Fjord. Designated as a National Monument, a trip along the narrow passages bracketed by sheer cliffs that soar straight up two to three thousand feet, and though unseen, drop down to 1,000 feet below sea level. At the start of the season, the peaks will have a heavy overlay of snow that as it melts creates cascading waterfalls where a close approach can wash the decks. Located in extreme Southeast Alaska in the immense Tongass State Forest, the nearest port is Ketchikan off to the west.

A whale thrusts itself almost completely out of the water.

Tracy Arm.  Along with Endicott Arm, these two 30-mile-long fjords are located 45 miles south of Juneau in Tongass State Forest. Tracy Arm, the better known, is noted for the North and South Sawyer Glaciers that together cover nearly 20 per cent of the surface. In the summer, large and small chunks of ice break off and create a sea of floating ice that the small ships gingerly pass through to reach the face of the glacier and watch it calve. On shore, bears, wolves and harbor seals are often spotted, and if lucky, mountain goats may be staring down at you.

Glacier Bay.  The best known of all Alaska destinations is Glacier Bay, a vast national park with lots of wildlife, fjords and inlets, and no less that nine glaciers, both receding and advancing. The largest receding glacier is also the most famous, Margerie, where small ships stand off of to watch the calving ice collapse into the sea, while the Johns Hopkins Glacier is the longest advancing river of ice.

You can expect to see at least three-quarters of the most common wildlife — humpback whales that enter from Icy Strait, Steller sea lions. harbor seals, sea otters, harbor porpoise, brown and black bears, and if your National Parks guide spots them, mountain goats and moose. Look up to the west when approaching Margerie Glacier and spot the eternally snow-capped Mount Fairweather, at 15,300 feet, taller than any mountain in the Lower 48 states.

Alaska Small Ship Excursions

Generally, small ship Alaska cruises are more active, sporty and hands-on than their larger counterparts. Directly from a small ship, you board a Zodiac accompanied by a naturalist to look for wildlife at close range, or step ashore and take a hike in the temperate rain forest or form a fleet of a dozen kayaks to explore a nearby bay. Excursion options may also include bicycle and rafting tours.

Kayaking around the Wilderness Discoverer in Alaska. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

Kayaking around the Wilderness Discoverer in Alaska. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

Small ships spending the afternoon in Glacier Bay, after the big ships leave, often cruise up to multiple tongues of ice, while bald eagles, oyster catchers and blue heron soar above and wildlife comes down to the shore. National Park guides come aboard to supplement the ship’s own naturalist staff.

Flight excursions are super memorable if the weather cooperates. * Photo: Arun Sarna

The small ship fleet may call at towns and villages where big cruise ships cannot to see first-hand what remote native Alaskan island life is like or to experience Norwegian cultural traditions at Petersburg, a charming town where the fishing industry is still paramount and highly lucrative. Fishing trips can be arranged here and at other Panhandle towns.

Your small ship may call at ports where the big ships dock too — such as Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway — though organized activities are kept as separate as they can from the milling hoards.

Ted’s Favorite Small Ship Alaska Moments

Sailing into a fjord, one never knows what lies around the corner, and then you see a slim waterfall or maybe two, one cascading down the cliff face and the other in free fall, a glacier at the far end and another narrow passage forking off from the main channel.

The most serene times of day are early morning and at sunset when the ship is at anchor, and the solitude of the Alaskan wilderness can settle in around you. If I am in a kayak, I like resting the oars and taking in the stillness, sights and sounds of nature — a family of ducks serenely gliding along, dolphins cruising by, and startled fish erupting skyward. On clear evenings, stand at the ship’s railing and watch the moon above reflected in the calm waters below. At times like these you don’t want your expedition voyage to end.

Heidi’s Favorite Small Ship Alaska Moments

My first small ship cruises more than 20 years ago were to Alaska and they got me hooked. One I took with my father, and I still remember the serenity of walking through Sitka’s National Park, dwarfed by the cedar trees and totem poles, and smitten with the cool fresh air and simple but profound beauty of the pristine forest. Another day in Petersburg, we went on a fishing excursion with just four other passengers, on a trawler operated by an endearing couple who looked like Mr. and Mrs. Clause. They helped us catch crabs and then cooked them up for us right on board to eat in the tiny galley with melted butter and plastic cups of white wine. It may have been dreary and drizzly outside, but we were warm and happy clams that afternoon. Still one of my favorite cruise memories of all time.

Small Ship Lines That Serve Alaska

Abercrombie & Kent
Alaska Dream Cruises
Alaska Marine Highway (regular ferry routes on ships with cabin accommodations)
American Cruise Lines
Lindblad Expeditions
Silversea Expeditions
UnCruise Adventures

These lines range from operating a single ship to a small fleet, with the latter naturally offering many different itineraries and the possibility of returning for a second expedition cruise in another area and with a different thrust.

Read More About Cruising Alaska on a Small Ship

Alaskan Dream Cruises Adventure by Lynn & Cele Seldon

Alaska Cruise Adventures with UnCruise by Judi Cohen

Finding My Route to Alaska by Car, Ferry, Trains & Small Ship

Small Ships vs Big Ships in Alaska

Definitely an UnCruise Adventure: Safari Endeavour to Alaska is a Wonderful Small Ship Cruise 

 

QuirkyCruise Review

 

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91 Small Ship Cruise Line Reviews A to Z

We’re the only travel site out there that covers so many small-ship cruise lines in reviews, feature articles and photos — we’re up to 91 small-ship cruise lines and counting. QuirkyCruise.com offers original, quality writing from top travel writers about this wonderful corner of the travel world. Go ahead, have a look around! And if you’ve been on a small-ship cruise lately, we’d love to hear about it in our Reader Reviews section!

Please subscribe to our QuirkyCruise Newsletter for updates & special offers!

Here’s the list of our 91 small-ship cruise line reviews.

A
Abercrombie & Kent (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing)  Antarctica, Arctic, Cuba, Egypt, East Asia
Adventure Canada (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Coastal) — Arctic, Antarctica, Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, Galapagos, Costa Rica, Panama and more
AdventureSmith Explorations (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers, Sailing, Coastal)  Antarctica, Arctic, Galapagos, Alaska, Mediterranean, Amazon, Southeast Asia, Costal Rica, Australia, New Zealand and more
Alaska Marine Highway (Coastal)  Alaska
Alaskan Dream Cruises (Expeditions)  Southeast Alaska
AmaWaterways (Rivers)  Europe, Southeast Asia, Southern Africa
American Cruise Lines (Coastal, Rivers)  US, Canada
American Queen Steamboat Company (Rivers)  US
Aqua Expeditions (Rivers)  Amazon, Southeast Asia
Argyll Cruising (Coastal, Oceangoing) — Scotland
A-Rosa (Rivers)  Europe
Atlas Ocean Tours (Coastal)  British Columbia
Aurora Expeditions (Expedition, Coastal) — Antarctica, Arctic, Galapagos, Scotland, Australia
Australis (Expedition)  South America, Antarctica
Avalon Waterways (Rivers)  Amazon, Galapagos, Europe, Egypt, Southeast Asia, China

B

Barge Lady Cruises (Rivers, Canals) Europe
Blount Small Ship Adventures (Coastal, Rivers, Canals)  US, Canada, Belize, Cuba (pending)
Blue Lagoon Cruises (Coastal)  South Pacific

C
Captain Cook Cruises (Coastal)  Fiji
Celebrity Cruises Xpedition (Expeditions)  Galapagos
Coral Expeditions (Expeditions)  Australia, NZ, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, South Pacific
Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime (C.P.T.M.) & the the Aranui 5 (Oceangoing)  French Polynesia
CroisiEurope (Rivers)  Europe, SE Asia
Croisières M/S Jacques-Cartier (Rivers, Coastal) — Eastern Canada
Crystal River Cruises (Rivers)  Europe
Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises (Oceangoing, Expedition)  Europe, Mid East, Indian Ocean (Seychelles)

D
Deep Blue Holidays YASAWA PRINCESS (Coastal, Expedition) — Indian Ocean (Maldives)
Delfin Amazon Cruises
(Rivers) — South America, Peru, Amazon River

E
Ecoventura (Expedition, Coastal)  Galapagos
Emerald Waterways (Rivers)  Europe

F
French America Line (Rivers)  US

G
G Adventures (Expeditions, Rivers, Sailing) — Galapagos, Amazon, Arctic, Antarctica, Mediterranean, India, Southeast Asia
Gota Canal Steamship Company (Rivers)  Sweden
Grand Circle Cruise Line (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)  Europe, Panama, Myanmar
GreenTracks (River, Expeditions)  Amazon, Galapagos

H
Hapag-Lloyd Expeditions Cruises (Expeditions)  Worldwide
Haumana Cruises (Coastal) — South Pacific
Hebridean Island Cruises (Coastal)  Scotland’s Isles, Northern Ireland, Norway
Hebrides Cruises (Coastal)
Hurtigruten (Coastal, Expeditions)  Norway, Northern Europe, Arctic, Antarctica, South America

I
International Expeditions (Rivers, Expeditions, Coastal)  India, Papua New Guinea, South America, Cuba 
Island Windjammers (Sailing)  Caribbean

L
Le Boat (Rivers)  Europe 
Lindblad Expeditions (Expeditions, Rivers)  Worldwide

M
Magna Carta Steamship Company (Coastal, Rivers)  Scotland
Majestic Line (Coastal)  Scotland
Marine Link Tours (Coastal)  British Columbia
Murray River Cruises (River) — Australia

O
Oceanwide Expeditions (Expeditions, Sailing)  Arctic, Antarctica
One Ocean Expeditions (Expeditions) — Arctic, Antarctica
Ontario Waterway Cruises (Rivers, Canals)  Ontario
Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.) (Rivers, Expeditions, Sailing, Coastal) — Antarctica, Egypt, Galapagos, Mediterranean

P
Pacific Catalyst (Coastal) — Alaska, Baja California, San Juan Islands
Pandaw River Cruises (Coastal, Rivers)  Southeast Asia, India
Patricia Cruises (Coastal)  England, Channel Islands
Paul Gauguin Cruises (Coastal, Oceangoing) — South Pacific
Pearl Seas Cruises (Coastal, Rivers)  US, Canada, Cuba
Pitcairn Island’s Claymore II (Coastal, Oceangoing)  South Pacific
Polar Latitudes (Expeditions ) — Antarctica
Ponant (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)  Worldwide
Poseidon Expeditions (Expeditions)  Arctic, Antarctica
Puffer Steamboat Holidays (Coastal) — Scotland

Q
Quark Expeditions (Expeditions)  Arctic, Antarctica

R
Riviera River Cruises (Rivers) — Europe

S
St. Helena Line (Oceangoing)  South Africa, South Atlantic islands: St. Helena & Ascension
St. Hilda Sea Adventures (Coastal, Sailing) — Scotland
St. Lawrence Cruise Lines (Rivers, Canals) — Ontario, Quebec
Scenic (Rivers)  Europe, Russia, Southeast Asia
Sea Cloud Cruises (Sailing)  Caribbean, including Cuba, Central America, Mediterranean, Transatlantic
Seabourn Expeditions (Expeditions) —Arctic, Antarctica
SeaDream Yacht Club (Coastal, Oceangoing)  Caribbean, Mediterranean, Transatlantic
Seatrek Sailing Adventure (Sailing)  Indonesia
Silhouette Cruises (Sailing) — Indian Ocean (Maldives)
Silolona Sojourns (Sailing)  Indonesia, Southeast Asia
Silversea Cruises (Oceangoing)  Worldwide
Silversea Expeditions (Expeditions)  Arctic, Antarctica, Galapagos
Star Clippers (Sailing)  Caribbean, Mediterranean, Transatlantic, occasionally Asia & South Pacific
*Swan Hellenic (Oceangoing, Rivers)  Worldwide *Ceased operations January 4, 2017 **To be revived ? 

T
Tauck (Tour Operator) (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Rivers)  Worldwide
Trinity Sailing (Sailing) — England, Scotland

U
UnCruise Adventures (Coastal, Expeditions)  Alaska, Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, Hawaii, Mexico, Central America
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises (Rivers)  Europe, Egypt, India, Southeast Asia, China

V
Vantage World Travel (Oceangoing, Rivers, Barging, Sailing)  Worldwide
Variety Cruises (Oceangoing, Sailing)  Mediterranean, Atlantic Isles, Caribbean, Central America, Seychelles
Victoria Cruises (Rivers)  China
Victory Cruise Lines (Coastal, Oceangoing) — North America, Caribbean
Viking River Cruises (Rivers)  Europe, Russia, Egypt, Southeast Asia, China

W
Windstar Cruises (Oceangoing, Sailing)  Caribbean, Central America, Mediterranean, N. Europe, French Polynesia

Z
Zegrahm Expeditions (Expeditions, Oceangoing, Sailing)  Worldwide

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five types of small ship cruises

To help you browse, search, dream and plan your next small-ship cruise, QuirkyCruise covers five different types of small ship cruises that ply the waterways of the world carrying fewer than 300 passengers — coastal, expedition, oceangoing, river and sailing ships.

 

To see our full list of small ship cruise lines, click here.

Coastal Ships

Coastal small ship cruises

Safari Voyage. * Photo: Un-Cruise Adventures

Perhaps the hardest category to pin down, coastal ships cruise in open waters, but usually stay close to land so they may call at numerous ports and islands, and enter bays, canals, lakes, and rivers. Examples are the Norwegian coastal service linking many towns and cities facing the North Sea, and US-flag coastal ships plying between the New England Islands, the Intracoastal Waterway and Alaska’s Inside Passage. The Croatian coast (Mediterranean) and the islands of Japan make excellent coastal cruising itineraries.

 

 

 

Expedition Ships

Expedition small ship cruises

The Stella Australis. * Photo: Australis

These have a distinctive learning element and bring to mind a sense of adventure whether it’s visiting remote peoples in the South Pacific or plying the Upper Amazon; looking for rare birds and exotic animals along Australia’s Kimberley Coast or in Central America; cruising amongst amazing, and often colorful, ice formations in Antarctica; and encountering dramatic landscapes in Patagonia. Trained experts give talks aboard and lead active outings ashore

 

 

 

 

Oceangoing Ships

Star Pride. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

Designed for the open seas, travel between continents or from the mainland to islands well out to sea, oceangoing ships also offer port-rich cruises such as between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean or from Great Britain to Baltic Sea ports. Some oceangoing ships are also used for expedition itineraries

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

River Vessels

River going small ship cruises

The River Empress * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Easy to identify, they offer a hugely popular means to get into the interior of a country or continent. As a matter of course, river boats may also ply canals and cross bays and lakes to cover many hundreds of island water miles. Europe, Asia, and North America offer the most diverse opportunities for river cruising, while South America brings to mind the Amazon and its numerous tributaries, and Africa the Nile but not much else of any great popularity.

 

 

 

 

Sailing Ships

Sailing small ship cruises

Sagitta * Photo: Island Windjammers

This group comes under a broad umbrella, from the sails providing the main means of propulsion, to using wind power when the conditions are ideal, or as window dressing with the principal push coming from diesel engines. Sailing ships of all three variations have a majesty and beauty all their own. Most are found amongst islands in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and in the South Pacific and Indonesia, with repositioning transoceanic crossings such as between Europe and the Caribbean drawing the most ardent sailors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Haumana Cruises

Tips for Booking Small Ship Cruises

By Heidi Sarna.

Small ship cruises are often bound for wonderfully far-flung places that involve complex flights and connections, hotel stays before or after the cruise, and things to figure out like tourist visas, possible inoculations, travel insurance, and what to pack. So definitely count on more planning going into the booking process than for your standard cruise or a trip to a Caribbean resort. But trust us, the extra effort is more than likely to be worth it.

“Small ships provide an ideal means for passengers to engage with the destination that is just not possible aboard a conventional cruise ship — better location in port, more personal service from ship’s staff and while ashore, and more educational opportunities,” says Steve Wellmeier of Poseidon Expeditions.

Like any trip, to book a small-ship cruise you can either use a travel agent to help you or you can book directly with the cruise line.

Either way, before you embark on a small-ship cruise, these 13 tips will help you navigate the options and plan what may easily be the trip of a lifetime.

1. First, figure out if a small-ship cruise is your cup of tea.

If you don’t like crowds, waiting in line or dressing for dinner, and seek memorable experiences way more than material things, then you’re small-ship material. If you love mingling with passengers from all over the world, learning about the destination through lecturers and local guides, prefer local folkloric performances to Vegas-style shows, and getting your feet wet and your hands dirty more than generic luxury, then a quirky small-ship cruise is clearly for you.

“Small ships get to places the others can’t reach and so it’s often more about the destination than the vessel, the entertainment or the number of restaurants,” says Powell Ettinger, director of The Small Cruise Ship Collection.

No shortage of South Georgia Penguins in the Antarctica. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

No shortage of South Georgia Penguins in the Antarctica. * Photo: © G Adventures, Inc.

2. Take some time to do your own market survey.

It would behoove you to do a bit of homework first, to see the full range of choices out there. QuirkyCruise.com is the prefect place to start your research. We have reviews of 53 small-ship cruise lines, with more in the works, that you can cross reference by the region you’d like to visit or by one of five types of small-ship cruises — oceangoing, rivers, coastal, sailing and expedition. It’s also always a good idea to ask friends and family if they’ve taken a small-ship cruise and what they thought of it.

3. Book directly with the cruise line IF you enjoy the details of trip planning.

Some small-ship cruise line websites allow you to book directly on their site, so if you’re the type who likes to book your own travel and is comfortable choosing a cabin, arranging airfare, deciding yay or nay on travel insurance, booking hotels stays and possibly arranging land tours before or after your cruises, then go for it.

“We have a very easy-to-use booking engine on Pandaw.com for both travel agents and the public,” says Sven Zika of Pandaw Cruises, adding that consumers who book direct on their website must make payment immediately, while travel agents can hold a cabin for two weeks without a deposit.

Many small-ship cruise line websites, however, are not equipped to process direct bookings, so in that case, browse their site to learn about their offerings then call or email them directly to get your questions answered.

“We offer an upscale niche product and the personal contact by phone to share details and specific information is very important,” says Julia Elba of Sea Cloud Cruises.

Booking a small-ship cruise is often a very personal transaction, parallel to the experience itself.

“When they call us, customers can ask questions and have them answered immediately,” says Joy Ackert of Ontario Waterway Cruises. “We are a family business so that first contact is the beginning of making our customers feel like they are going to be coming to visit with friends or family. It creates a very welcoming atmosphere prior to boarding.”

4. Contact a travel agent IF you’d like some hand-holding.

If you have a beloved agent that has helped you or a friend with trip planning before, they’re a great place to start. A good travel agent (and they’re not all good) will know the many options out there and work to match the best small-ship cruise for your personal needs and desires. A good travel agent can help you plan and book airfare, hotels and land-based touring to complement your cruise before it starts or after it’s over. One specializing in small-ship cruises is even better, such as the Small Cruise Ship Collection.

The pros and cons of using a travel agent:

Pros: Someone is guiding you throughout the process, advising and reminding you about things like visas and airfare. Agents may have a special relationship with the lines and may know which cabins are the quietest on a given ship or which itinerary has the best ports. A good travel agent is indispensable. “Even if a line doesn’t pay commissions, a good travel specialist responding to a client request who believes a particular small cruise line is right for that client and destination and budget would simply add their commission to the final price or charge a service fee in some way,” says Mary Kleen, a regional director for Worldview Travel.

Cons: If cruise line X doesn’t pay commissions to travel agents (maybe because they’re too small to justify the cost or have a large in-house sales force, such as Grand Circle Travel), your travel agent may not recommend X to you and only suggest lines that pay them commissions — makes sense for the agents, but you could miss out some great alternatives (see #2, do your homework).

5. For a package deal, book a small-ship cruise through a third-party.

Tour operators put the pieces of the travel package together and sell it, while wholesale travel sellers just sell the packages — for example, a Mekong river cruise bundled with airfare and hotel stays.

Poseidon’s Steve Wellmeier says that because of the more complex reservations required for small-ship cruises, for example to the Polar Regions when travelers naturally have a lot of questions, Poseidon relies on specialty tour operators and wholesalers to help sell their trips including Polar Cruises, ExpeditionTrips.com and AdventureLife.com.

6. Expect to pay more for a small-ship cruise than a standard big-ship cruise.

Most of the time (not all), a small-ship cruise carrying just a few dozen or a few hundred passengers will cost more than a mass-market mega ship carrying thousands of passengers. The small ship lines can’t take advantage of the same level of bulk discounts in procuring supplies, excursions, crew and various port fees.

“Small ships are a terrific antidote to the big ship experience: more and more clients find that they truly love the smaller vessels.  They are amazed by the more personalized service, getting to know many of their fellow passengers much more easily, and having the advantage of far more interesting itineraries where out of the way ports are featured.  From a travel agent’s point of view, it’s generally an easier sell for those reasons, but small-ship cruises are typically a higher-priced ticket as these vessels don’t have the economies of scale of the large ships,” says agent Mary Kleen.

7. In many cases, the price you pay for a small-ship cruise will be the same whether you go through a travel agency or book direct with the cruise line.

Many small-ship cruise lines covered on QuirkyCruise.com, especially the very smallest ones, will endeavor to offer everyone the same rates and discounts, no matter how you book their cruises.

Whether “rack rates or reduced online rates, it’s the same price for agents and public,” says Pandaw’s Zika.

8. Exception to above: The big European river lines often DO discount and sometimes exclusively to travel agents.

They have huge fleets, so they can offer volume discounts to travel agents who book a lot of their cruises.

Uniworld’s Arnelle Kendall says, “Our travel agency partners often have exclusive offers that we’ve negotiated with them that we aren’t able to offer customers that contact Uniworld direct, such as discounts on select sailings, shipboard credits, and special excursions, so customers do receive the best offer when going through a travel agency.”

9. Booking way in advance — a year or more — is a good idea in certain cases.

Unlike big ships with thousands of cabins, small ships have far fewer cabins to fill up, so with regions that have a short cruising season — Antarctica is just four months long, for example — it’s a good idea to book a year or more ahead if you really have your heart set on going on a specific date. Additionally, airfares can get booked up and may be more expensive if you wait until the last minute.

“If cabin choice is a priority, it is advised to book far in advance. Our upper-tier cabins are the first to book,” says Abercrombie & Kent’s Jean Fawcett.

Can you imagine?! Sea Cloud's opulent Merriweather Post Suite #1A * Photo: Sea Cloud Cruises

Can you imagine?! Sea Cloud’s opulent Merriweather Post Suite #1A * Photo: Sea Cloud Cruises

10. Book last minute — a few months or few weeks before — IF you’re flexible … 

Booking last minute works if you’re flexible with where and when you go, the cabin category and the cost of airfare. There often are last-minute deals especially during the off-season if ships haven’t filled up. For example, European river cruises are often eager for passengers early or late in the season, and often Mekong River cruise rates tend to go down in March and April when the river levels are low and it’s very hot.

11. It can’t hurt if a cruise line is a member of a reputable trade group.

Some of the top travel industry trade organizations that small-ship cruise lines might belong to include The International Galápagos Tour Operators Association (IGTOA), International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators, Virtuoso (global network of travel agents, cruise lines and other suppliers connected to the luxury end of the travel industry), and CLIA (Cruise Line International Association, a global cruise industry trade organization).

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12. Nose around Trip Advisor and other ombudsman-like sites.

It’s not a good sign if the cruise line, tour operator or travel agent you’re dealing with has been consistently trashed on Trip Advisor or if multiple complaints have been filed with organizations like the Better Business Bureau.

13. Run for the hills if you see red flags.

Charlie Funk, co-owner of the travel agency Just Cruisin’ Plus for the past 35 years, says don’t do business with any small-ship cruise line that doesn’t accept credit cards and that requires full payment at the time of booking even if the cruise is a year or more away. In his experience, Funk says these two factors are early warning signs of cash flow issues, financial instability and impending bankruptcy. He cautions against patronizing a cruise line that imposes punitive cancellation penalties on the deposit rather than after final payment; processes credit cards on foreign banks and charges those foreign processing fees to the client; and fails to address complaints or problems in a timely manner.

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By Ted Scull.

The Caribbean hurricane season officially falls between June 1 to November 30, and this year’s predictions are slightly more hurricane activity expected than normal. While storms arise year-round and their frequency and intensity vary, most people associate the summer and early fall in the Caribbean as the epicenter of potential turbulence. That is true unless you live on the Eastern Seaboard, where winter nor’easters can be just as intense. However, the small ship cruise industry moves elsewhere by the late fall and does not start up again until the late spring.

Tropical storms form off West Africa and usually aim for the heart of the cruise industry’s most popular region — the Caribbean Islands. However, most depressions peter out before they arrive there, and if one continues to increase in intensity, it is closely monitored by weather forecasters. The cruise lines have access to this information 24/7, and if there is a chance that one of their ships is in the storm’s projected path, the captain reacts accordingly and alters course to stay a safe distance from the powerful winds and heavy seas. That may mean changing an itinerary, skipping a popular port and seeking shelter in the lee of the storm.

A Streaked and steely sea. * Photo: Ted Scull

When it comes to weather, small ships have one major advantage over the big cruise ships — many more places to ride out a storm.

In the Northeast, the big ships sail from Boston, New York, and occasional other ports to Bermuda, and they may be affected by some heavy seas crossing the Gulf Stream. However, a captain will not make the crossing if the forecast is for severe weather conditions. The same is true for big ships sailing from New York to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. In this case, sailings are year-round, so winter storms or nor’easters may crop up well outside of the normal hurricane period. While sailing in rough conditions is seldom dangerous, it can make passengers seasick, and if passengers elect to move about the ship during a storm, there may be injuries. If you feel at all uncertain of walking in rough conditions, don’t. Stay in your cabin. A rough sea can be very unpredictable, and you may not be able to see an unusually large wave coming.

Capturing the captivating sea. * Photo: Ted Scull

Small ships cruising the New England Islands and the coast of Maine have numerous safe harbors to wait out a storm, and with the exception of the stretch of open ocean along the New Jersey coast, most of the east coast route is in protected waters — Long Island Sound, Chesapeake Bay, and the Intracoastal Waterway from Virginia to Florida. While the seas may not kick up much on inland waters, wind can affect a small ship’s ability to navigate narrow channels. That may cause the ship to drop anchor and wait out the storm.

Having spent more than five years at sea, I have experienced every kind of weather, but the instances of encountering a significant storm have been low. Therefore, I would never avoid taking a small-ship cruise if the line has one I want to take.

Contemplation on a peaceful sea. * Photo: Ted Scull

In summation, the instances of a major storm are few and far between but when one hits, it can be a memorable experience — exciting for some, but agony for those who suffer from seasickness. A small percentage have low tolerance to even a gently rolling or pitching ship, so cruising, except in the most ideal circumstances, may not be a good idea for those folks.

Nearing sunset. * Photo: ted Scull

Be sure to get professional advice on how to minimize the effects, especially if it is one of the first times you have taken a cruise. There are lots of remedies and dietary suggestions, and the right one for you can lessen your chances of getting seasick.

Sunsets at sea don’t come any better. * Photo: Ted Scull

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Cruise Planners Deals (April 20, 2018)

RIVER CRUISES are one of the five types of small-ship cruises covered by QuirkyCruise.com.

Easy to identify, they offer a hugely popular means to get into the interior of a country or continent. As a matter of course, river boats may also ply canals and cross bays and lakes, often to cover many hundreds of island water miles. Europe, Asia, and North America offer the most diverse opportunities for river cruising, while South America brings to mind the Amazon and its numerous tributaries, and in Africa, it’s the Nile but not much else of any great popularity.

  • The majority of river cruises are about a week long, but there are 3- and 4-night options as well as longer 10- to 14-night river cruises.
  • There is more diversity in river cruise options than ever before — some are high-end with suites and balconies and all-inclusive pricing covering drinks, spirits, tips and excursions, while others offer less and cost less. The most affordable river cruises start at about $150-$200 USD per person a day.
  • While river cruises have been traditionally adults-only affairs, in the past few years many lines, especially in Europe, are offering special family sailings in the summer with curated kids’ activities, menus and active shore excursions, making Europe river cruises great options for families. Cycling excursions are especially popular.
  • European and North American river cruises tend to be scenery- and culture-focused and attract a lot of seniors who appreciate the ease and convenience of this form of travel. Usually the boats slide right up to a dock often near the center of town, and getting on and off merely requires a short walk across a gangway.
  • Many river cruises in Asia and South America require a degree of fitness to get into local skiffs, navigate narrow gangways between the boat and shore, and trek around temple sites and at times, along jungle paths.

— HMS

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Serenity at the bow, heading north to Alaska

By Ted Scull.

Over the years, I have made six trips to Alaska, five of them by ship and one by car. The waterborne voyages north to Alaska have been via a large cruise ship, twice by the Alaska Marine Highway and twice by small ships taking less than 100 passengers. The Inside Passage en route to the 49th state is a scenic wonder, bracketed by steep cliffs, high mountains snowcapped most of the year, narrow waterways providing deep routes into the interior, and isolated settlements, for some, the only access may be by boat. The scenery on the voyage north may be appreciated from any size ship. However, enjoying the sight of wildlife in the sea and on land is altogether another matter once you are in Alaska.

Serenity at the bow, heading north to Alaska

Serenity at the bow, heading north to Alaska. * Photo: Ted Scull

The benefits of taking a small ship cruise in Alaska are pretty overwhelming, but decide for yourself if small trumps big:

WILDLIFE

  • Whales and dolphins are likely in these waters, and the big ships must stay well away from a pod of whales, while a small ship, much less threatening and more maneuverable, can quietly move closer allowing passengers standing one or two decks above the sea to observe them at close range without disturbing them. Dolphins may follow just off the bow and you can often look straight down at them.
  • A small ship’s itinerary is usually more relaxed, so the captain has more time allowed for finding wildlife and staying with it.
  • When wildlife is spotted ashore, small ships with shallow drafts can edge up to slumbering sea lions lounging along the shoreline, while a deeper draft ship has to remain well away.
  • Such proximity provides a major thrill and small groups can more easily keep the silence allowing an undisturbed observance of sea lions interacting with each other. Bears are another sight to watch out for from the decks of a small ship.
  • I have been able to get great pictures without a telephoto lens.

Close up to lounging sea lions at the entrance to Glacier Bay. * Photo: Ted Scull

GLACIERS

  • Some Alaskan glaciers are located at the far end of narrow fjords, hence big ships can sail up only so close and still be able to turn around.
  • A small ship has much more room to maneuver, and if a large piece of glacial ice should calve, you will feel the wave that it creates.
  • In Glacier Bay, mornings are set aside for the large ships, and the number each day is limited, while the small ships have the morning to get close to wildlife near the entrance to Glacier Bay and maybe sail into a narrow bay where more wildlife is located.
  • Then in the afternoon, they have the glaciers to themselves or perhaps with another small ship.
  • Captains often speak to each other so they choose not to follow exactly the same itinerary. In addition, they may exchange wildlife information.

Close to Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay. * Photo: Ted Scull

PORTS

  • Some Alaskan towns have just a few thousand inhabitants, some even less, so a massive cruise ship may have a larger population aboard than ashore.
  • Either the passengers and crew inundate the town or simply do not call at all, while one with just 50 to 100 on board will be able to go ashore, more easily blend in, meet people on the street, and if a performance is planned, see it at a local meeting hall, gym or theater.
  • When visiting Petersburg, Alaska with strong Norwegian ties a couple of years ago, for instance, the locals demonstrated their culture using ancestral musical instruments and dancing. The town is also one of the richest fishing ports in the world, and its citizens are proud to describe their life at sea and fleet maintenance. It was easily done with a small group and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
  • From a small ship, you may be able to go directly into the ship’s own Zodiacs for a wildlife excursion to a nearby island or to a landing almost anywhere for a hike ashore, no docking facilities needed. The big ships on the other hand will probably have you join a local land operator who first has to get you to the wildlife site by bus.
  • Both large and small ships call at tiny Skagway, for example, and there’s no avoiding the tourist crowds in the streets, though other parts of the visit will feel saner for small ship cruisers. On the Yukon and White Pass trains, the small ships offer a single reserved coach for its passengers, and similarly, other excursions won’t entail mustering groups of hundreds.

Peaceful evening port call at Glacier Bay Lodge. * Photo: Ted Scull

ONBOARD LECTURES & ACTIVITES

  • The National Park Service is often hired by the cruise line to come aboard, give a talk or be out on deck to identify wildlife and answer questions. On a big ship, the commentary may have to be given over a loud speaker while on a small vessel, passengers gather round and have a personal chat.
  • The small ships will also often carry their own naturalist staff who are also available throughout the day.
  • If the weather turns nasty keeping you inside, the big ships will have many more on board diversions such as bars, musical entertainment, movies, shopping, gym, spa and where permitted, casino gambling.
  • The small ships offer solitude: a naturalist lecture, film, maybe a small gym and spa and perhaps the best chance you will ever get to read that book that has been sitting by your bedside.

Up close and personal with a National Park Service guide. * Photo: Ted Scull

COST

  • While the big ships usually have cheaper fares, shore tours are extra and can be quite expensive in Alaska, while many small ships have excursions included in the fare and that helps narrow the gap. They may also offer optional trips, such as flightseeing, for a charge.
  • There is no question that the big ships offering economies of scale, and with 2,000-5,000 passengers, they can charge less than a ship carrying just one hundred or fewer. If considering both, make sure you compare what is included up front to give you a fair appraisal.

While Alaska on any size vessel is a supremely worthwhile trip, we’re personally besotted with seeing Alaska on a small ship. Whatever you choose, happy cruising!

Free to join the first mate in the wheelhouse. * Photo: Ted Scull

 

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By Ted Scull & Heidi Sarna.

Here are answers to 11 Small Ship Cruising FAQs — frequently asked questions.

Q: Will I feel hemmed in on a small ship?

 A: The lounges and bars will appear intimate rather than spacious and not as numerous as on larger ships. Then consider that the passenger counts — most all our listings will fall below 300, and depending on the ship you chose, even less — so the size of interior spaces, and even the number, fit the passenger capacity. Soaring atriums and vast show lounges are not part of the small-ship experience.

Q: I am social and like meeting new people, is a small ship for me?

A: There’s an excellent chance that your small-ship cruise mates will have at least some of your interests, then with a small ship seriously dedicated to giving you a rich cultural experience on a Mediterranean cruise or an expedition-style adventure in the Arctic or Antarctica, your ship has come in. The cruise becomes a shared experience when ashore, in the Zodiacs, at the special interest talks and at open seating meals.

The few number of people aboard the Hebridean Princess provides an intimate shared experience. * Photo: Ted Scull

The few number of people aboard the Hebridean Princess provides an intimate shared experience. * Photo: Ted Scull

Q: I’m shy and not very social, how will I get on with small-ship togetherness?

A: On a big ship, you can hide, find isolation in your cabin, the corner of a public room, and maybe snag a table for two. On a small ship, but not a tiny ship, you probably can retreat to your cabin, may be able to find a quiet space, but at meals you are likely to share a table with others; and as you probably have come for the same reason they have, you are likely to find other compatible, and reserved types.

Q: What’s the entertainment? I like something to happen after dinner.

 A: On a small oceangoing ship or riverboat cruising Europe, a pianist may travel with the ship, and local musicians may board in ports when the ship is docked for the evening.

Expedition cruises mix special interest talks with entertainment, the latter a video that was shot that same day of what you experienced or one that shows what creatures may be lurking underwater. On riverboats, you are often docked in the evening, so you can walk ashore and visit the town. There may be a concert, opera, dance event or festival on.

Local entertainment on board. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Local entertainment on board. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Q: Will there will be foreigners aboard and different languages blasted over the ship’s speaker system?

A: There are small ships that cater exclusively to North American passengers such as some river cruise lines, and others in all our categories, that cater to English-speaking passengers where there may be Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and passengers whose first language may not be English but who are perfectly comfortable with it. In those cases, the language aboard and ashore will be English only. Some small ships may cater to an international group, but it is likely that there will be only two languages used: for example English and German or English and French.

Q: What’s the food like? Will I be able to experiment and eat like a native? If I am wary of food that is too exotic, spicy or heavy, will I enjoy meals that I am used to at home?

A: Small ships have small galleys and food storage facilities, so while the top lines will offer quality and creatively, they may not offer great variety at individual meals. At you move down the luxury scale, creativity may begin to fall by the wayside, while quality should remain. The principal nationalities of the passengers will have a lot to do with the menus. A ship that is geared to multinationals will offer variety, so there is likely to be a wide choice for the food experimenters, and at least a small selection of the familiar for the timid. Ships that cater to English speakers will be more like home. Some of the riverboat operators cater largely to North Americans and the food will reflect that thrust, so those looking for a varied culinary experience may want to go elsewhere.

Delicious meals made with fresh local ingredients. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Delicious meals made with fresh local ingredients. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Q: Should I expect to pay more per diem for a small ship cruise that a mainstream large ship?

A: Yes, in most cases, but the amounts will vary and be less of a gap with some river cruise lines. Large ships, and large ship fleets, by their nature offer tremendous economies of scale, including purchasing food, supplies and fuel in bulk. They often offer low rates because once aboard the passengers will be encouraged to spend for shore excursions, shipboard shopping, casino gambling, drink packages, spa treatments, Internet, and eating in extra tariff restaurants. Watch out or you can easily spend as much daily as your per diem cruise fare.

While the answer to what’s included is all over the map, small ships often include all shore excursions in the basic fare, especially expedition ships and river cruises. Extra tariff restaurants are usually not part of the scene, nor are a casino and shopping, apart from a small selection of items connected to your destinations. Many riverboats lines, and some oceangoing ships too, offer complimentary beer wine, soft drinks at lunch and dinner.

You are paying for certain exclusivity with a small passenger list, often visiting places not accessible to large ships, while on expedition cruises, there are expenses for the expert staff carried, the high-tech equipment used for going ashore and then sharing the findings back on board, and being able to be entirely self-sufficient in remote cruising locales.

Q: Will airfare costs be higher for getting to small ships?

A: No, not with destinations and port embarkations shared by big and small ships; but yes for remote locations such as flying to the tippy tip of South America for a cruise to the Falklands, Antarctica and South Georgia; where charter flights are used in conjunction with regular international flights; and where you must fly inland from major gateways such as Bangkok or Singapore to a destination in Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar.

Q: What if I have mobility problems on a small ship?

A: Some small ships are less likely to have elevators or at least service to all decks. Often the ships anchor in remote locations, and passengers must embark into launches and Zodiacs that may involve gangways with steps down into and up out the transfer craft. Getting ashore may be stepping onto embankment, a beach, even into shallow water. Check with the line to see if there is extra assistance for going ashore and if the ship and transfers are not ADA accessible.

Almost all ships now are forthright with how much walking there will be on excursions, how level or not, how uneven under foot, and if wheelchair access is available.

On expedition ships you need to be nimble to hop in and out of zodiac boats. * Photo: Ted Scull

On expedition ships you need to be nimble to hop in and out of zodiac boats. * Photo: Ted Scull

Q: Can I bring my young children on a small-ship cruise?

A: Most small-ship cruises are not geared at all to children under about age 10; and others are not suitable for older kids either due to there not being playrooms, activities, kids menus, and often not TVs or reliable WiFi, not to mention the smaller space of the ship itself. That said, there ARE some small-ship cruises are that are wonderful for families with kids in the 10 to 18 year old range, including cruises in the Galapagos, Caribbean, Alaska, Antarctica, and the Greek Isles. During the summers and holiday weeks like Christmas, there will be more children traveling with their families and some lines offer special kids’ programming during those times, including Lindblad Expeditions, Celebrity Xpeditions, Un-Cruise, and others. On Europe’s rivers, some lines also offer special family departures, including lines like Uniworld and AMA Waterways.

Q: Why should I take a small-ship cruise?

A: The fundamental advantages of small ships are being able to travel with a small group, often with similar focused goals; to be able to go to places the big ships cannot reach and land passengers such as in Antarctica, a small port in Southeast Alaska, the coast of France or South Pacific island. You are having a shared experience and will after a few days feel a bond to many of the other passengers. According to our limit of 300, all sailing ships are considered small as are almost every riverboat and expedition vessel. Here’s more on the kinds of ships we cover.

The world is your oyster, so go open it.

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