Let’s be honest: there are some things that small cruise ships just don’t do. Casinos, for example. Or floor shows. If you can’t imagine a cruise without a packed program of glitzy night time entertainment, then small ship cruising probably isn’t your thing. If, however, you are willing to trade a few rounds of blackjack for the delights of personalised service and a more adventurous itinerary, then small ship cruising might just change your life – or, at least, your holiday plans.
It is not just size that sets small ships apart from the bigger liners, although travelling with 50 to 100 fellow passengers is clearly a very different experience from travelling with 4000 other people. The difference is also a matter of style. Large cruise ships are destinations in themselves, complete with a schedule of daily activities that may include everything from Pilates sessions to art classes. They are about relaxation, whereas smaller ships are about adventure. There are more frequent shore excursions, guest lecturers to give you in-depth insights into the places you are exploring, and one-of-a-kind experiences that will live in your memory.
Still not sure if small ship cruising is for you? Here are seven more reasons why travelling on a small ship may be the best experience you will ever have on the high seas.
Destinations with a difference
Big ships are high maintenance. They can only operate within a precise set of parameters, which include deep waters to travel in and proper ports to dock at. That is not a problem if you are cruising to Athens, Barcelona or Miami. If you have a hankering to explore less-visited destinations, however, smaller ships are the way to go. Their more compact size enables them to navigate through shallower waters, opening up a much wider range of destinations. What is more, since small ships usually carry Zodiacs onboard, you don’t even need a wharf to dock at – you can just pull up on a beach. That lets you access a whole range of remote destinations that are out of reach of traditional cruises. From the far-flung corners of Papua New Guinea to Cape York and Arnhem Land in Australia’s deep north, these destinations are a chance to leave the traditional tourist trail behind.
Think all cruises are about lounging around in deck chairs? Think again. Small ships specialise in expedition cruising, which means plenty of opportunities to get out and get active. The activities depend on the destination. On Coral Expeditions’ 7-night Pristine Tasmania itinerary, for example, there are some extraordinary hikes to enjoy, including Bruny Island’s Fluted Cape Walk and part of the famous South Coast Track. By contrast, their 12-night Cape York and Arnhem Land expedition includes plenty of opportunities for swimming and snorkelling on the area’s pristine beaches and reefs, including Davey Reef and Forbes Island. For those who aren’t comfortable on Zodiacs, Coral Expeditions’ ships also carry tender vessels, which are easy to access directly from the deck and even have a toilet on board.
On a big ship, nothing happens quickly. There are just too many people to wrangle. Every time you want to head out on a shore excursion, there is some serious queuing involved. The same applies at meal times. On a small ship, however, things run much more smoothly. It is not just the lack of queuing; it is the freedom. There is no assigned seating at meals for instance; you can decide who you would like to sit with. That means you get to spend more time with the people whose company you enjoy. It is simply an easier way to travel.
Meeting the locals
One of the great joys of travel is getting to know the locals. On a big ship shore excursion, however – which will often see three busloads of passengers heading to the same destination, each group shepherded by its own tour guide – that is never going to happen. Small ships, however, are all about local encounters, whether you are on the Tiwi Islands off the Northern Territory coast or meeting tribal people living along Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River. In villages such as Kambaramba, built entirely on stilts, and Kanganaman, famous for its traditional carvers, visitors are few and far between, so you are guaranteed a warm welcome.
Everyone knows the first rule of wildlife spotting: keep quiet. The less noise you make, the less likely you are to startle wildlife. Good luck keeping the noise level down when you are travelling with a large group. On a small ship, it is much easier to keep numbers tight on shore excursions. That, in turn, means you are much more likely to come face to face with the native wildlife. On Tasmania’s magical Maria Island you may encounter anything from wallabies to echidnas to Tasmanian devils, while in the Kimberley you may see goannas, rock wallabies, dolphins, and even humpback whales.
Savouring the local flavour
Seeing the sights is one of the joys of travel; for many travellers, however, tasting the local flavours is equally important. Catering for far fewer passengers, small ships are able to harness the best local ingredients to showcase in their small-batch meals. If you are cruising Tasmania, for instance, you may be able to feast on flavour-packed local cheeses, as well as ocean-fresh seafood such as Bruny Island oysters.
Getting way off the beaten track
So you have cruised the Greek islands? Hate to break it to you, but so has everyone else. But how many people do you know who have travelled to beautiful Elcho Island, part of the Wessel Islands archipelago in East Arnhem Land? With its rust-red cliffs, its white sand beaches and its native forests, not to mention its Indigenous communities, Elcho Island, also known as Galiwinku, is one of this country’s most remote destinations, and one that brings serious bragging rights. Looking for something a little less far-flung? Then Port Davey in Tasmania may fit the bill. Part of the stunning Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, Port Davey is not for faint-hearted travellers. Most visitors come here either on a charter flight, or via a seven-day hike. Passengers on Coral Expeditions’ Tasmania cruises, however, can simply sail in to its sheltered bays, and spend two full days exploring this spectacular marine reserve.