by Emma Featherstone, The Telegraph, January 7, 2018
Are you a seasoned cruiser looking to try something a little different? Or maybe you’ve got your eye on exploring a new region, and a cruise would be the most efficient way of doing so? A luxury, small ship voyage could be just the thing. Access to less-frequented ports, queueless buffets and top-notch dinners are just a few of the benefits of a boutique sailing.
Here’s what I learnt from my first small ship cruise with American line, Windstar.
Seek out the most experienced cruisers
A small cruise ship – we’re talking 212 passengers on Windstar’s Star Pride versus the up to 6,000 you might find on some ships navigating the Caribbean – has the benefit of feeling like a private yacht. But then you are meeting most of your fellow passengers for the first time – what if you have nothing in common?
Without room (or demand) for children’s clubs, high octane theatre shows or water slides, there weren’t any young families to bring down the sailing age. There were a few younger couples and several solo travellers, but American retirees in couples probably made up the bulk of cruisers. Being a few decades outside the average demographic really didn’t matter – those who’d had more years to explore made the best dinner companions. One took his first cruise in the 1960s, and had travelled the world by ship ever since.
Plus, it’s open seating so if you’re feeling less sociable one evening you could opt for a table for two.
Don’t fork out for formal wear
Breakfast and lunch were buffet-style, with the option to order a la carte. A delicious, varied spread, with no dress code, what’s not to like?
Windstar suggests no shorts, jeans, hats or t-shirts in the main restaurant and public spaces in the evenings, but smart jeans and trainers passed without comment. There was plenty of night-time glamour, but smart shirts and cocktail dresses as opposed to full on black tie.
You can do your own thing
Aside from being back on board before the daily sail away, we were free to do as we pleased. We opted to join several excursions. All were in relatively small groups, so it never felt like we were being herded about.
On a snorkelling trip that could’ve accomodated 49, for example, there were just 12 of us to enjoy the catamaran breeze and rum punch.
When we docked, we could stroll and off throughout the day. And, when anchored (in smaller ports), it was easy to hop on a tender boat to and from the shore.
That was another benefit of our modest-sized vessel: smaller ships can pull into, and anchor off, tiny ports where beaches and attractions are easy to reach under your own steam. Great for bumping up your Caribbean bragging rights.
Seasickness isn’t necessarily worse on smaller ships (at least on calm seas)
On all but the last day and night on board our ride was glassy smooth. After such an easy ride, the final night’s gentle waves were a bit disconcerting, but not to the point of seasickness – and few people looked to be struggling at dinner.
The cabins are plenty big enough
It never felt cramped for two. With a king-sized bed, a bathtub (with shower), a living space that can be curtained off from the bedroom, plus a French balcony, our cabin offered plenty of space.
Drinks can be reasonably priced
If you’re used to forking out for London cocktail prices you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Most cocktails were cheaper than most UK rates – and the cocktail of the day made for an inexpensive sail away drink (around $7-8/or between £5.50 and £6.50, usually).
You could also grab free tea and coffee from the Yacht Club (which also served breakfast pastries, then sandwiches) between 6am to 6pm.
There’s a real focus on good food
While you aren’t presented with the plethora of options you’d have on a bigger ship (i.e there wasn’t an all-day pizza bar), fans of good food won’t be disappointed.
AmphorA, the main restaurant for dinner, changed its menu each evening with at least six options each for mains, salads and pudding (including cheese). Windstar has a partnership with the James Beard foundation (which gives awards comparable to a Michelin star) and each evening (among many other options) there was a starter, main and dessert created by a James Beard chef.
Plus, you could reserve a spot at the other restaurant, Candles, on one evening (as the menu stays the same throughout the voyage here, the one-off reservation policy gives all passengers a chance to sample it). Other high end, small ship lines (such as Seabourn and Silversea) also emphasise their high quality cuisine
Overall it feels pretty spacious
Despite its chummy name, the Yacht Club (a roofed space at the front of the ship with dark wood and soft furnishings) is open to all and always had plenty of room to lounge. The plunge pool and hot tub on the main deck were rarely full and few people seemed to discover the second hot tub, below the bridge, until the last couple of days.
Dedicated to your daily run? You’d probably be a nuisance doing laps around the deck, but if you head to the gym in the morning, you shouldn’t have to jostle for a treadmill. At least on Windstar, there wasn’t often more than three or four people in the gym when I passed.
There are some less obvious perks
Fancy snorkelling off the back of the ship? With Windstar you can do just that thanks to its water sports platform complete with zodiacs, floats and trampolines that can be connected to the back of the ship (a feature that can be found on other small ship cruise lines).
You can visit the bridge anytime when the ship is at sail (at the captain’s discretion), something that, if offered on larger ships, needs to be pre-arranged.
The lack of fancy theatres didn’t mean dull hours at sea – the crew added their talents to those of the onboard singers for the crew talent show and line dancing class. And high rollers could always make their way to the casino.
Plus, you can get to know most of the crew. Anthony, the ship’s sommelier, nipped around the restaurants dishing out recommendations and squirrelling away knowledge about each passenger's favourites.
You can watch your spending
On a Windstar cruise, all meals are included in the cost and with the ease of getting on and off the ship, you could avoid buying any food on shore. And, with 24 hour room service also inclusive, you won’t go hungry if you miss meal times.
If you don’t want to scrimp on alcohol, you could spring for a drinks package or just enjoy the occasional glass of wine with dinner and look out for the daily offer when you want a cocktail. Coffees, tea and soft drinks are free.
Excursions are an additional cost and in some ports taking a trip of some kind seemed like the most sensible option. Of course, you could seek out tour operators off your own steam, for a lower cost. But in some of the smaller ports there was plenty to explore within walking distance and a taxi would be a fairly inexpensive, convenient way to reach anywhere else.
A hotel service charge of $13.50 (£10.60) a day per person applies ($94.50/£74.60 for seven days) and 15 per cent is added to bar bills and to wine you buy in the dining rooms.