Where to Travel Aboard Small-Ship Ocean Cruises

On Windstar’s “Dreams of Tahiti” voyage, the Wind Spirit overnights in Moorea and other isles.

All ships, great and small, create memorable vacations for clients. Yet, small oceangoing ships can go to many ports across the globe that big ships can’t access. They have more flexibility in scheduling daily activities to accommodate wildlife spotting or water sports. They don’t come with crowds. So, where should clients go on a small-ship ocean cruise and why? 

Central America: What could be better than warm weather, exotic locales, wildlife viewing and superb cultural options and experiencing all that up close? Several small-ship operators offer itineraries to the jungles and islands of Costa Rica and Panama. Among those, UnCruise Adventures’ 15-night “Ultimate Costa Rica & Panama” on Safari Voyager operates between San Jose, Costa Rica and Panama City, Panama, or in reverse. During this cruise, guests can visit two national parks, one wildlife refuge and a conservation area. 

Certainly, one highlight is the 48-mile-long transit of the Panama Canal and a visit to its visitor center. Eco-fans can hike in the jungle to spot sloths, howler monkeys and scarlet macaws; head to Gatun Lake, Darien Jungle or the Gulf of Panama to look for wildlife, marine life and birds; or go bird watching along the Chagres River. Snorkeling, kayaking and paddleboarding are planned at Las Perlas, the Guna Yala Islands, and Granito de Oro

Guests will learn about the Guna Indian and Emberá cultures and tour Fort San Lorenzo, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The cruise includes a one-night pre-cruise hotel stay at either the Intercontinental Hotel in San José or Bristol Hotel in Panama City. Voyages depart now through August, in October and, for 2018, during April, June, August and October.

Seeking a shorter option? New this year is an eight-night “Pure Panama: Cultures, Coasts & Canal” itinerary between Panama City and Colon on Safari Voyager. “We’ve paired adventure activities in the jungle and around tropical islands with a rich cultural component that includes visits with the Guna and Embera native groups,” says Captain Dan Blanchard, CEO, UnCruise Adventures. “Panamá deserves a full week of exploration.” 

Falklands and Antarctica: Those who wish to explore Antarctica in depth with more time there (or at South Georgia) and avoid two transits of the Drake Passage now have a small-ship option that does just that. Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic has created two opportunities for guests to fly directly one way to or from the Falklands instead of making a second Drake Passage crossing. These flights provide guests one more day along the Antarctic Peninsula or in South Georgia

Clients booking the 18-day “South Georgia and the Falklands” voyage on October 23 can fly one way directly from the Falklands to Santiago, Chile, converting a day at sea into an extra full day among the 100,000-plus penguins on South Georgia. This voyage also will have Greg Marshall, wildlife expert and National Geographic crittercam filmmaker, as an onboard guest lecturer. 

Those traveling on Lindblad’s 24-day “Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands” departure on November 6, 2017 will fly directly from Santiago to the Falklands, which will allow for an extra day in Antarctica. Guests speakers expected are Frances Ulmer, U.S. Arctic research chairperson, and Kathy Sullivan, former astronaut and oceanographer. 

On South Georgia, guests can spot king penguins, fur seals, elephant seals, macaroni and gentoo penguins, while in the Falklands, an array of albatross await. In Antarctica, guests will hike, Zodiac, cross-country ski and kayak. Both voyages are operated by the 148-guest National Geographic Explorer.

Scenic’s new Scenic Eclipse, an oceangoing small ship product, launches in August 2018 with state-of-the-art safety features for cruising to Arctic and Antarctic destinations, where it will carry just 200 guests. In late 2018 or 2019, guests can choose between a 12-day “Ultimate Antarctica” adventure, roundtrip from Ushuaia, Argentina, or a “21-day Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands” adventure. The latter spends six days in South Georgia, five in Antarctica and three in the Falklands, so it’s port intensive, yet there are still plenty of sea days and scenic cruising. 

Polynesian Adventures: A graceful sailing yacht is a memorable way to experience Tahiti and hop among its many isles. During Windstar Cruises’ seven-day “Dreams of Tahiti” voyage, roundtrip from Papeete on the 148-passenger Wind Spirit, a motorized, four-masted sailing yacht, cruisers will stay overnight on most islands so there will be plenty of time to swim, snorkel, hike and soak up the Polynesian culture. On Bora Bora, cruisers receive a complimentary “Destination Discovery” event called the Celebration Festival

On Moorea, fit guests can opt for Windstar’s “Active Hike and Guided Tour of Three Coconut Trail,” a brisk four-mile workout with spectacular scenic views. Among other options are dolphin spotting, stingray encounters or a two-tank scuba dive for certified divers. For those not yet certified or wanting to learn how to dive, a “Discover Scuba” excursion at the aquarium’s lagoon is shallow and easy. 

Paul Gauguin Cruises, which sails to the islands of Tahiti and other exotic South Pacific destinations, has new wedding ceremony and renewal of vows packages at Motu Mahana, the line's private islet, for $315, or at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa, for $950. The line also has a gift registry for weddings, honeymoons or other special occasion.

The Un-Cruise Adventures’ Safari Voyager operates between Costa Rica and Panama.

Along the Amazon: With four new yacht-style Explorer ships (expedition vessels) launching in 2018 and 2019, Ponant will be able to add more far-reaching global sailings. Starting in winter 2018, the small ship luxury operator will offer a new Amazon itinerary on the new 184-passenger Le Champlain. One operational feature of the new ship design is a hydraulic platform with adjustable height capabilities creating easier boarding and Zodiac access.

During a 12-night “Natural Wonders of the Amazon” itinerary in 2018 and 2019, Le Champlain will sail the Amazon River between Manaus and Cayenne, French Guiana, which has homes of pink, yellow and turquoise. Despite the Amazon’s march into modern civilization over the years, clients will still encounter dense and varied vegetation, tropical fruits, animals, birds, hamlets, stilt houses and local boats and the small-ship can navigate into coves and waterways that larger ships can’t.  

In Belem, Brazil, guests will stroll through a century-old market and visit the 19th-century Bosque Rodrigues-Alves Botanical Garden, a mini Amazonian forest in the city center. At the confluence of the Tapajos and Amazon rivers, around Santarem, clients should keep their eyes peeled for the possibility of botos (pink river dolphins). Departures are November 25 and December 7, 2018, as well as March 29, 2019.

The Great Land: Cruising Alaskan waterways by small ship may be the best way to guarantee sightings of Alaska’s wildlife including the so-called “Fab Five” — whales, brown bears, mountain goats, moose and king salmon. Small ships can maneuver quietly into less-frequented waterways to access remote bays, coves and shorelines and guests often hop into Zodiacs or kayaks to observe wildlife, marine life and birds up close. 

“Coastal Alaska is special [as] you just don’t see Alaska’s Fab Five in this concentration or magnitude elsewhere in the state,” says Todd Smith, founder and president, AdventureSmith Explorations

“In my experience as a former guide, these are the animals that people come to Alaska to see,” he notes. The company’s eight-day “Alaska’s Coastal Grizzlies” on the eight-passenger Ursus, a converted research vessel, is its most remote Alaska offering. In Katmai National Park and Preserve, clients can look for brown bears feeding on salmon. Gateways for this itinerary are Kodiak or Homer with an included pre- and post-cruise hotel night, day boat tour of Kodiak Island or Kachemak Bay and scenic floatplane flight to and from the vessel. Departures are this June, July and August. 

Native-Alaskan-owned Alaskan Dream Cruises offers a new 10-night “Alaska’s Frontier & Wilderness Quest” itinerary between Sitka and Juneau this year on the 74-passenger Chichagof Dream. Guests will spend two full days in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a day in Skagway and much time in more remote areas and small communities, including Kake, Wrangell and Petersburg. A full day in Tracy Arm Fjord provides glacier and wildlife viewing. An evening at the cruise line’s private Orca Point Lodge allows guests to feast on fresh king crab legs and salmon before relaxing by a beach bonfire. 

The small-ship expedition also includes kayaking, hiking and shallow-water exploration by small, motorized boats in wilderness areas. The itinerary is offered on June 3 and June 13, 2018. Many other operators such as The Boat Company (a non-profit group with an educational / environmental approach) also offer summer Alaska small ship cruises. 

Myanmar’s Islands: The Mergui Archipelago encompasses more than 1,000 islands of stunning beauty. They don’t accommodate big ships. In fact, although some live-aboard dive boats and yachts venture with special permission into the southern islands from their bases in Thailand, the bulk of the archipelago has remained unvisited since British Colonial times. So how do clients get there? Pandaw’s 20-passenger oceangoing Andaman Explorer sails a seven-night “Mergui Archipelago” ocean voyage roundtrip from Kawthaung, Myanmar.

The locals are Mokkein, often called sea gypsies or even pirates. During the Burmese Socialist period, they controlled the smuggling routes and would prey on shipping. Today, they’re involved in fishing and fish curing. The Andaman Explorer will visit Mokkein islands such as Lampi in the Sullivan Islands. Guests can go kayaking and snorkeling at remote isles. One highlight is the Lampi Marine National Park of Myanmar, home to mangrove forests and diverse bird life including the hornbill. 

A former 1960s motor launch, the Andaman Explorer is refurbished / updated and past government permitting challenges are resolved, according to the line. So the Mergui Archipelago sailings begin later this year, continuing into 2018. All accommodations are two-room suites.  

Other regions too attract small ships, including the Greek Isles, where Celestyal Cruises, Variety Cruises, SeaDream Yacht Club and others sail to sunny isles with beaches and whitewashed homes. In the Caribbean, small-ship options will expand when Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises’ new Crystal Esprit begins its itineraries there in November. Atop the Arctic Circle, Hurtigruten, Silversea Expeditions’ recently refurbished Silver Explorer and other lines sail to polar bears, whale watching, bird rookeries, tundra scenery and icy landscapes. Whatever the locale, oceangoing small-ship cruising is soaring in popularity, with many new ships and itineraries fueling the fervor.

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