In my cruise travels, I frequently meet seasoned cruise aficionados who express the opinion they prefer smaller vessels, which offer more intimate cruise experiences.

They claim to be turned off by the giant ships with thousands of passengers. Bigger may be better for some, but certainly not for everyone.

Smaller vessels come in many shapes and sizes and offer a variety of experiences. The small, luxury, ocean-going, yacht-like ships like those of Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club and the two smaller Windstar and Silversea ships actually offer a condensed version of the more familiar cruise experience except with fewer passengers, more crew, less activities and entertainment and more intimacy and pampering.

The boats that ply the rivers of Europe such as those of Peter Deilmann, Viking River Cruises, Uniworld, Amadeus, Grand Circle Cruises, Sonesta Nile Cruises and several other companies also offer a more intimate experience, but with a bit less pampering, somewhat smaller accommodations and even less activities and entertainment. Their emphasis is exploring and spending time in charming cities and villages not accessible to ocean-going vessels.

For those seeking the ultimate “small” private yacht-like experience, barges that accommodate from 4-12 passengers may be the best choice. These vessels navigate narrow waterways mostly in France, Holland and Great Britain, stopping at small villages, and places of interest along the way.

The crew generally consists of the captain (who doubles as a tour guide), a talented chef (who prepares exotic meals from products acquired daily), a first-mate and two women who double as waiters and cabin attendants. The public spaces consist of a large room with a dining, lounge and bar area, a small outside deck with lounges, tables and bicycles and accommodations that range from adequate to lavish, depending upon the vessel. The leading barge companies include French Country Waterways, European Waterways (Go Barging), Grand Circle Cruises and Abercrombie and Kent.

Concluding the line-up of small vessels are those specialising in cruising the inland waterways and coasts of various continents, including American Cruise Lines, American Canadian Caribbean Line, Cruise West, Bora Bora Cruises and Blue Lagoon Cruises. These are generally less luxurious versions of the small yacht-like cruise ships described above.

Recently, I was able to compare three of these vessels back-to-back, sailing first on Seabourn from Barcelona to Monte Carlo, then down the Seine with Peter Deilmann Cruises and finally a barge adventure in the Loire Valley on European Waterways’ Renaissance.

SMALL – Seabourn Legend

From the moment of embarkation, the extraordinary attention of the crew to pampering the guests was evident. We were escorted to our suites by attractive cabin stewardesses and given a glass of Champagne along with caviar, shrimp and salmon hors d’oeuvres. An additional bottle of Champagne was waiting in our cabin along, with a fully stocked refrigerator/mini-bar with soft drinks and alcoholic beverages of our choice which we had selected prior to leaving home.

On Seabourn, all beverages, wines and speciality coffees are complimentary and special requests for any food or beverage item will be fulfilled any place aboard at any time.

‘This may be the
ULTIMATE OCEAN-GOING
LINE for well-heeled,
sophisticated cruise aficionados’

Dining is a true highlight aboard Seabourn ships. The indoor-outdoor Terrace Cafe serves buffet-style and table-side for breakfast and lunch, and converts to Restaurant 2 in the evening, a more casual, alternative restaurant offering a five-course tasting menu. The elegant, open-seating main dining room simply features some of the best cuisine at sea, with rotating menus designed by celebrity chef Charlie Palmer.

We found the service throughout the ship unbelievable, in our opinion the most attentive at sea. The staff quickly acquires the ability to address each passenger by name and this perk, together with the congeniality of your fellow passengers, sets this “small cruise experience” apart from the larger vessels.

In conclusion: This may be the ultimate ocean-going cruise line for well-heeled, sophisticated cruise aficionados. Seabourn offers – and delivers – superb dining, impeccable service, elegant, spacious accommodations and some of the most-desired itineraries.

SMALLER – Peter Deilmann’s Cezanne

Having taken riverboats on the Danube, Mainz Canal, Rhine, Mosel, Rhone, Saone and Yangtze Rivers in recent years, I opted for a new itinerary on the River Seine between Paris and Honfleur. Peter Deilmann River Cruises’ Cezanne was offering a 7-night, round-trip from Paris on a 100-passenger vessel originally launched in 1993 for Provence Line and acquired and completely refurbished by Deilmann in 2000.

The onboard facilities are relatively simple, with 44 twin-bedded cabins (measuring 162sq ft) and six queen-bedded cabins (at 178sq ft). The 10 more expensive cabins on main deck offer large picture windows, rendering them the more desirable choice. Then there is a large lounge/bar, an attractive dining room and a tiny combination boutique and hair salon. Atop ship is a (comparatively) vast observation deck with lounges, tables, some protected areas and the bridge.

‘The Deilmann riverboats
are AMONG THE VERY
BEST sailing
European waters’

Single-seating dining takes place at assigned tables for two, four, and six guests. At breakfast, the buffet table attractively presents fresh fruits, juices, breads, breakfast meats, cheeses, fish, eggs and Champagne; multi-course lunches are served at the table, while guests can also help themselves to soups, salads, pasta, fruits, luncheon meats and cheeses from the buffet; five-course dinners are offered nightly, with at least two choices for each course. The outstanding feature of the dining was the excellent European wait staff. Similar excellent service prevailed throughout the ship.

Entertainment was limited to one talented musician who played piano and accordion at tea time, cocktail hour and after dinner. However, one evening a French singer gave a special performance, and on another a magician. The land tours offered daily were quite expensive; however, the staff was most helpful in assisting passengers who preferred to go off on their own.

In conclusion: this particular itinerary would be best suited for those wishing to visit this particular region of France, with extra time in Paris, who appreciate excellent service but do not require around the clock activities or entertainment. We have found the Deilmann riverboats to be among the best sailing European waters, and this certainly maintained their excellent reputation.

SMALLEST – European Waterways’ Renaissance

Barge cruising has been one of my passions ever since my first experience 15 years ago. For me, few nautical adventures compare to lazing on the outside deck, nestled in a comfortable lounge chair with a glass of fine wine while your semi-private barge meanders along picturesque waterways lined with verdant forestry.

I also enjoyed the ultimate luxury barge experience on European Waterways’ newly-acquired Renaissance (formerly the Bonne Hummeur). The Renaissance is to barge cruises what Seabourn ships are to ocean-going vessels, i.e. six-star. With just four couples aboard, we were ensconced in lavish 270sq ft suites while being pampered by a service staff of seven, feeling like guests on some billionaire’s private yacht.

Each beautifully decorated suite is more akin to a hotel room than a cabin, including twin beds convertible to queen size, generous dresser and closet space, flat-screen TV/DVDs and large bathrooms. The public rooms are equally impressive, notably the central, 7ft-high salon, bar and adjoining dining room, tastefully decorated with traditional furnishings, wood panelling and armoires, with a library of books, CDs and DVDs.

‘We were left feeling
like guests on some
BILLIONAIRE’S
PRIVATE YACHT’

The outside deck area was partially protected from the elements and included a hot tub, lounge chairs and dining table for occasional alfresco lunches. A fleet of eight bicycles was stored at the stern for guests who wished to explore the villages and scenery bordering the canals. Since the barge travels slowly, those wishing to walk or cycle could easily disembark while passing through a lock and re-join at another lock or town further down the canal.

The Renaissance cruises the Briare and Loing Canals in the upper Loire region, with daily shore tours by mini-bus offered gratis to a variety of places of interest. However, the tours were not the strong suit of the cruise and several were a bit ho hum.

Given all of the other wonderful aspects of the cruise, dining and imbibing were still the highlights. Unlimited soft drinks, alcoholic beverages and fine wines were all available free of charge and, at each lunch and dinner, the staff presented tastings of several of the finest French wines and cheeses. Our personal French chef, Sylvain, prepared inspired offerings at each meal and, if Michelin awarded stars to barges, Renaissance would certainly receive the maximum.

The dress code was relaxed and casual except for the captain’s dinner when men wore jackets and women cocktail dresses or suits. Granted, not all barges offer the outstanding luxury we enjoyed on Renaissance, however, most provide a similar experience and will delight those who seek the smallest cruise adventure.

In conclusion: this proved the ultimate small-cruise vacation, having sampled three totally different, yet equally enjoyable vessels, each offering its own unique experience. But which would you prefer? As the saying goes, “It’s different strokes for different folks.”