Small but mighty: Your complete guide to small ship cruising

Author: Harriet Mallinson

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Cruise ships may bring enormous floating hotels to mind but cruises can also take place in much smaller ships which often come with a plethora of travel perks. Expert Dave Monk here reveals his guide to small ship cruising.

Whether it’s a dhoni in the Maldives, a former tugboat in Alaska or even a megayacht in the Caribbean, cruising needn’t be all about giant resort ships – there’s plenty of choice among small vessels too.

From a tiny ‘love boat’ for two, all the way to Saga’s boutique cruise ships, here we examine the holidays you can take at sea with fewer than 1,000 fellow guests on board.

Offering personal service from an attentive crew, these ships are able to anchor off private beaches or in tiny harbours, bringing you closer to the sea, wildlife and local lifestyles.

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Fewer than 100 guests

Lovers of small ships are spoilt for choice in Scotland. Red Moon, a former armed Admiralty vessel, can take four guests, though many couples hire it exclusively.

Others sailing from Oban include the 12-passenger former Norwegian rescue vessel Hjalmar Bjorge; three-deck superyacht Spirit of Fortitude, with snug but luxurious accommodation for 12; and steamboat VIC32 – Scotland’s last seagoing puffer – which takes ten.

The biggest Western Isles fleet (if you can call it that) is The Majestic Line, with four ships carrying up to 12 people. And dwarfing all rivals is the 50-passenger Hebridean Princess, which has twice been chartered by the Queen.

In Croatia, Katarina Line is the biggest operator along the Adriatic coast with a fleet of 60 craft, each carrying around 30 people, leaving from Opatija, Split and Dubrovnik.

This summer, Elixir Cruises is introducing its first ship, Elysium, in Greece. The 48-passenger vessel will offer ‘wellness cruises’, with overnights in Santorini and Mykonos.

Also in the Mediterranean, Overseas Adventure Travel offers 50-passenger sisters Arethusa, Artemis and Athena, as well as the sleek 89-guest Clio.

A bucket-list trip to the Galapagos will be memorable on 100-guest Celebrity Flora
The biggest Western Isles fleet (if you can call it that) is The Majestic Line

In Alaska, UnCruise and Alaskan Dream ships all carry fewer than 100 guests, while even smaller craft include the 12-passenger, century-old tugboat Swell, run by Maple Leaf Adventures.

G Adventures has three 16-passenger boats in the Galapagos – Yolita, Eden and Reina Silvia Voyager – plus the 20-guest Monserrat. Also in these waters is Grace, a 145ft motor yacht that carried Princess Grace of Monaco on her honeymoon.

In Fiji, Blue Lagoon Cruises operates the 68-passenger Fiji Princess around the Yasawa Islands, stopping at that famous lagoon, while Captain Cook Cruises bobs around 90 islands on the 130-passenger Reef Endeavour, which even offers a kids’ club.

Aqua Expeditions sails the five-deck, 15-suite Aqua Blu in East Indonesia. Originally the British exploration vessel HMS Beagle, then the private yacht of a European aristocrat, the ship was refurbished and renamed in 2019.

Further afield, Crystal’s oceangoing Esprit is like a millionaire’s yacht for its 62 guests, while Variety Cruises has a range of vessels around the world, including 72-passenger Variety Voyager, which returns to the Aegean in July.

Get on board

Hebridean Island Cruises 7-night ‘Clyde Castles and Stately Homes’ cruise aboard Hebridean Princess, round trip from Greenock via Troon, Arran and Bute, departing 2 November 2021, from £2,610

Variety Cruises 7-night ‘Seychelles’ cruise aboard motor yacht Pegasos, round trip from Mahe via Praslin and La Digue, departing 4 December 2021, from £1,194

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100 to 500 guests

More space generally means more luxury, especially in public spaces. Both SeaDream yachts carry up to 112 people, while Paul Gauguin takes 332 holidaymakers around French Polynesia (alternatively there’s the part-cargo, part-cruise ship Aranui 5, which accommodates 256).

Beginning with Scottish and Irish sailings, Riviera Travel is introducing the 158-guest Seaventure – formerly Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ Bremen – which has a fitness suite and heated saltwater pool.

Across the Atlantic, American Cruise Lines operates coastal ships of between 100 and 175 passengers. Sister line Pearl Seas Cruises has one guest vessel, Pearl Mist, sailing the Great Lakes with 210 guests, while Victory Cruise Lines’ two ships also carry 210.

French operator CroisiEurope has two oceangoing vessels with a guest capacity of 200 or below, while Noble Caledonia’s fleet comprises three ships with a limit of 118.

A bucket-list trip to the Galapagos will always be more memorable on a small ship, so look out for the 100-guest Celebrity Flora. Silver Origin, also for 100 passengers, launches soon.

At the other end of this size range, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ flagship Europa 2, one of the most luxurious ships in the world, accommodates 500 guests.

Get on board

Paul Gauguin Cruises 7-night ‘Tahiti and the Society Islands’ cruise aboard Paul Gauguin, round trip from Papeete via Bora Bora, departing 15 December 2021, from £3,328

Celebrity 7-night ‘Galapagos Inner Loop’ cruise aboard Celebrity Flora, round trip from Baltra, departing 23 January 2022, from £7,589

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ flagship Europa 2 is one of the most luxurious ships in the world
In the ultra-luxury range you’ll find Regent Seven Seas

500 to 1,000 guests

Here’s where whole fleets belonging to well-known names come in, boasting large lounges, a choice of bars, spacious suites and even personal butler service on some ships.

Luxury line Azamara has three (soon to be four) sister vessels of around 700 passengers, while Oceania – renowned for its cuisine – operates four ships of 684-guest capacity.

In the ultra-luxury range you’ll find Seabourn and Silversea, whose ships carry around 600 passengers; Regent Seven Seas (up to 750) and Crystal Cruises (two ocean ships of about 900 guest capacity).

You may think the numbers are starting to sound large, but these lines boast some of the most generous space-to-guest ratios afloat, as well as truly world-class restaurants and opulent public areas, often decorated with high-quality artworks.

A little larger still, Fred Olsen retains the 924-passenger Braemar, built in 1993, while Viking’s fleet of identical ships each have a capacity of 930.

Last but not least, Saga Cruises’ Spirit of Adventure launches this summer and – like sister ship Spirit of Discovery – just ducks under the bar with 999 guests.

Get on board

Oceania 11-night ‘Southern Caribbean Gems’ cruise aboard Sirena, from Barbados to Miami, departing 1 December 2021, from £2,069

Saga Cruises 13-night ‘Canary Island Chorus’ cruise aboard Spirit of Discovery, round trip from Southampton, departing 5 December 2021, from £2,625

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