The m/s Paul Gaugin

Your Guide to Small Ship Cruising

By Kellie Davenport

Gentle waves of gin-clear Tahitian water were lapping against the ship. The captain strolled by to say hello. That’s the moment when Madeleine St. Arnaud became a small-ship cruiser for life. “My first small-ship experience was aboard the m/s Paul Gauguin in French Polynesia,” says the Calgary resident and AMA member. The 14-day cruise took her to Bora Bora, Moorea and Papeete. “That’s when I fell in love with this style of travel.” Eight cruises later, she’s now a veritable small-ship pro.

Unlike some of today’s mega-ships, small ships offer a more intimate experience—like a floating boutique hotel. “It’s definitely higher end, but the packages are almost all-inclusive—you usually just pay extra for your shore excursions—it’s good value,” St. Arnaud says. “My husband and I don’t like crowds, so the smaller passenger list means no jostling for position on land.”

Smaller vessels can also navigate tighter waterways to drop anchor in off-the-beaten-path ports or deliver you directly to city centres, especially in the Mediterranean or Asia. For passengers, that means less time sitting on a bus in transit and more time immersed in a destination. “We love seeing parts of the world where it’s just not possible for big ships to go,” she adds.

Another key takeaway is the opportunity to really get to know fellow passengers. “On our first cruise, we met a couple from Michigan, whom we still meet on cruises around the world,” she says. “We actually just caught up with them on our last cruise to the Galapagos.”

Not sure if this seafaring style is right for you? Read on as we outline the considerable benefits—including exclusive perks for AMA members—of small ship cruising. And if you still have questions, AMA Travel cruise specialists are always available to provide even more information.

small ship cruising paddleboarding paul gaugin marina
Paul Gaugin‘s onboard marina (photo: Roger Paperno)

Yes, the ship is smaller than your typical ocean liner. But there’s more than size alone. Cruise lines specializing in smaller ship experiences typically range from about 100 passengers with SeaDream up to 800 with Azamara and Oceania. The high crew-to-passenger ratio—which is sometimes one-to-one—guarantees a more personalized experience.

Brands like Oceania, Paul Gauguin, Azamara, SeaDream and Windstar take it a step further by offering first-class service tailored to your needs, a laid-back country club atmosphere, spacious staterooms, top-notch dining, exotic itineraries and once-in-a-lifetime cultural experiences.

3 unforgettable small-ship cruise destinations

“A small-ship cruise falls somewhere between all-out luxury, such as Seven Seas and Crystal, and mass-market cruises, like Princess Cruises or Royal Caribbean International,” says Cathy Jabusch, AMA cruise specialist. “It’s luxury within reach; and the inclusions make it well worth the money.”

While smaller vessels won’t have zip lines or theme park rides, most do have pools, a small casino, bars and spa services. Cuisine is a particular highlight. Expect even more dining venues—all included with the price of your trip. With fewer passengers, chefs can use the freshest ingredients, and devote more time to each plate.

Jabusch’s favourite small-ship tip: Ask to eat al fresco. “I recently sailed on SeaDream and, upon boarding, I asked if we could dine on the deck one evening,” Jabusch says. “By the time I got to my stateroom, there was a voicemail from the maître d’ saying that we were booked at an outdoor table that same night.”

Name a region and there’s likely a small ship that sails there. In Europe, cruise the Mediterranean and dock within walking distance of historic sites and bustling Italian and French cities. Asian cruises take you to jungles and seaside cities. Caribbean and French Polynesian voyages navigate around tropical islands. On Central or South American cruises, you might pass through iconic canals and lush rainforests.

“The best part is that these cruises visit ports where larger ships can’t physically go—which gets you closer to cultural points of interest on land,” says Shelley Samycia, AMA cruise sales manager, who has sailed more than a dozen such cruises. Lines like Azamara and SeaDream even include late-night or overnight stays in port. Without a curfew, travellers can sip sunset cocktails, dance after dark and sample local street food. Azamara now offers overnight stays in 90-plus ports around the world, including St. Petersburg, Dubrovnik, Edinburgh and Ibiza. SeaDream anchors in most ports until 1 a.m., and most of its itineraries include at least one overnight stay in unique ports like Croatia’s Hvar and Bonifacio in Corsica.

small ship cruising windstar seafood paella
Catch of the day on a Windstar cruise (photo: Chiociolla)

Foodies, experienced travellers, culture lovers, honeymooners, people celebrating a milestone, those wanting a more relaxed dress code and anyone craving some-thing different should set sail on a small ship. There aren’t many kids aboard, so small ships make great adult-only getaways.

An immersive cultural experience aboard a Bordeaux river cruise

“When you compare the inclusions and level of quality on a small ship, you get a lot of bang for your buck,” Jabusch says. In addition to what other cruise lines include, you usually get specialty non-alcoholic drinks like virgin piña coladas and fancy coffees, a variety of alternative dining options, and larger staterooms with high-end amenities. Some lines also include wine, beer and select spirits, onboard gratuities, water sports and reduced airfare offers from Alberta.

AMA’s cruise specialists have been there, done that. Most have travelled with several small-ship operators, so they’ll find a line tailored to your travel style. “And if your cruise specialist hasn’t been on a particular route,” Samycia adds, “they will consult another AMA specialist who can offer informed answers to all of your cruise questions.” Your AMA cruise specialist will also share insider tips about onboard dining and must-see sights at port, plus special perks and exclusive offers for AMA members. Member-only benefits, like ship credits, can be used toward a chef’s table with wine pairings, shore excursions or alcohol during your cruise.

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