The Best Cruises for Non-Cruisers

This is an article on https://www.cntraveler.com/story/best-cruises-for-non-cruisers

by FRAN GOLDEN September 12, 2019

 

“I am not a cruiser.” That’s the phrase that Captain Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise Adventures, says he hears often from passengers onboard his company’s nine small ships.

That works, because Blanchard doesn’t see UnCruise as a traditional cruise line, either. Instead, he sees his 22- to 90-passenger ships more as providing a soft adventure experience that happens to be on water. In that floating vacation market, UnCruise is not alone. A bevy of cruise companies—some you may never have heard of—cater to a subset of seagoing travelers who don’t love the idea of big cruise ships with casinos, show productions, and crowds. Yet they still want to travel to places most accessible by water.

Some are sailors who want to watch the sheets flapping in the wind, some are excited about beyond-the-norm experiences such as traveling on ships that also carry cargo. Others are looking for intimate cultural experiences or itineraries where you pretty much stay in the wilderness. These “non-cruisers” tend to put destination first, well ahead of modes of transportation. They aren’t looking for anything too fussy in terms of shipboard accoutrements—but they are willing to shell out for an extraordinary experience that happens to involve getting on a ship.

For those who want adventure—with a side of luxury

Luxury expedition ships are part of a growing trend that appeal to an adventurous set who also want the finer things in life, like suites with butler service. Lindblad Expeditions is something else entirely. “It’s not a cruise; we want to curate something,” says Sven Lindblad, CEO and founder of the line, which in partnership with National Geographic operates more than a dozen small ships in destinations including Antarctica and the Arctic, Galapagos, and the Mediterranean. “The ship is secondary, a place to shower, breathe, hang out,” says Lindblad. “It is comfortable and the service is great. But the main show is outside of the ship.”

“You are closer to areas you want to see, whether it’s a wildlife area, natural history, or a cultural area,” says Lindblad fan Judy Pool of Denver. Her favorite itineraries include seeing the penguins and other animals in the Antarctic and South Georgia, and the culture and natural history in the British Isles. Then there was the time in Indonesia when the captain got word that a volcano was erupting. “We went off course and watched the volcano and the lava coming down into the ocean for at least two hours, and this was at 11 p.m. at night,” Pool says. “That kind of flexibility appeals to me.”

Small adventure ships tend to have a convivial atmosphere, partly because there are few public spaces to mingle in beyond an open-seating dining room, the outdoor deck, and a lounge where everyone gathers for cocktails. Passengers bond over shared experiences (excursions often are included in the cruise fare). Cabins are comfortable but may be sparse, the atmosphere casual. “You might bring a nice pair of pants or blouse or something, but other than that it’s khakis and shorts and hiking boots or tennis shoes, and layers, depending on where you are,” Pool says. “Most people carry cameras and binoculars. It’s part of the uniform.”

Blanchard of UnCruise says about 60 percent of his guests are the same folks who backpacked in Europe and are looking for that kind of experience at sea. “The rest tell us they just can’t handle the numbers on the big ships, and what is now being called ‘overtourism’ in the places where the big ships go,” he says.

The majority of UnCruise’s itineraries, in places such as Alaska, Latin America, the Sea of Cortez, and Hawaii, don’t visit big ports. After embarking you stay mostly in the wild, doing things like hiking and kayaking. “Our clients are well-heeled, have an adventuresome mindset, and want to stop in the forest and suck it in,” says Blanchard. “Sit in a kayak and hear the distant whale blows. If you do stop, it is in very small villages and for cultural sights.”

SeaCloud

Sailing ships such as the Sea Cloud allow passengers to feel closer to the water.

Dirk Weyer/Courtesy SeaCloud

For those who want a truly nautical experience

Fans of sailing also tend to consider themselves non-cruisers, attracted to ships where they can feel at one with the sea. On the real sailing ships of lines such as Star Clippers and German-owned Sea Cloud, passengers help pull the lines and dive right off the ship to cool off in the sea, in between visiting small ports popular with the yachting set.

On the three Star Clippers ships, sailing in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, or Southeast Asia, you can put on a harness and climb a small mast or choose to lounge in the bowsprit netting. The original 64-passenger Sea Cloud, built in the early 1930s by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, adds a touch of history. That ship is chartered part of the year by Lindblad in the Mediterranean and also sails in the Caribbean. There’s also a 94-passenger Sea Cloud II, and a third sailing ship debuts next year.

For those who want to visit the most remote locations

Sue Golding, a professor emeritus at the University of Queensland in Australia, took a big ship once while returning home from South Africa. It wasn’t her favorite trip. “I am not sure we actually detest large ships, but have no desire to travel on one unless absolutely necessary,” she says. Drawn by destination, she’s recently been sailing with casual Australian line Coral Expeditions to places such as remote West Papua, Indonesia—where an itinerary highlight was being greeted by bare-chested, grass-skirted “warriors” in dugout canoes.

Among Golding’s favorite ship experiences were cruises along the coast of Norway with Hurtigruten. The Norwegian company’s 11 coastal ships (they also operate five expedition ships) carry international travelers as well as locals (using the ships as public transport), in addition to cars, freight, and mail. Year-round they visit 34 ports, from Bergen to Kirkenes in the far north. On six- or 12-day itineraries you stay in accommodations that may or may not have double beds, and leave the ship for excursions (for a fee) to see such sights as the sheer rock cliff-lined Geirangerfjord and the North Cape, far above the Arctic Circle. Since your ship may only be in port a few hours, you may re-board at a different place on the itinerary.

The tropical equivalent to Hurtigruten is the Aranui 5, part cargo ship, part passenger vessel, which does a regular two-week circuit between Papeete, Tahiti, and the Marquesas—serving as a lifeline to the small, remote islands. The French-flagged ship has accommodations ranging from cabins with private balconies to small dormitories for the budget-conscious. The 254 passengers hear lectures about Polynesian culture and learn to make leis when not hanging out at the pool, dining on French-influenced and Polynesian cuisine, or explore on shore (excursions included). At the 19 stops, the muscular crew uses cranes and brawn to download the cargo. Half the village might come out to collect kitchen appliances, food, bikes, even coffins. It’s as much a real-life experience as cruise vacation.

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