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Is a Small-Ship Expedition Cruise Right for You?

June 27, 2016 | Lois Farley

Say the word “cruise” and, to most people what comes to mind is a large, gleaming ship with 10, 15, 20 decks; thousands of passengers (the current largest cruise ship can accommodate 6,410 passengers at maximum capacity); large and lavish meals six times a day; multiple pool, spas, gyms and sporting activities on-board; Las Vegas-style entertainment.  But, an increasing number of travellers know that, when it comes to soft adventure cruising, bigger isn’t better!

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Expedition-style ships offer many benefits that their larger (and much larger) counterparts don’t.  And, a lot of travellers are now looking at expedition cruises for the once-in-a-lifetime experience they can offer.

How can you know if a small-ship, expedition cruise is the right choice for you?  Here are a few things to consider when deciding if this travel style is a good fit.

Do you like meeting and getting to know new people from different countries, different ages and occupations, with different life and travel experiences?  Expedition cruises offer the opportunity to meet other like-minded travellers who are looking to share the experience of visiting new and awe-inspiring places.  Life on a small ship gives you plenty of time to get to know fellow passengers, the expedition staff and ship’s crew.  You’ll learn so much from everyone you share time with on-board (and they’ll learn from you, too!).  Because of the smaller number of passengers on the ship everything is more intimate – dine with different people each meal, enjoy excursions in smaller groups with less time spent waiting, visit regions that a big ship would never be able to access.

Imagine this – your ship anchors and, rather than waiting along with thousands of others to disembark for your shore excursion on big busses, you’re waiting with a few dozen people to board your zodiac.  This means much less time getting off the ship to explore more interesting places.  Your group will probably consist, at most, of 10 or 12 people sharing a zodiac with your guide.  This translates to a more in-depth and meaningful experience at each stop.  On the way back to the ship you’ll find yourself sharing your impressions of what you just saw, did, and learned; trading images, both from your camera and from your mind, with your fellow travellers.

No two days on an expedition cruise are the same and even the same voyage undertaken on different dates will not duplicate the voyage before.  Itineraries are roughly outlined but can always be altered en route depending on weather and sea conditions and even the appearance of wildlife in certain areas.  Safety is always the number one priority, so soft adventure travel does require a fair amount of flexibility and a “go with the flow” attitude.  Often the changes in schedule bring unexpected rewards like skipping a planned port of call due to ice blockage only to see musk ox and polar bears in the next fjord; substituting one stop with another, then being invited by the people of that town to join them in a community meal and a sing-along….  There are many amazing experiences waiting around every corner (sometimes you just may not know which corner).  Large ships would never be able to access these places and small communities could never even consider entertaining the huge crowds the big cruise ships would bring.

On-board Services
You’ve thought about an expedition cruise in the past but just aren’t into a “roughing it” type of travel.  But, going on a small-ship expedition cruise doesn’t mean giving up all the creature comforts we’ve become used to in our lives.  There will still be a delicious, chef-prepared meal served in the dining room at lunch and dinner along with a very good wine list to choose from.  There will be time to enjoy a drink with your travel companions and many new-found friends in the comfortable lounge with a fully-stocked bar.  Cabins are not luxurious, but are comfortable with a closet, a desk, an en-suite bathroom and more.  In most parts of the world some internet access is available, although there are some regions where you will truly be on an “electronic detox” (which isn’t always a bad thing!).  Most small ships will have medical staff, massage therapy and perhaps even a small gym, sauna, pool or hot tub.  Amenities vary from ship to ship.  All of these comforts exist alongside the chance to go on a myriad of amazing shore excursions ranging from zodiac trips along a glacial wall or bird cliffs, visits to get up close with penguins, hikes to remote wilderness waterfalls, visits to remote villages rarely visited by outsiders and inaccessible except from the sea.  It’s a pretty sweet mix of comfort and adventurous experiences that becomes rather addicting!

The best way to immerse yourself in the areas you visit – whether it be the high Arctic or Antarctic, the Galapagos Islands or the islands of Spitsbergen and everywhere in between – is to get out onto the land and truly experience what each place has to offer.  An authentic experience doesn’t rely on being entertained by a costumed dance troop, buying souvenirs with the name of the place visited scrawled on them or having your ship decorated to impersonate the area of the world you’re travelling in.  What is authentic is truly learning about and absorbing what is all around you.  Small ships can get you to remote and tiny villages, otherwise-inaccessible beaches, along narrow fjords, into areas where few people have ever stepped foot before.  It’s as far off the beaten path as you can get!

Let’s be clear.  All cruise ships, from the smallest to the biggest, will offer some educational programming.  But, the thing is, on a small ship you not only have formal learning offered through lectures and educational sessions from ship’s staff and visiting experts, but you will also have the chance to go on a shore excursion with them and share a meal with them.  There is the opportunity throughout your time on the voyage to really get to know them and benefit from their vast array of knowledge.  On-board experts will range from biologists, botanists, geologists, glaciologists, ornithologists, anthropologists, historians, musicians, photographers, painters, authors and many other experts in their respective fields.  Often locals will come onto the ship at various ports of call, sometimes just for a presentation about their community and, perhaps, to share a meal.  Other times, to sail to another port further along the route.  It’s a great chance to talk to a local person who really knows their area.

Do any of these sound like you and a fit for your travel style?  Then a small-ship, expedition cruise might just be the perfect option for your next vacation.  We’re pretty sure that once you try it you’ll like it and will soon be calling us to book your next voyage!