Small-ship cruising sets a new course

Image: view of Alaskan scenery while on InnerSea Discoveries trip
Cruisers take in the Alaskan scenery while on an InnerSea Discoveries trip. InnerSea's two ships — the 57-passenger Wilderness Adventurer and 68-passenger Wilderness Discoverer — sail the lesser-traveled channels between Juneau and Ketchikan.Courtesy of InnerSea Discoveries

Looking for something other than bingo, buffets and belly-flop contests on your next cruise?

While oceangoing cruise ships seem to be getting bigger and busier all the time, small-ship cruising has been quietly undergoing a bit of a renaissance. From renovated vessels to whole new companies, you don’t have to hit the high seas to have a good time.

For fans of small-ship cruising, especially in the U.S., the last few years have had their share of rough waters:

  • In 2008, the Majestic America Line, a subsidiary of Ambassadors International, went under, taking with it the historic Delta Queen sternwheeler and much of the service on the Mississippi.

  • Last year, Cruise West closed its doors, canceling sailings in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and overseas.

  • And on April 1, Ambassadors International, owner of the Delta Queen and Windstar Cruises, among other assets, filed for bankruptcy, though Windstar operations will continue.

However, new players are stepping up to fill the void. This year, two new companies — Alaskan Dream Cruises and InnerSea Discoveries — will start sailing in Southeast Alaska, while a renovated Queen of the West vessel will start its second season under the American Cruise Lines (ACL) flag on May 7, sailing the Columbia and Snake rivers between Washington state and Oregon.

More intimate experience
There’s even hope for new service on the Mississippi. While the Delta Queen currently operates as a floating hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn., ACL is planning to launch a successor in August 2012. Currently under construction in Salisbury, Md., the 140-passenger sternwheeler will feature a grand salon, showroom and extra-large staterooms, many with balconies.

Needless to say, it’s no Oasis of the Seas, which, as fans of small-ship cruising will attest, is exactly the point. The ships that ply the inland waters of the U.S. and Canada seldom have casinos or karaoke bars, let alone ice-skating rinks and climbing walls. On the other hand, you’re unlikely to feel like you’ve landed on a floating shopping mall.

“You’re not lost among two or three thousand people,” said Phyllis Dale, a one-time cruise-ship performer turned travel agent from Winter Park, Fla. “You can really get to know the crew and your fellow cruisers and feel like you’re part of a family.”

Port calls also tend to be less harried as itineraries typically eschew big cities for small towns. “Our ships usually dock right in town, not in a cruise terminal somewhere so you don’t have to ride a bus or anything,” said Charles Robertson, ACL president. “A lot of times, we’re the only ship that stops there.”

For John Scheerens, general manager at Alaskan Dream Cruises, the result is a significantly different type of cruise: “On the big ships, the experience tends to be about the ship itself; on small ships, the focus tends to be on the land and the people.”

New itineraries for new times
While most small-ship cruises remain slow, low-key affairs, some of the newer offerings are adding a bit of adventure to the mix. Among the options for 2011:

InnerSea Discoveries: As a sister-company to Seattle-based American Safari Cruises, InnerSea focuses on seven-night adventures in Southeast Alaska. Their two ships — the 57-passenger Wilderness Adventurer and 68-passenger Wilderness Discoverer — sail the lesser-traveled channels between Juneau and Ketchikan, forgoing the usual ports for remote bays and channels where the big ships just can’t go.

The ships are equipped with kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and, for the truly adventurous, swim and snorkel gear. “Our passengers are people who are used to being outside, hiking, kayaking,” said spokesperson Sarah Scoltock. “They’re not going to just watch through the windows.” Cruises start at $1,795 per person.

Alaskan Dream Cruises: Having offered day tours for 40 years, the Allen family of Sitka is getting into overnight cruising this year with two ships, the 42-passenger Alaskan Dream and 78-passenger Admiralty Dream. The latter, considered the company’s flagship, will sail seven-night itineraries from Sitka starting May 14. Fares start at $1,895 per person.

As a Native-owned operation, the company expects to highlight local culture as the ship makes its way from Sitka to Glacier Bay National Park and back. “It’s more about the people who live here,” said Scheerens, “and less about swimming pools and cigar parties.”

Hapag-Lloyd: Yes, the German cruise line is offering cruises in North America this year. After a three-year absence, the 420-passenger Columbus will return to the Great Lakes this fall for two 13-night cruises. Sailing between Chicago and Toronto, the ship will traverse all five lakes and feature stops in Traverse City, Thunder Bay and Mackinac Island.

Clearly, the ship stretches the definition of small-ship cruising — and the onboard announcements in German and English may challenge some passengers — but it certainly promises a unique experience. Fares start at $3,470 via GreatLakesCruising.com.

A nice niche, but not for everyone
While small-ship cruising will always constitute a niche market, it may be poised for new growth as traveler demographics continue to evolve. “Many baby boomers and Gen Xers are not satisfied with being herded around in large groups,” said travel agent Greg Nacco of Cruise Specialists in Seattle. “They want their experience to be authentic and smaller ships align themselves more easily to that.”

Still, the small-ship niche is not for everyone. “Remember, this is a low-key experience; it’s not rush, rush, rush,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com. “If you’re an adrenaline junkie, you’re going to drive yourself and everyone else crazy.”