The World’s Best Small Ship Experiences

Every time I return from a small ship excursion to some remarkable part of the world, I think:  now that’s the way to travel.  These are not cruise ships, those massive floating hotels with thousands of passengers gorging on buffets, although there are similarities. Small ships also have amenities like fantastic food, wonderful service, evening entertainment and comfortable staterooms. Yet the experience is more intimate and exotic,  the company more accessible, and the locations really shine through.   A more accurate headline for this post is:  my best small ship experiences.  I hope my list continues to grow with exceptional ships, top-notch operators, and bucket list itineraries around the world.

Star Clipper’s Star Flyer

My most recent adventure was one of my best: sailing on a tall ship in the Caribbean.  Sweden’s Star Clippers have several ships which represent the largest passenger clippers in the world. With four massive masts and sixteen massive sails, the Star Flyers drops the jaw of both sailing enthusiasts and newbies, exploring coves, beaches and island communities where big ships simply cannot go.  It accommodates up to 160 passengers, served by attentive 74 crew, and combines luxury (think polished mahogany and brass interiors) with adventure (climb the mast and feel that wind!) My favourite spot was the bowsprit, a thick netting at the front of the boat where I felt the spray of the ocean, and spotted some curious dolphins beneath me.  I shared a table with cruise veterans who had been on dozens of ships around the world.  Not surprisingly, they told me the Star Flyer had been their favourite ship of all.  Sailing is just a different way to do it, and burning just 15% of the fuel of a similar sized ship, it’s an eco-friendly way to cruise as well.  Star Clippers also offer itineraries on their Royal Clipper, which holds the Guinness World Record as the world’s largest square-rigged ship in service.

Get more info about the Star Flyer and Star Clippers

Aqua Amazon Peru 

I wanted to explore the Amazon, but I didn’t want to deal with back-breaking hammocks on rickety old river boats, sweaty decks and unstoppable bugs.  Introducing the Aria Amazon, a luxury river barge that departs from the jungle town of Iquitos, Peru.  It has 16-air-conditioned rooms with floor to ceiling windows, king size beds, modern bathrooms, spotless viewing decks, a stocked cocktail bar and hot tub to relax under the stars.  Each day we’d hop into a skiff to explore tributaries, looking for colourful wildlife at the water’s edge like monkeys, sloths, birds and lizards.  The Amazon is hostile, so it was always a pleasure to return to the boat, greeted with a cool face cloth and a pisco sour.  Now this is the way to do the hot and sticky jungle!  Peru has perhaps the best culinary scene in South America, and the incredible meals served on-board – many using Amazon fruits and vegetables you’ve never heard – were also a highlight of the trip.

Get more info about the Aria and its sister ship, the Aria Nera

Galapagos: The Ocean Spray

Exploring the Galapagos, one of the most incredible natural attractions on the planet, can only be done right by boat.  There are plenty of options to cruise around the archipelago, and they span the budget spectrum.  I found myself on board the catamaran Ocean Spray, then operated by Haugan Cruises – who have since upgraded to the Camila luxury trimaran–  and now operated by Golden Galapagos Cruises.  The spacious, 124-ft Ocean Spray hosts 16 passengers with gorgeous staterooms and private balconies, and beautiful deck with stylish interior lounges.  Staff were fantastic, the food was terrific.  The Ocean Spray would be a wonderful boat to explore anywhere in the world.  Put it in the Galapagos, among the marine iguanas and penguins, soaring frigates and blue-footed boobies, breaching sea lions and manta rays, and it’s as memorable a bucket list experience as any you’ll ever have.

Get more info about the Ocean Spray

Antarctica

Nobody can see it all and if they claim they have, they’re full of crap. I thought I’d seen a lot, and then I got to Antarctica.  The elusive seventh continent is an icy, rocky universe unto itself, and the best way to explore it is on a small expedition.  This one is bittersweet for me because my ship, a Russian-flagged research vessel operated by a Canadian expedition company, is no longer in operation*.  Comfortable while somewhat spartan, the ship was an important character in my journey, full of quirks, mysteries and secrets. The brusque Russian ship crew were contrasted by the friendly North American tour staff, but it was all part of the adventure.  I recall my nights under the midnight sun soaking in the hot tub, and the dissonance of eating and drinking so abundantly while being immersed in such a hostile, remote environment.   The ship is gone but there are other fantastic ships waiting to take you to Antarctica, operated by Scenic, Lindblad, Hurtigruten, and Ponant.  

Yangtze River Cruise

China is so much more than just Beijing, Shanghai, and the greatest of walls.  I really got a taste of this cruising on a riverboat up the Yangtze on the Yangtze Star from Wuhan to Chongqing (two cities with more people than most countries).   The Yangtze Star is 79 metres long and 16 metres wide, and I shared a small but comfortable cabin with a 6ft 8 inch Dane who convinced me to visit Sri Lanka (which I did) and the poshest of British hotels Clivedon House (which I did as well).  There’s plenty of boats to choose from when it comes to sailing up the longest river in Asia. All visit impressive gorges, historical fishing villages, and the massive locks of the Three Gorges Dam.   There was a lot of feasting and fire water, which explains these scribbles from my notebook “Last night I got married to some poor crew member in some sort of demonstration ceremony.  Then I did kung-fu, poorly . I am volunteering for everything and anything. I saw hanging coffins dangling from a cliff.  People are talking about tofu construction because buildings are going up so quickly that they’re falling apart.”  The overall experience was a little manicured, but was nonetheless a fascinating and entertaining glimpse into the explosive growth of China and Chinese tourism.   

Get more info about cruising along the Yangtze

Lake Titicaca on a Catamaran

This is only a two-day overnight excursion into Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world that makes school kids giggle.  Two modern catamarans, the M.T.S Consuelo and Santa Rita, have comfortable double staterooms, panoramic windows, a library, viewing deck and dining room for candlelit meals and dancing. It’s also heated, which you appreciate when you’re this high up on a cool spring night.   You’ll visit traditional Aymara villages, hop on a large reed boat, check out mummies in a museum, get blessed by a priest in a traditional ceremony, drink from the fountain of youth, and visit the Island of the Sun.   I remember drinking Bolivian wine (yes, that’s a thing), star gazing at the Milky Way, and dancing with some fun Bolivian tourists from La Paz.  It must have made a strong impression, because I went back to Lake Titicaca a few years later and did it all over again, this time with a TV crew.  It was just as magical.   The catamarans leave from Copacabana, and provide a wonderful vessel to get about the lake, learning about its Incan history and culture.

More info about the Lake Titicaca Catamaran Cruise.

Sailing in Haida Gwaii

The 1470 square-kilometre wilderness of British Columbia’s Gwaii Haanas National Park can only be accessed by floatplane or boat.     I boarded Bluewater Adventure’s 68-foot ketch, the Island Roamer, for a bucket list week sailing an archipelago that has rightly been called the Galapagos of the North. We visited the five Haida National Heritage village sites, and explored islands with giant old growth forests of western red cedar, Sitka spruce and hemlock.  Humpback whales sprayed mist on the horizon, bald eagles soared overhead, and we could see the largest black bears in Canada feast on migrating salmon.   This is the untamed west coast of Canada, uniquely protected from the seabed to the mountain peaks, and guarded by the proud Haida nation.  SGang Gwaii on Anthony Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has faded, carved mortuary poles facing the sea breeze.  It gave me the same buzz as Maccu Piccu, or Petra, or Angkor – places on Earth that lure us with history, beauty, mystery, and undeniable significance.  The Roamer itself was cozy, the food fresh, the company wonderful.   Haida Gwaii was one of only four Canadian experiences that migrated from my Canadian Bucket List to my Global Bucket List.  You can watch a video from my experience here.

More info about sailing in Haida Gwaii.

The Pacific Yellowfin

Still in British Columbia, I recall the memorable days I spent on the Pacific Yellowfin, a historic passenger and freight vessel built in 1943 for the US military.  This is a boat with a long history of adventure, beautifully restored and maintained, and operated by an enthusiastic crew that welcome, according to their website “millionaires, mischief-makers and rapscallions.”  I certainly fell into those last two categories.  We cruised around Desolation Sound, spotting humpbacks and orca whales in the shadow of snow-capped mountains and forests. It was too cold to bust out the 40-inch inflatable slide, but there was a supply of costumes for an on-board party.  Staterooms are full of character, every floorboard has a story.  World-famous rock stars charter the boat for private family getaways, and so can you (assuming you can afford the rock star price tag).

More info about the Pacific Yellowfin

*I also cruised the Northwest Passage on the same Russian expedition ship that was recalled to Vladivostok as a possible submarine hunter (like I said, mysteries and secrets).  The Arctic is melting at a staggering rate, opening up shipping channels, and allowing polar expedition companies to send ships across the roof of the world.  It’s a remarkable part of the world, and you can see some images from my trip here.  

Another runner-up:  I also took my mom and daughter on a bucket list small cruise around Atlantic Canada on the ill-fated RCGS Resolute, which soon found itself in trouble when the company that owned it went under, and the ship had a run-in with the Venezuelan navy, sinking a warship in the process.  I really loved that wonderful boat, which is running under a new name somewhere with new owners.  Unfortunately, my Northwest Passage and Fins and Fiddle trips remain truly once-in-a-lifetime.  

In the coming years, I look forward to growing my curated list of the world’s best small ship cruise experiences, boarding ships and boats as memorable as the experience itself.   

Visit the New Seven Wonders of the World

In 300 BC, a guy named Herodotus thought it would be just swell to compile a list of the Seven Wonders of the World.   These seven sites were so utterly wonderful that humanity has since gone on to destroy all of them save one, the Pyramids of Giza – only because nobody could figure out what to do with two million 80 ton blocks.

2300 years later, a guy named Bernard Weber thought the list needed an update, and guess what, the new7wonders.com domain name was still available.  While Herodotus traded on his historian credentials, Bernard was armed with online marketing savvy and contacts within the tourism industry.  The decision as to what these new wonders would be rested with the mouse-click of the masses, and a quasi-regulated online vote. Swept into hysteria, the world (or rather, those countries who managed to mobilize their digerati) declared our “new” seven wonders at a gala event hosted by Hilary Swank and the guy who played Gandhi.  UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, the buck-stops-here for this sort of thing, distanced themselves from the spectacle, stating:  “This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public.”  Ouch.  Since I’ve somehow managed to drag myself to all the winning wonders, here are short reviews of what to expect.

Chichen Itsa

Chichen Itsa

Not to be confused with Chicken Pizza, which in Mexico, often leads to Montezuma’s Revenge.     The Maya were a clever lot who designed intricate jungle pyramids for calendars, ancient cosmic ball courts, and other sites of magic at this must-see in the Yucatan.   The largest of several pyramids and ruins in the area, I was disappointed to learn that tourists can no longer climb Chichen Itsa’s steps (which severed heads once rolled down) due to an elderly American tourist who slipped and killed herself, subsequently ruining it for the rest of us.   I did however pick up a free wireless signal just outside the mandatory gift shop, which may explain why Chichen Itsa, and not Tikal in Guatemala, gathered enough online votes to be included as a new Wonder of the World.

Great Wall of China


Great Wall of China

There’s little controversy with this one, since there’s really nothing little about a 4000-mile wall that many people mistakenly believe can be seen from space.   Most tourists in Beijing visit a nearby carefully manicured chunk of wall, struggling to take a photo clear of domestic package tours.  I joined a more adventurous lot to drive three hours outside of the city, barely escaping the choking pollution, to a section known as Jinshangling.  From here, it’s a tough yet thoroughly rewarding 7-mile hike to Simatai, crossing 67 watchtowers.   Parts of the wall are immaculate, others crumbling under the weight of history, but rest assured there’s usually an enterprising local selling cold beers at the next watchtower.  Legend has it over one million people died building the wall, with bodies mixed into cement or buried in the wall itself.  Built by a succession of several dynasties, the world’s longest man-made structure is the ultimate symbol of our desire to keep things out, or in.  Mao famously said:  “You’re not a real man if you haven’t climbed the Great Wall.”

Petra’s Treasury

The Treasury in Petra

You saw it in Indiana Jones, and it’s tough to stop whistling Indy’s theme song walking down the magnificent path to this 2000-year old Nabatean ruin.   Jordan’s most popular attraction is actually a tomb, misnamed by treasure hunters, glowing red in the late afternoon sun. It’s the highlight of a vast ancient city with much to explore, like the Urn Tomb, which delivered one of my best flying photos ever.   Decent hotels, fresh humus, the smell of camel – it’s not exactly Indiana Jones’s last crusade, but deservedly takes its place on the list.

Chris the Redeemer

Christ the Redeemer

This 40m cement statue must have been a sour pickle for Bernard to swallow.  On the one hand, it mobilized millions of Brazilians behind a campaign of nationalistic fervour, with telco’s sponsoring free SMS voting, and politicians loudly samba-beating their chests.  On the other, there is no hot-damn way it belongs anywhere near this list.  The Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House – more famously distinct modern landmarks are stewing in blasphemy.  Having lost my camera a few days prior, I recall the sparkling view of Rio, the swishing acai shake in my gut, and the niggling doubt that I should have ditched Cocovaro Mountain for Sugarloaf Mountain instead.   As much as I love Brazil, and Rio in particular, putting this statue in the company of ancient feats of mysterious genius is kind of like listing Turkmenistan as a global centre of finance.

The Coliseum

The Coliseum 

Many years ago  I was a skinny 18 year-old McLovin, frenetically touring Europe with some buddies on one of those “If it’s Tuesday, we’re in Luxembourg” tours.   By the time we arrived in Italy, I was stewed in beer, pickled in vodka, and under the complete influence of some older Australian blokes who could drink a horse under the stable.   I remember, vaguely, stealing hotel towels for a toga party, and also getting slightly jealous when smooth Italian boys on Vespas made advances on the too-few girls on our tour.   When we visited the Colosseum, built between 70AD and 80AD and once capable of seating some 50,000 people, I was hungover, drunk, or possibly both.  There was a lot of scaffolding at the time, a curse one should expect when visiting ancient landmarks.   Being 18 years old and stupid, or drunk (possibly both) I didn’t appreciate it so much as one more step before we could return to a bar so I could unsuccessfully pursue girls, of whom the Italian variety interested me greatly.   The Colosseum was used for over 500 years as the venue for gladiator battles, circuses and all manner of public spectacles.  Including teenage tourists incapable of holding their liquor.

 

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

 

The famed Inca Trail really does live up to its hype, especially since you arrive at Machu Picchu early in the morning, before buses of tourists arrive to make your photos look like you’re  in Japan.   It takes four days of hiking at altitude through the majestic Andes before you earn the right to have the Lost City of the Incas all to yourself, but it’s well worth it.  Porters, their legs ripped of steel, carry all the supplies, cook up delicious meals, even pitch your tent. We slowly hiked past old Incan forts and terraces, peaking at Dead Woman’s Pass, where the uphill slog and altitude left me squeezing my lungs for air. My group, aged 18 – 57, displayed inspiring camaraderie, led by two upbeat Peruvian guides, all the while looking forward to that moment, when you cross Sun Gate, and see Machu Picchu lit up in the morning sun.  Few moments are quite like it, even when the buses pull up.

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal

It’s a monument to love that sparkles in the sun, and ransoms your imagination.  A marble structure of such physical perfection and detail it could only have been constructed from the heart.  I had one day left in Delhi before flying to Bangkok, so decided to take a quick trip to Agra to see the Taj.   Taking a quick trip anywhere in India is laughably optimistic. It took hours to navigate the scams at Pahar Ganj train station, as touts tried to sell me fake tickets to fake Taj’s.   Finally on the right train, leaving at the wrong time, I arrived in Agra at the mercy of taxi drivers licking their lips like hungry hyenas.   To the Taj, only a few hours to spare, but the line-up stretched half a mile.   “No problem Sir follow me Sir” and a kid leads me to an empty side entrance for a decent tip.   Then I have to pay the special tourist price of $25, equivalent to three days food and accommodation.  Then the security guard confiscates the tiny calculator in my daypack, for no reason neither he nor I can discern.   Finally I get in, through the gate, just in time to watch the sun light up the Taj Mahal like a neon sign in an Indian restaurant. I take several dozen photos, from every angle possible. It’s already been a long day, so I kiss this monument to love goodbye and hit the train station, where a young girl pees on the floor next to me and armed soldiers become my BFF’s. One day visiting the Taj Mahal symbolized my entire month in India, a wonder unto itself.

Giza, Cairo

Actually, since the Pyramids were part of the last list, Bernard figured they were exempted from this list.   Well, there are two ways to anger an Egyptian, and one of them is to deny the lasting legacy of its pyramids (the other results in generational blood feuds, so I’ll keep that under wraps).  After bitter protests, Bernard decided the Pyramids would be   “Honorary Candidates,” an undisputed 8th wonder, and removed them from the vote anyway.  This tells you all you need to know about the scientific legitimacy of this poll.

***

Where is Cambodia’s Angkor, by far the most amazing ancient city I have ever seen? Ephesus, Stonehenge, Easter Island, or the empty crevice inside Paris Hilton’s head?    Travel is personal, for one man’s Taj Mahal is another woman’s symbol of oppression.    In the end, the New Seven Wonders promotion was a harmless marketing exercise, so long as we appreciate the amazing work organizations like UNESCO do to restore and preserve our greatest achievements. If the original Seven Wonders tell us anything, it’s easier to build historical monuments to mankind, than preserve them.   

 

 

Beyond Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail, climaxing with a visit to the mysterious and striking Machu Piccu is a definite highlight on The Great Global Bucket List.   Yet, between 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, South America’s best culinary scene, the Amazon jungle and Lake Titicaca, there’s more to add to a Peru Bucket List. 

Here are some more Peruvian Bucket List experiences to put on your radar.

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Ballestas Islands

Introducing a group of small islands near the town of Paracas, renowned for bucket list wildlife viewing. This includes one of the largest sea lion colonies in the world, and 150 species of marine birds such as the Humboldt penguin and blue-footed booby. The protected can only be accessed via an organized boat tours, which includes a visit to the Candelabra geoglyph – a giant three-pronged figure etched into the sandy hills thought to be an ancient navigational guide marker.

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White City of Arequipa

The buildings of Arequipa are constructed of white stone quarried from three surrounding volcanoes: Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichu. The effect: a city that literally glows whether by sun in the day or by city lights at night. The historic centre has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the colonial structures and integration of indigenous and Spanish cultures. Not too far away is Colca Canyon, the deepest canyon in the world.

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Tambopata Natural Reserve

Welcome to one of the most diverse conservation areas on the planet. Covering 274,690 hectares, Tambopata is home to 632 species of birds, 1,200 species of butterflies, 169 species of mammals and 205 types of fish. This includes rare and endangered species like the maned wolf and marsh deer.

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Floating Islands on Lake Titicaca

Not only is Lake Titicaca the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest lake in South America (by volume), it’s also home to a group of about 63 artificial floating islands made up entirely of reeds. The islands are inhabited by some 2,000 Uros or “lake people.” They continue to build their boats and houses with reed bundles, living and fishing according to their ancient traditions.

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Nazca Lines

To witness the Nazca Lines, visitors must fly over the region in a plane as the shapes are so large they can only be witnessed from the sky. Ancient geometric lines crisscross the Nazca desert and include many animal glyphs and shapes. These mysterious “sketches” are thought to be made by a pre-Inca civilization; however their purpose still remains unclear. The lines were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

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Luxury Cruises on the Amazon

The Amazon rainforest comprises about 60% of Peru’s natural territory. One of the best ways to explore this rainforest is at a leisurely pace on a small, luxury cruise boat. Several operators offer nature-based, luxury cruises starting in Iquitos that take visitors up close to wildlife and the natural beauty of the region. Along the way passengers might spot a three-toed sloth, toucans, macaws, turtles or even the endangered pink dolphin.

 

This post is brought to you by Prom Peru.