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
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.