To look at a lot of the new tonnage hitting the waterways of the world these days, you’d think that most of the bally cruise lines are hooked on the old adage that says ‘The bigger, the better,’ and that truly is frightful nonsense.
Yes, we understand ‘economies of scale’ and ‘high yields’ and even ‘Let’s-get-as-much-on-board-as-possible-and-see-if-we-can-appeal-to-everyone.’ But, at some point it has to stop, because bigger can also be more clunky, more crowded and more over-blown.
Take Howard Hughes and the Spruce Goose, for example. An attempt to build the world’s largest plane, its only flight lasted little more than a mile at an altitude of 70 feet, and a bigger white elephant in transport terms is hard to imagine.
That’s not to say most mega-ships these days are over-priced anachronisms (Treadwell says that would be afternoon tea at The Ritz – from a mere £54 per person; can you believe it? That’s more than I paid for my first car!). True, there is something distinctly elephantine about mega-ships, but they do have their finer points.
However, in cruise terms, we prefer to cast our eyes over something smaller. And, thankfully, there are actually increasing numbers of modestly-sized vessels to choose from. Dear old Fred. Olsen still maintain a fleet of medium-sized cruisers (vessels that would have been considered large when first launched but which are now dwarfed by most), while Silversea and Seabourn have, happily, refused to join the rush to ever-larger new-builds, and the likes of Azamara, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas believe that 500-750 passengers is the most they should ever take to sea with.
And then there is another breed of sea-going wanderer, the small-ship specialists who completely eschew the mainstream and plough a largely independent nautical furrow around the Americas. People like American Cruise Lines, Pearl Seas Cruises, Viking Ocean Cruises, and UnCruise Adventures.
We mention the latter advisedly after we noticed their recent announcement about returning one of their ships to the annual Alaskan voyages in 2018. That ship is the 88-passenger SS Legacy, a replica 1890s coastal steamer that has been plying the Snake and Columbia Rivers in Washington in recent summers.
This immediately sent us into a major waltz down La Rue des Memoires, as we had a truly blissful experience with UnCruise a few years ago that we are still trying to replicate. It was a one-off journey of epic proportions and it truly lived up to the company’s slogan of ‘Small ships, Big adventures.”
So who are UnCruise, we hear some of you ask. Well, it certainly isn’t the most catchy name in the world, so you could be forgiven for having them slip beyond your cruise catchment area. It is a moniker that drifts awkwardly into Lewis Carroll’s wacky realm of white rabbits and Mad Hatters. Because, if you can have an Un-Birthday, what does that say about an Un-Cruise?
Is it the very opposite of a cruise? Is it a strange alternative reality version of something cruisey? Or is it a genuine Wonderland experience that somehow hints at cruise travel without really being one?
The answer, of course, is something of all three. It is certainly the opposite of just about every mainstream cruise offering these days, and it is definitely a choice for those who don’t really do cruises. Deliciously, it is also a more eclectic experience that has the basic idea of cruising but then flips things so that it becomes an educational voyage, a historical one, and a nature-lover’s dream, all wrapped up in one neat package; or should we say Un-Birthday present?
At UnCruise, they invite you to ‘define your un-ness,’ and, if you can get your head around that painful play on words, you will be well on your way down the rabbit hole to an authentic cruise alternative, where the itinerary is just a suggestion and the true joy is more in the travelling than the arriving, which was pretty much Robert Louis Stevenson’s basic thesis for life (as well as for travelling, which the old boy did a fair bit of).
If we told you that, on board the Legacy, we spent four hours just lazily watching humpback whales bubble-net feeding; that we met up with the likes of conman Danny McSwain, ‘Klondike Kate’ Rockwell and naturalist John Muir (or extremely decent re-enactors in their stead); that we got the better of a fancy card sharp in the Pesky Barnacle Saloon; and that we could help ourselves to all manner of whiskies in the Saloon, would you be intrigued?
You should be, because UnCruise was all that, and more besides, a 10-day sojourn unlike anything we have done before or since, a runaway voyage on the mild side that beguiled with its natural wonders and unscheduled pace, nosing into little-seen corners of Alaska and showing off a side of America’s 49th state that is largely impossible to see with the big ships.
That particular facet of the un-cruise came home loud and clear during our day in Ketchikan, the traditional meeting point for just about everyone on the Inside Passage route. Our intrepid group of 12 or so excursionists had just enjoyed a private tour of the bustling port with a local historian when we arrived back at our dandy little vessel, which was moored opposite the latest leviathan from the Holland America stable.
While our group wandered aboard with total nonchalance, the many hapless Holland-Americans were still lined up in a straggling gaggle right across the Ketchikan dock, and we were probably half-way through our lunch before many of them had even made it back to their cabins.
Even better, while we were able to visit the likes of big-ship ports such as Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, our boutique bateau also took in off-the-beaten-track towns, including uber-quaint Petersburg, Wrangell, and Friday Harbor.
No wonder we called the Legacy a small wonder. So wonder no more – if an UnCruise cruise sounds like an exercise in double-speak, take it from us: it’s a truly Uncommon experience.