We’ve reported this year on small cruise line takeovers by the big boys (Royal Caribbean & Silversea), big ships that are just plain ugly (Norwegian Cruise Line, and others), and when big is just TOO big (last week’s missive centred on MSC’s newest) in cruising terms.
So we thought it was time to redress the balance a little and focus on some small-ship operations for a change. And not just any small-shop operators, but five really compelling niche lines who each have a unique facet to their voyaging and onboard style.
The chances are you haven’t heard of them before, but three have all been around long enough to have established a firm and loyal customer base, the fourth is new but already making (positive) waves, and the fifth is one that excites us most for the future.
And, if you’re looking for that off-the-beaten-track touch (or just bragging rights over your cruise aficionado friends), they hit all the right notes for a distinctive, small-scale and highly personal experience.
So, with no further ado, here are our Unorthodox Five:
Established in 1990 as Gap Adventures, this highly eco-aware company specialises in life-changing travel experiences rather than tourism in a general sense, and they just happen to have a sea-going arm to their destination-based style.
They appeal to anyone who has a genuine sense of travel adventure and, to a certain extent, the ‘How’ of what they do is totally subsidiary to the ;’Why’, which is to explore, discover and learn, albeit in comfortable fashion.
G Adventures cruises cover a number of different bases, from the Galapagos to Thailand, but they excel in several areas, notably the polar regions and Norway, as well as small-yacht experiences in the wildlife-rich Galapagos islands, carrying just 16-20 passengers. This isn’t an ultra-luxury experience, but it is a totally captivating and experiential one and, for those who want to do more than just visit an area, this could be the perfect answer.
By a similar token, this Australian company gets distinctly off the beaten track and features the kind of travel adventures that are hard to find in the usual glossy brochures. They also feature the Arctic and Antarctic (as well as niche destinations like Scotland, Patagonia and Iceland), but it is their polar voyages that caught our eye.
Newest ship, the Greg Mortimer, wanders down to Antarctica, the Falklands and wild Patagonia in our winter months (the Austral summer), and then heads for The Arctic and Norwegian coasts in our summer, making for a year-round portfolio in some of the most extreme destinations in the world.
The onboard style tends distinctly towards the educational and environmental, with some of the best lecture programmes in the business, and they also attract a high percentage of solo travellers amid an extremely convivial sea-going vibe.
Ritz Carlton Yacht Collection
Okay, so this one hasn’t even started yet, but it is the one that has us most excited about the possibilities for something new and with a great deal of distinction. We especially love the name – no mere cruise line, this is a Yacht Collection.
And that immediately promises to make one of the world’s premier hotel groups into something that brings a whole new approach and ethos to the maritime world. Sure, Virgin Cruises (sorry, Voyages) are saying they will reinvent mass-market cruising in the Richard Branson idiom, but Ritz-Carlton already has a luxury track record that far outweighs the Tubular Bells supremo.
Looking to create a three-ship fleet, starting in 2020, with vessels carrying just 298 guests in what they call “an elite atmosphere,” we can already imagine the kind of sea-going savoir-faire that marks out their hotels as beacons of pure indulgence, right down to the individual espresso makers in every suite (which will also have a “private terrace and personal assistant”). Watch this space, as they say.
We have sailed with UnCruise several times and never fail to be amazed at the wonderfully personal experience this turns out to be, whether in Alaska, Hawaii, the scintillating Sea of Cortez (one of the world’s most unsung cruise playgrounds, by the way), Costa Rica and Panama or the rivers of the Pacific north-west in the USA.
Their ships are varied but still small-scale and there is, once again, a highly eco-friendly approach. They also eschew the mainstream for voyages that are regulated by wildlife they happen to meet rather than any set itinerary. It is voyaging more than cruising, discovering more than travelling.
The crown jewel, though, is the utterly unique SS Legacy, a reproduction 1880s period coastal steamer that conveys a true sense of history and heritage in the areas she sails, with a gracious onboard style and no small amount of genuine luxury, notably with the dining but also the immersive lecture programme, which borders on the theatrical.
More importantly, when it comes to providing a platform for wildlife experiences, UnCruise are past masters at ensuring you will leave with something life-affirming and unforgettable.
Victory Cruise Lines
The final entry in our idiosyncratic quintet is another North American specialist that opens a gateway to a new cruise frontier that remains criminally under-represented, but all the more charming and enticing as a result.
Victory operate two ships – one completely refurbished in 2017, the other brand new this year – that explore the St Lawrence Seaway, that intriguing and essential waterway that links the Canadian maritime with the Great Lakes region. All shore excursions and drinks are included, and the itineraries are crafted to ensure a full appreciation of the areas visited.
And, if you think there’s nothing special about the Great Lakes, the St Lawrence or Nova Scotia, then there is simply no romance in your soul (plus, no imagination!). If there is somewhere that is not on the radar of the routine, this is it.
Just to set the seal on a truly tantalising programme, spring 2019 will see them sailing to Cuba, round-trip from Miami, which promises to take guests into a full, unexpurgated two-week experience of this time-warp island.
Have you cruised with any of our Fab Five yet? Which one appeals to you most? Give us your thoughts in the Comments section below.