04/10/2010...5:24 pm

In praise of small ships

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Are you a big ship person or a small ship person?

I’ve enjoyed fantastic cruises on anything from Queen Mary 2 (2,620 passengers) to Hebridean Princess  (49 passengers) so can happily argue for both sides. But over the last nine days on Spirit of Adventure (352 passengers), I’ve definitely felt like a small ship person, for reasons that surprised me.

Spirit of Adventure

I realised that all the elements of the cruise that I loved had a common theme: the way we, the passengers, were treated.

For example:

  • Nobody tried to sell me anything for nine days. There is no art auction, no photographer, no shopping talks – practically no shopping at all, actually.
  • There was a happy lack of cruising clichés like music blaring round the pool, or tacky jewellery displays clogging up the reception area.
  • Nobody insulted the passengers’ intelligence. Instead, the very funny cruise director, Neil Horrocks, settled for insulting the passengers themselves (in a gently humorous way). They couldn’t get enough of it.
  • The library has been designed so that you really want to spend time there, with atlases, magazines and reference books, comfortable places to sit and a coffee area. It’s bigger than the bar. And the daily quiz, as one passenger observed, is harder than University Challenge.
  • The spa is tiny; one treatment room, below the waterline, but with a fantastic therapist, Sarah, who played opera music during my massage and didn’t once mention buying the products for ‘after care’.
  • Nobody is hassling for gratuities. Basic tips are included and bar drinks are already marked up to include service. But leave the Brits alone to tip and provide them with fantastic service, and many will reward their room stewards and waiters anyway.
  • The officers and entertainers mix socially with the passengers and appear to enjoy the experience (unless they were all amazingly talented actors). We often sat with Sarah, the massage therapist, and Anna, the singer, in the bar. A sailaway party on deck turned into a raucous disco when the Filipino waiters joined in.

There’s also an entertaining randomness about a ship that can fit in anywhere and change plans at the last minute. When French ship Le Boreal ‘stole’ our berth in one port and we had to use the tenders, our captain, Kees Spekman, set off to greet Le Boreal’s captain with the offering of a Spirit of Adventure rucksack. As Le Boreal sailed that night, ‘Rule Britannia’ blasted out from our aft decks.

I won’t pretend that there was much in the way of facilities. Spirit has no balcony cabins, no fancy theatre, no casino, nothing for families (the ship is adults-only) and is distinctly quirky. But I grew extremely fond of it.

These are purely personal observations and I’m well aware that there are many big ship fans for every small ship lover. But what is it that specifically appeals about either? Let us know!



  • I agree, small ships are preferable to giant floating gin palaces. Generally the smaller the ship, the better the service. Above all it is the cameraderie amongst passengers that I enjoy, not to mention an affable crew who often remember your name after ordering your first drink!

  • After just having spent a week in the Royal Suite (the biggest room on the ship) on Royal Caribbean’s “Oasis”, we are confirmed small ship cruisers. Although we did not notice the crowds as many people in previous blogs have commented on, we did miss the feeling of movement and the specialized services for which we are accustomed to on their smaller ships; our favorite being the Grandeur. We are looking forward to sailing on Fred Olsen’s “Balmoral” in April of 2012.

  • I also have to agree. While I enjoy the wide range of options on the larger ships, the slower pace and social settings are much better on the smaller ships.

  • Firstly to Howard, the Balmoral is a superb vessel and typical Fred Olsen and you will have a whale of a time. I sailed on her as the Norwegian Crown, before the lengthening, and she and crew were both brilliant. We are looking forward to the Boudicca’s Amazon run in January 2011 and had a great time on the Black Watch last year.
    I have since been on two larger vessels, namely MSC Orchestra and Norwegian Sun (2nd time), admittedly they are not as big as the Oasis and Epic’s that are now sailing the seas, but to me they have no character, too many ‘sales pitches’ and cannot get into the smaller, more intimate Ports. Oh and don’t start me on Gratuities!
    The crews on the smaller ships are far far more attentive to the passengers than on the leviathans and I agree with Macallan that within a day at sea the majority of bar staff are addressing you by name. This makes for pleasant chit chat (if you are so minded) 24/7.
    I probably will not be around in 20 yrs time but where will the small ships be then! All past their sell by date and nothing to take their place as the only vessels on the market will be the leviathans.

  • Having spent 2 weeks on Ventura, 3500 passengers in January, a magnificent ship but so large, impersonal and totally disorganised, with a terrible cruise director and lousy shows but brilliant food, it was a real pleasure to spend last week on Thomson Celebration, 1200 passengers, well organised with great entertainment, a caring crew and again brilliant food. Totally committed to smaller ships.

  • I agree that small ships are best and am about to embark on our second cruise on MS Europa which although 28,000 tonnes only carries 400 “guests”. No lines and no signing for drinks!

  • cruisecriticuk

    Colin, I love Europa too! Wasn’t aware though that drinks were now included (weren’t on my trip)? Here’s a virtual report from our Middle East cruise on Europa, truly one of the highlights of traveling in my life.



  • Andy Moorhouse

    We certainly agree with Howard, having been on smaller ships like Jewel of the Seas or Disney Magic we were excited to be on Oasis of the Seas in August just gone, on the smaller ships we disembarked sad wanting more – coming off the Oasis it was “been there done it, lets move on to next part of hol” Biggest is not allways best.



  • Jeff Phillips

    Talking of small ships, as a newcomer to cruising some years ago(we are hooked now!!), does anyone know what happened to the “Island Star”. We had two 7 day cruises round the Med. on her and loved the ship. Not knowing what other bigger ships were like at the time we thought she was a lovely friendly ship. Have mixed feelings about the big ships, some good experiences and some bad, but of the bigger ships we have cruised on “Diamond Princess” is a favourite with us.

  • Hamish Clark

    What a joy to find some information leading to the better ships. We hate the American razz-a-ma-tazz, and long for good (in British terms) food, intelligent entertainment, and no heavy selling of unwanted extras. I would be grateful, therefore, for your recommendations.

    • cruisecriticuk

      Hamish – you sound like a Spirit of Adventure person to me, but then, I’m a brand-new convert! Other small/mid-sized, ‘British’ ships could include Minerva (Swan Hellenic – bit more high-brow than Spirit); either of the Saga ships if you’re over 50; Voyages of Discovery; Hebridean (only 49 passengers but very expensive); any of the Fred. Olsen ships… there are more affordable brands, too, like Cruise & Maritime and Thomson but if you want the ‘intelligent entertainment’ you describe, Spirit could be for you. On my Black Sea cruise, we went to the ballet in Odessa (included in the price); had a Polish string quartet perform twice, a superb Ukranian naval all-male choir/dance group, a singer who did light opera and songs from the shows and then the piano and quizzes in the bar most nights, which were highly entertaining. There were plenty of lectures every day. The biggest treat for me was Lord Geoffrey Howe, who was travelling as a guest and agreed to do a Q&A one afternoon. This was completely impromptu as he was on a private holiday but it was superbly done and absolutely fascinating. The mere fact that something like this could be arranged should tell you something about the type of cruise it was!

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