The more I travel, the more I appreciate not having to pack and unpack, carry bags up and down stairs, or worry about whether I can figure out a transfer from one point to another. Even though I speak numerous foreign languages, it’s still a godsend to have someone else deal with the details like confirming reservations and itineraries. And now, as we face pandemic concerns and changing testing requirements, it’s wonderful to have someone else grab the reins.
With a cruise, a lot of the legwork is done for you. You decide on the itinerary, the type of ship you’d like to travel on, and voilà, off you go. The cruise line becomes your personal assistant, connecting with you prior to your trip and guiding you along as you drift away into worry-free bliss. Most days you wake up somewhere new, with the most pressing concern being What time should I have breakfast?
I’ve traveled on a variety of cruises, from the giants of the ocean to smaller vessels that glide down channels and rivers and easily visit tiny harbors and ports accessible only to them.
Here are my recommendations for five memorable small-ship cruises.
1. Patagonia With Australis
You’ll need to pack a variety of layers for this amazing five-day “Fjords of Tierra del Fuego” cruise from Punta Arenas, Chile, to the tip of Cape Horn and Ushuaia, Argentina. The Stella Australis expedition ship travels effortlessly through the inner fjords of Patagonia and “Glacier Alley,” taking you to the bottom of South America with a backdrop of caving glaciers, ice-blue formations, and a sky filled with constellations seen only from the southern part of the world. Onboard you’ll stay toasty warm in one of 100 cabins. But if you plan to venture to the top deck, as well you should to see the Southern Cross and ponder the mysteries of the galaxy, you’ll need all manner of clothes to keep you comfortable.
Excursions take you off the ship, by zodiac, and the weather is variable from balmy, sunny, and rainy to downright freezing. This is a trip where you can be as physically active as you like. Visits to see the Magellanic penguins involve some hiking on sandy beaches, and a little pre-cruise training might be in order if you plan to summit Cape Horn. On the climb to the top, you’ll likely encounter windy conditions, too, adding an additional challenge. For your achievement, you’ll toast at the bottom with whiskey on the rocks, using actual snow. Expert guides on board offer educational lectures to prepare you for the sights and provide photography tips.
Pro Tips: Inclement weather can wreak havoc on your cameras and lenses. Bring your phone, a waterproof camera, and even a point-and-shoot or DSLR to be ultra safe. For the best weather and the most daylight, plan your trip during the months from November through March. As there is no Wi-Fi on board (how wonderful!), you might want to rent a satellite phone. There are no elevators, and the ability to climb into a zodiac is a requisite if you plan to leave the ship.
2. Tahiti And The South Pacific With Paul Gauguin Cruises
For a cultural immersion that’s both beautiful and luxurious, Paul Gauguin Cruises’ seven-night “Tahiti & the Society Islands” cruise explores Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, and Huahine and is a delicious escape from the cold-weather blues. You’ll start your sojourn with a flight from Los Angeles to Papeete, Tahiti, where you’ll overnight before boarding the ship. The m/s Paul Gauguin defines French style and luxury with 165 beautifully appointed staterooms and suites and restaurants with wine pairings and French cuisine that could attain Michelin star status. Services at the Deep Nature Spa and on-board entertainment are first-rate, filling at-sea hours with relaxation and Polynesian culture.
Each island has its own set of charms. Bora Bora is known as the honeymoon island, marked by resorts with overwater bungalows and deep turquoise waters. Moorea and Huahine are a mix of nature and activity where you can jet ski, snorkel with stingrays, explore volcanic beaches, and experience the French Polynesian lifestyle made famous in movies like Mutiny on the Bounty. A DIY stop on the itinerary, Paul Gauguin Cruises has its own private island, Motu Mahana, where you’ll spend a day as social or socially distant as you’d like, swimming, snorkeling, playing volleyball, and enjoying a beach barbecue replete with cocktails from a floating bar.
Pro Tip: If you’re connecting through LAX en route to PPT, I recommend spending a few days in LA or Papeete to adjust to any time difference.
3. Croatia With Goolets
Not at all like the “reality show” experience on Netflix’s Below Deck, Goolets promises superlative chartered-yacht service and happy passengers. Nearly 100 different ships at different price points can take you through the Croatian islands, but I suggest going full bucket-list any time from May through October and choosing the superyacht Freedom for your Adriatic journey. This superyacht is essentially a floating mansion, understated in its luxury but staffed with smiling pros who attend to your every wish. The superyacht is a beauty – there are four decks, an upper one with lounging areas, an outdoor pool, and a hot tub; the middle with the dining room, bar, and lounge; and two below with staterooms, a cinema, spa, gym, and sauna.
You can customize your one-week itinerary, deciding which of Croatia’s 1200 islands and islets you’d like to visit, and then Goolets will put it together, adding in little surprises like a visit to the island of Vela Stupe, a precious mini-island where you’ll feast on oysters, Champagne, and wine at the one establishment there, restaurant Moro. Or transferring you to a zodiac and lifting the barrier ropes so you can float into the tiny entrance to gorgeous Stiniva Beach. I loved my itinerary. We started in the medieval city of Split, a city worthy of spending three nights on its own merit to wander its warren of streets and visit Diocletian’s Palace where Game of Thrones was filmed. Each island visited after that — Brač, Hvar, Korčula, Vis, and Vela Stupe — has its own charms and attractions from beaches and café life to 13th-century buildings, and, of course, dramatic scenery. With only 11 staterooms and a maximum of 23 passengers, Freedom is perfect for a multigenerational trip.
Pro Tips: While not as well known as neighboring Italy for its wines and olive oils, Croatia excels in its offerings. Be sure to sample the many varietals that vary from island to island. Note that Freedom’s decks are connected by stairs only. You can learn more about chartering a Croatian yacht with Goolets here.
4. The Champagne Region With French Country Waterways
The pandemic has taught us a thing or two about the value of slowing down, and that’s where a cruise on a French Country Waterways barge fits in perfectly. Leaving from and returning to Paris — where it’s an absolute must to begin and end your journey with a few days in the City of Lights — the Nenuphar is a luxuriously appointed barge that accommodates only 12 passengers for a slow six-day float through the canals of Champagne. The intimate size guarantees that you’ll get to know your cruise mates very well, over early morning coffee, during wine-and-cheese happy hours, and at lavish meals both on the barge and at a Michelin-starred restaurant on land.
You’ll also become an expert in French wines and Champagne production with tours in Épernay, and in French history in Reims where the gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims stands sentinel in breathtaking glory. If you’re feeling the need to be active, there are bikes to use, yoga mats to borrow, and villages to visit as you travel through the locks. You might even decide to lend a hand to help the lockkeeper move the barge forward. But the true beauty of the cruise lies in lounging on the sundeck and taking in the lovely countryside as you glide past.
Pro Tip: Knowing a little French will help if you decide to visit local bakeries and bars. History buffs will enjoy excursions that mix French history with American war sites.
5. The Greek Islands With Celestyal Cruises
Sometimes a shorter cruise is all you want, and Celestyal’s four-night “Iconic Aegean” itinerary covers the bases with stops at popular Santorini and Mykonos, split-personality Rhodes and Crete, and smaller islands like Patmos. Starting in Athens, schedule a few land-based days to explore the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Acropolis, where you can visit the ruins of the Parthenon and the Theatre of Dionysus. Have dinner on the lively Plaka and day trip to Delphi to absorb the vibes of the famed oracle. Then it’s time to board and enjoy the all-inclusive voyage on what is the largest of the small ships on this list with a typical passenger count of fewer than 1,000 guests.
Celestyal encourages you to get out and about, to do a deep dive into the personality of each island, rather than stay on the ship. A true benefit is that Celestyal is Greek-owned and operated, so they really know the country’s culture and when to add extra docking time for exploring each island’s archaeological wonders and mindblowing scenery. I loved climbing around the Palace of Knossos in Crete and comparing the new and medieval sides of Rhodes, which quickly became my favorite of the islands. In Santorini, my day was spent keeping as socially distanced as possible in Instagrammer-crazy Oia and Fira where I took a donkey ride up the steep stairs of the cliffs. In Mykonos, you can do as the locals do and simply laze by the pool and sip ouzo. On board, Celestyal’s food and decor are notably Greek and Mediterranean with staterooms done up in the blue and white colors of the Greek flag.
Pro Tip: Many of the archaeological sites have a considerable number of stairs, and other areas are quite hilly. Ask in advance for assistance in arranging taxis or using cable cars, or for suggestions for alternate activities. A seven-night cruise is also available. Try to avoid the mid-summer months when crowds can be overwhelming.
Want more cruising tips and inspiration? See all our cruising and sailing content here.