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Is a Small-Ship Cruise Right for You? These Photos Will Help You Decide

Timothy Baker | June 1, 2015

As the husband of the godmother of a cruise ship (no official title for me; I looked it up), I got to experience the inaugural sailing of Windstar Cruises’ Star Breeze on the French and Italian rivieras. I had no official duties so, unlike my wife, I was free to just hang out. And take photos.

The last time I’d sailed on Windstar was 15 years ago, right after Wendy and I got married. With young kids, we’ve had to limit ourselves to large ships with child-friendly programs and features. I’ve appreciated the large ships—they’ve kept everyone in the family busy with their sports decks, ice bars, and activities from sunrise to midnight—but, given my druthers, I’d choose a small ship, with small ports to match: There are no long walks to your stateroom or anywhere on the ship. You’re with like-minded passengers. The crew remembers your name and your favorite drink in the evenings. There are no long tender lines snaking through the bowels of the ship just to get from ship to shore. Everything’s easier.

These snapshots from our trip should give you a feel for the benefits of a small ship and small ports.

Portoferraio, Elba: Only small ships can dock here.

Portoferraio, Elba: Only small ships can dock here.

In Portoferraio, on the island of Elba, we loved that we were the only cruise ship in town.

Small ports are easy to explore on your own. And it’s easier to talk to locals such as this fisherman, whose boat was docked next to ours in Portoferraio.

Some of the catch of this commercial fishing boat is reserved for selling to the locals.

Some of the catch of this commercial fishing boat is reserved for selling to the locals.

Only small ships can get into small ports, such as the harbor of Nice, France.

A sailing class at the entrance to Nice’s harbor.

A sailing class at the entrance to Nice’s harbor, photographed from our room aboard Star Breeze.

In Nice we were docked next to traditional fishing boats.

In Nice we were docked next to traditional fishing boats.

In small ports you can dock within walking distance of the sights you’ve come to see. In Nice we could walk from the harbor to the Cours Saleya, which holds an antiques market on Mondays, a flower market on Tuesdays, etc.

Posters for sale at the Cours Saleya antiques market. The prices were high, and I’ve seen enough “Roadshow” to be leery of reproductions masquerading as the real thing.

Posters for sale at the Cours Saleya antiques market. The prices were high, and I’ve seen enough “Roadshow” to be leery of reproductions masquerading as the real thing.

We checked out Maison Auer, the ultimate sweets shop in Nice’s Old Town.

We checked out Maison Auer, the ultimate sweets shop in Nice’s Old Town.

Candied fruits in the window of Maison Auer.

Candied fruits in the window of Maison Auer.

We found a rainbow of salts from around the world (including the Himalayas, Morocco, and Hawaii) in a shop called Lou Pantai in Nice, France.

We found a rainbow of salts from around the world (including the Himalayas, Morocco, and Hawaii) in a shop called Lou Pantai in Nice, France.

Another advantage of small ships: In small ports they can dock at the pier, whereas larger ships need to anchor out in the harbor. Docking means you can walk off the ship and get right into town. Anchoring means taking a tender from ship to shore—which swallows up time. The larger the ship, the longer the line for the tenders—which swallows up more time.

In Monte Carlo, Star Breeze docked at the marina, whereas a larger Royal Caribbean ship anchored.

In Monte Carlo, Star Breeze docked at the marina, whereas a larger Royal Caribbean ship anchored.

On a small ship, you’re closer to other boats.

A VanDutch 55 in Monte Carlo’s harbor, as viewed from aboard Star Breeze. The day cruiser carries a price tag of about $1.5 million (water skiis not included).

A VanDutch 55 in Monte Carlo’s harbor, as viewed from aboard Star Breeze. The day cruiser carries a price tag of about $1.5 million (water skiis not included).

It’s an easy (uphill) walk from Monte Carlo’s marina to the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco.

It’s an easy (uphill) walk from Monte Carlo’s marina to the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco.

The Oceanographic Museum of Monaco’s exhibition on sharks.

The Oceanographic Museum of Monaco’s exhibition on sharks.

Antique diving gear at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco.

Antique diving gear at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco.

Spotted: An ancient Fiat in a garage across from the Oceanographic Museum.

Spotted: An ancient Fiat in a garage across from the Oceanographic Museum.

In Monte Carlo, at cocktail hour, Windstar brought local dancers onboard the ship.

In Monte Carlo, at cocktail hour, Windstar brought local dancers onboard the ship.

More of those dancers

More of those dancers

Each Windstar sailing includes a “Private Event” just for the ship’s passengers. In Monte Carlo the event was a cocktail party atop the Café de Paris, overlooking the Casino de Monte-Carlo.

Fellow passengers posed for a photo with the Casino as the backdrop.

Fellow passengers posed for a photo with the Casino as the backdrop.

Wendy kidded around with some of the folks who run Windstar.

Wendy kidded around with some of the folks who run Windstar.

In Portofino one of Windstar’s shore excursions was a wine-and-cheese tasting at Castello Brown, in the hills above town. We learned about and tasted all the locally sourced ingredients.

Here Chef Guido offers us a whiff of basil.

Here Chef Guido offers us a whiff of basil.

When Chef Guido asked for volunteers to learn how to make pesto, I jumped at the chance. How could anyone pass up the opportunity to make pesto in Liguria instructed by a local chef?

Grinding pesto is harder than you think, but I brought a mortar and pestle home with me to practice.

Grinding pesto is harder than you think, but I brought a mortar and pestle home with me to practice.

Next time I’ll cut back on the garlic.

Next time I’ll cut back on the garlic.

Walking from Castello Brown back down into town, we passed the Museo del Parco, a colorful sculpture garden.

In Portofino’s sculpture garden, the meerkats look like giant Peeps.

In Portofino’s sculpture garden, the meerkats look like giant Peeps.

The smaller a ship, the better you get to know the officers and crew. The crew aboard Star Breeze is super-friendly. They went out of their way to be helpful.

Chehab took us for a spin in the zodiac.

Chehab took us for a spin in the zodiac.

Richmond: bread baker by day, lead dancer by night.

Richmond: bread baker by day, lead dancer by night.

The Village People (a.k.a. the Star Breeze crew) performs YMCA at the deck barbeque.

The Village People (a.k.a. the Star Breeze crew) performs YMCA at the deck barbeque.

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7 Comments

  1. Mary Jo Testwuide

    What about motion sickness on small ships? I can do river trips but don’t know if small ships go on big waters. I’ve been on many river trips and on Regent cruises with no trouble. I wear a patch.

    1. Billie Cohen

      Hi Mary Jo, Sea sickness can affect different cruisers in different ways, so it’s hard to say definitively what your experience would be. But you might find it useful to hear the personal experiences of cruisers who discussed this very topic on Cruise Critic forums here and here.

  2. Lori Martz

    I returned last night from a small ship adventure in the San Juan Islands with “Un-Cruise Adventures.” Only 49 passengers on our ship. Now that I’m home, I already miss the connections with my new friends. The crew was able to give everyone personal attention. No lines for the included nature hikes, kayaking, or rubber “skiff & stroll” activities. The ship was able to get us into bays where sometimes there wasn’t even a dock – a short ride on a skiff landed us places where we rarely saw other people. I’ll look forward to another adventure with them.

  3. Emma

    Reminds me of the fun times I had during my 12 day adventure cruise with the Blount Small Ship Adventures of Toronto. There was music , entertainment, cookery sessions, gardening sessions, home improvement , pubs, party and all the like. I absolutely did not know how 12 days had past. by the end of the trip, we made hell lot of friends onboard. never been to a voyage like that before. The blog reminds me of my fond memories.

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