Confessions of a small-ship cruiser

Confessions of a small-ship cruiser

by Jill Stephenson
article from Wednesday 9, January, 2019

LOOKING DOWN from the white-painted church on a hill in Cartagena, Colombia, we surveyed the panorama of the harbour and sea front. In the harbour, we noticed a huge cruise ship, the Queen Victoria. Moored adjacent to it was our own ship, the tiny (from our elevated viewpoint) Island Sky, a ship carrying some ninety guests and almost as many crew. When we descended to the harbour, we could see some of the thousands of guests on the Queen Victoria looking down on us, probably figuratively as well as literally. ‘These poor people on that little ship’ may or may not have been what they were saying to each other. 

I have cruised on various ships, on seas and rivers, none of which has accommodated more than 600 people, and most of which have welcomed fewer than 100. Increasingly on cruises we find ourselves alongside one or more of the monsters of the sea, as in Auckland harbour where the Europaand another giant dwarfed our 100-person Clipper Odyssey, one on either side of us. 

The small ships have no casino and no cinema, and little in the way of ‘entertainment’. There is generally a pianist playing in the lounge in the evening, and some ships have a very small dance-floor area. The small ships mostly offer a lecture programme, and there are usually daily briefings rounding up what we have seen and preparing us for the next day’s excursions. This was not the case with our ‘Uncruise’ aboard the Safari Endeavour, in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, where the cruise director informed us in the morning what our activities for the day would be and then said ‘We leave in ten minutes’. This was compensated for by the free bar, where I could order my new invention, the Mango Mojito.

The friend who introduced me to cruising, after our husbands died, always emphasised that Minerva II, on which my first three cruises were, had ‘open seating’ in the dining room. I have grown to value that immensely. It means that people can sit where they like in the dining room (space and other people permitting). They can sit at a different table every night, if they want. One is not allocated to a particular table for the duration of the cruise, which means sitting with the same people at every meal. Open seating means meeting a variety of travellers – unless or until one meets people whose company one wants to enjoy constantly (they have to reciprocate). On the Angkor Pandawin northern Vietnam, we met on the second day two delightful ladies from Brisbane, with whom we subsequently ate all our meals. On the Hebridean Skyin South America, a group of eight of us coalesced. On the Royal Crown, on the Danube, we and a couple we met at the airport sat with a permutation of other chosen acquaintances.

The Hebridean Sky, sister of the Island Sky and Caledonian Sky, with intrepid zodiac passengers

The exceptions to ‘open seating’ were in Russia and Ukraine, where customer service seems to be an alien concept. We were allocated to tables by nationality and told that we would sit at these tables – indeed, in the same seats - for every meal. Meals were ordered a day in advance from a menu, and the staff wanted to know which dishes to bring to which table. On theFidelio, on the Dnieper, we revolted, and the ten Brits insisted on sitting at either the table for four or the table for six as the whim took us at each meal. The dining-room supervisor shook her head in disbelief at least once a day. The old Soviet Union is still alive and well in ‘hospitality’.

Small ships do not require guests to wait in a theatre in order to disembark, and they do not require a fleet of coaches for expeditions. The norm with ships that take about ninety persons is three or four coaches. We did, however, once, on disembarking the Island Skyin the Gulf, have a fleet of Toyota 4x4s awaiting us so that we could go ‘dune-bashing’, which is slightly alarming at first but becomes quite exciting. They took us to an oasis where we could have a camel ride and eat local produce. Women had beautifully intricate ‘tattoos’, that washed off all too quickly, painted on their arms. 

It is true that the large ships have more stability on rough seas. At the southern end of the Mozambique Channel, the little Island Skywas buffeted so that all I could see from my cabin window was green foam. The ship rose up and crashed down noisily again with the waves. Sleep was difficult. Worse was the south-western coast of New Zealand, where the crew had, one evening, thoughtfully replaced stemmed glassware in the dining-room with tumblers. That evening, with the dining-room about a third full of the more intrepid of us (I had taken my Stugeron tablet), I was thrown backwards off my dining chair onto the floor by a particularly strong wave. The furniture in my cabin, including a heavy glass table, slid about aimlessly. The ship awarded me a complimentary massage to compensate for my ordeal.

Choppy seas are not unknown in the northern hemisphere, along the northwest coast of Africa, sailing from Morocco to Madeira, for example. Or even from Dover to Guernsey, where I was reduced to a macabre dance with my suitcase, which I was trying to unpack. These were two particularly rough encounters with the sea. For the most part, the sea is calm enough, although we hit what the captain called a particularly ‘lumpy’ patch in the western Mediterranean. The captain complained: ‘I blame the French’. We also encountered rough sea in the Baltic, crossing from Kalmar to Gdansk. On the equator, there can be rough sea around the Galapagos Islands.

What are the merits of the sea cruise versus the river cruise? On a river, the water is not choppy, and those anxious about sea-sickness have no problems. At sea, there is a better chance of having a larger cabin. On a river, some cabins are cramped enough for one person; I can’t imagine what they are like for two. Presumably, one person sits on the bed while the other does whatever needs to be done. One man said to me, ‘It’s as well my wife and I knew each other very well before this cruise’. The very basic Russian ship on the waterways from Moscow to St Petersburg had tiny cabins. Having a shower required turning the bathroom into a wet room. 

The sea beats rivers hands down for the aesthetic beauty of the water. It can range from navy blue to aquamarine, and sitting on deck watching the waves and the wake of the ship at mealtimes in the sun, with a protective canopy, or at night, under the stars, is a delight. Rivers tend to be dull green or muddy brown; that includes the not-at-all blue Danube. Sometimes, the banks of the rivers are unappetising. On the Red River in northern Vietnam, the Angkor Pandawmoored on two occasions opposite a local rubbish dump. That was, however, unusual. On the Irrawaddy, the very low level of the water required us to climb a steep and sandy hill to get to the road. In the far east generally, the early morning serenade of two-stroke engines on the river is hard to bear.

Halong Bay, northern Vietnam

I was, though, thrilled when the Royal Crownmoored at a sign marked ‘Mohacs’, in Hungary, on the eastern Danube. It was where the Turks defeated the Hungarian army in 1526 to usher in over 150 years of Turkish occupation of most of Hungary. There is now a Historical Memorial Park on the site of the 1526 battle. Rivers can also provide exciting and scenic experiences, as with the Three Gorges on the Yangtze and the Iron Gates on the Danube, in Serbia. The river cruise’s crowning glory is, however, Halong Bay in northern Vietnam, through which we sailed for two and a half days. Its wonder and beauty are remarkable.

Excursions on small ship cruises are normally included in the price of the holiday. There are exceptions. Cruising up the Chilean and Peruvian coasts on the Hebridean Sky, we could opt for extra tours, at a cost, up into the Atacama desert, which involved very long coach rides, or a flight in a ten-seater plane over the Nasca Lines. The latter was well worth the money, for we saw several of the ancient etchings up in the mountains. They were difficult to photograph, and it soon seemed more sensible simply to enjoy flying low and seeing them.

Some ships boast an expedition crew that drives the zodiacs (powered inflatable craft) that transport guests from ship to shore, if necessary, and takes them on mini-cruises round outlying islands, to view wildlife. In the Galapagos, our luggage, as well as ourselves, was transported by zodiac to the ship. The sight of a zodiac full of suitcases was as unusual as it was unnerving. Some zodiac drivers double as experts on natural history and wildife. Going round Sumatra, on the Caledonian Sky, we had a wonderful geologist whose lecture on tectonic plates was riveting. She was also a tai chi instructor, holding sessions on deck, once in the shadow of Krakatowa. 

The obsessive birder on the Clipper Odysseyensured that all we saw of Dunedin was the unusual and beautifully decorated rail station, where the yellow interior tiles had ‘NZR’ embossed on them. Twenty minutes there, and he rushed us off to the albatross colony, and then to the colony of yellow-eyed penguins. They were, of course, well worth seeing. What we did not see, on the Island Skygoing up the west coast of the UK from Tilbury to Leith, were puffins. The bird expert promised us a sight of them, saying that if we didn’t see a puffin, he would walk the plank. He rather cheated by bringing a stuffed toy puffin to his last lecture. We should have known it was unlikely to see them in August. But we were among the lucky ones who had sufficiently benign conditions to be able to land on Hirta, St Kilda. What a godforsaken place! No wonder the last inhabitants were taken off in 1930.

I cannot comment on life on a huge cruise vessel. I am sure the cabins are spacious and comfortable, as some cabins on small ships are not – a poky single cabin next to the deck area where the crew met for a smoke, on the Serenissmain the eastern Mediterranean, is not one of my favourite memories. But the intimacy of a smaller number of people, like the twenty-three of us who sailed down the Irrawaddy or the sixty-nine of us on the Royal Crownon the Danube, is comfortable, even if there is the occasional person one really wants to avoid. When there are about ninety people, I find that I meet half of them, get to know probably half of that half, and spend most time with half of that half. 

Golden Buddhist stupas beside the Irrawaddy

We visit places that have varying degrees of interest. I recall someone we were lunching with on the Island Skybeing furious that we had been taken to Aruba, in the Caribbean, which is really just a big resort. ‘Why did they bring us here?’ he asked me. I said, ‘A friend wrote to me years ago to say “Manila is a grotty hole”. I wrote back saying, “At least you know from first-hand experience that Manila is a grotty hole.” And that is how I view Aruba. It isn’t worth visiting, but at least I know that from my own experience’. Eight temples in Bagan, Myanmar, in one day were, however, worth visiting, even if we were ‘templed out’ after that. Cruising offers bite-sized experiences of a variety of different locations. If it is regrettable not to see more of some of them, one can always return.

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