Small-ship cruises offer intimacy, luxury and adventure to exotic places

(THE BUSINESS TIMES) -  The modern traveller has high expectations. The rise of the "sharing economy" and short-term rental companies such as Airbnb has made booking last-minute getaways in out-of-the-way destinations - and being able to immerse yourself into the local culture - a breeze.

All of which has made certain holiday options such as mainstream cruising, with its planned itineraries, group entertainment and buffet meals, seem outdated and, ironically, unadventurous.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to the emergence of small-ship cruising, a hipper alternative, if you will, that offers a boutique and intimate experience with more in the way of adventure and exotic itineraries, thanks to being able to nip into smaller, less-discovered ports.

In turn, small-ship cruise companies are thriving: Windstar, which boasts the world's largest sailing yacht in its retinue, has recently doubled the size of its fleet; river cruise specialists Aqua Expeditions has a Mekong River boat in addition to its Amazon adventures; French company Ponant is finding success internationally; and even Myanmar has followed suit, with The Strand, Yangon's grande dame hotel, launching a luxury vessel that meanders up and down the Irrawaddy River.

Of course, sipping cocktails poolside while gently sailing along a river is one thing, but it is the ultra luxury options, which offer all the trimmings - including far-flung adventure - that are flourishing.

The Lindblad Expeditions ships, for example, might serve more as floating base camps for exploring destinations such as Antarctica, Greenland and the Arctic Circle, but on board, luxury offerings include spas, state-of-the-art fitness centres, wellness programmes such as early-morning yoga on the deck, and even food cooked with local, organic ingredients.

Meanwhile, Seabourn - whose three ships each accommodate only around 450 guests - provides the kind of service and facilities that embrace the exclusivity and seclusion of being on board a private yacht. Each guest room - most with balconies - are suites; there is nearly one staff member assigned to each passenger and with an all-inclusive policy, the bars are always open.

"We have a high amount of space per guest on board our ships- we build them to be very comfortable and spacious," says Mr Richard Meadows, president of Seabourn. "We provide incredible, personalised service that is very much part of a high-quality experience overall."

And as a subsidiary of Carnival Corp - one of the world's largest ship operators - Seabourn conveniently benefits from its parent company's research and investment into technology and speedy on-board Wi-Fi, a common challenge on many lines.

It is these ultra luxury offerings, along with a bucket list of destinations from Alaska to Patagonia - mostly the domain of no-frills expedition companies for their tricky accessibility - that are the real draw.

These brands execute such expeditions with flair, like in Antarctica, where Seabourn provides a series of zodiac landing experiences, during which guests can go ashore with a specialised expedition team to explore.

"Most ships that go through the Antarctic don't actually disembark guests to zodiacs to go ashore," says Mr Meadows. "This is one of the reasons we've had a level of success; the expedition team is a team of 24, who are leaders in what they do. When you add them to the luxury element and the zodiac landings, it is a powerful programme."

Of course, there are larger lines that provide this heightened level of luxury, but the intimacy, exotic destinations and pursuit for authenticity help these small-cruise lines stand out. Here are five to check out.



The interiors of the Aqua Mekong feature polished wood floors, a neutral colour scheme and floor-to-ceiling windows. PHOTO: AQUA EXPEDITIONS

Aqua Expeditions

Based in Peru, Aqua Expeditions is the long-term ambition of Mr Francesco Galli Zugaro, who founded the company to introduce passengers to the remote region of Peru's Amazon River.

With just three ships in the fleet, that carry between 24 and 40 passengers each, two continue to navigate the Amazon, while the latest one cruises the Mekong River through Vietnam and Cambodia. Understated and elegant, interiors on the Aqua Mekong are by Saigon-based architect David Hodkinson and feature polished wood floors, a neutral colour scheme and floor-to-ceiling windows.

Un-cruise Adventures

Catering to those who might not normally cruise, Un-cruise Adventures comprises just eight vessels that carry between 22 and 88 guests. As the fleet is diverse, from upscale expedition ships to yachts, on-board offerings vary.

The line is based in the United States and currently sails to Alaska, Hawaii, British Columbia and Mexico's Sea of Cortez, with voyages to Costa Rica, Panama and the Galapagos Islands to begin soon.

Ponant

Founded in 1988, French cruise-ship operator Ponant comprises three 264-passenger ships and one called Le Ponant that carries just 64 guests. The line travels to remote destinations such as Alaska, Antarctica and the Arctic, but its speciality is offbeat itineraries, particularly in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Asia.

Uniworld

A boutique river cruise brand, Uniworld's 18 vessels are opulently decorated in plush fabrics, antique furnishings and original artwork. Carrying from 56 to 159 passengers, the line navigates rivers within Europe, China, Vietnam and Cambodia, Russia, Egypt and India.

Windstar Cruises

With six yachts in its fleet that carry just 148 to 310 guests each, Windstar cruises to 50 nations, calling at 150 ports throughout Europe, the South Pacific, the Caribbean and Central America, including Panama Canal and Costa Rica