SMALL SOLUTIONS- ALTERNATIVES TO THE MEGA SHIPS

Dreams and memories: the perky little Ausonia was the perfect 'mini liner'

Dreams and memories: the perky little Ausonia was the perfect ‘mini liner’

The debut of new behemoths such as Royal Princess and Norwegian Breakaway has yet again served to affirm the universal supremacy of the mega cruise ship as the prime source of most seagoing travels. But if you don’t like the idea of whooping it up in a small city with more than three thousand fellow revellers, the alternative options at first appear pretty thin on the ground.

There are small, very highly styled ships out there, of course. Companies such as Silversea, Regent and Seabourn offer sublimely beautiful, incredibly lavish and human scaled products that go to some of the most inviting places on earth.

The problem here for many comes with the size of the price tag.

Because while all of those lines represent outstanding value, the fact remains that we live in straitened and uncertain times. Every penny counts these days. And the price tags attached to these lines are simply a bridge too far for many people.

There’s also a definite high end factor, too. Some people find these ships simply too overwhelming as a travel experience. That’s not to degrade either product or potential passenger; it’s just restating an old truth. Incredible as it seems, some people simply find these ships too luxurious.

So, where does that leave those people- and there are a lot more than you might think- that want to try and find some happy medium? High and dry, you might assume. No medium size, mainstream cruise ship has been debuted in the standard market since the early 1990’s, two decades ago. At first glance, the horizon looks foggy indeed.

And yet, look closer, and there are far more options than you might think. Allow me to introduce you to some very personable ‘ladies of the sea’…

The gorgeous Art Deco terraces of the elegant Marco Polo

The gorgeous Art Deco terraces of the elegant Marco Polo

If you want small scale ships with a real, retro look, you could consider Cruise and Maritime. The flagship is the elegant, Art Deco suffused Marco Polo, joined for this year by the Discovery. This is nothing less than the former Island Princess of Princess Cruises. The trio is rounded out by the Astor, which will be undertaking some quite wonderful cruises ‘down under’ for the Australian market this coming winter. All of these ships are in the 22,000 ton range- a truly sweet size.

Smaller and distinctly cerebral, VTA’s lovely Aegean Odyssey and Swan Hellenic’s cute, deft Minerva serve up history and harmony in equal doses. You might think the price tag is steep, but when you look at the actual, sheer inclusive nature of both lines, the value is undeniable. It’s also worth noting that VTA has a number of single cabins, and very reasonable solo occupancy supplements in addition on most sailings.

Of course, most UK passengers know all about Fred.Olsen. Our American friends might remember the beautiful, seaworthy Black Watch and Boudicca better as the legendary Royal Viking Star and Royal Viking Sky, respectively. These beautiful twins tip the scales at a svelte 28,000 tons each, and each retains the contours, character and sheer charisma of such platinum chip, vintage tonnage.

Rounding out Olsen’s popular quartet of British accented perennials is the 24,000 ton Braemar, and the still elegant, 43,000 ton flagship, Balmoral. The latter ship is still fondly remembered as the legendary Crown Odyssey, the last purpose built ship for the now long defunct Royal Cruise Line.

Common to all of the Olsen ships is a large number of single cabins, very good service, and excellent food. They do tend to attract an older age group if that’s an issue for you, but the itineraries are well thought out, and the ships themselves offer some of the best value of any line afloat.

Louis Cristal is typical of the intimate Louis brand of ships

Louis Cristal is typical of the intimate Louis brand of ships

Looking for something quick, cheap and really cheerful? Louis Cruises offer three and four night cruises out of Athens and Cyprus this summer on the venerable Orient Queen, once the pioneering Skyward of Norwegian Caribbean Lines, as it then was. These are intense, high density itineraries on a 16,000 ton ship that has no balcony cabins, if that’s a deal breaker for you. As an exhilarating weekend break, these short cruises are very hard to beat.

Portuscale Cruises has emerged from the ashes of Classic International Cruises, and four of the original quintet of rebuilt classics should be back in harness next year. The 16,000 ton Athena becomes the Azores, while the 15,000 ton Princess Danae becomes the Lisboa, and the veteran, 6,000 ton Arion is already back in service as the Porto. The legendary, 9,000 ton Funchal is also due back in service this year.

These ships are real floating time capsules; authentic mini liners offering the closest experience to the true classic liner voyage experience available anywhere today. They are often, but not exclusively, put out to charter. Any opportunity to sail one of them should be grabbed with both hands. They cannot last forever.

And you might be surprised to learn that the mega ship colossus that is Costa is hiding a little secret, in the shape of the foxy little 28,000 ton Costa Voyager. She spends winters cruising the Red Sea, and with her intimate size and styling, she is sure to evoke memories of the string of similar sized Costa beauties that once existed, now long since vanished.

At sea on Portuscale...

At sea on Portuscale…

So, hopefully, there’s some food for thought here. Even writing this blog has been a revelation. Some of these ships had slipped from my memory as completely as if swallowed up by Atlantic fog. Finding them again has been a voyage of discovery in its own right. Happy sailing.

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