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Big Ships vs. Small Ships

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Aaron Saunders is a well-known cruise writer who blogs on From the Deck Chair. He recently sailed on Wind Star’s Yachting the Riviera voyage. You can read his full voyage report here

I used to be a “big ship” guy.

When I first started cruising, I sailed aboard a ship that measured 750 feet in length and carried roughly 2,000 passengers. My next ship was 950 feet long, and carried 1,900. The ship after that? Over a thousand feet in length, which I sailed on with 3,000 of my best friends.

It’s easy to see the appeal of a big cruise ship. You can dine somewhere new each night and – on some ships – never repeat the experience. You can do things that you never thought possible on a ship, like go ice skating, rock climbing, or even see a planetarium show. There’s nine-story atriums and four-story waterfalls and three-story dining rooms and theaters with box seating and ballrooms that are larger than an Airbus 380.

But for all their bells and whistles, big ships lack something fundamental.

When I first sailed on Wind Spirit in July of 2011, I was – despite all the cruises under my belt – hesitant. After all, it would be the smallest ship I’d ever sailed aboard, with only one lounge, one dining room, and some outdoor deck space.

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And then, something brilliant happened. I arrived at the pier in Stockholm – and there was no lineup to check in.

In fact, there weren’t even a dozen people waiting ahead of me to board. I went up, showed my cruise documents and my passport, and I was walking up the gangway to the ship. Total time elapsed since stepping out of the taxi: maybe a minute.

Then, both the Captain and Hotel Manager greeted me personally, and shook my hand, welcoming me on board along with the other 148 guests who would embark that day.

After that, a glass of champagne was placed in my hand and I was steered toward the Lounge, where my documents were checked and my keycard was given to me.

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Compare that, now, to waiting in a stuffy terminal with three thousand other tired, cranky and jet-lagged people. No champagne, no personal welcome – unless, of course, you count the poor guy dressed up as a bear, or a dolphin, or a penguin that you have to get your embarkation photo taken next to.

On a big ship, you’re herded up to the buffet so the fun can begin!

On Windstar, you’re invited to enjoy a casual lunch at your leisure, or maybe find your favorite pool drink before the sails are raised and the theme from 1492: Conquest of Paradise comes over the loudspeakers as your ship slips its lines and sets out into the stunning beauty that is the open ocean.

And I was hooked.

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Recently, I sailed from Rome (Civitavecchia), Italy to Nice, France aboard Wind Star, which is looking gorgeous after her stem-to-stern makeover. Perhaps moreso in the Mediterranean than in the Baltics, the advantage of sailing on a smaller ship – and on Windstar – became apparent, as we called on ports so small and out-of-the-way that I actually had to look them up.

Everything is easier on a smaller ship. We tendered in four separate ports, and getting off and on Wind Star was as simple as going down the gangway and stepping aboard the tender, where you would be whisked into some secluded village bordered with the yachts of the rich and famous.

And you.

There’s no “tender tickets,” no waiting for hours on end in a lounge, and no lines snaking around 950 feet of decking.

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Of course, the big ships were nowhere to be found once we left Civitavecchia. Large cruise ships simply cannot call on towns like Portofino, Italy, or come to dock in the center of Nice; large ships must always make compromises. In the case of Nice, that means docking in nearby Villefranche instead. It means tendering in Monte Carlo instead of coming alongside, as we did, and it would mean simply never getting to visit places like Calvi, Corsica, or Portoferraio, Italy.

With a small ship like Wind Star, itinerary is an advantage.  The low guest count is an advantage. But there is another advantage, and it is one that cruise lines can only illustrate so much without being accused of “tooting their own horn.”

It’s service.

With 148 guests –and nearly as many crew – service aboard a smaller ship is so much more personable. Sure, I’ve had fantastic service on big ships, but it’s fantastic in a different way. These people get to know you. You exchange emails and Facebook details. You ask them how their families are; they inquire about yours. You keep in touch. And the smiles are genuine.

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A smaller crew is also able to move larger mountains. On my sailing, we not only had a wedding on board, we also had two vow renewal ceremonies, presided over by Captain Pedro Pinto, Hotel Manager Jason Parker, and a number of other crew members.

I missed the wedding, but I caught one of the vow renewals as we left our anchorage at Portofino, Italy. The sun was getting low on the horizon, and a few friends, family and well-wishers were gathered up in front of the Bridge for a quiet ceremony. The wind whistled through the ship’s rigging (you’d never find that on a big ship!) and all that could be heard over the voice of the couple was the sound of Wind Star’s bow knifing through the water.

It was, quite honestly, the most romantic thing I think I’ve ever seen. And you’d never get that on a big ship.

Today, I still love big ships. I’d be a hypocrite if I said otherwise. But if I want an experience – an honest, memorable experience that will remain long after the actual event has passed – I take a small ship.

Hopefully one that plays the theme from 1492.

Do you prefer small ship or big ship cruising?