Tourism & Cruises

The intimacy of small-ship cruising

Passengers on Windstar’s Star Pride make a wet landing on Isla Parida, Panama, for a beach day, including a grilled lunch
Passengers on Windstar’s Star Pride make a wet landing on Isla Parida, Panama, for a beach day, including a grilled lunch

In a cruise world where most of the advertising emphasis is on ships that carry thousands of passengers from port to port in a frenzy of activities and meals, consider that other, calmer options await.

The contemporary cruise business is not one-size-fits-all. For vacationers who may be new to the idea of cruising and are looking for a small, casual ship, I have two recommendations from recent trips on two continents.

If you are willing to share your ship only with a smaller crowd — say, about 200 fellow passengers — consider Windstar’s sparklingly refurbished Star Pride (summers in Europe, winters in Panama and Costa Rica) or floating on Germany’s Rhine River aboard Viking River Cruises’ new Viking Hild.

These are ships without water slides, whiz-bang attractions or bartending robots.

Both, however, provide gentle reminders of the joys of intimate cruising. Star Pride, like sisters Star Breeze and Star Legend, carries 212 passengers. Viking Hild, like her 47 sisters built during the past few years, carries 190.

These two vessels operate with different concepts, different styles, and different itineraries, but both offer adult contemporary experiences with good food, good service and atmospheres conducive to travelers getting to know fellow passengers. Neither requires men to pack a jacket or a tie. Typically, passengers return home with a list of email addresses, telephone numbers, and promises of meeting again on different waters.

Such small ship traveling is booming, thanks mostly to the swiftly growing cruise lines that ply the world’s fascinating rivers. Their vessels couldn’t get much larger even if their owners wanted to house more passengers: Rivers tend to be shallow, so there’s little room for cabins below the water line. Older bridges often are so low that tables, deck chairs and the captain’s controls must fold down so the ship can pass under them. Locks, built so ships can move smoothly through changes in river elevations, are lean, leaving some ships only inches to spare on either side.

The result is that most river vessels, especially the newer ones with alternative restaurants and comfy lounges, carry fewer than 200 passengers, and some fewer than 150.

Viking River Cruises, which has expanded to meet demand for modern vessels at a popular price, now serves half of all the North Americans cruising on Europe’s rivers.

Viking Hild, like her “longship” sisters, is a comfortable vessel that makes you feel at home in a floating living room with magnificent views through floor-to-ceiling windows and from the open-air top deck. Design elements include private balconies for many cabins; heated bathroom floors; and complimentary Wi-Fi and beer and wine at meals for all. An intimate aft terrace restaurant offers al fresco dining with a grill, for a lighter, simpler meal than what is served in the main restaurant.

Most of today’s river voyages are about cruising in escorted tour mode, with a free guided walk available for passengers at each port stop (and some alternative tour choices for a fee).

Among ocean-going cruise companies, most lines are building larger ships — even such luxury lines as Seabourn, which once owned the Star Pride and her two sisters, which are now part of Windstar and are owned privately by Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Seabourn’s newest ship, Seabourn Encore, carries 600 passengers.

All three Windstar motor ships, refurbished and buffed to a contemporary style, are favored by passengers for their casual atmosphere, their aft end watersports platform filled with sea toys, a comfortable dining area inside and out, and the Yacht Club high at the bow that is brighter and airier than in the ships’ earlier days. Bring two bathing suits and flip flops for off-the-ship daily excursions, especially in Central America on Zodiac wet landings to a remote beach, where the crew prepares a full lunch grilled outdoors.

One advantage of cruising on a renovated luxury ship such as Star Pride is that while the rates for a one-week trip are less than the rates charged by luxury lines, the accommodations onboard still are luxury large and include such details as marble bathrooms and a walk-in closet. Cabins, called suites, have a curtain that can be drawn to separate a spacious sitting area from the bed.

“Windstar is a magic brand,” said the line’s new president John Delaney, who formerly worked at Seabourn when that line owned the three 212-passenger motorized Windstar ships. (Windstar also owns and operates three motor-sailing vessels, Wind Star and Wind Spirit, which carry 148 passengers, and Wind Surf, with a capacity of 310 passengers.)

“Star Pride is upscale, casual, small ship sailing,” said Delaney. “We can keep an eye on each of the 212 people onboard, and we can offer activities with that size in mind.” One such special occasion each week is an elaborate dinner buffet on deck, where all the passengers and much of the crew gather to eat, socialize, and dance to a band that plays under the stars.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of