Unusual Cruises

By Ann Dermody

Niche cruising to more exotic locales on smaller, more interesting ships is gaining popularity, especially with our members. Here are some of their ideas for your next holiday!

Last year, almost three-quarters of the 15 million cruise-ship vacations worldwide were taken by Americans. While the enormous super-ships continue in their competition to outdo each other in the "faster, bigger, newer" sweepstakes, another facet of the industry has been quietly developing.

The Dalmatian Coast

By Scott Croft, New York

When my wife April and I decided to take our first big vacation in years, we knew we wanted it to be aboard a boat, and that we wanted a carefree experience. The tall ship Star Clipper (the flagship of the company) gave us each what we wanted. We chose the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia cruise, which had been getting rave reviews, and stopped in Montenegro and Greece, the latter of which was one of our dream destinations.

At the end of my first day at sea, watching daylight fold into night while I floated on my back, arms outstretched, in the ship's pool, I knew we'd made the right choice. Looking high above, the pool's lights projected a luminescent blue-green shadow across acres of canvas, framed by the stars.

This beautiful 366-foot barkentine has more than 36,000 square feet of sail, and the captain isn't shy about using every inch of it. With about 150 passengers on our Venice-to-Athens voyage, we never waited for dinner once, or had to wade through throngs at the bar. It was like having our own private megayacht — small enough to make friends, which tends to happen on a 10-day cruise, or to tuck away quietly and muse, whatever the mood.

At the end of my first day at sea, watching daylight fold into night while I floated on my back, arms outstretched, in the ship's pool, I knew we'd made the right choice. Looking high above, the pool's lights projected a luminescent blue-green shadow across acres of canvas, framed by the stars.

This beautiful 366-foot barkentine has more than 36,000 square feet of sail, and the captain isn't shy about using every inch of it. With about 150 passengers on our Venice-to-Athens voyage, we never waited for dinner once, or had to wade through throngs at the bar. It was like having our own private megayacht — small enough to make friends, which tends to happen on a 10-day cruise, or to tuck away quietly and muse, whatever the mood.

Letter From Croatia

Our first port turned out to be my favorite. Mali Lošinj Island is part of the Croatian archipelago of over 1,200 rocky islands spreading 400 miles down the coast. In the anchorage off the small town, with no room for the goliath cruise ships in the narrow bay, we were the only boat. A blazing August sun washed over the small palm-lined quay with its pastel-colored stores and seafood cafes, their upper stories adorned with tall shuttered windows and red-clay tile roofs.

April and I climbed the rock-strewn trail out of town, and inhaled the cedar-sweet, salty air. Bracketed by ancient limestone walls, the path, about the width of a donkey, climbs a small forested peak to the hilltop ruins of an ancient lookout post. The WWII concrete pillbox, at times a garrison for the Venetians, was dark and cool, the shimmering blue Adriatic framed in its long slit of a window.

Back down the trail we found ourselves on a small, rocky beach where the Star Clipper watersports crew had set up shop for the afternoon. Local kids splashed around while I took my first sail on a 13-foot Pico sailboat — my view of the bottom 20 feet below easily seen through the unspoiled blue-turquoise waters. I hadn't been expecting much from the sleepy little town of Mali Lošinj that first day, but it set the tone for the trip -- small ports with lots of time to explore on our own, some surprises for the senses, and few crowds.

Our mountain 4x4 tour on the island of Hvar, Croatia, brought us to an abandoned village, Velo Grablje, tucked high above Hvar town, a hamlet that remained hidden from marauding pirates for centuries. Today, it's a ghost town of terraced hillsides, collapsed roofs, and overgrown paths surrounded by pine, cypress, chestnut, and agave cactus. This was never an easy place to live, but grapes, olives (a community olive press with massive stone wheels still turns in a dim basement), and lavender paid the bills until Velo Grablje's inhabitants became victims of changing economies and many emigrated to the western U.S. to make wine. You can thank Croatians for California Zinfandel!

Another magical highlight of our voyage was walking atop the historic rampart walls of old Dubrovnik, Croatia. On one side was a view to the open, sparkling azure sea, on the opposite a vista of modern urban life, all bustling within the preserved buildings of the ancient walled city, its streets covered in limestone pavers polished smooth by 14 centuries of footsteps.

Into The Wind

On our fifth day, motorsailing from Kotor, Montenegro, we got some real wind in our sails as we needled through the narrow fjord-like passage of Verige Strait. Star Clipper began to heel, and there's something to be said about the whir of wind howling through 30-plus miles of rigging. Just 16 crew tended to her sails. On our voyage, the winds were mostly calm, although a short Beaufort force-8 gale near the end of our cruise put us into Paros instead of Mykonos, Greece. This was great because the less crowded substitute suited us, with its quaint whitewashed buildings, charming cafes, stylish shops, and crescent beach filled with locals.

On Santorini, April and I left the crowds behind, took the public bus to Oia, had lunch in one of those postcard-perfect rooftop cafes just a few feet from the precipice, high above the caldera that makes up this volcanic chain of islands, and talked about how lucky we were to live out our dream of seeing Greece from the deck of a boat. Later that day, leaving Santorini under hazy late-day sunshine, all hands were on deck. With passengers just feet away from the bridge, and the boaters amongst us watching Captain Sergey's every move, he gave the commands and, once all sails were set, thanked the crew for a job well done, then turned to us with a smile, saying in his native Ukrainian accent, "The sails are not for decoration, yes?"

Planning: The Star Clipper is a true sailing ship; there are no elevators aboard. English was spoken everywhere the ship stopped. The early-bird 2013 rate (without airfare) for a 10-day cruise in a well-appointed Category 2 outside cabin is $3,047 per person. Star Clippers also heads to many other destinations including the Caribbean islands, Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua.

For reservations and special BoatUS member discounts: Call 800-477-4427 or find out more at BoatUS.com/membership/travel-services/star-clippers-cruises

Norway To The Top Of The World

By Richard Jost, New York

Photo of Richard and Diane Joust cruised to Norway on the FinnmarkenRichard and Diane Joust cruised to Norway on the Finnmarken.

In the Fall of 2008, my wife Diane and I and two friends cruised up the beautiful west coast of Norway to above the Arctic Circle, only a few miles from Russia. It was an 11-night cruise on the MS Finnmarken, a combination passenger, mail, and freight vessel. The Finnmarken is 454 feet long with a beam of 70.5 feet, but twin bow thrusters and azimuthing stern thrusters make short work of docking. She has cabin capacity for only 638 passengers. In addition to passengers, the ship transports 1,100 square meters of cargo and 47 cars. There are few car dealers in north Norway, so people order cars, then wait for them to arrive on the ship.

Finnmarken offers many comforts. Fish was part of every meal, all very good and tasty. While the bar prices ($14 for a beer) didn't faze a lot of passengers, we acted on advice and got our wine and spirits at the government liquor store before we left Bergen. As might be expected of Power Squadron members, we requested a tour of the bridge. It's manned by two people at all times, and even though a paper chart is available, the officer at the helm has a GPS chartplotter with a screen as large as my home television. We also toured the engine room, which was spotless. For the gearheads reading this, the ship has a 9-cylinder and a 6-cylinder Wärtsilä diesel for each of the two shafts.

The Norwegian coast is made up of hundreds of fjords, and around 75,000 offshore islands that the ship winds in between. Often you come within 200 feet of shore. The scenery goes from broadleaf trees around Bergen, to hardier pines, until you cross the Arctic Circle, after which the vegetation turns to mosses and stray shrubs. At one point, we saw a herd of reindeer running along the shore. You see occasional fishing boats and fish farms, mostly unmanned and completely computer-controlled with automatic feeders, only needing to be visited occasionally to collect the adult fish.

One of the high points of the trip north took place at 10:30 p.m. one night when we entered the Trollfjord, a fjord only 100 meters wide. The ship is 21.5 meters wide. Out on the bow it was pitch black with only the silhouette of the mountains ahead of us. The Finnmarken was doing her normal 15 knots when, all of a sudden, she slowed and a single spotlight shone down from the bridge onto a small point of land. The ship made a sharp turn to port. In darkness we entered the fjord, and traveled the two kilometers to the end. At that point, the ship spun 90 degrees and they turned on the floodlights at either end. It looked as if you could touch the rocks at both the bow and stern. The occasion is celebrated by drinking a special Trollfjord soup on deck. It's an admirable bit of seamanship and I was so happy we all got to see it.

Planning: Prices in May 2013 start at $2,605 per person for an outside-window cabin. www.cruisenorway.com

In The Footsteps Of Gauguin

By Jim & Sheila Majka, Virginia

After taking a few cruises on 1,000-foot gigantic cruise ships with more than 5,000 passengers, we decided to try a cruise in French Polynesia onboard a smaller ship, the M/V Paul Gauguin, with only 300 passengers. Our "all-inclusive" cruise package began and ended in Los Angeles, with two days at the beginning to acclimatize to island time and tour Tahiti before boarding. The ship was exactly as it was described — beautiful with large staterooms, dining rooms with exquisite food and drink, activity areas, Polynesian hosts who, by day, were our guides to activities on the islands and, by night, performed magnificent Polynesian dances on the ship's stage. The islands we visited were Raiatea, Taha'a, Bora Bora, and Moorea. At each island we went snorkeling, windsurfing, or kayaking — all part of the package.

The ship never had a crowded feel. There were no lines for meals, quiet decks in the evenings, and beautiful empty beaches. It almost felt like you had a private yacht and crew on call at all times. We did take a couple of "pay as you go" land tours, set up by the ship's staff, and guided by local folks born and raised on the islands. We were told the islands are much as they were nearly 100 years ago — uncrowded, unspoiled, and inhabited by self-sufficient Tahitians. We learned more of the history of the area and the people than we ever came close to on all the other cruises we've been on. We're already starting to fill the piggy bank to fund another trip to Tahiti!

Planning: Promotional fares for a seven-night cruise to Tahiti and the Society Islands start at $4,495 for a porthole cabin in February and March 2013. www.pgcruises.com

Alaska Up Close And Personal

By John S. Boyer, Delaware

Photo of the Pacific CatalystThe Pacific Catalyst

We took a cool cruise aboard Pacific Catalyst a couple of years ago through the Inside Passage in Alaska with friends from Australia. Catalyst, the first oceanographic research vessel for the University of Washington, had been retired and is now used for passenger cruises. Built of wood in the 1930s, it still has its original, slow-turning diesel engine. Shannon and Bill Bailey run the cruise and take you to places the big cruise ships can't go, supplying sightseeing kayaks, hikes, glacier crawls, and sharing lots of personal experiences. There's only space for 11 passengers, and Bill makes each one feel right at home.

Incidentally, our Aussie friends liked it so much they repeated the trip this year! We only wish we could have joined them.

Planning: Seven-day cruises during the 2013 peak season start at $3,850. www.pacificcatalyst.com

Sailing With Pride

By Nancy Tomich, San Diego, California

As guest crew aboard the Pride of Baltimore II, five friends and I literally had to learn the ropes of sailing a tall ship. Fully integrated into the muscular crew of 12 young men and women, we found ourselves immersed in their nautical language and physically challenged by the work required to sail the Pride, a replica of a speedy War of 1812 privateer.

Photo of sailing aboard the Baltimore Pride IISailing aboard the Baltimore Pride II.

Our course was a three-day zigzag from Alexandria, Virginia, to Chestertown, Maryland, across the Chesapeake Bay. The regular crew scrambled 80 feet aloft to balance on lines and unfurl sails (guests were allowed to decline this duty), but we all worked to tack and jibe in sync with Captain Miles' briny commands. With his 6'4" frame and red moustache, he was typecast for the role. We pulled "hand over fist," and coiled lines to their "bitter ends." The Pride was built to sail "by and large," that is, both into and with the wind, and I marveled at the crew's ability to keep her heavy canvas sails from luffing by a tweak here or there.

The sailing initially was smooth, but on the second day dark clouds massed behind us, and Captain Miles shouted, "All hands on deck!" We ran from one line to another to lower sails before a gale hit. I was tucking tails into the collapsed mainsail when wind and rain began to whirl around us. We dropped anchor and scurried below, a lone crew member on deck to keep watch.

I gobbled a sandwich and stretched out in my narrow bunk, the storm having curtailed my assigned time on deck. We each worked two, four-hour shifts every day, grabbing sleep in between, and food was always available. I ate heartily at meals, mounding my plate with the abundant health food furnished by Lulu, our chef: grits with spinach, quinoa, roasted squash filled with long-grain and wild rice.

Our final day dawned crystalline, the water sparkling as though sprinkled with broken glass. People lining the Chestertown waterfront cheered as the crew gently nestled the Pride alongside the dock. We guest crew had been genuine old-school privateer sailors -- raising sails by hand, fashioning coils to neaten up lines on deck, polishing brass with a homemade mixture crafted from red brick dust and ammonia. Now, we had to descend that plank and return to our own world onshore. Landlubbers again. But not totally. We still carried a bit of the salt with us. 

Planning: Three nights aboard the Pride of Baltimore II as guest crew in late September 2012 cost $465 per person. For 2013 rates, visit www.pride2.org

— Published: February/March 2013

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