Places I Remember with Lea Lane

Small Ship Cruises: Are They Right For You?

November 30, 2021 Heidi Sarna is co-founder of She has cruised over 150 times, most of the time on small ships.. Season 1 Episode 44
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
Small Ship Cruises: Are They Right For You?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Heidi Sarna is co-founder with Ted Scull of She focuses on small ship cruises of under 300 people -- on lakes, rivers, and oceans around the world. We discuss all aspects of small vessels, and by the end of the episode you'll get an idea if this special, more intimate kind of cruising is for you.

Heidi tells why she started She defines "small ship," which is a relative term. She goes on to explain the pluses and minuses of small-ship cruising, and  discusses itineraries, amenities and itineraries from sailing ships to expedition ships, around the world.

And as on all episodes of Places I Remember, she ends with a favorite memory.

Heidi Sarna, co-founder of and author of Secret Singapore, is an expat living with her family on that island-nation for 15 years. She writes, takes photos, and has been on over 150 cruises.
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; on  Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website: placesirememberlealane.comPlease follow, rate and review this award-winning travel podcast!

And exciting news! Starting in 2022 -- we'll be dropping podcasts bi-weekly, on Tuesdays, and on YouTube video every other week!

*Transcript edited for clarity.

Lea Lane  0:04 
Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world. In Episode 39, our guest, Heidi Sarna, gave us the inside scoop on Singapore, where she lives. But we also discovered that she's cruised over 100 times. So we had to talk with her about cruising, specifically about small ships. Heidi, welcome again to Places I Remember.

Heidi Sarna  0:42 
Thank you. Nice to be here.

Lea Lane  0:44 
Let me ask you, you're the co-founder with Ted Scull of the website Why and when did you start quirkycruise?

Heidi Sarna  0:53 
Ted and I, we've been friends and colleagues for more than 20 years, and we've worked together on various projects over the years. And we realized we both liked the smaller ships, I hate to say better, but somehow they they left more of a lasting imprint on us. So about 6 years ago, we decided to create a website, sort of as an anthology to collect our own personal small ship articles and in from other travel writers. Because there wasn't really anything like that that we knew or that nothing that was, you know, huge, like Cruise Critic tends to focus on big ships. So we thought, let's start something to basically share some of the more unusual stuff, not necessarily the mainstream river cruises that people know about. But there's quite a lot of quirky, unusual, small stuff that we just love and that a lot of people truly, you know, just don't know about.

Lea Lane  1:41 
Yeah, some fleets are just one ship. Now I've cruised on ships  of all sizes. And in fact, I wrote a book in the 1990s called The World's Most Exciting Cruises, and they were not on big mainstream vessels. How would you define a small cruise ship versus a larger mainstream ship?

Heidi Sarna  2:00  
Right. Well, that's arbitrary, as you probably know, too, but Ted and I decided to call it at 300 passengers. So quirkycruise only covers cruises under 300 passengers. But I guess considering that there are ships, as you know, carrying 4000 and 5000 passengers that, you know, 800 is still on the small side, or 1000. But we are focusing really on the smaller ones, so for us, it's 300 and under.

Lea Lane  2:26  
Yeah, I mean, some people call a small ship anything under 5000 passengers, you know, and I think it's a very arbitrary number. So let's stick to what you say it's about 300 or under, and you can go all around the world on that. Now, there are some places only small ships can go. They sail into small harbors, shallow channels, and out of the way places that are not teeming with tourists. Can you give us some examples of those kinds of harbors?

Heidi Sarna  2:52  
Well, I would say right, so quirky completely covers rivers, canals and ocean-going small ship cruises. So the ocean-going ones I would say, you know, for instance, parts of Norwegian fjords and Alaska. Now big ships go there, but the small ships, both river-going and canal-going and ocean-going, could get into a lot of places, obviously rivers, big ships can get to but ocean-going small ships can go to a lot of places that the big ships can't, such as the west coast of Scotland is a prime place that you can find a lot of wonderful 10, 12, 15 passenger boats, and they're going to the Hebrides, the Inner Hebrides, the Outer Hebrides, and it's really just a place where you find small ships. And the seas can be sort of rough at times for a small ship, but it's just really gorgeous cruising area for people that like to go somewhere remote, and the gorgeous history and the old rocks and such. Other places I would say: Croatia, Alaska, these are places also where small ships can get to really tiny, off the beaten track places that there's just no way a big ship could get to, and some of them don't even have names. I would say in Alaska, like you're in the Inside Passage, but the ships can literally go up against. I'm sure you've been there, Lea, many times. On cruise ships, for instance, Alaskan Dream Cruises can go up against sheer walls of rock and the passengers can touch them. You know how close you are on a small ship.

Lea Lane  4:22  
Yes, I've been I've been on ships in Alaska, big and small, and the big ones sometimes can't get close. And you watch the small ships go right up to the glaciers when they're calving, and it's quite exciting to watch. I'm sure it's more exciting to get to be there. I'm thinking of Greece. You know, there are mainstream ships that go there, big ships, but a small ship can go at a time when other passengers aren't coming out. It's not as crowded on the whole island, that's another thing about it. 

Lea Lane  4:22  
The whole atmosphere changes when you're in a small ship because you're not crowding the harbors and crowding the places you're going, the whole feeling is is more local, not full of tourists. And when you go to smaller places, the same thing happens, there aren't a lot of tourists, so the ships can go where other tourists aren't going. And it's a very special thing to do for me. I really feel the place when I'm in a small ship rather than seeing my friends and other ships coming off. And the itineraries are really the plus to me. Around 300 or so people and you could go safely to many places around the world. How far can a ship with 300 people go around the world? Can it get to South Pacific, can it get to Antarctica and the Arctic? 

Heidi Sarna  5:32  
Yeah, sure. So as you know, there's the expedition ships from Lindblad and many other companies, there's a new one called The World Navigator from Atlas Ocean Voyages, many others. So they go between the Poles. So these ships are traveling from Antarctica down to the Arctic and in between, so smaller ships sometimes would take maybe a little bit longer than a huge ship that might be a little bit faster. But yeah, they really can go anywhere in the world. As you said, South Pacific, there's some lines that pass through there, there's a few that are spaced there all year round. If it's an ocean-going ship with an ice strengthened hull it can go anywhere cold. It's really the shape of the boat. So yeah, I mean, sailing ships, of course, can sail around the world if you have the time, and the wind is right.

Lea Lane  6:22  
So there isn't any place, any quarter of the world that you probably can't get to if you have a well equipped small ship,

Heidi Sarna  6:29  
I would agree. And then whether you would want to cross a huge ocean in a small ship where you would feel the waves more. I mean, I think there's a few diehards like my partner, Ted, who co-created quirkycruise, he would love to be at sea for eight days on a small ship rocking, like, you know, bobbing up and down. I actually wouldn't, but yeah, the ships can do it, but you would feel it more, right, compared to a 5000 passenger ship?  But I think small ships tend to stay closer to land. That's the whole point, as you said, their destination focus. So I would say the majority are stopping almost every day, you know, wherever they are. And as opposed to the old style ocean liners, of course, might focus on days at sea intentionally. I would say, generally, with small ships that's not the point.

Lea Lane  7:17  
As far as the people, you get to know them better, because it's a smaller group. And that's a plus and a minus. I guess, it depends on the group to some degree. What are some of the other positives that you can think about in a small ship?

Heidi Sarna  7:30  
I mean, I think that a big one to me is meeting and interacting with people and usually a small ship crowd would tend to be the same type of person that you are. And I'm talking small, sometimes more like 20, or 30, or 40 passengers. There's a company called Pandaw River Cruises, which sadly just announced they're going out of business because of the 30, 40 passengers. And I still correspond with people that I've met on those ships, because they were just always an adventurous, really interesting crowd of people. So anyway, definitely socializing and learning about other people, and the reasons that they also like the same type of travel that you do, you know, adventurous people who have been so many places as you experience, I'm sure talking to some people and hearing where they've been and all the adventures they've taken, is part of the fun. 

Heidi Sarna  8:25  
But I think also just again, getting so close where you don't have to wait in line, you don't have to wait, you know, have a tender number to get to where you need to go, you literally could walk off even if you're at anchor, then you just hop into the skiff, but everything is fast and more natural and organic. So you get off your boat, you're on land, immediately you're immersed in that culture of where you are,  I would say, as you said with the nature and the real people and landscape. I recall a Stars Clipper cruise I did a couple years ago in Thailand, that was so amazing. We had to do wet landings. So the tall ship was anchored offshore 150 passengers or so, 130. We take a tinder and then we hop out the hatch in the front, we walk through the sand,  through the water, you know, then we're just on the beach, just us, and I just can't imagine wanting to be at a beach for thousands of other cruise passengers. So, you know what I mean? It's just special. 

Lea Lane  9:21  
Tell us about the sailing ship. So I've been on a few of them. And they have sometimes five masts and they're spectacular to look at. But they're not always sailing, they're very often raising the sails just for a pretty ride or to be, you know, at port and look pretty -- but tell us about it.

Heidi Sarna  9:38  
So, as you know, most of them do also have engines so that they can maintain a schedule and they can, you know, offer cruises in their brochure and you can book something, so yes, Star Clippers, for instance, has engines and try to sail but sometimes, more than others. But it's still a beautiful experience to see the sails go up and down. And so, a lot of these ships I would say are hybrids and that the sails work and they're fabulous, and if the winds end up going the right direction and you're sailing, they turn the engine off. But that reminds me of this summer I was on a Maine Windjammer cruise. Now they don't have engines like that. Those are the real deal and there's a consortium of Maine Windjammers. Maybe you've been on one, and there's one that's almost a century old. Were you on that one?

Lea Lane  10:21  
I was on one many years ago. I don't remember the name. I just remember we were doing a lot of work. It was the real deal. We were polishing brass.

Heido Sarna  10:29  
Yeah, they actually really do need the passengers to help. So it's not like the other cruises where you take a selfie, you can get both experiences. But a lot of the more mainstream ones would have engines, also. Sea Cloud is a wonderful line. They tend to attract a large German clientele and British, but also some North Americans. They're just wind powered for the most part. And that's why people want to go on Sea Cloud. You really can do it all. In Indonesia, there's a lot of local boats, a type of local schooner. And there tend to be two masts and, you know, just another type of beautiful sailing ship, tall ship that you see over here.

Lea Lane  11:06  
Absolutely. I remember one of the activities. I was on one, I think it was Windjammer, not Windjammer, I was on Star Clipper maybe, and one of the activities was to climb to the crow's nest. That was our fun activity. There are not as many activities on these boats. There are more things like that. And it's real. It's fun.

Heidi Sarna  11:24  
Right. Have you ever been on the Barefoot Windjammer cruises?

Lea Lane  11:29  
No, I haven't been on the Barefoot Windjammer, but that sounds very, very fun. Yeah,

Heidi Sarna  11:34  
Some of the downsides. I think, as you mentioned, you're in tight quarters with the other passengers, which is usually a plus. But obviously, sometimes it might not be if you don't care for somebody, there's not as many places to hide, you know, you can go to your cabin. Sometimes that's the only place if you want to avoid people. So you know, you have to be social, I think, definitely, or you have to at least appreciate listening to other people and being around them. As we touched upon, just in terms of rockiness, if you're going in open oceans, you would feel it more in a small ship, like the Galapagos. 

Heidi Sarna  12:08  
I'm about to publish two Galapagos articles from two freelancers, one with Eco Ventura on the Origin, 20-passenger Origin; another writer was with Lindblad. But the seas around the Galapagos can be quite rocky. So, you know, that's part of a small ship cruise there. They have the kinds of stabilizers, of course, as the big mass market ships would, I would say another - it's not a negative to me - but, for instance, in Southeast Asia, I think some passengers want to see Asia, but they still aren't quite ready for a really immersive experience like sometimes you get, and so some people, it's almost too intimate, maybe is what I'm trying to say.

Lea Lane  12:46  
What about kids? What about families? There's some downsides to that, right? In terms of what to do on board?

Heidi Sarna  12:51  
Yeah, so I'd say most most small ships would be for age 12 plus, and there are exceptions. I've taken my boys, I have twin boys who are now 19. But when they were younger, we went on the Rhine, you know, that was in the summer, and they had some kids programming. They had fun. That was excellent. A Croatia yacht cruise, for instance, could be good with families, because you're swimming and doing water sports all day. So if you're in a warm weather destination where you can be in the water, then I think they're family friendly. If you're in Southeast Asia, just touring all day in the hot sun, it's not as much obviously for young kids. So yeah, it's not like the mass market where there are programs and play rooms and that sort of thing.

Lea Lane  13:31  
You don't get to meet Goofy. Goofy people, but not Goofy.

Heidi Sarna  13:36  
(Laughing) That's true. Of course, like the Galapagos, I mean, that would be an amazing family destination. You know, your kids are seeing the wildlife and experiencing snorkeling and just the scenery. But again, generally, I'd say over 12.

Lea Lane  13:51  
So, describe in detail, something about the public spaces. Are they smaller on a small ship? Are they same size and just fewer of them? Or it depends?

Heidi Sarna  14:01  
It depends, but I would say, generally, they're smaller, and there's usually like the whole top deck would probably be open. So a lot of people hang out on open deck. So whether it's a river cruise in Europe, or these River Cruises in Southeast Asia, the Galapagos, there's always a lot of decks because people want to be outside in some warm weather destination. So yeah, but definitely less options. So there's not going to be four restaurants. There's going to be one or two, maybe on the bigger like Sea Dream, with 100 passengers, they have two dining venues. Some of the Wind Star ships have a few, you know, so you might have three max, but mostly you would have just one.

Lea Lane  14:43  
They may have one, but it's a wonderful one.

Heidi Sarna  14:45  
Right, so cabins generally would be smaller, and again, river-sailing barges, those would all be smaller. As you said, these aren't the luxury ships, most of those now would be more than 400 to 500 passenger range. But there are some luxury ones in the 200 and 300 range. Those could be quite quite posh, but still they're not going to be like a three room penthouse, you know, there's just isn't a space for that. But there is a luxury side of small ships, sure. So there is something for everyone. I guess I personally don't focus on the ultra luxury as much as it doesn't interest me, but it's there for people that want to have it, you know, I did a scenic Mekong River cruise right before the COVID pandemic happened and that river boat, I mean those cabins were quite nice, They were mini-suites, we had a butler, the windows were floor to ceiling, you know, you have the little table, the walk in-closet, so the luxury is there, and I guess things are moving a little bit more toward luxury because people like luxury. People with money want luxury,

Lea Lane  15:46  
Right. There's something for everyone. As far as activities, I think in many ways it's itinerary driven. So there's maybe not as much to do on the ship because you're supposed to be out of the ship doing the fun things . But there is one thing that's super good and we touched on it before, the watersports. Some of these ships have, you know, submarines and everything you could think of to play in the water, from jet skis to slides. What do you think? Is that something to look for? Is it more and more the thing to do?

Heidi Sarna  16:21  
The warm weather small ships often have a marina or a platform off the aft for easy accessibility. So the platform or marina is actually at the water level, you walk down some stairs, you take your paddle board or your kayak or your snorkeling gear and you just swim right off the back, which is just really awesome. And then, as you mentioned, some of the expedition ships Lindblad, and some of the others, would have exploration toys, meaning that a few have submersibles. Often you have to pay extra for that, but you get into a little pod and you go down deep and you know, take photos, and so the expedition ones would have those types - those aren't watersports, but you know, ways of getting in the water.

Lea Lane  16:59  
As far as activities and entertainment. I really like small ships because you get terrific lecturers, you get naturalists, local talent comes on the ship wherever you're docked very often because there's not a lot of entertainment, there isn't a big theater or casino, there might be one little slot machine, if that. So the feeling is more local. And I think that's one of the best parts. I've loved that over the years, to learn and to enjoy the local stuff. What about you?

Heidi Sarna  17:28  
I can recall some cruises in Greece and Turkey where, as you said, the local performers come on at night when the ship is docked. And yeah, it's great, like doing the traditional Turkish dances. And I remember with my kids, skirts are flying and they're, you know, hopping up and down and twirling around swirling. In Asia, you see a lot of local performers with the interesting, you know, local instruments that many people have never seen before. Yeah, I much prefer that, you know, to see what the local culture scene is like, and often these folks come in on a little motorboat and you know, with a spotlight and they crawl up the ladder, depending on the kind of boat you're in. So even that's adventurous, to to see how they get to you. And then they go back to their village. I love that.

Lea Lane  18:18  
Yeah, I do, too. And also it can be extremely relaxing, because it's lots of time if you want to read or to just do puzzles, there's usually a big puzzle out on a table, and people to play trivia with or games or cards. It's a nice combination of great itineraries and lots of time to relax. And I think a lot of people would love a small cruise who don't think they like cruising. I hear that a lot, I don't like cruising. But I think people who say that might enjoy smaller ships, because this is something that's, you know, more different and maybe what they would enjoy more than the mega ship.

Heidi Sarna  18:55  
Yeah, definitely. I mean, a lot of people that say that. I mean, it's funny you meet both. You do meet people that say, Oh, last year I was on the 5000 passenger one but I also loved the Maine Windjammer. So there's those people, but then there's many, as you said, that would never step foot on a big one. They just don't like anything about it. They don't want to be with that many people and they like something that's authentic and small scale and intimate, an organic feel to it and not contrived. You know, they don't want the neon and the flash.

Lea Lane  19:24  
Right, and where you can see the sea. I think on some of these mega ships, they're huge, huge malls, and you walk through them and you don't see much of the sea. And if you do love the sea, I think you would enjoy the smaller ship.

Heidi Sarna  19:35  
Yeah, it's great to see on a small ship, you see the coastline or you see the riverbanks or the canal banks, and I think that's a plus.. They don't feel claustrophobic. They don't feel sort of lost at sea. They can always see the land or the destination and for some people that, in and of itself, is a big appeal.

Lea Lane  19:51  
You also see life on the river. There's a whole bunch of life I remember in Myanmar, you know, people washing their clothes and all the temples glittering gold, and in Egypt you see people along the Nile. It's a very lovely thing to watch, to come by on on water and see life on the shores. You can't get that from a larger ship.

Heidi Sarna  20:13  
You know, even some people's living rooms at times. Like that's how close you can be, you can see in windows. So yeah, absolutely intimate. 

Lea Lane  20:21  
Well, the name of the podcast is Places I Remember. So Heidi, what would be one of your favorite memories of small-ship cruising?

Heidi Sarna  20:29  
I'd say that two come to mind, maybe my first one was a Galapagos cruise on a 20 passenger boat called The Letty, which is still around. And that was my first small, and I'd been on many, many big ones before that. And I was just, for all these reasons we've discussed, just sort of bowled over by it and I just loved being so close to everything. It felt like a private boat, basically, and I really love that. Another one though, that another reason that we started quirkycruise, Ted and I had a few cruise experiences that stayed with us. I did a canal trip in Sweden between Gothenberg on the west and Stockholm on the east and that was just a gorgeous stretch to see Sweden over four days,  the Gota Canal, the 19th century canal that connected rivers and lakes, and the boat itself, The Juno, was from, I think 1874. And it was just gorgeous. The cabins are like train compartments, so it was just such a special experience and seeing the Swedish countryside for the first time. The food was really, really good. So Gota Canal, it's called the Gota Canal Steamship Company, something like that was just so special, and so many people that I talked to had never heard of it, because it's based in Sweden. And so I love sharing that, that's why quirkycruise exists.

Lea Lane  21:43  
Absolutely. There are lakes and rivers and canals all over the world that are there for you. If you check quirkycruises and other websites like that, they really offer you the world. So thank you, here's to more cruising whatever floats our boat. Bye!

Lea Lane  22:02  
Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and at bookstores, in print, and Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.

Favorite memory
Why did Heidi start
Defining "small ship"
Where small ships can go
Itineraries, expedition ships around the world
Positives of small-ship cruising
Sailing ships
Public spaces
Activities and Entertainment
Favorite memory