The Very Small Ship Experience

| December 13, 2004

What are the differences between a big-ship cruise and a small ship cruise expedition? There are plenty of them when the small ship carries just 70 passengers, like Lindblad Expeditions' Sea Lion -- which we recently sampled on a week-long Lewis & Clark cruise along the Columbia and Snake rivers through Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

Obviously, most of the amenities and services of a big ship are absent: No spa, no shows, pools, Jacuzzis, casino, restaurant options, room service, children's programs, jazz clubs, boutiques, sports facilities, etc. Cabins are very small, with no phone, TV or mini-fridge. From a luxuries-and-amenities standpoint, it's a fairly Spartan experience.

What's the tradeoff? In exchange for sacrificing all of the above, passengers get a serious educational experience, with omnipresent on-board experts providing lectures, videos and slide shows; almost-all-inclusive pricing (shore excursions are included; most alcoholic drinks are extra, and so is tipping); access to unique itineraries that are off-limits to larger vessels; the ability to visit almost anywhere on shore, thanks to the ship's zodiacs; and a degree of sociability and interaction with other passengers that is usually absent from the big ships.

The latter point is key to the Lindblad experience. Breakfast, dinner and most lunches are served in the ship's dining room, which features open seating at tables for six or eight (breakfast is buffet, lunch is family style and dinner features table service). By the end of the week, odds are you will have met, dined and conversed at length with a good percentage of your fellow travelers. What's more, you spend most of the day with them on zodiac trips and/or shore excursions, or just hanging around with them in the comfortable lounge or on the sun deck.

On our trip – a relatively inactive river excursion – most of the passengers were at or past retirement age, although there was a sprinkling of middle-agers and one 30-something couple. We were told that the passenger demographics are not always so skewed to the high end of the age scale, depending on the itinerary. But they were a pleasant and sociable bunch, uniformly well-educated and interested in learning about Lewis and Clark and the rivers we were exploring.

The experts who accompanied our sailing – including a historian and botanist who had personally traveled the full length of Lewis & Clark's route, and a naturalist and Native American specialist who was not averse to dressing up in Nez Perce regalia – were affable and always with us, from the 6:30 a.m. early risers' coffee service to the after-dinner lounge sessions, ready to explain a little more river lore, or answer questions that came up during the day's excursions or lectures. If that wasn't sufficient, the lounge included a library stocked with books relevant to the ship's specialized itineraries.

The Sea Lion's crew was mostly American, young, and eager to please. Besides table service in the dining room, the crew provided twice-daily cabin service, handled bartending duties in the lounge, assisted with the zodiacs, and prepared all the meals. By the way, the quality of food on the Sea Bird was surprisingly good for such a small vessel with such a young staff. The three-course dinners always included a choice of a fish, meat or vegetarian entrée, and a selection of wines ($5 to $7 a glass). The captain also mingled freely when he had time, sitting down to dinner each night like one of the passengers.

The dining room and the lounge both have plenty of windows. The lounge also has a bar, and an e-mail station for passenger use. The only public area is the sun deck, partially covered with a tarp and partly open to the rays. It has tables and chairs under the covering, wooden deck chairs out in the sun, and a couple of exercise bicycles. One afternoon, the crew prepared a barbecue lunch on the sun deck, topped off with do-it-yourself ice-cream sundaes.

Cabins were very small. By my best estimate, ours was little more than 100 sq. ft. The only floor space was a short aisle about two feet wide separating a pair of twin beds (anyone taller than 6'1" may have a problem sleeping). There was a closet with ample space for two (since dress on the Lindblad trips is totally casual, you don't need to bring a lot of clothes), and space under the beds for suitcase storage. The bathroom was basically a shower stall (hand shower) with a toilet and sink crammed into it. Cabins have individual heating/air conditioning controls and a reading lamp next to each berth.

The Sea Lion and her sister ship Sea Bird are both more than 20 years old, acquired by Lindblad from the defunct Exploration Cruise Lines more than a decade ago. Both are used on the Lewis & Clark route and various other western hemisphere itineraries.

Lindblad advised passengers on the Lewis & Clark cruise to do some advance reading – specifically, historian Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage, a comprehensive account of Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery that made the trip a lot more meaningful. Shore trips varied; one day, we had a choice of a learning tour to some L&C campsites along Idaho's Clearwater River, or a ride in a jet boat up scenic Hell's Canyon. Another day, we dropped anchor in the mouth of the Palouse River for group zodiac or self-propelled kayak trips along its rocky banks. We visited the Nez Perce Museum in Lewiston, Idaho, and shore-side museums in The Dalles, Ore. and in Astoria, Ore., to learn more about the Columbia River's history and its role in the region's economy. And we went to Fort Clatsop, a rebuilt version of the log structure near Astoria where Lewis & Clark spent a rainy and depressing winter in 1805-06.

If your idea of a vacation is to sit in the sun, kick up your heels, toss back some umbrella drinks and dance the night away, then stick to the big ships. But if you like to turn in early, socialize within a group, and -- most importantly – learn something you didn't know before about the place you're visiting, then a small-ship expedition might be for you. As a matter of fact, when we asked passengers on the Sea Lion what they thought of big-ship cruises, most said they just didn't like them, or had never tried one.

Lindblad's Sea Lion, Sea Bird, and other vessels operate a variety of exotic itineraries, generally from seven to 15 days, including Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Baja California, Central America, the Galapagos, Europe, Scandinavia, and Antarctica. Starting fares generally range from $1,470 per person (Mexico's Sea of Cortez, eight days) to $7,970 (Antarctica, 15 days). The company also has some specialized photography cruises and some longer voyages of 20 to 38 days.

Lindbald Expeditions is at 800-397-3348; or

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