Small Ships, Big Experiences: Passengers Spill the Real Secrets To Memorable Cruising

The luxury cruise market is expected to accommodate just over 1 million guests this year, a significant increase from the 600,000 guests in 2019, according to the 2023 Luxury Cruise Market Report by Cruise Industry News.

Approximately half of 2023’s class of new cruise ships are smaller luxury ships, and cruising continues to be one of the fastest-growing sectors of tourism

Christopher Prelog, Windstar Cruises President, forecast hot travel trends last year in this surging market sector, which was bang on. “My travel prediction for 2023: luxury, and particularly small ship cruising ‘off the beaten path,’ is the future in the cruising sector,” shared Prelog in 2022.

A growing interest in experiential travel and an estimated 34% increase in high- and ultra-high-net-worth travelers contribute to the growth of the luxury cruise market. However, two key aspects that play a significant role in the success of luxury cruises are the level of service and locations offered.

For many luxury cruise passengers, it’s not just about the ship’s amenities but also the overall experience. They want personalized attention, exclusive and unique destinations, and a high level of service that meets their specific needs and preferences.

Size Matters

Smaller is better for passengers like Doug Fox and Marty Dickerson, whom I met sailing on Windstar’s Wind Spirit in French Polynesia last month. It was their 9th or 10th time aboard a Windstar ship, so many sailings Fox couldn’t recall the exact number. They were scheduled to set sail yet again with Windstar in the Caribbean just a mere four days after returning home from their journey in French Polynesia.

“They take care of everything, they really do. You may not be rich at home, but here you’re royalty.”

It’s no surprise Fox and Dickerson are so fond of Windstar Cruises. Condé Nast Named Windstar one of the best small ship cruise lines in its 2023 Readers’ Choice Awards. Windstar ships don’t have climbing walls or waterslides, and they don’t aspire to. The luxury small-ship cruise line focuses on its legendary service and sailing to ports the big ships can’t access.

Cruise Critic named Windstar for having the best enrichment in its 2023 Editors’ Picks. It is unsurprising, considering they hire award-winning professional photographers and book publishers like Pat and Rosemarie Keough as guest lecturers for their onboard enrichment and education seminars.

The Keough’s list of accolades and awards is so long that I was in awe hearing just a few of their stories when we dined together one evening on Wind Spirit. It didn’t take long for our paths to cross on the ship carrying 148 passengers, and as I discovered during my first sailing with Windstar, that is part of its appeal.

“Windstar’s ships are ‘Happy Ships.’ This you feel from the moment you board,” shared Rosemarie Keough. “There’s good reason why many of the crew have been with the company for well over a decade, even two! Personally, we enjoy Windstar’s casual atmosphere and the fact that the ships are small cruise ships. Guests have the time and intimacy to form true friendships.”

The Keoughs join Windstar for two or three destinations, totaling about two months per year. They joined the company in 2016 and just completed their 5th year with Windstar.

The Art of Small Ship Sailing

For travelers with a strong desire to explore a destination, especially its quieter and less developed areas, opting for a smaller ship is ideal. It allows them to fully immerse themselves in the charm and authenticity of the destination they’re visiting.

The Wind Spirit and similar small ships may have limited onboard choices, but they more than compensate with their exceptional itineraries. In short, they dock at ports inaccessible to larger ships, granting access to lesser-explored destinations with fewer crowds and more genuine experiences.

The level of intimacy experienced with a destination is something that larger ships are simply unable to provide, nor is it their ambition to. 

Fox shared his views on avoiding the larger cruise ships or “floating cities,” as he called them. “When 4000 people hit these destinations, it would be kind of like staying on the boat. And with the small ships, we don’t overpower the ports, and I think that makes it a lot more fun.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in St Maarten, and if you were down in the main city when the big cruise ships come in, they’re like locusts, and they just swarm in.”

As new “megaships” continue to be built, port cities in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, French Polynesia, Florida, Alaska, Maine, and California are reevaluating their relationships with cruise ships. These cities, which receive a constant influx of tourists, are now reconsidering the impact associated with these massive marine vessels.

While mega-ships offer an unparalleled range of amenities, they often fall short when it comes to off-ship experiences. In essence, the larger the ship, the greater the infrastructure requirements for each destination.

Only select ports have the capability to accommodate ships carrying over 6,000 guests. With CruiseMapper currently reporting 2435 ports in its database, the range of ports available offers endless opportunities for smaller ships. 

During my entire 10-night sailing through French Polynesia, there were zero lines anywhere. I was more than surprised to be on a smaller ship that never felt crowded. Every morning, my latte was made at the café with not a passenger in sight; each afternoon, a lounger on the pool deck was available for relaxation, and every evening, I was promptly seated for dinner without a reservation needed.

When it comes to offering a limited selection of restaurants, aligning with a James Beard award-winning chef is the ultimate choice. The partnership between Windstar Cruises and the James Beard Foundation brings together some of the most talented chefs on themed cruises and in its dining program. 

The connections made with fellow passengers are perhaps the most surprising benefit on board. 148 like-minded travelers sharing stories of past adventures around the world and almost always involving Windstar. 

“I struck up conversations with other passengers easily over drinks or activities like artistic workshops, line dancing lessons, and galley tours. By the end of the week, I felt like I had made some new travel buddies,” shared Timon van Basten.

I was utterly amazed by my fellow passengers aboard Windstar and their insatiable thirst for exploration, not only of the world but also for immersing themselves in local cultures. Each cruise appeared to further ignite their longing to venture into uncharted territories. One particular traveler, Carolyn Morrison, hailing from Louisiana, boasted a travel history that even accomplished travel writers would envy.

Thirty-one of the passengers on board Wind Spirit were returning guests, and 30 were continuing on the Twice the Tahiti sailing for an additional eight nights. The following sailing welcomed 49 returning guests, a remarkable ratio for a small ship cruise line.

“We are grateful to have such a supportive and excited fan base,” explains Windstar’s Chief Commercial Officer Janet Bava. 

“We like to acknowledge our repeat guests — Yacht Club members — with rewards for their continued loyalty with perks like cruise savings, advance notice on new offerings, onboard credit, exclusive parties, unlimited laundry, and complimentary Wi-Fi depending on their member level.” 

Unique Features 

In addition to its superior choices for onboard enrichment is the open bridge policy aboard all Windstar ships. Passengers are welcome to visit the bridge, learn about navigation from the officers on duty, and take in the stunning views from high above the water. 

This level of access is not commonly seen on larger ships, and hearing from my fellow Windstar passengers, it’s a feature they resoundingly love. 

Last January, I sailed on Star Legend for a week in the southern Caribbean. Right away, I could tell this wasn’t your average cruise — one of the coolest perks was being able to visit the open bridge and check out how the captain was sailing us around! As a bit of a nerd when it comes to navigation, I loved learning about what it takes to pilot such a big boat,” shared Wayne Kask, founder of Always On The Shore.

Daniel Carter, Chief Information Officer at Eco Motion Central, echoes Kask. “It’s not something you typically get to do on larger cruise ships, and it made me feel more connected to the journey and the sea.”

My personal favorite feature onboard Windstar ships is the water sports platform that, weather permitting, deploys from the aft deck while the ship is anchored. After an enthralling but scorching e-bike tour on Fakarava, I hopped on the tender back to the ship so I could jump into the turquoise water from the private marina and relax the day away on the large foam flotation island.

Sharon Benoff, owner of Vacationeeze, shares my sentiments. “The swim platform where you can just jump off into the ocean is a very unusual experience and such a thrill for many guests, like myself. There’s truly nothing like swimming in the Mediterranean after jumping off the back of the ship.”

Legendary Service

One of the biggest draws for luxury cruises is the personalized attention that passengers receive. With fewer guests on board, staff members are able to provide more attentive service and cater to individual needs and preferences. 

Libbi Roed shared just how personalized that service is on board. “We hit 10-foot waves one evening crossing a section, and my husband didn’t feel well at dinner. The server cut him up apples and gave me ginger ale to bring back to the room for him. 

“The next morning, that waiter was the barista at the coffee shop and greeted my husband, saying, ‘Good Morning, Mr. Andy, how are you feeling this morning?’ On a larger ship, the crew probably wouldn’t remember you were sick the night before. They really went above and beyond.”

But it isn’t just the staff who are serving up personalized service. I was bemused to witness the personalities of the officers being allowed to shine on board.

Captain Tom Schofield was a delight on and off the ship with his quick wit and comedic jokes. He did not shy away from mingling with passengers, entertaining many of them during shared dinners on several nights of the sailing. 

When I asked him what he enjoys most about dining with guests, he shared that he “always gains knowledge from them and genuinely looks forward to impromptu lunches and drinks on every cruise.”

Windstar guest Carles Barcelo sums up a typical day at sea after sailing into Santorini during sunset, experiencing the breathtaking views of the iconic whitewashed buildings against the orange and pink hues of the sky. “The intimate size of the ship allowed us to anchor close to the port, offering a front-row seat to this mesmerizing scene.”

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Travel Writer at Savoteur | + posts

Casandra Karpiak is a travel writer and owner of Savoteur. A Toronto native with Danish roots currently residing in British Columbia, her travel writing has been seen on The Associated Press wire, MSN, FOX, CBS, NBC, Entrepreneur, 24/7 Wall St, Times Daily, and many more. When she’s not traveling, she can be found at hockey arenas all over BC cheering on her two young sons.