Friday, August 22, 2014

Cruising tips: What size of ship, which line, which ports?


Bird's eye view for cruisers:  A circle of yachts, large cruise ships and pleasure boats at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.

Crystal's Serenity remains our
 favorite of 102 cruises on many lines.

I'VE NEVER MET a cruise ship I didn't like.
But there's a world of difference between the small, intimate vessels and the huge "city on water" mega-ships of the past years.
We've had a half-dozen requests recently from first-time and novice cruisers wanting help in narrowing the field.
This cave above Toulon, France, offered a gorgeous view for a small group.
We hope these hints do the trick.
YOUR OWN personality and preferences will play into your decision -- large or small, glitzy or low-key, dozens of activities or an atmosphere of "amuse yourself."
First, consider the ship size and number of passengers it carries.
These are useful barometers.
Large ships are often called "floating resorts" or "hotels on water."  If there are 2,500 or more people, expect plenty of activity and lots of hustle and bustle.
If you're traveling with only a few hundred others, the environment will be quieter and usually more intellectual. But we've met plenty of smart people on large vessels, too.
On a large ship, you can be anonymous and keep a low profile, seldom seeing the same people twice.
Ships pause in southern Spain before navigating the Straits of Gibraltar.
Small ships foster a more casual feeling.  Conversations, quiet games and making new friends are evening activities, rather than the lavish floor shows, a night in the casino or bar hopping. You might be dancing to a jazz trio instead of a 20-piece orchestra. Your choice!
Many small ships are modest.  Other small ships pride themselves on lavishness and upscale service.
PLUSES of a large ship:
*Mega-ships have lavish nightly entertainment and revues, many bars and restaurants, fully equipped fitness centers with personal trainers, many machines and TVs.
The beauty of harbors and the sea can be enjoyed on ships large and small.
*Large ships may offer a selection of in-room TV options, including movies, announcements, tour previews, even CD players plus a mix of music stations.
*You'll find a large cinema on most big ships, with first-run and recent films each day.
*Seminars, lectures, classes, dance lessons, bingo and other games are offered on large ships. You'll never be at a loss for an activity. If you're single or enjoy socializing, you'll be able to participate in theme parties and masquerades and socials inviting other like minded folk.
 *If you fear boredom, a large ship might be a better choice for your first cruise. With dozens of activities a day, only the most jaded person will depart the ship feeling unfulfilled.
*Shopping:  If you like to shop, head for big ships.  Many have floating versions of all the fine shops we have on land.  Large ships also offer extensive duty free shopping and daily bargains.
Smaller vessels offer a chance to explore smaller ports.
*24-hour room service and en-suite dining are usually a popular item on big ships. You will also find a florist shop and other specialty shops where you can surprise your partner with a gift or bouquet sent to your stateroom. 
SMALL SHIP advantages:
*I'm a reader. Small ships encourage reading and intimate conversation. No "casts of thousands."
*Tours are usually small and expertly run, with distinguished professors and guest lecturers describing the ports in a casual environment. (Head for a large ship if you want a huge auditorium with destination images on a large screen.)  But we've met lovely kindred spirits -- experts in history, the arts and archaeology -- on small vessels.
The glitz and beauty of large ships, here Royal Caribbean, are a big draw.

*Ports of call are generally more exotic and harder to reach in small ships.  Because they can maneuver in intimate ports and harbors, you'll see new villages and towns. If you cruise a lot, the itinerary is not important! Rome, Lisbon, Amsterdam. All great, multiple times. If you're just beginning your travels, ports play a larger role.
Smaller ships can get into more exotic places -- here Tenerife
in the Canary Islands, in a small, eight-person touring car.
*Barge and river cruising: These naturally call for smaller vessels.  We've barged the Loire Valley, Burgundy and Champagne in France, and on the Thames in England.  Once, on an eight-day tulip barge trip in Holland, we were with only one other couple, an older Argentine husband and wife.  We became friends and kept in touch.  But if you happen to book a small vessel with only one other couple -- and don't get along for some reason -- it could be a long eight days.  This has never happened to us.
A small port, such as this one in the south of France, may be more appealing
than a large, busy port in a major city.  But each has its advantages.
*Small vessels such as Seabourn and Silversea offer luxurious treatment and a fine passenger-staff ratio.  Crystal's Serenity offers two floors of Penthouses, gorgeous food and drink, great amenities and extras, and terrific, small tours. In the tradition of "you get what you pay for," the luxury lines cost more.
*Besides offering a cozier atmosphere, smaller-size ships tout their unique atmosphere, promising unusual experiences, both on board and ashore. Activities may include kayaking off a wilderness island in Mexico, trimming the sails and climbing the rigging, or island hopping in the Greek Islands.

Lisbon's delights include the Belem
Tower, which Cookie and Keller
visited before their Atlantic cruise.
BOTTOM LINE: What suits your fancy? Full circle to our earlier advice: consider your personality and private life. If you long for the
Cookie plays piano whenever and wherever
she's invited -- on cruise ships and, here,
at Montana Jack's. She'll be there tonight!
open ocean but can't stand the thought of an all-night disco,   dining with a thousand others, or queuing up to get off the ship in a congested Caribbean port, you'll probably want a smaller ship. But if you're a veteran cruiser -- and count me as a junkie -- you can have fun in the floating resort, too. You can learn to maneuver the crowds, read and take in the shows, and tailor the cruise to your own liking.
"Oh give me a home......" in Nye, MT

COMING UP:  Montana Jack's close-up (and Cookie is playing piano there again Saturday and Aug. 31, in Dean, Montana.) We're globe-trotting this month, with a request for a close-up on Barcelona. We've been there many times, and recently. Plus an all-female "Two Gentlemen of Verona" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, California's coastal gem hotels and home on the range in very rural Nye, Montana.  Remember to explore, learn and live and check us out weekends and Wednesdays at:

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