When Smaller Is Better

Article excerpt

When Margie Hollely decided to surprise her husband, John, with a cruise for his 60th birthday this past May, she was sure of one thing: it wouldn't be on a typical floating behemoth. "Two thousand people crammed on a boat just isn't my scene," says Hollely, a native of South Africa currently living in the Netherlands.

Instead, Margie chose a voyage up the Amazon on International Expeditions' La Amatista, a small, turn-of-the-century riverboat. Accommodations aboard the 14-cabin vessel weren't luxurious, she says, but the 17 passengers who went were there for the surroundings, and Mother Nature laid out a lavish spread. On their thrice-daily excursions they spotted more than 100 species of exotic birds and animals, fished for piranhas using bamboo sticks and handmade hooks and were serenaded with a special "Happy Birthday" courtesy of the children in a rain-forest village.

Over the past few years a growing number of cruisegoers have chosen to bypass the floating-hotel atmosphere and all-you-can-gorge midnight buffets offered by megacruise lines for smaller, more intimate vessels. These graceful ships, which range from riverboats to sleek, oceangoing yachts, can maneuver close to shore and are flexible enough to adapt their itineraries at a moment's notice. "Whenever there was something interesting to see like icebergs or a school of orcas, the boat would just stop," says Swiss banker Eric Scheurer, describing his Antarctic trip last year aboard a converted Russian research vessel, the Professor Molchanov.

Accommodations on niche cruises, which account for about 5 percent of the industry, vary greatly. On the Hollelys' trip, their wood-paneled room was a cozy 12 feet by 9 feet, with a double bed, in-suite bathroom and air conditioning. On the other end of the spectrum, the stylish 320-passenger Paul Gauguin, which sails out of Tahiti, has staterooms as large as 249 square feet--half with private balconies.

In the past, these smaller ships tended to draw mostly older boomers and retirees. But Kristy Royce, vice president of the Seattle, Washington-based ExpeditionTrips.com, says cruise companies are introducing activities that are also of interest to younger people. …