Cruising to smaller ports

Georgina Smith / 16 August 2016

Cruises that visit smaller ports put destinations at the heart of your travel experience.



You might not have as many options to while away the time on board, but does this matter when there are so many riches to discover on terra firma?

Picture perfect

Imagine your perfect cruise. Are you revelling in big, bright Broadway-style shows night after night amongst a crowd of thousands and enjoying a different on-board experience – whether that's food, activities or places to plot up and lounge – each minute of the day?

Or are you enjoying the tranquil lead-up to your next destination, then stepping straight off your vessel into a new and exotic port, feeling as free as a flâneur to discover winding streets, hidden markets and cultural treasures away from the throng of fellow cruisers?

The reason I ask is because that delicious spice of life, variety, comes in different forms when it comes to cruising.

At one end of the spectrum you've got large floating mega cities that offer endless entertainment and so many options on board, it can make your ports of call seem ancillary in the big scheme of your adventure.

At the other end, you've got smaller, more intimate ships that may not have the head-spinning gamut of on-board fun, games and food, but can deliver you to gorgeous, quaint, smaller ports that the big cruise ships simply can't squeeze into.

The latter is many a passenger and cruise liner's modus operandi. And it's no wonder why.

Ship shape: big versus small

Safe to say, smaller ports mean smaller ships. And a cruising experience on a smaller ship is usually very different to that on a larger one.

What's classed as a small ship versus a large ship is rather arbitrary. The über-boutique-seeking seafarer might classify anything above a 200-capacity vessel as a bit big.

But when you consider that some ships accommodate between 4,000 and 5,000 passengers, anything less than 1,500 may be perceived by some as positively pokey. 

On a smaller ship, you can usually forget (happily?) about big shows and equally big buffet queues.

Instead, you'll probably have a better chance of being offered an enrichment programme specifically tailored to your itinerary. Historians, art critics, naturalists and other experts are often invited to host seminars, activities and onshore excursions on smaller cruises – and their erudition and anecdotes can do wonders to enhance and enlighten your holiday experience.

You'll also enjoy a more intimate atmosphere, where you have the opportunity to get to know fellow passengers and forge new friendships if that's your fancy. (No problem if not: there are usually nice private nooks to nestle into if you have zero urge to merge with the crowd.)

Read more about Saga's small ships.

Destination-driven itineraries

Forget the big tourist hotspots for now. Smaller ports not only give you a flavour of the country you're visiting, but will also present you with their own unique cultural riches and idiosyncrasies.

This can make for much stronger and fonder memories. For instance, a day exploring the peaceful rustic alleyways, ancient churches and painted terrace houses that line the sparkling harbour of Portofino on the Italian Riviera can be so much more rewarding than trying to navigate the complex sprawl of Genoa, up the coast. Not to mention romantic Venice - a port recently restricting larger vessels from upsetting it's picturesque scenery!

Other smaller ports on the Western Med include Cannes and Capri: both offering their own unique flavours (not to mention a smidge of celeb-spotting).

Discover a range of Mediterranean cruises sailing into small ports.

Less-trafficked ports and untrammelled towns

The smaller ports towards the Eastern Med include Hvar, an idyllic Croatian island suspended in the crystalline waters of the Adriatic. Or nearby Split, which overflows with cultural treasures such as the UNESCO World Heritage listed Diocletian's Palace.

Monemvasia and Folegandros are two delightful smaller Greek ports, off the beaten track, that you may miss on a larger cruise ship. There you can experience a more tranquil and authentic Greece than the typical tourist traps traversed by big ships.

Spend Springtime in the Adriatic and discover the smaller port of Hvar.

Straight to the heart

Not to say, however, that one should avoid popular places in pursuit of some sort of Holy Grail of authenticity: but even some of the most desirable maritime destinations can't be reached by a big ship.

Take Venice, for instance: one of the most iconic cities in the world, a historic naval and political powerhouse, built on the vast wealth accumulated at the crossroads of expansive trade routes. It boasts beautiful architecture and hosts a treasure trove of cultural artefacts and events.

Large ships simply can't dock at Venice. Only smaller, nimbler vessels can pull in and deposit their culture-hungry cohort onto this ancient canal-crossed city.

Thankfully, a number of cruise lines including Saga operate exciting itineraries that include Venice: whether that's a dotted tour of the Mediterranean coast or a river cruise incorporating Lake Garda. 

Sail into romantic Venice on a cruise with Saga.

Amenities at smaller ports

Whilst you won't be short of local amenities in a destination like Venice, some of the smaller, less-trafficked ports may not offer the widest range of services.

For instance, finding the nearest post office to send a postcard may prove perplexing. Even if your homing skills have landed you right on the doorstep, chances are it's closed for an extended lunch break (or it's been closed since 1994).

Your shopping options might be more limited than at a larger port, too. Whilst there will no doubt be vendors of some description there to sell their souvenir wares, you may struggle to find that high-end piece you've been dreaming of to place centre-stage in the front room back home (or delicately suspended around your neck, or from your earlobes).

But for so many travellers and proponents of the small port experience, such amenities are unnecessary. Firstly, you can often ask a member of your crew to arrange sending a postcard – and why waste too much time shopping? You can always pick up some Venetian glass back home or online.

Excursions

Instead, at a smaller port, you can really immerse yourself in the atmosphere, history and culture of a place.  And what better way to do this than on an organised excursion?

Not one that piles you on to a coach and ships you off to a mega-museum, but perhaps a guided walk through ancient streets steeped in folklore and fable. You’ll pass spots that seem insignificant to the unaware, but to those in the know, might be the location of a dynastic power struggle, a beguiling mystery, an uplifting love story, or some other pivotal point in history.

With enrichment programmes that include expert guided talks and walks, smaller cruises that visit smaller ports may give you a much more intimate understanding of a country and culture than if you visited a major, well-trodden cultural centre.

Economies of scale

Other than the benefits of visiting smaller ports, there is one other significant difference between a larger cruise geared towards the big tourist centres and a smaller ship that sails to more intimate ports. And that's price. You may find that in order to enjoy the rich destination-led holiday of a small-port cruise, you may need to pay more.

That's because it's far more economical for cruise lines to fit larger numbers of passengers onto larger ships. But what type of traveller are you? Imagine again your dream cruise. If you're going to take the plunge and set sail on a holiday of a lifetime, you might prefer to spend a little extra to enjoy the intimate experience of a smaller ship, and the excitement of visiting authentic small-port destinations.

Or if you'd like the best of both worlds, perhaps a medium-sized ship is the answer: you'll have a reasonable serving of on-board amenities and entertainment options, whilst perhaps being able to squeeze into some of the slightly smaller ports off the beaten track.

It all depends on what variety of variety you prefer.

Experience a range of smaller ports when you cruise with Saga.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.