Micro cruising could be the answer to holidaying in a post-pandemic era
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If you're a traveller for whom the close quarters of a cruise ship dining room, swimming pool or casino are the stuff of pandemic nightmares, it might be time to consider a micro cruise.
Voyages on these extremely small ships - as few as four passengers and often no more than 20 - offer many of the joys of traditional cruising but with virtually no risk of exposure to crowded ports, tour buses or lido decks.
Besides the sense of security they offer travellers, these small-ship experiences offer perks the big ships don't, including access to small towns and secluded natural areas and the chance to travel at a slower pace.
So whether it's searching for polar bears amid a field of Nordic sea ice, discovering storybook villages in England or France, or snorkeling in a remote cove in Croatia, a micro cruise can take you right there - and you'll never have to jockey for position at the buffet table.
There's no universal industry definition for micro cruises. The term can be used to describe any standard cruises of four days or fewer, or it can describe a boat with a capacity of anywhere from four to 100 passengers. "I prefer to think of ours as 'nano-cruises,' " says Stephanie Sack, who handles marketing for Barge Lady, which sells trips on leisure canalboats in France. She offers boats that hold between four and 12 passengers.
Secret Atlas's expedition vessel, Togo, cruises an ice-filled fjord in Svalbard, Norway. Picture: Secret Atlas/The Washington Post
Barge and micro cruises, she adds, "were social distancing before it was a thing."
Nicola Caygill, managing director of Micro-Cruising, which brokers mostly seagoing motor yachts and sailboats, has two definitions for what makes - or doesn't make - a cruise ship micro. "Is there a line for the buffet, and can I dive off the side of the boat?" If the answer is no to the former and yes to the latter, then it's a micro cruise.
Micro cruises typically cover a limited distance, allowing guests to explore one region in depth. Barge Lady cruises may chug along just 50 miles of the idyllic canals in Gascony, France, in the space of a week, while expedition micro cruises with Secret Atlas explore a few hundred miles of coastal Svalbard - the wild, remote Norwegian archipelago that's halfway to the North Pole - in eight days. Travelers aboard a self-guided narrow boat in the canals of Britain might navigate just a few dozen miles in a week's time.
A boat that sleeps 12 guests may have a staff of anywhere from two to six, depending on how high-touch the level of service. These will include the captain (who is often the boat owner), a cook, and sometimes a steward or a naturalist/guide. Comfort levels vary vessel to vessel, ranging from the equivalent of a perfectly acceptable guest room at your in-laws' to a floating five-star hotel suite. Bathrooms are usually en suite, except on some budget-priced cruises. Onboard amenities are limited and typically include a dining room, a lounge, an observation deck and, with any luck, a hot tub.
Depending on the type of boat and itinerary, a day on board may start with a few hours of cruising through canals, tributaries and locks, where passengers have the option of biking or walking alongside the boat - whose top speed maxes out at 4 mph. On Secret Atlas expeditions, a morning excursion in a Zodiac raft may take guests up close to glaciers or seabird rookeries or to explore the remains of early human settlements. Plus, co-founder Andy Marsh says they've never run a Svalbard cruise where they haven't spotted polar bears.
Passengers are back on board for lunch, then off for an afternoon excursion - more nature or anthropological outings for Secret Atlas guests, and visits to castles, villages and wineries for barge-goers. Evenings are spent stargazing on deck or gathered in the passenger lounge to share stories and photos from the day.
Meals aboard range from simple and satisfying to full-on decadent - like grand cru wines and four-course meals on Barge Lady's upper-end cruises, with ingredients guests sourced that day as the barge passed a market town or an artisanal cheesemaker. Not to be outdone, luxury brand Belmond offers a seven-day Burgundy, France, cruise with daily pit stops at Michelin-starred restaurants.
But micro cruises aren't just the dream of the wealthy or aspirational. Caygill, whose offerings can top out at $250 000 (about R4.2-million) aboard a luxury yacht, also offers a handful of relatively inexpensive sailings in Croatia and Greece aboard a 22- to 28-person gulet, a traditional wooden sailboat.
These week-long cruises are for the "young and fun" crowd, whom Caygill describes as mostly "18- to 30-year-olds who party all night, sleep late and swim all day."