You've heard of the passenger-carrying freighter; now meet the "cargo liner." Cheaper in many instances than ships in the freighter mode, it also overcomes what some regard as the latter's drawbacks.
To avoid the necessity of carrying a costly doctor on staff, the freighters limit their complement of passengers to 12 persons, the legal maximum for dispensing with a professional physician. With so few voyagers on board, passengers have run of the ship, dine with the ship's officers, fix their own sandwiches and snacks in a galley to which they have access. It's an idyllic way to vacation, in the view of the mostly middle-aged and elderly audience that flock to these unpretentious vessels. Others aren't so sure, either because they prefer the security of nearby medical assistance, or because they fear being confined with only 12 fellow passengers; if a large part of that number aren't congenial or interesting, the trip can become unpleasant or boring. Others aren't always thrilled by the extremely casual ways of the freighters--their sometimes unscheduled, erratic sailing dates, flexible lengths of voyage, and constantly changing itineraries.
Enter the cargo liner. Its passenger complement is at least 60--large enough to supply companions of interest at meals and social occasions--and occasionally reaches a high of 80 or 90 persons. Most liners have a passenger age limit of 79. Voyages are invariably scheduled and regular; and aboard the ship, the passenger-carrying function is almost as important to officers and crew as the hauling of cargo. There are frequent social activities, although matters never reach the activities-full levels of the passenger cruise ships.
Equally important, the cargo liner is occasionally cheaper, an average of $100 a day, as compared with the $125-a-day range of the passenger-carrying freighter.
Two cargo lines currently offer the majority of cargo liner opportunities:
Norwegian Coastal Voyage (formerly Bergen Line)
Here's a distinguished company with a rich, 150+-year history and tradition, which today operates 11 modern cargo liners up and down the fjords of the west coast of Norway. After decades of performing only those prosaic functions, the line was "discovered" in the 1960's by tourists, journalists, and authors, and today, passengers are carried aboard throughout the year--not simply in the popular summer months of the "midnight sun," but under the "northern lights" of the winter. The voyage starts in Bergen, and takes 12 days for a round trip, stopping (among other places) at bustling Trondheim, Bodo, Svolvaer, Tromso ("gateway to the Arctic"), Hammerfest (where the sun doesn't set between mid-May and late July), and Kirkenes (close to both the Arctic Circle and the Russian border). Elaborate shore excursions are offered, buffet "smorgasbords" are a highlight of most luncheons, and even air-sea packages using SAS and other carriers are today available for these former milk-runs along stunning scenery, populated by a gracious people.
Cruise-only prices start at $100 a day per person in minimum rate cabins, cost between $140 (low season) and $210 (high season) per person double occupancy a day in the great bulk of cabins, and reach $400 a day in only a small number of instances for luxury suites. Sailings are daily year-round, and with considerable frequency in warmer months. It is possible to book one-way six or seven-day voyages as well. Discounts are available for seniors aged 67 and over, so be sure to ask.
Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime
Operates the comparatively plush 200-passenger "M.S. Aranui III" making monthly sailings from Papeete, Tahiti, to bring food and supplies to residents of the Marquesas Islands. Those are the barely-developed atolls chosen by Paul Gauguin for the last years of his life and for his last resting place. Voyages last 16 days, go to all six of the inhabited islands, make double stops on two successive days at some islands, and spend two full days at sea. Takapoto is visited on the way to the Marquesas and Rangiroa is a stop on the way back to Papeete. Both are in the Tuamotu Atolls. On this last-of-all-opportunities to witness the unspoiled, as-yet unaffected, life of a tropical paradise, passengers accompany the crew ashore to a crude customs house, and watch the tatooed sailors sling sacks of copra (dried coconuts). They put tropical flowers behind their ears, strum ukuleles by night, and enjoy all this at higher-than-usual rates for a cargo liner ($132 for dorm accommodations to $330 for suites with balconies), but charges include shore excursions of a rare sort and French wine at lunch and dinner.
The line has no U.S. office, but information and bookings can be made by Freighter World Cruises, Inc., 180 South Lake Avenue, Suite 335, Pasadena, California 91101, phone 626/449-3106 or 800/531-7774, Web: freighterworld.com. The company represents both Norwegian Coastal Voyages as well as Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport, in addition to 40 some odd "hard-core" freighters with smaller passenger capacities (6 passengers per trip), and pricetags. Trips on these basic ships average $100 per person per day. Visit the company's website to peruse listings, routes and prices.