Sailing on a "Tiny" Ship

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Increasing numbers of vacationers are opting for intimate vessels able to take them to secluded places.

On the quays leading to a store-lined main street, a scraggly group of hawkers fidgets nervously as they await the imminent onslaught of 1,400+ visitors. At curbside stands bearing English-language signs, they will have short minutes to dispose of their cheap straw hats, their gaudy T-shirts.

As the tenders deposit a regiment of humanity from the giant vessel anchored offshore, noise and confusion erupt. A military band blares away. The first arrivals go dashing to a celebrated perfume shop, while others rush to ranks of foul-smelling tour buses or to stand in line for casino admission.

And that is the scene encountered many times in a single week by Americans sailing through the Caribbean on certain massive cruise ships. Others, repelled by the urban qualities they traveled so many miles to avoid, are opting for a wholly different seagoing experience, on a 'tiny' ship--one that accommodates 60 to 150 passengers and goes to quiet ports or secluded beaches.

In a backlash from current mega-cruiseship trends, a market is growing for yacht-like vessels with shallow drafts enabling them to go directly onto palm-lined shores or to small marinas in cozy bays.

Their customers often are an affluent but unpretentious lot who relax on board in shorts and sandals, follow no schedules at all, and attend no ship 'events'--there aren't any. Ashore, they dine quietly in the fresh-fish restaurant of a backwater town, or lie reading a paperback novel in a rope hammock, hearing nothing but sea gulls and waves.

Among the 'tiny' ships (many of which are marvelous refurbished tall-masted vessels) that bring you that form of paradise are:

Windjammer Cruises

Like that cabin boy in Two Years Before the Mast, you'll stumble in dazed excitement onto the teakwood decks of an actual ocean schooner with sails--as sleek as a greyhound, but with the tiny, cot-equipped cabins you'd expect on so narrow a vessel.

You have the run of the entire ship: bowsprit, even crow's nest and at the wheel--and are actually encouraged to help the professional crew with steering the ship. Each day you anchor off a quiet beach or tiny port, to which your lunch is brought by kitchen crew wading through the surf. You live throughout in shorts and sandals, in sheer relaxation or happy camaraderie with like-minded, unpretentious, adventure-seeking people from all over the world who have heard of these renowned ships. They range in size from the 'giant' S/V Legacy (122 passengers) and S/V Polynesia (126 passengers) down to the M/V Amazing Grace (96 passengers), S/V Mandalay (72 passengers), S/V Flying Cloud (66 passengers) and M/S Yankee Clipper (64 passengers, a former scientific survey ship equipped with two large sails). You sail through the Grenadines, the exotic Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, the ABC Islands, the British Virgin Islands, and to other highlights of the West Indies. Windjammer also has cruises to the Bahamas and Las Perlas islands, off Costa Rica.

And you pay only $800 to $1,400 for a six-day cruise in most cabins, plus airfare from the U.S. Persons staying aboard for 12 consecutive nights get (a) $50 discount, and (b) free lodgings on board for the intermediate Saturday and Sunday when the ship is in port. Since the ships vary their itineraries each week, never repeating an island in succession, numerous passengers opt for the two-week pattern and spend their two intermediate nights exploring the port of embarkation on foot, returning each night to the ship for meals and bed.

For details, contact Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, P.O. Box 190120, Miami Beach, FL 33119 (phone toll free 800/327-2601 for reservations or information, 800/327-2602 for brochures or visit its Web site at windjammer.com), and ask them also about their singles' cruises and week-long 'pirate-themed' sailings. For more info, email: info@windjammercruises.com.

American-Canadian Caribbean Line

Budget-priced cruises of Central and South America in winter, the inland waterways of New York State, Rhode Island, Montreal, Quebec, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi and 'Intercoastal' in summer, on yacht-like ships carrying as few as 84 passengers apiece. Rates average $220 per person per day, not including airfare to embarkation cities. On each ship, 'bow ramps' allow passengers to walk, not climb, from the ship to the most isolated and inviting beaches. For literature, contact American-Canadian Caribbean Line, Inc., P.O. Box 368, Warren, RI 02885 (phone 401/247-0955, or toll free 800/556-7450). Or visit the Web site at accl-smallships.com.

Clipper Cruise Line

Elegant luxury yachts carrying only 100, 122, 128 and 138 passengers apiece, the Yorktown Clipper, Clipper Adventurer, Clipper Odyssey and the Nantucket Clipper confine themselves to the most secluded and lightly trafficked waterways, using rubber Zodiac landing craft to access the wildest of beaches and romantic hidden coves. Throughout the year, ships sail to the Americas from Alaska and Western Canada, to the intra-coastal waterways of the US, all the way down to the ports of Mexico and the great Orinoco River in Central America. And there are other more unusual itineraries, visiting Antarctica and Oceania in winter, China, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Japan in fall, and a wide variety of destinations in spring and summer from Japan's inland sea to Scandinavia, Greenland, Russia, and the Mediterranean, in addition to North Africa and the Antarctica Penninsula. Naturalists and several other varieties of scientists are on board to deliver lectures. For all their exquisite attentions and amenities, prices fairly high: an average of $500 per person per day for most cabins, but can go as low as $250. For literature, contact Clipper Cruise Line, 11969 Westline Industrial Drive, St. Louis, MO 63146-3220 (phone 314/655-6700 or toll free 800/325-0010 outside Missouri). Visit its Web site at clippercruise.com.

Windstar Cruises

The newest (1990), longest (617 feet), tallest (masts 20 stories tall), and maybe largest of the world's sailing ships is the Wind Surf, berthed in the Mediterranean most of the year, it winters in the Caribbean. Refurbished in 2003, it places its passengers in cabins 188 square feet in size or in suites of 376 square feet, and plies them with every luxury (like impulsively buying 300 pounds of lobster at a native market for consumption at a beach barbecue that day).

The total passenger complement is 308, on ships whose sails are directed by computer; the mood is casual elegance, the charge about $335 per person per day--which is not as high as you'd expect for an experience as exclusive as this. Two sister ships, the Wind Spirit and the Wind Star sail from Costa Rica or St. Thomas in the winter, the Greek Isles in summer, all for approximately the same rates (which do not, however, include air fare to and from embarkation points). For details, contact Windstar Cruises, Ltd., 300 Elliott Ave. West, Seattle, WA 98119 (phone 206/ 281-3535 or 800/258-7245 for information, 877/827-7245 for brochures). Or visit the Web site at windstarcruises.com.

Blackbeard's Crusies

Operates three 65-foot tall masted sloops, housing 22 passengers and six crewmembers apiece, that make seven-day/six-night cruises from Miami to the Out Islands of the Western Bahamas, primarily for diving. Boats leave Miami on Saturday afternoons throughout the year, return the following Friday morning, charge from $749 per person for the entire week, take you for three to four dives a day off the boat, then spend the nights in calm anchorages on the placid 'lee' side of Bimini, Freeport or the Berries Islands--once rumored to be a playground for pirates. Can you go if you're not a diver? Absolutely, says the small firm (in business for 20 years), provided you're not expecting a 'shuffleboard (activity filled) cruise'. Rather, the non-diver will pass the time snorkeling off the beach, shell-hunting on deserted islands&staying up late for conversation under the stars&or simply sleeping in.' Blackbeard's address is: P.O. Box 661091, Miami, FL 33266 (phone 305/888-1226 or 800/327-9600, Web: blackbeard-cruises.com).

Traverse Tall Ship Company

Three, four and five-day cruises of the waters of the Great Lakes, aboard the Manitou, a replica of 1800's 'coasting' cargo schooner, from Traverse City, Michigan from June through September. Average daily prices are $204 per couple; $118 for singles; $56 for children, including meals. The company also operates cruises of a couple of hours duration aboard the from $33 per person, less for children. The company can be reached through its Web site tallshipsailing.com or by calling 800/678-0383 or 231/941-2000. Mailing address is: 13390 SW Bayshore Drive, Traverse City, MI, 49684.

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