Cruises Without The Crowds

Small, chic (if sometimes shockingly pricey) ships are drifting onto the scene, luring upscale travelers who crave the sea but not the crowds

Guntu, a 19-cabin cruise ship in Japan PHOTO: GUNTU

SOME 30 MILLION earthlings are expected to have cruised this year, according to Cruise Lines International Association. But not all cruisers have an affinity for megaships and limbo contests on the lido deck. A expanding fleet of smaller alternatives—from a ritzy river barge to a serene floating ryokan—are winning over travelers who prefer more-sophisticated and intimately proportioned sea voyages. The registered tagline for SeaDream Yacht Club, which has two 112-passenger vessels you can privately charter for custom itineraries, does not mince words: “It’s yachting, not cruising.”
‘The 5-cabin Mimi La Sardine looks like a super chic beach house.’
Once the privilege of emirs, oligarchs and music moguls, private yacht charter is moving mainstream. Fraser, a charter and brokerage company, saw bookings increase as much as 17% in 2018, according to Boat International, with more (and younger) clients discovering the secret that has glistened in marinas from Marbella to Montenegro for years. Yacht charters, like European villa rentals, vary widely in price, and when shared, the cost does not have to be bank-breaking. The uniformly beige 108-foot Mimi La Sardine, for example, comes with a crew, chef, five cabins that look like a super chic beach house, and a weekly rate that starts at about $124,000. (Divided by 10, that’s $12,400 per person.)
“We are seeing interest in smaller ships,” said Annie Scrivinach, senior vice president of Cruise Specialists, a network of travel agents. Ms. Scrivinach noted two key benefits of these smaller vessels: they can dock closer to the heart of a city and in more boutique ports.
The deep-pocketed are also chartering for another reason.

A stateroom aboard the Crystal Bach PHOTO: CRYSTAL CRUISES

“They don’t want to be with other people,” said Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal, president of Fischer Travel Enterprises. Her clientele likes waterborne trips to celebrate big birthdays, reward employees or seamlessly bring friends together. They’ve “always yachted,” she said, but now they’re taking over smaller ships and footing the bill for their friends and family. Last June, a woman hired Guntu—a notably minimalist, 19-stateroom Japanese boat that plies the Seto Inland Sea—just to gather her international nearest and dearest.
Larger groups—with far bigger budgets—might consider chartering the Celebrity Flora. The 100-passenger vessel, which launched in July, was specifically designed to cruise the Galapagos. Ms. Fischer-Rosenthal said that it brings a whole new level of luxury to the marine reserve, offering roomy staterooms, lavish meals, buckets of Champagne and onboard naturalists who lead daily shore excursions. But beware sticker shock. “By the time you finish, it could be a $1 million trip.”

A less extravagant way to achieve exclusivity is to take a block of staterooms on a small boat—like Ponant’s new Le Bellot, with 92 rooms and suites. Another is the river cruise. The skinny, white 110 passenger Crystal Bach started sailing the Rhine, Main, Moselle, and Danube rivers in 2017 with a 1-to-6 crew-to-guest ratio; seven-night trips start at about $2,500 per person.

The 22-cabin Oberoi Philae on the Nile PHOTO: OBEROI HOTELS & RESORTS

The Oberoi Philae has 22 cabins and makes four- and six-night trips on the Nile, between Luxor and Aswan, starting at $1,410 per person. (An Egyptian client of Fischer Travel Enterprises recently chartered the whole boat, which includes a vast upper sun deck with a pool, to introduce friends to her native land.) Last year, Belmond expanded its fleet with two eight-passenger luxury barges, which are for private charter only: In France, Pivione floats through Champagne, and Lilas winds its way leisurely through Burgundy. Booked directly or through an agent, trips can be individually designed, and a six-night cruise costs about $6,620 per person. Bon voyage.