Sizing things up Cruises: Want a big splash or a tiny ripple? The varying capacity of new ships means you make the call: an intimate sailing with a few hundred or out to sea with a city's worth of passengers.


Today's buoyant cruise industry is churning out huge numbers of huge ships. Accommodations for 2,000 have become commonplace, and, aboard a few giants, you will share your cruise with more than 3,000 fellow passengers.

When experienced cruisers hear these numbers, they roll their eyes and book elsewhere. But inexperienced newcomers don't seem to care. A ship, after all, is just a ship. Or is it?

Not really. Those distant white dream castles drifting across the sea may seem interchangeable, merely glittering conveyances dedicated to seagoing luxury and delight. But the size of a vessel is crucial, determining the nature of the on-board experience. Yacht-like miniatures offer an ambience that stands in sharp contrast to life aboard towering leviathans.

Megaships offer a range of amenities undreamed of aboard smaller vessels: elaborate show lounges, Broadway-style entertainment, Vegas-style casinos, generous dining alternatives, veritable shopping malls, an upper-deck sun bowl with a choice of swimming pools, miniature golf courses and paddle-tennis courts, acres of teak for secluded sunbathing and elaborate health spas rivaling anything ashore.

And then there's a sense - perhaps most seductive - that you have embarked within a happening, seagoing city; a feeling reinforced by the naval architecture that comes with the territory - a towering atrium with lagoons, waterfalls and palm trees. (And an average per diem of $200.)

So if megaships are floating cities, then miniships are floating villages. For our purposes, I shall ignore those small ships undertaking what are called adventure cruises, dwelling instead on high-end luxury vessels, on which the per diem averages $500 to $600.

This luxury market provides different attractions to a very different clientele. Booked aboard these rarefied small ships, you will find traditionalist holdouts who, despairing of passenger-loads in the thousands, opt for passenger-loads in the low - very low - hundreds.

They can choose from an intriguing flotilla. Smallest of all are three ships of Renaissance Cruises - Ren 6, Ren 7 and Ren 8, which can embark no more than 114 passengers each. Marginally bigger are two Sea Goddess vessels, originally Norwegian but now flying Cunard's house flag. Sea Goddess I and II both have cabins for 116 passengers. Appropriately, both cruise lines define their ships as yachts.

A small-capacity step upward is a quartet of Windstar vessels sailing cruise ships that admit 148 passengers. Three elegant Seabourn Cruises vessels, whose owners prefer the appellation

"cruise ship" to "yacht," carry 212. Slightly larger are two from Silversea Cruises that retain their small-ship ambience even though they can pamper 296 on board. Radisson Seven Seas Cruises has a disparate fleet that includes 350-passenger Radisson Diamond, 180-passenger Song of Flower and brand-new Paul Gauguin, accommodating 320.

On small ships you'll generally find advanced passenger age, low density, high per diems, exotic itineraries, lavish cabins, open sitting, mostly free drinks, no tipping, open bridges and what interlopers from big ships might perceive as nothing to do. But that is precisely what small-ship passengers crave: doing nothing, or perhaps more accurately, not being expected to do anything.

Of course, those upscale passengers do read, gossip, snooze, swim, sun, dance, eat (extremely well) and rub bronzed, companionable shoulders with celebrated VIP-lecturers brought on board to stimulate the mind. But they dislike regimentation, loathe crowds and can enjoy their languid, seagoing routine without recourse to napkin-folding demonstrations, pool games, art auctions or grandma brag parties (although there are plenty of grandmas aboard, if very few grandchildren). In socio-maritime terms, within these select floating hamlets, less is most definitely more.

Small-shipboard life is serene and self-contained, the pace deliberately slowed and activities kept to a minimum. Architecturally, smallness works wonders. Everything is close at hand, the commute between cabin and pool or dining room minimal. The on-board decor tends to quiet good taste, service is silky smooth and, despite modest entertainment (nothing to rival big-ship extravaganzas), evenings by and large are dedicated to conversation and the palate.

Also, on a small ship, people tend to know everyone by cruise's end because they dine with a different group each evening. Separate sittings do not arbitrarily divide the passenger-load in half as on big ships. I often think that passengers aboard small ships are more like fellow members of the same club.

Population absorption

As a dedicated passenger and maritime historian, I am fascinated by the differing ways that megaships absorb their megapopulations. The impact of all those fellow passengers embarked within vast hulls depends very much on the ingenuity of the naval architects.

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