The Small Cruise Ships of Cruise West

| June 25, 2008

A small ship cruise line that offers lifetime experiences in a friendly and intimate setting. Read on for the advantages that can be found aboard small cruise ships.

"I never enjoyed the traditional cruise ship environment," Velma told me. "The idea of stuffing my 240 pound frame into a tight ballroom gown just to make small talk with a bunch of boring people -- well, it was just never my idea of a good time."

I was asking many acquaintances what they think of the cruise ship experience and this was just one of many varied responses. Other replies actually startled me.

"I mostly travel alone since my husband died, and I don't like the way most cruise ships charge double to occupy a stateroom on your own. Most cruises are geared to couples or groups traveling together, and it is very difficult to make friends when people aren't interested in outsiders. On the last big cruise ship I tried they very graciously held a "singles meet and mingle" on the first night, and I was the only one who showed up. Cruise ships are great for people traveling together, but for singles -- most of them stink."

Passengers disembark their small cruise ship in Haines, Alaska   Scenic cruising is truly a memorable event on a small cruise ship
Passengers disembark their small ship in Haines, Alaska   Scenic cruising is truly a memorable event on a small Cruise West ship

And then I asked my fun and witty friend Marsella, who seems to enjoy herself anywhere she goes. "My husband once made me promise I wouldn't ask him to go on any more cruises. He was absolutely miserable on the one we took in 1999. He's a physical guy, very hands on and casual, and I'll never forget the look on his face when he saw the tux I had secretly rented for him. I was afraid he would rather cancel the cruise than "play dress-up. " And everything went downhill from there," Marcella laughed. "He hated the days at sea, hated team trivia, hated the ports we stopped at (too crowded), and especially hated the formality. He was civil for my sake, but he made me promise no more cruises!"

But then Marsella and her husband discovered a small and different cruise line called Cruise West and his attitude changed completely!

I had never heard of Cruise West, so I was intrigued. After a bit of research I understood how the small ship cruise line could be the answer to each of the personal concerns above.

The Small-Ship Cruise Difference Once a part of West Tours, as was Holland America, Cruise West is now one of the largest "small ship cruise lines," in America with nine ships sailing to a variety of hand-picked destinations. Most of their ships only accommodate about 100 guests.

Carol Parsons, Cruise West's Webinar hostess, tells me "Cruise West only sails to destinations that can benefit from small ship cruising. Our Alaska cruises are really popular, but we also sail the South Pacific, Mexico's Sea of Cortes, Costa Rica and Panama, and a few other far flung destinations around the globe." Carol is full of great facts about the cruise line and its destinations. "We tend to leave the average "tourist" destinations to the bigger ships and focus on destinations where we can get our guests up close and personal with a unique local natural environment."

I asked Carol to tell me more about the specific differences between Cruise West and larger cruise lines, such as Holland America.

"Holland America is a great cruise line that offers a wonderful array of products. But there are just some things that a larger cruise ship (average 2000 passengers) can't provide. Primarily, that is the very close interaction with nature that you can get on a smaller ship carrying only about 100 people."

"On our Alaska sailings, for example," Carol told me, "when we do scenic cruising, we really do scenic cruising. Our captains have a lot of flexibility to take our ships through the smaller channels where the big ships just can't go. We actually search for wildlife, and when we find something interesting, such as a group of whales breaching, our captains actually stop the ship, or turn it around and backtrack in order to get our guests as close to the action as possible. The big cruise lines just can't do that."

Cruise West can dock in the smallest of ports like this one in Sitka   Cruise West passengers get "up close and personal" with the wildlife, like this breaching whale

I next asked Jerrol Golden, Cruise West's Director of Public Relations, to describe in a nutshell what makes Cruise West superior to the large ship cruise lines. "We're not necessarily superior," she told me. "We serve a different kind of traveler. Cruise West's small ships excel where nature provides the entertainment because we can get our passengers up close. The big ships provide a great experience for those who sail to destinations where wildlife or flora are not the main attractions."

I asked Jerrol about the Cruise West's motto, "Up Close, Casual and Personal."

"The Cruise West total experience is unique. First of all, while our food is some of the best at sea and our dining room is elegant, our dress is always very casual. You will definitely want to leave the tux and gowns at home."

"Another difference is that every cruise has a regional expert onboard. These naturalists are passionate about sharing their knowledge of the wildlife, plant life and everything else related to the local environment with our guests."

"While the big ships may offer an onboard lecturer talking about some of the local interests, they also focus on shipboard entertainment, so nature often takes a back seat to shipboard activities. On our ships, nature is always the star of the show. Our passengers live for wildlife sightings, and are known to run from the dinner table to an open deck to see a group of whales breach. Try doing that in an evening gown with three inch heels! In other words, dinner can wait. Wildlife is calling!"

"On the big ships, you have a variety of after-dinner bars and lounges to have a drink, listen to a band and dance, or even take in a full-scale theater production show. Cruise West's small ships only have one intimate lounge where everyone gathers in the evening. We entertain each other or listen to the onboard naturalist give a talk highlighting that day's happenings and offering insights into what we plan to do and see tomorrow."

Singles are Welcome Too I asked Jerrol if the ships of Cruise West are friendly to single travelers.

"Yes, we are very popular with single travelers and the reason is simple," she assured me. "It is very easy for singles to make friends because they don't get lost in the crowd. It all comes back to our "Up close, casual and personal" philosophy. Our onboard atmosphere encourages meeting and mingling and our guests tend to be much more open to meeting new people. Most solo guests who board our ships already have half a dozen new friends by the first night."

"We offer very attractive cruise rates for singles, especially on our Spirit of '98 and Spirit of Discovery ships where we have cabins specifically designated for singles. We also offer single rates on all of our ships and departures. The single surcharge varies on individual sailings, but it is almost always an attractive rate."

"And, for those who don't want to pay any single supplement at all, we offer our "single share" program where guests can book an eligible cabin category and receive a guarantee that they will travel in that category or higher. Cruise West will then match singles with a same sex roommate for the sailing. We've had many lifelong friendships form between such people. Because our sailings are so much more informal and friendly, these single share arrangements tend to work out much better than they do on larger ships."

More Inclusive than a Big Ship Experience If one reads through a Cruise West brochure, it doesn't take long to see that a Cruise West cruise is pricier than a similar itinerary on a larger ship.

"That's true," said Jerrol, "but there's a good reason. On the larger cruise lines less is included in your basic cruise fare. You get your cabin, food, some beverages and your shipboard entertainment, but that's about it. Everything else will be an extra charge. For example, gratuities are extra on those other lines. On ours, gratuities are included in the base price. No additional tips are expected nor solicited."

"You are also likely to pay extra for all the shore excursions you take. Our cruise fare includes a shore excursion in every port. It may be a short walking tour, or an easy hike to explore some of the flora unique to the region. Then in most ports we will also offer optional shore excursions for those who want to see more of the area."

"We include free soda and soft drinks, including bottled water. You only pay for your alcoholic beverages. Everything else is included in your cruise fare."

"The bottom line is that when you disembark a Cruise West sailing, if you didn't consume alcohol or take an optional shore excursion, there is really nothing else we charge you for. You don't get 'nickel and dimed' on a Cruise West sailing."

Cruise West tends to have a higher price point because the ships are smaller with fewer guests to cover the fixed operational costs. Add in the onboard enrichment naturalists and the Cruise West experience delivers more. But guests leave a Cruise West sailing feeling far more "enriched" than the guests on a large cruise ship.

"We encourage our staff to become friends with our guests," Carol Parsons told me during the Webinar I attended with her last week. "It is not unusual for the captain to sit at a guest table and enjoy breakfast with a small group of passengers. Close personal relationships often develop between our crew and guests, so much that our guests are often seen hugging crewmembers like long lost friends when they return for another Cruise West cruise. We maintain the ideal staff to guest ratio so our staff is not so busy that they can't take time out to share special moments. The big ships don't encourage this because they need their staff to concentrate on their jobs full time."

"Then there are the destination leaders," Carol added, "who work very hard to ensure every guest gets the opportunity to learn everything possible about our cruising region. They also form lasting friendships and often a guest will rebook a similar cruise a year or so later just to have an opportunity to sail with the same destination leader again."

"While small ship cruising is a more expensive product to deliver than a big ship cruise, our guests understand this and they don't mind paying a premium for the small ship experience."

A Typical Cruise West Ship Day I asked Jerrol to give me a rundown of a typical day on a Cruise West cruise.

"Wow, is there even a typical day?" she laughed. "Okay, I'll try. We start out with early bird breakfast. This is sort of a continental breakfast that we provide for our early risers. Then later on, as more folks begin to stir around the ship, we offer a more elaborate sit-down breakfast. Seating at all meals is always open, and people tend to move around constantly in order to meet more people."

"Every day in port we offer a complimentary shore excursion for our guests. This may be a bus ride into the town where we will then take a short walking tour, or it could be a short nature hike. Our exploration leader will accompany these excursions. Other people may choose to take one of our optional excursions, such as a floatplane excursion in Alaska.

If we are doing scenic cruising that day, our naturalist is all over the ship helping guests to spot interesting things, like bears nestling close to shore, or the blue ice that can be found on a glacier. We will bring park rangers and Alaskan artists and other Alaskan natives onboard for the day, and they absolutely love it. While they are spending time with the passengers, they can smell the wafting aromas of what "chef" is preparing for lunch down below, and knowing they are going to share in that delicious meal makes them very, very happy."

Park Rangers are routinely invited onboard the ship   Cruise West will get you up close to the wildlife, such as these bears   Majestic eagles are a routine sighting onboard a Cruise West sailing too

"As the day winds down, passengers anticipate the evening meal. Again, our dining room is elegant, but our dress is casual. Chef will prepare a selection of entrees to suit various tastes, such as a fish, meat and a vegetarian specialty. Chef can also accommodate most special dietary needs if we are given notice before sailing."

"Finally, after everyone is sated with dinner, most retire to the lounge where they can enjoy a drink (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) and partake in some passenger games or just good conversation. Our guests tend to be very well traveled, so there are always plenty of great stories to share. Perhaps the exploration leader will do a presentation that evening. She may discuss the day's wildlife sightings, providing some additional background for them, and also provide an overview of what special things the next day will bring. I should add that during this time in the lounge, there are always snack items like cookies with coffee or hot chocolate available."

"Finally, around 10:00 p.m. or so, most of our guests start to retire to their cabins. It's a full day on a Cruise West voyage and people are usually up quite early, not wanting to miss any wildlife sightings or other happenings on the ship or on shore. So our ships aren't known for a wild nightlife."

The "Typical" Small Ship Cruiser I asked both Carol and Jerrol about Cruise West's typical passenger make-up. Is there any particular trait that would make someone the ideal Cruise West cruise passenger?

"Well, our guests are usually in a higher income category than folks sailing the larger cruise lines, simply because our cruises have higher price points," said Jerrol. "Also, our guests tend to be retired, but active. They've worked hard all their lives and now they are enjoying the fruits of their labors. Most of our guests are very well educated, college graduates, professionals or retired professionals."

"Most of all, our guests like to learn. They want a bit of adventure, and they want to get 'up close and personal' with our destinations, exploring in depth to see what is under that waterfall or on those rocks, for example. They don't cruise to be entertained necessarily, but rather to be educated in a fun way. And that's exactly what Cruise West provides for them."

Carol Parsons also picked up on the active theme. "Even our older passengers tend to be in fairly good shape -- able to endure short hikes, a kayaking excursion or a landing by Zodiac. We don't get many guests who are severely physically challenged on our ships because our included excursions involve moderate activity at the very least. Sadly, our ships simply were not designed with dedicated handicapped cabins or elevators."

Cruise West sails to many destinations, all of which offer special opportunities best enjoyed on a small ship cruise. Currently, Cruise West offers voyages of varying lengths to Alaska, California Wine Country, Mexico's Sea of Cortes, Japan, the South Pacific, Costa Rica and Panama, Columbia and the Snake Rivers, and British Columbia. They even offer a relatively new Grand Asia, Vietnam and China sailing.

If you want to get a true idea of what a Cruise West cruise is like, and have some fun at the same time, visit their web site at Then click on the "Videos" tab, and select "A Matter of Taste." This video, also known as "Our Bear, Their Bear," is a hilarious look at the differences between small and large ship cruises that is guaranteed to get you laughing. It's also guaranteed to get you thinking about how you can scrounge up the money to take a Cruise West voyage. I know it had that effect on me.

Recommended Articles