Small cruise ships offer intimate, unique adventures

Just a few decades ago, I spent my summers sailing the coastal waters of British Columbia. More than anything else, it was those summers that piqued my interest in cruising.

While those big boats were following the Inside Passage north from Vancouver to Alaska, I was just a speck floating on bays and inlets up the coast – just a drop in the ocean – and never making it to Alaska, yet experiencing the adventures found along the shore.

Those were the days when boaters rafted their crafts together, with fresh seafood cooking for lunch or dinner on each boat. When a boater discovered a hiking trail, fishing holes or crab beds everybody knew about it. Killer whales abounded in the area, and you simply shut off your engine and floated among them.

These experiences can’t be repeated on today’s large ships, of course, but you can come close to those experiences on smaller boats that carry anywhere from 10 to 210 passengers.

While some of them don’t cruise in the wilderness, they still offer itineraries only a small boat can offer because they fit the narrow waterways. Managers of these boats have innovative routes and a leisurely pace to explore the nooks of seaside villages, and you can enjoy the intimacy you won’t find on big cruise ships.

So this week’s subject is the small-boat line, four of them that feature those unique elements: Blount Small Ship Adventures, Un-Cruises, Pearl Seas Cruises and Maple Leaf Adventures.

Blount is an innovative company that for 2015 has added three new one-of-akind cruises along the Atlantic coast on its two Grand ships.

The Blount ships have retractable pilot houses, bow ramps and a shallow draft that allows its ships to sail in less than seven feet of water so inland rivers and bays are easily accessible.

There’s no need to tie up to a dock.

Canada and the Northeastern U.S. offer up a trip from Saint John, N.B., to Portland, Maine. You’ll sail from Saint John Harbour to the Bay of Fundy and on to waterways unfamiliar to most – Annapolis Basin, Passamaquoddy Bay, Gulf of Maine, Frenchman Bay, Penobscot Bay, Rockland Harbor, Kennebec River and Casco Bay.

Readers regularly email me about sailing the Great Lakes. Premium cruise line Pearl Seas Cruises can accommodate you next summer. The 210-passenger ship Pearl Mist will sail from Toronto to Chicago with port calls in Niagara Falls, Parry Sound and Midland, and you can step back in time while visiting Mackinac Island and other ports on the Great Lakes.

The other two lines – Maple Leaf and Un-Cruises – based on the West Coast offer even more in the way of small-ship adventure.

Maple Leaf was a onesailboat operation but has added a second boat to the fleet, the Swell, which carries just 10 passengers. A 27-metre (88-foot) classic wood tugboat, the Swell has been restored to offer boutique expedition cruises along the B.C. and Alaska coast. With so few passengers, you should know the crew and everyone else by the first night’s dinner.

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