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Small-Ship Mediterranean Cruise: 9 Things to Remember About Life on Board | Frommer's Rebecca Hall

Small-Ship Mediterranean Cruise: 9 Things to Remember About Life on Board

In this trip report from one of the boutique cruise ships in the Greek Islands, travelers are reminded of the many ways the small ship cruising experience is nothing like the big major lines.

If you want a Greek islands experience that's intimate, explores lesser-seen sun-and-sand destinations, and experiences Greek culture at its best, then a small-ship adventure might suit you better than the giant cruise ships that are so heavily marketed to vacationers.

To show you how the small-ship experience differs from mainstream options, we took the Classical Greece itinerary with Variety Cruises, a line that presents a selection of trips in the region, on board its 223-foot "Mega Yacht" (the company's term) Voyager.

Is commercial shared yacht cruising around the Mediterranean in Greece for you? Here are some considerations. 

All photographs were taken by the author.

The intimate size leaves few places to hide. 

Variety’s Voyager accommodates up to 72 guests in 36 cabins. By comparison, rival company WindStar’s offers a Greek itinerary aboard Wind Stara 4-masted sailing ship that accommodates 148 guests, but there are even smaller ships on the market, such as Elixir’s The Elysium, with just 25 cabins.

The intimate ship size means fewer places to be alone, so you’ll unavoidably interact with most of your fellow passengers. That creates a familial atmosphere, but if you prefer to remain anonymous and keep to yourself, you might best stick to larger vessels.

As a solo traveler, I actually enjoyed mingling as much or as little as I wanted to, and I still managed to find the odd nook or cranny for myself, especially on the sun deck (pictured below). 

Amenities are limited, but they do the job.

A small ship can't offer a huge range of facilities, but there's still plenty to divert you.

On the Variety, the main deck (pictured below) served as a welcome place to relax in air conditioned comfort away from my cabin. 

Beneath that, the lower deck had an exercise area with a handful of machines (pictured below) plus a mini-spa with one treatment room, sauna, and Jacuzzi.  

On sea days, passengers relaxed on the sun deck's cushioned chaises. Some larger ships have facilities for swimming on board, but the Variety is small enough that the crew permits swimming off the stern at scheduled stops, so I felt no need for a pool. Most days, we were exploring ports anyway.

The ship isn't too small for a bar, though, and each evening, the mixologist at Voyager’s al fresco bar (pictured below) shook up a cocktail of the day. When we anchored off Crete, the crew invited a local dance exhibition to come aboard, with the opportunity for passengers to join in.  

The ship's small size allows for more interesting ports.

All the cruise lines, including boutique ones like Variety, will call on the perennially popular islands of Santorini and Mykonos. But one benefit of smaller lines is their boats can fit at smaller, lesser-visited island and mainland ports.

’s size allowed us to dock at the tiny island of Kythera in the Ionian Sea—it has no airport, so it's not ruined by the Jet Set crowd. Another unusual destination we hit was the UNESCO Medieval coastal rock town of Monemvassia, on the mainland in the Peloponnese.  

Access to shore from the ship was either by walking directly ashore using a narrow gangplank or tendering on the ship’s small Zodiacs (life jackets provided). 

You'll probably sit with other passengers at dinner.

Unlike a huge cruise ship, there’s not a round-the-clock buffet with a huge selection; meals are served within set time periods without mandatory seat assignments. The circular tables of Voyager’s Horizons buffet dining room seat eight, so most guests will dine with others, although there were a few more tables on the veranda. Tables for two were uncommon and usually taken.

My Classical Greece itinerary served at least two full meals a day: always breakfast, then a buffet lunch or dinner. When we were in port, our schedules usually allowed for one full meal to be eaten in town, at the passengers' own expense, unless it was included in a tour. 

The cuisine favors local flavors.

On board, the chef focused on Mediterranean dishes such as moussaka, stuffed tomatoes, and bell peppers as well as humble crowdpleasers like pizza and pasta. Salad was plentiful, as were dips of homemade tzatziki and a choice of fruit or Greek desserts like baklava (pictured below). Special dietary requests were honored as long as they were placed in advance.

The first and last nights were catered, 5-course affairs in the presence of the captain.  

Cabins are cozy and beds aren't huge. 

At roughly 130 square feet (12 sq. m.), my Category B cabin (pictured below) located on the main deck, and because I was traveling alone, my bed was actually composed of two twin beds pushed together. (If I had been traveling with someone else, the beds could have been separated, but the space between them would have been a squeeze.)

On slightly rocky nights, my body would naturally gravitate into the depression in the center seam of the bed. Mattress toppers are available, or you can specify a true double mattress in some of Voyager’s categories.  

On most small ships, your stateroom won't have a balcony or veranda, and window sizes vary even within the same category, so check the deck plan when you reserve. My cabin had two small windows that filtered in a little light, but they weren't panoramic. Strategically placed floor-to-ceiling mirrors lend a slightly more spacious feel. 

En-suite bathrooms (pictured below) are surprisingly large compared to the cabin, with great shower pressure and locally sourced gels and shampoos. Voyager may be small, but it's still designed for comfort. You'll get a shower but not a tub.

Between islands, the ship may pitch and roll.

On small ship cruises, which typically sail around the Greek islands during tourist season from April to October, the month you go can matter. In August, the strong Meltemi winds occurring across the Aegean are at their strongest, often reaching 7 on the Beaufort scale, enough to make the seawater foam from breaking waves.

The smaller the ship, the more the pitching and rolling are keenly felt, especially in August. (I have a cast-iron stomach, but the night we departed Athens, the ship was rolling so much that many of my fellow passengers headed straight to bed after dinner.) If you’re prone to seasickness, book a cabin as low as possible and in the middle of the ship, where motion is usually more limited.  

I find September is the best time to sail between the Greek islands. The waters become calmer and warmer for swimming, the sting of excessive summer heat recedes, and destinations become less crowded when schools return. 

Don't expect an elevator.

Small ship cruising is can be more difficult for passengers with mobility needs. Voyager had no elevator going between its four levels, and access to shore was either by gangway or a tiny tender boat. It helps to to be physically capable of getting in and out of the small Zodiac dinghies used to ferry passengers to some ports. 

Boutique small ships are cheaper than chartering a yacht.

A trip aboard a small luxury ship around Greece is a more affordable way to travel than chartering your own yacht with a group of friends. An eight-day Classical Greece voyage with Variety Cruises costs from US $2,160 per person in a Category C lower deck cabin, plus port fees.

Crewed yacht charters booked through agents such as Yacht Charter Fleet can easily add an extra zero to the end of that price.

The author traveled as a guest of Variety Cruises, but Frommer's retained full control over the topics and content of its coverage and there is no financial relationship between the vendor and Frommer's.