I will preface this post by saying ginormous ocean-liner type cruises have held no appeal for me ever. So I really paid no attention to anything cruise-related ever. However, when I begun my career in the travel industry, I quickly learned about the small-ship river cruises of Europe. Now this piqued my interest. Small-ship cruises have a reputation for being for the older folks. I've always been a bit of an old soul so perhaps that's why this didn't detract from my interest in trying this type of travel out for myself. Plus as an industry insider I know that the small-ship cruise lines have been adding a variety of more active excursions to appeal to the younger generation. Sounds good right?!
For the past months I have been working on refining my service-delivery model. In plain-speak this means I have been researching the different travel and tour operators and choosing a select few which I think have the most to offer my clientele as far as uniqueness, quality and service levels, to specialize in. UnCruise Adventures is one of the first companies I chose. So when I had the opportunity to join UnCruise Adventures on their updated Rivers of Adventure itinerary travelling the Snake, Columbia and Willamette Rivers, I jumped at the chance. I mean I literally jumped when I found out I was going! Luckily I had a friend who was also as excited and able to join me. Some of the highlights advertised were: Deschutes River whitewater rafting, a jet boat ride into Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, waterfall hikes and wine tastings, You can check out the detailed itinerary here: https://www.uncruise.com/destinations/columbia-riv...
We flew into Spokane, Washington where cheerful UnCruise staff were awaiting our arrival. We seamlessly were transferred onto the waiting bus where we were greeted with our choice of refreshing beverages, including wine and beer which was a happy way to start our trip. Once we got on the road some healthy and delicious snacks were also distributed to tide us over until dinner. As both myself and my friend were first-time cruisers, we had no idea what to expect, things were already looking good!
Once we arrived at the ship once again we were seamlessly embarked onto the boat right into happy hour. Seamless characterized how everything went in fact, for the entire journey. Once we got into the rhythm and schedule of the ship in fact, there was nothing more we had to but show up and enjoy! There is something to be said for having everything taken care of for you, as much as I sometimes I enjoy the challenges of independent travels.
You may be wondering about our ship. The S.S.Legacy is a replica 1898 coastal good rush steamer. Think Victorian-style décor,meshed with modern machinery. How cool is that?! One of our favourite things was the antique whistle which announced our presence everywhere! Full disclosure: I was told by another more experienced travel professional that the frequent cruisers always want the newest and most up-to-date boats and that they would not be thrilled with the Legacy. Everyone on board seemed quite pleased with our digs for the week however. One of the unique things about UnCruise is a very open boat policy. Meaning you were welcome to hang out in the bridge (they may even let you steer the ship!) or down below to observe the inner workings of the ship if that's your thing. We spent one happy hour up in the bridge as we went threw a lock and had a great time!
I've mentioned happy hour a couple times already. Happy hour is a big deal on the ship! Everyone shows up to socialize and at some point to be briefed on the activities for the next day. How it works on UnCruise is that each day there are choices of activities to chose from. You pick based on your interest and/or level of activity desired. And you can always change your mind or just stay on the boat and chillax. After happy hour you head down to dinner. There is no assigned seating at any meal but you are to sit with other guests. A couple days in we had formed a group of 8 that did become our permanent dinner table. Such a great group I am so thankful to have connected with!
I think you're getting a sense of how things flowed on board but I'll summarize. You are provided three meals a day which several selections at each meal. Dietary restrictions or preferences are accommodated. If you are off-board for lunch they will have packed a lovely spread. Typically there was two excursions a day. So pretty quickly after breakfast you are headed out on a first adventure. Then you may return for lunch and then soon again after lunch you are off again. All wine, beer or cocktails are included at any meal and the bar is open all day. Karen our bartender was top notch! You're typically back in time for happy hour, which is followed by dinner. After dinner there is always some kind of natural or cultural interpretive talk you can choose to join. There were hot tubs on the top deck, a selection of books, games and dvds to chose from and a number of little nooks you could tuck into if you just wanted to sit and take in the stars. How's this all sounding to you?
There are a couple things I haven't mentioned yet. One is that there is no onboard wifi, nor is there any service even at parts of the river. So it forces the passengers to unplug and be present. I mean how refreshing not to have some checking their phone every 5 minutes while you're talking?! While it came as an unexpected surprise to me, once I let that go I was able to embrace it. Second is that the atmosphere is super casual on board. Meaning you don't have to dress up for dinner. Heck, you don't have to put on make-up if you don't want to.
Above I listed a few of the excursion highlights. We enjoyed every activity we participated in thoroughly and the staff, as well as the businesses contracted with on shore, did such a great job taking care of everyone so that no matter your skill level you felt safe and confident. A lot of people's favourite activity was the river rafting on the Deschutes. I had never whitewater rafted before and it was a blast! Beyond these organized activities, something else everyone loved was going through the locks. Most times you would find everyone on deck with beverage in hand watching it all go down. Myself included!
So trust me, I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed my UnCruise experience but I'll tap out now. Have I answered the question about whether or not a small ship cruise is for you? There were 6 of us under 50 on this journey. I can say that all of us under 50 loved it! Here are the pros to small-ship cruising as I see them: limited number of passengers so you have an opportunity to meet and get know many interesting people of like-mind (if not like-age); because there is less people boarding and disembarkation and everything else happens smoothly and efficiently; ship is easily manageable to figure out; price is all-inclusive (beverages, excursions, etc) except for tips so you're not getting a big, fat surprise bill at the end; a variety of activities for everyone to partake in; reservations aren't typically needed for anything: history, culture and excursions are the focus allowing you to really immerse yourself in your surroundings; as small ships can call on more remote ports you are going to have a more unique experience; laidback, time for relaxation and lots of time in nature; more eco-friendly and typically more luxurious and exclusive; perfect for multi-gen families who can participate in excursions at their desired level of activity and spend time as group at other times: also excellent for solo travellers as you will bond with others in no time (assuming that's what you want).
There is no right or wrong as far as cruising, it's all a matter of preference. There is a lot to figure out when booking a cruise so I suggest enlisting help. For me personally I am now hooked on the small-ship cruise and am already looking for me next opportunity. For me that will be a European river cruise, but I do plan to sail with UnCruise again. FYI both staff and repeat passengers all raved about the UnCruise Alaska itineraries so consider that as a starting point.
I hope this was helpful. That's all for now my happy travellers!