When I first sailed on a cruise ship in the late 80s, a 39,000 ton ship was rather large. The first ship I sailed on, the Starship Oceanic was originally designed in 1965 as a transatlantic ship and was short by modern standards: 782 feet long. The contemporary, and much larger, transatlantic ship, Cunard’s QE2 was 70,000 tons and 963 feet long: small enough to fit in the locks at the Panama Canal, long a shipbuilding constraint.
These days, no one bothers to build ships as small as the Oceanic.
In fact, if you look at the history of cruise ships from the 1960s until now, you’ll see pretty much the same theme in every mid-size or large line: older ships were smaller; newer ships are not.
Norwegian Cruise Line’s first ship was under 9,000 tons. Currently, their smallest ship is 75,000 tons, and the largest is 155,000 tons. When we saw the trend on NCL, we basically vowed not to sail them again (except for things we’d pre-booked), and to pick smaller ships that went more interesting places.
Saba, for example. It’s a small island surrounded by a coral reef with a narrow opening that sometimes even small ferries can’t get through. It has the world’s shortest (and one of the hairiest) commercial runway. Let’s face it: you have to work to get to Saba. Once you manage that, there are six taxicabs on the entire island, so there’s a real practical limitation on how many people can visit at once.
It’s a beautiful island, and I’m glad I visited, but you’re never going to get there on the megaships. Similarly, you’re not going to go some of the other places I’ve found so endearing, either.
Last night, we anchored in Montenegro, and the ship that pulled up alongside us (Star Pride) looked to be about twice as large. It had a W, stylized in the way I thought Windstar cruises used, except that it wasn’t a sailing vessel. It turns out that Windstar, having been bought by Holland America Lines, has also joined the trend of getting larger vessels.
Interestingly, the Star Pride happens to have been an old Seabourne vessel. Seabourne’s a luxury line that was bought by Carnival and has been building larger and larger ships. You can’t get the kind of quality on the larger ships it’s been building. You don’t build the relationships over time that you do on the much smaller ships.
We happen to be sailing on one of the two original Seabourne ships, after all. At a modest 4,253 tons, it doesn’t have a ton of features like some of the larger ships. Hilariously, it has one blackjack table.
Last night, though, we realized the real advantage. We had our dinner out on deck, where we could all sit comfortably and eat excellent food. Next door, they had a typical cruise ship rah rah party outdoors with tunes designed to appeal to the 40-something audience they were clearly intending to attract. There was no escaping it if you wanted to eat, and I’d rather have conversation (or reading) with my food.
Pity. Star Pride’s a nice ship size for a bigger ship, and they clearly do some interesting itineraries given that they also wound up in Montenegro. But I’d rather my dinner be Macarena-free, thanks.