Soft Options: Not all adventure has to be hardcore

Small ship indulgence with SeaDream Yacht Club

Don’t be put off by all the talk about “roaring forties”, icebergs and thermal underwear, adventure cruising is only as tough as you want to make it.

Away from the blizzards and penguin colonies, adventure cruisers can often be subject to such perils as sunburn and hangovers. While the concept of true expedition cruising extends to itineraries well away from the beaten path, there’s still plenty of adventure available for those not wishing to follow in Mawson’s footsteps.

The so-called “small ship” niche is usually reserved for vessels catering to passenger numbers well below your typical cruise ship. By today’s standards, cruise liners are accommodating anything upwards of around 1500 passengers, while the world’s largest cruise vessels can find berths for over 4000.

Small ships deliver a completely different experience for travellers with vessels in this category rarely carrying more than 500 passengers. Even then, some of the world’s best small ship experiences are only shared with 100 or less. Apart from the unavoidable crowds every time your ship docks, small ships are able to visit out-of-the-way ports and islands where no mass tourism exists – often no tourism at all.

The vast South Pacific presents some of the greatest opportunities here, especially in French Polynesia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. New and “one off” itineraries are occasionally offered to remote and seldom visited islands as part of wider voyages, some of which are even around-the-world odysseys.

Small ships have been known to stop at such otherwise impossible locations as Tristan de Cunha, Lord Howe Island, Bougainville, Easter Island, the Marquesas, St Helena and the enigmatic Pitcairn Island, home to the surviving Bounty Mutineers.

While the utilitarian expedition vessels drawn from working fleets are built tough for the rigours of polar work, other small ships can be more relaxed, allocating space to familiar shipboard comforts such as swimming pools, salons, boutiques, fine-dining restaurants and theatres with live entertainment. Essentially you are enjoying the comforts and amenities of a regular cruise ship visiting highly unusual destinations without the crush of thousands of passengers.

Bear in mind that one of the reasons why cruise lines like big ships is because of the economies of scale possible. You are extremely unlikely to find small ship cabins for $100 a day, so be prepared for premium pricing. The flip-side is that often many items and activities listed as extra or optional on the big ships come included on the smaller ones. Shore excursions are the obvious example, while some up-scale vessels have an open bar.

Those with a more purist mind to travel will relish the opportunity to visit and interact with remote communities who are relatively unaffected by the globalised world. Small ships leave lighter footprints and generally deliver enriching interaction for both visitors and hosts. Conservation of traditional lifestyles and culture is strongly encouraged and carefully chosen goods like medical supplies, tools and school materials are given as gifts.

Tips: Looking for luxury? See Seadream Yacht Club, Yachts of Seabourne, Ponant Cruises, Hapag-Lloyd or Australia’s own Orion Expedition Cruises.