Waking up at night is normally deeply unwelcome, but on board ship it is a gift. I was tempted to set my alarm for 4am. Whenever I awoke on board the Silver Explorer, I would get up and look out of my balcony window across an inky, moonlit sea. I loved the emptiness, the smell and swell of the water, the creaking of the ship and the sense of speed as we coursed the waves.
Four nights on this luxury expedition ship, which normally plies the icy waters of the Arctic, was a non-committal way to see if I liked cruising. This voyage down Ireland’s east coast from Dublin, stopping at Waterford and Glengarriff, then the Scilly Isles and Dartmouth, Devon, seemed an ideal introduction.
The Explorer takes just 132 passengers, and was half full during my stay. It has a clubby, quiet atmosphere and is aimed at people in windcheaters who want to get on deck with binoculars rather than get smashed at the bar. There are no casinos, shopping arcades, cabaret or nightclubs. Its entertainments comprise an excellent library, stacked with books about polar explorers, wildlife and natural history, a bar pianist, and a theatre on the top deck where you can catch a lecture on military history or archaeology.
The average age of the Silver Explorer’s passengers is 55, but I also met fit, sporty couples in their forties. The captain, a tall, taciturn Pole in an immaculate uniform, was clearly happier on the bridge than hosting the welcome cocktail party, and I liked that. The Explorer forced me to ditch a few of my clichéd prejudices about cruising.
“People think of cruising as a very rigid holiday, but in the past 10 years it has changed dramatically,” says Penny Guy of the UK-based Passenger Shipping Association (PSA). “There are many different types of cruise available, and ‘tasters’, which typically last two to four nights, are a great way to try them out.”
The popularity of these “taster” cruises is growing. From the cruise line’s viewpoint, they can convert first-timers and are a way of attracting paying passengers during “repositioning” legs – when a ship has to relocate at the beginning or end of a longer itinerary. Rising fuel costs have contributed to the trend, with cruise lines now looking for itineraries with shorter distances between ports.
There are plenty of taster cruises at the cheaper end of the market, but luxury, boutique cruise lines have also started to offer them, though they may be branded differently or not openly advertised. Silversea, which operates the Silver Explorer, offers what it calls “personalised voyages”. Last week, for example, it ran a four-night cruise on the Silver Spirit from Istanbul to Rhodes, and next month is offering a four-night trip from Barbados to Antigua aboard the Silver Whisper (from £1,021 per person).
Star Clippers, the luxury line of tall ships, introduced tasters two years ago to cater to guests who love the ships but have little spare time. The magnificent 227-passenger Royal Clipper – a five-masted, full-rigged sailing ship – has a three-night taster next year from Venice to Rovinj in Croatia, via Piran, Slovenia, departing on September 4 (from £619 per person).
The exclusive Hebridean Princess, the UK’s smallest luxury cruise ship, enjoys a high level of loyal, repeat guests. It has a four-night “Hebridean Taster” departing September 3 2013, exploring the islands and mainland areas south of Oban (from £2,130).
Even music fans in their twenties and thirties have been targeted with short cruises. Tickets sold out for the three-night Monsters of Rock heavy-metal cruise in February. Its next “Lost Weekend” – four nights from Fort Lauderdale, Florida – departs on March 16, while the SS Coachella, a cruise ship-based version of the celebrated US music festival, sets sail from the same port in December for one three and one four-night trip.
Cruising comes into its own in Arctic waters, where you can see spectacular landscapes, wildlife and skies from the comfort of a warm ship. Even here, short options have emerged. Norwegian specialist Hurtigruten has a four-night sailing on a “Taste of the Arctic” cruise from Bergen to Tromsø (from £1,080). Northern Lights Holidays has introduced a three-night cruise from Tromsø to Trondheim, part of a five-night package, from £833, for holidaymakers who want to see the northern lights but are short of time.
Did my own taster experience in the Silver Explorer convert me to cruising? Not entirely. Despite the sophistication, there is a vague sense of being on an organised school trip. I suspect that’s why so many high-achievers love cruising – for once, they don’t have to make any decisions, bar what to have for dinner.
But as a short, relaxing, hassle-free break, it’s hard to beat.
Kate Quill was a guest of Silversea (www.silversea.com). For details of other cruise lines mentioned, see: www.starclippers.com; www.hebridean.co.uk; www.monstersofrockcruise.com; ss.coachella.com; www.hurtigruten.com; www.northern-lights-holidays.co.uk