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Small is beautiful

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Get closer to wildlife, spectacular scenery and local culture in some of the world's most dramatic locations, from southern Africa to the Hebrides, from the comfort of a small ship. By Sue Bryant


Singing echoed across the water as we puttered over the Chobe river in the shimmering afternoon sun.

 

A beautiful African melody, becoming clearer as we neared our new home, the Zambezi Queen riverboat. The Namibian crew were all lined up to greet us with beaming smiles, swaying and clapping. Crocodiles basked lazily on nearby sandbanks. Huge dragonflies in iridescent colours buzzed the boat. On the opposite bank, we could see hundreds of elephant, heading down to the river to bathe. Later, we would sit and watch them, enjoying gin-and-tonic hour and a blazing sunset that left streaks of burnt orange across the sky until the first stars appeared.

 

You can't beat the experience of living on a small, beautifully-appointed boat and the Zambezi Queen, which sails the Chobe River along a stretch of the Botswana-Namibia border, quickly became a home-from-home. Days settled into a pattern of early breakfast in the bright, airy dining room on the top deck, open to the river breezes, followed by game viewing in the Chobe National Park. After lunch, a long siesta, listening to hippos grunting just outside the boat in the stillness of the afternoon. Then, an evening safari cruise from one of the Zambezi Queen's small tender boats followed by luscious dinners of African-fusion dishes washed down with chilled South African wines. Lively conversation – and an early night. At 10pm, the main generator goes off so we'd sink into bed, close the mosquito screens and gaze out at the African night, with all its attendant sounds. From around £586 for two nights; www.zambeziqueen.com.

 

Small boats like the Zambezi Queen are a great way of enjoying a house-party atmosphere without needing to muster a group for a full-boat charter. There are miniature cruise ships like this all over the world, often in unlikely places, a thousand miles from the idea of a big, floating resort vessel.

 

Take the Amazon. Large cruise ships sail up the world's longest river as far as Manaus from the mouth on the Brazilian coast. But for a much closer view of the wildlife, the banks and the people that live along this vast waterway, cruise the Peruvian Amazon, where Delfin Amazon Cruises operates two small, very luxurious boats, Delfin 1, for up to eight guests, and Delfin 2, for up to 28.

 

Delfin 1 is spectacularly decadent, with private, sunken whirlpools in the enormous master suites, which have 180 degree views of the river. Delfin 2 is slightly bigger, but has similarly chic interiors of warm wood, high-class Peruvian art and some covetable deck furniture – sink back into a squashy sofa on the observation deck with an iced caipirinha cocktail, or swing in a hammock on the sun deck with a book and watch the river go by. Activities on both include exploration of the tributaries by skiff or river kayak, with starlight tours for spotting nocturnal wildlife, expeditions to visit local villages and boat journeys in search of the pink dolphin. Three nights costs around £1,475;

www.delfinamazoncruises.com.

 

In Indonesia, the Alila Purnama, a replica of a traditional Phinisi boat but with teak decks and smart rattan furnishings, provides a unique opportunity for up to 10 guests to get up close and personal with the ferocious Komodo dragons, as well as soaking up the spectacular scenery of far-flung corners of the Indonesian archipelago – all towering, jungly cliffs and pristine, white sand beaches. Dive from the boat (which has a PADI dive centre), pack up a picnic for the beach, or enjoy a massage on deck from the onboard spa therapist. There are fixed departures to a variety of sailing areas, including the Banda Sea and Raja Ampat, and although the boat is booked for private charters on some sailings, there are plenty of opportunities for individuals to book cabins, too. From around £6,560 for six nights; www.alilahotels.com/purnama.

 

Small ship is also one of the best ways to explore Papua New Guinea, an area North Star Cruises has been visiting for several years. The smart yacht True North operates itineraries of five to 13 nights, including flights from Cairns or Darwin, exploring the islands off the north and east of Papua New Guinea and the dramatic islands of West Papua, part of Indonesia. The diving and snorkelling is unrivalled and there are opportunities to fish, hike, wander round deserted tropical islands and explore active volcanoes from the air on the ship's helicopter. Search for orchids (Papua New Guinea is home to over two thirds of the world's orchid species) and dazzling tropical birds from parrots to hornbills and the flouncy bird of paradise, with its long, colourful tail. True North takes just 36 passengers and has a shallow draft so it can skim over coral reefs without causing damage and venture upstream along rivers to explore. Like many of these small yachts it's pricey, at around £13,900 for 12 nights (including flights from Darwin), but exploring one of the world's last untouched paradises on a sleek yacht is never going to come cheap; www.northstarcruises.com.au.

 

If you're keen on diving and snorkeling and like the idea of the crystal-clear waters around the Maldives, why stay on land? The sumptuous catamaran, Four Seasons Explorer, takes a maximum of 22 guests deep into the islands, away from the resorts to isolated reefs and almost untouched dive sites, as well as deserted beaches for picnics or sundowners. The boat cruises between the Four Seasons hotels at Kuda Huraa and Landaa Giraavaru but you don't need to set foot ashore – choose between a three, four or seven-night cruise. Life on board is as laid back as it comes – although if you make the effort to catch your own fish, the chef will, of course, prepare it for you. From around £2,062 for three nights; www.fourseasons.com/maldivesfse/

 

The pleasures of Halong Bay in Vietnam are above, rather than below the water, as you sail slowly through a stunning forest of thousands of sheer-sided limestone towers scattered across the emerald South China Sea. Some 989 of the islands have poetic names such as Voi (Elephant), Ga Choi (Fighting Cock) and Qua Chuong (Bell), and their interiors conceal bottle-green lagoons where monkeys scamper through the surrounding trees, or caves drip with stalactites, their roofs home to thousands of bats. Dozens of traditional junks ply the waters of the bay for day trips but the real atmosphere is revealed on an overnight stay, waking in the early morning when the towers are shrouded in an ethereal mist. Indochina Sails is one of the longest-established operators of traditional Vietnamese junks in the bay, building all its boats out of locally grown wood and hanging the interiors with colourful silks. There's no skipping on the creature comforts, among them marble bathrooms and in the suites, Jacuzzis. Choose between one and two nights on board, with opportunities to go kayaking, or to explore floating fishing villages, beaches and caves. www.indochinasails.com.

 

Small ships explore more temperate areas of the world, too. One of the most luxurious sailing the coast and islands of New Zealand is the catamaran Island Passage, belonging to Island Escape Cruises. The cat carries just 24 guests and comes complete with a helicopter and four motorboats for exploring the coastline, as well as a fleet of kayaks. If you're taking a cruise as part of a longer itinerary to New Zealand, try one of the company's themed cruises. The Marlborough Sounds wine itinerary, for example, is accompanied by specialist wine guides and includes visits to numerous wineries, including tastings and private lunches at many. The very first tour is to the Cloudy Bay vineyard to taste wines that have become hugely popular in the UK. Food on board is locally sourced, so you'll be feasting on the green-lipped mussels that grow in the deep, clear, cool waters of the Sounds. This diverse itinerary also includes whale watching in Kaikoura, where there's an excellent chance of spotting sperm whale, New Zealand fur seals, dolphins and albatross, as well as migrating humpback, pilot, blue and southern right whales. Six nights costs around £1,680, including all the tours and tastings. Tel. +64 9 522 1717 / www.islandescapecruises.com.

 

Sail where bigger vessels can't reach and get close to the vast ice walls of the Patagonian glaciers. Cruceros Marpatag operates a smart catamaran, Santa Cruz, carrying just 44 guests on two-night itineraries from its private dock near El Calafate through stunning ice floes to the Parque Nacional los Glaciares, for hiking, lectures about the formation of the glaciers and viewing of the mesmerising Upsala, Spegazzini, Mayo and Perito Moreno ice faces. So densely compressed that it's deep turquoise in places, the ice creaks and groans, occasionally calving off in huge chunks with a thunderous roar. Nights are spent gazing at the southern skies and listening to talks on board about the great explorers who discovered this incredible region. From around £1,050 for two nights; www.crucerosmarpatag.com.

 

Much closer to home, the rugged scenery of the west coast of Scotland is no less suited to small ship exploration. Here, Majestic Line operates two lovely, restored wooden fishing vessels, Glen Tarsan and Glen Massan, out of Oban and into the Hebrides, as well as along the coast and inlets of Argyll. Each vessel takes 12 – and because of a thoughtful approach towards solo travellers, there are great rates for singles. Expect exquisite Scottish food, all locally sourced, and a friendly, house party atmosphere.

 

Guests can go out in the tender to watch for wildlife or help the crew drop the lobster pots. They can help pick up mussels for dinner, or fish for their own mackerel for breakfast. Every day, there are seafaring stories at the bridge from the skipper, and plenty of time to keep a watch for sea eagles, otters and seals from the top deck. Sightings of porpoises or basking sharks are also possible. Both ships potter slowly to hidden beauty spots, far off the beaten track and inaccessible by road, so often missed by other travellers to the area. Visits to the local Chieftain's ancestral home, deserted beaches or ancient ruined castles are all part of the joy of discovering this beautiful coast, and many of the voyages are escorted by guest speakers, experts on Scotland and its wildlife. From £965 for three nights. Tel. 01369 707 951 / www.themajesticline.co.uk.

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