Sailing ships are expanding their offerings to appeal to the growing number of clients who want a more intimate, interactive experience at sea.
In the world of traditional cruising, it’s common knowledge that bigger is better. Cruise lines compete constantly to offer travelers the biggest ships with the biggest shows, the biggest casinos, the biggest water parks and rock climbing walls. But if you’re intrigued by the idea of “barefoot cruising,” get ready to leave that mindset behind. Sailing the seas on smaller vessels presents its own unique set of advantages, appealing to its own unique set of travelers—and, for agents, offering unique opportunities for business.
compagnie du ponant So what is “barefoot cruising,” exactly? Terri Haas, chief commercial officer for the French cruise line Compagnie du Ponant, says the difference is in the intimacy of the experience. “What we try to do is make people feel like they’re on their own private yacht and take them to wonderful, unique destinations,” she explains. “Basically, our cruise philosophy is to offer a small ship cruising experience done in a very elegant and comfortable atmosphere with extremely high quality and high attention to service—but very discreet, like the French are known for.”
Le Ponant is Compagnie du Ponant’s only true sailing vessel, an 88-meter, 3-masted sailing ship with a capacity for 64 passengers. Clients are restricted from actually participating in the running of the ship, but crew members are happy to answer any questions they may have. In fact, Haas continues, service is a point of pride for Le Ponant. “The crew especially is extra special. You almost feel like they’re family; when you come back to the ship after an excursion, you look forward to telling them about your day.” And there’s always plenty to tell, thanks to Le Ponant’s unique ports of call—“all these little coves and places that normally ships can’t get to,” Haas describes. The line aims for a balance between well-known destinations and exciting unknown ports, she explains. That means that itineraries like Tunis-Alexandria will include well-known destinations like its beginning and ending ports, but also the small Greek village of Sitia and the Greek island of Kythira. And there’s always room for improvisation. “If the captain knows that there is a festival or special event along the way, he has the ability to stop and let guests get off and mingle with the local people.” Most ships can’t change course so easily because of permit issues, but because Le Ponant is owned by a large shipping company, Haas explains, it’s able to avoid that pitfall. “So to have that leeway and the ability to do those things is unique.”
That ability and the size of its ships account for Compagnie du Ponant’s rapidly expanding portfolio of ports. Within a year, Haas says, “We will sail to almost 450 ports around the world, in 81 countries on seven continents.” A new ship, Le Austral, was inaugurated in April to help reach many of those new destinations. Though it’s not a sailing vessel like Le Ponant, Haas says, it offers a similar experience.
Rates for Tunis-Alexandria start at $2,646.
star clippers The “barefoot” style of cruising isn’t for everyone, says Mark Carlson, director of marketing for Star Clippers. “There are a lot of things missing compared to the larger ships. We don’t have the casino, or the onboard entertainment per se—the bands or the shows at night.” So clients who need to be wowed by Vegas-style stage shows should stick to the larger ships. But for clients who can appreciate personalized, intimate experiences—and that’s a lot of them—the Star Clippers experience is perfect. “People spend time on deck, or they climb the mast or the bow, just enjoying the ship itself,” Carlson describes. “Nighttime entertainment is there, but it’s the crew itself entertaining through music or interactive games that include everyone.” Guests gather in piano lounges or on the main deck which, interestingly, has more square footage than the outdoor space on many larger ships, Carlson says. It’s just all located in one central area. “It’s a great opportunity to meet the rest of the people on board. I’ve been on big ships where after 10 days you walk by someone and you can say, ‘I haven’t seen you before.’”
The lower number of passengers isn’t the only reason Star Clippers’ cruises are quieter. “We are true sailing vessels—sail-powered vessels as opposed to sail-aided vessels,” Carlson explains. “It’s all about the true sailing, with five masts, rigging, and the detail, the sounds that come along with not having your engine on. It’s really special.”