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Photo by Deborah Grayson
Dec 6, 2018

Luxury Afloat

Is a small high-end cruise or chartering a super yacht right for you? The surprising similarities—and differences—between the two.

Have you have ever dreamed of cruising on a super yacht, which is classified as larger than 100 feet with a high staff-to-guest ratio and a crew of six or more? If so, there are four ways to go about it: Own one (costing around $25 million plus 10 percent annually in expenses); charter a boat ($250,000/week, give or take); book passage on a small luxury cruise with less than 250 passengers ($5,000 to $10,000/person); or have a friend with a super yacht who invites you along (priceless).

After spending decades on the water, including several super yacht (SY) experiences, we recently went on our first small luxury cruise (LC), with Windstar’s North Atlantic Odyssey to Iceland, Greenland, Labrador, Newfoundland, Maine and Manhattan. The similarities between the two experiences were striking. 

An aerial shot of a super yacht. Photo by StockStudio/Shutterstock

If you own a super yacht or have the resources to charter one, this article probably isn’t for you.  But if you’d like to get an insight into the difference between being the invited guest on a super yacht (SY) versus booking a luxury cruise (LC), read on.

To aid us in comparing the two experiences, we enlisted the help of two people. On the SY side, we worked with one of the top charter brokers in the world, Barbara Dawson at Camper and Nicholsons. For the LC experience, we turned to John Delaney, president of Windstar Cruises. Here’s our compare-and-contrast.

SERVICE

Like the bar in Cheers where “everyone knows your name,” by day two the staff on both boats addressed us by name and knew our cabin cleaning, food and drink preferences. Requests were always met with a smile. Cleaning was obsessive. Offers of food and drink were omnipresent. Inquiries as to our well-being with regard to the previous night’s sleep, breakfast, lunch and dinner never ceased. Frankly, for independent people who don’t live with servants, it was a little over-the-top.

Decision: A draw.

FOOD

Photo courtesy of Windstar

On SYs, every meal results from collaboration between owner and chef. “I advise clients to discuss daily what they prefer for lunch and dinner. By doing this, they can work out their menu with very little fuss,” Dawson tells us. As SY guests, we ate whatever the owner fancied. It would have been churlish to insist on a vegetarian entrée when presented with an artfully arranged tuna niçoise made with freshly caught fish.

On the other hand, the LC, with its 200 guests, offered such a wide variety of dining choices that everyone left happy. From spa cuisine, like an arugula salad with enoki mushrooms, to pulled pork tacos, it was almost impossible not to find something to like.

Chefs in both situations were obsessed with fresh food, so along with pre-ordered supplies from a network of global purveyors (like air-dropped fresh herbs), they purchased whatever they could find at ports of call.

As one would imagine, self-discipline is required on the LC. Breakfast and lunch were buffets. Tempting snacks and freshly baked cookies were on display all afternoon, and special treats were offered as soon as dinner ended. One night it was crepes, another a cheese tasting with an array of freshly made chutneys.

Decision: A draw, assuming you’re able to exercise culinary control. We left both cruises feeling creatively fed, healthy and satisfied. Did not gain a pound on either.

ITINERARY

Photo by Deborah Grayson

On a SY, the owner sets the itinerary and possibly factors in your preferences. On the LC, the company sets the schedule, typically based on staff expertise and guest feedback. The destination director, whose sole job is shore excursions, will know the best ports and what to do there. On our voyage, each stop, even the smallest Greenland village, had multiple land experiences, usually something for everyone. Not interested in geology or lighthouses? How about craft beer?

According to Delaney, “We hit the highlights, some of which are off the beaten path. On the North Atlantic cruise, we stop at UNESCO sites Red Bay, Gros Morne National Park and L’Anse Aux Meadow, places that are difficult to get to on your own. We also have fun—whale-watching in Cape Cod Bay and dining on lobsters in Maine.”

 However, if it pours while you’re on a LC in Venice, too bad. You’re due in another port the next day, where the next tour awaits you. Whereas, according to Dawson, “A private charter gives you the luxury and ability to change your mind daily. While you may not travel 400 miles to a new port, you can move to another anchorage or stay exactly where you are.” She adds, “The weather is a major factor, so I like to have an alternative itinerary [for every charter.]”

Decision: Advantage to SY due to flexibility.

INTERACTION WITH CAPTAIN AND CREW ON THE BRIDGE

This is not important to everyone, but it is to us. As boat owners, we love knowing navigation plans, speed, weather, routing, etc. We love looking at charts and radar. With the SY owner’s permission, this is usually easy. To our surprise, Windstar has an “open bridge” policy, so you can spend as much time there as desired. Because we were sailing in iceberg-strewn waters, Windstar felt it prudent to place two Danish ice pilots aboard. Learning from them was a highlight of the voyage.

Decision: A SY win because we got to actually steer the boat, something that’s not going to happen on a LC. But our interactions with the captains and their officers on both boats added immeasurably to our experiences.

PASSENGER INTERACTIONS

This is tricky on both boats. You probably have no say as to whom the SY owner/charterer brings aboard. Hopefully they will be interesting and pleasant, but not necessarily so. Your host might love them while to you, they’re tedious and abrasive. Worse, in this politically tense time, you find their views abhorrent. But, on a SY everyone must follow rule No. 1: Cede to the owner’s wishes.

This is a nonissue on the LC, an anthropologist’s dream of social-connection rituals. During the day, people introduce themselves and connections develop. Some blossom into lunch or dinner invitations. Some become semi-exclusive, others are more temporal. “Real friendships are forged on board, and many of our guests become traveling companions for life,” Delaney says.

Decision: A tie: you may love or hate your SY companions, and you may or may not bond with anyone on the LC.

FITNESS, SPA AMENITIES

LCs have gyms, personal trainers, masseurs, nail and hair salons, steam, sauna, jacuzzis, pools and possibly games such as ping pong. SYs may have some of these, but it’s unlikely they’ll have them all. 

Decision: Chances are LCs win, but if you require privacy while sweating, advantage SY.

BOAT SIZE

Photo by Deborah Grayson

We went through a North Atlantic gale on our LC. It wasn’t bad. A SY, because of its smaller gross tonnage, will not be as comfortable in rough conditions.

Decision: Another LC win.

ENTERTAINMENT

Like fitness (above), the larger size of the LC lends itself to more activities like guest lecturers, port talks, dance classes, cooking demos, wine tastings, photography workshops, live music. We will never forget our dinner with the Inuit guide who traveled with us from Iceland to Greenland and enlightened the passengers about what we would find in Greenland, her country. 

Aside from books, board games and a server full of DVDs, most SYs leave you to your own devices.

Decision: If you think you might enjoy an activity from the list above, the win goes to the LC.

Overall Score: Advantage LC!

LC: 3

SY: 2

Tie: 3

As you can see, the experiences are surprisingly comparable. So, if you’re tired of waiting for an invitation on a super yacht, consider a small luxury cruise. We had a blast.

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