Small Ships Like "Uncruise" Can Help Make Cruising Less of a Dirty Word with Adventure Travelers

Story by Will McGough

Posted: June 22, 2017

I’m on day three of a seven-day cruise through the Hawaiian Islands. The boat slowly shoves off from Lanai and slips along the south coast, turning the corner and heading across the channel towards Maui. I make my way up to the top deck of the ship, and looking straight out, can see the green, lush hillsides of the West Maui Mountains, the tops mingling with light clouds. It’s a strong contrast to the dry, red-clay terrain of Lanai we’re leaving behind.

It all looks bright in the golden light of the sunset, and it’s a treat to see both islands, side by side, from the water looking back. You really get a sense of their size and colors and differences. I take a sip of my beer, which is perspiring all over the table, and kick off my flip flops. In my seat, here at the table on the small top deck, life is good. I’m looking at the two islands, seeing the sun come down, hearing the chop of the blue water against the bow of the boat, enjoying a beverage. Today, I took a hike on Lanai. Tomorrow, I’ll go kayaking on Maui. What’s not to like about this?

Or, more specifically, I think, what’s not to like about cruising?

In many travel circles, including our own adventure travel community, “cruising” can be a dirty word, thanks in part to the shenanigans of large ships. Indeed, when you say that you’re “going on a cruise,” a person is as likely to imagine you participating in a wet t-shirt contest and bellying up to a blackjack table as they are to envision you actually cruising – that is, traveling in some remote, beautiful location via boat. This stereotype has plagued small-ship operators around the world, who find themselves having to explain that while they are technically offering a “cruise,” what they offer is nothing like a “cruise.”

Take this boat I’m on, for example. Originally known as American Safari Cruises, the company changed its name in 2013 to Un-Cruise Adventures. Think about that. So powerful are the stereotypes of this word “cruise” that a company who offers cruises decided to name their company something that suggests they are the opposite of a cruise.

It’s funny and ironic and sad in a way, but ultimately it was a very smart move, because what Un-Cruise offers is in fact a world away from the big ships. The difference was blaring even before I stepped foot on the boat. The Safari Explorer holds only 36 guests and has the look and feel of a storied, sturdy ship – not some brand new, state of the art thing with a grand staircase and a ballroom. It’s only 145 feet, compared to the 1,000 feet that the big ships can surpass, which makes it feel under the radar. If you were walking at the port, or saw it anchored off shore, you wouldn’t say, “Hey, look at that cruise ship.” Honestly, you probably wouldn’t even think twice about it. It looks like any old ship.

For guests, this means that the focus is on the destination, not the vessel. There’s one indoor common area where you eat, drink, and gather throughout the trip. There’s a couple couches, a piano you can play, a bar, and some tables. It’s comfy, but nothing over the top. On the walls, there are maps, pictures, and fact sheets about Hawaii. The staff changes them out each day to coincide with the agenda and island you’re visiting. The rooms are comfortable but again basic, and if you’re expecting your towels to be in the shape of animals, you’re on the wrong boat.

One of the biggest gripes against “cruising” is that the ports are extremely commercialized and touristy, lacking a real sense of place. Un-Cruise takes a different approach by not porting on most nights, instead choosing to anchor up offshore. I found this to be an excellent approach, because it reminds you that you are traveling by boat. You aren’t sleeping on a boat that’s parked at a dock – you maintain that separation from the shore and experience life at sea, views of the island and all.

This idea of maintaining distance and going where others can’t or don’t is the main mission here on Un-Cruise. There are a few planned excursions throughout the trip, but otherwise, the ship’s captain makes the call on where to go and what to do based on conditions, sea life, and opportunity. If there’s whales reported off the coast two miles up, you’re going to head that way. If the surf is too high to kayak on the south shore, you’ll head north. The plan is not to port, drop you off, and say best of luck. The plan is to bring you to the adventure, wherever it might be on that particular day, and utilize the ship’s tender boats, kayaks, and other ocean toys to explore it.

On this trip, we will kayak the coves of La Perouse Bay, night snorkel with Manta Rays, cruise the Kona Coast on zodiac, and hike a sacred valley on Molokai. At night, the staff will put on educational presentations about wildlife, and Native Hawaiian cultural ambassadors will come aboard to speak about Hawaiian history. Tonight, we will dip a microphone into the water to hear the whale calls.

Of all the differences I can point out, my favorite is found in my fellow passengers. These are no rookie vacationers. They are experienced, active travelers who have been around the block, and at dinners, they have shared stories of their travels around the globe. One is preparing for a hiking trip in Nepal next month. Another has just returned from a bike trip in Europe. Another is off to the Dolomites this summer. It seems like everyone is coming or going somewhere, and they all have tall tales to tell.

I know touch-and-go travel is not for everyone, and I know it’s only been a couple days. But it’s been enlightening for me, seeing this sort of adventure with this sort of scenery, with these types of people, with this sort of simple relaxation. Companies like Un-Cruise are trying to change the future of cruising, even if they have to go by a different name to do so. From my perch here on the top deck, I can see plain and clear that there is another way to do things.

Cruising might not be for everyone. It’s true. But even the most hardcore travelers will see: There’s a lot of good things, and certainly nothing wrong, about traveling by boat.