Small Ship Cruising: Ocean Cruises

Wander With Wonder – Discovering Wow Moments Around the World or Across the Street

I love the intimacy of small-ship cruising. Read on for some of my favorite small-ship ocean cruises, with Viking Cruises in Europe and Windstar Cruises in French Polynesia. 

Welcome to Wander Stories, a podcast bringing you stories from destinations around the world or across the street.

In Wander Stories, we go behind the scenes to share some of the wow moments we discover as we travel. My husband and I sometimes find the best stories as we travel the US in our fifth-wheel trailer. Other times, we might discover stories as we jet off to other locales. No matter the source or where we go, we love bringing you Wander Stories to help inspire your own travels. Pull up a chair, grab a glass of bubbles or your favorite beverage, and listen to this episode of Wander Stories.

Listen online here or on your favorite podcast app, or read the full script below.

Where is Susan Today?

I’m in Mexico! Bill and I flew from Phoenix to Cabo San Lucas, where we met my sister-in-law. She drove us about 90 minutes north to their home in Cabo Pulmo.

Cabo Pulmo is often called The Aquarium of the World. Situated on the East Cape north of Los Cabos, it is home to the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with amazing sea life, the only hard coral reef in the Gulf of California, and beautiful water vistas over the Sea of Cortez.

Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

We spent some time with our family there—Bill’s older sister lives there, as does his older brother and his wife. We love the relaxing, laid-back vibe in Cabo Pulmo. This is no Cabo San Lucas. It’s quiet, chill, and one of the most tranquil places I’ve ever experienced.

While there, we spent two days at the Four Seasons Resort Los Cabos at Costa Palmas, about 30 minutes from Cabo Pulmo and an hour north of Cabo San Lucas. This resort is a slice of paradise. I’ll highlight the resort in an article on Wander and feature it in an upcoming episode of Wander Stories.

Four Seasons Resort Los Cabos at Costa Palmas. Photo courtesy Four Seasons Resorts

Now, let’s get to today’s episode of Wander Stories.

Small Ship Cruises

If you missed last week’s episode, be sure to go back and take a listen. I talk about more of my favorite small ship cruises, focusing on canal cruises onboard luxury hotel barges and river cruises. This week, I will share some Wander Stories about small-ship ocean cruises. I’ve taken small-ship cruises with both Viking Ocean Cruises and Windstar Cruises.

Getting to take my Windstar cruise to Tahiti is one of my favorite Wander Stories, although I didn’t think it was a great story when it all happened. We were set to fly out on February 15, 2022. I had a very mild case of COVID in January 2022 but I was never really sick and tested negative just a few days later.

By the time of our trip in February, many places still required testing in addition to our vaccines. While I didn’t need a test to leave the US, French Polynesia required a PCR test at the airport. We could take it in Phoenix before departure or in Papeete, Tahiti. We decided to test at the Phoenix airport. We arrived an extra hour early to get our tests. We were all packed and ready to go…and my PCR test returned positive.

I was distraught. This was supposed to be my dream trip to Tahiti. I was crushed—and a little alarmed and embarrassed when the medical staff at the airport clinic came out in hazmat clothing and escorted me out of the airport. We canceled our trip and went home. I took another antigen test that afternoon. Negative. My doctor explained that PCR tests sometimes return positive results for up to 90 days, long after the point where you were contagious—and PCR tests for travel were discontinued just two weeks after that.

My doctor reassured me I was fine—but I’d missed my trip. Out of an abundance of caution, I quarantined for five days. Then we booked two nights at a resort in Tucson to get out of town at least. I began working with Windstar to plan a different date for visiting Tahiti.

Setting Sail on the Star Breeze

Fast forward to October 2022, when we finally had a chance to take our Windstar cruise on the Star Breeze. It was a magical trip, and we enjoyed our time. We flew on Air France into Papeete, where we spent a luxurious day by the pool (the flight landed at 6 am local time, so we booked a day and an overnight, and it was worth it to have that extra time before boarding the ship.

Hilton Hotel Tahiti. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Star Breeze is an all-suite yacht that accommodates 312 guests. We had about 175 on our cruise. It underwent a major renovation in the past couple of years, bringing beautiful new public areas, including two new dining venues, a new spa, an infinity pool, and a fitness area. The spa is delightful, and I relished the afternoon I spent getting a massage.

We watched the Windstar Star Breeze sail into port the evening before we boarded. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Ship Life Onboard Windstar Star Breeze

We had a lovely dinner with the captain one night at Amphora Restaurant. All the restaurants are included in your cruise price, but some require advance reservations. Amphora is the main dinner restaurant, with white linen tablecloths and a decadent menu that changes each night.

Amphora Restaurant. Photo courtesy Windstar Cruises

During the day, we enjoyed breakfast and lunch at Veranda. I usually dined outdoors on the deck, soaking up the Pacific breezes.

I enjoyed lunch on The Veranda with those beautiful ocean views. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

At night, the deck transforms into Candles Restaurant, a romantic outdoor space with candlelight. It does require reservations. I recommend booking it and enjoying the tasty menu. We ordered a lovely bottle of wine that went beautifully with our dinner.

My favorite restaurant on the cruise was Cuadro 44 by Anthony Sasso. Cuadro 44 features foods from the coastal areas of Spain. You can sample the legendary Iberico ham, savory lamb chops, and my favorite—pulpo Gallego, a Galician-style octopus cooked to perfection.

Cuadro 44. Photo courtesy Windstar Cruises

We enjoyed early evenings at Star Grill, where we could order drinks on the open-air deck and listen to music.

Star Grill. Photo courtesy Windstar Cruises

We had a few days of rough weather, so the captain decided to stay in port. We would go out in the mornings and explore and then make our way to the Yacht Club, where we would play games, read, and chat with other passengers while enjoying panoramic views of the lagoons we anchored.

Yacht Club onboard the Star Breeze. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Windstar Excursion on Moorea

We had several pretty amazing Wander Stories while onboard the Windstar Star Breeze. My favorite experience was going on a photography excursion. This was an additional excursion I signed up for, and it was so worth it. There were only two of us on this particular excursion, and we met a local photographer and she escorted the two of us to a 4-wheel vehicle and we took off to explore the island of Moorea.

Moorea is said to have inspired the mythical Bali Hai from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. Although it is only 10 nautical miles from Papeete, it is a world away. It has a small island feel, and as you explore, you go from rocky coasts to white sand beaches to black sand beaches to pineapple farms scattered across the green mountains.

Black sand beaches on Moorea. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

The information about photography and details on the island and its culture were incredible. We explored the entire island and drove up the mountain to look out over the beautiful lush vegetation and the ocean beyond. One magical moment was when we stopped at the Eglise de la Sainte Famille, or Church of the Holy Family of Haapiti, built in 1897. It’s a lovely white-washed building with two bell towers surrounded by beautiful gardens. As we sat in the 4×4 chatting, it began to pour rain. So our lovely guide spent about 30 minutes telling us stories about the island, what it was like for her to grow up there, and how she traveled to develop her photography skills but came home to be where she loves more than anywhere else.

Church of the Holy Family of Haapiti. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

After the rain subsided, we headed out again, driving up a winding mountain road to an overlook where we could view Mount Tohivea, an extinct volcano that rises to almost 4,000 feet. From there, we walked through pineapple fields, where the locals raise tiny pineapples you can only eat in French Polynesia because they do not export them.

Mount Tohivea. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Bill’s Hiking Adventure in Bora Bora

Another fun story, which attests to the great attitude of the crew, was when my husband, Bill, went hiking on Bora Bora. Bill had scoped out the trails leading up to the top of Mount Otemanu, another extinct volcano that sits at about 2,384 feet above sea level. The top is steep rock, but he wanted to hike from the base up as far as the trail led. He packed a few items in his backpack for a snack, filled up his water bottles, and set out on a hike.

The entire crew knew that Bill was hiking, and they kept checking in with me. Although he was hiking, he still had cellphone service, so he kept in touch with me, and I could track him through the AllTrails app. At lunch that day, I sat down alone, and the crew rushed over to ask about “Mr. Bill.” I told them he was fine and showed them a photo Bill sent me from the trail.

Bill hiking on Bora Bora. Photo by Bill Graham

He showed up toward the end of lunch, and when he entered the dining room, the entire staff cheered. They rushed over bringing him water, his usual Coca Cola, and offering to bring him food instead of him going through the buffet line at Veranda. It was a fun experience, bringing home how much the staff cares about the passengers.

Viking Ocean Cruises in the Mediterranean

Another small-ship cruise I took was in November 2022, for the 8-day Iconic Western Mediterranean cruise from Rome to Barcelona with Viking Ocean Cruises. We set sail on the Viking Sky. While larger than the Windstar with a capacity of 930 passengers, it is still small compared to some mega-ships.

Viking Sky. Photo courtesy Viking Ocean Cruises

As with almost all cruises, we flew into Rome a day early. We arranged for a private driver to take us from the airport to our hotel—Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese.

We arrived at about 11 in the morning, and the hotel got us into our room before noon. The hotel overlooks the beautiful Villa Borghese gardens and is within walking distance of the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain.

Looking down the Spanish Steps to the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

We enjoyed an afternoon exploring and returned to the hotel for a fabulous dinner at Settimo Roman Cuisine & Terrace.

Fish dish at Settimo Roman Cuisine & Terrace at Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

This rooftop restaurant serves unique flavors. We started with before-dinner drinks and took in the breathtaking views across Rome. That night, I opted for a fish dish, and it was phenomenal.

After a peaceful night to catch up on sleep and breakfast back up in the hotel’s restaurant, we used the same company to transfer us to the docks in Civitavecchia, about an hour north of the city, where you board your ship.

Boarding the Viking Sky

The boarding process was quick and easy—another advantage of small-ship cruising—and we were ushered to the World Café on Deck 7 to enjoy lunch while awaiting access to our cabin. We had barely set down for lunch when they announced that our rooms were ready and bags would be delivered to the cabins. We finished our lunch and went to our cabin, where we unpacked for our week of cruising.

The Viking Ocean cruises have lovely cabins with enough room to stretch out. However, we didn’t spend much time in our cabin.

The Deluxe Veranda Stateroom aboard the Viking Sky. Photo courtesy Viking Cruises

Our Favorite Haunts Onboard the Viking Sky

When we were not on shore excursions, we spent our time in one of the common areas on the ship. Our favorite was the 2-story Explorer’s Lounge on Deck 7, with its big windows that allowed us to look out at the world as we sailed past.

Viking Star Explorers’ Lounge at night. Photo courtesy Viking Cruises

You can also enjoy drinks in the lounge or order Scandinavian-inspired dishes from Mamsen’s in the lounge.

Mamsen’s Norwegian Deli dining area is on board the Viking Sky. Photo courtesy Viking Cruises

I thoroughly enjoyed afternoon tea in Wintergarden, adjacent to the main pool. I sipped my tea, enjoyed finger sandwiches and scones, and always chatted with at least one other female passenger enjoying tea alone.

Wintergarden was an ideal setting for afternoon tea. Photo courtesy Viking Cruises

On afternoons I didn’t go to tea, I sometimes headed to the Main pool, where I stretched out on a lounger and read—or did a little work.

Main pool promenade. Photo courtesy Viking Cruises

Dining on the Viking Sky

On many days in port, we enjoyed lunch at the destination. However, we also enjoyed eating in the open air at the Aquavit Terrace for days on the ship.

Aquavit Terrace on the Viking Sky. Photo courtesy Viking Cruises

One of the trip’s highlights was dinner in The Restaurant on Deck 2. I took one of the wine-tasting seminars, and the sommelier took it as a challenge when I told him I was a wine writer. Each evening, he tried to outdo himself on the wine offerings.

The Restaurant on Viking Sky. Photo courtesy Viking Cruises

Dinner service began at 6 pm, and Bill and I went to the dining room each evening at 6. The staff lines up inside the restaurant to greet you. Meals are all-inclusive on Viking, so we didn’t need to make any arrangements ahead of time for The Restaurant. The staff greeted us and took us to a lovely table along the windows so we could watch the ship pull out of port as we dined. I loved asking the sommelier to pair a new wine with my menu choices. One of my favorite bites was a simple prawn dish with cucumber with a light vinaigrette.

My favorite bite was this appetizer of prawns and cucumber with a light citrus sauce. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

While beer, wine, and soft drinks are included during meals, I recommend purchasing the Silver Spirits package on the ocean cruise.

We enjoyed an aperitif before dinner at the Living Room on Viking Sky. Photo courtesy Viking Cruises

This way, you can stop by the lounge and have a cocktail before dinner, sip an aperitif in The Living Room while listening to the piano or a featured entertainer, or enjoy late-night sips at Torshavn while listening to live music.

Torshavn on the Viking Sky. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

While all the restaurants are available at no additional charge, a couple require advance reservations. I recommend booking The Chef’s Table for one night. This is a multi-course tasting menu pairing food and wine with the help of the sommelier and chefs.

View of the Chef’s Table dining room on board the Viking Sky. Photo courtesy Viking Cruises

We also dined twice at Manfredi’s Italian Restaurant. The dining room feels like a lovely, private Italian trattoria. I had the most amazing steak; the pasta was always fresh and perfectly cooked.

Manfredi’s dining room on the Viking Sky. Photo courtesy Viking Cruises

I love Viking cruises because they always present cultural offerings and include regional specialties in the food. I could tell stories from my trips all day, so if you have specific questions, be sure to reach out and ask. I will try to address them in a future episode of Wander Stories.

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Exploring Portugal with Viking River Cruises
European Waterways Barge Cruise Along France’s Canal Du Midi

Small Ship Ocean Cruising

While many people love the big cruises, nightlife, and activity, I prefer small-ship cruising. I’d love to hear your thoughts about cruising. Check out the podcast about small-ship canal and river cruises. We invite you to explore Wander With Wonder for more articles about small-ship cruising.

Until next time on Wander Stories, I hope you find wow moments in your travels. If you love this episode, please subscribe and leave us your feedback.


Small Ship Cruising: Ocean Cruises