BRIDGETOWN, Barbados — Western civilization did not produce the midnight buffet, that cruise-ship icon, by accident. Like the spangled gown worn on formal night or the invitation to dinner at the captain's table, the midnight buffet, its boards groaning with cold cuts and ice sculptures, is a cruise tradition embraced by millions. And these traditions are honored and preserved, in varying degrees, by most of the big passenger ships at sea.
But what if you hate that stuff? What if you like sailing and water sports, love the idea of unpacking your luggage just once per vacation, but want to decide for yourself when to eat dinner? What if you're equally dubious of old-fashioned cruises and newfangled, hyperactive "fun ships"? What if you suspect that smaller is better?
Then you consider a littler, less formal, more sporty ship. And perhaps, on a Caribbean evening around sunset, you end up standing on a tidy upper deck, craning your neck to see as the sails unfurl above.
There was no bingo game this afternoon. There are no table assignments for dinner. And there will be no variety show afterward. Just 74 passenger cabins line the halls, and among 87 crew members, not one is an ice sculptor. Tomorrow there will be kayaking and snorkeling.
Now a waiter arrives with your drink. The sails, adjusted by whirring computer-driven machinery, flap from four 200-foot masts. The waterfront lights of your tiny island port twinkle as you leave. An epic score seems to be called for. And lo, from the top deck's speakers booms Vangelis' thunderous theme from the film "1492." In the trade this is known as a "sail-away anthem." You find yourself standing in the middle of a fully orchestrated spectacle on a ship neither tradition-bound nor hyperactive.
Hmmm, you think. This cruising thing. It's really not so bad.
Yes, much of the cruise industry seems to be sticking with tradition or filling decks with dizzying activity or building ever-bigger ships. In fact, a "medium-size" ship these days carries 1,500 passengers. But a handful of cruise lines have steered a contrarian course with smaller, more relaxed ships, and many in the travel trade see this resistance to regimentation as a sign of what's to come.
"People do not like to be told that they have to eat at a certain hour," says Mike Hannan, owner of San Marin Travel in Novato. Larry Fishkin, president of the Cruise Line, a Miami-based travel agency specializing in cruises, foresees a major baby boomer-driven trend toward informality, even on some of the priciest cruises offered by high-end lines such as Seabourn, Princess and others.
"You'll see that the Seabourns of the world are becoming more casual, as a response to the marketplace," Fishkin says. "And I think Windstar has something to do with that."
Windstar, which sails four ships, cultivates a reputation for "casual elegance" and sets rates at roughly $350 to $500 per person per day. It is the line that delivered me to that Vangelis moment a few weeks ago, and its ships are also the most luxurious you can take without packing a necktie.
Other lines with small ships and casual, sporty approaches include Star Clipper (about $200 a day and up), whose two four-masted ships offer fewer creature comforts and more nautical emphasis, and Windjammer Barefoot Cruises (with even lower prices and far more rustic conditions). For a small ship with more adventurous itineraries and greater emphasis on learning, there is Special Expeditions. For greater luxury and less sports emphasis, there are such small-ship lines as Seabourn, Radisson Seven Seas, Sea Goddess and Silversea. (Costs on those top-of-the-line ships usually exceed $500 per person per day and sometimes exceed $750. Any well-informed travel agent should be able to give the coming year's itineraries and describe ships.)
I took one of Windstar's seven-day cruises in December, a southern Caribbean loop on its flagship, the Wind Star (built in 1986). For any traveler whose introduction to cruising came on more conventional ships, the features absent are just as striking as those present.
The Wind Star and its siblings, the Wind Song (1987) and the Wind Spirit (1988), feature no lecturers, no ship's photographer, no entertainment beyond a small musical team, no formal night.
The passenger cabins are egalitarian: Everybody gets a couple of portholes and nobody gets a private veranda. Cabins have contemporary art on the walls, VCRs, CD players and televisions. (Movies, CDs and books are free for borrowing in the ship's library.)
There is no elevator, a clear message that these ships are aimed at vigorous grown-up passengers. (The ship offers no kids' activities, no baby-sitting, no discounts for children. Of about 140 passengers on my cruise, I saw no one under 18.)