Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia.

Boutique Cruises and More Musings on the Concept of Boutique in Travel

Yesterday, I was chatting about boutique cruises over a glass of wine with a hotelier in Siem Reap, as I seem to be finding myself increasingly doing these days. Not the chatting about boutique cruises bit, but the chatting over glasses of wine.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the more you travel the more you realize how you prefer to travel – whether it’s the form of transport you take, the sort of accommodation to choose (after holiday rentals, for us, boutique hotels are best), the kind of tours you select, whether you even take tours or prefer to travel independently, and whether you like to organize your travel yourself or opt for all-inclusive holidays.

My new hotelier friend was telling me what was left on her bucket list – a long train journey, a barge trip, and a cruise were among the many things this Siem Reap expat hadn’t yet done that she aimed to do. She was already living her dream by opening a pretty little riverside boutique hotel, so I had no doubt she’d get through her other goals.

You may remember that Terence and I did our first cruise late last year as guests of Orion Expeditions for a magazine article. And, yes, we promise we will be posting those long overdue stories soon here on Grantourismo.

Prior to that invitation we had no interest whatsoever in doing a cruise – we thought they were either for very young people out to party in ‘discotheques’ with 1970s disco balls or very old people out to relax on the deck with a book and a blanket spread over their laps.

We also objected to the damage the most monumental ships do to the environment – something we became all the more conscious of when we spent time on Venice’s lagoon with a marine scientist learning about that damage firsthand.

We disliked the idea of doing an all-inclusive cruise on one of those colossal ships as much as we hated the idea of lining up for a breakfast buffet at one of those massive 1000-room Atlantis-style mega-resorts. And we actually loathed the idea of all-inclusive anything full stop.

But as we were chatting about all-inclusive cruises and I was describing our Orion Expeditions Sabah Borneo cruise on the Orion II – a compact mega-yacht with just 100 passengers, rather than a massive ocean liner with thousands – I began to recall the things I liked about the Orion Expedition and realized that they were the same things I liked about boutique hotels, which I recently wrote about here.

Small ships (or mega-yachts) like boutique hotels share that same sense of intimacy and individuality, and are distinguished by personal service and attention to detail, in stark contrast to the colossal liners and monumental resorts.

By way of an example, Terence often tells people about the Filipino staff on the Orion who not only remembered his name by the second morning but also recalled exactly how he liked his coffee. By day three, they were placing his macchiato on the breakfast table without Terence having to even ask (They had also nicknamed me ‘George Clooney’, so there’s that…– Terence). I can’t imagine that happening on one of those mega-liners.

Now the idea of an all-inclusive cruise or hotel is another thing entirely, yet when I was a younger and less experienced traveler I’d often conflate the ideas of all-inclusive with big and bad, under the misapprehension that if it was an all-inclusive holiday then it must be at one of those monolithic mega-resorts or epic-size cruise liners.

Yet over the years we’ve realized that all-inclusive can be a wonderful thing when it’s offered by small boutique properties and boutique cruises like those offered by Orion and Silversea and the like. Not having to worry about having to carry cash to pay for things and how much you should be tipping and such, allows you to more fully appreciate the trip and focus on the little details, whether it’s a hotel stay or a journey.

Every good hotel and cruise offers welcome drinks and iced towels these days – it’s whether the person offering them remembers your name that sets one experience apart from the next, whether it’s on land or at sea.

And this idea of personal service and attention to detail and remembering people’s names doesn’t have to be confined to luxury hotels. In Siem Reap it’s something that distinguishes the best small budget boutique hotels from the mediocre properties.

Big isn’t necessarily better and all-inclusive doesn’t have to be bad. I think the keyword is ‘boutique’. What do you think?



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