The small cruise ship fleet is rapidly expanding and developing into a diverse and significant sector within the cruise industry.

A growing number of operators are introducing new products, and while they are all after the passenger who wants to cruise where the big ships cannot, each is staking out its own niche. As a result, there are now cruises at every end of the spectrum for passengers who prefer the smaller ships.

Catering to the elite are the Sea Goddess I and Sea Goddess II, and Maxim's des Mers, with their high per diem rates and calls to exclusive resorts and yacht marinas. However, there are differences between them - most significantly, their size and design.

The Sea Goddess ships accommodate 116 passengers and feature a modern and elegant American/Scandinavian decor, while the Maxim's des Mers carries 32 passengers and features unique Art Nouveau decor and fine French/Continental ambiance. Both lines offer complimentary wines, champagnes, premium spirits, and unlimited caviar; and discourage gratuities.

More Variety in the Mid Range

The greatest diversity is developing in the mid-range, where passengers can now choose among ships with capacities from 20 to 250 passengers; cruises for island-hopping, adventure and intellectual stimulation; and itineraries that span the globe.

One of the newest entries into the small cruise market will be the Coral Star - a 115-foot, 20-passenger ship that will offer seven-day cruises from Philipsburg, St. Maarten beginning mid-December.

Owned and operated by Coral Bay Charters - a Ft. Lauderdale company that for private' also operates two small yachts charters - the ship is being refurbished at Directors Shipyard in Ft. Lauderdale.

Upon completion, she will have staterooms, a swimming pool, two dining rooms, two bars, a VCR center, a 22-foot launch and three sundecks. A ski boat, windsurfers, and snorkeling and fishing gear also will be carried aboard.

According to Gary Glenn, spokesperson for Coral Bay, the ship will sail to Saba, St. Christopher, Nevis Barbuda St. Barts, Montserrat, and Antigua, but not on a strictly planned itinerary.

"Our itineraries will follow the special festivals and events on each island, at the time of each sailing," Glenn said.

Prices will range from $1,750 to $2,450 per person, double occupancy, including liquor. Airfare is currently not included, although the line is working on arranging packages with some of the carriers.

The cruises are designed for people who are not interested in the large ships, Glenn said. "They are travellers who want a casual cruise in an elegant setting, and for those who want to explore the islands." Upper middle income couples between the ages of 35 and 54 are the primary targets.

Incentives and groups are also being targeted. In addition, the company offering travel agents the opportunity to book the entire ship and then sell the cabins to a group or individuals at a different rate, Glenn said.

The company officially opened its sales office on August 1, and already has had numerous inquiries, according to Glenn.

Optimistic about the future, Coral Bay is planning to add a second cruise ship - this time, one with 24 staterooms, Glenn said. 

For those interested in island hopping with a slightly larger group of people, and at a less expensive rate, there is the 2,430-ton, 160-passenger Vacationer - a Netherlands­ registered ship owned by Vacationer Lines BV of Holland.

Operated exclusively by Travel Impressions in New York, it sails seven-day cruises from Antigua to Montserrat, St. Eustatius, Saba, St. Kitts, St. Maarten, Anguilla and St. Barts. Prices during peak season range from $1,229 to $1,119, plus $60 port charges. Airfare and gratuities are included.

The Vacationer features 74 all-outside cabins, a swimming pool, a dining roan, a bar, and duty-free shops.

According to Susan Nullet, spokesperson for Travel Impressions, "this is a barefoot experience - there is no need for a suit and tie."

Most of Vacationer's passengers come from the Northeast U.S., and repeat guests account for a great deal of the business.

Salen Lindblad to Introduce New Ship

For passengers interested in adventure and destination-oriented cruising, the variety of options has burgeoned recently.

Salen Lindblad will add to the fleet when it introduces the new twin-hulled Motive Explorer, currently under construction in Perth. The 109 foot, jet-propelled vessel will have 17 outside suites, a dining room, main lounge and a fleet of Zodiacs for landings and river explorations. It will be the first vessel to offer cruises in Australia's wild Kimberleys, according to Yvonne Damiani, spokesperson for the line.

Prices for the cruises will be about $3,000 per person for a combined eight-day sailing and nine-day land tour, and $5,000 for a 25-day program - plus $1,000 air fare from the West Coast to Sydney.

The Motive Explorer Joins Salen Lindblad's seven-ship fleet of similar vessels, sailing in the Pacific Basin, Scandinavia, the Adriatic, the Danube, the Volga, and the Galapagos Islands.

The cruises are designed for the "mature and active traveller - in the 50 plus age group, and they have a strong intellectual appeal," Damiani said. Repeat clients are the greatest source of business.

"We have found that once passengers are exposed to the personal attention and clublike atmosphere of the smaller vessels, they don't want to go on the larger ships again," she added.

According to Scott Fitzsimmons, spokesperson for Society Expeditions - the market is only beginning to take off.

"The most encouraging thing is that the passengers are getting younger," he said.

Society Expeditions offers two- to four-week cruises in Antarctica, the Amazon, the Northwest Passage, Indonesia and Polynesia, aboard the 100-passenger Society Explorer and the 140-passenger World Explorer. Both ships offer accommodations similar to cruise ships, Fitzsimmons said. Per diem rates are from $300 to $500 per person.

Fitzsimmmons believes that the market is growing because travellers are becoming increasingly interested in discovering new places.

"Antarctica and the South Pacific are our most popular destinations," he said. Glenn of Coral Bay agrees that the market is ripe for operators of small cruise ships. "Our research shows that there are a lot of people who don't want to cruise on the big ships."

"Right now, the market is big enough for everyone to develop their own style, and so far, we all are a little different," Damiani said.

Rounding out the small cruise fleet are American Cruise Line, American Canadian Line, Clipper Cruise Line, Exploration Cruise Line, Windjammer and Windstar Sail Cruises.

In addition, rumors abound concerning other new small cruise ships that will soon cruise the inland waterways, the Caribbean and the South Pacific. And several cruise lines with 6,000 to 8,000-ton ships have recently begun to bill their vessels as "yachtlike", providing further evidence that "small" is "in."