Pretty much the only thing Lindblad's 62-passenger, 95-ton Sea Bird and a mainstream mega-ship have in common is the fact that they both float on water.
Sea Bird is a utilitarian vessel, not a floating resort hotel. The ship has three decks, no casino and one restaurant venue. While all cabins have windows, no cabin is larger than 120 square feet. Bathrooms are teeny tiny, and the narrow twin beds are immovable, either in an L-shape or with a nightstand in between. The spa is one small room; the gym is a set of three outdoor cardio machines. At night, passengers can't go to a show, sing karaoke or even watch TV in their cabins.
Most Lindblad passengers are not only fine with that -- many prefer it. They've come aboard for the fascinating itineraries that get them to remote places big ships can't reach and that teach them about the history, culture, geology and wildlife of the area. Many of Linblad's passengers have never cruised on mainstream lines. They're focused on the destination, and the ship is simply an accessory to exploring a region in depth.
To that end, the trip is run by an expedition leader and a team of experts in different fields (a naturalist, a National Geographic-trained photographer and, on Columbia River itineraries, a historian), ready to share their knowledge in interesting and often humorous ways. The ship is outfitted with all the latest high-tech gear, such as underwater cameras and hydrophones, to enhance the experience. And the expedition staff is not afraid to use the National Geographic name to pull strings, getting us permission to traverse a lock in Zodiac boats or arranging an impromptu tour of the Bonneville Dam with the Army Corps of Engineers. (Fun fact: Because Sea Bird is an American-flagged vessel, the boats are not Zodiac brand but actually an American-based company called D.I.B, which stands for Demaree Inflatable Boats. For the purposes of this review, we'll refer to all inflatable boats as dibs.)
The American-flagged vessel hangs out in North America, cruising to Alaska, Baja Mexico and the Columbia River. In Alaska and Baja, the emphasis is on wildlife and active pursuits in and by the water; Columbia River itineraries focus on the journey of Lewis and Clark, as well as the area's geology and culinary production.
And, while small-ship cruising does not allow for many of the bells and whistles of the big ships, there are definite benefits. The cruise is extremely social, and passengers are welcoming and friendly, without stooping to one-upsmanship or class hierarchies. Even the travel bragging that can accompany this crowd is benign, with people genuinely interested in one another's travels, rather than trying to be the big man on campus because they've been to Antarctica, Africa and Afghanistan.
The food is also surprisingly good. This has much to do with the line's dedication to, where possible, sourcing local ingredients and presenting simple dishes with lots of flavor. And the mostly American crew and staff are hard-working and ready to assist passengers with anything they need. They'll fetch your favorite wine, even if it's not the featured wine at dinner, and they'll find you a bottle of stain remover when you spill said wine on your white sweater.
Sea Bird's trips are priced like luxury cruises, but you're paying for the incredible enrichment programming, the best technology to enhance your experience and an intimate experience focused on the passenger. If you can't live without huge cabins, butlers, gourmet dining in multiple venues and showy entertainment, it's not the ship (or line) for you. If you want to immerse yourself in a destination and don't mind "roughing it" just a tad -- or if you don't love the mainstream cruise experience but want to see a place best accessed by water -- a Sea Bird cruise might be just what you're looking for.