Obviously, most of the amenities and services of a big ship are absent: No spa, no shows, pools, Jacuzzis, casino, restaurant options, room service, children's programs, jazz clubs, boutiques, sports facilities, etc. Cabins are very small, with no phone, TV or mini-fridge. From a luxuries-and-amenities standpoint, it's a fairly Spartan experience.
What's the tradeoff? In exchange for sacrificing all of the above, passengers get a serious educational experience, with omnipresent on-board experts providing lectures, videos and slide shows; almost-all-inclusive pricing (shore excursions are included; most alcoholic drinks are extra, and so is tipping); access to unique itineraries that are off-limits to larger vessels; the ability to visit almost anywhere on shore, thanks to the ship's zodiacs; and a degree of sociability and interaction with other passengers that is usually absent from the big ships.
On our trip – a relatively inactive river excursion – most of the passengers were at or past retirement age, although there was a sprinkling of middle-agers and one 30-something couple. We were told that the passenger demographics are not always so skewed to the high end of the age scale, depending on the itinerary. But they were a pleasant and sociable bunch, uniformly well-educated and interested in learning about Lewis and Clark and the rivers we were exploring.
The Sea Lion's crew was mostly American, young, and eager to please. Besides table service in the dining room, the crew provided twice-daily cabin service, handled bartending duties in the lounge, assisted with the zodiacs, and prepared all the meals. By the way, the quality of food on the Sea Bird was surprisingly good for such a small vessel with such a young staff. The three-course dinners always included a choice of a fish, meat or vegetarian entrée, and a selection of wines ($5 to $7 a glass). The captain also mingled freely when he had time, sitting down to dinner each night like one of the passengers.
The Sea Lion and her sister ship Sea Bird are both more than 20 years old, acquired by Lindblad from the defunct Exploration Cruise Lines more than a decade ago. Both are used on the Lewis & Clark route and various other western hemisphere itineraries.
Lindblad advised passengers on the Lewis & Clark cruise to do some advance reading – specifically, historian Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage, a comprehensive account of Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery that made the trip a lot more meaningful. Shore trips varied; one day, we had a choice of a learning tour to some L&C campsites along Idaho's Clearwater River, or a ride in a jet boat up scenic Hell's Canyon. Another day, we dropped anchor in the mouth of the Palouse River for group zodiac or self-propelled kayak trips along its rocky banks. We visited the Nez Perce Museum in Lewiston, Idaho, and shore-side museums in The Dalles, Ore. and in Astoria, Ore., to learn more about the Columbia River's history and its role in the region's economy. And we went to Fort Clatsop, a rebuilt version of the log structure near Astoria where Lewis & Clark spent a rainy and depressing winter in 1805-06.
Lindblad's Sea Lion, Sea Bird, and other vessels operate a variety of exotic itineraries, generally from seven to 15 days, including Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Baja California, Central America, the Galapagos, Europe, Scandinavia, and Antarctica. Starting fares generally range from $1,470 per person (Mexico's Sea of Cortez, eight days) to $7,970 (Antarctica, 15 days). The company also has some specialized photography cruises and some longer voyages of 20 to 38 days.