Small Cruise Ships (Ocean-Going)

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”  John Augustus Shedd

If you love the idea of a cruise but are turned off by  those smoky casinos or thousand-seat dining rooms, know this: not all cruise ships are vast, floating resorts. A  growing industry niche revolves around small vessels — a wide-ranging group that includes yachts, rugged expedition ships and classic sailing schooners — where passenger counts top out at 200, rather than 2,000.

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Beyond offering a cozier atmosphere, the small size of these ships creates a whole different experience, onboard and ashore. You can go kayaking off a wilderness island in Mexico with Lindblad, trim the sails and climb the rigging with Star Clippers or hop around the Greek Islands with Variety Cruises.

Small-ship cruising is not all about the caviar and private cabanas of luxury ships, either.  It’s more about geographic access to the world’s less-trafficked ports. In Greece, for instance, Variety Cruises’ ships stop in Monemvasia and Spetses, unusual Greek cruise ports that are mostly avoided by larger vessels. Think of small ship cruising as an evolution in your cruise profile, as you tick off more ports visited across the globe.

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Of course, these intimate experiences mean giving up big-ship amenities like Broadway-style shows, multiple dining venues, expansive kids’ programs and endless watering holes. That said, typical cruise vacation add-ons like excursions are often included in the fares, as is access to kayaks and bikes.

Before we launch into our picks, let’s answer one question: how do we define “small”? It’s a bit of an arbitrary distinction, when cruise ships like 155,873-ton, 4,200-passenger Norwegian Epic  and 225,582-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas  make the concept of small quite relative. Here we’ll talk about  non-luxury vessels that accommodate fewer than 300 passengers.

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Our Favorite Expedition Cruises

Lindblad Expeditions

Lindblad Expeditions, allied with National Geographic, offers soft-adventure voyages on a fleet of five capable vessels (as well as several charters) that carry from 28 to 148 passengers. Forget big-ship accouterments like in-cabin TV’s, casinos, and multiple bars and restaurants (though the newest ship in the fleet, National Geographic Explorer has a decent-sized spa and alternative eatery). The ships are comfortable, and there are some great touches like the local, organic foods used in meals.

But Lindblad’s ships serve more as base camps for exploring the world’s waters, with cruises to the Galapagos, South Pacific, Indian Ocean, Antarctica, Greenland and the Arctic Circle. Besides the obligatory Zodiacs, which are used to make landings, ships are equipped with scientific tools like hydrophones (to snoop on marine mammals), underwater cameras and video microscopes.

The line has become especially well regarded for the staff of top-flight naturalists, historians, undersea specialists and expedition leaders who accompany each of its trips. National Geographic photographers are also on every sailing onboard National Geographic Explorer and many sailings on National Geographic Endeavour, as well as on select photography expeditions across the entire fleet. As you’d expect from National Geographic, there’s also a strong emphasis on leaving the smallest possible carbon footprint.

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Or Consider Hurtigruten

The Norwegian-based cruise line Hurtigruten plies the poles with 12 ships of varying sizes, including its pathfinder, 276-passenger Fram. Onboard, this ice-hardened polar expedition vessel offers some stylish twists like a minimalist Arctic-chic design (iceberg sculptures, austere destination photography) and flat-screen TV’s in cabins. Don’t let the trappings fool you — these cruises are all about nature. Like other expedition vessels, Fram has its own small landing craft that take passengers to incredible seaside locations. Passengers are an international mix, and the ship, which operates in English and Norwegian, adds other languages, such as German or French, if needed.

hurtigruten norway

We also Like Quark Expeditions

Whether you want penguins or polar bears, Quark Expeditions, which specializes in Arctic and Antarctic journeys, has something for you. Several of the line’s six ships have onboard helicopters, as well as kayaking, cross-country skiing and mountaineering equipment (not to mention the ever-present Zodiacs). The line’s 128-passenger expedition vessel, 50 Years of Victory, has nuclear-powered capabilities to go through 10 feet of ice and makes the voyage to the North Pole. And Quark’s Antarctica trips often go longer and farther south, with more varied itineraries, than other lines. Days at sea are full of lectures and presentations from scientific experts and, on some vessels, photographers.

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Favorite Scenic Nature Cruises

Variety Cruises

Variety Cruises and its budget sub-brand, Zeus Casual Cruises, offer low-key cruises to the Greek Isles, the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea. For the Greece cruises, the sailings mix in offbeat stops like Monemvassia and Spetses with traditional picks like Mykonos and Santorini. Cruises in the Arabian Gulf visit Nizwa (surrounded by a palm oasis) and other stops unheard of in the cruise world. Ships — both the modern yachts of Variety Cruises and the more homey sailing ships of Zeus Casual Cruises — carry fewer than 70 passengers and typically feature swimming/sports platforms with snorkeling and kayaking equipment so passengers can actually engage in the passing scenery.

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Alaskan Dream Cruises

For over 40 years, Allen Marine Tours has showcased the best of Southeast Alaska on their own custom built jet boat day tours. Now they’re sharing their insider’s knowledge on  8, 9, 11 & 13-day cruises spotlighting scenic beauty, amazing wildlife and intriguing native culture. Linger in the midst of a pod of foraging, spouting, breaching whales.

Get up close to thundering tidewater glaciers and see stunning wilderness through the eyes of expert naturalists, Expedition Leaders, and Tlingit-Alaska Native interpreters. You’ll cruise to legendary Glacier Bay National Park plus rare out-of-the-way places like Hobart Bay and Kasaan. And with at least one shore excursion included every day the value is unsurpassed. Experience small-ship Alaska cruising the true Alaskan way.

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Check out Celebrity Cruises ‘ Xpedition

Celebrity ‘Xpedition opened up Galapagos cruises, formerly the province of backpacking (or high-end) “adventure travelers,” to passengers who want more comfortable amenities and features. Indeed, the joy of the Galapagos operation is that it combines Celebrity’s stylishness and high level of service and cuisine with a local, “small ship” ambience. (The ship carries 90 passengers.) Crewmembers — almost entirely Ecuadorian, from the captain down — are sunny, charming and tirelessly obliging. Each day, briefings occur in the evening before dinner around cocktail hour, including an excellent PowerPoint presentation that describes the three options for activities the following day. Destination-oriented features are incorporated into the onboard experience, such as a performance of Ecuadorian “folklorique”, preceded by a highly personalized slideshow with pictures of passengers meeting wildlife during the course of the trip. (you’ll receive a complimentary CD to take home.)

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We also Like InnerSea Discoveries

InnerSea Discoveries, the expedition arm of American Safari Cruises, bills itself as “The UnCruise,” offering active voyages to Alaska and Hawaii that are meant to appeal to people who might not normally cruise. Each of the line’s three ships, holding between 60 and 76 passengers, have kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, snorkeling equipment and hot tubs onboard for relaxing after a day of hiking or paddling. The line doesn’t do many typical port stops, preferring to pause in inlets and bays that offer maximum exposure to nature and wildlife.

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Favorite Tall-Ship Cruises

Star Clippers

For the tall-ship enthusiast, there’s nothing quite like sailing under a starry or sunny sky, powered by the bluster of ocean winds. If you want to enjoy the power of the breeze while exploring less-traveled ports in the Southern Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the Mediterranean, Star Clippers is tough to beat. The fleet’s three vessels — flagship 227-passenger Royal Clipper and 170-passenger twins Star Clipper and Star Flyer — are some of the fastest clipper ships ever built. Feel the sails catch the breeze, help with the raising and trimming, or morph into a spider and climb high in the rigging.

Onboard, passengers don’t adhere to rigid timetables as they might on more conventional cruise ships, and the evening dress code is always elegantly casual (with the exception of themed evenings, like Pirate Night). Water sports are also a major component of each cruise, with complimentary snorkeling, kayaking, sailing and other sea-based activities offered directly from the ship. (You can also get your diving certification.)

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We also like Windstar

Windstar’s style is what we call “casual luxury “: small-ship amenities mixed with big-ship features, particularly where pricing is involved. (Drinks and fitness classes are a la carte, for example.) “Casual elegance” is the designated dress code, and that idea permeates the onboard vibe. Passengers leave ties and formal wear at home in favor of country-club casual sportswear, day and night. One of our favorite features — available on each of Windstar’s three vessels — is the water sports platform, with its range of complimentary water sports (snorkeling, wind-sailing, paddle-boating and even water-skiing). Ships include 148-passenger Wind Spirit and Wind Star, each with four masts and six sails, and larger 312-passenger schooner, Wind Surf, with a whopping five masts and seven sails.

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Consider Island Windjammers

Born from the ashes of the popular Windjammer Barefoot Cruises line, Island Windjammers aims to pick up where that company left off by offering small-ship cruises that are focused more on the joys of sailing than on shipboard amenities. The line has offered sailings in the Windward Islands from Grenada since 2010 on 12-passenger DIAMANT.  It has now added 22-passenger schooner, Sagitta, which sails Leeward Island cruises out of St. Maarten. Swimsuits, cover-ups and T-shirts are typical daytime attire, and dressing for dinner usually means nothing more than putting on a clean shirt.

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