If you long for the open ocean but your heart sinks at the thought of all-night discos, thousand-seat dining rooms or congested ports, know this: You can enjoy a more intimate atmosphere, personalised service and destination-driven itineraries on a cruise. Not all cruise ships are vast, floating resorts. A burgeoning industry niche revolves around small vessels -- a wide-ranging group that includes yachts, rugged expedition ships, riverboats and classic sailing schooners -- where passenger counts are closer to 300, rather than 3,000.
Before we launch into our picks for the best small ship cruises, let's answer one question: How do we define "small"? For this story, we're sticking with vessels that accommodate fewer than 600 passengers. Check out our small ship cruise comparison below.
Best for Expedition Cruises
1. Aurora Expeditions
Founded by Australian mountaineer Greg Mortimer and his wife Margaret in 1992, Aurora Expeditions has expanded operations beyond the Arctic and Antarctica. Other destinations include Patagonia, Greenland, Iceland, Canada, Costa Rica, Panama, Nepal, Ireland and Scotland. Travelling with Aurora is all about the adventure and diverse itineraries led by highly experienced expedition leaders. Solo travellers have several options (such as cabin-sharing with a like-minded traveller) to take the sting out of a single supplement.
In 2019 the company farewelled its trusty old fleet and launched the modern Greg Mortimer, which was the first cruise ship in the world with the revolutionary X-Bow, a pointed hull that cuts through rough seas to gives passengers a smoother ride and, hopefully, less seasickness. A similar ship, Sylvia Earle, is expected to be completed by October 2021. Good food, stylish decor and well-appointed cabins have also enhanced the offerings on this pioneering polar company.
2. True North Adventure Cruises
Sticking close to home, this one-ship luxury expedition line cruises the Kimberley and Western Australian coasts, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and West Papua. Launched in 2005, the all-white 36-passenger True North is built to meander up narrow, shallow waterway and river systems. In the Kimberley it almost nudges the wonderful King George Falls, providing guests with a pretty misty experience (other expedition ships anchor quite a long way away).
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The company has been plying WA's coastline for more than 30 years. Itineraries include the Fremantle to Dampier jaunt via Ningaloo Reef, a selection of Kimberley coast excursions from the classic 13-day Wyndham to Broome cruise, to shorter barramundi-fishing itineraries. Further south, the ship travels from Adelaide to Ceduna via Coffin Bay and Port Lincoln, offering glimpses of a rugged coast few Aussies see, especially in such style. Equipped with six small expedition boats and a six-seater helicopter (the only one on a ship in the Southern Hemisphere), there's no nook or cranny that can't be explored on these trips.
The Norwegian-based cruise line Hurtigruten plies the poles with 15 ships of varying sizes. On the horizon in 2019 is its forthcoming flagship, 530-passenger MS Roald Amundsen. It will be the first of two hybrid propulsion ships that will reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20 percent. The ship features suites and cabins with balconies, as well as ocean-view staterooms. The Expedition Suite even has a private outdoor hot tub and comes with amenities like a bathrobe and espresso maker.
Don't let the trappings fool you though -- these cruises are all about nature. Like other expedition vessels, MS Roald Amundsen has its own small landing crafts that take passengers to incredible seaside locations. Passengers are an international mix, and the ship -- which will operate in English and Norwegian -- adds other languages, such as German or French, if needed.
4. Lindblad Expeditions
Lindblad Expeditions, allied with National Geographic, offers soft-adventure cruises on a fleet of six capable vessels (as well as several charters) that carry from 28 to 148 passengers. Forget big-ship accoutrements like casinos and multiple bars and restaurants -- though all ships offer LEXspa treatment rooms for onboard spa services.
The ships are comfortable, and there are some great touches like the local, organic foods used in meals. The line has become especially well regarded for its staff of topflight naturalists, historians, undersea specialists and expedition leaders who accompany each of its trips; many also have National Geographic photographers, or at least a Lindblad-National Geographic-certified photo instructor.
But Lindblad's ships serve more as base camps for exploring the world's waters, with cruises to all seven continents, including the Galapagos, South Pacific, Indian Ocean, Antarctica, Greenland and the Arctic Circle. Besides kayaks (for paddling excursions) and the obligatory Zodiacs, which are used to make landings, ships are equipped with scientific tools such as hydrophones (to snoop on marine mammals), underwater cameras and video microscopes.
Best for Scenic Nature Cruises
5. Coral Expeditions
This line is known for its excellent service, delicious food and friendly all-Australian crew including some of the best expedition guides around. But one of its points of difference for people with mobility issues or those who don't like Zodiacs (inflatable boats) is the use of sturdier, steadier, shaded exploration vessels for wet landings and coral viewing. The fleet is also equipped with kayaks, snorkelling and diving gear, and all of these activities are included in the fare.
Coral Expeditions was family-owned until 2015 which explains the welcoming ambiance and attention to detail, which fortunately has been maintained since it was bought by a Singaporean firm. Mainstay itineraries are the Great Barrier Reef, the Kimberley, Cape York and Arnhem Land, Tasmania, Papua New Guinea and West Papua.
The smaller Coral Expeditions I and Coral Expeditions II, each carry fewer than 50 passengers. The newer Coral Adventurer, launched in 2019, accommodates 120 passengers but still feels intimate, spacious and easy to get around, thanks to an elevator, wide corridors and large rooms. a highlight is that passengers can walk across a stable ramp from the ship's top deck to board the exploration vessel before it is lowered into the water on a hydraulic platform.
6. Celebrity Cruises
Though better known for its big ships, Celebrity Cruises has been a leader in offering Galapagos itineraries on intimate vessels since it first launched 98-passenger Celebrity Xpedition. Since then, two more small ships -- 48-passenger Celebrity Xperience and 16-passenger Celebrity Xploration -- joined the fleet in 2017. A new 100-passenger all-suite vessel, Celebrity Flora, is on the horizon for 2019. (Note: Flora will replace Xperience and Xploration.)
Celebrity's Galapagos cruise ships combine the line's modern style and focus on service and cuisine with a local, small ship ambience. Destination-oriented features are incorporated into the onboard experience; they might include a performance highlighting Ecuadorian folklore on Xpedition and regionally inspired sustainable decor in the upcoming Flora. The new ship, which is custom-designed for sailing the Galapagos, will also feature cabin automation and environmentally friendly systems, including anchorless technology (dynamic positioning) and in-room water filtration stations.
7. Silversea Expeditions
Silversea's four-vessel expedition fleet (Silver Galapagos, Silver Cloud, Silver Explorer and Silver Discoverer) upholds the line's luxurious all-inclusive image. All passengers -- on ships accommodating 100 to 254 -- enjoy spacious suites, complete with butler service and high-end touches (Prastesi linens and amenities from Ferragamo, Bulgari or SebaMed).
Expedition cruising with Silversea means you'll visit a good mix of mainstream and less-crowded destinations (Galapagos, Polynesia, Micronesia and more) throughout the world's seven continents. Itineraries include complimentary shore excursions, such as Zodiac tours, nature hikes with certified guides, snorkeling and kayaking.
But what really sets Silversea expeditions apart is its level of access to experts like Dr. Birute Mary Galdikas, the "Jane Goodall of orangutans," and dancers from Russia's Bolshoi Ballet. Silversea expeditions provide curious travelers the perfect mix of luxury and adventure. (Note that Silversea is building a new expedition ship, Silver Origin, to replace Silver Galapagos in the Galapagos Islands. The ship is slated to launch in March 2020.)
8. Un-Cruise Adventures
UnCruise Adventures offers adventure cruises and river cruises that are meant to appeal to people who might not normally cruise. The line's nine vessels, holding between 22 and 90 passengers, sail to Alaska, Costa Rica and Panama, coastal Washington, Hawaii, Galapagos Islands, British Columbia, Mexico's Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Northwest's Columbia and Snake rivers (the line's only river destination). The line doesn't do many typical port stops, preferring to pause in inlets and bays that offer maximum exposure to nature and wildlife.
Vessels come equipped with kayaks, standup paddle-boards, snorkeling equipment and hot tubs onboard for relaxing after a day of hiking or paddling. As the diverse fleet incorporates upscale expedition ships, yachts and even a replica turn-of-the-century steamboat, onboard offerings vary. Expect thoughtful premium appointments and amenities throughout, though, with fitness areas, lounges, libraries and mealtimes highlighting gourmet, locally sourced cuisine and fine wines and microbrews.
Best Ships with Sails
9. Windstar Cruises
Upscale line Windstar -- sailing to ports throughout Alaska, Asia, Canada and New England, Europe, the Caribbean, Central America and the South Pacific -- doesn't offer traditional masted sailing ships but does deliver a similarly pleasing aesthetic via its trio of yachts equipped with sails. The three ships include the 148-passenger Wind Spirit and Wind Star, each with four masts and six sails, and the larger 312-passenger vessel, Wind Surf, with a whopping five masts and seven sails. (Windstar also has three additional 212-passenger yachts, which come minus the sails: Star Pride, Star Breeze and Star Legend.)
The result of this pleasing "motorized sailing yacht" experience is that passengers can revel in the romanticism of sailing, without having to sacrifice amenities. While touting plenty of plush yacht-worthy appointments to properly pamper guests, the line doesn't get too stuffy: "Casual elegance" is the designated dress code, and that idea permeates the onboard vibe. Passengers leave ties and formalwear at home in favor of country-club casual sportswear, day and night.
One of our favorite features -- available on each of Windstar's vessels -- is the water sports platform, with its range of complimentary water sports (snorkeling, wind-sailing, paddle-boarding and even water-skiing).
10. 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 float along with the wind while exploring less-traveled ports in the Caribbean and 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 tall ship sailing cruise, with complimentary snorkeling, kayaking, sailing and other sea-based activities offered directly from the ship.
Best River Cruises
On all 17 river vessels, whether refurbished or newly built, Uniworld's signature is a daring, dynamic and colorful ambience. Public rooms and cabins are furnished in a high standard, with lush fabrics, antiques and original artwork nestled next to state-of-the-art amenities like flat-screen televisions, marble bathrooms and incredibly comfortable Savoir brand beds.
Cuisine and service are on par with those found on oceangoing luxury vessels, though as the line's riverboats are significantly smaller, ranging in size from 56 to 196 passengers, options like alternative restaurants and entertainment venues are typically fewer in number. (Instead, each evening provides diversions that might range from local acts brought onboard in ports of call to bands that play for dancing).
Most shore tours (and all in Europe) are included in the fares, and each ship carries a fleet of complimentary loaner bicycles. In addition to Europe, the line has scheduled voyages to Russia, China, Vietnam and Cambodia, India and Egypt.
Popular with Aussies, APT works with partner AmaWaterways to offer cruises in Europe, Asia, Egypt and Russia. The line offers ambitious regional cuisine, complimentary drinks, well-designed cabins and guided port stops (included in the fares) -- all set on some of the most modern river ships in the industry.
The vessels, ranging in size from 28 to 196 passengers, come with contemporary decor inspired by the destination and amenities like in-cabin "entertainment on demand" systems (with Internet, music, movies and more), glass elevators, heated swimming pool or hot tub and mechanised wheelhouses that can be lowered to transit under low-slung bridges.
For the daily tours, passengers receive wireless audio devices so they don't miss a word on history or culture. All ships in the European fleet offer 25 bicycles that passengers can use on guided tours or to explore on their own.
APT has at least one special treat known as a Signature Experience on each itinerary; this may be a visit to the Namedy Castle near Bonn, Germany, with private dinner in the ballroom, or a private train journey between Linz and Salzburg in Austria. A treat for passengers taking cruises aboard in the AmaLotus in Vietnam is a six-course menu designed by Australian-Vietnamese celebrity chef Luke Nguyen.
Another Australian company, Scenic has a large fleet of luxury ships in Europe and a handful plying rivers in Russia and south-east Asia. All passengers enjoy the services of a private butler and a fully-inclusive fare that takes care of all the dining (including six-course Chef's Table dinners), alcoholic beverages, including stocked mini-bar, and gratuities. Passengers can cycle along river paths on the ship's e-bikes and set off on independent 'Tailor-Made' tours in many destinations, guided by a personal GPS system. "Enrich Encounters" are Scenic's special events and these may include a classical piano performance in Budapest, wine and olive oil tasting followed by lunch in a Tuscan farmhouse or a medieval feast in Marksburg Castle, a grand edifice on a hill overlooking the Rhine.
Known as "space ships" for their roomy cabins and public rooms, Scenic's riverboats carry between 128 to 170 passengers in Europe and considerably less in Asia; Mekong cruises sail with just 68; and the Scenic Aura, which cruises the Irrawaddy in Myanmar, carries just 44 guests. The company made its debut into ocean cruising with the small ship, Scenic Eclipse, carrying around 200 people on global itineraries.
Best Yacht Cruises
14. SeaDream Yacht Club
No yacht? No problem! Family-owned SeaDream Yacht Club offers the next best thing with its twin cruising yachts, SeaDream I and SeaDream II, offering sophistication sans the pretence for a maximum of 112 guests. Onboard, passengers can enjoy pampering by a polished 95-person crew; locally-inspired and international cuisine served on deck or in an elegant dining salon; and included-in-the-rates wine, Champagne and cocktails.
Look out for exciting extras like the option to sleep under the stars (on deck-side Balinese loungers) and a water sports platform with complimentary equipment (sailboats, kayaks, etc.) on loan. Mediterranean, Baltic and Caribbean SeaDream cruises incorporate hidden-away ports and activities with the crew, which are included in the pricing.
Although Ponant's ownership has changed thrice in the span of its three-decade existence, the line has managed to remain true to its roots: a strong French influence and a five-star feel. Ponant's "French touch" features a French crew, a French way of living (French cuisine and wines) and prestigious partnerships, including interior design by Jean Philippe Nuel, spa products by Sothy's, Fragonard's signature perfumes and Pierre Frey fabrics.
Its fleet consists of four mega-yachts (L'Austral, Le Boreal, Le Lyrial and Le Soleal), six mid-size yachts (Le Champlain, Le Laperouse, Le Bougainville, Le Dumont-D'Urville, Le Bellot and Le Jacques Cartier) and one small-capacity yacht (Le Ponant) sailing Mediterranean, Adriatic, Caribbean and other exotic itineraries. Ponant's all-inclusive fares (some shore excursions, drinks, internet and gratuities) are competitive and provide high value for money.
16. Crystal Cruises
The first of its kind to join the Crystal Cruises' fleet, 62-passenger Crystal Esprit is a luxury yacht with multiple restaurants offering top-notch cuisine, a gym, a spa and an expansive sun deck with a plunge pool and lounge. Its superb crew is consistent with the line's reputation for attention to passengers and detail. Most staterooms on Crystal Esprit are a comfortable 280 square feet, with a great king bed, lots of high-tech toys and lavish marble bathrooms.
The ship sails destination-intensive itineraries predominantly in the Caribbean, Adriatic and Middle East. Activities on shore -- most of which are included in the cruise fares -- focus on kayaking, cycling, swimming, snorkeling and hiking, with a smattering of cultural and culinary tours. The ship's marina has a swimming platform and offers water toys, such as paddleboards, Jet Skis, water skis, snorkeling equipment and kayaks. Esprit's most unusual feature is its three-person submarine (tours at additional cost).