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The Best Small Cruise Ship Lines (Photo: Star Clippers)

17 Best Small Cruise Ship Lines

If you long for the open ocean but bristle at the thought of all-night discos, thousand-seat dining rooms or congested Caribbean ports-turned-duty-free-shopping-malls, know this: You can enjoy a cozier atmosphere, personalized setting and 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 top out at 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 going to stick with vessels that accommodate fewer than 500 passengers, spanning the market from rugged expedition ships to super-luxury yachts.

Celebrity Xpedition in the Galapagos

If you long for the open ocean but bristle at the thought of all-night discos, thousand-seat dining rooms or congested ports, know this: not all cruise ships are vast, floating resorts. A burgeoning industry niche revolves around small vessels -- a wide-ranging group that includes yachts, expedition ships, riverboats and classic sailing schooners -- where passenger counts top out at closer to 300, rather than 3,000.

Beyond offering a cosier atmosphere, the small size of these cruise ships creates a whole different experience, both onshore and onboard. Smaller ships allow easy access to less-visited ports that the bigger vessels just can't get to, lending to refreshingly unique itineraries. Expedition lines make a business out of getting travellers to remote locations, where they can enjoy activities such as kayaking off a coral cay in the Solomon Islands or snorkelling among sea turtles in the Galapagos.

Onboard, the crowd-free experience is predictably more intimate and social. You can expect more personalised service from the crew, and are much more likely to get to know your fellow passengers as you see the same faces again and again (a bonus if you like to make new friends while travelling). However, you'll be giving up many of the bells-and-whistles of bigger ships, with smaller vessels simply unable to accommodate amenities like Broadway-style shows, multiple bars and dining venues, and expansive kids' programs. Expect instead destination-driven itineraries that are usually enhanced by enrichment programs and hosted excursions, often led by historians, naturalists and other seasoned pros.

Note that enjoying such a personalised setting while exploring the globe usually comes at a premium price, given there are fewer passengers onboard to help collectively offset the costs. That said, typical cruise holiday add-ons such as excursions, kayaking and bike hire are often included in the fares for small-ship sailings, particularly expedition cruises.

So, how do we define "small"? It's a bit of an arbitrary distinction, when massive cruise ships make the concept quite relative. For this story, however, we're going to stick with vessels that accommodate fewer than 300 passengers.

northern lights over Norway

Best for Expedition Cruises

1. 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.

2. Hurtigruten

The Norwegian-based cruise line Hurtigruten plies the poles with 13 ships of varying sizes, including its pathfinder, the 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 TVs 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. The line now offers shortened, six-night land/cruise expeditions to Spitsbergen, and occasionally runs special themed cruises highlighting photography, astronomy, Viking history and more.

3. Aurora Expeditions

Founded by Australian Everest mountaineer Greg Mortimer, and his wife Margaret in 1992, Aurora Expeditions has expanded operations into the tropics after years of exploring the polar regions. The company charters five ships, all taking fewer than 60 passengers (with the exception of Coral Discoverer, which carries 72), one of the only expedition companies to offer such intimate experiences.  Mainstays of the fleet, the ice-strengthened, small and nimble Polar Pioneer and Spirit of Enderby are comfortable, (rather than glamorous) with a range of cabins including those without private bathrooms. Vessels chartered for the warmer waters of the Kimberley and Papua New Guinea belong to another Australian company, Coral Expeditions. Travelling with Aurora is all about the adventure, excellent itineraries that also include the Galapagos Islands along with Scotland and Russia, led by some of the best expedition leaders around. Solo travellers have several options (such as cabin-sharing with a like-minded traveller) to take the sting out of a single supplement. 

4. True North Adventure Cruises

Sticking close to home, this one-ship luxury expedition line cruises the Kimberley and Western Australian coasts, Indonesia and New Guinea -- both Papua New Guinea and the little-visited 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). While the ship is relatively new, 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.

5. One Ocean Expeditions

This polar specialist takes expedition cruising up a notch or two, not just with its purpose-built 96-passenger vessels and environmental credentials but the interesting array of itineraries on offer at both ends of the world. The Canadian company's Arctic itineraries encompass the full circle from Norway's Svalbard Archipelago and across the top of Canada to Greenland. They get close to gigantic icebergs and remote yet colourful fishing villages in Greenland and explore Canada's Torngat Mountains in Labrador, Nunavut and the North-West passage. One Ocean is just as comprehensive in the Southern Ocean offering itineraries to South Georgia, the Falkland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. The company's two ships -- Akademik Loffe and Akademik Sergery Vavilov -- were designed as research vessels but with comfortable cabins and suites offering little luxuries such as in-room coffee machines and welcome packs of fruit and wine. A third ship called RCGS Resolute is on the way. All passengers receive an expedition kit including jacket, backpack, walking pole, boots and binoculars to use during the expedition.

Man kayaking in crystal blue waters with La Pinta ship in the background

Best for Scenic Nature Cruises

6. Celebrity Cruises (Xpedition)

Celebrity Xpedition opened up Galapagos cruises, formerly the province of backpacking (or high-end) "adventure travellers," 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 98 passengers.) Crew members -- almost entirely Ecuadorian, from the captain down -- are sunny, charming and tirelessly obliging. Destination-oriented features are incorporated into the onboard experience, such as a performance highlighting Ecuadorian folklore, preceded by a highly personalised slideshow with pictures of passengers meeting wildlife during the course of the trip. (All are presented with a complimentary CD to take home.) To give travellers more time in this fascinating yet far-flung destination, Celebrity Xpedition offers 10- and 15-night voyages.

7. Un-Cruise Adventures

Un-Cruise Adventures offers adventure cruises and river cruises that are meant to appeal to people who might not normally cruise. The line's eight vessels, holding between 22 and 88 passengers, sail to Alaska, coastal Washington State, Hawaii, British Columbia, Mexico's Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Northwest's Columbia and Snake Rivers (the latter is the line's only river destination); itineraries to Costa Rica and Panama, and the Galapagos Islands, began in 2016. The line doesn't do many typical port stops, preferring to pause at inlets and bays that offer maximum exposure to nature and wildlife. Vessels come equipped with kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, snorkelling 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 along with fitness areas, lounges, libraries and mealtimes highlighting gourmet, locally sourced cuisine and fine wines and microbrews.

8. Coral Expeditions

This former Australian-owned company is known for its excellent service and food provided by an ultra-friendly Australian crew. Coral Expeditions was family owned until 2015 and this 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, hence the name, and the warm waters of the Kimberley, Cape York and Arnhem Land and Papua New Guinea. The company recently added Tasmania to its list and during the summer months operates seven-day cruises along the towering rugged east coast of the island (from Hobart) and if the weather is suitable, ventures over to the wild and remote south-western marine reserve of Port Davey. Flagship of the three-fleet operation is the 72-passenger Coral Discoverer, which was treated to an extensive refurbishment in 2016. Six new cabins with balconies were added to the bridge deck, two stylish new bars grace the outside decks, while all accommodation was treated to a facelift.  This is the vessel to take on the often rough seas of Tasmania, while the smaller Coral Expeditions I and Coral Expeditions II cruise the waters of the reef and the Kimberley. Each ship carries a smaller exploration boat used for beach landings and coral viewing, kayaks and SCUBA-diving gear, while national parks guides and specialists in their field accompany the many walks and onshore activities.

9. Silversea Expeditions

The big news for this expedition division of luxury brand Silversea Cruises is the arrival of a fourth fleet member in November 2017. Silver Cloud, one of the line's original 'classic' ships will undergo a bow-to-stern makeover, including ice-strengthening the hull, before it debuts in Antarctica. The ship will emerge with fewer staterooms (capacity has been reduced from 296 to 260) while a new Relais & Chateaux Restaurant, Le Dame, will be added, bringing the total of number of restaurants to four.

Silversea is one of the luxury operators in the expeditions field with a butler for every suite on all four ships and an all-inclusive fare structure that includes all beverages, gratuities and Wi-Fi for all guests. Ships travel the globe including regular itineraries in the South Pacific, New Zealand and the Kimberley operated by Silver Discoverer. Lecturers and expedition staff are superb and a variety of themed cruises – birding, photography and wellness – are offered. As the name suggests the Silver Galapagos spends the entire year in the Galapagos Islands operating seven-day excursions.

Wind Star in Barbados

Best Ships with Sails

10. Star Clippers

For the tall-ship enthusiast, there's nothing quite like sailing under a starry night or sunny sky, powered by the bluster of ocean winds. If you want to float along with the wind while exploring less-travelled ports in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Indonesia, Star Clippers is tough to beat. Australians will be drawn to sojourns in Thailand and Malaysia: the Star Clipper (one of the twin siblings) operates cruises from Phuket and Singapore from late October through to late April. Ocean crossings, between Europe and the Caribbean are also on offer, often heavily discounted because there are not many ports of call. 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 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 smart 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 snorkelling, kayaking, sailing and other sea-based activities offered directly from the ship.

11. Windstar Cruises

Upscale line Windstar -- sailing to some 150 ports throughout Tahiti, Europe, the Caribbean and Central America -- 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 310-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 "motorised 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 favour of country-club casual sportswear, day and night. One of our favourite features -- available on each of Windstar's vessels -- is the water sports platform, with its range of complimentary water sports (snorkelling, wind-sailing, paddle boarding and even water-skiing). For those watching their budget Windstar also offers some good deals for ocean crossings, such as 14-day cruises across the Atlantic between Lisbon (Portugal) and Bridgetown (Barbados), where thousands of dollars can be sliced off the normal fare.

Best River Cruises

12. Uniworld

On all 18 vessels, whether refurbished or newly built, Uniworld's signature is a daring, dynamic and colourful 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 such as 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 159 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 bicycles. In addition to Europe, the line has scheduled voyages to Russia, China, Vietnam and Cambodia, India and Egypt.

13. APT

Popular with Aussies, APT (shortened from the original coach-tour operator name of Australian Pacific Touring) works with partner AMA Waterways, which it partially owns, to offer cruises in Europe, Asia, Egypt and Russia. Some 15 of its 19 ships cruise European rivers from the popular Danube to the Douro in Portugal and the Moselle in France. The line's latest ships, AMA Verde and AMA Bella -- to be launched later this year and in 2018, will feature six dining options from the casual Sun Deck alfresco to six-course Chef's Table feasts, at no extra charge. Most suites have balconies; some have twin balconies. 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 AMA Lotus in Vietnam is a six-course menu designed by Australian-Vietnamese celebrity chef Luke Nguyen.

14. Scenic    

Another Australian coach-touring company that has successfully branched out into river cruising, Scenic has a fleet of 12 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 will make its debut into ocean cruising with the Scenic Eclipse in August 2018. The yacht will carry around 200 people on global itineraries.

Crystal Cruises' mini-sub

Best Yacht Cruises

15. 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. Onboard decorum reflects an "elegant casual" dress code. 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.

16. Ponant

French crew, French cuisine and French flair – that's what this fleet of six sleek yachts and one white sailing ship offers those who want to indulge in elegant surroundings on a classic cruise or head to the polar regions for adventure. One of the youngest fleets afloat, the four 264-passenger yachts were built between 2011 and 2015, while two smaller vessels, the 184-passenger Le LaPerouse and Le Champlain will be launched later this year and in 2018. The lovely three-mastered barque, Le Ponant, was built in 1991 as the launch ship for the company founded by former members of the French merchant navy. Today Ponant has a loyal following with Australians thanks to its wide-range of itineraries (including the Pacific/New Zealand and the Kimberley), stylish appointments (think white baby grand pianos in the lounges), superb food and all-inclusive fares, which include alcoholic beverages and a stocked mini-bar in staterooms. Ponant offers a vast array of Antarctic expeditions along with forays into the Arctic regions of Iceland, Norway and Greenland. A global explorer, Ponant vessels cruise the Seychelles, Canary Islands and the Mediterranean, South America and the Caribbean.

Passengers are a cosmopolitan mix of Europeans and English-speaking travellers, however, the majority of passengers (around 60 per cent) are French.

17. Crystal Cruises

The 62-passenger yacht, the first of its kind to join the Crystal Cruises' fleet, is luxurious with multiple restaurants, a gym and spa, and an expansive sun deck with plunge pool and lounge. Its superb crew is consistent with the cruise line's reputation for attention to passengers and detail. You'll sleep well on Crystal Esprit; most staterooms are a comfortable 26 square metres with a great king bed, lots of high-tech toys, and lavish marble bathrooms. Cuisine is consistently top notch, from freshly-squeezed orange juice in the Patio Cafe to four-course feasts in the more formal Yacht Club Restaurant. The ship sails destination-intensive itineraries predominantly in the Adriatic and the Seychelles. Activities on shore, most of which are included in the cruise fare, focus on kayaking, cycling, swimming, snorkelling and hiking, with a smattering of cultural and culinary tours. The ship's own marina offers water toys, such as paddle boards, Jet Skis, water skis, snorkelling equipment and kayaks, and has a swimming platform. Esprit's most unusual feature has to be its three-person submarine; tours are offered on this at additional cost.

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