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The 12 Best Small Ship Cruise 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: not all cruise ships are vast, floating resorts. A diminutive but 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.

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. (Most of them are small, too; check out our luxury feature.) It's more about geographic access to the world's less-trafficked ports. In Greece, for instance, Variety Cruises' ships stop in Monemvassia and Spetses, unusual Greek cruise ports that are mostly avoided by larger vessels.

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. Plus, enjoying such a personalized setting while exploring the globe typically comes at a premium price. 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. For this story, however, we're going to try to stick with nonluxury vessels that accommodate fewer than 300 passengers.

Best for Expedition Cruises

The Line: Lindblad Expeditions

Lindblad Expedition Cruise in AntarcticaLindblad 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.

Runner Up: 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.

Runner Up: 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.

Best for Scenic Nature Cruises

The Line: Variety Cruises

variety-cruises-voyagerVariety 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.

Runner Up: 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. 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. (All are presented with a complimentary CD to take home.)

Runner Up: 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.

Best Tall-Ship Cruises

The Line: Star Clippers

star-clippers-caribbeanFor 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.)

Runner Up: Windstar

Windstar's style is what we call "luxury lite": 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 formalwear 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, paddleboating 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.

Runner Up: 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.

Best River Cruise

The Line: Uniworld

uniworld-rhine-riverOn all 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 a par with those found on oceangoing luxury vessels, though as riverboats are significantly smaller, ranging in size from 60 to 206 passengers, options like alternative restaurants and entertainment venues are typically fewer in number. While big-ship pastimes -- think Broadway-style production shows and casinos -- are not offered, each evening provides diversions that range from local acts brought onboard in ports of call to bands that play for dancing.

Most shore tours are included in the fares, while a handful of extra options, such as a bicycling and wine-tasting tour in the Danube's Durnstein, are available for a fee. Each ship carries a fleet of bicycles for free use by passengers.

Runner Up: AmaWaterways

AmaWaterways focuses on Europe's Rhine, Danube, Mosel and Main Rivers, but it has started to put ships in Russia, Africa, France and Vietnam, as well. The line offers ambitious regional cuisine, 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 108 to 212 passengers, boast amenities like in-cabin multifunction TV/Web setups, elevators and mechanized wheelhouses that can be lowered to transit under low-slung bridges. Daily sightseeing programs are included with each cruise, and tours include wireless audio devices so cruisers don't miss a word on history or culture. All ships offer roughly 20 bicycles that passengers can use to explore ports.

Runner Up: Viking River Cruises

Now the world's largest river cruise line, Viking River Cruises has been aggressively building its fleet, introducing its "Longships" in 2012 (with more to come in following years). Most of the vessels average around 150 passengers, and they often dock right in the heart of town, providing "walk off your ship" access to Europe. An enticing bonus is that all guided shore excursions in each port of call are included in passengers' cruise fares, as are complimentary beer and wine. Besides revamping its cabins to make them among the largest, Viking has focused on its green efforts; the Longships feature energy-efficient hybrid engines, solar panels and organic herb gardens.

--by Dan Askin; Updated by Chris Gray Faust, Cruise Critic Contributor

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