If you long for the open ocean but your heart sinks 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 more intimate atmosphere, personalised 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 super-luxury yachts, rugged expedition ships, 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 600 passengers. Now check out our small ship cruise comparison below.
Best for Expedition Cruises
1. Lindblad Expeditions
Lindblad Expeditions, allied with National Geographic and Natural Habitat Adventures, offers soft-adventure cruises on a fleet of 10 capable vessels (as well as several charters like the Sea Cloud masted sailing ship and Lord of the Glens vessel that sails around the coast and islands of Scotland) that carry from 48 to 148 passengers. Serving more as base camps for exploring the world's waters, the line's ships cruise to all seven continents, including the Galapagos, South Pacific, Antarctica and the Arctic.
Topflight naturalists, historians, undersea specialists and expedition leaders accompany each trip; many itineraries also have National Geographic photographers or at least a Lindblad-National Geographic-certified photo instructor. Besides kayaks and Zodiacs for landings, ships are equipped with scientific tools like hydrophones (to listen in on marine mammals), underwater cameras and video microscopes.
The ships are comfortable, with some great touches like the local, organic foods used in meals and LEXspa treatment rooms for some well-deserved relaxation. (Endeavour even has a floating platform with a massage table for open-air treatments.)
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Norwegian-based cruise line Hurtigruten plies the poles with 16 ships of varying sizes. The fleet's latest vessels -- the 530-passenger MS Fridtjof Nansen and MS Roald Amundsen -- are eco-friendly hybrid propulsion ships that reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20 percent. The ships feature suites and cabins with balconies, as well as ocean-view cabins. The largest Expedition Suites even have private outdoor hot tubs.
Don't let the trappings fool you though -- these cruises (indeed all Hurtigruten sailings) are all about nature. Vessels are equipped with small landing craft that take passengers to incredible locations. Passengers are an international mix, and the ships -- which operate in English and Norwegian -- add other languages, such as German or French, if needed.
Silversea's four-vessel expedition fleet (Silver Origin, Silver Cloud, Silver Explorer and Silver Wind) upholds the line's luxurious all-inclusive image. All passengers -- on ships accommodating 100 to 274 -- 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, snorkelling 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", mountaineer and explorer Haraldur Orn Olfasson and Dr. Chadden Hunter, a producer and director who has worked on natural history series including BBC's "Frozen Planet".
4. Quark Expeditions
Whether you want penguins or polar bears, Quark Expeditions, which specializes in Arctic and Antarctic journeys, is a great choice. The line's newest ship, Ultramarine, has a pair of onboard helicopters, and all six ships in the fleet include 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, is one of the world's most powerful icebreakers and has nuclear-powered capabilities to go through nearly 10 feet of ice to make the voyage to the North Pole.
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. Solo travelers can avoid a single supplement by opting for the Request-Share program where they will be matched with a same gender passenger to share a cabin.
Australian river cruise and tour company Scenic made its ocean cruising debut with the 228-passenger Scenic Eclipse offering all-inclusive itineraries to destinations including Antarctica, the Arctic, South America and the Baltic. The ship combines all the trappings of luxury with the thrill of expedition sailing. Standout features include two onboard helicopters and a submarine, Scenic Neptune, which can carry six passengers and dive to a depth of nearly 1,000 feet.
Onboard facilities include 10 dining experiences, including a Champagne bar and private dining room for just eight people, the Senses Spa and suites with private hot tubs. Water sports include an inflatable trampoline, paddle-boards and kayaks and the ship has Zodiacs for wildlife spotting and shore excursions.
Best for Scenic Nature Cruises
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 the 98-passenger Celebrity Xpedition in 2004. Since then, two more small ships -- the intimate 16-passenger Celebrity Xploration and 100-passenger Celebrity Flora – have joined the fleet.
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; such as a performance highlighting Ecuadorian folklore on Xpedition and regionally inspired sustainable decor on Flora. The newest ship in the Galapagos fleet also features cabin automation and environmentally friendly systems, including anchorless technology (dynamic positioning) and in-room water filtration stations.
7. UnCruise Adventures
UnCruise Adventures offers adventure cruises designed to appeal to people who might not normally cruise (hence the name). The line's nine vessels, holding between 22 and 90 passengers, sail to destinations including Alaska, Costa Rica and Panama, coastal Washington, Hawaii, Galapagos Islands, British Columbia and Mexico's Sea of Cortez. UnCruise 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, paddle-boards, 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, though, with fitness areas, lounges, libraries and mealtimes highlighting gourmet, locally sourced cuisine and fine wines and microbrews.
8. International Expeditions
International Expeditions, offering passengers soft adventure, small-group journeys with a focus on nature, runs cruises to the Galapagos on the 32-passenger Evolution). Step out onto the sun deck or relax in Evolution's hot tub to enjoy the passing scenery, when not partaking in immersive shoreside experiences anchored on natural and cultural encounters.
The onboard atmosphere is informal, and trips are more focused on excursions and lectures led by naturalist guides and expedition leaders than on many shipboard diversions (though you can expect onboard comforts like air-conditioning and well-prepared, locally inspired fare). Partake in active excursions like or snorkelling, swimming and hiking.
Best for Ships with Sails
9. 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-travelled ports in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Asia, 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 in modern times. Feel the sails, catch the breeze, visit the captain and officers in the open bridge, 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 elegantly casual (with the exception of themed evenings, like a pirate night when passengers have the option to wear fancy dress). 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.
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 ships are the 148-passenger Wind Spirit and Wind Star, each with four masts and six sails, and the 342-passenger five-masted Wind Surf, which is the world's largest sailing vessel.
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 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 activities such as snorkelling, wind-sailing, paddle-boarding and even water skiing).
11. Island Windjammers
Island Windjammers focuses more on the joys of sailing than on over-the-top shipboard amenities. The line offers sailings in the Windward Islands from Grenada on the 10-passenger Diamant; its 24-passenger schooner and 26-passenger Vela offers a mix of both. Other itineraries include the French West Indies and the British Virgin Islands. Look out for special themed cruises like Solo Sojourns (for those traveling alone), rum cruises, pirates and mermaid Week, and Taste of the (Caribbean) Islands foodie sailing. At other times Vela has two single cabins and single travellers can be paired up with a same-sex cabin mate to avoid paying a supplement.
Swimsuits, cover-ups and T-shirts are typical daytime attire on these windjammer cruises, and dress for dinner and evenings remains refreshingly casual. Cabins come with air-conditioning, and all but two offer portholes and private bathrooms. When not bunking down or out exploring in port, head out for some sunbathing or alfresco dining on deck, or retreat to the indoor dining room or lounge area.
Best for Yacht Cruises
12. 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 pretense for a maximum of 112.
Onboard, passengers can enjoy the doting of a polished 95-person crew; locally inspired and international cuisine served up 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 including sailboats, paddle-boards and kayaks.
Mediterranean, Baltic and Caribbean SeaDream cruises incorporate hidden-away ports and crew-led activities, 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.
Carrying 32 to 264 passengers, 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.
14. Crystal Cruises
The first of its kind to join the Crystal Cruises' fleet, the 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 cabins on Crystal Esprit are a comfortable 280 square feet, with a king bed, lots of high-tech toys and lavish marble bathrooms. Additionally, every cabin comes with 24-hour butler service and room service.
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, snorkelling 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, snorkelling equipment and kayaks. Esprit's most unusual feature is its three-person submarine (tours at additional cost).
15. Paul Gauguin Cruises
Sailing exclusively in French Polynesia, the 332-passenger Paul Gauguin offers an experience that is both luxurious and immersive. In 2019 the line was acquired by upscale Ponant, although both lines operate under separate management. Life onboard reflects the rich cultural heritage of the South Pacific islands through local entertainers and storytellers. Additionally, the Moana Explorer program offers hands-on interactive and fun learning for children and teens.
The vessel has spacious cabins -- 70 percent with private balconies -- along with three dining venues, a spa and water sports marina with activities including kayaking, paddle-boarding and diving. Cruises visit the line's private island of Motu Mahana, off the coast of Taha'a, where passengers are greeted with food, drink and live music. Paul Gauguin also has an exclusive beach retreat in Bora Bora.
16. Emerald Yacht Cruises
Built in response to the growing interest in small ship cruising, Emerald Yacht Cruises is the ocean arm of river cruise operator Emerald Waterways. Its first "super yacht", Emerald Azzurra, has 50 cabins and suites; 88 percent with balconies or terraces. Passengers can relax on the sun deck and take a dip in the infinity-style pool or head to the marina platform to enjoy various water sports. Onboard facilities include a spa, gym and hair salon.
Sailing in the Adriatic, Mediterranean and Red Sea, Emerald has set out to mirror its river cruise program by providing authentic experiences, such as a visit to a market followed by a cookery class, along with EmeraldACTIVE shore excursions including guided hikes and bike rides to provide an alternative and more energetic perspective of destinations visited.
17. Variety Cruises
The closest you can get to the feeling of having your own private yacht is to sail on one of Variety Cruises' three motorized sailboats -- Absolute King, Monte Carlo and Obsession -- where just 10 passengers are looked after by a crew of six. The rest of fleet comprises eight small vessels, including the 71-passenger flagship Variety Voyager and masted Panorama and Panorama II which cater for 49.
Sailing to worldwide destinations that include Greece, Cuba, the Seychelles, Costa Rica, Panama, West Africa and Cape Verde, the vessels moor in secluded bays and private marinas that are inaccessible to larger ships. The onboard vibe is casual and low-key, with very personal levels of service and the opportunity to dine on deck and swim and snorkel off the back of the ships.