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Great Small Ship Cruises for Exploring Bucket-List Destinations in 2022 and Beyond

Harriet Baskas

Jan 25, 2022

Read time
6 min read

While large cruise ships are the bread and butter of the cruise industry, it's small ships that are mostly likely to take you on that bucket-list destination in 2022 and beyond.

"Small ships are definitely the way to go for bucket list trips, like the Galapagos," Janet Tracy of travel agency The Travel Dreamer said. "The personal attention to detail that the staff gives can't be beat. And in general, the small ships are more about the destination and less about the ship."

Small ships also offer a more intimate experience and can get into more exotic ports of call. And as people recover mentally from the COVID-19 epidemic, a small ship can be the perfect way to return to the seas with a smaller group.

Here are some of the small-ship cruises and bucket-list destinations that travel advisers are recommending for 2022 and beyond.

Choose the Galapagos Islands for Wildlife

The Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are about 560 miles west of mainland Ecuador and right at the top of most travelers' bucket lists.

The number of visitors and all access to islands where iguanas, sea lions, giant tortoises and the other "Big 15" wildlife have the right of way is regulated by the Galapagos National Park to protect the environment and the animals. So small cruise vessels, which by park rule may carry no more than 100 passengers and must have guides for planned excursions, are the best way to make the most of the adventure.

Chris Caulfield of Cruise One recommends Celebrity Cruises to guests heading to the Galapagos. "They have three small ships that are ideal for experiencing all the Galapagos has to offer," he said. "Past Celebrity guests will get the same amazing experience they know and love. And those new to Celebrity will get to know the modern luxury that Celebrity offers while visiting one of the most unique destinations."

National Geographic's Lindblad Expeditions and Quasar are some of the other lines offering Galapagos cruises and expeditions, while Silverseas' Silver Origin is the most luxurious way to go. Newest on the scene is Hurtigruten Expeditions, which kicked off its inaugural Galapagos cruise season in January 2022 on the refurbished and rebranded Santa Cruz II, in partnership with Metropolitan Touring, which operates two other ships in the Galapagos (read about Cruise Critic's trip on La Pinta).

Small Ship Cruises to Antarctica are Best for Actual Landings on the Continent

Penguins, seals, whales, icebergs and incredible scenery carved by ice awaits visitors who make their way to Antarctica, "The White Continent," another destination topping many bucket lists.

Large ships from Holland America, Seabourn and Azamara do travel here, but vessels carrying more than 500 passengers may not make landings, per the guidelines of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. So, if you want to get on shore for those once-in-a-lifetime nature experiences, small ships are the best option.

Michael Graham, president of MGA Travel, rates Antarctica as one of his favorite destinations and recommends Tauck, Atlas or Scenic to travelers hoping to head that way. While Atlas and Scenic have their own ships, Tauck charters ships from Ponant, as does the luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent (read about an Antaractica cruise with A&K).

"Tauck has amazing naturalists, experts and guides for Antarctica. Scenic has amazing luxury, nine included restaurants, onboard helicopters and a submarine. And Atlas is new to the party as of 2021. I have not been yet, but I like what I see," Graham told Cruise Critic.

The Arctic Also Has Wildlife -- and the Midnight Sun or Northern Lights

The Arctic is somewhat easier to access than Antarctica and many other wilderness areas, and it offers the chance to see polar bears, whales, walruses, migrating birds and frozen tundra. Depending on your preference or the month, you might see the Midnight Sun or Northern Lights.

But as Cruise Critic's Arctic Cruise Tips guide explains, the area is vast, "stretching across the North Pole, it encompasses the northern regions of Norway plus the Svalbard archipelago, Sweden, Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Canada, Russia and the U.S. (Alaska)." So, you'll need to choose which area you'd like to visit.

There are a wide range of small cruise ships that will take you there, too. Tracy puts Hurtigruten Expeditions at the top of her list for Arctic Canada, Greenland, Norway and Northwest Passage expeditions because "they do it well and have been doing for a long time." (Read a Cruise Critic staffer's winter cruise to northern Norway on Hurtigruten).

Viking Expeditions will be making forays into the Arctic in 2022 with the new 378-passenger Viking Polaris, joining highly rated expedition ships from Quark, Lindblad and Silversea. Tauck also goes to the Arctic, usually on Ponant ships.

American Coastal Cruisers Explore Waterways Close to Home

As our coastal cruising guide puts it, small ship coastal cruising in New England, the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay, the Pacific Northwest and the Southeast Coast is attractive because it offers "a more intimate experience that connects passengers to both land and sea" and, because sailings occur near the shore, "waterways are more protected than in open seas, making for a smoother ride."

Michael Graham of MGA Travel recommends American Queen Voyages, (formerly American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines), which offers New England and Canada coastal cruises, and a variety of other coastal adventures. Some other lines offering coastal cruises include UnCruise Adventures and American Cruise Lines, which just announced plans to build 12 identical sister coastal ships.

American River Cruises Have Followed Domestic Travel Boom

Cruising American rivers has become quite popular, with many travelers turning to domestic travel during the pandemic.

"When it comes to sailing American rivers, American Queen Voyages is definitely a good first choice," Tracy said. Other options including Viking Cruises, which will start sailing the length of the Mississippi in 2022, and American Cruise Lines, which Graham also recommends for Mississippi cruises.

Ted Blank of Ted Blank Luxury Travel & Adventure likes American Cruise Lines' itinerary called "Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands," which is a seven-night cruise sailing roundtrip from Seattle. He also recommends American Queen Voyages' series of 12-night sailings from Amelia Island in Florida, visiting coastal cities like Charleston, Savannah, St. Augustine and Freeport in the Bahamas on their coastal expedition vessel Victory I.

Baja California Offers Another Way to Explore Mexico

Blank notes that in Mexico's Baja California, both UnCruise Adventures and Lindblad offer in-depth, expedition style cruises to the Sea of Cortez.

"Whale watching tops the list of highlights, but guests also have the opportunity to discover the natural beauty of the Baja desert and some of the area's smaller cities -- think kayaking among the migrating whales in the morning and a relaxing afternoon discovering a charming coastal town," he says.

Updated January 25, 2022
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