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 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, follow a whale into a serene fjord in Alaska on a Cruise West ship, or hop around the Greek Islands aboard easyCruise's converted ferry.
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 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 Hydra, unusual Greek cruise ports 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, with a few notable exceptions (see budget pick below). That said, typical cruise vacation add-ons like excursions are often included in the fare, 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; with new cruise ships like the 153,000-ton, 4,200-passenger Norwegian Epic and the 225,582-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas on the horizon, the concept of small is relative. For this story, however, we're going to try to stick with non-luxury vessels that accommodate fewer than 300 passengers.
The Line: Lindblad Expeditions
Why: Lindblad Expeditions, allied with National Geographic, offers soft-adventure voyages on a fleet of seven capable vessels that carry from 48 to 150 passengers. Forget big-ship accouterments like in-cabin TVs, casinos and multiple bars and restaurants (though the newest ship in the fleet, National Geographic Explorer, has added 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.