World's Best Small Cruise Ships

Stop thinking big: Small cruise ships have plenty to offer.

May 4, 2010— -- 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.

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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.

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Best for Expedition Cruises

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.

The line has become especially well-regarded for the staff of topflight naturalists, historians, undersea specialists and expedition leaders that accompany each of its trips. National Geographic photographers accompany every sailing onboard National Geographic Explorer and most 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.

Honorable Mention: Hurtigruten's Fram

Why: The 318-passenger Fram, the pathfinder for the Norwegian-based cruise line Hurtigruten, literally covers the globe from top to bottom by sailing a yearly Arctic Circle-to-Antarctic Circle world cruise.

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, but don't let the trappings fool you -- these cruises are all about nature. Like other expedition vessels, Fram has its own small landing crafts that take passengers to incredible seaside locations. Passengers are an international mix, and the ship operates in at least three languages, including English, German and Norwegian.

Best for Scenic Nature Cruises

The Line: Cruise West

Why: Family-owned Cruise West is best known for its up-close-and-personal Alaska voyages, but the line is increasingly expanding into places like Mexico's Sea of Cortez, Central America and Southeast Asia. It uses both company-owned ships and chartered vessels. Big ships don't make it to uninhabited Alaskan islands like the Shumagins or to the Bering Sea, where Cruise West's Spirit of Oceanus spends time in during a 24-night voyage.

But, despite some of the off-the-grid destinations visited by the line's 78- to 138-passenger ships, the experience onboard is more akin to "scenic cruising," with a focus on the visual -- waterfalls, icebergs, birds and sea creatures. Cruise West cruises are not necessarily for hardcore adventurers. They're more suited to nature lovers who want a comfortable way to see wilderness and coastal communities without big-ship distractions and without getting too dirty (unless you're seriously determined).

There are onboard lectures (each voyage features an "exploration leader") and evening performances from local artists, but otherwise, activities are kept to a relative minimum. Basic excursions (usually walking tours) are included in the fare, as is the use of snorkel and kayak gear for certain itineraries. The line also makes use of inflatable zodiacs to explore remote destinations.

Honorable Mention: Variety Cruises

Why: Variety Cruises and its budget sub-brand Zeus Casual Cruises, offers 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 Hydra with traditional picks like Mykonos and Santorini. Cruises in the Arabian Gulf visit ports like 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 under 70 passengers and typically feature swimming/sports platforms with snorkeling and kayaking equipment, so passengers can actually engage in the passing scenery.

Best Tall-Ship Cruises

The Line: Star Clippers

Why: For the tall-ship enthusiast, there's nothing quite like sailing under a starry or sunny sky, powered by the bluster of ocean winds. And, 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 -- the 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.)

Star Clippers has a new tall ship slated for launch in spring 2011. The five-masted sailing vessel will be the largest sailing ship ever constructed at 7,400 gross tons and 518 feet in length. The new-build will carry 296 passengers -- still less than our 300 passenger limit.

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