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12 Top Cruises on Small Ships

by Atlanta Business Journal

If you are feeling a sense of wanderlust and ready to explore off-the-beaten-path destinations in far-flung corners of the world, consider booking a small ship cruise. These luxury mega-yachts, expedition-style vessels and sailing ships can visit tucked-away harbors, exotic locales and pristine beaches that larger ships can’t reach. And if you opt for a cruise on a rigged sailing vessel, there’s nothing more romantic than watching the sun set into the ocean while the wind fills the sails of a tall ship at sea.

Smaller ships offer an intimate onboard vibe where the experience is highly personalized with a higher crew to passenger ratio – and where you’ll get to know many of your fellow passengers. Smaller ships are often more fuel-efficient and eco-friendly than traditional cruise ships, using either wind power or the latest technologies. With the addition of new or existing cruise lines entering this market along with other lines investing in upgrading older ships, there are many more vessels in these smaller ship classes to choose from when considering your cruise options.

If you’re seeking an adventure of a lifetime – whether to meet the penguins in Antarctica, people- and yacht watch in glamorous ports of call in the Mediterranean, or go island hopping in paradise in Hawaii – then plan your voyage to set sail on one of these 12 small ships.

(Note: Some of the following activities, attractions and locations may be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions, reservation requirements or mask mandates. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)

[Ready to plan a cruise? Find the best value sailings on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

Star Clippers: Royal Clipper

Inspired by the legendary 1902 Preussen, the first five-masted ship, Royal Clipper was launched in 2000 as a true sailing vessel at 439 feet in length with 54,000 square feet of sails across 42 sails. With five fully rigged masts, the ship is recognized in Guinness World Records as the largest square rigger in service today.

Modeled after the historic clipper ships, Royal Clipper travels under full sail – and by wind power – for up to 80% of its voyages. When the vessel does navigate under power, the energy-efficient engines only use high-quality, low-sulfur gas oil, earning Star Clippers the International Air Pollution Prevention Certificate for all three of its clipper ships.

The ship can accommodate as many as 227 passengers in 114 staterooms, along with 106 crew. While on board, guests will enjoy 19,000 square feet of open teak deck, three swimming pools and hidden balconies on either side of the bow, where you can view wildlife like dolphins swimming alongside the ship. You can also relax in the bowsprit net overlooking the ocean and keeping an eye out for whales. For the more adventurous sailor, climbing the mast to 75 feet above the water affords unforgettable ocean views from your perch in one of the passenger crow’s nests. Other features of Royal Clipper are its three-story atrium, trilevel dining room, and unique spa and health club with underwater portholes called the Captain Nemo Lounge.

The ship’s seven-night Windward Islands itinerary sails round trip from Barbados with stops in Antigua, Martinique, St. Kitts, Îles Des Saintes and St. Lucia. You’ll even have an opportunity to sail alongside one of the line’s sister ships and another tall ship – Star Flyer – to the island of Dominica. Royal Clipper’s longer itineraries include several Grand Voyages: The 19-night cruise from Cannes in France to Lisbon in Portugal, for example, calls on other ports in France, Italy, Spain, Gibraltar and Morocco.

Silversea Cruises: Silver Wind

(Courtesy of Silversea Cruises)

Launched in 1995, Silver Wind was Silversea’s second of four vessels that the line built for the ultra-luxury market. This ship underwent a significant upgrade in 2018, followed by another refurbishment in 2021 that included an enhanced ice-class hull. This new addition allows Silver Wind to be one of the most adaptable ships in the fleet, sailing from the polar regions like Antarctica to sunny island climates in the Caribbean and cruising picturesque shorelines along the Mediterranean Sea.

Silver Wind measures about 515 feet in length and has 149 all ocean-view suites, more than 80% of which boast a private veranda. The ship carries 274 guests and 239 crew and features elegant public rooms, including lounges for gazing out at the ocean or watching onboard entertainment. There’s also an upscale bar, shipboard boutiques and a spa.

Dining is a highlight, with four venues spanning international cuisine such as Italian, regional specialties and seasonally inspired menus. For an evening under the stars, The Grill features fine steaks and seafood or vegetables that guests can cook at the table on 400 degrees Celsius lava stones. After dinner, spend time chatting with fellow passengers at Connoisseur’s Corner, where you can sip cognac and enjoy a cigar.

Silver Wind offers an epic 20-night expedition cruise from Tromsø, Norway, to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, visiting various destinations in Iceland as well as remote regions and glaciers in Greenland. For a warmer voyage, the 10-night Puntarenas to Guayaquil itinerary takes you from Costa Rica to Ecuador in South America, with stops at the remote Darien Jungle in Panama, the Utría National Natural Park in Colombia and several ports in Ecuador, including the city of Guayaquil.

[Want to cruise a small ship on Silversea Cruises? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

Sea Cloud Cruises: Sea Cloud

Exterior of Sea Cloud ship on the water.

(Courtesy of Sea Cloud Cruises)

Built in 1931 as a private yacht for Wall Street broker Edward Francis Hutton and his wife Marjorie Merriweather Post, an American socialite and philanthropist, this legendary windjammer maintains the elegance of a time gone by.

Originally named Hussar, the 360-foot Sea Cloud has a fascinating history – while the ship started as a private yacht, it later became a floating palace of diplomacy and then a warship. Today, Sea Cloud accommodates up to 64 passengers in 32 outside cabins and carries about 60 crew. The ship also boasts 29 sails, with the height of the main mast towering 184 feet above the water.

If you’ve never been on this type of vessel, cruising under full sail on a tall ship is unlike any other experience. Sea Cloud does not rely on motors (though they are installed just in case), allowing the wind and sea to determine the ship’s course whenever possible, guided by the skills and seamanship of the crew for navigation. This setup provides an opportunity to teach the art of sailing to the passengers. The captain of Sea Cloud and guests prefer to cruise under full sail, which is the lure of sailing on a windjammer. Life on board the ship is intimate and relaxed – just as you would find on a private yacht.

Amenities on Sea Cloud include a lido bar and deck and a restaurant serving cuisine inspired by the destination, which features local products, fresh fish and regional wines.

One of Sea Cloud’s top itineraries, Between Lifestyles and Nature’s Paradises, sails for seven nights from Monte Carlo, Monaco, to the Spanish island of Palma de Mallorca, with calls on less visited ports along the Mediterranean coast in southern France like La Ciotat and Collioure. You can also join the jet-setters in St. Barts with a front-row seat from your sailing ship for the Bucket Regatta. This 10-night adventure includes two days in the French West Indies island of St. Barts and other picturesque ports of call in the Caribbean.

Atlas Ocean Voyages: World Navigator

Living room interior on the World Navigator.

(Courtesy of Atlas Ocean Voyages)

Atlas Ocean Voyages’ first luxury expedition ship, World Navigator, launched in August 2021. With a length of 423 feet and capacity for 196 passengers and 127 crew, the ship sails to fascinating destinations around the world. By optimizing fuel efficiency with the incorporation of the latest hybrid power management and propulsion system, World Navigator uses as little as one-fifth of the fuel of standard cruise ship systems. The quiet alternate hydro-jet propulsion system allows for up-close viewing of marine animals and other wildlife.

The 98 beautifully appointed staterooms and suites feature upscale amenities like Egyptian linens and a menu to personalize your selection of a pillow. Some accommodations also have Juliet-style or walk-out balconies, and certain suites come with butler service. For dining options, you’ll find Portuguese-inspired Porto, which is the main dining room, or the New York-style 7-Aft Grill for steaks and seafood. Passengers can also opt to have lunch poolside or enjoy light bites at the Dome Observation Lounge, which offers panoramic views of the sea.

Other ship amenities include three bars and lounges, the SeaSpa by L’Occitane, an auditorium, a mud room, a pool and two hot tubs, a boutique and a fitness center. To wind down after a day of exploring destinations in far corners of the globe, convene with other passengers to relive the experience during Àpres Sea.

For the ultimate bucket list adventure, book the nine-night round-trip expedition from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the southernmost continent. Highlights of this venture to Antarctica include navigating the Drake Passage; embarking on water safaris to Deception Island or Yankee Harbour; encountering wildlife like penguins, seals and whales; and even camping on land overnight. For a less adventurous itinerary, history enthusiasts will appreciate the 12-night Western Europe voyage sailing from Hamburg in Germany to London, with an overnight in Amsterdam and ports of call in cities like Antwerp and Bruges, Belgium; Plymouth, U.K.; and Honfleur, France.

Celebrity Cruises: Celebrity Flora

This 100-passenger luxury mega-yacht is the first ship of its kind built for the Galápagos Islands. Launched in 2019, Celebrity Flora is 333 feet long and features 50 spacious all-suite accommodations, each designed with a veranda or an infinite veranda that extends the terrace to be part of the living space. Each suite is fully automated, allowing guests to control everything with the touch of a button. Amenities include luxurious linens and bathrobes, and you’ll enjoy chocolates and toiletries locally sourced from Ecuador. The ship is also eco-friendly and built with the latest environmental technologies.

There are two dining venues on board Celebrity Flora. Seaside Restaurant offers an upscale casual experience with floor-to-ceiling windows throughout. For alfresco dining in the evening, Ocean Grill serves local, sustainable seafood during “Dinner Under the Stars.” Other inviting indoor spaces include the Discovery Lounge, where Celebrity’s naturalists host briefings and presentations, and the Observatory, a library and lounge with a view.

Outside, The Vista offers guests an open-air escape with private cabanas, cocoon-style loungers and a Jacuzzi. Cruisers can head to the outdoor Sunset Lounge for a dip in the plunge pool or experience Galápagos Glamping on the top deck with an evening of dining and sleeping under one of the most spectacular night skies in the world.

Celebrity Flora sails seven-night inner- and outer-loop Galápagos itineraries and has extended trips with land packages that add on Quito or Machu Picchu. The 16-night Galápagos Outer Loop & Machu Picchu itinerary includes island hopping in the Galápagos, where you’ll have up-close encounters with giant tortoises, marine iguanas, Galápagos penguins, red- and blue-footed boobies, and sea lions. Afterward, head to Lima, Peru, where you’ll fly to Cusco and venture onward to visit the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.

[Looking to plan a small ship cruise on Celebrity Cruises? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

Windstar Cruises: Wind Star

Dining at the Star Grill on the Wind Star.

(Michel Verdure/Courtesy of Windstar Cruises)

When it first launched in Le Havre, France, in November 1985, Wind Star was the world’s largest sailing vessel and the flagship for the line. While this schooner may not be the largest tall ship on the seas today, Wind Star is an elegant four-masted sailing yacht and the cruise line’s namesake. Since its launch, this ship has been through a few renovations, with the most recent one in 2018. The 360-foot vessel features 73 deluxe ocean-view staterooms that accommodate 148 passengers, and it can carry 101 crew. Four masts stand at 204 feet tall, and six triangular Dacron sails, which are self-furling and computerized, make up a surface area of 21,500 square feet.

As with other Windstar vessels, you’ll find the same casual elegance on board this sailing ship. Guests will get to sail away to the music Windstar traditionally plays while raising the flag during every port departure – Vangelis’ song “1492: Conquest of Paradise,” which is the musical score to the movie of the same name. The culinary program on Windstar’s fleet is in partnership with the James Beard Foundation, so dining is a real treat. The three restaurant venues on Wind Star include Amphora, whose contemporary, international menu was created by James Beard-affiliated chefs. The romantic Candles offers an alfresco dining experience with grilled steaks and skewers, while the Veranda is the ship’s casual breakfast and lunch buffet with outdoor seating.

Other onboard amenities include a lounge, the Yacht Club Café, a pool bar, a salon and spa, a boutique, a library, a fitness center, a water sports platform and an open bridge where you can enjoy a chat over coffee with the captain.

Treasures of the Greek Isles is a seven-night voyage that sails round trip from Athens to several Greek islands, including Mykonos and Santorini. This itinerary also includes a stop in Kusadasi, Turkey, where you’ll be able to visit the fascinating ancient city of Ephesus. For a South America adventure to transit the Panama Canal and explore destinations in the region like rainforests, reserve the seven-night Costa Rica & Panama Canal voyage.

Viking Cruises: Viking Octantis

The Viking Octantis near a large iceberg in Antarctica.

(Courtesy of Viking)

Built in 2022, Viking’s new Polar Class 6 ship, Viking Octantis, is 665 feet in length and accommodates 378 guests in 189 staterooms and 256 crew. The purpose-built expedition ship boasts more indoor and outdoor viewing areas than many other expedition vessels, providing guests with up-close views of some of the most incredible scenery in the world. The energy-efficient design of this ship and the line’s other expedition vessel, Viking Polaris, exceeds the Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) requirements by 36%. The cruise line is also recognized for receiving one of the first highest-level certifications for quiet ship propulsion, minimizing underwater noise pollution.

Cruisers familiar with Viking Ocean Cruises’ ships will recognize familiar spaces and dining venues such as The Living Room, The Explorers’ Lounge, The Nordic Spa, Manfredi’s, The Restaurant and The World Cafe. New spaces on Viking Octantis include The Aula, a panoramic auditorium designed for lectures and daily briefings, and the adjacent Finse Terrace. This outdoor lounge area sits just above sea level and boasts recessed, heated couches and lava rock “fire pits.” Passengers will also find the industry-first in-ship marina, The Hangar, where guests can easily embark and disembark the ship, and three pools offering varying temperatures with an inside-outside passage. In addition, all staterooms feature Nordic balconies that convert from a sunroom to an alfresco viewing area.

For a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, book the 12-night Antarctic itinerary sailing from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina. This expedition includes the Drake “rite of” Passage, scenic sailing around Cape Horn and wildlife viewing in the icy waters of the “White Continent.” For U.S. travelers interested in staying closer to home, the seven-night Great Lakes Explorer departs Milwaukee for Thunder Bay in Ontario, Canada. Cruisers will enjoy a stop in Mackinac Island in Michigan, scenic sailing along the St. Mary’s River and transit from the U.S. into Canada through the Soo Locks.

[Want to plan a Viking Expedition Cruise? See top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

Emerald Cruises: Emerald Azzurra

Emerald Cruises’ luxurious 360-foot superyacht, Emerald Azzurra, launched in May 2022. The boutique ship carries just 100 passengers and is designed for cruising the waters of the Mediterranean, Adriatic Coast and the Red Sea. Its sister ship, Emerald Sakara, will debut in 2023. On board Emerald Azzurra, you can expect to be pampered by 68 crew members while soaking in the sun poolside or relaxing indoors during a day at sea.

The 50 spacious modern staterooms and suites, most with balconies, offer spectacular views of off-the-beaten-path destinations and smaller ports and harbors. The ship also features several dining, bar and lounge venues; quiet spaces for relaxing or reading a book; a wellness area; a hot tub with a view and an infinity-style pool; a boutique; and a fitness center. The marina platform on the ship’s stern offers paddleboarding, snorkeling and other water sports activities.

The seven-night Gems of the Arabian Peninsula sails from Doha, Qatar, to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This cruise calls on Sir Bani Yas Island and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, as well as two ports in the country of Oman. For unforgettable ocean and island views and a vacation in paradise, book the seven-night Tropical Charms of the Seychelles, sailing round trip from Victoria, Mahé, which is the capital of the Seychelles.

Lindblad Expeditions: National Geographic Endurance

Interior of igloo guestroom.

(Alexandra Daley-Clark/Courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions)

Launched in July 2021 as one of two new polar vessels and a sister ship to National Geographic Resolution (November 2021), this extraordinary vessel can explore deeper and further into the Earth’s polar regions. National Geographic Endurance is the first new polar build in the company’s 50-year history, and its name honors the ship of renowned Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. The elegant Scandinavian-inspired design also features the patented X-Bow, offering eco-friendly benefits and a smoother, quieter ride.

National Geographic Endurance is 407 feet in length and has 69 spacious staterooms with large windows or balconies to accommodate up to 126 passengers. The ship also carries 112 crew. Unique onboard amenities include the first polar art exhibit at sea, curated by environmental artist Zaria Forman, and the first igloos at sea. Guests can arrange to spend an evening under the stars in these glass domes, which are available to reserve on a first-come, first-served basis.

Passengers can also enjoy one complimentary evening at the Chef’s Table, sustainable cuisine during their voyage, a lounge and bar area, outdoor infinity-style hot tubs, a yoga studio, saunas with a view of the sea, and state-of-the-art facilities for presentations and films. Every expedition also has a National Geographic photographer and a certified photo instructor and video chronicler.

For an unforgettable rendezvous with nature, book a 10-night cruise called Land of the Ice Bears. This adventure sails to the best place in the world to view polar bears: the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean. In addition to many opportunities to see those amazing animals, you’ll also encounter walruses, reindeer, arctic foxes and fur seals. Another incredible journey for the extreme adventurer is the 35-day Epic Antarctica sailing. This expedition will venture to remote West Antarctica and explore the sub-Antarctic islands of New Zealand and Australia, traveling to destinations where possibly few – or even no – humans have set foot before.

UnCruise Adventures: Safari Explorer

Interior of guestroom on the Safari Explorer ship.

(Courtesy of UnCruise Adventures)

Built in 1998, Safari Explorer is 145 feet in length and one of UnCruise Adventures’ four Safari-class ships in its expedition-style fleet. Nicknamed “the Bulldog,” this ship transports passengers to wild and remote areas that larger ships can’t navigate. The 36-passenger yacht was recently renovated with interior refinishes, touch-ups and upgrades. There are just 18 cabins and 18 crew.

The lifestyle is casual on board, and guests have access to three decks with a library, dining room, rooftop sun lounge and exercise equipment. You’ll find common areas on the main deck such as the salon, bar and wine bar. When it’s time to hit the water or go ashore, the vessel is equipped with expedition gear, including kayaks, inflatable skiffs, paddleboards, snorkel equipment and more.

In the summer months, Safari Explorer sets off in search of humpback whales in Alaska and spends winters island hopping in Hawaii. The seven-night Hawaiian Seascapes sailing cruises to four islands, including stops in Molokai, Lanai, Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii. There are two itineraries in Alaska. The seven-night Alaska Glacier Cruise itinerary sails one way from Juneau to Sitka through the northern passages. For an extended expedition that includes wilderness areas with even more opportunities for wildlife and whale viewing, book the 12-night Cruise to Alaska voyage from Seattle to Juneau.

Ponant: Le Commandant Charcot

Ponant’s first high polar expedition vessel, Le Commandant Charcot, launched in September 2021. The 492-foot-long ship is eco-friendly and powered by liquefied natural gas with the latest innovations and technologies. Le Commandant Charcot is also the first luxury hybrid electric polar exploration vessel.

All of the 123 staterooms and suites have a private balcony or terrace. The atmosphere for the 245 passengers on board is much like that of a private yacht, given an extraordinary ratio of passengers to crew with 215 crew members. Two culinary options, gastronomic restaurant Nuna and casual dining concept Sila, are part of a collaboration with Ducasse Conseil and Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse; the menus are designed by the renowned French chef. Guests can enjoy complimentary French wine, Veuve Clicquot Champagne and Ladurée macarons throughout their voyage.

You’ll also find beautiful public spaces, a boutique, a theater, expedition rooms and a promenade deck where you can access the bow. Not to be missed is the wellness area, which is a partnership with Biologique Recherche and features amenities like a 14 degrees Fahrenheit snow room with fresh powder snow, a sauna and an indoor pool. On the pool deck, passengers can enjoy a sunroom, a heated outdoor blue lagoon, a giant fire pit, an outdoor bar and the Blue Lagoon bar.

Le Commandant Charcot sails to the farthest points in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, including Antarctica and the North Pole. The 24-night Northwest Passage cruise takes guests from Reykjavik in Iceland to Nome, Alaska, and features polar activities like kayaking between the ice floes, snowshoeing, ice fishing or even exploring with a naturalist guide by hovercraft. The 15-night Geographic North Pole expedition sailing from Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, in Norway pushes the limit of sailing to the northernmost point in the world. Le Commandant Charcot is the only passenger ship able to reach the geographic North Pole.

Aurora Expeditions: Greg Mortimer

Outdoor hot tub on the Greg Mortimer ship at dusk.

(Matt Horspool/Courtesy of Aurora Expeditions)

Australian-owned Greg Mortimer is a 341-foot-long purpose-built expedition ship, and the first passenger ship designed with the Ulstein X-Bow. This state-of-the-art design offers environmental benefits such as producing fewer emissions and requiring less fuel. The unique bow design also provides a smoother cruise experience when crossing rough seas like the Drake Passage en route to Antarctica. In addition, the ship’s Rolls Royce dynamic stabilizers contribute to the vessel’s stability and lower its fuel consumption.

The vessel was built in 2019, features 79 cabins with ocean views – 85% of which have balconies – and can accommodate an average of 132 passengers and 74 crew. Onboard amenities include bars and lounges, the main dining room, lecture facilities, a library, a mudroom to store wet expedition gear, a spa, a sauna and a gym. The ship also has hydraulic viewing platforms offering unobstructed views of the local marine and wildlife, as well as 15 Zodiac boats that launch from four platforms.

With Greg Mortimer and its new sister ship, Sylvia Earle, Aurora Expeditions travels to wild and remote destinations around the world. Popular itineraries include its nine- to 23-day Antarctica voyages, navigating icy waters on the 17-day Northwest Passage expedition from Canada or on the 11-day Iceland Circumnavigation cruise, which sails round trip from Reykjavik.

[Want to explore cruise options? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]

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