Water Sports

The 18 best small cruise ships sailing the world

In a world where gigantic megaships draw all the attention, I’ve always found small ships to be the best.

I’ve sailed on more than 125 cruise ships of all sizes, but my favorites have never been the big “floating resorts.”

I’m drawn to the intimacy and instant community that develops between a small number of passengers and crew cruising together. I enjoy the serenity of small-ship cruising, with no lines to wait in or crowds to contend with on board.

I also gravitate to the off-beat itineraries small ships offer because they focus on unusual and remote places that only small vessels can access.

Who needs the bustling Caribbean when you can explore Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean; lesser-known Greek Islands like Skopelos and Skiathos; French Polynesia; or the Galapagos Islands?

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People often ask me which are the best small ship cruises, and that question is difficult to answer.

The new high-tech expedition ships, outfitted with the latest hardware and design touches, are incredibly appealing. However, I also adore certain older small ships for their heritage and atmosphere.

Of course, the best small ship for you may depend on where you wish to sail and whether you’re looking for a relaxing yacht-like experience or a rugged adventure.

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If you’re like me and find that bigger isn’t always better, this list is for you. Here are 18 of the world’s best ocean-going small cruise ships, both older and new. Each carries fewer than 400 passengers and all are ideal for your next intimately sized travel adventure.

Lindblad Expeditions: National Geographic Resolution and National Geographic Endurance

National Geographic Resolution and Gentoo penguin colony on Cuverville Island, Antarctica. RALPH LEE HOPKINS/LINDBLAD EXPEDITIONS

How small? 128 passengers.
Best for: Gadget-loving adventurers.

Lindblad Expeditions has been a leader in small-ship expedition cruising since 1966 when company founder Lars-Eric Lindblad pioneered expeditions to Antarctica, Easter Island and the Galapagos.

Today, the line’s fleet of small ships explores nearly the entire planet, always with an impressive lineup of experts and photographers along for the ride.

Lindblad’s newest 128-passenger ships, National Geographic Resolution (2021) and National Geographic Endurance (2020), were built for hard-core exploration in the polar regions they call home.

They sport a striking X-bow design (an inverted ship bow design for fuel efficiency), a polar class rating of PC 5 Category A (a notch above most Antarctica cruise ships), and a dynamic positioning system that keeps the ships hovering quietly in place.

Passengers can utilize each ship’s fleet of Zodiacs and kayaks and stash of snowshoes and cross-country skis that aid in exploration.

High-tech toys, such as a remotely operated vehicle and underwater video camera, hydrophone, remote-controlled aerial camera and video microscope, allow guests to view footage of undersea life wherever the ships may be.

The ships also feature a gym, yoga studio, spa, ocean-view saunas, library and two dining venues. On deck, two infinity hot tubs offer amazing views.

All cabins are outward-facing (and 12 are single cabins, a rarity) with an “expedition command center” that includes a tablet, multiple electrical and USB outlets, a TV, a barometer and a National Geographic Atlas.

Cruise fare covers wine and spirits, excursions and excursion gear.

Related: These are the best Antarctica cruise ships

SeaDream Yacht Club: SeaDream I and II

SeaDream is known for its food, personal service and beach parties. SEADREAM YACHT CLUB/FACEBOOK

How small? 112 passengers.
Best for: Yacht enthusiasts seeking the sun.

SeaDream Yacht Club’s 40-year-old ships may not be new, but they’re still some of the prettiest classic luxury yachts afloat. Suites don’t have balconies. However, they’re spacious, recently refurbished, and feature wood details that evoke a classic nautical feel.

What the ships lack in modern touches, they make up for in experience and service. The food is excellent and served both on the romantic outdoor decks and inside the cozy restaurant.

The line’s iconic weekly beach barbecue on a remote stretch of sand, complete with Champagne and caviar in the surf, is a cruise highlight on all itineraries. An open bar contributes to the social atmosphere on board, and watersports from a stern marina when conditions are right are a great perk for active travelers.

The SeaDream twins winter in the Caribbean and summer in the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and Scandinavia.

Related: Why it’s easier to meet new people on a smaller cruise ship

Sea Cloud Cruises: Sea Cloud I

Sea Cloud I is a four-masted private luxury yacht. SEA CLOUD CRUISES/FACEBOOK

How small? 64 passengers.
Best for: History buffs and sailing ship lovers.

The one-of-a-kind, four-masted Sea Cloud was originally commissioned as a private luxury yacht by multi-millionaire Wall Street titan E. F. Hutton in 1931. Hutton’s extravagant heiress and businesswoman wife, Marjorie Merriweather Post, oversaw the ship’s interior design, outfitting it in marble, mahogany and gold-plated fixtures.

After passing through various owners, Sea Cloud I has spent the last several decades offering casually elegant windjammer cruises to old-ship lovers from Europe and North America.

Passengers choose from 10 original cabins, including Post’s own suite with its Louis XIV–style bed and nightstands, marble fireplace and bathroom, chandeliers and intricate moldings.

Sea Cloud winters in the Caribbean and summers in Mediterranean, visiting the Greek Islands, Italy and the Canary Islands.

Related: Big vs small cruise ships: Which will I like better?

UnCruise Adventures: Wilderness Legacy

Wilderness Legacy in Corner Bay. JULIE QUARRY/UNCRUISE ADVENTURES

How small? 90 passengers.
Best for: Sporty cruisers who love quirky ships.

Constructed in 1983, UnCruise Adventures’ Wilderness Legacy is truly a one-of-a-kind quirky ship. Its throw-back style exterior harkens back to a 20th-century steamboat.

The ship attracts a loyal fan base thanks to its roomy size and cabins that open onto covered promenade decks (rather than a central interior corridor). It even features a hot tub on deck and an elevator, a rarity on older small adventure ships like this.

The portable, custom-made “sea dragon” platform at the stern makes for easy access to kayaking, paddleboarding and swimming, activities popular with UnCruise’s sporty fans. The adventurous can also enjoy hiking, bushwhacking and cycling in some ports.

Fares include everything from wine, beer and spirits to daily excursions.

The largest ship in the UnCruise fleet and built for coastal cruising, Wilderness Legacy spends its time in Alaska’s Inside Passage and Glacier Bay National Park, as well as on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Related: The best Alaska cruises for every type of traveler

Star Clippers: Royal Clipper

The Royal Clipper is a five-masted tall ship with a marina for easy access to water sports. STAR CLIPPERS

How small? 227 passengers.
Best for: Sailing enthusiasts with a penchant for the past.

Star Clippers’ handsome five-masted tall ship Royal Clipper is considered the largest square rigger in service. Modeled after the great 1902 German clipper Preussen, the ship is a real throwback, with lots of wood and brass features and nautical-style elements.

Royal Clipper also has impressive modern niceties for a ship of its size, including three small pools and an aft marina for easy access to complimentary water sports. It also offers a small gym and spa.

In the winter, Royal Clipper island hops around the Caribbean, sailing round trip from Barbados to some of the lesser-known islands. During the summer, it cruises the Mediterranean along the French and Italian rivieras and explores the coast of Croatia and the Canary Islands.

Windstar Cruises: Wind Star and Wind Spirit

Wind Spirit in Tahiti. WINDSTAR CRUISES

How small? 148 passengers.
Best for: Romantics and foodies.

Windstar Cruises’ 148-passenger four-masted motorized yachts are beloved for their upscale yet casual sailing vibe and great food in partnership with the James Beard Foundation.

Standing on deck when the sails are unfurled is one of the more romantic moments you’ll likely experience on any ship.

The expansive wooden sun decks on Wind Star and Wind Spirit make you want to be on topside as much as possible to enjoy the yachting life. Each has multiple dining options, both indoor and on deck, including a weekly barbecue on deck under the stars.

Both have a stern marina for easy access to water sports like kayaking and paddle boarding.

The cozy cabins aren’t huge, but they are well-appointed with wood details and nautical flair. Suites are a combination of two cabins.

Windstar offers both cruise-only and all-inclusive fares. You can build an a la carte vacation or pay upfront for an easy trip that includes an open bar, unlimited Wi-Fi and included crew gratuities.

Wind Spirit is stationed in the islands of French Polynesia, sailing year-round out of Tahiti through February 2024. Wind Star is its globe-trotting sister, focusing mostly on the Greek Islands in the summer and Costa Rica and Panama in the winter.

Related: The 2 classes of Windstar ships, explained

Ponant: L’Austral

L’Austral docked in Antartica. RAGNAR AXELSSON/PONANT

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­How small? 264 passengers (200 in Antarctica).
Best for: Chic Francophile foodies.

Ponant has been busy launching six new ships in its impressive Explorers series. However, L’Austral (with sister ships Le Boreal, Le Soleal and Le Lyrial) is my favorite ship in the fleet.

Why? L’Austral is the ideal size for a small ship — intimate but still large enough for amenities such as a gym, spa and show lounge.

Its gorgeous tiered stern decks feature a lovely outdoor pool area at the back of Deck 6 with a perfect stretch of deck for sunbathing and scenery watching and an open-air bar above for stunning views.

With Ponant’s French pedigree, it’s not surprising that food is a cut above, especially the desserts, cheeses and wine. I had the best chocolate mousse of my life on L’Austral. Dine outdoors on the pool deck or in the elegant indoor restaurant. Enhance your evening with complimentary wine (mostly French), Charles Heidsieck Champagne, beer and spirits.

L’Austral explores both polar regions and spends time in the Mediterranean, cruising along the coast of Croatia and around the smaller, less touristy Greek Islands like Amorgos, Milos and Delos.

Emerald Cruises: Emerald Azzurra

Emerald Azzurra is one of the smallest luxury cruise ships. EMERALD CRUISES/FACEBOOK

How small? ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­100 passengers.
Best for: Travelers seeking intimate luxury.

Emerald Cruises’ new Emerald Azzurra (and soon-to-debut sister Emerald Sakara) is one of the smallest luxury cruise ships afloat and a good choice for travelers who want something more intimate than what Silversea or Seabourn offer.

The ship’s six gleaming white-tiered decks sport a futuristic pyramid-like profile that turns heads when it arrives in port.

Emerald Azzurra features a watersports platform at the stern for convenient access to kayaking, paddle boarding, snorkeling and riding SEABOBs (electric underwater scooter-like jet skis). Inside, you can avail of a small gym and spa.

Choose from open-air and indoor dining for your meals. Wine and spirits are included, so take advantage of two impressive outdoor spots for a drink and stunning views — the Sky Bar at the top of the ship and the chic infinity pool at the stern of Deck 3, adjacent to a lounge and cafe.

Itineraries focus on the Mediterranean during the summer, with mostly one- to two-week cruises that call on ports along the coasts of Croatia, Albania, Italy, France, Turkey and the Greek Islands. It spends the winters in the Caribbean.

Explore these destinations in depth with included excursions.

Scenic Cruises: Scenic Eclipse

A cabin on Scenic Eclipse. ULLI SEER/SCENIC CRUISES

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­How small? 228 passengers (200 in polar regions).
Best for: Design fans with wanderlust.

An impressively kitted-out expedition ship, Scenic Eclipse has an ice-strengthened hull with a C6 rating suited for polar cruising, including navigating the Northwest Passage. High-tech features include a GPS dynamic positioning system to maintain a location without dropping anchor.

The Australia-based line’s debut into ocean cruising had Scenic Eclipse drawing attention with impressive additions like a pair of six-passenger helicopters and a five-passenger submarine (both offered at an additional cost), as well as kayaks, zodiacs and e-bikes. (Sister Scenic Eclipse II is set to debut soon.)

The ship’s sleek angled silhouette makes for a handsome profile. The eye-catching interior is sophisticated, with a stark black, gray and beige color palette, lovely wood details, white Carrara marble surfaces and bold art.

Passengers can enjoy a relatively large spa and fitness area, plus multiple dining venues, including Asian, Japanese, French and Continental restaurants. Wine and spirits are included in the fare.

While small luxury ships typically have fancy owners’ suites, the pair of top accommodations on Scenic Eclipse is on another level. Each measures over 2,000 square feet with a huge forward-facing teak-lined terrace, complete with a large whirlpool tub.

Scenic Eclipse cruises to nearly every corner of the world, including French Polynesia and the Pacific Islands, Australia, the Indonesian archipelago and Antarctica. The cruise fare includes excursions.

Related: These cruises cost $30,000 and have no set itinerary. Here’s what to expect

Silversea Cruises: Silver Endeavour

Veranda Suite, Silver Endeavour. MATTEO IMBRIANI/SILVERSEA

How small? ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­200 passengers.
Best for: Intrepid travelers who demand the utmost luxury.

Silversea Cruises is a pro at luxury small-ship cruising — the line has been at it for more than 30 years. With Silver Endeavour, it achieves the perfect mix of ultra-luxury surroundings with tough-as-nails expedition hardware for its focus on polar cruising.

On board, many rooms are veranda suites measuring 356 square feet (including a private balcony), all with marble baths. The largest Grand and Owner’s suites are massive multi-room affairs with huge private verandas. The passenger-to-crew ratio is one-to-one; service is excellent.

For dining, there are four main restaurants, including an Italian and a French-inspired venue. The Grill is an eatery enclosed in floor-to-ceiling glass for the best views in the house.

There’s an impressive spa, salon and gym with panoramic ocean views and several lounges for drinks (always included) and lectures.

Near the well-stocked library is the Expedition Study, where the 20-member expedition team is accessible for questions. Outdoor deck space includes the forward-facing bow area with an outdoor hot tub.

With its PC6 ice-class rating, Silver Endeavour spends November through April in Antarctica and the rest of the year in the Arctic, including Greenland, Arctic Canada, Iceland and Norway. Excursions are always complimentary.

Related: The best luxury cruise lines for elegance and exclusivity

Seabourn: Seabourn Venture

Veranda Suite on Seabourn Venture. SEABOURN

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­How small? 264 passengers.
Best for: Travelers with high standards for luxury and special itineraries.

Seabourn’s new Seabourn Venture (and upcoming sister Seabourn Pursuit) are on par with Silver Endeavour and Scenic Eclipse when it comes to pairing top-of-the-line luxury and pampering with incredible itineraries.

Elegant interiors include a main restaurant, several lounges and bars where drinks are all included, a plush lecture hall, a cafe for coffee and snacks, and spacious balcony suites that start from 355 square feet (including the balcony).

The windowed fitness center and spa area includes an ocean-view sauna and the infinity pool at the back of Deck 5 boasts killer views.

Not just a pretty ship, Seabourn Venture is tough, built to PC6 Polar Class standards for a focus on expedition cruising in the polar regions. The ship carries two submarines, as well as a fleet of double sea kayaks and 24 Zodiacs that can accommodate all guests at once.

Seabourn’s large expedition team leads daily complimentary excursions, such as Zodiac sightseeing tours, shore walks, hikes, snorkeling and kayak outings. Also, accomplished guest lecturers give onboard talks.

Like Silver Endeavour, Seabourn Venture will spend the year in the polar regions, with long repositioning cruises in between, such as a 51-day Antarctica, Atlantic and Northwest Africa voyage from Buenos Aires to Malaga, Spain.

Related: The 5 best destinations you can visit on a Seabourn cruise ship

Atlas Ocean Voyages: World Navigator

While World Navigator’s itineraries mostly focus on polar regions, it also visits Europe and the Canary Islands. MICHEL VERDURE/ATLAS OCEAN VOYAGES

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­How small? 196 passengers.
Best for: Travelers craving luxury and lots of open deck space.

World Navigator is a deluxe expedition ship sporting a 1B Ice Class-certified hull and the latest technologies, such as a GPS-based dynamic position system to minimize movement and noise.

Multiple dining options include the main restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the ship’s wake and a steakhouse on the Lido Deck. For cocktails, head to either of two piano bars, the Dome Observation Lounge or the Atlas Lounge, just outside the lecture theatre.

The Atlas Ocean Voyages ship has terrific outdoor spots for remarkable views (not hogged by a helipad or stern and aft suite balconies), including a close-to-the-water spot on Deck 5 forward and a “secret” arc of deck on Deck 6 aft.

You can also take in the scenery from the ship’s shallow pool and two adjacent hot tubs.

Don’t miss the spa, even if you don’t book a massage. It features an appealing seating area facing the sea and an ocean-view sauna. Walkers and joggers keep fit on the top-of-ship track.

World Navigator’s itineraries focus on the polar regions, but the ship visits Europe and the Canary Islands while repositioning.

Landings and Zodiac safaris are included on Antarctica cruises, but excursions are not included on other itineraries. All non-polar cruises offered from April through October are called Epicurean Expeditions (with one complimentary wine- or food-focused experience per cruise).

American Queen Voyages: Ocean Victory

Cabin with French balcony on Ocean Victory. MICHEL VERDURE/AMERICAN QUEEN VOYAGES

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­How small? 186 passengers.
Best for: In-depth Alaska cruises for nature lovers.

Newcomer Ocean Victory is large for a small cruise ship, which allows it to offer more on its Alaska expeditions.

Its sizable expedition team, which can number 18 on select voyages, comprises seasoned authorities in a wide range of fields, such as geology, whale communications and photography. Team members lead complimentary excursions on sea kayaks and 18 Zodiacs so passengers can experience glaciers, icebergs and wildlife up close.

In place of an observation bow with direct views of the water, as many similar ships offer, Victory has a pair of viewing platforms on each side of the ship, thanks to its distinctive X-bow design. These platforms are cantilevered directly over the water for great views of bergy bits and potential marine life.

The American Queen Voyages ship offers three dining venues, plus multiple bars and lounges (drinks are included in your fare).

Like any good expedition ship, Ocean Victory has one lounge dedicated to lectures with large flat screens to view presentations. You’ll find an ocean-view fitness center, a small spa and an outdoor pool with two hot tubs.

Ocean Victory’s 11- and 12-night Alaska cruises depart between May and September. The ship sails between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Sitka, Alaska. It visits destinations such as Frederick Sound, Endicott Arm, Tracy Arm, the Waterfall Coast (Gut Bay), Misty Fjords National Monument and Fiordland (Kynoch Inlet) in Canada’s Inside Passage.

Your fare includes a one-night pre-cruise hotel stay.

In winter, Ocean Victory sails in Antarctica for Albatros Expeditions.

Related: Looking for nature and adventure on an Alaska cruise? Choose a smaller ship

Swan Hellenic: SH Vega

Wildlife lecture onboard Swan Hellenic’s SH Vega. SWAN HELLENIC

How small? 152 passengers.
Best for: Cruisers looking for unique itineraries including Africa and South America.

Swan Hellenic’s compact, well-laid-out SH Vega is built for expedition cruising with a PC5 ice-strengthened hull.

The interior has a contemporary, Scandinavian-inspired low-key design ethos. SH Vega is nearly identical to its younger sister, Minerva. The third, slightly larger sibling Diana is set to debut in May.

When returning from a frigid Antarctica excursion, you will appreciate the fireplaces (yes, that’s right) built into the walls of all cabins. They’re electric but quite realistic, with flames and crackling sounds.

When the weather’s good, skip the main restaurant and eat at the buffet, which is set up at the back of Deck 7, adjacent to the attractive (and heated) infinity swimming pool. Vega also has a small gym and a spa with an ocean-view sauna.

The expansive Observation Lounge takes up most of Deck 7 and is the spot for expedition lectures. Thirteen Zodiacs and eight kayaks take guests on water adventures and ashore.

Don’t miss the little observation point called the Swan’s Nest all the way forward on Deck 6. You play out your Jack and Rose fantasies there.

SH Vega cruises the Arctic region (visiting Greenland, Iceland and northern Canada), South America, the coast of Africa (including South Africa, Namibia and Angola) and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Cruise fare includes a one-night pre-cruise hotel stay and one excursion in each port.

Viking Cruises: Viking Octantis

Cabin on Viking Octantis. ERIC LAIGNEL/VIKING

How small? 378 passengers.
Best for: Expedition cruisers with an academic bent.

Among the larger ships on our list, Viking’s new 378-passenger Viking Octantis (along with sister Viking Polaris) was designed to explore the polar regions with some pretty cool features, including a large two-level garage called the Hangar.

Inside are not only Zodiacs and kayaks but a pair of six-passenger submarines and military-grade speed used to shuttle cruisers on excursions.

The ship is equipped for scientific inquiry with a remote-controlled underwater robot, baited underwater camera and a FerryBox system for collecting water samples, which you can view under a microscope in the ship’s science lab. Weather balloons are released on every cruise to capture info on temperature, humidity and wind speed.

For decidedly less academic pursuits, Viking Octantis has a fitness center and a spa that includes a lovely indoor pool with sea views, plus a sauna, snow grotto (with snowflakes descending gently from the ceiling through chilled air) and outdoor spa tub.

Four dining options include Manfredi’s Italian and several attractive lounges, such as the windowed Aula auditorium for lectures.

Viking Octantis spends part of the year in Antarctica and the rest of the year cruising the Great Lakes and Canada, with a handful of repositioning cruises in between.

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