The cruise industry tends to favor a “bigger is better” approach, with behemoth 5,000 to 6,000-guest ships becoming the new norm. But small-ship cruises offer a very different sort of experience; the best small-ship cruises carry less than 300 guests, allowing for better interaction with the crew (and fellow guests), and provide exclusive experiences that larger ships don’t have access to. From cruising the Amazon and Nile Rivers to ocean voyages in the Antarctic, Galápagos, and Polynesia, here are our picks for 10 of the world’s best small-ship cruises:
There’s a very good reason a voyage to Antarctica ranks high atop most nature-lovers’ bucket lists; actually, there are a LOT of very good reasons. Antarctica is the planet’s coldest, driest, and windiest continent. It is largely untouched by humans, and perpetually covered in ice. This leads to seriously stunning scenery, from icebergs that tower like skyscrapers to epic mountains reflected in the still waters. The Antarctic peninsula is also one of the world’s best small-ship cruises for watching wildlife, from orca and humpback whales in the water to four different species of penguins and countless seals on shore. As if that’s not enough, there are also historic sites and scientific research stations to explore, with around 20 hours of summer daylight from December through February.
President Obama loosened the decades-long restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba several years ago, causing a dramatic surge of interest in traveling to the Caribbean island. With President Trump threatening to reverse improved US diplomatic relations, there’s never been a better time to explore Cuba’s impressively pristine natural wonders and rich local culture. A circumnavigation of Cuba via small ship offers unique opportunities to explore parts of the country most Havana visitors never get to see. In addition to the culture of the capital city, the Caribbean’s largest island offers majestic mountains, verdant valleys, and rich Colonial history. There’s also a diverse array of wildlife in national parks and nature reserves that remain far off the beaten path of mass tourism.
If you’re interested in ancient history, archaeology, and rich indigenous culture, exploring Egypt’s pyramids, temples, and colorful bazaars is probably a bucket list item. Small-ship cruises down the Nile River and/or Lake Nasser offer an excellent alternative to overland adventures, allowing travelers to hit highlights such as the Great Pyramids of Giza, Luxor Temple, the Temple of Isis at Philae (accessible only by boat), and the massive rock temples of Abu Simbel along the way. If you get a chance, don’t miss an opportunity to take a hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings, which is home to at least 63 tombs and chambers that served as the final resting place for Pharaohs and nobles buried during the 16th to 11th centuries BC.
The Galápagos Islands
With 18 major islands (most uninhabited) and three smaller islets spread across 3,040 square miles, a small-ship cruise is the only way to truly explore the Galápagos Islands. The incredible array of flora and fauna you’ll find in Darwin’s paradise is wildly different from island to island. As documented in The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin found that animals adapted genetically to a given island’s unique ecosystem. Thanks to its remote location and UNESCO/National Park protection, the wildlife of the Galápagos is plentiful. Endemic species such as flightless cormorants, Galápagos penguins, Galápagos sea lions, giant tortoises, and marine iguanas are mostly unafraid of humans. And the diving off the coast is undeniably spectacular.
The Great Barrier Reef
In 2016, hyperbolic headlines proclaiming the Great Barrier Reef dead made international news after Outside published a cheeky piece by environmental writer Rowan Jacobsen. While the reef did suffer massive coral bleaching due to warming caused by climate change, most of that damage happened in a relatively small area of the Great Barrier Reef. Which means that there are still some 100,000 square miles of healthy reef that are home to an incredible array of marine species. Zegrahm’s new Best of the Great Barrier Reef expedition, led by marine biologist Brad Climpson, offers an exceptional opportunity to explore the world’s largest reef system. It includes daily snorkeling and diving excursions to the most pristine reefs, birdwatching, Australian Aboriginal art, and guest lectures.
The Greek Islands
From the majestic mountains of Meteora to the ancient architecture of Athens, mainland Greece has plenty to offer travelers with an interest in nature, culture, and history. But for a true taste of Greek tradition, it’s hard to beat small-ship cruises through the countless Greek islands (estimated range from 1,200 to 6,000). The Saronic Islands are tiny (7.4 to 59 square miles) and quaint: Many mainland residents have vacation homes there, so it’s a great place to catch locals in a celebratory mood. The Cyclades, with around 220 islands, is the densest and most popular grouping in the Aegean archipelago thanks to Delos, Mykonos, and Santorini. For ancient history, the Dodecanese Islands (especially Rhodes) and Crete are hard to beat.
When Americans think of the Caribbean, they tend to think of hotspots such as the Bahamas, Cayman Islands, and Jamaica. But the islands of the Lesser Antilles (which form the eastern boundary of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean) are generally less over-developed and more pristine than those crowded mass tourism destinations. Zegrahm’s 12-day Hidden Gems of the Caribbean expedition is a great way to explore these lesser-known islands. Departing from Martinique, the 56-guest cruise visits idyllic islands including Grenada, St. Lucia, Dominica, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and many more. Activities range from birdwatching and snorkeling or scuba diving to expert onboard lectures about the islands’ fascinating history.
Spread across the western Pacific northeast of Papua New Guinea, the Federated States of Micronesia is comprised of more than 600 islands. The country is made up of four island states—Pohnpei, Kosrae, Chuuk, and Yap—and is known for its palm-shaded beaches, ancient ruins, and thriving indigenous cultures. It’s also a world class scuba diving destination, which travelers can explore on Zegrahm’s 18-day Best of Micronesia expedition. The trip offers daily opportunities to snorkel or dive the region’s famously pristine coral reefs, which are home to around 1,300 species of fish. You’ll also visit Chuuk (Truk) Lagoon, which is renowned for its “ghost fleet” of over 50 coral-encrusted ships that were sunk during World War II.
Brazil boasts a whopping 60% of the Amazon rainforest’s total area of 2,100,000 square miles. Unfortunately, that country’s unsustainable exploitation of its natural resources has damaged this once-pristine ecosystem, perhaps irreparably. For a better taste of the Amazon rainforest’s world-famous biodiversity, head to Iquitos, Peru. There, you can board a luxury Amazon voyage that will take you 600 miles along the mighty river and its various tributaries. There are no words that can aptly describe the feeling of seeing countless howler monkeys, iguanas, pink river dolphins, tropical bird species, and occasional big cats (jaguars, ocelots, etc.) as you glide through the forest. Spending time with the welcoming Ribereños who live there is a memory you’ll treasure forever.
There are so many beautiful Polynesian Islands, it would be impossible to pick just one favorite. But with less than 2,000 miles separating tropical hotspots such as Tahiti and Fiji, a small-ship cruise offers the perfect way to explore numerous gorgeous getaways in just a few weeks. From soaking in the stunning views of Bora Bora and birdwatching in the Cook Islands, to scuba diving in the Marquesas Islands and immersing yourself in the traditional culture of Tonga (the last remaining Polynesia monarchy), these islands offer an incredible array of exciting ecotourism activities.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.