Island Sky

The World's Best Small-Ship Cruises

Guest Contributor|August 24, 2017|Blog Post

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:

 

Antarctica 

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.

 

Coastal Cuba 

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.

 

Egypt 

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. 

 

Lesser Antilles 

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.

 

Micronesia

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.

 

Peruvian Amazon 

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.

 

Polynesian Islands 

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. 

 

Related Blog Posts

  • Raja Ampat, Indonesia
    Blog Post

    25 Fascinating Facts About Coral Reefs Around the World

    September 15, 2018 | Blog Post

    If you’ve spent any time snorkeling or scuba diving in places like Australia, the Galápagos Islands, or 

    Read More

    Blog Post

    Adventures in Antarctica

    February 14, 2018 | Blog Post

    A group of adventurers, we flew from around the globe to meet at El Fin del Mondo—the End of the World—to fulfill lifelong dreams of visiting or revisiting, the mysterious and breathtaking land of Antarctica.

    Read More

    Reindeer, Lapland
    Blog Post

    Arctic Wildlife Vs Antarctic Wildlife

    February 1, 2018 | Blog Post

    The planet’s polar regions, the Arctic and Antarctic, are both remarkably cold, which may explain why people often get them confused. Both are technically cold deserts, with very little precipitation.

    Read More

  • Ultimate Galapagos
    Blog Post

    Top 10 Off-the-Beaten-Path Travel Destinations for 2018

    January 22, 2018 | Blog Post

    Last year the big news in travel was the negative impacts mass tourism had on beloved destinations such as Barcelona, Venice, and Scotland’s Isle of Skye.

    Read More

    Vinales Valley, Cuba
    Blog Post

    Q&A with Cuba Expert Nadia Eckhardt

    January 15, 2018 | Blog Post

    Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Nadia Eckhardt has been one of Zegrahm’s most popular expedition leaders since she started working for the company in 1992.

    Read More

    Apataki, Tuamotu Islands
    Field Report

    2017 Tahiti to Easter Island Field Report

    January 10, 2018 | Field Report

    Monday, November 6, 2017 - Papeete, Tahiti / Embark Caledonian Sky

    Read More

  • Kenya & Tanzania Under Canvas
    Blog Post

    Top 5 Trends in Travel in 2018

    January 3, 2018 | Blog Post

    The effects of over tourism on popular destinations such as Barcelona, Venice, and Scotland’s Isle of Skye has arguably been the biggest story in travel this year. But many industry insiders predict that the backlash against the crowds mass tourism tends to bring will shape the future of travel for many years to come.

    Read More

    Top 10 Travel Bucket List for 2018
    Blog Post

    2018 Travel Bucket List

    December 19, 2017 | Blog Post

    Where will your travel dreams take you in 2018? Here are just a few once-in-a-lifetime experiences Zegrahm can help you check off your bucket list next year.

     

    Read More

    Kimberley, Australia
    Blog Post

    Top 10 Places to Visit in Kimberley, Australia

    December 19, 2017 | Blog Post

    The region of Kimberley, Australia showcases a splendid array of wild, untamed natural beauty that feels far removed from the busy capital cities (see: Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane).

    Read More

  • Nadi, Fiji
    Field Report

    2017 Faces of Polynesia Field Report

    December 14, 2017 | Field Report

    Tuesday, October 24, 2017 - Nadi, Fiji / Embark Caledonian Sky

    Read More

    Australia's Kimberley, Brent Stephenson
    Video

    Australia's Kimberley: A Voyage to the Outback

    December 6, 2017 | Video

    Check out our short video of just some of the incredible sites you'll see on our upcoming voyage to Australia's Kimberley.

    Read More

    Taveuni, Fiji
    Blog Post

    5 Reasons Travel is Among the Best Family Gifts You Can Give

    December 5, 2017 | Blog Post

    Gift-giving is almost always challenging and rewarding in equal measure, but especially around the holidays. There’s an inherent pressure to find the perfect gift for your loved ones—one that will both show them how much we love them and how well we know them.

    Read More