Small Ship Cruises: Smaller Ship Options

| November 18 , 2005

I often get questions from readers about small ship cruises from the smaller cruise lines. Actually, it came up very recently during a non-cruise trip (shocking, huh?) when I was part of a polar-bear-sighting group of 14 in northern Manitoba. The folks on this trip have cruised, but they said they would prefer to sail on a smaller ship -- one that does not have all the bells and whistles of today’s larger vessels.

Since I'm detecting a growing number of people with this mind-set, below I will give you a rundown of some of the smaller lines; each has its own place in the cruise universe, even if they are less well known. To their credit, they have loosely banded together in an association called the Niche Cruise Marketing Alliance (NCMA). They can certainly do more to promote themselves as a group than they can do individually.

The lines in this alliance offer ships ranging from yacht-like sailing vessels to upscale (but informal) exploration vessels to medium-sized traditional cruise ships. The primary thing they offer in common is the intimacy that comes from a smaller ship carrying fewer people. The destinations reached by these lines pretty much covers the gamut of places to go, including many smaller ports where the big ships simply cannot fit. These lines also place a high priority on personal enrichment and environmental preservation. And while in some cases, the line may be described as luxurious, that does not mean on-board formality.

But there’s a trade-off, of course. There’s less on-board entertainment (including gambling), fewer dining options, fewer things to do on board, etc. So a small cruise experience may not be for everyone.

A caution: The lines might not like me to point this out, but with the cruise industry continuously expanding and contracting, some small lines may not be as secure financially as the big players. A small line I sailed on as recently as June is now out of business. But that would not stop me from sailing on any of the lines below; I would just make sure I paid with a credit card that could provide me with a refund if something were to happen.

So, with the help of NCMA, here are twelve smaller lines that you might want to consider for a future cruise:

  • American Cruise Lines offers luxury small ship cruises through the smooth inland waterways of America's historic East Coast. Destinations include Maine, the New England offshore islands, the historic South and the Chesapeake Bay. Each ship holds fewer than 100 passengers.
  • American West Steamboat Co. offers "casual elegance" on board authentic stern-wheelers that combine the best of big ship and small ship cruising. Four, seven and 11-night cruises discover out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Puget Sound and on the Columbia River. Inclusive cruises with shore tours, live entertainment and fine dining.
  • Cruise West offers up-close travel that focuses on the destination and its scenery, wildlife, natural history and culture for limited numbers of like-minded travelers. Destinations include Alaska, British Columbia, the Columbia and Snake Rivers, California wine country, Baja Mexico’s Sea of Cortes, Costa Rica, Panama, Japan, the South Pacific and the Kuril Islands.
  • Discovery World Cruises sails to some of the world’s most remote and fascinating destinations aboard the intimate M/V Discovery. The 650-passenger vessel comfortably sails the world’s oceans and offers the shipboard amenities sophisticated travelers have come to expect, yet her size enables her to call at smaller, out-of-the-way ports. Discovery World Cruises offers complete “cruise-tour” vacations to Antarctica, the Amazon, the Galapagos Islands, South Pacific, Iceland, Greenland, Europe and North Africa that include hotel stays and city sightseeing before and/or after the sailing.
  • Fred Olsen Cruise Lines operates small ship cruises from ports in the United Kingdom to more than 200 destinations worldwide. In the winter, one ship is positioned in Barbados for 14-night cruises of the Southern Caribbean, South America’s Amazon and Orinoco Rivers and the Panama Canal. The line’s guests are generally “pre-baby-boomers” who expect excellent service and a traditional cruise experience.
  • Galapagos Explorer II promotes Ecuador as a privileged destination for tourism. The line offers innovative and high quality products while maintaining a permanent practice of business ethics and respect for mankind and the environment. The all-suite vessel offers three, four and seven-night cruises through the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America.
  • Imperial Majesty Cruise Line operates two-night cruise vacations from Ft. Lauderdale to Nassau/ Paradise Island, Bahamas aboard the MV Regal Empress. The classic vessel offers a unique opportunity for vacationers seeking a quick getaway or an introduction to cruising. The ship offers all the modern amenities and services of longer cruises, but in an intimate setting reminiscent of a bygone era.
  • Norwegian Coastal Voyage ships sail the waters of the 1,250-mile fjord-filled west coast of Norway. The six- to 12-day itineraries sail from Bergen in the south across the Arctic Circle in the north to Kirkenes near to the Russian border. The fleet visits 34 picturesque ports and offers both escorted shore excursions and independent sightseeing. In the winter months, two of their ships cruise through and around Antarctica’s fjords, straits and glaciers.
  • Orion Expedition Cruises offers the experience of cruising aboard a luxuriously appointed, modern ship perfectly configured to take passengers to unspoiled destinations in and around Australia. Destinations as diverse as Australia's Top End including The Great Barrier Reef, Cape York, Arnhem Land, the Kimberley and East Timor will provide experiences most people can only dream about. The ship also offers voyages to the Tasman Sea, the Chilean Fjords and Antarctica.
  • Peter Deilmann Cruises owns and operates 10 deluxe river vessels cruising the Great Rivers of Europe as well as two oceangoing vessels. The intimate size of the vessels, their first class appointments and highly personalized service allow them to be among the world’s finest travel products. I sailed on their MV Mozart last fall on the Danube and had a terrific time.
  • RiverBarge Excursion Lines, Inc. is the owner and operator of the 198-passenger R/B River Explorer, the only hotel barge traveling America's inland waterways. The vessel offers an innovative approach to the niche leisure market and explores the heritage and culture of America’s waterways and nearby towns.
  • Star Clippers operates the largest and tallest sailing vessels in the world. Star Flyer, Star Clipper and Royal Clipper, the flagship of the fleet, visit destinations untouched by larger cruise ships and offer passengers the activities, amenities and atmosphere of a private yacht. Voyages range from five to 11 nights and take travelers to the Caribbean, the French Riviera, Spain, Italy, Albania, Croatia, the Greek Isles, Turkey and the Far East.

If you want more information about the alliance, their office is in Bellevue, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. Their web site is

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