Though we like 'em all, we loooove the small ships best. They're intimate, personal and able to navigate remote waterways and small yachty harbors that mega ships can only dream about. In this age of giant cruise ships barreling into over crowded ports like St. Thomas, San Juan and Ketchikan, our hearts are won over by the small ships that can skip the hubbub and go for the genuine, unspoiled travel experiences. Small ships are the answer to anyone who likes the idea of traveling by sea, but not in a mass-market way.
Best Small Ships for Cushy Cruises
SeaDream Yacht Club: SeaDream's pair of cozy, 110-passenger yachts deliver an upscale yet very casual experience without regimentation on route to remote islands in the Caribbean and top spots in the Mediterranean, from Croatia to the French and Italian Rivieras. Cabin beds are fitted with fine Frette linens, but the best snooze on board is to be had in one of the 18 queen-size, Bali-style sun beds that line each vessel's top deck. Adult toys on board include jet skis, MP3 players, Segway Human Transporters and water sports equipment. Nautically-styled cabins have a flat-screen TVs, Internet access, and CD and DVD players. The all-inclusive pricing, doting service and high-end touches mean you soak in the hot tub while sipping a chardonnay and nibbling on shrimp cocktail. (www.seadream.com)
American Safari Cruises: Every fall, American Safari does a series of 3- and 4-night California Wine Country cruises aboard its plush 22-passenger yacht Safari Spirit. Days are spent on private tours of various vineyards and estates, with wine tastings, art tours and gourmet lunches. Even a massage by a local therapist is included in the rates. In the late afternoon you can take out a kayak and explore the rivers on your own, then come back and soak in the top-deck hot tub. The line and its fleet of three tiny cruisers also do Alaska, Pacific Northwest and Sea of Cortez voyages. (www.amsafari.com)
Star Clippers: If it's comfortable adventure with a romantic twist that you crave, then look no further than Star Clippers' three tall-masted modern clipper ships. With acres of sail above and you down below them in a deck chair, listen to sailors working the winches and heave the lines on route to the next small yachting port in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Far East. Attracting a young-at-heart international crowd, these ships are the perfect antidote to a typical mega-ship cruise. (www.starclippers.com)
Windstar Cruises: The best of both worlds, the line's 312-passenger Wind Surf and its pair of 148-passenger vessels, the Wind Star and Wind Spirit, are yachty tall ships that manage to achieve an unstuffy casual luxury that's appealing to any one who demands great food and intimate surroundings without formality and pretention. Itineraries include the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Costa Rica. (www.windstarcruises.com)
Best Small Ship Adventure Cruises
Lindblad Expeditions: Get your feet wet and brain working, Lindblad is the most adventure- and learning-oriented small-ship line out there, offering itineraries that avoid big ports and focus on wilderness, wildlife and history. Your time is spent learning about the outdoors from high-caliber expedition leaders and guest scientists, some of them aboard as part of Lindblad's alliance with the National Geographic Society. Try them in Alaska or in Mexico's Sea of Cortez for whale-watching and exploring starkly beautiful uninhabited islands. The line also ventures to Antarctica, the Artic, Galapagos, Central and South America, South Pacific, Mediterrean and other farflung and exhilarating locales. (www.lindblad.com)
Cruise West and INTRAV: There's off-the-beaten-track and then there's crossing the Bering Sea. Cruise West's Spirit of Oceanus and INTRAV's Clipper Odyssey offer 2-week cruises that sail from mainland Alaska, through the Aleutian Islands, and then across the Bering Sea to the Russian Far East, visiting coastal towns and wilderness areas. Cruise West heads to Russia's severe Chukchi Peninsula, while INTRAV heads a little farther south to the more wooded Kamchatka Peninsula, home to more than 300 volcanoes. The two lines also offer ships and expedition-style itineraries along Alaska's Inside Passage and many other parts of the world. (www.cruisewest.com and www.intrav.com)
The Maine Windjammers: You get a fairly relaxing adventure on these owner-operated vessels, but it's an adventure nonetheless because these are real sailing ships, relying on the coastal winds for propulsion. Not plush, these ships are the real deal for salts young and old. If you like, you're welcome to learn the ropes of sailing while aboard, as you sail to small islands around Penobscot Bay. (www.sailmainecoast.com)
Best Small Ships for Learning Something
Majestic America Line: The wooden, 174-passenger Delta Queen was built in 1926 and is one of the great links to the Mississippi's stern-wheeler past. Cruises are a celebration of Americana, with lots of history and river lore, meals that feature Cajun and southern cooking, and a music program heavy on Dixieland jazz and swing. Special theme cruises focus on the Civil War and antebellum home visits. The fleet also includes newer paddlewheelers and other small ships. (www.majesticamericaline.com)
American Canadian Caribbean: ACCL's utilitarian work-horse ships can navigate through the narrow, shallow waters of the old northeast canal system, with much time spent in the region's rivers and lakes, plus visits to historic sites such as Fort Ticonderoga, Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame, West Point, and the old Erie Canal. You don't get expert lecturers the way you do on many other small-ship lines, but then, they don't sail here. (www.accl-smallships.com)
Imperial Majesty: This one's in its own unique category. The itinerary visits nowhere you'd normally call historic (the Bahamas), but Regal Empress, the line's one ship, is a piece of history in and of itself. Built in 1953, it's one of the only real old ocean liners still operating in the American market. By 2010, Coast Guard regulations will make it almost impossible for old vessels like this to sail, so if you want to see what ocean ships were like in the mid-20th century, Regal Empress is one of your last options. And it's cheap, too! (www.imperialmajesty.com)
The Maine Windjammers: On the Maine coast, more than a dozen owner-operator schooners offer 3- to 6-night cruises throughout the summer. Several of them date back to the 19th century, including the 22-passenger Lewis R. French and Stephen Taber (both launched in 1871), while boats like the 26-passenger American Eagle and 20-passenger Timberwind date to the 1930s. Cruises let you become familiar with old-style sailing ships and learn something about handling the sails, all while tooling around the bays and coves of the gorgeous Maine coast.
Cruise West, Lindblad and American Safari: Follow in the steps of Lewis and Clark through the rivers of the Pacific Northwest (Columbia and Snake rivers), transiting locks and dams, visiting Indian petroglyphs, and experiencing one of the most beautiful river landscapes in the U.S. Some cruises also offer recreational activities such as kayaking, while others visit vineyards in Washington's wine country.
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