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As we preach from time to time, all cruises aren't created equal. There are the big mega ships that appeal to excitement seekers wanting a Vegas-y whirl of entertainment options and innovative diversions (a la water slides, bowling alleys, skating rinks, and rock climbing walls). For the five-star crowd, there are the high-end ships that cater to armchair travelers who want to sip expensive champagne in fancy cabins while sailing around the world. Another group of ships can be considered the smarties in the biz -- small, comfy vessels geared to egg heads and adventurers who want to really learn something about where they're going and could care less about generic bus tours, shopping malls, and sexy beaches. For these folks and their families, here are three immensely appealing cruise companies:

Lindblad

Lindblad wrote the book on smart vacations and they don't leave families out of the loop. Laid-back and intellectually curious families with kids will feel right at home aboard the small, cozy ships of Lindblad Expeditions (www.expeditions.com). As the ships ply the off-beat waterways, islands, fjords and/or harbors of three regions -- Galapagos, Greece and Alaska -- special port-related activities for kids are offered that might include scavenger hunts, painting and story writing. Family-friendly shore excursions run the gamut from frolicking with fearless sea lions on the beach in the Galapagos to spotting for humpback whales and orcas up-close from a zodiac craft in Alaska. As a bonus, there's a "Bring Your Kids" discount of $500 off the double-occupancy rate for kids under 18.

Abercrobie & Kent

If ever there was a natural wonderland perfect for kids, it's the Galapagos Islands. The magical islands that Darwin explored a century ago are a great way to introduce your children to the same unspoiled plant and wildlife that he studied. Abercrombie & Kent's (www.abercrombiekent.com) 48-passenger Eclipse offers a handful of 11-night expedition cruise tours geared to families in March, April, June, July, August and December (minimum age is 5). Experienced naturalists are on hand to teach kids about evolution and how it affects everything from cacti to the islands' iguanas, tortoises and birds. Kids 7 and older are taken on beach and nature walks as well as snorkeling and kayaking excursions. Fares start at $6,695 per person; a child under 12 sharing with 2 adults is $5,150. Another option is a 16-day Peru and Galapagos combo that explores the Inca culture of Peru and Machu Picchu, plus offers a 5-night Galapagos cruise on the Eclipse. Fares start at $11,885 per adult; child under 12 sharing with 2 adults is $9,525. Abercrombie will also be offering a special 20-day Antarctica family departure on Dec 17, 2010 to Jan 5, 2011, aboard a new ship, Le Boreal. The Young Explorer's Program will include workshops for kids about marine mammals, squid biology, fish printing, navigation, drawing, writing, and arts and crafts. Rates start at $15,795 per person; children under 18 save 50% of cruise price when traveling with an adult (except in suites).

Paul Gauguin

For a more elegant experience, but no less stimulating for intellectually curious kids, the 332-passenger Paul Gauguin offers the awesome Ambassadors of the Environment, a fun and educational program available on cruises out of Papeete, Tahiti. For an extra fee of about $199 (currently), kids 9 to 15 can enjoy activities created by ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau. They can learn about different kinds of coral and fish species through hikes, snorkeling, whale watching and diving excursions. The ship's youth counselors, who lead the way, all have college degrees in natural or environmental sciences and training from Jean-Michel Cousteau's team. The Paul Gauguin has been operated by Regent Seven Seas since 1997 and come next year, the ship will be operated by new owners (www.pgcruises.com), who have announced they'll retain most of the ship's programming and great features.