Small Ships & Adventure Cruises

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Aside from the fact that they both sail in water, mainstream cruise ships (think Carnival or Disney ships) and the small ships reviewed here have hardly anything in common. Whereas big ships allow you to see a region while immersed in a resortlike onboard atmosphere, small ships allow you to see it from the waterline, without distraction from anything that's not an inherent part of the locale -- no glitzy interiors, no big shows or loud music, no casinos, no spas, and no crowds either, as the majority of these ships carry fewer than 100 passengers. Whether sailing through Alaska's coastal wilderness, along the Erie Canal or the Columbia River, or between tiny islands in the Caribbean or the Sea of Cortez, you're part of a destination from the minute you wake up until the minute you fall asleep, and for the most part, you're left alone to form your own opinions.

Most lines operate small, motorized coastal and river cruisers that are like floating B&Bs, with a main public lounge, a dining room, and little else besides cabins and open decks. A few of these lines also operate slightly larger ships with deep drafts that are suitable for longer open-sea cruises. Five of the lines we review -- Star Clippers, Windstar, Sea Cloud, Island Windjammers, and the independently owned Maine Windjammers -- operate honest-to-God sailing ships, the first three with a yachtlike vibe (luxury-yacht-like in the case of Sea Cloud, and fairly luxe for Windstar), the latter two more like summer camp for adults.

Beyond these physical distinctions, the experience provided by all these lines breaks down into two main subcategories: soft-adventure cruises, which are generally arranged around activities like hiking, kayaking, tide-pooling, and snorkeling, plus visits to out-of-the-way ports; and port-to-port cruises, which mix days in port with days spent visiting great natural sites.

We absolutely love the small-ship experience -- in fact, it's our favorite way to sail -- but there are a few caveats:

  1. Stay away if you're not a self-starter, since these ships have few or no organized activities;
  2. Stay away if you're weak in the stomach, as these ships tend to pitch and roll more in rough seas than the megaships do;
  3. Families beware -- these are not ships for kids;
  4. Wheelchair users beware, too, as only the four American Cruise Lines ships and Cruise West's Spirit of '98 and Spirit of Oceanus are fully or even partially accessible; and
  5. Stay away if you're looking for a bargain -- 'cause with only a few exceptions (such as the Island and Maine Windjammers), small-ship cruises are among the more expensive cruise options -- though on the plus side, the onboard costs of these trips tend to be less, and sometimes include excursions.

Dress Codes -- The word is casual. Depending on the region sailed, polo shirts, khakis or shorts, and a fleece pullover and Gore-Tex shell will pretty much take care of you all week. On warm-weather cruises, consider bringing a pair of aqua-socks or rubber sandals, as you may be going ashore in rubber landing craft and have to step out into the surf.

The Scoop on Small-Ship Tonnage -- When reading the reviews, bear in mind that small-ship lines often measure their ships' gross register tonnage or GRTs (a measure of internal space, not actual weight) differently than the large lines do. There's not even a definite standard within the small-ship market, so to compare ship sizes it's best to just look at the number of passengers aboard. Also note that where GRTs measures are nonstandard, passenger/space measurements are impossible to calculate accurately.

Notes on Line/Ship Ratings -- Because the small-ship experience is so completely different from the megaship experience, we've had to adjust our ratings. For instance, because all but a tiny fraction of these ships have just one dining room for all meals, we can't judge them by the same standard we use for ships with 5 or 10 different restaurants. So, we've set the default Dining Options rating for these ships at 3, or "good," with points deducted if a restaurant is particularly uncomfortable or ugly, and points added for any options above and beyond. Similarly, we've changed the "Gym, Spa & Sports Facilities" rating to Adventure & Fitness Options to reflect the fact that on small ships the focus is on what's outside, not inside. Options covered in this category might include kayaks, trips by inflatable launch, bow-landing capability, and frequent hiking, tide-pooling, and/or snorkeling trips.

Cruise lines have been graded on a curve that compares them only with the other lines in the Small Ships, Sailing Ships & Adventure Cruises category. None of the lines and vessels offers a children's program. Because the Maine schooners are all owner-operated, programs vary significantly. These ratings should be taken only as a general indication of fleetwide quality.

The Lines

American Cruise Lines 4 4 2 0 3 4 4
American Safari Cruises 5 4 4 0 2 5 4
Blount Small Ship Adventures 4 3 4 0 2 3 3
Island Windjammers 5 4 3 0 2 4 5
Lindblad Expeditions 5 3 5 0 3 4 4
Maine Windjammers 5 3 3 0 2 3 5
Sea Cloud Cruises 5 5 3 0 3 5 4
Star Clippers 5 4 4 0 3 4 5
Windstar Cruises 5 4 3 0 3 5 5
Rating Key: 5=Outstanding 4=Excellent 3=Good 2=Fair 1=Poor 0=Unavailable

The Ships

ShipsCruise LineCabin
Comfort & Amenities
Cleanliness & Maintainence
& Spa Facilities
American Glory American Cruise Lines 5.0 4.0 4.0 3.0 2.0 0
American Independence American Cruise Lines 5.0 4.0 4.0 3.0 2.0 0
American Star American Cruise Lines 5.0 4.0 4.0 3.0 2.0 0
American Spirit American Cruise Lines 5.0 4.0 4.0 3.0 2.0 0
Queen of the West American Cruise Lines 4.0 4.0 4.0 5.0 3.0 2.0
National Geographic Sea Bird Lindblad Expeditions 3.0 4.0 3.0 3.0 4.0 0
National Geographic Sea Lion Lindblad Expeditions 3.0 4.0 3.0 3.0 4.0 0
Royal Clipper Star Clippers 4.0 5.0 4.0 3.0 4.0 0
Star Clipper Star Clippers 3.0 4.0 3.0 3.0 3.0 0
Star Flyer Star Clippers 3.0 4.0 3.0 3.0 3.0 0
Wind Star Windstar Cruises 4.0 3.5 4.0 4.0 2.0 0
Wind Surf Windstar Cruises 4.0 3.5 4.0 4.0 5.0 0
Wind Spirit Windstar Cruises 4.0 3.5 4.0 4.0 2.0 0
Rating Key: 5=Outstanding 4=Excellent 3=Good 2=Fair 1=Poor 0=Unavailable