If you find yourself longing for the open ocean but shrink at the thought of all-night discos, thousand-seat dining rooms or congested Caribbean ports-turned-duty-free-shopping-malls, know this: not all cruise ships are massive, floating resorts. A growing industry niche revolves around small vessels -- a wide-ranging group that includes yachts, rugged expedition ships, riverboats and classic sailing schooners -- where passenger counts top out at closer to 300, rather than 3,000.Beyond offering a cozier atmosphere, the small size of these cruise ships creates a whole different experience, both onshore and onboard. Smaller ships allow easy access to tinier, less-trafficked ports that the bigger vessels just can't get to, lending to refreshingly unique itineraries. In Greece, for instance, Variety Cruises' ships stop in Monemvassia and Folegandros, unusual Greek cruise ports that are mostly skipped by larger ships. Expedition line Lindblad Expeditions makes a business out of getting guests to remote locations, where they can enjoy activities like kayaking off a wilderness island in Mexico or snorkeling among sea turtles in the Galapagos.
Onboard, the crowd-free experience is more intimate and social. You can expect more personalized service from the crew, and are much more likely to get to know your fellow passengers as you see the same faces again and again (a bonus if you like to make new friends while traveling). However, you'll be giving up many of the bells-and-whistles of bigger ships, with smaller vessels simply unable to accommodate amenities like Broadway-style shows, multiple dining venues, expansive kids' programs and endless watering holes. Expect instead destination-driven itineraries that are usually enhanced by enrichment programs and hosted excursions, often led by historians, naturalists and other seasoned pros.
Note that enjoying such a personalized setting while exploring the globe usually comes at a higher price but with a greater added value. Given that there are fewer passengers onboard to help collectively offset the costs, it makes sense. That said, typical cruise vacation add-ons like excursions are often included in the fares for small-ship sailings, as is access to extras like kayaks and bikes. You might also have knowledgeable naturalists, guides and even photographers onboard to enhance your experience of the destination.
~ Cruise Critic