Man kayaking in crystal blue waters with La Pinta ship in the background

If you long for the open ocean but bristle 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 vast, floating resorts. A burgeoning 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 predictably 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 premium price, given that there are fewer passengers onboard to help collectively offset the costs. 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.

Before we launch into our picks for the best small ship cruises, let's answer one question: how do we define "small"? It's a bit of an arbitrary distinction, when cruise ships like the 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas and sister ship Allure of the Seas make the concept of small quite relative. For this story, however, we're going to stick with vessels that accommodate fewer than 300 passengers, spanning the market from rugged expedition ships to super-luxury yachts.

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northern lights over Norway

Best for Expedition Cruises

1. Lindblad Expeditions

Lindblad Expeditions, allied with National Geographic, offers soft-adventure cruises on a fleet of six capable vessels (as well as several charters) that carry from 28 to 148 passengers. Forget big-ship accouterments like casinos and multiple bars and restaurants -- though all ships offer LEXspa treatment rooms for onboard spa services. (The Endeavour even has a floating platform equipped with a massage table for unique open-air treatments.) The ships are comfortable, and there are some great touches like the local, organic foods used in meals. The line has become especially well regarded for its staff of topflight naturalists, historians, undersea specialists and expedition leaders who accompany each of its trips; many also have National Geographic photographers, or at least a Lindblad-National Geographic-certified photo instructor.

But Lindblad's ships serve more as base camps for exploring the world's waters, with cruises to all seven continents, including the Galapagos, South Pacific, Indian Ocean, Antarctica, Greenland and the Arctic Circle. Besides kayaks (for paddling excursions) and the obligatory Zodiacs, which are used to make landings, ships are equipped with scientific tools like hydrophones (to snoop on marine mammals), underwater cameras and video microscopes.

2. Hurtigruten

The Norwegian-based cruise line Hurtigruten plies the poles with 13 ships of varying sizes, including its pathfinder, 276-passenger Fram. Onboard, this ice-hardened polar expedition vessel offers some stylish twists like a minimalist Arctic-chic design (iceberg sculptures, austere destination photography) and flat-screen TVs in cabins. Don't let the trappings fool you -- these cruises are all about nature. Like other expedition vessels, Fram has its own small landing craft that take passengers to incredible seaside locations. Passengers are an international mix, and the ship, which operates in English and Norwegian, adds other languages, such as German or French, if needed. The line now offers shortened, six-night land/cruise expeditions to Spitsbergen, and occasionally runs special themed cruises highlighting photography, astronomy, Viking history and more.

3. Quark Expeditions

Whether you want penguins or polar bears, Quark Expeditions, which specializes in Arctic and Antarctic journeys, has something for you. Several of the line's seven ships have onboard helicopters, as well as kayaking, cross-country skiing and mountaineering equipment (not to mention the ever-present Zodiacs). The line's 128-passenger expedition vessel, 50 Years of Victory, has nuclear-powered capabilities to go through 10 feet of ice and makes the voyage to the North Pole. And Quark's Antarctica trips often go longer and farther south, with more varied itineraries, than other lines. Days at sea are full of lectures and presentations from scientific experts and, on some vessels, photographers. Ship features for the premium brand vary -- try Sea Explorer for its all-suite cabins (some with balconies), eco-friendly Ocean Diamond (it's completely carbon-neutral) or the brand-new Scandinavian-style Ocean Nova.

Celebrity Xpedition in the Galapagos

Best for Scenic Nature Cruises

4. Celebrity Cruises (Xpedition)

Celebrity Xpedition opened up Galapagos cruises, formerly the province of backpacking (or high-end) "adventure travelers," to passengers who want more comfortable amenities and features. Indeed, the joy of the Galapagos operation is that it combines Celebrity's stylishness and high level of service and cuisine with a local, "small ship" ambience. (The ship carries 98 passengers.) Crew members -- almost entirely Ecuadorian, from the captain down -- are sunny, charming and tirelessly obliging. Destination-oriented features are incorporated into the onboard experience, such as a performance highlighting Ecuadorian folklore, preceded by a highly personalized slideshow with pictures of passengers meeting wildlife during the course of the trip. (All are presented with a complimentary CD to take home.) To give travelers more time in this fascinating yet far-flung destination, Celebrity Xpedition offers 10- and 15-night voyages.

5. Un-Cruise Adventures

Un-Cruise Adventures offers adventure cruises and river cruises that are meant to appeal to people who might not normally cruise. The line's eight vessels, holding between 22 and 88 passengers, sail to Alaska, coastal Washington, Hawaii, British Columbia, Mexico's Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Northwest's Columbia and Snake Rivers (the latter is the line's only river destination); itineraries to Costa Rica and Panama, and the Galapagos Islands, begin in 2016. The line doesn't do many typical port stops, preferring to pause in inlets and bays that offer maximum exposure to nature and wildlife. Vessels come equipped with kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, snorkeling equipment and hot tubs onboard for relaxing after a day of hiking or paddling. As the diverse fleet incorporates upscale expedition ships, yachts and even a replica turn-of-the-century steamboat, onboard offerings vary. Expect thoughtful premium appointments and amenities throughout, though, with fitness areas, lounges, libraries and mealtimes highlighting gourmet, locally sourced cuisine and fine wines and microbrews.

6. International Expeditions

International Expeditions, offering guests soft adventure, small-group journeys with a focus on nature, runs cruises to the Peruvian Amazon (aboard the 31-passenger La Estrella Amazonica) and Galapagos (on the 32-passenger Evolution). Step out onto your private balcony (in the Amazon only) or the sundeck (where Evolution also touts a hot tub) to enjoy the passing scenery, when not partaking in immersive shoreside experiences anchored on natural and cultural encounters. Ship atmosphere is informal, and trips are more focused on excursions and lectures led by the naturalist guides and expedition leaders than on many shipboard diversions (though you can expect onboard comforts like air-conditioning and well-prepared, locally inspired fare). Partake in active excursions like kayaking and piranha fishing in the Amazon, or snorkeling, swimming and hiking in the Galapagos. If you like the line but want more diversity of destination choice, look for chartered trips to places like Indonesia and Patagonia, Cuba and the Seychelles.

Wind Star in Barbados

Best Ships with Sails

7. Star Clippers

For the tall-ship enthusiast, there's nothing quite like sailing under a starry or sunny sky, powered by the bluster of ocean winds. If you want to float along with the wind while exploring less-traveled ports in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, Star Clippers is tough to beat. The fleet's three vessels -- flagship 227-passenger Royal Clipper and 170-passenger twins Star Clipper and Star Flyer -- are some of the fastest clipper ships ever built. Feel the sails catch the breeze, help with the raising and trimming or morph into a spider and climb high in the rigging.

Onboard, passengers don't adhere to rigid timetables as they might on more conventional cruise ships, and the evening dress code is always elegantly casual (with the exception of themed evenings, like Pirate Night). Water sports are also a major component of each tall ship sailing cruise, with complimentary snorkeling, kayaking, sailing and other sea-based activities offered directly from the ship.

8. Windstar

Upscale line Windstar -- sailing to some 150 ports throughout Europe, the Caribbean, Central America and the South Pacific -- doesn't offer traditional masted sailing ships, but does deliver a similarly pleasing aesthetic via its trio of yachts equipped with sails. The three ships include the 148-passenger Wind Spirit and Wind Star, each with four masts and six sails, and the larger 312-passenger vessel, Wind Surf, with a whopping five masts and seven sails. (Windstar also has three additional 212-passenger yachts, which come minus the sails: Star Pride, Star Breeze and Star Legend.) The result of this pleasing "motorized sailing yacht" experience is that passengers can revel in the romanticism of sailing, without having to sacrifice amenities. While touting plenty of plush yacht-worthy appointments to properly pamper guests, the line doesn't get too stuffy: "Casual elegance" is the designated dress code, and that idea permeates the onboard vibe. Passengers leave ties and formalwear at home in favor of country-club casual sportswear, day and night. One of our favorite features -- available on each of Windstar's vessels -- is the water sports platform, with its range of complimentary water sports (snorkeling, wind-sailing, paddleboarding and even water-skiing).

9. Island Windjammers

Island Windjammers focuses more on the joys of sailing than on over-the-top shipboard amenities. The line offers sailings in the Windward Islands from Grenada on the 12-passenger Diamant; its 22-passenger schooner, Sagitta, sails Leeward Island cruises out of St. Maarten; and Vela offers a mix of both. Other itineraries include the French West Indies and the British Virgin Islands; look, too, for special themed cruises like Solo Sojourns (for those traveling alone), Rum Cruises, Pirate Week and Taste of the Caribbean foodie sailing. Swimsuits, cover-ups and T-shirts are typical daytime attire on these windjammer cruises, and dress for dinner and evenings remains refreshingly casual. Cabins come with A/C, and all but two offer portholes and private bathrooms. When not bunking down or out exploring port, head out for some sunbathing or alfresco dining on deck, or retreat to the indoor dining room or lounge area.

Avalon Illumination

Best River Cruises

10. Avalon Waterways

Avalon Waterways' "Suite Ships" have made a real splash on the European river cruise circuit, touting spacious cabins equipped with floor-to-ceiling windows that open to convert guestrooms into virtual open-air balconies, to stunning panoramic effect. The line has a number of these 36- to 166-passenger riverboat beauties (with the feature offered in 80 percent of staterooms) -- which cruise to some half-dozen waterways across Europe. The line has expanded its Asian offerings, too, with two smaller, 36-passenger Suite Ships on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar and Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia. (The line also offers China cruises and South America sailings to the Galapagos and the Amazon, on chartered ships.) Onboard, passengers can expect dining to highlight Western favorites and local specialties, paired with complimentary regional wines and beers; on shore, daily guide-led excursions are included in the rates. Avalon hosts a slate of popular special-interest cruises, too, themed around beer, jazz, art, golf and more.

11. Uniworld

On all 18 vessels, whether refurbished or newly built, Uniworld's signature is a daring, dynamic and colorful ambience. Public rooms and cabins are furnished in a high standard, with lush fabrics, antiques and original artwork nestled next to state-of-the-art amenities like flat-screen televisions, marble bathrooms and incredibly comfortable Savoir brand beds. Cuisine and service are on par with those found on oceangoing luxury vessels, though as the line's riverboats are significantly smaller, ranging in size from 56 to 159 passengers, options like alternative restaurants and entertainment venues are typically fewer in number. (Instead, each evening provides diversions that might range from local acts brought onboard in ports of call to bands that play for dancing). Most shore tours (and all in Europe) are included in the fares, and each ship carries a fleet of complimentary loaner bicycles. In addition to Europe, the line has scheduled voyages to Russia, China, Vietnam and Cambodia, India and Egypt.

12. AmaWaterways

AmaWaterways sails to Europe's Rhine, Danube, Rhone, Douro, Seine, Mosel and Main Rivers, as well as to Africa and Vietnam. The line offers ambitious regional cuisine, well-designed cabins and guided port stops (included in the fares) -- all set on some of the most modern river ships in the industry. The vessels, ranging in size from 28 to 164 passengers, come with contemporary decor inspired by the destination, and amenities like in-cabin "entertainment on demand" systems (with Internet, music, movies and more), glass elevators, heated swimming pool or hot tub and mechanized wheelhouses that can be lowered to transit under low-slung bridges. For the daily tours, passengers receive wireless audio devices so they don't miss a word on history or culture. All ships in the European fleet offer 25 complimentary-use bicycles that passengers can use on guided tours or to explore on their own.

Crystal Cruises' mini-sub

Best Yacht Cruises

13. SeaDream Yacht Club

No yacht? No problem! Family-owned SeaDream Yacht Club offers the next best thing with its twin cruising yachts, SeaDream I and SeaDream II, offering sophistication sans the pretense for a maximum of 112 guests. Onboard, passengers can enjoy the doting of a polished 95-person crew; locally inspired and international cuisine served up on deck or in an elegant dining salon; and included-in-the-rates wine, Champagne and cocktails. Onboard decorum reflects an "elegant casual" dress code. Look out for exciting extras like the option to sleep under the stars (on deck-side Balinese loungers), and a water sports platform with complimentary equipment (sailboats, kayaks, etc.) on loan. Mediterranean, Baltic and Caribbean SeaDream cruises incorporate hidden-away ports and activities with the crew, which are included in the pricing.

14. Variety Cruises

Greece-based Variety Cruises, with its 11-ship fleet of modern yachts and sailing ships, offers low-key weeklong cruises to the Greek Isles, the Seychelles and Costa Rica and the Panama Canal; look for 2015 itinerary additions in the Greek Islands/Turkey, the Red Sea, the Canary Islands, Madagascar and the Cape Verde islands. For the Greece cruises, sailings mix in offbeat stops like Monemvassia and Hydra with traditional picks such as Mykonos and Santorini. Itineraries feature extended port calls (including overnight stays), while ships -- carrying fewer than 72 passengers -- typically dock in the heart of the destination, and offer snorkeling and kayaking equipment so passengers can actively engage in the local scenery. Choose between four upscale modern yachts or three casual yet contemporary motorized sailing ships; the company also has several smaller yachts and sailing ships available exclusively for private charter. All ships boast a one-to-two crew-to-passenger ratio, spacious sundecks, swimming platforms and tech-friendly trimmings like Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs.

15. Crystal Esprit

The 62-passenger yacht, the first of its kind to join the Crystal Cruises' fleet, is luxurious with multiple restaurants, a gym and spa, and an expansive sun deck with plunge pool and lounge. Its superb crew is consistent with the cruise line's reputation for attention to passengers and detail. You’ll sleep well on Crystal Esprit; most staterooms are a comfortable 280 square feet, with a great king bed, lots of high-tech toys, and lavish marble bathrooms. Cuisine is consistently top notch, from freshly squeezed orange juice in the Patio Cafe to four-course feasts in the more formal Yacht Club Restaurant. The ship sails destination-intensive itineraries predominantly in the Adriatic and the Seychelles. Activities on shore, most of which are included in the cruise fare, focus on kayaking, cycling, swimming, snorkeling and hiking, with a smattering of cultural and culinary tours. The ship's own marina offers water toys, such as paddle boards, Jet Skis, water skis, snorkeling equipment and kayaks, and has a swimming platform. Esprit's most unusual feature has to be its three-person submarine; tours are offered on this at additional cost.