As much as the world’s mega liners are tempting for the all-singing, all-dancing, and-at-sea type of vacation, finding the best small ship cruises means seeking out lesser-known destinations and tapping into exclusivity, individuality, and a personalized service.
We think the best small boat cruises are the ones that are a little out of the ordinary. It may be a cruise that follows an unusual route around small islands. Or maybe the ship itself is extraordinary because it’s more like a sailboat
boat, like the very elegant MS Galileo. We love small boat cruises when something extra special is also happening on board, like a celebrity cooking class or an exclusive show.
When looking for the best small ship cruises, you need to make sure they match the experiences you are looking for. For a friendly atmosphere where guests get to know each other over dinner, a European river cruise on the Danube or the Rhône can offer many shared experiences and new encounters. For something that will give you plenty to talk about when you return home, expedition cruises to faraway places like Antarctica are thrilling and intrepid without sacrificing comfort.
For more ideas, we’ve rounded up the best small boat cruises to help you choose the perfect boating vacation.
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Yachting in the Cyclades
Want to embark on a boat that looks more like a private yacht than a cruise ship? The MS Galileo is a ship reminiscent of ships of yesteryear, venturing around the Greek islands with her billowing white sails spread. You’ll dock on smaller islands, including the beautiful Folegandros, but be sure to discover why sun-drenched Santorini and Paros get their sought-after status.
Galileo typically stays in port until the early hours, allowing time to disembark after dinner for evening rides and waterside drinks. Because there’s a bit more wiggle room in the itinerary than on larger ships, don’t be surprised if your crew makes an unscheduled swim stop so guests can cool off in the sparkling waters.
There are only 24 cabins on board, making Galileo look more like an oversized millionaire’s yacht than a cruise ship. And if the idea of a typical cruise with dresses in the hot Greek sun doesn’t seem like a happy marriage, you can leave your glitter at home – it’s a cruise that, while exclusive, is also wonderfully informal.
A royal-style trip around the Scottish Isles
Exploring an area on a cruise often means you can cover more ground faster. On a small ship, explorations can go further as there is the ability to re-enter ports and waterways that larger cruise liners cannot. The elegant Lord of the Glens, accommodating just 54 guests, explores the inland waters of the Caledonian Canal and the hidden lochs of the Scottish Sea. Unlike some ocean cruises where you enjoy an endless view of the horizon, on a Scottish cruise there are almost always monuments and landscapes to admire from the deck, including Urquhart Castle , the waterway of Laggan Avenue lined with Scots pines and the looming Ben Nevis.
Lord of the Glens is a one-of-a-kind vessel with a design inspired by Her Majesty The Queen’s former floating palace, the Royal Yacht Britannia. There is a feeling of luxury and comfort throughout the ship, where dinner is created from locally sourced ingredients, and drinks are served in crystal glasses by attentive staff while admiring the Scottish scenery across huge bay windows.
A low-impact expedition cruise around the British Isles
Some of the best small ship cruises can be better for the environment, especially when you choose one that not only runs on biofuel to reduce emissions, but also departs from the UK, making your entire trip flight-free. .
Embark on a low-impact journey on the MS Maud, a ship from expedition specialist Hurtigruten. Hosting just over 500 guests means you get the best of both worlds – a personalized experience but with more onboard facilities than on truly tiny ships. On a 13-day adventure in Spring or Summer 2023, you can explore the waters closest to home, visiting Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of of Man, the Republic of Ireland and the Isles of Scilly.
A garden-themed cruise in Holland
A far cry from ocean-going vessels with a dozen or more decks, MS Arena’s low, elongated profile carves a graceful path through Dutch waterways. On board, all passengers can enjoy the view from their cabins, as they are all outward-facing with floor-to-ceiling windows or have a balcony. With just 98 cabins, MS Arena is the perfect size for gathering like-minded travellers, and a single dining room allows everyone to get to know each other if they wish.
On an exclusive cruise in the spring of 2023, gardener’s world Chelsea Flower Show presenter and medalist Adam Frost joins MS Arena as he explores the Dutch and Belgian waterways during Holland’s high season for colorful flowers. Stopping in Dordrecht for a visit to Appeltern Gardens and Keukenhof Gardens for a dazzling display of flowers, this is one of the best small boat cruises for gardeners or those who like to spend time admiring the kaleidoscopic flora .
Cabaret along the Danube
Perhaps it’s the red lips and giant red rose adorning the bow of the A-ROSA DONNA that first suggest this might not be your typical cruise experience. These smaller river cruise ships avoid the formalities of the big cruise lines and instead take on a much more laid back style of cruising.
The packed itinerary of a four-night mini-cruise along the Danube shows that you don’t need a lot of time to see many sights. Between visits to Vienna, Engelhartszell, Bratislava and Linz, there are views of vineyards and villages as you sit on the deck of the A-ROSA DONNA (perhaps with a cocktail or glass of sparkling wine by hand – they are included!).
An October 2022 sailing on the A-ROSA DONNA is even more special as it features a dazzling private cabaret performance by Julie madly deep. This West End show chronicles the life of the legendary Dame Julie Andrews, and the cast performs in Vienna before guests can meet the show’s star, Sarah-Louise Young, for a meet and greet.
A great paddle wheel adventure along the Mississippi River
It may be the largest steamship ever built, but by today’s cruise ship standards (some of which can carry thousands of passengers), the American Queen is still positively boutique, seating only 436 guests.
The magnificent American Queen travels the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Memphis, giving passengers a true Deep South riverboat experience with her authentic steam-powered paddle wheel. The cuisine also matches the place perfectly, with a lavishly appointed restaurant that showcases the culinary influences of the region’s Cajun and Creole dishes. On a week-long cruise, you have the opportunity to visit an elaborate mansion in the Nottoway Plantation and immerse yourself in the area’s place in Vicksburg’s Civil War history.
Wine tasting on the Douro River
River cruises are great for experiencing the diversity of a region, and there’s plenty to see from place to place along the Douro River in Portugal. A-ROSA ALVA is a small river boat that promises a lot of variety on a route that starts in the colorful city of Porto before navigating through the wine valleys.
Guests have the option to disembark and partake in the traditional grape harvest, but that’s not the only reason this is the perfect cruise for wine lovers. There are also plenty of opportunities to sample local port at the Quinta da Roseda estate near Pinhão and sip the ship’s selection while admiring the passing scenery from ALVA’s panoramic lounge.
Celebrities and culinary delights in Provence
The Emerald Liberté is a sophisticated vessel that explores the south of France. With just over 100 guests on board, a personal experience is assured on a ship of this size. Sleekly finished hotel-style staterooms are more contemporary than on other ships, with sensational views of the scrolling French landscape through floor-to-ceiling windows or a private balcony.
As charming as Emerald Liberté is, the itinerary and special guests are what help it stand out as one of the best small ship cruises. Sailing from Arles to Avignon, Vivier, Tournon and Lyon, this delightful adventure along the Rhône is made all the more memorable by its celebrity appearances. An exclusive gala dinner is prepared by British TV chef James Martin with wine pairings and a masterclass from expert Susy Atkins is sure to be a highlight during a special start in October 2022.
Browse Good Housekeeping Holidays’ selection of river and ocean cruises for 2022 and 2023.
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