Cruising is well and truly back. From island hopping in the turquoise waters of the South Pacific to exploring Australia’s fiery Kimberley Coast, the number of premium cruise destinations – and the stunning ships that visit them – continues to swell by the day.
However, while pre-pandemic trends saw ships becoming larger and more flamboyant with each passing season, the idea of travelling by megaliner with thousands of people doesn’t hold quite the same appeal as it once did for many of us.
To that end, the age of the small ship is at last upon us.
Combining crocodiles and adventure by day with champagne and caviar by night, small ships offer a return to the intimacy and glamour of days gone by, not to mention the ability to visit enchanting ports the larger vessels could only dream of.
The hardest decision? Simply picking which of the numerous boutique cruise lines out there is right for you. Because although they all may be small, that’s where the similarity ends.
Whether it’s wildlife spotting in the Arctic or sipping mai tais poolside before diving into tropical waters that float your boat, these are some of the best small ships to suit your preferred style.
Silversea is one of the most luxurious boutique cruise lines at sea, yet it’s their reputation for visiting more ports than any other cruise company – around 690 destinations in 125 countries on all seven continents in the upcoming season – that truly sets them apart.
It boasts a glamorous fleet of 10 ships, some of which cater to as few as 250 guests. Add in a staff to guest ratio of nearly 1:1, service onboard is highly personalised too, and they are the only cruise line in the world to provide a butler in every suite in every category.
Their destination experts are continually scouting for new destinations, taking guests beyond the well-worn tourist path and unlocking as-yet-undiscovered experiences. There are over 60 new ports of call in the latest brochure, and no doubt many more still to come.
For nature and wildlife
Picture yourself drawing your cabin blinds to find an iceberg laden with chinstrap penguins just outside, a couple of humpback whales in the distance, and a giant petrel flying majestically overhead. That’s an almost daily sight on an Antarctic cruise with Hurtigruten.
Rather than simply witnessing from a distance, you can then climb aboard a zodiac to get up close with the wonders that unfold, before returning to the ship for an intriguing lecture about where you’ve just visited or a photography workshop to help you perfect your shots.
Hurtigruten also takes in destinations like the Galapagos, Svalbard and the Northwest Passage, and the West Coast of Africa, together with the explorations in search of the Northern Lights.
If it’s fine food, fabulous wine, and exceptional service you seek, you can’t go past French luxury cruise line Ponant. After all, the French invented fine dining. With a maximum of just 260 guests, they appeal to travellers who crave discovery with a second helping of haute cuisine.
Ponant has one of the youngest fleets of expedition ships, including Le Laperouse and its sister ship Le Bougainville, plus the world’s only luxury icebreaker: the hybrid-electric Le Commandant Charcot, which alternates between the Arctic and Antarctic.
After a full day wildlife spotting in zodiacs or meeting locals in isolated destinations, their ships provide a sanctuary of luxury and indulgence, with classic and contemporary cuisine prepared by skilled French chefs, complemented by a sensational wine list, of course.
Nothing says relaxation like island hopping in French Polynesia aboard a dazzling four-masted yacht, a glass of champagne in hand, and the gentle sway of the ship lulling you further into a state of bliss... that’s Windstar Cruises in a nutshell.
With a fleet of six chic vessels catering to no more than 310 guests, Windstar visits a chocolate box of destinations, from Alaska to the islands of Tahiti, the Italian Riviera to the Panama Canal. Given their small size, everyone gets a chance to know each other by the end.
Well known for including late-night departures and overnight dockings, itineraries are designed for those who want to immerse themselves in each destination, leaving the ship behind and venturing further afield, without the need to always check your watch.
For history and discovery
Australia’s own Coral Expeditions has a well-earned reputation for showcasing our waters less travelled, from the Kimberley to the vibrant Coral Sea. History and heritage are key elements of the brand, taking visitors beyond the scenery and delving into the stories that shaped it.
After nearly 40 years covering the length and breadth of our Great Southern Land, they’re now expanding their reach to also include New Zealand and Micronesia, Indonesia’s dive mecca of the Raja Ampat Islands, and, soon, the small islands of the Indian Ocean.
What won’t change, however, is the exceptional onboard service and comfort. All-inclusive excursions remain too, bringing each stop to life with the help of expert guides and lecturers.
As their name suggests, Aurora Expeditions specialise in adventurous cruises to the likes of Antarctica, Patagonia, and the Arctic. With just two ships in their fleet by the end of this year, when Sylvia Earle joins the Greg Mortimer, they’re a perfect example of quality over quantity.
Their ice-strengthened ships allow them to sail up close to landing sites, giving them flexibility to land when the best opportunities present. They’re also pioneers of once-unheard-of activities such as polar diving, polar kayaking, and even camping on the ice in Antarctica.
Featuring the distinct Ulstein X-Bow, which not only improves efficiency but stability for greater comfort, both ships carry an average of 132 passengers, meaning there’s no waiting around for everyone to hop on and off the ship. Just grab your camera and go!
Larger cruising more your style? These luxurious suites could be just the kind of experience you're looking for.