Cruising is back – and what a glorious return to form it is too, with the number of premium cruise destinations at home and overseas, not to mention the stunning ships that visit them, continuing to swell by the day.
Whether your ideal ‘cruise life’ is island hopping in the South Pacific, exploring Australia’s fiery Kimberley Coast or steaming down the glamorous French Riviera, there’s no shortage of unforgettable itineraries to choose from.
Small ships are having a renaissance too. Combining crocodiles and adventure by day with champagne and caviar by night, they offer a return to the intimacy of days gone by, not to mention the ability to visit enchanting ports the larger vessels could only dream of.
The hardest decision? Simply deciding 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 style.
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 – the Sylvia Earle and 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!
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 some 40 years covering the length and breadth of our Southern Land, they’ve expanded their reach to also include New Zealand and Micronesia, Indonesia’s dive mecca of the Raja Ampat Islands, and the small islands of the Indian Ocean.
What hasn’t changed, 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.
When it comes to river cruising, good things certainly come in small packages. Take Heritage Line, for example. With a fleet of seven opulent ships in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, each welcoming just 12 to 54 guests, it’s almost like having a ship all to yourself.
Interiors (particularly those aboard The Jahan) are spacious and flooded with light, while the hospitality goes above and beyond. And as for the cuisine, that’s exceptional too, fusing elements of Asian and Western fare.
Other advantages of Heritage Lines’ particularly small ships are there’s never a queue to board or disembark, no crowds at mealtimes or cocktail hour, and certainly no trouble securing bookings for everything from spa treatments to yoga and cooking classes.
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.
It’s a big world out there – and there’s plenty of small ship choice. Over the top glamour or understated elegance? Included tours or freedom to explore at your own pace? Whatever you seek, there’s a cruise with your name on it. Seabourn falls into the understated category.
It’s chic and refined, with a suite of, well, suites that wouldn’t look out of place at a storied hotel on land. Each one houses a marble bathroom (some with whirlpools), balcony and living area, together with a bar ready-stocked with beverages.
Beyond your cabin you can partake in live entertainment and enriching conversations around art, history, science and the like, along with gourmet dining paired with complimentary fine wines at lunch and dinner. Spa experiences are extra.
Silversea is among of the most luxurious boutique cruise lines at sea, yet it’s their reputation for visiting more ports than any other cruise company – around 660 destinations in 114 countries on all seven continents in the current season – that truly sets them apart.
It boasts a glamorous fleet of 13 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.
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.
Larger cruising more your style? These luxurious suites could be just the kind of experience you're looking for.