If you've ever been on St. Thomas or in Piraeus on a day when a half-dozen cruise liners are moored at the docks, you already know the central advantage of a smaller vessel: access to uncrowded ports. You also won't have to fight for a spa reservation or bribe the first mate to tour the bridge. The following 12 small ships will transport you to unspoiled shores, from volcanic islands in the Galápagos to the Mediterranean's Turquoise Coast.
Juneau to Petersburg
American Safari Cruises' Safari Spirit
The Route This itinerary makes its debut in May, cruising through quiet Auke Bay, past LeConte Glacier (where hundreds of seal pups are born each year), to the fishing village of Petersburg.
Highlight Passengers can ferry by sea kayak or tender into the Marble Grotto, a cave hidden at the end of a bay that American Safari won't even name, for fear that others will find its secret spot.
The Ship With only six staterooms, you won't have to line up for anything, whether it's a seat in the dining room or a spot on the couch in the "salon." All rooms have Jacuzzis as well as showers.
888/862-8881; www.amsafari.com; from $4,995 per person, double; seven-night cruise departs May 20, 2006.
Related: Best Caribbean Cruises
SEATTLE TO JUNEAU
Lindblad Expeditions' Sea Lion
The Route From Seattle, the Sea Lion journeys to British Columbia's Cormorant Island in Alert Bay. On the way, passengers explore some of the more remote San Juan Islands by Zodiac, scanning the sky with binoculars for bald eagles.
Highlight Watching humpback whales feed right off the bow at Point Adolphus.
The Ship What's more important than the amenities on a 32-berth ship?The crew. The Sea Lion carries five naturalists, some of the most-credentialed experts on the Inside Passage. You won't find a spa or a pool, but you will find Zodiacs and sea kayaks.
800/397-3348; www.expeditions.com; from $5,390 per person, double; 11-night cruise departs May 1.
Cruise West's Spirit of Oceanus
The Route This new itinerary visits towns that were once home to Japan's samurai, emperors, and lords. Guests who opt for the four-day extension will also stop in Kyoto and Nara.
Highlight Visting the 17th-century wooden castles of Matsue and Himeji.
The Ship The 60-cabin ship is in port most days. Five tour guides host cocktails and run sake lessons, tea ceremonies, and Japanese-beer tastings on board.
888/851-8133; www.cruisewest.com; from $5,349 per person, double; 12-night cruise departs March 8.
Southern Thailand and Malaysia
Star Clippers' Star Flyer
The Route This 85-berth vessel—one of the only ships touring southern Thailand—stops at the quiet, white-sand beaches of Ko Adang (near the Malaysian border), Ko Lipe, and Ko Khai Nok.
Highlight The Similan Islands, which have coral reefs and some of the best diving in Asia.
The Ship This sleek clipper evokes the Grand Age of sailing, with its piano bar and an Edwardian-style library. Onboard activities include relaxing in the hammock-like bowsprit net, climbing the masts, and admiring the scenery from the pool.
800/442-0551; starclippers.com; from $1,725 per person, double; seven-night cruise departs November 19.
British Virgin Islands to Lesser Antilles
Silversea Cruises' Silver Whisper
The Route Fort Lauderdale to Antigua may not sound exciting, but Silversea breaks away from the pack, visiting the smaller islands of Virgin Gorda, Nevis, and Guadeloupe along the way.
Highlight Noted archaeologist John C. Morris lectures on deep-sea shipwreck excavations.
The Ship The 382-passenger Silver Whisper is as luxurious as can be, with menus created by Relais & Châteaux chefs, cut crystal, and an impressive wine list. At sunrise, you can sip Bellinis (included in the room rate) as the ship draws near lush islands.
877/760-9052; www.silversea.com; from $3,217 per person, double; nine-night cruise departs January 27.
vieques, culebra, and st. john
Classic Cruises of Newport's Arabella
The Route Passengers on the Arabella get to hike through the tropical forests of Vieques, plunge into the island's bioluminescent bays, near Esperanza, and snorkel St. John's spectacular coral reefs.
Highlight Checking out the leatherback turtles, mangroves, and white-sand beaches of Culebra.
The Ship This 20-cabin, three-masted schooner has compact quarters, but you're not here to spend time in your stateroom. Instead, join the passengers at the honor bar on the polished-teak deck for cocktails and evening hors d'oeuvres.
800/395-1343; www.cruisearabella.com; from $2,195 per person, double; six-night cruises depart March 5 and April 23.
Windstar Cruises' Wind Star
The Route The Wind Star stops at six remote Costa Rican ports, including Drake Bay. Guests can bird-watch in Curu National Wildlife Refuge, explore the beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park, and view the rain forest from a zipline in the treetops.
Highlight Scuba-diving lessons with a PADI-certified instructor, for an extra $70 per person.
The Ship This 148-passenger sailing vessel may not be large, but its cabins have flat-screen TV's; there is also a casino, as well as an open-air water-sports platform, from which passengers can water-ski, windsurf, kayak, or snorkel. (All activities except diving lessons are included in the cruise fee.)
800/258-7245; www.windstarcruises.com; from $1,999 per person, double; six-night cruise departs January 7.
SeaDream Yacht Club's SeaDream I
The Route This ship calls in two ports that the big ones can't get into: the unpretentious beach town of Le Lavandou and the rosé wineproducing village of Bandol.
Highlight The captain hosts a poolside cocktail party in St.-Tropez, with champagne and caviar served from a floating bar.
The Ship This 110-passenger yacht has a teak deck with Balinese sleeping beds. Each cabin comes with ﬂat-screen TV's with DVD players and Bose stereos; iPods can be borrowed from the front desk.
800/707-4911; www.seadreamyachtclub.com; from $6,900 per person, double; seven-night cruise departs June 3.
Turkey's Turquoise Coast, the Greek Isles, and the Adriatic
Yachts of Seabourn's Seabourn Spirit
The Route This trip bypasses the crowded islands of the eastern Mediterranean and calls instead on ports that are popular with European yachtsmen. Passengers sun on quiet beaches in Bodrum and visit the oracle of Delphi at Itea.
Highlight An outing to the Mycenaean fortress of Agamemnon at Nauplia.
The Ship Expect all the trappings, from black-tie dinners to dressy cocktail parties. The 104-cabin ship has a pool, a spa, a gym, a casino, and several dining options, including a candlelit supper club.
800/929-9391; www.seabourn.com; from $7,894 per person, double; 14-night cruise departs May 20.
Argentina to Antarctica
Clipper Cruise Line's Clipper Adventurer
The Route In addition to the usual Antarctic Peninsula run, the Adventurer visits New Island in the West Falklands, where three types of penguins—rockhopper, gentoo, and Magellanic—live. The ship also stops at Port Lockroy, an old whaling town sheltered by mountains.
Highlight Marine biologist and wildlife photographer Rick Price shows guests the best way to capture animals on film, and field biologist Tony Door lectures on seals and penguins.
The Ship This 122-passenger expedition vessel has a ﬂeet of Zodiacs and an observation platform from which animal lovers can view wildlife up close.
800/325-0010; www.clippercruise.com; from $6,560 per person, double; 15-night cruise departs November 20.
Abercrombie & Kent's Eclipse
The Route This archipelago has 29 species of land birds, 22 of which are not found anywhere else in the world. The best Galápagos itineraries take you to tucked-away spots where you can view the wildlife in its natural habitat. The Eclipse does just that, varying its routes to follow the animals.
Highlight A visit to volcanic Tower Island—home to red- and blue-footed boobies.
The Ship The 48-passenger ship sails with a fleet of pangas (inflatable, hard-bottomed boats), four naturalist guides, snorkeling gear, and wet suits.
800/554-7016; www.abercrombiekent.com; from $4,385 per person, double; 10-night cruise departs November 10.
tasmania, Antarctica, and new zealand
Quark Expeditions' Kapitan Khlebnikov
The Route The Wonders of the Ross Sea trip takes you to the South Pole, calling at remote ports such as Macquarie Island and Cape Evans. Highlight A helicopter excursion from the ship to a rookery of royal penguins.
The Ship There's an indoor pool, a gym, a sauna, and a library on this 54-cabin ship. But what really sets it apart is its icebreaker hull, which cuts through frozen seas and enables the ship to reach otherwise inaccessible parts of Antarctica.
800/356-5699; www.quarkexpeditions.com; from $19,595 per person, double; 24-night cruise departs December 28.
sherri eisenberg last wrote about cruises for T+L's February 2005 issue.
Peter Deilmann's Frederic Chopin: Oder River, Germany
This chic 79-passenger riverboat cruises from Straslund, Germany, to Szczecin, Poland, and back to Berlin's port of Potsdam. Along the way, you can take horse-drawn carriage tours of Vitte, Germany, and enjoy multicourse dinners on board.
800/348-8387; www.deilmann-cruises.com; from $2,220 per person, double; seven-night cruise departs July 1.
Uniworld's Douro Queen: Douro River, Portugal
Board the new 64-berth liner in Lisbon and travel to Salamanca and to Portugal's tinta ruiz vineyards in Lamego.
800/733-7820; www.uniworld.com; from $2,998 per person, double, including airfare; 10-night cruises depart May 4.
Viking River Cruises' Viking Lavrinenkov: Dnieper River, Russia
This 106-cabin boat cruises from Kiev to the Black Sea. On land, passengers will learn about the local Muslim architecture.
877/668-4546; www.vikingrivercruises.com; from $2,199 per person, double; 14-night cruise departs April 16.
Hapag-Lloyd's Hanseatic: Gambia River, West Africa
Starting next fall, you can cruise the Gambia—for the first time ever— on the 184-passenger Hanseatic. But first you'll travel from Tenerife to Dakar, exploring Cape Verde and the mangrove forests of the Makasutu Nature Reserve, home to 1,000-year-old baobab trees.
800/782-3924; www.hl-cruises.com; from $5,246 per person, double; 10-night cruise departs October 30, 2006.