Small ships afford flexibility, access to hidden ports, and surprising levels of luxury.
Courtesy of Star Clippers 10 Best Cruises for "Noncruisers"
| Credit: Courtesy of Star Clippers

On a recent cruise in, Alaska, passengers watched as a hotel-size chunk of ice calved spectacularly from a glacier in Glacier Bay National Park. Later they thrilled as a brown bear in the Misty Fjords stood on his feet to show off his full 10-foot height—a natural show viewed through binoculars from the safety of the small ship’s open decks. Even avowed noncruisers—and there were several onboard who had previously sworn they would never, ever take a cruise—were glad they’d changed their minds.

The best way to experience a place just may be on water. In fact, there’s no better way to view the vast landscape of Alaska’s Inside Passage or the stunningly beautiful fjords of Norway, the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica with remote wildlife areas like Corcovado National Park, the Galapagos of Ecuador, or even the hidden beaches of the Greek Isles and Caribbean.

But cruising doesn’t have to be about big floating resorts. There are ships that skip the bingo tournaments, Elvis impersonator contests, and flashy Vegas-style shows in favor of scenery, nature, and culture—ships for those who consider themselves true travelers.

The biggest upside?Solitude. Most of these vessels are in the small-ship category, carrying fewer than 300 passengers and sometimes less than a dozen. But the advantages go beyond not tripping over other passengers on the lido deck. While bigger ships stick to the large and often overtouristed ports, small ships are able to explore more out-of-the-way and sometimes otherwise inaccessible locales. They can often dock right in town and spend more time in port-you may even tie up overnight so you can enjoy the local nightlife.

There’s also added flexibility—if you’re having a great time at a secluded cove or spot a pod of whales nearby, the captain may decide to linger. On ultraluxury line Silversea Cruises, you can even create your own itinerary, choosing where you want to board the ship and where you want to disembark; you are not limited to the line’s itineraries.

Onboard life too is less regimented and more intimate. SeaDream Yacht Club and Windstar Cruises offer more of a private-yacht feel than the Queen Mary 2 ever could. For those who fear getting seasick, Peter Deilmann and French Country Waterways feature calm river and barge cruises, with the boats serving as your floating hotels as you explore landlocked cities and towns. Even closer to the private-yacht experience is Star Clippers. While passengers are hardly roughing it—everyone is welcomed aboard with a glass of champagne—you can help pull the sails and climb the masts if you like.

So if you’re considering a cruise—but don’t think of yourself as a cruiser—here are 10 unique options.