The 3 Best Small-ship Ocean Cruise Lines

The best cruise lines for small ships, according to Travel + Leisure readers, are the ones that develop a sense of camaraderie onboard.

Exterior of Paul Gauguin Cruises
Photo: Courtesy of Paul Gauguin Cruises

Cruise lovers couldn't wait to get back out on the sea, and Travel + Leisure readers who prefer compact vessels have been delighted to find that the voyages have only gotten better. This year, T+L adjusted the World's Best Awards cruise categories to reflect the industry and traveler experience. The ships in the small-ship ocean cruise lines category are now those with 150 to 299 cabins, while smaller ships (with fewer than 150 cabins) are in an all-new intimate-ship category.

Every year for our World's Best Awards survey, T+L asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe — to share their opinions on the top hotels, resorts, cities, islands, cruise ships, spas, airlines, and more. Readers rated individual cruise ships on their cabins and facilities, food, service, itineraries and destinations, excursions and activities, and value. Those assessments were combined to generate results for the cruise lines in six categories, including river cruising.

In the No. 2 spot is Windstar Cruises. The line's 148- to 342-passenger sailing ships and 312-passenger, all-suite motor yachts received praise from voters. "It was great to be on such a small ship with a high ratio of staff to guests," said a reader who sailed on the 312-passenger Star Legend.

Ultra-luxury line Seabourn is recognized in this category for its 225-suite Seabourn Odyssey, Seabourn Quest, and Seabourn Sojourn. Said one reader who sailed on the Odyssey: "This was my first Seabourn cruise and I really loved it — the size of the suites, the attentive service, the wonderful food, and the surprisingly terrific variety of entertainment."

But it was Paul Gauguin Cruises, now owned by French cruise company Ponant, that emerged as the reader favorite among the best cruise lines for small ships. Below, find out what sets it apart.

1. Paul Gauguin Cruises

Swimming pool aboard Paul Gauguin Cruises
Courtesy of Paul Gauguin Cruises

On the Paul Gauguin, a sense of place permeates everything from the Polynesian-influenced décor and color palette to the local cuisine travelers sample onboard. Resident performers, known as Les Gauguines, share Polynesian culture through dance, music, and storytelling. In the spa, guests can indulge in a massage based on Tahitian techniques. Passengers explore island history and enjoy watersports such as snorkeling, kayaking, and paddleboarding, including from the beaches of two private motu. "Everything about this cruise was excellent," said one T+L reader. "Ship staff was exceptional and always made you feel at home."

Score: 96.59

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2. Windstar Cruises

Exterior of Windstar Star Breeze Cruise Ship
Courtesy of Windstar Cruises

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 94.14

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3. Seabourn

Guest room aboard Seabourn Venture and Pursuit
Courtesy of Seabourn

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 93.70

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