5 bucket-list small ship cruises

In recent years the headlines in the cruise sector have focused on mega-ships, carrying over 5000 passengers and with ever more fantastical amenities like rollercoasters, water slides and go-kart tracks.

But there’s also been a quiet revolution going on with small ships offering a completely different experience.

Traveling with dozens of people rather than hundreds affords you more time at each port stop. Your group can visit attractions and participate in activities that accommodate smaller groups, often resulting in a more intimate and meaningful experience for passengers.

Smaller vessels also offer a more intimate onboard atmosphere, with much more opportunities to get to know your fellow passengers, to share stories, swap photos and make friends – this is particularly ideal for solo travellers.  So here’s our run down of the top small-ship cruises to take in 2021 or plan ahead for 2022.

1. Take a canal barge cruise

Carrying just a handful of guests (typically 6 to 12 people) barge cruises traditionally have a reputation for 5* luxury (think onboard private chef, designer interiors etc) with price tags to match.  But new owner operator barges, like the Serenity, are breaking the mould and offering affordable, informal cruising, with tasty home cooked lunches aboard, great wines from small producers and dinners at local restaurants. 

Exploring the intimate canals and rivers of France, on a barge cruise the scenery is just a few metres away and your dedicated crew organise a bespoke itinerary of tours and authentic experiences that you’ll be talking about for years to come.    

2. Explore the Antarctic

In this unique environment, restrictions to prevent over tourism limit the number of passengers allowed to disembark the ship at any time to 100 people.  So if you on a ship with a greater number of guests your onshore activities/wildlife watching trips will likely be shorter to facilitate two sessions so everyone can participate. 

But before booking a trip on a smaller ship there are a few things to be in mind; if you are susceptible to seasickness you will feel the motion significantly more on a physically smaller ship and your vessel likely won’t have the luxury facilities of a ‘cruise ship’. 

3. Charter a private crewed yacht

The words ‘private yacht’ conjure up images of luxury and many of us might simply assume that this type of trip is out of our holiday budget.  But a great option is to take a day cruise as part of land-based holiday.

One of our favourite places for a private crewed sailing yacht trip is Tenerife.  Our friends at Tenerife Fun will take you out to explore the island’s Costa Adeje on their luxury, Bavaria 49 sailboat.  With two crew to look after you you’ll feel like a celeb from the moment you step aboard – highlights of the trip include making friends with the dolphins and pilot whales who call these waters home, the breathtaking scenery of the soaring Los Gigantes cliffs and snorkelling at the hidden Masca Cove. 

4. Dive into the Galapagos

I was always fascinated with the pictures of the colourful and bizarre looking blue-footed boobies, frigate birds and giant tortoises in my Childrens Encyclopdia of Animals, so following in Darwin’s footsteps on a trip to the Galapagos Islands is definitely on my bucket list.  

And whilst the islands are most famous for their unique wildlife, a trip here also offers white-sand beaches, world-class snorkeling and close encounters with sea lions, penguins and dolphins whilst kayaking or swimming.  The Galapagos is also one of the most volcanically active areas on the planet, where the 21 volcanoes have created a landscape perfect for hiking.

If you’re a dive fan my choice would be a premium live-aboard boat like the Aggressor III liveaboard dive boat.  Accommodating just 16 guests, it combines dive trips with land excursions and by navigating during the night you wake up in a new destination ready for a full day of exploration.

5. Head for Panama

Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans the giant locks of the Panama canal are an engineering marvel, but it’s not just mega-ships that negotiate this passage.  The trip through the canal is just one highlight of a week-long cruise on the Safari Voyager.  

Carrying just 66 passengers this comfortable vessel will be your base for exploring tropical rainforest, the colourful walled colonial city of Cartagena, discovering the indigenous Guna culture and spotting howler monkeys, scarlet macaws, white-faced capuchins, and sloths.

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Serenity barge cruising along he tree lined canal