Intimate Explorers: Small Ships to Explore the Globe

Not all cruise ships come in “big packages.” In contrast, many are small, nimble expedition ships, river cruise vessels, luxurious boutique vessels, or even bit larger, yet still-intimate cruise ships. For luxury travelers desiring a vacation on a smaller vessel, Luxury Travel Advisor looks at what’s new for 2024 voyages with varied sizes of small or smaller cruise ships, all carrying fewer than 705 guests.

European Delights

Further enhancing its “Epicurean Perfection” culinary programming, Regent Seven Seas Cruises has created 128 new culinary-focused shore excursions in the Mediterranean region. Crafted in collaboration with local chefs and culinary experts, they’re offered in France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey. Luxury travelers seeking an ultra-luxury, smaller ship experience can opt for the 496-passenger Seven Seas Navigator or 698-passenger Seven Seas Voyager.

In Heraklion (Crete), Greece, the new complimentary “Minoan Gastronomy Through History” excursion is offered during Seven Seas Voyager’s 12-night “Adriatic and Aegean Allure” itinerary from Athens (Piraeus) to Istanbul, Turkey, on April 26, 2024. Guests will participate in a hands-on cooking class at an Amnisiades Park restaurant—and discover the ancient Minoan diet with dishes made with seafood, goat, wild deer, lentils, fruits and nuts, accompanied by wine. Some dishes will be baked in a Minoan-style oven using olive oil sourced from the park’s ancient trees.

Guests on the ultra-luxury line’s 14-day “Alluring Iberia” voyage on Seven Seas Navigator from Southampton (London) to Barcelona on September 4, 2024, will sail into Oporto (Porto), Portugal. That’s opportune for guests aboard as they can experience Regent Seven Seas’ new “Porto’s Port Wine Cellars” shore excursion. Guests will view such landmarks as Casa da Musica and the baptism site of Henry the Navigator on a scenic drive, before heading to Graham’s Port Lodge in Gaia, Portugal. There, they’ll learn about port wine production and taste appetizers paired with these wines.

Travelers can celebrate the “wearing of the green” on upscale Azamara’s new seven-night “St. Patrick’s Day Iberian Voyage.” The 702-passenger Azamara Pursuit will sail roundtrip from Lisbon, Portugal, on March 16, 2024. Going ashore, travelers who so desire can even celebrate St. Patrick’s Day alongside local residents while exploring Irish pubs in Portimao, Portugal. Other calls will include Cadiz, Malaga and Melilla, Spain, as well as Gibraltor, United Kingdom. This itinerary provides up to 80 hours of port time including four “Extended Destination Days” and an overnight stay in Lisbon.

That’s just one of several new European itineraries for boutique upscale Azamara. On April 1, 2024, the line will also offer a new seven-night “Celebration of Spanish Culture & History Voyage” on sister ship Azamara Quest. Guests will embark in Lisbon, Portugal, and the weeklong voyage offers 66.5 hours in port. What’s nice is that this smaller ship can dock directly at Seville, Spain, (overnight), rather than at coastal Cadiz, giving guests more time to explore. One “must see” is Seville Cathedral, the world’s largest Gothic cathedral and site of Christopher Columbus’ tomb.

Another new itinerary is Azamara Quest’s “Spanish Wine Discoveries Voyage,” which sails from Barcelona to Lisbon (overnight) on April 8, 2024. It’s timed so guests can celebrate the first day of Feria de Abril, Seville’s most colorful festival with music, flamenco dancing and traditional cuisine.

Silver Shadow
Silver Shadow will call at 55 destinations in 16 countries during its 83-day “Grand North Atlantic & Northern Europe 2025” itinerary. (Silversea)

For luxury travelers seeking lengthier voyages, ultra-luxury Silversea Cruises has introduced two new “Grand Voyages” for 2025. Guests can choose a vacation within the Mediterranean region on the 608-passenger Silver Spirit or Northern Europe and the North Atlantic on the 388-passenger Silver Shadow. Itineraries include major cities but also rarely visited destinations, some inaccessible by larger ships.

Silver Spirit will set sail on Silversea’s 54-day “Grand Mediterranean 2025” journey, from Fusina (Venice), Italy, to Lisbon. Departing September 18, 2025, guests will visit 44 destinations in 12 counties including calls at Athens, Greece; Barcelona, Spain; Dubrovnik, Croatia; and Naples, Italy. We like some of the lesser-visited gems including Palamos, Spain, on the Costa Brava, and Syros, Greece, exuding Greek Island bliss without the crowds.

This Grand Voyage delivers plenty of shore time with overnights in Istanbul, Turkey; Naples, Italy; Livorno (Tuscany), Italy; and Malaga, Spain, as well as 12 late departures. Along the way, guests can “dive deeply” into local culture, including enjoying a curated farm-to-table experience at a historic Croatian village estate that’s produced wine, brandy, and olive oil for generations.

Spanning nearly three months, Silversea’s 83-day “Grand North Atlantic & Northern Europe 2025” itinerary will set sail roundtrip from New York on June 11, 2025. The big plus for U.S. travelers is the avoidance of any overseas flights to reach the ship or return home.

The intimate Silver Shadow will call at 55 destinations in 16 countries, traversing Eastern Canadian waters and across the Atlantic to the British Isles, Baltic Sea, Norwegian Fjords and Iceland. At Patreksfjordur, Iceland, guests can gaze at the Dynjandi waterfall and Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier. In the Norwegian fjords, they’ll explore such scenic, smaller destinations as Geiranger and Flam.

Into the Pacific

Starting in summer 2025, Silversea will also add new experiences within the Pacific Ocean’s Galapagos Islands. Silver Origin’s “North Central” itinerary will give guests more time on Isabela and Fernandina islands, as well as a new destination, Isla Lobos, San Cristobal, for snorkeling with sea lions, paddle boarding, and birding. And the ship’s “Western” itinerary will call at another new-to-brand destination, Bahia Bowditch; it’s home to a white sandy beach and coastal trails.

In 2024, Seabourn will embark on its first-ever expedition voyages to the South Pacific and The Kimberley, a remote, wild region of northwestern Australia. The line’s newest expedition ship, the 264-passenger Seabourn Pursuit, will operate these adventurous voyages between March and October 2024. The ultra-luxury ship carries an expedition team of 24 scientists, naturalists, scholars and other experts.

In March-April and September-October 2024, the expedition ship will sail between Chile and Australia, calling at such destinations as Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, Guam, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. Guests can choose voyages of 14, 17 and 20 days, or create combination voyages of up to 37 days. Complimentary expedition experiences will include Zodiac cruising, scuba diving, snorkeling and nature walks and hikes. Optional kayaking and submersible excursions will be available.

From June through August 2024, Seabourn Pursuit will sail six 10-day voyages within The Kimberley, operating between Broome and Darwin, Australia. That wild, remote region has rapidly become the next-great-place with strong demand coming from luxury travelers. Many areas of The Kimberley are simply inaccessible via land. So, a small-ship voyage is a wonderful way to cover the territory and see top highlights, while comfortably floating along in ultra-luxury accommodations.

What’s to see and do? Accompanied by expedition team members, travelers will explore incredibly remote settings including the Bungle Bungles, El Questro National Park and the Ord River. The Kimberley’s “boab” trees make photogenic selfie backdrops, and eco-enthusiasts will love spotting rock wallabies, flying foxes and saltwater alligators. Cruise guests will also learn about ancient Aboriginal culture.

Many other upscale cruise lines are also heading to The Kimberley, among them ultra-luxury Scenic. In 2024 and 2025, Scenic Eclipse II, the line’s newest Discovery Yacht, will operate 11-day itineraries along Australia’s northwestern coast. The new “Discover the Kimberley Coastline: An Ancient Wilderness” itinerary will operate from Darwin to Broome, and the “Uncover the Kimberley Coastline: An Ancient Wilderness” itinerary in reverse.

The Kimberley region
Scenic’s newest Discovery  Yacht, Scenic Eclipse II will visit the Kimberley region in Australiaduring 11-day itineraries in 2024 and 2025. (Scenic Cruises)

Guests will view landscapes, ancient rock art and wildlife via bush treks or Zodiac tours. Other times, they’ll be luxuriously cocooned aboard Scenic Eclipse II, which has a five-star ESPA spa, 10 dining experiences where menus change multiple times per week, live shows in the theater, and more.

Boutique luxury Paul Gauguin Cruises, known for its Tahiti and French Polynesian and South Pacific voyages, will shift farther westward for several 2025 “Boutique Crossing Collection” voyages. Three new 14-, 16- and 20-night cruises will sail between Fiji, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia.

For those seeking a “deep dive” into Indonesian culture and heritage, we’d look at the 14-night “Indonesia Immersive” voyage from Singapore to Darwin, Australia, on April 1, 2025. After an overnight in Singapore, the 330-passenger Paul Gauguin will sail for Indonesia, with two maiden calls at Parai Beach and Surabaya, as well as calls at Semarang, Bali (Benoa), and Loh Liang, Komodo National Park.

Beyond viewing gigantic Komodo dragons in the wild, other itinerary highlights include beach play and snorkeling at Parai Beach and a vibrant art scene and a 15th-century Arab Quarter in Surabaya. At Semarang, a highlight is the chance to visit Borobudur Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with more than 500 Buddha statues and more than 2,500 relief panels. This cruise also calls at Dili, Timor-Leste, before the cruise ends with an overnight in Darwin.

Paul Gauguin offers newly revitalized suites and staterooms, nearly 70 percent with private balconies. Onboard, guests will find a welcoming, informal aura with friendly service by local Tahitians who serve as hosts, entertainers and storytellers.

Making a ship switch, Windstar Cruises will position its 312-passenger, all-suite Star Breeze to sail in Tahiti year-round, starting in 2024; it will replace the line’s 148-passenger sailing yacht Wind Spirit. Recently revitalized, the motorized Star Breeze offers new specialty dining venues, several new suite categories and new bathrooms in all suites.

For those who’d love to combine their Windstar cruise with a stay in paradise, the line will introduce two new French Polynesia cruise tour options in 2024. The “Tahiti and Moorea Foodie Cruise Tour” is a three-day extension to the line’s seven-day “Dreams of Tahiti” cruise. Guests will spend three nights in a garden bungalow at the Hotel Manava Beach Resort and Spa Moorea.

They’ll also head out on a half-day Moorea food adventure, which includes locally produced liquor and juice tastings, traditional Ma’a tinito (a Tahitian twist on Chinese food) and stops at high-quality roadside stands. Also included is a full-day Moorea snorkeling tour of Cook and Opunohu bays with lunch and cultural demonstrations, as well as transfers.

Another new cruise tour is the “Overwater Bungalow & Tahitian Paradises,” which includes a three-night stay in an overwater bungalow at the Hotel Manava Beach Resort & Spa Moorea. Guests will also receive breakfast delivered to their bungalow via canoe, a romantic beach dinner, half-day private car tour and all transfers.

Upscale Oceania Cruises will offer seven new 2025 summer sailings on its 670-passenger, boutique-style Regatta in 2025 to French Polynesia and Hawaii. For instance, a 15-day “Divine Pacific Oases” cruise will sail on September 30, 2025, from Honolulu to Papeete, Tahiti. Guests also will explore Nawiliwili, Kahului, Kailua-Kona and Hilo, all in Hawaii, as well as Nuku Hiva, Rangiroa, Raiatea and Bora Bora, French Polynesia.

Caribbean & South America

For those thinking of a holiday sailing, Oceania also has released its festive season voyage highlights for 2024-2025. One enticing option is the 14-day “Mangroves of the Maya” itinerary, operated by the 670-passenger Sirena. Departing on December 21, 2024, the ship will sail from Miami, FL, to Bridgetown, Barbados.

Guests can view ancient pyramids and snorkel along coral reefs, view monkeys in Costa Rica and admire historic architecture within the southern Caribbean. This port-intensive itinerary includes Costa Maya, Mexico; Harvest Caye, Belize; Roatan, Honduras; Puerto Limon, Costa Rica; Colon, Panama; Cartagena, Colombia; Willemstad, Curacao; Oranjestad, Aruba; and Castries, St. Lucia.

For travelers desiring to avoid overseas flights during the busy holiday period, though, Luxury Travel Advisor would suggest also considering the 670-guest Insignia’s 14-day “Festive Caribbean” itinerary. Why? This festive voyage sails roundtrip from Miami, FL, on December 22, 2024, and makes a large loop around the Caribbean.

On a day ashore at Basseterre, St. Kitts, guests can choose to tee off at the Royal St. Kitts Golf Course, venture out on a “Hydroponic Farm & Rainforest Safari,” or opt for other excursions. Other ports of call are Port Antonio, Jamaica; Oranjestad, Aruba; Willemstad, Curacao; Kingstown, St. Vincent & the Grenadines; Bridgetown, Barbados; Castries, St. Lucia; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.

Le Ponant
On Le Ponant, guests will discover a yacht-like ambiance, a dedicated chef and 16 staterooms and suites. (Tamar Sarkissian / Ponant)

Ponant and Relais & Châteaux have strengthened their existing ties in a big way. The 32-passenger yacht Le Ponant has become the world’s first sailing yacht to join the family of Relais & Chateaux establishments as a new member. The first branded voyages for the three-masted yacht are new tropical expeditions to Cape Verde and the Caribbean for the 2023-24 season.

With a guest to crew ratio of one to one, Le Ponant will operate multiple 2024 departures of the eight-day “Caribbean Under Sail Aboard Le Ponant” itinerary. Sailing roundtrip from Fort de France, Martinique, the ship will call at Bequia, Kingston, Tobago Cays and Mayreau in St. Vincent and the Grenadines; Sandy Island, Grenada; and Pigeon Island Beach, St. Lucia.

Guests will discover a yacht-like ambiance, a dedicated chef and 16 elegantly decorated staterooms and suites. Cuisine is made using organic and local products and wines from French artisan wine producers, such as Champagne Henriot are served. Another benefit is that for these voyages, the yacht will carry a Ponant dive instructor, and a local guide will also escort some dives. Guests who desire to dive are required to hold a one-star CMAS or the PADI Open Water Diver (or equivalent) certification.

Atlas Ocean Voyages’ 198-passenger World Voyager, which joined the fleet earlier this year, sets sail on November 8, 2023. Guests will find new carpeting, the addition of Paula’s Pantry, and renamed venues, among other updates. Look for new 2024 South America and Caribbean itineraries, which will offer the new “Cultural Expeditions by Atlas” concept, designed for luxury guests who love delving into art, architecture, history and museums.

For a robust Brazilian itinerary, Luxury Travel Advisor would recommend World Voyager’s 11-night voyage from Rio de Janeiro (overnight) to Belem (overnight). Departing on April 13, 2024, the ship will call at Ilheus, Salvador da Bahia, Recife, Natal and Fortaleza. So, it’s a full-bodied Brazil experience, combined with an intimate, yacht-style cruise vacation.

To combine Brazil and the Caribbean, travelers could choose that ship’s 19-night voyage, operating on the same date. It contains the Brazil calls listed above, but then the ship will continue its voyage to Bridgetown, Barbados. That will add calls at Devil’s Island, French Guiana; Charlotteville, Tobago; and Mayreau, St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

For culinary buffs thinking of a small-yacht Caribbean luxury cruise this winter season, Explora Journeys recently inked a new partnership with Chef Emma Bengtsson of the two-Michelin-starred Aquavit restaurant in New York City. She’s acclaimed for creative interpretations of classic dishes and Scandinavian and New York influences. Bengtsson is now showcasing her culinary talents with a curated tasting menu at Anthology, one of Explora I’s 11 onboard culinary experiences. Her menu is available now through the end of March 2024.

Anthology offers a refined, sophisticated culinary experience that uses fresh, locally sourced ingredients along with wine pairings. Separate from the line’s inclusive culinary offerings, this experience carries added, per-person fees (190 Euros for the tasting, 75 Euros for wine pairings).

Guests can experience Chef Bengtsson’s curated menu during Explora I’s Caribbean itineraries. Departing February 16, 2024, Explora I’s 14-night “Lost Worlds and Colonial Outposts in the Caribbean” journey sails between Miami, FL, and Bridgetown, Barbados. Even “been there, done that” Caribbean travelers will find new experiences ashore, thanks to this itinerary’s three overnight stays.

First up is an overnight call in Santa Marta, Colombia’s oldest city. Guests can opt for beach play, a Colombian cooking class, visiting a national park and bio-reserve, or other diversions. For active travelers, we’d suggest Explora Journeys’ hike to an organic coffee farm plantation. The ship also will overnight at historic Cartagena, Colombia, and Willemstad, Curacao, as well as visit Saint-Pierre, Martinique, and sail into the Panama Canal’s Gatun Lake.

East and West Asia

Crystal’s newly revitalized, 606-passenger Crystal Symphony will kick off its 2025 season with sailings in Southeast Asia. Not all itinerary details were available at press time, but the ship will journey to Sihanoukville, Cambodia, as well as Sabang and Weh Island, Indonesia; the latter is a small active volcanic island northwest of Sumatra.

Palawan, the Philippines’
Crystal’s sailings to Southeast Asia on Crystal Symphony in 2025 will visit Palawan, the Philippines’ ecological jewel, known for its beaches. (Getty Images)

Crystal says guests can expect multi-day port calls to such top destinations such as Ho Chi Minh City and Halong Bay, Vietnam; Laem Chabang (Bangkok), Thailand; and Shanghai, China. Guests will also visit Palawan, the Philippines’ ecological jewel, known for its beaches, and Brunei, home to lush rainforests.

Then after sailing in the Mediterranean during the summer, during the latter part of 2025, Crystal Symphony will operate in the Middle East. When guests board Crystal Symphony for the first time, they’ll find updated, larger suites with artisanal finishes; a revitalized Aurora Spa; new pickleball court; and refreshed or new specialty dining venues.

Arctic Adventures

Since the Viking era of Norse explorer Leif Eriksson, Greenland and the Canadian High Arctic have fascinated intrepid explorers. In summer 2025, guests on the 378-passenger Viking Octantis, one of Viking’s polar-class expedition ships, will set out on new 13- to 27-day Arctic region itineraries. They’ll explore the Canadian High Arctic or polar Canada and Greenland.

Carrying a 36-person expedition team, the ship will sail a 13-day “Into the Northwest Passage” voyage roundtrip from Nuuk, Greenland’s capital city; four departures are in July, August and early September. Guests on this itinerary will delve Inuit culture and traditions and explore towns with colorful wooden houses. They’ll also admire icy peaks and blue-tinged glaciers. Top highlights include the Ilulissat Icefjord and the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage in Pond Inlet, Canada.

One design plus is that Viking Octantis’ Hangar, which is a marina inside the ship, makes embarking the Zodiacs easier than on other ships. As for accommodations, all have a Nordic Balcony. That’s a versatile sunroom that converts into an al fresco viewing platform with an observation shelf at elbow level to stabilize binoculars or a camera.

Crystal Penthouse Suite - Crystal Symphony
Crystal’s newly revitalized, 606-passenger Crystal Symphony has updated, larger suites with artisanalfinishes; a revitalized Aurora Spa; new pickleball court; and refreshed or new specialty dining venues. (Crystal Cruises)

Separately, the ship’s 15-day “Canada & Greenland Explorer” will operate between Toronto, Ontario, Canada and Nuuk on July 15 and, in reverse, on September 15, 2025. Those two itineraries also can be combined into a new 27-day “Canada and the Northwest Passage.”

This is just a sampling above, as many other brands also offer small-ship voyages and options are quickly expanding. That said, guests who—in contrast—love big ships, new options await there too. For example, Royal Caribbean International’s new 7,600-passenger Icon of the Seas is on the horizon. Starting service from PortMiami in early 2024, it will offer a range of new suites including a three-level Ultimate Family Townhouse, plus the world’s largest waterpark at sea. So, when it comes to cruising, there’s something for everyone.

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