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5 Fabulous Small-Ship Cruise Lines

A Small White clipper Sail Boat, Small Cruise Ship Lines

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Fabulous small cruise ship adventures help you avoid commercial cruise line crowds.

Cruising isn't all about megaships with lots of people and resort amenities. Set sail on a small ship and you'll enjoy intimate surroundings, a less-regimented routine and a chance to get to know your fellow passengers. Whether a luxury, adventure or sailing vessel, your small ship won't have glitzy show productions or Elvis-impersonation contests. It will, however, get you to some of the less touristy places where big ships can't go.

1. Lindblad Expeditions

This expedition cruise company, in partnership with National Geographic, gets you up close to nature. The line's 10 ships carry just 28 to 96 passengers to places like the Galápagos, where you can swim with sea lions and admire blue-footed boobies. Zodiacs take you ashore, and naturalists make sure you don't miss a thing. On board, the atmosphere is casual and comfortable and includes hearty meals; special family itineraries include activities for kids. The line's cruises also explore Alaska, Costa Rica, Baja California, Europe, Antarctica and the Arctic.

2. Un-Cruise Adventures

Un-Cruise Adventures has a diverse fleet that includes luxury yachts — the smallest carrying only 22 passengers — for those who enjoy the finer things such as big cabins, gourmet cuisine and complimentary massages. The company also offers adventure cruises on comfortable (without the luxury fluffery) 60- to 76-passenger ships that spend days in wilderness areas. Debuting in 2013 are heritage-focused cruises on an 88-passenger steamship done up in Victorian decor. Vessels visit Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico's Sea of Cortez, the Columbia and Snake rivers in Washington and Oregon, and British Columbia.

3. Windstar Cruises

This line's 310-passenger Wind Surf and 148-passenger Wind Star and Wind Spirit cut striking figures with their billowing white sails, operated by computer. The onboard atmosphere is casual in a yacht-club kind of way. Cuisine has a gourmet touch, and the well-designed cabins include suites. When the sun is shining, the open decks are the place to be — including for al fresco dining — though the recently refurbished ships also have lovely indoor areas. You can borrow kayaks and other water equipment and launch them from retractable marinas. Itineraries include the Mediterranean, the Greek Isles, Costa Rica and northern Europe.

4. Star Clippers

For a classic sailing experience, this line's three clipper ships fit the bill. Play "Pirates of the Caribbean" on the impressive four-masted, 170-passenger Star Clipper or Star Flyer. Or enjoy slightly fancier surrounds under the 42 sails and five masts of the 227-passenger Royal Clipper. You can hang out in the bowsprit net or visit the crow's nest, though the crew does all the heavy work. The wind-in-your-face experience is enhanced by comfortable cabins and decent food. Itineraries include the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, northern Europe, Costa Rica and North Africa.

5. SeaDream Yacht Club

This line's two 110-passenger ships provide an experience akin to being on a private yacht: It's an immersion in fine cuisine, fine wine and good company. Cabins are all decently sized and have such amenities as flat-screen TVs and minibars. You can borrow water equipment and set out from the retractable marina, lounge al fresco on Balinese Dream Beds or brush up on your golf game using simulators. Itineraries include the Caribbean, Costa Rica, the Amazon, the Mediterranean, Asia and the Pacific.

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