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Small is beautiful

8 small cruise lines for when you hate big cruises

Small ship cruise lines might be just the ticket when the idea of a huge vessel is unappealing to you; here are some of the best small cruises.

Words by Nick Dalton

Small cruises might seem a lot more appealing to some at the moment after MSC Preziosa recently hit the headlines after being too big to fit into the port of Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides.

The 139,000-ton ship, the length of seven jumbo jets and with capacity for 4,345 passengers, was instead forced to anchor outside the Scottish island town.

In further news for mammoth vessels, Royal Caribbean’s Utopia of the Seas has celebrated its “float out”. Set to sail in July 2024, the ship – 1,188 ft. in length (or nearly 12 blue whales end to end) – will take the crown of the world’s biggest cruise ship from incumbent vessel Wonder of the Seas.

While big is best for plenty of travellers – what if (small) size matters to you? If thousands of holidaymakers sounds unpleasant – these small-ship cruise lines will no doubt appeal.


Expedition shipsSwan Hellenic

Swan Hellenic is a historic name that has sailed back with three new expedition ships that tackle the polar regions – and fascinating places in between – with pure style. SH Vega and SH Minerva take 152 guests while SH Diana, which arrived in 2023, has upped that to 192. Understated Scandi style and life centring on the soothing Observation Lounge.

Lectures from experts unfold the secrets of everywhere from the Antarctic to the treasures of Jordan and while you might have spent the day exploring on a Zodiac inflatable you can come home to comforting bars and excellent food on these small cruises.

Boutique eleganceAzamara

Not the smallest – the Azamara four ships, Journey, Pursuit, Quest and Onward, hold from 700 to 800 guests – but friendly, unpressured boutique elegance without a fuss. There’s entertainment on deck but not of the manic disco variety – I’ve seen a cool Filipino rock ‘n’ roll band playing neat covers.

In some ports there are AzAmazing Days – in pastel-hued Porto Venere on the Italian Cinque Terra coast there was food, drink and music around the seafront. And the White Party is like something from a continental movie: pool deck tables are set up for all guests (all urged to wear white), food is cooked on real barbecues and there’s fizz and music. Truly amazing when docked somewhere like Monte Carlo.

Azamara Quest
Emerald Sakara Seychelles

Sci-fi- superyachts Emerald Cruises

The company known for cool river cruises has taken to the seas with a pair of stunning sci-fi-looking superyachts, Emerald Azzurra and Emerald Sakara, each carrying only 100 guests in a style that makes you feel like an oligarch. Everything’s cool and white, from the sundecks to the glass-walled rooms to the restaurants.

There’s no rush to get off on these small cruises – and there’s even a marina platform with an array of toys including paddleboards and sea scooters. For land, there’s a fleet of e-bikes.

All-inclusive luxurySilversea

Silversea boasts a dozen ships sailing the world, from 100-passenger Galapagos-based Silver Origin to ice-class 144-passenger Silver Explorer to more conventional ships taking 600 people, to the newest of all, Silver Nova, for 728 guests.

This is unhurried, all-inclusive luxury wherever you want to go, from a Med jaunt to the ends of the earth, with just as many people around you as you can manage. Around-the-clock butler service and a vast choice of cuisines and restaurants depending on the ship.

Silversea ship Silver Nova Salt Kitchen cruise news
Star Flyer ship

Wind-blown delightsStar Clippers

Sail away in serenity on a tall ship with Star Clippers. Of three wind-blown delights, two (Star Clipper and Star Flyer) accommodate 166 passengers while flagship Royal Clipper can manage 227 and is recognised by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest square rigger.

All mod cons in a fairytale setting with an elegant restaurant, while Royal Clipper has a retractable watersports platform. Get away from it all lazing on the rigging as the sea splashes beneath you, climb the mast, or drift off as stirring music plays while the sails unfurl as you depart another beautiful port.

Well-priced cruisesVariety Cruises

Well-priced cruises on a fleet of eight small but modern boats from a private company based in Athens. The biggest Variety Cruises vessel for 72 guests, is flagship Variety Voyager sailing the Aegean and out to the Cape Verde Islands.

Most hold fewer than 50 passengers with plenty of small ship cruises around the Med. Harmony V (49 guests) ventures to Egypt, Jordan and Israel while Panorama II sails in Tahiti, Pegasos in the Seychelles. A great chance to find yourself amongst like-minded folk with themed sailings including history, nature, active and LGBTQ.

Variety Cruises Seychelles
Stari-Grad-waterfront- Croatia

Modern shipsCruise Croatia

There’s nowhere better for a small ship cruise than the Croatian coast, littered with beautiful islands… Korcula, the believed home of Marco Polo, hip Hvar, Brac with its gorgeous beaches and many more.

Plus mainland highs including Dubrovnik, Split with its mountain-leaping walls, and Split, its old town actually the retirement palace of Roman emperor Diocletian (visit the historic underbelly foundations).

Cruise Croatia has 16 modern small ships, none holding more than 38 passengers. Cruises – often taking in Montenegro – on ships such as MS Markan which has balconies, sundecks and a swimming platform – feature guided food, wine and cultural tours, daily swim stops, water sports and lectures.

Discovery yachtsScenic

Scenic has two ultra-luxury ships, Scenic Eclipse and Scenic Eclipse II, for 228 guests (200 in polar regions. Plenty of room to chill – and if you really want to get away from people, there are the rides on the onboard helicopters (there are two on each ship) and submarine as well as the Zodiac inflatables and thoroughly relaxing kayaks.

Discovery yachts they call them, with six-star service. Sleek, contemporary décor. Go for the two-bedroom Penthouse Suite if you can but everyone gets a balcony – and butler service too.

Scenic Eclipse II
Published 22.01.24