For the most part, the cruising world is dominated by a handful of major cruise companies—big names like Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Carnival and their affiliated brands. But the world’s waters are also home to numerous independent ship and expedition lines, companies that sail a little more under the radar. These smaller cruise lines, while lesser known, often offer sailing experiences that are very different from those on any mainstream cruise ship.
As a veteran cruiser, I’m often on the lookout for these hidden gem sailing options, outfitters that range from the luxurious to the more laid-back and that promise something the big cruise lines simply can’t provide, whether that’s a level of intimacy with much smaller passenger counts, access to destinations only smaller ships can get to, or more authentic local experiences.
From Nordic expedition companies to Native-owned small ship cruises in Alaska and eco-conscious explorations of the Great Barrier Reef, these independent cruise brands are shaking up the way we think about cruising.
Alaskan Dream Cruises
Best for Native-led nature and wildlife viewing in Alaska
More than any other cruise company operating in Alaska, Native-owned Alaskan Dream Cruises gets travelers up close to nature, glaciers, and wildlife, while also delivering meaningful cultural experiences.
Established in 2011 by the Sitka-based shipbuilding Allen family, the company has a fleet of casual 10- to 76-passenger ships staffed by Alaskans, including some Alaska Native guides. Through its close ties to the Indigenous communities of southeast Alaska, Alaskan Dream crafts itineraries that include visits to remote Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian villages. The company also offers select sailings that are fully dedicated to wilderness exploration, during which passengers explore landscapes via Zodiacs or kayaks or on foot.
Local culturalists continue your education onboard, where you’ll find a focus on local food and other Alaska products, such as Alaskan-made beer, spirits, and soap.
Best for Nordic-style polar expeditions
With more than 30 years of experience in polar destinations including Greenland and Svalbard, the family-owned, eco-conscious Danish polar cruise specialist Albatros Expeditions is newly marketing its value-priced small expedition ships to Americans. Onboard, expect Nordic hospitality and service as you explore narrow inlets and get close to shore with the ship’s fleet of Zodiacs. Guests may also spend their days kayaking, hiking, and snowshoeing with expedition leaders and biologists. Other polar experts will lead workshops and lectures, given in multiple languages to accommodate the multicultural mix of passengers onboard.
In December, Albatros launched a new eco-friendlier ship in Antarctica, the 186-passenger Ocean Victory (the same ship will spend its summers sailing Alaska via a charter by American Queen Voyages). The ship has an X-Bow design for better fuel efficiency and less environmental impact. The company also has an older ship, the 198-passenger Ocean Atlantic, that together with the Ocean Albatros (a sister ship to Ocean Victory) will be arriving to sail Arctic routes beginning in 2023.
Atlas Ocean Voyages
Best for wellness and relaxation combined with expedition cruising
A new all-inclusive, luxe-adventure expedition cruise company, headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Atlas Ocean Voyages is the first ocean cruise line to sail under the Portuguese flag. It’s part of the Portuguese company Mystic Invest Holdings, which for more than 25 years has operated river cruise ships, tours, and attractions for various brands.
The company’s first ocean ship, the polar-class, 196-passenger World Navigator, debuted last summer in the Mediterranean and is wintering on sailings in Antarctica (because that is summer down below). Sister ships are already in the works, including the World Traveller, which is launching in summer 2022.
A fleet of Zodiacs and kayaks gets passengers close to shore, while onboard attractions include the first SeaSpa by L’Occitane. To avoid stressing out marine life, the ships are equipped with a hydro jet propulsion system that facilitates nearly silent sailing for up to five knots.
Best for eco-conscious exploration
This 30-year-old Australian polar expedition company was the first to launch a ship with an X-Bow design for better fuel efficiency and less environmental impact—the 126-passenger Greg Mortimer, in 2019. Gaining a reputation for its eco-conscious ethic, Aurora Expeditions was voted “The World’s Leading Polar Operator” at the 2020 World Travel Awards.
The Greg Mortimer is spending the winter in Antarctica. A sister ship arrives in Alaska in the spring, the 126-passenger Sylvia Earle, named in honor of the renowned U.S. marine biologist, oceanographer, and conservationist. Earle herself will be leading a climate-focused Antarctica expedition on the ship in 2023. Onboard, nature lectures include discussions on protecting polar regions. The ship’s kitchen focuses on sustainable food products.
The Sylvia Earle will spend the upcoming summer in Alaska on expeditions that include the remote Aleutian Islands, a place few other cruise lines go.
Best for relaxed and intimate Australia, New Zealand, and Indian Ocean cruises
Since the late 1980s, Australian cruise line Coral Expeditions has explored destinations such as the Great Barrier Reef and the remote Kimberley region in northwestern Australia, but until recently it was a best-kept secret of well-heeled locals. With two new ships, the company is branching out to a broader audience and now sails to destinations as varied as Tasmania, New Zealand, Indonesia’s Raja Ampat region, Melanesia, and the Indian Ocean.
The 120-passenger, diesel-electric Coral Adventurer and sister ship Coral Geographic make it easy for guests to get ashore. In addition to inflatable Zodiacs, which require some maneuvering to get into and out of, these ships deploy the company’s own easy step-on, lightweight metal Xplorer boats—with a hydraulic lift that lowers the tenders from ship to sea level and back.
Onboard, guests sleep in spacious, modern cabins or suites, and sip good Australian wines while listening to lectures by professors and other experts, some through a partnership with the Australian Geographic Society.
Best for super-luxe expedition cruises
Eyos Expeditions specializes in arranging charters of 12- to 22-passenger superyachts for well-heeled travelers looking to do private expeditions in such far-flung places as the Arctic and Antarctica—and newly, the South Pacific. For these cruises, Eyos arranges an expert team of navigators and guides. But it doesn’t just do semiprivate superyacht cruises. The company recently began selling limited passage for individuals on the ice-strengthened MV Nansen Explorer, a former Russian research ship reconfigured as a luxury polar superyacht. The ship formerly held 60 and now hosts only 12 guests, so there’s room to spread out.
You’ll pay a pretty penny for the MV Nansen Explorer sailings, which go way beyond the norm. The ship’s helipad, for instance, is the gateway to heli-skiing on deep powder runs on the Greenland island of Maniitsoq—one of the world’s most remote places to ski. For the less athletic, a late June sailing in Greenland travels 150 miles beyond the Arctic Circle to Disko Bay, home to some of the planet’s largest icebergs.
Best for laid-back Caribbean cruises on sailing vessels
A well-kept secret in the Caribbean since 2009, those who are “in the know” tend to book Island Windjammers cruises long in advance to secure a coveted spot. This cruise line is all about casual sailings in the sun, hanging out on the deck of a tall ship, watching the sails catch the sea breezes while sipping a complimentary rum punch, and dining alfresco—most dining is outdoors. A rite of passage is jumping off the ship Tarzan-style on the rope swing, or passengers can also borrow water toys that include paddleboards and kayaks for more water fun.
On the 26-passenger classic clipper ship Vela or the company’s 10-passenger schooner, Diamant, it’s easy to imagine you are on your own private yacht. Your cabin may be snug, with just a porthole and a small bathroom (both ships also have more lavish Owner’s suites), but who cares? This is about embracing the Caribbean’s chill vibes—on 6- or 12-night routes that get you to such scenic places as the British Virgin Islands or Grenada and the Grenadines.
Best for locally operated luxe Ecuador cruises
Exploring rarely visited areas of the Ecuadorian coastline, the locally owned Kontiki Expeditions debuted this winter with its first ship and an already impressive pedigree—the high-style 18-passenger Kontiki Wayra, a 128-foot motor yacht, is the first water-based member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World collection.
Done up in sleek contemporary decor, the yacht is staffed by a 10-member local crew that includes a chef and team of wellness professionals ready to deliver massages, plus local guides leading outings to pristine beaches, nature preserves populated by howler monkeys, and local communities, where guests learn about chocolate production or mingle with local artisans, such as straw weavers. During the eight-day cruises between Guayaquil and Manta, the 18 guests will also have the opportunity to join the chef in gathering local ingredients to serve onboard.
Best for practically private polar cruises
This relaxed, eco-friendly Swedish polar specialist offers intimate cruise experiences on ships that carry 12 to 53 passengers. Established in 1999, PolarQuest explores Svalbard, following the ice floe and venturing into narrow fjords and other remote areas with itineraries that are up to the discretion of the captain.
The ships include the repurposed 12-passenger MS Stockholm, built in 1953 for the Swedish Maritime Administration; and the 12-passenger MS Sjøveien, built in 1964 for the Norwegian government. Both have cabins with en suite bathrooms. Other PolarQuest destinations include Greenland, the Norwegian coast, and Lofoten Islands. According to the company, the trips are 100 percent climate compensated—it tracks emissions and then donates to climate projects in the South Pole.