Small but Mighty: The Best Small Cruise Ships in the World

Author: Isabella Sullivan

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Ready to leave the big boys behind and discover the joys of boutique cruising? Here’s our guide to the world’s finest small cruise ships

Great things invariably come in small packages and that’s certainly the case when it comes to cruise ships.

“Sailing on a small ship offers a unique and enriching experience,” says Andy Harmer, director of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

“Guests have more opportunity to get to know one another, making friendships that could last a lifetime, and they can get better acquainted with the ship, discovering every tiny detail and making it feel like home after just a few days. These types of cruises are also heavily focused on destinations and self-enrichment, both on board and ashore.”

With news that large ships may soon be re-routed to avoid the Venetian lagoon, small ships are having their moment. And no wonder. After all, who wouldn’t enjoy personalised service, with the opportunity to sail straight into small ports or walk around on board without needing a Sat Nav?

Give water parks, Broadway-style productions and buffet queues a miss, and you’ll discover a world of fine dining, tailored excursions and the comfort of knowing you’re not just
a face in the crowd.

Wondering which boutique ship to choose? Read our expert guide to the very best small cruise ships on the rivers and oceans of the world.

Small ocean cruise ships

Best for…awe-inspiring excursions

Azamara Pursuit
702 passengers 408 crew 343 cabins 11 decks
343 cabins 11 decks

These are exciting times for Azamara, which recently welcomed the sleek, 702-guest Azamara Pursuit into its luxurious fleet. Showing just how serious the line is about destination immersion, the small cruise ship offers 73 new ports, 63 new overnight stays and 50 new itineraries.

She’ll be visiting destinations never explored by Azamara before, including Antofagasta in Chile and South America’s Beagle Channel, and dropping anchor in small ports such as Saint Tropez. According to Sarah Fowler, the line’s UK head of marketing, well over half of all port calls are at destinations that big ships simply can’t access.

On board Azamara Pursuit you’ll find seven restaurants, cafes and lounges, including steakhouse Prime C. Azamara has also managed to squeeze in a fully equipped wellness centre, complete with its signature Sanctum Spa. Book in for a spa treatment before hitting the Pursuit shop, where you’ll find fine jewellery and watches.

And when it comes to excursions, the new emphasis on total destination immersion means you’ll be able to eat your way round the Basque country’s culinary capital of San Sebastian, board a scenic schooner in Paraty, Brazil, and hike through the incredible Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve in Spain.

Get on Board

10-night ‘Wine & Romance’ cruise aboard Azamara Pursuit, from Lisbon to Southampton via Porto, Bilbao and Bordeaux, departing 14 May 2020, from £2,245,

Small cruise ships, Azamara Pursuit
Azamara Pursuit can take you to the heart of historic port cities

Great for…traditional sailing

CMV Astoria
550 passengers 200 crew
277 cabins 8 decks

It’s not just the five-star lines that operate small cruise ships. Giving guests the chance to experience the wonders of small-ship cruising with an equally modest price tag, Cruise & Maritime Voyages has a fleet of six vessels, including the classic liner Astoria.

Originally built as a transatlantic ocean vessel in the 1940s, Astoria was transformed into a cruise ship in 1994, and now transports just 550 guests around the Baltic states, the Norwegian fjords, the British Isles and Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Packing a lot into her eight decks, she offers big-ship facilities with many entertainment options including the Calypso Show Lounge, a nightclub, cinema, auditorium and casino, as well as a boutique and library.

The Olissipo Restaurant and Lotus Buffet serve ever-popular dishes such as filet mignon and beef Wellington, and there’s also a wellness centre with gym, sauna, spa and beauty salon, as well as a swimming pool and pool bar.

Cabins are on the small size, with just a handful of suites, but the ship offers the great benefit of dedicated accommodation for solo travellers, allowing singles to see the world without parting with their life savings.

With her traditional walk-around promenade deck, Astoria gives a glimpse of the time when liners ruled the waves, and for true ocean-lovers she offers a unique cruising experience.

Get on Board

11-nightTreasures of the Sea of Cortez’ cruise aboard Astoria, round trip from Puerto Penasco, Mexico, via Topolobampo, Cabo San Lucas and Guaymas, departing
9 January 2020, from £1,199,

Small cruise ships, Norwegian fjords
Small-ship cruising is the perfect way to explore the Norwegian fjord

Great for…home comforts

Spirit of Discovery
999 passengers 505 crew
540 cabins 10 decks

Book a cruise aboard Saga’s brand new flagship and you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve wandered into a chic hotel – at least until you step out on to your private ocean-view balcony.

Entering service earlier this year, Spirit of Discovery looks to redefine boutique cruising with chic interiors and restaurants that wouldn’t seem out of place in the world’s most stylish cities.

The experience starts in your cabin, where cramped interiors are a thing of the past. Standard staterooms offer an average 215sq ft of space with a private balcony and ocean view, while elsewhere the choice ranges from single cabins to elegant suites.

As they sail between dream destinations such as Venice and Saint Tropez, guests can choose from a wide selection of dining options including Coast to Coast (seafood) and East to West (modern Asian), along with the opulent Art Deco-style Grand Dining Room and relaxed eatery The Grill.

After dinner, guests can see a show at the 444-seat Playhouse theatre, or enjoy a jazz session over a nightcap at The Club by Jools – an intimate venue designed by Jools Holland himself, who joins selected sailings to perform with his band.

With a lido deck, indoor and outdoor pool and serene on-board spa, Spirit of Discovery is a stylish home-from-home with a distinctly British feel (expect plenty of tea and UK plug sockets).

Get on Board

21-night ‘An Italian Premiere’ cruise aboard Spirit of Discovery, round trip from Southampton via Valletta, Venice and Bari, departing 22 January 2020, from £4,499,

Spirit of Discovery, cruise ship review
Saga’s stylish new Spirit of Discovery is making waves

Great for…a bucket-list celebration

This luxury cruise line has doubled down on the idea of small-ship cruising, with a pair of identical yacht-style ships, SeaDream I & II. A complement of 95 crew to look after just 112 guests ensures that each vessel offers a level of service to rival the Ritz.

So if you’re celebrating a big anniversary – or just fancy treating yourself to a slice of the billionaire lifestyle – here’s a way to enjoy the private yacht experience without the stratospheric cost of owning one.

At just 344ft in length, these ships can take you to destinations with hidden yachting harbours, dropping anchor in smaller ports where conventional cruise vessels simply cannot fit. Greece’s Corinth Canal, the Caribbean paradise of St Barts and glittering St Tropez are all on the agenda, with overnight stays into the bargain.

The onboard cuisine is of the highest quality, with both ships offering a sophisticated menu that reflects the ports they visit. You might expect to enjoy extravagant delights such as l’oeuf poule au caviar ‘surprise’, succulent lobster and tender filet mignon, but you may be surprised to find there is an extensive raw and vegan menu, too.

Naturally you won’t get all the entertainment options of a 6,000-guest megaship – but with SeaDream’s famous Champagne & Caviar Splash party in full swing as you sail through turquoise waters, this is cruising at its most glamorous.

Get on Board

7-night ‘Bridgetown to Bridgetown’ cruise aboard SeaDream I, via St Lucia, Grenada and St Vincent & the Grenadines, departing 9 February 2020, from £2,840,

Want to sail the Corinth Canal? Only a compact vessel will do

Great for…fuss-free sailing

Black Watch
799 passengers 330 crew
423 cabins 10 decks

“Our guests benefit from a more personalised service on a smaller ship where they are more than just a name,” says Fred Olsen’s director of product and customer service, Clare Ward. That’s the experience guests can look forward to aboard the 799-passenger Black Watch, which sails the line’s popular ‘Around the World’ voyage.

Traditional-style Black Watch may be the baby of Fred’s fleet, but she goes big when it comes to entertainment. The only Fred ship to carry RIB boats, tennis courts and a 3D cinema, Black Watch ensures that life on board is anything but dull.

Guests can dine in their choice of five restaurants, relax in any of six bars and lounges, burn off the buffet in four heated saltwater pools and shop in three boutiques.

Reassuringly British in feel, Black Watch is the perfect choice for those looking to explore the world from a familiar base. She is well supplied with comforts such as British plug sockets in all cabins (which also have floor-to-ceiling windows), and to make you feel even more at home, there’s even a flower shop where you can buy beautiful blooms to decorate your stateroom.

Get on Board

11-night ‘Uncovering the Natural Wonders of Iceland’ cruise aboard Black Watch, round trip from Liverpool via Reykjavik, departing 1 September 2020, from £1,699,

Small cruise ships, Black Watch Fred Olsen
Sail around the world on Fred Olsen’s Black Watch

Great for…luxurious surroundings

Silver Muse
596 passengers 411 crew
298 cabins 11 decks

“A small ship can provide a much higher level of passenger experience,” says Peter Shanks, Silversea’s UK managing director – and with 411 crew to look after just 596 passengers, you can tell how seriously service is taken on the line’s flagship, Silver Muse.

This dazzling vessel has the highest number of suites in the fleet, all with marble-clad bathrooms, walk-in wardrobes and the attention of a personal Silversea butler – unheard
of luxuries on a larger vessel.

Your butler can bring you a seven-course feast in your suite, but with eight design-led restaurants on board, who wants to stay in? Without the need for industrial-scale catering, Silversea can offer a delectable choice of gastronomic menus, from the modern Asian cuisine at Indochine to seared fish and meat eaten alfresco at The Grill. Guests can also experience the pleasures of the exclusive Connoisseur’s Corner, which offers rare whiskies and cigars to just a handful of guests.

As a fleet, Silversea sails to an impressive 1,000 destinations, and that’s only possible because of these ships’ small size. Gliding through the world’s waters, Silver Muse offers itineraries in North America, Canada, Asia and Oceania, taking guests to the Great Barrier Reef and the Alaskan glaciers, but also to quirkier, less explored ports such as Indonesia’s Semarang.

Get on Board

16-night ‘Brisbane to Singapore’ cruise aboard Silver Muse, via Airlie Beach, Townsville, Cairns, Bali and Semarang, departing 2 April 2020, from £4,230,

Silver Muse, Owner's Suite, view, sofa
Enjoy luxurious surroundings while on board Silversea’s Silver Muse

Great for…serious explorers

Scenic Eclipse
228 passengers 176 crew
114 suites 10 decks

Few ships have been more eagerly anticipated than Scenic Eclipse. Christened in New York last month by godmother Dame Helen Mirren, and billed as the world’s first ‘discovery yacht’, river operator Scenic’s ocean debutante is surely the sleekest cruise ship around.

Taking just 228 passengers around some of the world’s remotest waters and most sun-drenched dream destinations, Eclipse can slide into tiny ports such as Paros, the idyllic Aegean island of whitewashed villages, and Peru’s Paracas, with its wildlife-rich rugged coastline – both locations that feature on few other lines’ itineraries.

Passengers can enjoy French, pan-Asian and Italian fine dining, zone out in the ship’s spacious Senses Spa and be enlightened and entertained in its 220-seat theatre. Oh, and for the truly intrepid there’s also an onboard helicopter and mini-submarine.

Get on Board

9-night ‘Iceland Discovery’ cruise aboard Scenic Eclipse, round trip from Reykjavik via Isafjordur, Husavik and Seydisfjordur, departing 18 July 2021, from £6,795,

Scenic Eclipse cruise ship
Eclipse has been designed to take you to the remotest ports around the world

Small River Ships

Great for…city lovers

Emerald Harmony
84 passengers 40 crew
42 cabins 4 decks

By their nature, river ships are more alike than their oceangoing counterparts. But that doesn’t mean they’re all the same. Some are purpose-built to take just a handful of guests to the heart of the world’s most desirable destinations.

Savvy cruisers know that a river trip allows them to explore cities from a different angle, and Emerald Harmony has been designed with just that experience in mind.

Fresh from the shipyard, Harmony began sailing on east Asia’s Mekong River earlier this year. Unlike larger vessels – and even some similar-sized rivals – she moors right in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s most enigmatic metropolis. From there she makes her way to the capital, Hanoi, before following the winding Mekong through Cambodia to Siem Reap.

Guests can gaze at magnificent forests and fascinating riverside villages from a spacious pool and sun deck, and every one of the ship’s 42 elegant cabins offers a river view.

When it comes to cuisine, Emerald Waterways has made a real effort to bring the tantalising and evocative flavours of Asia to its onboard Reflections restaurant, which has a menu of locally inspired dishes along with much-loved culinary classics.

Get on Board

14-night ‘Majestic Mekong’ river cruise aboard Emerald Harmony, from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap via My Tho, Sa Dec, Hong Ngu, Long Khanh and Phnom Penh, departing 12 August 2020, from £3,495,

Emerald Harmony's Mekong river
Emerald Harmony’s Mekong cruise takes in the incredible temples of Angkor Wa

Great for…exploring Venice

CroisiEurope Michelangelo
154 passengers 25 crew
78 cabins 3 decks

CrosiEurope’s MS Michelangelo offers something that many other vessels don’t – the chance to cruise unobtrusively through Venice’s magnificent lagoon.

This streamlined 154-passenger ship sails through the stunning Veneto region down the great Po river – the longest in Italy – via postcard-perfect Verona, glitzy Lake Como and vibrant Milan.

Cruisers enjoy comfortable surroundings, with a huge panoramic restaurant and a spacious sun deck. Refurbished in 2017, cabins are smaller than some, at 12m2, but all have river views and an en-suite bathroom.

Perfect for seasoned cruisers looking for a traditional ocean experience on the river, MS Michelangelo offers four- course dinners and daily afternoon teas, along with welcome, farewell and gala evenings on board and onshore – so don’t forget your glad rags.

Get on Board

8-night ‘Milan and Lake Como’ cruise aboard MS Michelangelo, from Milan to Venice via Lake Como, Mantua and Verona, departing 5 June 2020, from £1,814,

Explore Venice’s stunning lagoon aboard CroisiEurope’s Michelangelo

Great for…exceptional service

Road to Mandalay
82 passengers 86 crew
43 cabins 4 decks

If you’re looking for the luxuries of a six-star ocean vessel on a small river ship, there are few better lines than Belmond, a company that operates some of the most exclusive hotels in the world.

Along with grand chateaus and historic palaces (not to mention the Orient Express), its portfolio also includes a collection of perfectly petite river ships. And Road to Mandalay, sailing the Ayeyarwady in Myanmar, offers something truly exceptional.

On this hugely impressive little ship, the crew actually outnumber the guests, so you can expect an unheard-of level of service (you’ll never be far from a chilled drink or cold towel as you’re guided through bespoke excursions to local markets and golden temples).

On board, guests will experience the hospitality that comes with a world-class hotel group, with a choice of five cabin grades, from comfortable and airy singles up to the opulent Governors’ Suite with butler service.

A glittering outdoor pool and spa offers massages to cool passengers between excursions into the steamy landscape, and two restaurants serve up delicious dishes inspired by the cuisine of Thailand, Myanmar, India and Indonesia.

Get on Board

7-night ‘Ayeyarwady Adventure aboard Road to Mandalay, round trip from Mandalay via Ava, Bagan, Mingun and Shwe Kyet Yet, departing 21 October 2020, from £1,959,

Small cruise ships, Road to Mandalay
Discover six-star ocean vessel on a small river ship with Belmond

Great for…architecture lovers

Viking Astrild
98 passengers 28 crew
49 cabins 3 decks

In ancient Nordic culture, Astrild was the goddess of love – and passengers aboard her namesake cruise ship will certainly fall for one of Europe’s most underrated rivers, the Elbe.

With her sleek, Scandi-chic styling, Astrild provides a delightful base for fewer than 100 passengers as they sail through Germany and the Czech Republic, passing medieval castles, Gothic monasteries, Baroque cities and rolling emerald mountains.

Astrild is dubbed the ‘baby longship’, but despite her small size she offers facilities to rival her much larger fleet-mates, including a spacious lounge bar that provides panoramic views through floor-to-ceiling glass doors.

There’s also Viking’s usual Aquavit Terrace – a fabulous outdoor dining venue at the bow of the ship – and somehow they’ve found room for a well-stocked library, so passengers can grab a good book before heading to the sun-soaked top deck (or the shaded sitting area next to an organic herb garden – how Scandi is that?).

Astrild offers her passengers 49 outside staterooms, all with gorgeous river views, including 19 veranda staterooms and two sleek veranda suites. But what makes this ship really special is the fact that she uses 20 to 30 per cent less fuel than her larger sister ships, lessening her impact on the beautiful waters she sails through.

Get on Board

9-night ‘Elegant Elbe’ cruise aboard Viking Astrild, from Prague to Berlin via Dresden and Wittenberg, departing 25 May 2020, from £2,895,

European river cruises: The Elbe Berlin
Berlin’s Baroque cathedral makes a striking view from the Elbe

Best small river ship excursions


  • Enjoy a buggy ride to Katra mosque and a visit to Baranagar village on Uniworld’s Ganges Voyager II. Avalon’s Ganges Voyager I and Pandaw’s Kindat Pandaw offer similar trips.


Don’t miss a balloon ride over the temples of Angkor, Cambodia, with Scenic Spirit. AmaWaterways’ AmaDara and Viking’s Mekong also sail this route.


Eat (and drink) the fruits of the Douro Valley in the village of Pinhao with a sailing on APT’s Douro Serenity. A-Rosa’s Alva and Riviera’s Douro Splendour are also worth considering.


Visit ancient temples on Emerald Waterways’ Hamees. National Geographic’s Sanctuary Sun Boat III and Uniworld’s River Tosca also offer Nile cruises.


Explore the stunning Wachau Valley with Crystal Mozart, Shearing’s Esmerelda or Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Sky.

What do small ships offer

A higher level of customer service, with staff who are more likely to get to know
you personally.
A wider range of excursions due to smaller passenger numbers and less demand.
No queue at the buffet, and more chance of booking into speciality dining.
The chance to explore smaller ports such as Capri, Cannes and St Tropez.
The feeling of staying in a floating boutique hotel.
The chance to meet and properly get to know passengers with similar interests to your own.