One of the biggest trends in high-end cruising is extremely small. It’s the opposite, in some ways, of everything you’d expect, even from a luxury cruise brand.

It’s all about tiny, independently owned ships, boats, and barges—floating boutique hotels, if you will. Unlike conventional small ships, which can carry as many as 1,000 guests, these consist of just a handful of rooms on water. And while the boats from large companies are often designed to rotate through a number of destinations, these are location-specific, giving them a sense of place that only land-bound counterparts can claim. 

Some are family-owned. Others are parts of companies blazing the trail for this yacht-like movement. (Think Aqua Expeditions, which redefined Amazon River cruising when it was founded in 2007.) All of them ditch old-school looks for light-filled contemporary aesthetics, put a premium on ambitious food and beverage programs, and play up the “experiential” elements of travel—whether that means a Tibetan “singing bowl” meditation in Vietnam, mountain biking in Norway, or a private winery visit in Burgundy, France.

The fact that they don’t come with a recognizable luxury brand name—such as Silversea or Regent Seven Seas—is part of the reason why consumers are gravitating to them. What they lack in amenity-rich square footage—think multiple dining rooms and sun decks—they make up for in intimacy and personality. 

“These are for a different population of traveler looking for exclusive experiences,” says Susan Farewell, owner of Farewell Travels, a Connecticut-based travel designer. “It’s getting there and exploring in a way people have not done before.”  

Industry experts such as Farewell are reaping the benefits, too—they’re the conduit that most travelers need to find one-off pearls in places as disperse and tricky to navigate as Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, the Nile, and western Norway.

A few other agents with this type of expertise work out of larger tour outfits, including Red Savannah and Adventure Life. But in general, there’s a limited number of travel agencies equipped to meet these new demands. “It’s a small universe of people that are plugged in to these types of experiences,” Farewell says. “We are in touch—the frontline of knowledge.”

That said, here are the best options we’ve discovered so far. Consider it the minimum amount of hand-holding for the curious DIYer, or a primer to help you pick a direction before outsourcing the rest.

Vietnam, In French Colonial Style
Exploring Lan Ha Bay (a less-visited extension of the limestone cliff-lined Ha Long Bay) has recently become much more tempting, thanks to the debut of the three-sail, wellness-focused Ylang. Its 10 individually designed, balconied suites bear intricate woodwork and inlaid flower panels made by local artisans, and bathrooms have tubs with bay views. With cushy rattan furnishings and original artwork throughout the public spaces, tai chi classes on the top deck each morning, and cycling excursions to visit the 80-household Viet Hai village, it all adds up to a modern take on a bygone era. Two-night sailings from $1,200 per person.

Norway, On A Former Minesweeper
It was born in 1973 as one of the last wooden Swedish warships and then became a passenger ship. Today, the HMS Gassten has been meticulously restyled by a handful of former patrons who wanted to bring intrepid guests deep into Norway’s western fjords. Its five cabins now have shiplap walls, exposed beams, plaid throw blankets, and heated towel racks, though some will sleep in bunk beds. Upstairs, the oak-paneled salon is a warm space for dining and socializing. Charter the ship in summer for hiking and biking, or in winter for extreme skiing. Six-night summertime charters via Red Savannah from £37,500 ($48,700).

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