Not a fan of cruise ships? Sail down the Amazon River, travel Norway's Fjords, or island-hop in the Caribbean without the crowds and buffets of a major cruise liner.
If you’ve ever drawn gasps from a horrified crowd with “I don’t like cruises,” then this article is for you. The massive modern cruise ship industry isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Even before COVID-19, the idea of setting sail with Norovirus nightmare stories, questionable ethics, social directors, and daunting environmental impacts turned off sustainable and slow travelers, rights activists, and introverts. Despite the drawbacks of big cruises, there is a certain magic in pulling up to port at a new destination. Those who steer clear of the big ships don’t have to miss out. These top cruising alternatives offer do-it-yourself options for classic routes, new destinations, authenticity, a reduced carbon footprint, and don’t shake down the local economies. Time to set sail!
Top Picks for You
Alaska Marine Highway
Fjords, glaciers, forests, and historic towns are the backdrop for this classic Alaska cruise route. Unlike other cruise liners, state-run Alaska Marine Highway is a do-it-yourself dream for those who want to step outside of the floating metropolis feel of major cruise ships. Bring your car or bike or walk right onto this ferry system, jumping off and on as you like. Routes stretch from the Seattle area to the adventurous Aleutian Islands, stopping by popular cruise destinations like Sitka, Ketchikan, and Juneau, while also giving independent travelers access to off-the-grid communities for more authentic experiences. Whether you stay in a cabin or set up camp on deck chairs in the solarium under the stars, you get the glories of Alaska on your schedule.
Tucano Motor Yacht
WHERE: The Amazon
When venturing to a place as fragile as the Amazon, responsible ecotourism should be top of mind. The Nature Tours Tucano Motor Yacht expedition cruises check all the boxes, focusing on ecological and cultural conservation with three decades of experience. Their six-day cruise departs from Manaus, Brazil, and takes adventurers into the UNESCO World Heritage Central Amazon Conservation Complex to see some of the most untouched areas of the rainforest. With only nine staterooms, the river yacht gives guests a sustainably intimate experience of the Amazon River. The expedition has at least four optional excursions a day, including kayaking, guided row tours, and minimally invasive hikes to spot wildlife and visit local Amazonian communities. The ship hugs the shoreline, looking for wildlife like monkeys, sloths, giant anteaters, and anacondas.
Star Ship Clippers
WHERE: Southeast Asia
The Star Ship Clipper’s tall ships sail worldwide like the armadas of the past, but this route from Thailand to Singapore is a standout option. The Andaman Sea’s crystal clear and turquoise waters show off some of Thailand’s best coral reefs under limestone cliffs and tropical forests. Sixteen enormous sails help propel the clipper along, offering the 166 guests onboard promises of a laid-back vibe. Along the way, scuba or snorkel in Thailand’s famous waters and explore national parks and historical sites before ending the trip in Singapore.
Nour El Nil
WHERE: The Nile
The Nile courses through Egypt connecting past to present, and there is no better way to experience it than on the opulent dahabiya of Nour El Nil. The dahabiyas’ six-day cruises travel some of the lesser toured areas of the Nile River to see soaring temples, mountain valleys, islands, and hieroglyphics between Esna and Aswan with more flexibility than a larger ship. The size of the dahabiyas means Nour El Nil’s tours can go through narrow points in the river, giving you access to areas that are off-limits to larger cruise ships, which means you are likely to be the only visitors in the ancient Gebel Silsileh.
Virgin Islands Ferries
WHERE: The Caribbean
It’s hard to beat the traditional cruise ship deals when it comes to sailing around the Caribbean, but ferry hopping gives you more freedom to explore without the cost of a private yacht. In the U.S. and the British Virgin Islands, ferries travel to all the major islands, even connecting to Puerto Rico. Check out Tortola’s shipwreck dives or St. Croix’s 200 acres of underwater trails, or maybe visit the crystalline waves and white sands of Virgin Gorda. Regardless, now you can stay the night and see a new side of the Caribbean when the day-trippers leave.
WHERE: West Africa
For those looking for something outside-of-the-box, these seven-night sails from Variety Cruises travel the coast and rivers of Senegal and the Gambia in West Africa. The route passes by four natural reserves, offering ample opportunity to connect with nature during your journey. After swimming off the yacht, motorboats take guests deep into waterways before joining a wildlife safari. The diverse habitat holds West African manatees, crocodiles, Guinea baboons, bushbucks, warthogs, Senegal bush babies, and marsh mongoose. Near the end of the cruise, the group spends a day touring Kunta Kinteh Island—the forcible departure point for hundreds of thousands of abducted and enslaved Africans—and a UNESCO World Heritage Site and memorial to the region’s people.
Everglades Eco Safaris
Just north of Australia’s Gold Coast lies one of only two everglades systems in the world. Everglades Eco Safaris takes travelers along the River of Mirrors with a combination of riverboats, canoeing, and glamping. While other areas in Queensland’s tropics are more famous, the Everglades hosts more than 44% of Australia’s bird species in this small region, boasting more than Kakadu National Park. As a bonus, you can swim in these everglades without the risk of running into a crocodile.
Blue Star Ferries
The seas around Greece are full of islands waiting for adventurers. Beyond the overrun favorites of Mykonos, Corfu, and of course, Santorini, Blue Star Ferries takes you to over 50 far-flung destinations. Most travelers set sail from Piraeus, just outside of Athens. Like several others on this list, this is not your short-haul ferry. Blue Star Ferries offers indoor bars and cafes, private and shared air-conditioned cabins, deck chairs, or “aircraft type seats” for a cheap sleep. Beat some crowds and head out to the turquoise waters of Ikaria, the picture-perfect beaches of Milos, or the classic whitewashed windmills of Leros.
WHERE: The Galápagos Islands
All cruises to the Galápagos are small, but with Ecoventura, guests can rest assured that the luxury expedition is one of the most prestigious names in conservation and sustainability. Ecoventura maintains economic relations with the islands themselves, holds certifications in strict conservation standards, and partners with all local foundations so you know you’re in good ecotourism hands. Enjoy spotting some of the world’s most unique species endemic to the Galápagos while you snorkel, scuba, kayak, or paddleboard in the surrounding waters or hike on the secluded islands.
WHERE: The Philippines
The Philippines boasts another self-styled cruise with its massive network of ferries and routes offering everything from smaller bangkas and “fast crafts,” to the larger ROROs (roll-on, roll-off car ferries), and the multi-decked, long-haul carriers, 2Go ferries. Book ahead for private rooms, shared bunk rooms, or grab a bunk in an expansive open economy room. With a sun deck, cafe, food court, salon, convenience store, and bar, this ship gets the job done as you go to the greater appeal: the islands themselves. Try remote Malascupa’s bucket list diving, Bohol’s beehive mountains and forests, or step into Palawan’s gorgeous screensaver-like backdrops.
Intrepid Travel's Sailing Cruise
WHERE: The French Riviera
Intrepid Travel is a certified B-Corp and international specialist in responsible small group travel. Their eight-day cruise along the French Riviera sails along the coast of Provence, taking in glitzy ports like St. Tropez and Cannes, as well as relaxed island jaunts. The Cote d’Azur’s famed cuisine is a centerpiece of the tour, and there is plenty of time for exploring towns, hiking, biking, swimming, and snorkeling.
The Hurtigruten Express
Since 1893, Hurtigruten has been connecting the coastal towns of Norway that the railway couldn’t reach. The company now has cruises around the globe, but the class remains Norway’s Coastal Express, on offer both as a full cruise or a port-to-port approach. The latter is still a part of everyday life in Norway, with citizens traveling the lines as much as tourists do. The “world’s most beautiful sea voyage” covers 34 ports over 12 days, allowing you to build your own cruise. Don’t miss the famously jaw-dropping Geirangerfjord section or Hammerfest, which is dubbed the “the northernmost town in the world.”
WHERE: New Zealand
In the southwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island, is the gorgeous setting for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Many day ferries and small cruises sail the sounds of Fiordland, but this cruise takes you into the wild corners of Fiordland National Park to find bottlenose dolphins, seals, and penguins. Wild Fiordland has two to five-night cruising options in their sixty-foot vessel, complete with a library, saloon, and an all-weather glazed glass viewing house. Twelve guests kayak and hike amongst lush rainforests, waterfalls, granite peaks, and remote islands.
Conscious travel and a transparent commitment to sustainability are essential for this polar explorer, making Quark Expeditions one of the best Antarctic cruise options available. Its activity offerings seal the deal: hike, kayak, paddleboard, cruise in a small boat, or take a polar plunge. Quark provides all the gear and set up for overnight camping under the Antarctic sky for the truly adventurous.
Long Distance Ferries
Japan’s ferry system covers a vast number of islands with several different companies and, while flights are faster, these take you deeper into Japanese culture. You’ll find few foreign tourists on these massive long-haul ships, but plenty of families enjoying hotel-like conveniences as you travel overnight. The most accessible grand tour takes in the four main islands with stops at Tokyo, Shikoku, Kyushu, Kansai, and Hokkaido. Your ferry ride will give you a bit of everything, including historical culture, city life, traditional onsens, and mountain retreats.