Specialty cruise: kayakers with cruise ship in background
A specialty cruise line like Paul Gauguin Cruises offers a more intimate, exotic experience than larger ships can

Think about a cruise, and you’ll likely imagine a large ship with thousands of passengers sailing the Caribbean or Mediterranean.

But a whole other world of cruising awaits you. Many cruise lines offer small-ship voyages, so you’re one of a few hundred (or less) passengers rather than a few thousand.

A specialty cruise offers a very different experience. And more and more people are seeking it out. Specialty cruising has been growing by double digits in recent years. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, the cruise segment has grown 21% from 2009 to 2014.

You’ll experience adventures far and wide

Expedition lines sail to less-visited destinations where nature and active outdoor explorations are front and center. They offer onboard experts in the destinations and provide extensive opportunities for onshore exploration.

“Cruises like these are experiences that enrich you, that expand your horizons — that change your life,” says Susana Romero, senior manager for sales marketing and brand development with Celebrity Xpedition.

Specialty cruise: people on beach with seals
Expedition cruises, like those on board Celebrity Xpedition, get travelers up close and personal with nature

Celebrity Cruises, known for large-ship cruises, created Celebrity Xpedition 10 years ago to satisfy growing demand for adventurous travelers. Its ship is permanently stationed in the Galapagos Islands. The Celebrity Xpedition holds just 98 passengers. It’s designed for environmentally friendly Galapagos explorations. Each night naturalists bring alive the sights and significance of the islands for passengers.

Another cruise line with specialty offerings is Silversea Cruises. Its three Expeditions ships venture to all seven continents. They visit more unusual cruise destinations such as the Arctic, Russia’s Far East, and the west coast of Africa. Silversea Expeditions provide curious travelers with an immersion in the nature and culture of the lands they visit.

Susan Kelly, a Virtuoso travel advisor in Raleigh, North Carolina, will never forget her specialty cruise experience: “Our small ship stopped for an hour to watch a mother and baby humpback whale breaching — while a big ship was hightailing it to port, missing everything.”

Specialty cruise: river cruise ship
River cruises like AmaWaterways are a very popular way to experience smaller ports

You’ll dock in the heart of town

River cruising has taken off in popularity in the past decade. Small, luxurious ships are able to dock in the heart of historic towns and less-visited sites. Experts guide shore excursions with plenty of local flavor and culture. Passengers can view communities and their natural settings from the comfort of their staterooms as the ship sails along the river.

AmaWaterways takes passengers along the great rivers of Europe. It also ventures to exotic locations such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Africa. One of its many complimentary amenities for passengers are bicycles to explore every port.

Avalon Waterways offers spacious staterooms and a large assortment of shore excursions including VIP entrance into must-see sites. In addition to European and Asian river destinations, the line offers cruises to the Amazon and Galapagos.

“It’s all about the outdoors,” says Nancy Cutter, a Virtuoso travel advisor in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It’s about eating outside, it’s about playing outside. We’re able to visit the smaller ports, get into places a large cruise ship could never take you.”

Specialty cruise: couple eating breakfast
Attentive personal service on specialty cruise lines like SeaDream Yacht Club is part of the appeal

You’ll enjoy luxury at a relaxing pace

Ships on a specialty cruise line provide luxuries upscale travelers expect, such as fine dining and wines, spas and staterooms with tasteful décor and modern amenities. Because each ship generally holds only 100 to 300 passengers, specialty cruising also provides a low-key, relaxing experience. No long lineups for food, no fighting crowds to disembark in port.

Another benefit of the small-ship experience: getting to know your fellow passengers. Cutter recommends specialty cruising for people who enjoy social interactions. “I’ve had so many clients return from their small-ship cruises and tell me about the people they’ve met and the friendships they’ve formed,” she said.

The two ships of the all-inclusive Paul Gauguin Cruises specialize in warm-weather destinations and special itineraries that bigger ships can’t match. The Paul Gauguin was designed for the shallow seas of French Polynesia and Southeast Asia. The Moana summers in Europe and winters in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Specialty cruise: Star Clippers tall ship
Star Clippers provides an experience that combines the historic and modern

Star Clippers combines the romance of tall-ship sailing with modern luxuries. Its three clipper ships are the world’s tallest and largest. Passengers can help raise the sails, learn how to tie knots, discover how to navigate – and even climb the ship’s mast to the Crow’s Nest for stunning views.

Windstar Cruises offers passengers their choice of experiences: an intimate sailing yacht voyage or a small-ship journey with just 212 guests on board. Its ships cruise to 50 countries, calling at 150 of the world’s best small ports and hidden harbors throughout Europe, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, Central America, Arabia and Asia.

The voyages SeaDream Yacht Club offers are like being on your own mega-yacht. With only 112 passengers per sailing, SeaDream offers close to a 1:1 ratio of crew to guests. Its ships sail the Mediterranean, Caribbean and trans-Atlantic crossing. Active guests can enjoy a water sports marina offering water skiing, stand-up paddle boarding, snorkeling and sailing.

You can customize your specialty cruise experience

Because specialty cruise lines are small, they’re flexible. They can create a special experience just for you. One example: Paul Gauguin Cruises provides a private dinner for two, beginning with a moonlight sail and ending with a candlelight dinner.

Specialty cruise: Windstar sailing ship in Mediterranean
A specialty cruise is the ideal way to celebrate a life milestone with family and friends

Many specialty cruise lines offer theme voyages, such as wine, art, photography or music. Kelly recommends that people with “an interest in food, in wine, in active onshore experiences” consider a specialty cruise.

A specialty cruise is also the perfect venue for celebrating a milestone birthday or anniversary. “Go with family and friends on a scheduled voyage or charter a yacht for a private experience,” suggests Gretchen Bell, vice president of sales at SeaDream Yacht Club. “We have clients who charter the SeaDream for 100 people to celebrate a 50th or 60th birthday. They don’t want things — they want experiences and memories with their families and friends.”

You’ll find great value

At first glance, the cost of a specialty cruise may seem higher than a traditional cruise. But passengers on specialty ships enjoy exceptional value.

“The entry-level cabin on a small-ship cruise will often exceed the standards for the premium cabin on a larger ship,” Cutter points out. “The small-ship cruise includes beverages and specialty dining. Many specialty cruises are all-inclusive, so the client spends less out of pocket and doesn’t feel nickeled and dimed.”

Another way to receive great value is to partner with a Virtuoso travel advisor who specializes in cruising. They can help you decide which line is right for you and plan an unforgettable experience.

Have you been on a specialty cruise? Feel free to share a memory from your vacation that made this style of travel a not-to-be-missed experience.