8 small cruise ships that are big on luxury, intimacy and adventure

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in May 2016.

CNN  — 

It may have been the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. Setting sail aboard the Star Flyer out of Athens in the middle of the night was serene and dreamy.

A gourmet meal, a cocktail (or two) and I was ready to collapse in my quarters.

The Star Flyer – a four-masted, 16-sail luxury sailing ship – holds only 170 passengers maximum (and there weren’t that many on my trip). But it offers the deluxe amenities of the larger cruise ships combined with the romance and adventure of a time-tested, fully rigged vessel that draws its power from the wind.

I awoke early the next day, nearly dawn, and wandered up on deck. A busy international crew, few who spoke English, had us well under sail.

On the horizon, Turkey, where Kusadasi would be our first port of call, with guided trips to Ephesus, of biblical fame, and the reputed final home of Jesus’ mother Mary.

Someone handed me hot coffee. The sun rose over the Aegean Sea. It all felt right and timeless.

An eight-day cruise like this around the Mediterranean and Aegean offers a much grander sense of adventure and smaller onboard population than larger engine-powered cruise lines.

Here are eight ships, scattered around the planet, that’ll sail passengers to a more exclusive cruise vacation.

1. Star Flyer

The Star Flyer offers a casually elegant way to island-hop round the Med.

This four-masted ship, 360 feet long, holds a crew of 72 and 170 passengers, many of whom will become close mates by the end of the trip.

It’s casual elegance aboard ship, with comfortable cabins, open-seating dining, two swimming pools and other amenities.

But it’s the dynamics of feeling the pull of 16 full sails trimmed for maximum speed in open water that will have passengers giggling and singing their own sea shanty.

Standing on the teak deck, there’s a sense of old adventure and new discovery.

The Star Flyer offers island-hopping throughout the Mediterranean in the summer and heads to the Caribbean from November to April.

Day trips are educationally fun, with stops at salty tavernas complete with retsina and ouzo, Greek orthodox churches, ancient Greek ruins and postcard-worthy villages and ports.

Nothing beats the view of your harbored sailing vessel from atop a Greek hill.

Star Clippers; +1 800 442 0551

2. Diamant

The 100-foot Diamant schooner visits ports in the Windward Islands.

Island Windjammers’ Caribbean-based Diamant is one of three tall-masted ships the company operates.

Twelve passengers will enjoy a laid back version of playing adult hooky, in a truly relaxed fashion.

From its home port in St. George’s, Grenada, the 100-foot schooner follows the Windward Islands, visiting a selection of ports.

“We have found the perfect mix,” says Shannon Manno, part of the all-woman company based in Florida. “Good food, great cabins, good quality.

“We’ll have your feet on the sand 20 minutes after breakfast. You’ll visit villages, walk on the beach, or see a turtle sanctuary.”

Underwater boat lights that “attract cool fishies,” says Manno, and a night swim with a rope swing will cap the perfect day. Plus there’s no Wi-Fi onboard.

“We encourage face-to-face socializing,” adds Manno. “And we’re happy about that. It’s chill and laid back.”

This is less formal than certainly any large cruise ship, and significantly more relaxed than other tall-masted or alternative cruises. “The Diamant,” says Manno, “is its own world.”

Island Windjammers; +1 877 772 4549

3. Wind Star

Capt. Belinda Bennett: "There are some fabulous places."

Captain Belinda Bennett has the perfect schedule – summers in the Mediterranean, winters in the Caribbean.

In addition to being the first female and first black captain in Windstar’s history, she is the first black female captain in the commercial cruise industry.

She guides the Wind Star, a 360-foot yacht that feels like a personal pleasure craft.

A 100-person crew attends to the 148 passengers who bunk in 73 well-appointed staterooms (plus one deluxe 220-square-foot owner’s suite, complete with ocean view).

And sure, the Wind Star offers a spa, a watersports platform, a casino, lounge, library, pool and absolutely gourmet dining, but its charms run deeper.

It’s luxury at a relaxed pace. The wind pulls and pushes the ship toward endless adventure, whether it’s the Mediterranean or Caribbean. It’s active travel.

“There are some fabulous places,” offers Capt. Bennett, “that cruise ships like Wind Star call at whereby you get to see multiple cities and islands you would not normally see by staying in one place.”

Windstar Cruises; +1 877 958 7689

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4. La Estrella Amazonica

La Estrella Amazonica carries a maximum of 31 guests.

La Estrella Amazonica, under the guidance of expedition leader and naturalist Dennis Osorio, is engine-driven, and plies the Amazon River in Peru.

The rustic 139-foot craft has an open-air top sun deck for meals and drinks, and three cabin options for its maximum 31 guests.

According to Osorio, a Peruvian with 30 years experience who’s been with International Expeditions for 11 years, there are only two typical days aboard the boat: arrival day and departure day.

In between, passengers marvel at the wonders of the Amazon River: its people, its wildlife, its very nature.

If there’s a “typical” day it runs like this. Before it gets too hot, there’s usually a trip to look for wildlife like birds, monkeys and sloths. After breakfast, a morning excursion explores riverbanks, creeks and isolated lakes.

In the heat of the day, passengers enjoy lunch aboard La Estrella, a siesta, and a short-but-informative late-afternoon nature talk.

Then it’s back aboard the skiffs for more Amazon exploration.

Nights include gourmet dinners, often with local fare, and entertainment provided by crew who double as musicians.

Passengers are encouraged to bring school-supply donations for local schools that they visit and International Expeditions helps with water treatment and other partnership programs.

“We help maintain a quality of life for the locals,” says Osorio. “We’re not here to change lifestyles.”

Osorio clearly loves the mighty Amazon. Its basin is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, includes nine South American countries, and contains one of the biggest forests on the planet.

“It’s the experience of a lifetime. The river is vast, and there are not many companies going there. It’s a personal experience, feeling the spirit of the forest. It’s living a dream.”

IE Travel; +1 844 547 2421

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5. The Mandalay

Mandalay visits less explored parts of the Caribbean.

Once part of the Barefoot Windjammer empire, the Mandalay – a 236-foot, three-masted sailing vessel built in 1923 – was purchased by its former captain and an ardent passenger, and now sails under the auspice of Sail Windjammer.

Says Tiffany Mitchell, daughter of that ardent passenger and who now works for the company: “They have a love for and wanted to preserve this type of sailing.”

Mitchell says Mandalay offers an historical sailing experience to “less touristy” parts of the Caribbean that larger cruise ships usually pass by.

“You’re not herded off the boat,” she says. “You get to know the crew, locals and fellow passengers. Everybody leaves with a new friend.”

Sailing aboard the Mandalay defines “laid back,” where passengers can do as much or as little as they choose.

The vessel holds 58 passengers total, with a crew of roughly 20.

With a flexible itinerary, there’s plenty of room for adventure, exploration and relaxation.

Meals often feature local delights. There are sandwiches, barbecues and beer on the beach, Bloody Marys and sticky buns for breakfast and Rum Swizzles and snacks at happy hour.

A favorite spot on the Grenada trip for Mitchell includes the Tobago Cays, a protected marine park, where the ship stops for swims with sea turtles followed by a beach lunch under palm trees.

An added treat is the holler for volunteer hands on deck to help raise sails.

Passenger Neil Sawyer says an active itinerary and great fellow passengers blew away his fears about being stuck with strangers, reading books and staring out to sea.

“It’s not one of the floating cities on the sea where you get lost in the crowd and can sometimes forget that you’re even on water,” he says.

“This is for those who want to feel the experience deeply, to immerse themselves into the culture of the islands and the life at sea.”

Sail Windjammer; +1 888 972 7245

6. Queen of the West

The Queen of the West's cruises retraces explorations by Lewis and Clark.

Many may know the romance and lore of Mississippi sternwheelers through Mark Twain, but the clunky paddlewheel is no stranger to America’s Pacific Northwest.

The Queen of the West, a four-deck, 120-capacity authentic sternwheeler, churns the waters of the mighty Columbia and Snake rivers in Oregon and Washington.

Operating May through September, the Queen went through a major overhaul in 2011, gaining expanded staterooms, more private balconies and custom-built furniture.

Cruises retrace parts of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery expedition on both the Columbia and Snake rivers, with specific L&C-themed cruises offered.

The themed cruise offers stops at Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark and company camped before heading back to their home base in St. Louis.

There are views of Multnomah Falls and the spires that line both sides of the Columbia, with history experts on hand to offer insight on the famed expedition.

Local wildlife and stunning geologic landforms abound. Scenic wonder, coupled with a truly leisurely pace, affords the traveler an unrivaled look at America’s Northwest corner.

American Cruise Lines; +1 800 460 4518

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7. Eye of the Wind

Passengers on the Eye of the Wind are invited to take the lead in sailing it.

There’s a unique twist to the 104-year-old, 132-foot brig Eye of the Wind.

“The main purpose of our operations,” says company spokesperson Ina Trumpfheller, “is to keep the principles of sail training and the traditional way of seamanship alive, and to inspire as many people as possible with the beauty of this old yet elegant sailing legend.”

The Eye is internationally certified as a sail-training vessel.

While all 12 passengers – yes, a mere 12 – can enjoy all that sailing aboard a luxury yacht offers, its real charm is its educational sail training.

During a cruise, all participants who care to volunteer (and some charter cruises specifically designed for groups) literally take over the lead on board.

They’ll steer the ship, plan all sailing maneuvers and set the sails, all under the guidance and supervision of the experienced crew members and trainers.

“It’s fun and adventure in a sea breeze,” says Trumpfheller.

“We call it practical learning with all senses!”

Eye of the Wind; +49 8233 381 227

8. Sea Cloud

The Sea Cloud was built in 1931.

Some call the Sea Cloud legendary.

It’s a four-masted barque built in 1931 in Kiel, Germany, at the request of Wall Street tycoon E.F. Hutton.

There’s a certain glamor, a mystique, an authenticity about this vessel that captures the sense of open-sea adventure for its 64 passengers.

“Our international guests are joined by a certain attitude,” says Hamburg, Germany-based Sea Cloud Cruises spokesperson Julia Eble.

“They are of all age groups. They love to be close to nature, they love the elements and the wind in their hair.”

Both the Sea Cloud and Sea Cloud II (a larger version of the Sea Cloud) offer an intimate atmosphere with the opportunity for a genuine sailing experience.

The Sea Cloud offers two luxurious owner’s cabins, and several deluxe and dual-bed original cabins, many outfitted in period elegance.

Guests enjoy several meals throughout the day, as well as shore trips during various itineraries throughout European waters.

In winter, both ships are in the Middle Americas and the Caribbean.

Sea Cloud Cruises; +49 40 30 95 92 50

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Don Campbell is a Pacific Northwest freelance writer and editor who specializes in travel, entertainment and business. Find him at www.campbellcommunications.com and tweet him @doncam.