Don't consider yourself a cruise person? Think again. There's far more to the cruise industry these days than cheesy ports of call and Vegas-meets-megamall design.
What if you could enjoy the benefits of a cruise — all-inclusive pricing, varied itineraries, knowledgeable guides —along with the freedom that comes with your own landlubber adventures? We've rooted out the ships that will tempt even the most hardened cruise carper, from an eco-friendly boat that floats amid hippos to hands-on Antarctic adventures, forward-thinking design on the Amazon, and cruises for foodies with Jacques Pépin on board. It's time to hit the high seas.
Fine design in the wilds of Peru
Wide berth: For nature-loving sophisticates with a fear of canned shore excursions and generic design, try Aqua Expeditions in Peru.
Smooth sailing: The 130-foot M/V Aqua feels like a loft that's been plucked out of Tribeca and dropped in the Amazon. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls open onto the unruly wilds of the river, which you explore safari-style each day with naturalists who bring you face-to-face with pink river dolphins, iguanas, and sloths. At night, guests (24 at most) relax in an on-deck lounge that wouldn't look out of place in a swanky resort, with white sail-like canopies and toffee and cream daybeds for two. The natural materials on display indoors — custom furniture made from South American hardwoods, Brazilian slate walls — are an ordered version of the Amazonian habitat right outside your picture windows. Just goes to show that you don't have to give up the comforts of the city when you set sail for the wild. Info: Aqua Expeditions, 866-603-3687
The Caribbean without the crowds
Wide berth: Try the Seadream Yacht Club for laid-back travelers who like the all-taken-care-of (and paid for) cruise but don't want to be herded through mass-produced dinners and shopping-mall ports of call.
Smooth sailing: Seadream Yacht Club takes what's best about a Caribbean cruise and scales it down to a more personal level. Instead of sailing on a floating city with thousands of other passengers, you share Seadream's more manageable 344-foot ships with just over 100 guests (and a nearly equal number of staff — how's that for service?). The smaller vessels can navigate more varied ports of call, and the captain often leads shore excursions to out-of-the-way seafood shacks or docks the boat overnight so passengers can get a taste of island nightlife. Onboard, there are under-the-stars movies, a small casino and a bar but no overstuffed roster of activities, so you get the unstructured allure of a beach getaway and effortless island-hopping from the comfort of your floating luxury hotel. Info: Seadream Yacht Club, 800-707-4911
Culture vultures in the Nile
Wide berth: For modern-day explorers who feel cruises keep you from truly engaging with a destination, consider the Nour El Nil in Egypt.
Smooth sailing: Sometimes your mode of transport can be as much of a cultural experience as the place you're visiting — think train travel in India or the subway in New York. This is especially true on the world's most famous river.
When Egypt first opened up to Western travel in the 19th century, bohemian types like Gustave Flaubert took to the Nile on majestic dahabiyya. The grand double-masted ships made leisurely sails upriver from Luxor to the ancient city of Aswan, stopping at crumbling temples and crypts along the way.
Nour El Nil's red-and-white–sailed boats re-create these experiences for up to 20 passengers, eschewing motors for the leisurely pace set by the gentle Nile winds. Staff buy fish and produce from small farms on the banks to create traditional Egyptian meals served on deck. And though the hieroglyphs and dunes, villages and temples, you see along the way are awe-inspiring, you'll get even more from tapping into the rhythms of the great river. Info: Nour El Nil, 20 1 06 57 83 22
Adventure junkies on the high seas
Wide berth: For intrepid explorers who need even more adventure than the rock walls and zip lines on modern cruise ships, try the REI Antarctica Icebreaker Cruise.
Smooth sailing: Vessels plying the waters around Antarctica are made to take a bruisin' and keep on cruisin', with reinforced hulls designed to withstand the hidden dangers of icebergs. On REI sailings, you'll set out with a crew of ornithologists, geologists, glaciologists and lots of other "ists" and study everything from ice-chart reading to digital photography. Helicopters swoop you above the ice pack, and Zodiac boats bring you face-to-face with seals lounging on ice floes. You'll visit remote research stations and hike expansive snowfields. In short, this is a cruise for people who think "vacation" and "expedition" should be one and the same. Info: REI Antarctica Icebreaker Cruise, 800-622-2236
Been there, sailed that
Wide berth: Geographic Expeditions in Myanmar is for been-there-done-that types who sailed to Bequia a decade ago and think Mauritius is so 2009.
Smooth sailing: The impenetrable jungles of the Mergui Archipelago, a chain of 800 islands dotted over 10,000 square miles off the southern coast of Myanmar, did not open to tourism until 1997, and much of this territory has yet to be explored. The total lack of tourist infrastructure means that you have to carry it with you, so Geographic Expeditions' Silolona is well equipped for the task, with dive equipment and guides who will take you below the surface to swim with whale sharks, ghost pipefish and ribbon eels, or onshore in search of tigers and the elusive Sumatran rhinoceros. The only other souls you're likely to encounter on these excursions are the Salones, a nomadic people who fish the local waters. Exclusivity comes at a price, though: This 13-day charter cruise for you and 11 of your closest friends will set you back $250,000. But can you really put a price on bragging rights? Info: Geographic Expeditions, 800-777-8183
Cruise cuisine done right
Wide berth: Oceania Cruises in Europe is for gourmands seasick at the thought of all-you-can-eat smorgasbords and insipid cruise cuisine.
Smooth sailing: Oceania Cruises' Marina will set sail in winter 2011 with eight restaurants, a wine-tasting center and a culinary studio equipped with 22 individual workstations complete with stoves, induction cooktops, and other state-of-the-art cooking equipment for classes designed in part by Bon Appétit. Expect a full slate of celeb chef guests and shore excursions featuring market tours, private tastings at vineyards, and access to the kitchens of famous restaurants. If your stomach is already grumbling, you can join chef Jacques Pépin on board the Oceania Insignia this August to eat your way from Copenhagen to Lisbon with stops in Amsterdam, Bordeaux, and Bilbao. Pépin will be giving classes and lectures as well as designing the ship's menus. Finally, a cruise that's worth its calorie count. Info: Oceania Cruises, 800-531-5658
Going green on the Chobe
Wide berth: The Zambezi River Queen in Botswana is for eco-cruisaders who don't want their trip to harm the areas they visit.
Smooth sailing: The Zambezi River Queen is the first cruise ship to ply the wild waters of the Chobe River, between Botswana and Namibia, and it does so via water jets that prevent damage to the riverbed and surrounding wildlife, including the elephants, giraffes and lions that come to drink by the river's banks. Solar panels generate hot water for the 14 cabins; energy-saving lights eliminate noise from generators (and ensure that hippos and crocs swim by undisturbed); and the plunge pool is filled with filtered river water. So you can sail in and out of Africa with your conscience intact. Info: Zambezi River Queen, 27 21 438 0032