Our World Expedition cruising: Top 7 boutique cruise ships

Hurtigruten ship MS Nordkapp.
Picture: John Borthwick

Modern mega-ships not quite your style? From Norway to South-East Asia to Western Australia's North West, these smaller vessels will take you far beyond the standard itineraries. 

1. Mergui’s Maritime Shangri-La

“Parts of this archipelago are still so uncharted that at times we’ve anchored off an island that isn’t yet on the map,” says the chef. As our 25-metre ketch sets sail from Kawthaung in southern Myanmar for the Mergui Islands, he adds, “Turn your watches back half an hour and 200 years.” A live-aboard cruise is the only way to visit these 800, mostly uninhabited islands along Myanmar’s Andaman coast. During our six-day cruise the only other vessels we see are Moken “sea gypsy” canoes and by night the green lure lights of squid boats. 

Ashore, unseen in the jungle hills are hornbills, macaque, gibbon and mouse deer. This is not yet an Eden in retreat. At Jarr Lan Island, sea gypsy children charge out to greet us in dugout canoes. Their ancestors have inhabited these coasts for millennia and some 3000 Moken still live in the archipelago. Each day we swim, snorkel or beach walk on a new island. At times when you paddle a kayak to some silent shore you might be forgiven for thinking you were the first ever there. burmaboating.com

2. Norway the Fjord Way

For ships plying what is called the “World’s Most Beautiful Voyage”, their fleet name, Hurtigruten isn’t particularly inspirational, simply meaning, “express route”. In fact, the superbly appointed vessels of this legendary fleet that delivers daily mail, cargo and passengers along Norway’s 2600km coastline are cruise liners rather than a courier shuttle. A ship like MS Polarlys has 500 beds, gym and sauna as well as onboard expert lectures, and takes 12 days to do the round-trip between Bergen and Kirkenes on the Arctic Circle. The captain slaloms his ship through a jigsaw of islands with balletic precision before ducking into village ports where the well-oiled stevedoring routine goes like a Formula One pit stop. Cars, people, containers and mail roll off; others roll on, and within an hour the ship is back at sea. Calling at 34 ports and seeing the spectacular northern fjords, you can travel as far as the Arctic Circle, or disembark at any interim stop. hurtigruten.us

3. Raja Ampat Rules

Indonesia’s far eastern Raja Ampat archipelago is said to be the centre of the richest tropical marine biodiversity on Earth. Cruising these waters between Ambon and the tip of Papua in a traditional phinisi sailing boat, albeit with air-conditioning, Zodiac tender and expert guide, is about as close as you can get to overnighting in Eden. The whole region resonates with evocative names like the Bird’s Head Seascape, the Coral Triangle and Spice Islands but it is the Raja Ampat Regency that receives the most visitor attention. Covering more than 40,000sqkm of land and sea, the regency includes Cenderawasih Bay, Indonesia’s biggest marine national park. Live-aboard cruises, usually of 10 days duration, often with a specialist lecturer aboard, bring their guests to rare destinations such as Misool with its 5000-year-old petroglyphs and to the towering rainforests and rare avian species of Seram Island. seatrekbali.com

4. Kimberley Questing

The Kimberley coast is an extraordinary zone of red rocks, big crocs and delicate “Bradshaw” paintings, where rivers can chew through the sandstone to a depth of 50m and inlets carve up to 30km inland. The best way to experience it is by cruising the 900km stretch between Wyndham and Broome. No two days, if not hours, repeat the same vistas, especially if you’re aboard a shallow-draft vessel that can explore well inland on the fjords and sounds of our last grand wilderness.

Cruise vessels offer a variety of itineraries but look for one that has shore excursions to sites like the historic “Mermaid Tree” at Careening Bay, the great waterfalls and out to sea, the extraordinary Montgomery Reef. “This far north-west coast, split into a thousand fjords breathtaking in their colour and beauty, is far and away the loveliest in Australia,” wrote traveller-author Ernestine Hill who more than 80 years ago predicted accurately that the Kimberley would become a world-famous destination. kimberleyquest.com.au

5. Rolling on the Chindwin River

Canoes bob past, powered by faded red sails cut from the old robes of monks. Kids on the bank wear white thanaka face-paste while their cheroot-smoking grandmothers crack betel-stained grins. On the 1000-km journey from Yangon via the Chindwin River to north-western Myanmar you’re never short on imagery. The riverboat Katha Pandaw is a 16-cabin, floating gin-and-tonic palace styled after last century’s Irrawaddy steamers, plus plenty of mod cons. 

We make daily excursions ashore where today’s Myanmar slips back into Burma time. In towns with main streets still called The Strand, the old forts and abandoned mansions evoke a mothballed past. Bagan, one of the 2500 temples is a like a Buddhist Vatican, Chartres and Benares, all rolled into one. We pass the in-between hours up on the observation deck, watching the Chindwin riverscape morph from verdant fields to teak forests to jungle and then back again. And there’s always another image: at Masein a flight of 28 white pagodas climbs a ridge like birds ascending. pandaw.com

6. Cape Verde’s Remote Glory

The Republic of Cabo Verde seem to be five parts Portugal, 10 parts Africa and more than a dash of Brazil. The tiny, 10-island Cape Verde archipelago (a Portuguese colony until 1975) sits around 600 km off Senegal, West Africa. You fly from Lisbon to Santiago, the largest island, and join your cruise; in this case the good ship MY Le Ponant. The 88-metre, French yacht built in 1990 is a class act — three masts, buckets of champagne, superior croissants. 

It island-hops for a week among volcanic dots that were home, extraordinarily, to Europe’s first settlement in the tropics and the world’s oldest colonial church, Santiago’s Our Lady of the Rosary chapel, built in 1495. (En route to glory, both Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama prayed in this chapel.) There are daily excursions to villages and valleys, quayside eateries and musical performances. en.ponant.com

7. Andaman Enchantment

The tall ship Star Clipper moves among the islands like a grand Victorian dame. With her full wardrobe of 16 sails billowing, she cuts a romantic figure from the classic age of sail. Below decks it’s a different story, with 83 air-conditioned ensuite cabins, restaurant, library and piano bar. Plus, as the ship’s cruise director happily declares, “We have no casino, no Las Vegas show and no big shopping — and we don’t want them.” 

This 110m, modern barquentine, built in 1991, seasonally cruises the Thailand coast on seven-day excursions ex-Phuket and also down to Singapore via Penang and Melaka. Amid the Similan Island reefs a fellow swimmer surfaces to exclaim, “Who needs scuba tanks when you can see all this with a snorkel?” In Phang Nga Bay we explore in Zodiacs a Jurassic parking lot of gothic limestone islands, while in World Heritage-listed Georgetown, Penang, it’s all about Chinese temples and great Indian dining. starclippers.com

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