For some, the appeal of a cruise is 360-degree ocean views, endless entertainment and waking up in a new destination every day. For others, a cruise is basically being trapped at sea, fighting for deck chairs and getting only eight hours to explore an entire country.
Fighting those fears and negative stereotypes is the segment of cruise vessels and itineraries that bear little resemblance to the mega-ship product that has sullied the idea of a cruise vacation for some.
A handful of niche cruise lines offer sails on nature and culture in some of the least travelled parts of the world. The ships are usually small - from a few hundred people to less than 50 - which means fewer crowds and the agility to visit the most untouched corners of the world, like Antarctica and the Amazon River. And even some traditional cruise lines offer untraditional twists and unique themes to increase their appeal beyond the masses.
Where the wild things are
Cruises in Alaska have long used ships of all sizes, but a new, lithe entrant to the market offers the opportunity to experience the state's wild side.
InnerSea Discoveries launches this month with two small vessels that eschew traditional Southeast Alaska ports and opt instead to spend time in the wilderness. Passengers can hike, kayak and fish in secluded and pristine bays and coves that larger Alaskan cruises avoid.
The cruise line calls its product the "un-cruise" with reason - InnerSea's vessels carry less than 70 passengers and go where the 3,000-person ships cannot. Being tied to almost no schedule means captains can seek out whales, bears and other wildlife. The ships make only one port call on each weeklong itinerary, to a small village where passengers can take native culture tours. Prices start at $1,795 per person, double occupancy.
Up the river without a paddle
River cruising is growing fast, and as a result, operators are seeking out unique and less plied waterways beyond the staple itineraries on the Nile and Danube.
Variety Cruises' Rivers of West Africa explores the Saloun and Gambia rivers during an eight-day cruise from Dakar, Senegal. Beginning in December, the 49-passenger Pegasus will take passengers 240 miles upriver, to national parks and reserves, as well as fishing villages and Gambia's capital. Fares begin at $1,791 per person, per week.
Exploration cruise specialist Lindblad Expeditions is offering a new cruise in Papua New Guinea next year, a 16-day trip that will take travellers to the home of more than 700 Papuan and Melanesian tribes. The 68-passenger Oceanic Discoverer will travel through both the country's coral reefs and great rivers. Rates begin at $14,790 per person, double occupancy.
Over the top
The famed Northwest Passage, over the most northern coast of North America to where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet, has previously only been available to travellers who can spend a month to cover its great, and at times treacherous, expanse.
Due to global warming and the retreat of the Arctic ice pack, the Passage has become navigable for longer periods of the year. German operator Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is offering its first "short" Northwest Passage cruise this August. The 19-day trip traces part of the Passage as well the ice coast of Greenland and the remote islands of northern Canada, on the 184-passenger Hanseatic. Rates start at 17,890 euros per person, double occupancy.
Some ships are so far from being typical cruise ships that their owners blanch at being put into that category. Swedish company Star Clippers operates three tall-ship sailboats that primarily sail under wind power.
The sailing ships ply the waters of the Caribbean and Europe, visiting small ports that larger ships cannot fit into. As with mega-cruise vessels, these ships, with 36,000 square feet of sails that unfurl on the first day, are destinations in themselves.
The line is offering its first Baltic itineraries in 2012. The 11-night cruises will call on the region's capitals as well as smaller towns like Kristiansand, Norway, Ventspils, Latvia, and Klaipeda, Lithuania. Currently rates start at $2,895 per person, double occupancy, but rates are likely to change when booking begins.
One of the drawbacks often cited about cruising is that the ships leave their destinations so early, passengers can not enjoy evenings in port.
A recent trend is more ships, specifically the smaller and upscale ones, staying overnight in port, in some cases on multi-day calls.
For people who love traditional cruise amenities, but want to see and experience more of the destinations, Azamara Club Cruises' 694-passenger ships feature late night departures or overnight stays at more than 60% of their port calls.
Azamara's 24 September sailing from Nice, France features four overnights among its seven stops, and with good reason: Not experiencing nightlife in St Tropez or a local dinner in Amalfi, Italy is criminal. Prices start at $2,399 per person, double occupancy.