Cruising off the beaten path
This might come as a shock, but not every cruise is all about rum-laden umbrella drinks, 24/7 bingo, "The Love Boat" theme on steel drum and a general atmosphere devoid of culture and, well, any thought much deeper than "I'll have the lobster and the steak."
And while those cruises do exist (don't knock it until you've tried it), the term "cruise" applies also to voyages that can be as authentic, as adventurous, as luxurious or as intimate as any on terra firma. Vessels large and small sail "alternative" cruises that, beyond the drinks, portholes, a captain and a general level of vessel buoyancy, bear little resemblance to the sun-and-fun party boats that ply the warmer curvatures of the Earth.
The experience? Two hundred passengers instead of 3,000, an emphasis on education and cultural awareness, and a tiny multitasking crew that might be hauling lines one minute and serving pan-seared sea bass the next. (Not all the differences are positive: stairways that require gymnastic dexterity; cabins that only Houdini would love; and increased likelihood of seasickness on bobbing boats that are, effectively, buoys with a mess hall.)
But if your priority is getting closer and learning more - and there's some flexibility in your definition of personal space - alternative cruises can be the answer. And, yes, most small-boat trips typically are more expensive than those of their behemoth counterparts, but the same wisdom holds true as with all travel right now: With companies staying afloat on waves of discounts, it'll never be more affordable than it is right now.
(Note: This is a basic overview; learn more at cruise line Internet sites or, better yet, with a travel agent you trust.)
The basics: The romance is undeniable - chuffing your way up the Mississippi past Memphis and St. Louis, through the Columbia River Gorge, into Australia's southern wilderness. It's travel the way it was before the Wright brothers were born and Jack Kerouac invented the road trip. Strengths include decent cabin size (these are, essentially, hotels sitting on a barge), a strong sense of history and elegance, almost zero chance of seasickness and even less chance of being stopped by the maritime police for speeding. The bad news: Majestic America Line scooped up most of the best-known ships in 2007, effectively cornering the market - then ceased operations and put the ships up for sale, including the Delta, Mississippi and American Queens. With the exception of the Murray Princess on the River Murray in South Australia, and the Oberoi Philae Nile Cruiser on the Nile (and a few dinner cruises on the Mississippi and beyond), paddle steamers are in limbo. There is reason to believe some of the U.S. ships will resume sailing, although the economy will probably determine when.
Will love it: Historians, Mark Twain fans and anyone who wants to see the scenery at a decidedly leisurely pace.
Will hate it: Anyone who wants theme-park-at-sea amenities, belly-flop contests and, well, the ocean.
Regions: The Nile, the River Murray in South Australia.
Operators: Captain Cook Cruises (captaincook.com.au) and Oberoi Hotels (oberoiphilae.com).
Drink of choice: Mint Julep (Mississippi); a bottle of Coopers Original (South Australia); Egyptian coffee.
The basics: While rarely sleek or terribly attractive, these small ships can explore every nook and cranny of ruggedly handsome coastlines from Norway to Alaska to Patagonia. Among their strength is getting closer - to wildlife, to glaciers, to the Galapagos - without overwhelming the scenery with oversize profile or population.
Will love it: Fans of wildlife, fog, fjords, mist, glaciers, fog, quaint coastal villages and, well, fog (except in Baja).
Will hate it: Professional sunbathers (except in Baja), fans of 600-thread-count sheets, and anyone who lives to be pampered.
Regions: Galapagos, Alaska, Sea of Cortez, Greenland, Antarctica, Norway, Torres del Paine in Chile, and the intercoastal waterways of the United States and Canada.
Operators: Lindblad Expeditions (lindblad.com), CruiseWest (cruisewest.com), Quark Expeditions (quarkexpeditions.com), Pearl Seas Cruises (pearlseascruises.com), American Cruise Line (americancruiselines.com), and on the larger side, Hurtigruten (hurtigruten.com).
Drink of choice: Irish coffee, hot toddy and Johnny Walker over glacial ice cubes.
Tip: Don't overpack. Some cabins might not have comfortable space for you and that wheeled steamer trunk you claim as carry-on luggage.
The basics: Most of the skinny, long boats look like a row of stadium luxury boxes (and move only slightly faster), but they offer the chance to wake up each day in a new European country without having to buy a Eurail pass and sleep in the dining car. Strengths include elegant settings, fine dining and enough castles to cure any obsessive medieval fantasy. Unlike seaports, river ports tend to be at the center of things in European cities. In China, Victoria Cruises runs a fleet of eight luxury boats up the Yangtze, including to the Three Gorges Dam site.
Will love it: Travelers looking to sample the great river cities of Europe or China at a really leisurely pace, and who want to do it in refined style.
Will hate it: Anyone looking for a lot of action and an "MTV Spring Break" crowd. While the lines are trying to attract young couples and families, the current crowd is more likely to remember the Eisenhower years.
Regions: Western and Northern Europe (the Rhine, Seine, Danube and Elbe), Russian waterways from St. Petersburg to Moscow, as well as on the Yangtze.
Operators: Viking River Cruises (vikingrivercruises.com), AMA Waterways (amawaterways.com), Uniworld (uniworld.com), Tauck (tauck.com), Victoria Cruises (victoriacruises.com). Drink of choice: A fine Riesling or a Kölsch beer or a cup of jasmine green tea.
Similar: Canal barges in England and France, either on your own or with help. Follow extensive canal systems through the rural countryside and learn the right (and the wrong, probably) way to open and close a canal lock.
The basics: There's nothing quite as romantic as sailing the ocean blue - with 5,000 railroad containers full of MP3 players and plasma-screen TVs. There's a different vibe on a "working" ship, where the passengers are not the priority, just along for the ride - for a long time. Freighter cruises can go a week, but the norm is between two weeks and three months. Among the best known ship is the Aranui 3, which sails French Polynesia from Tahiti to the Marquesas Islands and Tuamotu. Accommodations tend to be comfortable, albeit basic, and frills are, um, few.
Will love it: Those who are curious about life at sea beyond the typical cruise - and who have lots of time on their hands.
Will hate it: Anyone who prefers ports over days at sea, or who gets impatient when the waiter doesn't show up right away with that piña colada.
Operators: Maris Freighter Cruises (freightercruises.com) is the best known; for more options, search Google for "freighter cruises."
Drink of choice: The captain's Russian vodka and the crew's Singha beer.
The basics: If your idea of a voyage isn't so much "Love Boat" as it is "Master and Commander," and you don't mind being at the mercy of at least two of the four elements, then climb aboard. There's something to be said for feeling the sea's power, hearing the sails snap and viewing the horizon the way explorers did. Fortunately, the food is much better (not so much salt pork and hardtack) and striking sails and hauling the anchor tends to be optional - although recommended, as part of the experience.
Will love it: People who enjoy surprises and are flexible with their idea of cabin size, hygiene (tiny showers), comfort, schedule and what to wear on "formal night."
Will hate it: Anyone who expects a strict schedule and itinerary, who packed a suit and tie or who is prone to mal de mer.
Regions: New England (Penobscot Bay), the Canadian northeast and Alaska in summer; the Caribbean and the Bahamas, Greece and Polynesia year-round.
Operators: Maine Windjammer (mainewind jammercruises.com), Star Clippers (starclippers.com), Canadian Sailing Expeditions (canadiansailingexpeditions.com). (Note: Longtime provider Windjammer Barefoot was swallowed whole in 2007 by a wave of debt and litigation. A handful of companies are trying to pick up the slack, but might not be ready for prime time.)
Drink of choice: Mai tais or Pacifico beer (provided there isn't any grog available).
Similar: Windstar's upscale vessels are either really small cruise ships or really big yachts, topped (inexplicably) with masts and sails. Regions include Europe, the Greek Isles and the Caribbean. www.windstarcruises.com.