For many people the mere mention of the word 'cruise' can evoke cringeworthy images of forced fun and chintzy cabins, but boat trips can be a thrilling way to see the world – it just depends on the cruise you choose.
Feel the local rhythm on a freshwater cruise
With smaller boats and fewer people, river and lake cruises involve more interaction with the cultures, communities and creatures of the countries you're visiting, with plenty of stops and more shore time. They're usually point-to-point journeys, so the trip feels like a genuine travel experience. The riverbank is seldom far away so even while moving you can observe local life.
Top pick: cruise the Ganges, India
Exploring India is an explosive sensory experience, but discovering the country via its most sacred river on a small-boat cruise enables you to absorb it in far more serene fashion than is possible at street level. A new expeditionary voyage offered by Steppes (steppestravel.co.uk) takes a maximum of 24 passengers on a seven-day cultural trip along the Ganges on the MV Sukapha, between Patna and Farakka. Providing a floating history lesson on one of the planet's most vibrant and complex cultures, it stops regularly at Mughal forts, introduces you to Sikh, Buddhist and Jain monuments, and reveals the Colganj cave temples where the infamous Thug sect once operated. On board you can enjoy creature comforts, with classy cabins and great food. If the Ganges sounds a bit too on-the-beaten-path, try Steppes' Hoogly River Cruise through West Bengal (best from November to March). Gin and tonics all round.
More incredible river and lake cruises
- Join the dots through Patagonia's Lake District and traverse the Andes between Bariloche (Argentina) and Puerto Montt (Chile), skimming across the mirrored surfaces of hanging lakes suspended between snow-capped volcanoes (try worldexpeditions.com).
- Jump aboard a Danube cruise and travel through 10 countries simply by following the flow 2888km from Bavaria to the Black Sea (check out AmaWaterways - amawaterways.co.uk - who also carry bikes).
- Animal enthusiasts will be tickled by the pink dolphins of the Amazon (give andeanorigins.com a look) and the elephant antics on the Zambezi (for a lux option try zambeziqueen.com).
- To experience a different era, cruise the Volga in Russia (uniworldcruises.com.au) or float along the mighty Mekong through Cambodia and southern Vietnam on the RV Mekong Pandaw (pandaw.com).
Stow away on a cargo ship
Cargo ships sail the globe, criss-crossing the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, skirting both poles, going through the Suez and Panama Canals and stopping off in all the world's major ports. Some carry small numbers of fee-paying passengers, and hitching a ride on board a commercial vessel is a unique experience.
Top pick: the world's last 'tramp ship'
If you like surprises, stow away on the MV ISA, the world's last 'tramp ship', which leaves IJmuiden in The Netherlands and picks up a cargo of grain from the prairies of North America. It returns from Thunder Bay on Lake Superior, sailing back through the Great Lakes, along the St Lawrence River – past Toronto, Québec and Montréal on one bank and the states of New York and Maine on the other – before reaching the Gulf of St Lawrence and crossing the Atlantic. At the point of departure, its final destination is unknown – it could be anywhere in Europe or North Africa, from Morocco to Turkey, Italy, Spain, Norway, Poland or even Russia – just depends on who bids the most for the cargo. Life on board is simple: you have a cabin, the run of the vast decks and you eat at the captain's table. Don't forget a good book. See cruisepeople.co.uk/pzm.htm.
More incredible cargo cruises
- Adventurous cruisers can hitch a lift on a Grimaldi-line freighter (grimaldi-freightercruises.com) from Dakar, Senegal on the West African coast, to Buenos Aires in Argentina.
- For a tropical trip, blag a berth on the Aranui (aranui.com), a mixed-purpose passenger and cargo ship that works the waters of the Pacific between Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands.
- To sail the Suez, jump on a CMA CGM Cargo Cruises (cma-cgm.com/ProductsServices/cargo-cruises) trip from Southampton, England to India.
- Alternatively, see the Panama Canal by hopping on a Hamburg Süd-operated freighter (hamburgsued-frachtschiffreisen.de) from Philadelphia to Australia.
Downsize and see a specialist
Small-boat trips deliver a more personal experience. Many micro cruises offer access to little-visited regions on traditional vessels, plus specialist activities such as scuba diving.
Top pick: Australia's Great Barrier Reef
To explore the ocean up close, consider a live-aboard dive trip with a reputable company such as Mike Ball Expeditions (mikeball.com), who operate from Cairns, Australia. Custom-built for diving, the Spoilsport is a 30m twin-hull boat with a dedicated crew of 12, including highly experienced divemasters, who look after a maximum of 28 passengers as they explore the incredible outer reaches of the Great Barrier Reef on multiday Coral Sea trips. Drop straight into some of the planet's most famous dive spots – such as Ribbon Reef and the Cod Hole, where giant potato cod abound – and then get fed and pampered back on deck. Afterwards, catch a low-level flight back to Cairns on a reef skimming twin-prop light aircraft. Seasonal options include dedicated minke whale-spotting trips. Leave your shoes at home.
More incredible small-boat cruises
- Explore Oman's Mussandam Peninsular on a dhow (msaoman.com).
- Go scuba diving in Thailand on an East Timorese junk (thejunk.com).
- Sail around the San Blas islands of the Caribbean (panamatravelunlimited.com).
- Take a traditional dhoni around the Maldives with G Adventures (gadventures.com).
Seize the wheel on a bareboat trip
Cruising doesn't have to be a passive experience – on a bareboat trip you can captain your own vessel, set your own course and choose your crew to keep the risk of a mutiny to a minimum.
Top pick: boating in Burgundy, France
Le Boat (leboat.com) operate self-drive small-boat trips all across Europe, but a classic experience is to navigate the inland waterways of France, such as the Canal du Nivernais, which dissects the Burgundy region. Cruise between chateaus and vineyards, negotiating picturesque locks, before mooring up to enjoy a few glasses of Crémants Réserve on the top deck as the sun dips. Between the bases of Migennes and Tannay you can explore medieval towns like Auxerre and Clamecy, and discover historic hilltop villages such as Mailly-le-Chateau. Pack a corkscrew and don't pass Saint-Bris-le-Vineux without popping into Les Caves Bailly Lapierre (bailly-lapierre.fr), a four-hectare subterranean labyrinth where the premium produce of 71 local vineyards is stored and sold.
More incredible bareboat cruises
- Salty sea dogs can sail the 'Coast of a Thousand Islands' along Croatia's Adriatic shores with Croatia Yachting (croatia-yachting.hr).
- Wend between Australia's wonderful Whitsunday Islands with CYA (charteryachtsaustralia.com.au).
- Explore the sun-splashed Cook Islands with a catamaran from the Sunsail fleet (sunsail.co.uk).
- Take a houseboat along Scotland's Caledonian Canal, via Loch Ness, with Caley Cruisers (caleycruisers.com).
- Explore the Knysna Lagoon on South Africa's Garden Route with Jamin Adventures (jaminadventures.com).
Go to extremes on a polar cruise
Contrary to popular perception you don't have to be a millionaire or possess the fortitude of Ranulph Fiennes to visit our planet's polar regions – you can do it on a cruise, some of which are surprisingly affordable.
Top pick: Antarctic adventure
With boats leaving from Ushuaia in Argentina, Aurora Expeditions (auroraexpeditions.com.au) offer hands-on 11-day trips to Antarctica for everyday explorers who want to truly experience the extreme environment they are visiting, from kayaking amid icebergs to climbing frozen walls, camping on the ice and even scuba diving. These are optional add-ons; you can also sit on deck and simply drink it all in. Don't forget your bobble hat and a good camera (a pro photographer comes on every trip to give shooting advice).