Quirky Cruises


Getting out on the water doesn't have to mean jostling for space with 5,000 other people and choosing between an afternoon at the casino and the surfing simulator. On these five cruises, the experiences are as unique as the ships themselves.

Lounging aboard a boat from another era and gazing out over an eternity of soaring limestone towers, which puncture the Gulf of Tonkin's emerald waters like massive sculptures, it's easy to see why sailors have been drawn to Ha Long Bay for centuries. Craggy, majestic rock formations, some of which climb to 700 feet, are scattered about the 600-square-mile area in northeastern Vietnam, one of the country's most revered natural sites. It's still possible to spend a few days cruising around like seafarers of the past: Tour operators BaiTho Tourist Company (011-84/3362-0086, halongsails.com, from $100), Bhaya Cruises (011-84/4-3944-6777, bhayacruises.com, from $210 per person), and Indochina Sails (011-84/4-3984-2362, indochinasails.com, from $172 per person) send passengers out for overnight stays on handcrafted replicas of old Chinese junks. The grand, wooden vessels, popular during the 15th century, were known for their horseshoe-shaped sterns and bright red and ocher skeleton-like sails, and were not only effective at navigating the area's occasional typhoons, but were also said to please the dragons. (And though the boats now rely on engines instead of sails, who wants to take their chances with a fire-breathing beast?). —Naomi Lindt

Hurtigruten's coastal steamers lead a double life mixing work and play: In addition to offering passenger cruises, the fleet delivers mail, food, and cargo to far-flung villages along Norway's rugged North Atlantic shore. Sailing from the crayon-box-colored wooden houses of Bergen's cheerful harbor to the arctic outpost of Kirkenes, near the Russian border, the ships wind past a stunning panorama of fjords, waterfalls, and glaciers (866/552-0371, hurtigruten.us, six-day cruise from $843 per person). Along the way, you can swill mead at a Viking feast, listen to tales of elves and trolls, explore tiny seaside fishing villages, and take part in a thrilling dog-sled excursion. The boats sail year-round, and the company frequently offers two-for-one deals to attract passengers to its empty ships during the blustery winter months. Temperatures can be anywhere from 14 to 50 degrees, but braving the cold has its perks: Winter happens to be the best time to catch the northern lights. —Nicholas DeRenzo

The owners of Nour El Nil have traded in the clunky steamers of commercial cruise lines for elegant dahabiehs, streamlined wooden ships with two triangular red-and-white sails and a capacity for up to 20 (nourelnil.com, 011-20/1-05-70-53-41, six-day trips from $1,574). Modeled after the leisure cruise ships that carried 19th-century Europeans like Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale, these vessels are done up with Egyptian cotton mattresses and chandeliers made from quirky pieces picked out at local flea markets by co-owner and decorator EleonoreKamir. The cruise sails south on the Nile in Egypt from the thriving merchant town of Esna to Aswan, a Nubian city known for its more traditionally African atmosphere. The fleet's itinerary is the opposite of touristy, focusing on charming fishing villages and rustic desert walks in addition to the essential temples and tombs. Authentic Egyptian meals are cooked on board with fresh local ingredients like duck, dates, and feta cheese purchased in bazaars throughout the journey. —Nicholas DeRenzo

Ecotour Expeditions'Tucano offers eight-day cruises deep into Brazil's Amazon Basin, along one of the least explored rivers in the region, the Rio Negro (naturetours.com/tucano.html, 800/688-1822, eight-day trips from $2,400). Though built in the late 1990s, the Tucano—which accommodates 18 passengers—was designed in the style of a 19th-century steamboat. The ship's flat bottom allows it to venture hundreds of miles farther into the Rio Negro's sandy shallows than modern boats with deep V-shaped hulls. These intimate excursions offer one-on-one interaction with nature guides as visitors explore the flora and fauna of the igapó (flooded forests), where trees are blanketed in brilliant orchids and bromeliads. Pink river dolphins, toucans, and sloths can often be observed from the boat, while guided treks through the denser parts of the jungle reveal wild pigs and marmosets. Days are spent swimming in surprisingly clear waters or fishing for piranhas with hunks of raw meat, while night brings riverside hunts—lit by flashlight—for nocturnal creatures like caimans, tiny relatives of crocodiles. —Nicholas DeRenzo

Douro River Cruise Napa, Burgundy, and Tuscany may get all the attention, but Portugal's Douro River valley—home to the vineyards that produce the country's famed sweet, sticky port—is quickly joining the ranks of those go-to wine destinations. The river meanders through steep terraced hillsides, past medieval villages and elegant manor houses, before arriving in Porto, an ancient mercantile city that is experiencing a much-needed architectural and culinary renaissance. Barcos rabelos, ornamental pine cargo barges, once brought casks of port down the river from the vineyards to the riverside warehouses where they were processed and stored. Unlike other river touring companies in the region that use larger vessels, Arisdouro maintains a fleet of three of these traditional barcos rabelos, which accommodate between 20 and 30 passengers each. Tours typically run between the villages of Pinhão ("the heart of the Douro") and Tua, though the tour operator is more than happy to design a specialized itinerary, including anything from wine tasting to on-board lunches of Portuguese-style tapas, creamy cheeses, and seafood carpaccio from the nearby D.O.C. Restaurant (011-351/254-858-123, arisdouro.com/en, 2.5-hour trip from $27). —Caroline Patience

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