Fancy something a bit different? These quirky cruises could float your boat

Do you dream of lying back, sipping a cocktail on a sun deck belonging to a little piece of yachting history, while the crew prepare lunch? Or perhaps you enjoy the thought of the sea spray hitting your face as you track wildlife in the Hebrides on a former Norwegian rescue boat?

Whether you want to follow in the high heels of Grace Kelly, take a ride in a history-making ship, which stands as a symbol of defiance against Nazi tyranny – or hitch a lift on a giant freighter – there is a wide selection of non-traditional cruising vessels around the world waiting to welcome you on board… and you don’t have to be a millionaire to afford them.

From nuclear-powered icebreakers that head to the North Pole and tug boats in Alaska to pinisi sailing ships in Indonesia and dhonis in the Maldives, a holiday afloat doesn’t have to mean boarding a huge cruise ship with thousands of other passengers. There are many memorable voyages to be had on special craft. 

Grace Kelly’s yacht in Galápagos 

Honeymoon like royalty on the motor yacht Grace. Built in 1928 and used as a submarine hunter during the Second World War, this ship was bought, refurbished and given as a wedding present to Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco by Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. The newlyweds spent their honeymoon on the 145ft yacht, which now carries 18 passengers on seven-night voyages around the Galapágos islands, served by 11 crew and two guides. Guests can relax in the hot tub or library and have the use of kayaks, snorkelling gear and wetsuits. 

A seven-night cruise costs from £5,433pp, excluding UK flights (01392 581032; micro-cruising.com.au)

Hjalmar Bjorge at sea

Hjalmar Bjorge: named after a Norwegian who defied Hitler’s orders to return his fleet to port

Norwegian rescue ship in the Hebrides 

Hjalmar Bjørge is a little boat with a lot of history. Built in 1963, the 75ft-long ice-class Rescue Vessel 69 was named after a brave Norwegian who defied Hitler’s order to return his fleet to port to be used by the Nazis. Since 2002, the boat – by then renamed Sunrise – has been owned by the Northern Light Cruising Company, which reinstated the original title. No en-suites here – a maximum of 12 guests in five twin cabins and one double share three toilets and two showers. A trip to Mull and the Small Isles can include sightings of orcas, dolphins, basking sharks and birdlife, including eagles and buzzards.  

A six-night cruise leaving Oban on April 18, 2020, from £1,495pp (01599 555723; northernlight-uk.com

Alaska on a 100-year-old tug boat 

Alaska is a land of brown bears, humpback whales and bald eagles against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, clear fjords and calving glaciers. For the most authentic experience, think small. The 88ft-long tug boat Swell was built in Vancouver in 1912 for the Victoria Tug Company. Through her £3 million rebuilds, the 12-passenger vessel with five crew has maintained her graceful lines. Guests can listen for passing whales on the hydrophone, fish for halibut, or take a trip in two rigid inflatable boats that have mini-aquariums to study marine life. Excursions include rainforest walks, visiting native Tlingit communities and dipping in hot springs.  

A 13-night Alaskan fly-cruise in 2020, including 10 nights on Swell, starts at £8,720pp (020 7838 5991; theluxurycruisecompany.com)

Agatha Christie’s Nile steamship 

In 1933 Max Mallowan took his wife, Agatha Christie, on a cruise in Egypt, inspiring her to write Death on the Nile. The title was prophetic – the country’s tourism was soon killed off by the Second World War and their steamship Sudan was abandoned for 50 years. Now it has been restored as a 46-passenger ship that sails between Aswan and Luxor. Where once ladies played cards and painted watercolours, while the men drank whisky and vintage port in the smoking room, guests are invited to use the board games or enjoy free Wi-Fi. Though you can stay in the Agatha Christie suite or the Hercule Poirot cabin, murder is strictly prohibited… 

Five-night cruises from £3,360pp, excluding flights (01392 581032; micro-cruising.com.au)

Prana by Atzaro

Prana by Atzaro – already a celebrity favourite in Indonesia

Kim Kardashian’s ketch in Bali 

Should you want to keep up with the Kardashians – or simply treat yourself to a holiday in paradise – try Prana by Atzaro. It might sound like a perfume, but it’s actually the biggest two-masted pinisi boat ever built, capable of carrying 18 guests and as many crew. Launched in Indonesia last September, the 180ft-long ship has hosted reality-TV star Kim Kardashian and her clan. You too can dodge the paparazzi as you sail to the Raja Ampat islands, with their giant manta rays, prehistoric caves and dive sites, and visit the giant lizards of Komodo National Park. On board, relax on king-size daybeds or watch movies under the stars on the yoga deck. There’s even a spa on board. 

Seven nights on Prana by Atzaro from £5,527pp, excluding flights (020 7838 5991; theluxurycruisecompany.com)

Car transporter to the Arctic Circle

This year, Norwegian line Hurtigruten is introducing the first hybrid expedition ship to cruise to Antarctica. But the core of its service remains much closer to home: ferrying passengers, cars and cargo to 34 ports between Bergen and Kirkenes. The best way to capture this authentic voyage to the Arctic Circle is on the Vesterålen, named after the first Hurtigruten ship to sail along Norway’s rugged coastline 126 years ago. Built in 1983, Vesterålen carries 490 passengers and 24 cars, stopping frequently to take on locals and tourists. Guests are able to learn about the ship, crew and navigation from talks along the journey, while keen cooks are taught how to make traditional dishes. 

A 12-day round trip from Bergen to Kirkenes from £1,008pp, excluding flights (020 3553 3240; hurtigruten.co.uk)

Taking a very slow Dhonis in the Maldives

Escape from the tourist resorts in the Maldives on a dhoni, a handcrafted local boat with lateen sails, resembling a dhow. A cruise around the tropical islands and atolls can include sightings of flying fish, spinner dolphins and clownfish – so you might even find Nemo. Dropping anchor in Male, the ship visits islands including Dhiggaru, where guests can watch a traditional bodu beru (big drum) performance. Stops are made for snorkelling and swimming, as well as beach barbecues of freshly caught fish. On board, there’s daily afternoon tea with cake. The size of the dhoni, between six and 10 berths, is decided by the number of bookings.  

An eight-day trip leaving on November 7, 2019 from £1,769pp (01252 884 709; explore.co.uk)

Hawaii's dramatic rocky coastline

Step on board Safari Explorer to tour Hawaii’s dramatic coastlines

Boutique boat in Hawaii

Imagine a marine version of an upmarket 4×4 car: that’s Safari Explorer. Nicknamed “The Bulldog”, this 36-guest ship is built for adventure – and comfort – as it weaves around the islands of Hawaii. Equipped with kayaks, paddle boards, inflatable skiffs and snorkel gear, Safari Explorer offers touches such as memory-foam mattresses, heated bathroom tiles… and a wine library. A week-long summer itinerary of four islands – Lanai, Molokai, Hawaii and Maui – can include sightings of bow-riding dolphins, manta rays swarming in a feeding area, and turtles having their shells cleaned by tiny fish.  

A 12-day trip to Hawaii including seven nights on Safari Explorer, leaving London on November 13, 2019, from £6,875pp (0800 316 0194; bon-voyage.co.uk

Nuclear option to the North Pole

If the North Pole is on your bucket list, step aboard the Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker 50 Years of Victory, equipped with two saunas, a volleyball court, spa, gym and pool for its 124 guests, outnumbered by 128 crew. Starting in Murmansk, it sails through the Barents Sea, crunching through ice up to 10ft thick. At 90º north, the ship drops anchor and passengers disembark onto the frozen sea, joining hands to dance “around the world”. After a barbecue on the ice, the bravest might even take a plunge in the polar water. On the voyage back, Franz Josef Land offers sightings of polar bears, walruses and rare whales. 

A 12-night journey to the North Pole, leaving Murmansk on July 12, 2020, from £24,195pp, excluding flights (020 3369 0020; poseidonexpeditions.com)

Coastal cruises in Croatia

Fleets of small craft, most with less than 40 passengers, sail along the rugged Dalmatian coast and its hundreds of islands, nipping into bays, harbours and ports away from the huge cruise ships and crowded cities to visit medieval towns such as Trogir, Zadar and Rab. One of the many operators, Emerald Waterways, has chartered two new yachts: the Swallow, launching this year, and its sister Lastavica, entering service in 2020. Highlights include seeing the 13 islands of Telašćica Nature Park and sailing through the Kornati archipelago. The 36-passenger boats have a swim platform so guests can dive into clear waters.  

An eight-day round trip from Trogir, leaving on June 27, 2020, from £1,995pp (0808 301 3352; emeraldwaterways.co.uk)

Europe's largest container ship CMA CGM Antoine de Saint Exupery

Europe’s largest container ship has space for four leisure travellers

Slow boat to China

Quirky cruising doesn’t have to mean quaint, tiny boats. For a really different experience, there’s Europe’s largest container ship, CMA CGM Antoine de Saint Exupery. This 1,300ft giant carries up to four passengers and nearly 21,000 containers as it makes its leisurely way from Southampton to the Far East. Other cargo ships sail regular transatlantic routes, for example 11 days from Liverpool to New York. If you prefer a more tropical seascape, passenger-carrying freight ship Aranui 5 offers its 230 guests a swimming pool, fitness room and spa as it visits remote islands of French Polynesia. 

A 39-day voyage from Southampton to Tianjin Xingang, China, on Antoine de Saint Exupery costs from £5,650pp, flights extra (020 7723 2450; cruisepeople.co.uk)

‘Love Boat’ for two in Indonesia

The 101ft-long former spice boat Alexa has just one cabin for an especially loved-up couple, the sole focus of a seven-strong crew including a full-time masseuse. On board you’ll find aged teak wood, stainless steel, silk Persian rugs and antique art. You’re free to sleep under the stars if you tire of the master cabin with private balcony. Your personal cruise director can arrange expeditions to remote islands, tribal villages, turtle beaches and waterfalls. You could also dive off Komodo National Park, surf in Sumbawa or swim with dolphins in the Flores Sea.  

A three-night charter of Alexa in Komodo National Park costs £10,200, excluding flights (07504 044261; ultimate-yachts.com)

Lighthouse vessel is one for the buoys

Those who are happy to be flexible with their holiday arrangements will enjoy Patricia, a working lighthouse vessel with an English country house interior. Passengers are told in advance which English or Welsh coast they’ll be exploring but only learn their departure port ten days in advance. The daily itinerary is governed by the work Patricia has to do – maintaining navigational buoys, refuelling offshore lighthouses and occasionally dealing with emergencies at sea. The interior is surprisingly quaint, with six double cabins, a lounge and dining room. Book soon because Patricia is coming towards the end of its working life.

A seven-night West Coast voyage leaving Swansea or Holyhead on October 9, 2019, costs from £1,600pp (0117 965 8333; wildwings.co.uk)

Hebridean Princess at sea

The Queen has sailed on Hebridean Princess, not once but twice

Nuclear-proof ferry fit for a Queen

There are few ships with such a varied past as Hebridean Princess. Initially ordered in the Cold War days as a floating nuclear bunker, it became an 870-passenger car ferry before being converted to its present role as a luxury cruiser for just 50 guests. The Queen and members of the Royal Family, who once might well have been sent to safety on the ship had atomic war broken out, chartered the vessel for her 80th birthday, and once again in 2010. You can follow in their wake on cruises to islands such as St Kilda, Islay and Tobermory. 

A seven-night cruise leaving Greenock on November 5, 2019, starts at £3,140pp (01756 704704; hebridean.co.uk)

Junk boats in Vietnam 

Halong Bay in north-east Vietnam is famous for its towering limestone pillars, emerald waters and dozens of day and overnight craft. For a more immersive experience, try the five-cabin Red Dragon junk which offers journeys of up to four days to the pocket lagoons and small fishing communities of Bai Tu Long Bay. Guests are invited to fish for squid, dine in a candlelit cave or kayak between the islands. Back on board the 82ft-long Red Dragon, which carries up to 11 passengers and eight crew, they can admire the detailed woodwork made by Vietnamese artisans as they relax on the sundeck or dine in the restaurant. 

A ten-day trip to Vietnam, including Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and three nights on Red Dragon, costs from £4,750pp (020 7838 5991; theluxurycruisecompany.com)

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