1. Lindblad Expeditions
This expedition cruise company, in partnership with National Geographic, gets you up close to nature. The line's 10 ships carry just 28 to 96 passengers to places like the Galápagos, where you can swim with sea lions and admire blue-footed boobies. Zodiacs take you ashore, and naturalists make sure you don't miss a thing. On board, the atmosphere is casual and comfortable and includes hearty meals; special family itineraries include activities for kids. The line's cruises also explore Alaska, Costa Rica, Baja California, Europe, Antarctica and the Arctic.
2. Un-Cruise Adventures
Un-Cruise Adventures has a diverse fleet that includes luxury yachts — the smallest carrying only 22 passengers — for those who enjoy the finer things such as big cabins, gourmet cuisine and complimentary massages. The company also offers adventure cruises on comfortable (without the luxury fluffery) 60- to 76-passenger ships that spend days in wilderness areas. Debuting in 2013 are heritage-focused cruises on an 88-passenger steamship done up in Victorian decor. Vessels visit Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico's Sea of Cortez, the Columbia and Snake rivers in Washington and Oregon, and British Columbia.
3. Windstar Cruises
This line's 310-passenger Wind Surf and 148-passenger Wind Star and Wind Spirit cut striking figures with their billowing white sails, operated by computer. The onboard atmosphere is casual in a yacht-club kind of way. Cuisine has a gourmet touch, and the well-designed cabins include suites. When the sun is shining, the open decks are the place to be — including for al fresco dining — though the recently refurbished ships also have lovely indoor areas. You can borrow kayaks and other water equipment and launch them from retractable marinas. Itineraries include the Mediterranean, the Greek Isles, Costa Rica and northern Europe.