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The World's Best Small-Ship Ocean Cruise Lines - Australis Named #1

For an intimate, exclusive experience, nothing beats these winners in the small-ship category.

Travelers often choose a small cruise ship because of, well, size. Small ships don’t just feel more intimate; they can reach harder-to-access ports, such as Gustavia, St. Bart's glamorous capital, orSicily's Porto Empedocle, gateway to the impressive classical ruins of Agrigento. Some small cruise ships are even outfitted to be expedition vessels, capable of visiting icy waters of polar regions. (Once there, passengers get in even smaller vessels — inflatable Zodiac boats — for their shore excursions.)

Australis is not only a small-ship cruise company, but a small company — it operates just one vessel, the 210-passengerStella Australis, and focuses on expedition cruises in Southern Patagonia. But it made a big impact with T+L readers, who named Australis the best cruise company in its category this year.

The line offers “excellent Zodiac visits with knowledgeable guides to key islands in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago,” said one respondent. “Loved every minute on the ship.” Another reader wrote, “[It was] a great, unique experience to be able to sail around Cape Horn and get to places in Southern Patagonia that are still virgin.”

Every year for our World’s Best Awards survey, T+L asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe—to share their opinions on the top hotels, resorts, cities, islands, cruise lines,spas, airlines, and more. Readers rated individual cruise ships on their cabin and facilities, food, service, itineraries and destinations, excursions and activities, and value. Those assessments were combined to generate results for the cruise lines in five categories; small-ship ocean cruise lines have vessels that can carry up to 249 passengers.

Australis wasn’t the only small-scale operation to achieve World’s Best status: Quark Expeditions, which specializes in voyages to the Arctic, Antarctica, and the Galapagos Islands, makes its first appearance. SeaDream Yacht Club, which has just two mega yachts that sail the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean, reappears after a three-year absence. And Grand Circle Cruise Line returns for the first time since 2009. If you're taking a cruise this year, remember that bigger isn't necessarily better.

No. 1: Australis

Score: 96.16

Australis has just one ship—the 210-passenger Stella Australis—but oh, the places it goes. One seven-night voyage from Ushuaia, Argentina, sails much of the same route as Charles Darwin's HMS Beagle through the Fuegian Archipelago. Guests can expect to see ice fields, fjords, and penguins on Magdalena Island and the Tucker Islets.

On a five-night wildlife-focused trip from Punta Arenas, Chile, you’ll visit a king penguin colony and even, weather permitting, disembark at Cape Horn. “The lectures were informative, the ship was great, and the crew and staff were amazing,” wrote one reader.

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