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Travel

Take a Cruise on a Small Ship

Travel with professors on clippers, barges, yachts and other small vessels.

By Beth Brophy

Lewis Zirkle, 66, an orthopedic surgeon, travels around the world for work. So when he plans a vacation, he looks for something beyond the ordinary tourist fare. "I get bored without intellectual stimulation," says Zirkle, who lives in Richland, Wash. His answer: small-ship cruises that offer learning experiences.

Zirkle recalls a recent cruise to Micronesia on a 150-passenger vessel with his wife, Sara, 67, a pediatrician. On a visit to remote Easter Island, they listened in awe as their anthropologist guide described how he had led a dig that unearthed one of the famous ancient stone statues along the shore. "They had excellent study guides, with an impressive breadth of knowledge," Zirkle says.

If you love the idea of a cruise but can do without the unlimited buffets and casino nights, consider an educational experience on one of the many small-ship cruises offered by museums, cultural institutions and alumni associations. The Zirkles booked their trip through the Smithsonian Institution's travel program, Smithsonian Journeys (www.smithsonianjourneys.com), which offers 40 cruises a year. Other groups that have learning-cruise tours are the National Geographic Society (www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com), the National Trust for Historic Preservation (www.nationaltrust.org/travel) and the American Museum of Natural History (www.amnhexpeditions.org).

From Tall Ships to Riverboats

Prospective seafarers can choose from a wide menu of domestic and overseas cruises that cater to diverse interests and tastes, including art, history and the environment. Karen Hansen, vice-president of Grand Circle Travel (www.gct.com), a tour operator that specializes in travel for those 50 and older, says that half of the company's clients opt for small-ship tours. Many of the company's clients are veteran travelers who prefer cultural interaction rather than lavish entertainment, she says.

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Most of the vessels -- tall ships, riverboats, steamboats and yachts -- sleep 30 to 150 people. Smaller boats offer the advantage of sailing on rivers and docking in ports that can't accommodate big ships.

Nancy Taylor, 75, of Martha's Vineyard, Mass., recalls one trip to the Arctic with the American Museum of Natural History: "At the North Pole, the captain parked on the ice. We got out and had a picnic. Not many people get to do that."

No matter what your interest, there's likely a cruise for you. For a sampling, consider these upcoming journeys (costs do not include airfare).

Foreign policy buffs can rub shoulders with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Defense Secretary William Perry and other dignitaries on a cruise called the "World Leaders Symposium" (from $13,000 to $28,000). The 180-passenger luxury yacht will travel to Venice and along the Dalmatian coast from September 24 to October 5, visiting the sites that marked the Kosovo crisis and the breakup of Yugoslavia. The trip is sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and a few universities.

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If Asia is on your destination wish list, High Country Passage (www.highcountrypassage.com), an educational-tour operator based in San Francisco, is sponsoring a trip in December of "Vietnam & Cambodia: Hanoi to Angkor" (starting at $7,995). Passengers will cruise along Vietnam's coastline from north to south, and they'll visit the Imperial Citadel, headquarters of Vietnam's last dynasty, and a weaving workshop in rural Vietnam.

You can tour the wonders of the Ancient World with Smithsonian Journeys. "Ancient World by Sail" ($10,395 to $14,495), from July 23 to August 4, will take passengers from Istanbul to Athens on Sea Cloud, a tall ship. The tour will visit the Byzantine and Ottoman treasures of Istanbul, including the Hagia Sophia and the Hippodrome. In Athens, passengers can explore the Acropolis and the Parthenon.

For those staying stateside, Elderhostel (www.elderhostel.com) is sponsoring a trip in September of a tour called "One Lock at a Time: The Living History of the Erie Canal" (starting at $3,660). The 86-passenger ship will travel from Warren, R.I., through the Erie Canal and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Passengers will learn about the Hudson Valley's strategic position in the Revolutionary War, the politics behind building the Erie Canal and how the canal opened the Midwest to development.

Small-ship educational cruises are escorted by curators, professors or other study leaders who have connections with top-level experts around the world. Smithsonian travelers take VIP tours of museums, and on a recent Nile cruise, travelers with High Country Passage were taken to excavations not open to the public. "We offer behind-the-scenes elements through our own contacts," says Kathie Harvey, director of passenger services at High Country Passage.

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Besides her trip to the Arctic, Taylor has taken one or two cruises a year with the American Museum of Natural History. She extols the advantages of small-ship cruises-camaraderie, comfort and plenty of time for in-depth conversations with guides and other passengers. "The educational component is 100% of the time," she says. "At dinner, the study leaders recap what we've seen that day. And we get reading lists before we leave for the trip."

The trips don't come cheap, but you do get first-class accommodations and meals on the vessels. For the nights spent on land, the hotels are usually four or five stars.

The first step to finding a cruise that matches your interests is to check the Web sites of museums, cultural organizations and tour operators that specialize in academically focused travel. Most top universities open their trips to nonalumni. Sometimes, a university will join with another university or a museum, so you get double the expertise. If you want to bring the grandchildren, check for family-oriented cruises.

When you're comparing trips, ask for a full itinerary and for the academic background of the study leader. Also, make sure you understand how accessible the study leaders will be. On the best cruises, the study leaders hang out with the passengers at all times, even at meals. "Our passengers suck the knowledge out of them 24/7," says Amy Kotkin, program director of Smithsonian Journeys.

You should also figure out what's included in the price. You don't want to be surprised by crew tips, special excursions and extra meals.

Go to Kiplinger.com