Have you ever seen a Blue-footed Booby up close or docked in a port where turquoise water meets medieval relics? If you answered, “Not yet,” consider setting sail by small ship, one of my favorite ways to travel in North America and far beyond.

What’s so great about nimble ships? In a word: Access. Whether you’re exploring on a mega-yacht or aboard a small expedition vessel, you can close-cruise scenic coastlines and dock in off-the-beaten-path ports where the big ships can’t fit. Here are some favorite spots to reach by small ship.

#1. Trogir, Croatia

Gorgeous is really the best way to describe Trogir, a small town on the Adriatic coast of Croatia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Trogir is tucked inside medieval walls on a tiny island surrounded by crystalline blue water and steeped in rich history dating back thousands of years. This gem was once known as the ancient town of Tragurion (island of goats) and was founded by Greek colonists in the third century B.C.

On a small vessel, you can dock right in town, far from the big ports jammed with ocean liners. Walk along the breathtaking waterfront to sites where history comes alive. Narrow marble streets lead to well-preserved Romanesque churches, and Renaissance and Baroque buildings provide a glimpse into Trogir’s Venetian past.

Does this seem familiar? Trogir has been the backdrop for plenty of movies and TV shows, including the popular Game of Thrones.

#2. Mackinac Island, Michigan

Hop in your time machine and drift back to the Victorian era on Mackinac Island (pronounced Mack-i-naw). This tiny treasure sitting in Michigan’s Lake Huron is unique not only because of what it offers, but more notably because of what you won’t find. Motor vehicles were banned in 1898, lending the 3.8-square-mile island a special charm that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

The entire island is listed as a National Historic Landmark, and the best way to get there is, of course, by small ship. Once you’ve docked in port, the best way to get around Mackinac is by horse-drawn carriage, by bicycle or on foot.

The island boasts rich Native American heritage, and its prime spot in the straits between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron once made it a prized port in the North American fur trade.

Take my word for it: If you decide to go, allow yourself to indulge in the fudge you smell wafting from those charming shops. Totally worth it.

#3. The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

There’s no other place on earth like the Galápagos Islands. An archipelago of 19 islands and islets off Ecuador’s coast, the Galápagos are a living museum showcasing the world’s extraordinary biodiversity. No wonder this natural reserve inspired Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

There are bountiful learning opportunities. You’ll find rare and captivating landscapes like black volcanic rocks and white sand beaches. And the locals are quite memorable, to say the least.

The Galápagos Islands are home to rare creatures, many found nowhere else in the world. You’ll find the Blue-footed Booby, which uses those blue feet to protect its chicks, plus rare giant sea turtles, the incredibly long-lived but endangered Galápagos Tortoise and enormous marine iguanas, which live only on the Galápagos Islands.

You’ll never see an ocean liner here. Human impact is kept at a minimum, making smaller vessels the only way to explore this natural wonderland.

#4. The Alaskan Wilderness

Sure, the big ships can bring you to Alaska’s largest ports, like Juneau and Skagway, but nimble small ships can anchor in remote wilderness and voyage farther into off-the-beaten-path landscapes.

On an agile, small vessel, you can venture deep into areas like awe-inspiring Tracy Arm Fjord, where icy waters are dotted with glistening glaciers and surrounded by snow-capped peaks. Sail down this narrow inlet for 30 miles through some of the world’s most dramatically scenic landscapes.

This kind of up-close-and-personal experience is not possible on a big ship, and it also affords plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife. Inhabitants you might meet include whales and sea lions, seals, bears, wolves, mountain goats and more. Don’t forget to look up for a chance to spot bald eagles soaring above.

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JoAnn Bell

JoAnn Bell is Senior Vice President of Program Development at Road Scholar