The hot topic in the cruise industry this year is the spawning of the Little Fish, those smaller and more intimate vessels that accommodate 100 passengers or so in cozy environs. They are an antidote to that sea of 1,000-plus strange faces and the nightclub atmosphere of clinking ice and rolling dice -- not to mention the standard cruise itineraries.

This new breed has brought a renaissance of local shipbuilding, albeit on a small scale, and a renewed interest in the beauty and history of the extensive American coastline. The smaller ships stick close to shore, and their size enables passengers to relive water travel the way it used to be. These yacht-like vessels also offer a more casual and restful ambience, fresh regional fare and cabins with large picture windows.

During the summer season, these ships can be found in Alaska and the northwest or along the northeast coastline, as well as on rivers and lakes. Winters are spent in the warm waters of the Bahamas, around Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, the Mexican Riviera, even as far as French Polynesia and the Panama Canal. The itineraries are all very special and the people behind them quite ingenious.

So leave your spangles and spats behind, along with preppie, yuppie and other pretensions.

Luther Blount, the man behind American Canadian Line, has been designing small ships since the late '60s. They feature a shallow draft (six feet) and a bow that opens right onto the beach, enabling the 72 passengers aboard the New Shoreham II to don snorkeling gear and step right into the blue-green Bahamian waters during 12-day out-island adventures. Blount's newer vessel (1983), the 80-passenger Caribbean Prince, has the same design for 12-day circumnavigations of Jamaica, sailing four to five hours daily and anchoring in a different private cove each evening.

During the summer months, the New Shoreham II sails among the historic islands of New England from its home port of Warren, R.I., as well as on an ambitious route that takes passengers up the Hudson River to the Erie Canal, then across Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers. Meanwhile, the Caribbean Prince has re-pioneered cruises of magnificent Georgian Bay in Lake Huron, between Detroit and Owen Sound.

Both vessels appeal to the active set, who like to interact during the day and relax in the evening. Meals are family-style and there is a bring-your-own-bottle policy for the cocktail hour in the main lounge, where a player piano is the premier attraction. All cabins have private facilities and most have large picture windows. The ships are air-conditioned and obviously constructed with great care.

Entrepreneur Charlie Robertson, a former airline pilot who was fascinated by shipyards as a youth, began American Cruise Lines of Haddam, Conn., in the mid-'70s with the 49-passenger American Eagle. He also operates the 78-passenger Independence, 83-passenger America and the brand new 132-passenger Savannah, all built in his own shipyards in New England and the Chesapeake Bay.

The fleet sails all summer from Haddam to the islands off New England, and then repositions in Baltimore for cruises along the Intracoastal Waterway and to Savannah. At some of the towns along the route, members of the local historical society offer a personal touch as they guide passengers on walking tours. The elegant Savannah, built like a riverboat with five deluxe lounges and large picture windows everywhere, will sail from New Orleans up the Mississippi this winter. The new one-week itinerary calls at Baton Rouge and Natchez en route to Vicksburg.

Not yet a year in service, the 100-passenger Newport Clipper is the first of three yacht-like vessels planned for the new Clipper Cruise Line, a subsidiary of the St. Louis-based tour company known as Intrav.

These Clipper ships, all crafted by Jeffboat Shipboat in Jefferson, Ind., offer a new level of coastal cruisers: Life is still relaxed aboard, but the atmosphere is slightly more elegant. For example, there is a bar off the lounge, some entertainment in the evening and assigned seating at dinner.

The food is geared for the American palate, and there are plenty of local specialties. The vessels were created to attract sophisticated passengers who just want to explore the historic towns along the U.S. shoreline. There is plenty of space on board, and a fresh and eager crew.

Beginning Dec. 1, the Newport Clipper will sail weekly year-round from St. Thomas around the beautiful coral reefs, sandy beaches and tropical waters of the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. On that day, the Nantucket Clipper will be commissioned for Virgin Island cruises during the winter season and eastern-seaboard sailings the rest of the year. Next April, the Nantucket Clipper returns north for one- to two-week cruises of the Colonial South, the Chesapeake Bay, from Boston to the New England islands, along the Intracoastal Waterway and from Florida. In 1986, the Charleston Clipper is due to join the fleet, but no program has been announced.

Based in Hyannis, Mass., in the heart of Cape Cod, Coastwise Cruise Line is a natural extension of the popular Hy-Line day fleet of 14 small passenger vessels operating out of eight ports from New England to Florida. The company's first overnight vessel, the 110-passenger Pilgrim Belle, is still under construction in Mobile, but is scheduled for service Dec. 12 in southern Florida. The Belle is designed in the style of the classic turn-of-the-century coastal steamers, both inside and out. Although diesel-powered, the vessel is intended to evoke a "Steamer Class" style of travel.

During the first season, the Pilgrim Belle will sail each week between West Palm Beach and Fernandina Beach, before offering some 10-day Intracoastal Waterway and Colonial South sailings between Alexandria, Va., and Savannah, Ga., in the spring. From June through September, the Belle departs weekly from Hyannis for Plymouth, Provincetown, Newport, Block Island, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Fall foliage cruises sail up the Hudson to Kingston, N.Y., and West Point, and then around the Chesapeake Bay area.

Out on the West Coast is the young and energetic Exploration Cruise Lines, whose fleet has grown rapidly the past few years. Exploration is a division of Alaska Tour and Marketing Services, the largest of its kind in the state. First of the fleet was the 64-passenger Glacier Bay Explorer, which offers passengers the only bird's-eye view of Glacier Bay National Park.

Then this new cruise division had three 88-passenger sister ships -- Pacific Northwest Explorer, Great Rivers Explorer and Majestic Explorer -- designed and built in the Seattle area. During the summer months, the ships stay in the rugged Northwest, offering three-, four- and seven-day cruises in Alaskan waters, in the California Delta between San Francisco and Sacramento, and along the Columbia, Willamette and Snake Rivers following the historic route of Lewis and Clark.

True to its name and philosophy, Exploration Cruise Lines offers real adventure. During the winter season, the Majestic Explorer follows in the wake of Captain Cook from Papeete to Huahine, Bora Bora, Raiatea, Tahaa and Moorea, while the Great Rivers Explorer cruises the Panama Canal and San Blas Islands. Meanwhile, the Pacific Northwest Explorer is on charter in January and February to Sven Olof Lindblad's Special Expeditions to observe the wildlife and ecology of Baja California and the Sea of Cortez.

The Sea Goddess I, frankly touted as a ship that's not for everyone, began service on schedule last spring in the Mediterranean. The company is Norwegian and the 120-passenger vessel was built in the Wartsila Shipyard of Helsinki, Finland. The all-suite accommodations have such niceties as a stereo and VHS system, as well as a private well-stocked bar. (A request for your favorite brands is sent with the tickets.) The atmosphere on board is intended to simulate an exclusive private club. You may be rubbing elbows with such personalities as Arianna Stassinopoulos, Arthur Schlesinger, Shirley Lord, Jean Louis and any number of minor royalty whose names appear on the International Advisory Board.

However, this is only possible if you fit the proper mold: a six-figure income and a willingness to spend $3,600 per person for a one-week Caribbean cruise this winter or $4,000 per person for a one-week Mediterranean cruise next summer. The price does include as much as you care to imbibe in seven days, including selected wines to accompany gourmet meals.

There are few planned activities on board, but there is music with dinner and dancing afterward in one of the lounges. A retractable dock allows water skiing, wind surfing and snorkeling with equipment provided.

Beginning Oct. 20, Sea Goddess I will be based year-round in St. Croix for weekly departures on two different routes -- one to the Grenadines and the other to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and St. Maarten. Next May, Sea Goddess II arrives in Malaga, Spain for one-week cruises to Monte Carlo, Civitavecchia (for Rome), Piraeus (for Athens). The ports of call were chosen so passengers can mingle with the beautiful people of the Spanish, French and Italian rivieras, and why not? What other cruise line had Princess Caroline of Monaco throw an inaugural fete in the courtyard of her father's palace?

No strangers to American historic waterways are the venerable Delta Queen, the only vessel listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and her younger sister, the Mississippi Queen. Both travel the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, covering some 30,000 miles and touching upon 14 states each year. Although the Delta Queen Steamboat Company of Cincinnati is not new, it is impossible to mention the small craft of North America without paying serious tribute to these two paddle-wheelers.