Most people choose a big ship adventure the first time they go to Alaska. I did - the first and second visits! The first time we explored Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and College Fjord, the second time we ventured into Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka and Glacier Bay. I absolutely LOVED both trips! But now I'm ready to enjoy another side of Alaska... the uncrowded, un-touristy, down to earth, time for me, side of Alaska. This is what I consider to be the REAL Alaska.
A fantastic way to experience this side of Alaska is on a small ship adventure.
Unlike the big ships, these yacht like vessels can maneuver into waters only accessible by smaller ships, away from the crowds, off the beaten path. No tacky souvenir shops here!
A number of cruise options are available, from expedition, adventure and sail ships to charters and even a boutique tug. Whichever you choose, they all provide an intimate, informal and relaxed environment. Ships range from 10 passengers on up to 100 - perfect for multigenerational families, groups and couples alike. Some accommodate singles too.
So what is the lure of a small ship cruise? There are so many. Here are the top reasons:
Unlike bigger ships, small ships allow you to really get to know your fellow passengers. When you eat, drink and play together with a small group for a week, you have a great opportunity to learn more about your fellow guests. People love to travel with like minded people, and these trips often forge lifelong friendships. Likewise with the crew. High crew to guest ratios makes for great personalized service, but equally allows the guests to know and interact with the entire crew, including the captain.
Most of the small ship itineraries will include visits to top spots, Tracy Arm or Glacier Bay for example. Not being on an exact schedule however allows time to savor the beauty and explore areas the big ships can't reach or have time to see. Small ships also go into bays and inlets totally off limits to the big ships. Imagine, no other ships around - just you and nature. Most anchor overnight in these bays, and there is nothing better than waking up in the morning, going up on deck with that first cup of coffee or tea and getting a close up view of Alaska's unspoiled nature.
Amazing wildlife viewing
On the two big ship cruises I did see whales - orcas and a few humpbacks, but they were a distance away. Some friends on other cruises were more fortunate and saw them a bit closer in. However, whales are smart - they don't usually get too close to a vessel that could potentially endanger them. I could have taken a whale watching excursion, but the glaciers were calling me that day.
So imagine a pod of orcas swimming right next to your boat, or a group of humpbacks demonstrating their bubble netting technique or breaching right in front of you. This is a daily occurrence on small ship cruises. By being far more flexible and not on a set schedule, captains can move into areas where wildlife viewing is best for that day. Maybe a mamma grizzly and her cubs decide to play on the beach for a while. Yes, the captain can decide to enjoy the moment too without having to rush off.
From watching bears foraging on the beach to getting close enough to see eagles in the trees and sea lions checking you out, there is nothing more exciting than seeing the amazing Alaskan wildlife at a close (but safe) distance like what a small ship offers.
Activities onboard and off
While each line has their uniqueness, activities on and off the ships are similar in nature. Passengers can choose easy to difficult excursions, from hiking, kayaking and paddle boarding to skiff excursions and visits into quaint towns and native villages. Guests can do as much or as little as they would like to do. You can even explore what's under the water on a snorkeling excursion, and brave souls can take a Polar Plunge. Guest lecturers are on board some itineraries, taking the time to explain what was seen that day, sharing the history and wonderful cultural experiences the area has to offer.
Exceptional family experiences
Small ships adventures offer just that - fantastic adventures for the entire family, especially multi-generational groups. Unless you charter a boat, most of the lines suggest/require a minimum age of 8 to fully enjoy and get the most out of the experience. There are activities for all to enjoy and most importantly, enjoy together. They can be life changing experiences and memories of a lifetime.
Big ships do not have an exclusive on fabulous, gourmet food. These small ships offer great menus - often including fresh and sustainable foods from the region. If you like fish, nothing compares to fresh salmon or halibut from the cold Alaskan waters! Some of the itineraries are all inclusive as well, meaning soft drinks, beer, wine and spirits are included.
In a nutshell, small ship cruising in Alaska is exciting and unique. It offers the opportunity to experience a side of Alaska that most do not get to see, and gives you what many of us seek - memories of a lifetime.
Pictures courtesy of Alaskan Dream, Lindblad and Un-Cruise
Laurie Marschall - Owner and Founder