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Alaska cruise adventures aboard UnCruise's Legacy

Small-Ship Alaska Cruise Adventures.

By Judi Cohen.

The moment I arrived in sunny Juneau where my Uncruise “Glacier Country Adventure” would begin and end, I knew this would be no ordinary 7-night Alaska cruise. As we were welcomed aboard the 90-passenger S.S. Legacy, UnCruise owner Dan Blanchard flashed the cruise brochure and exclaimed: “These brochures are out of date as soon as they’re printed. Everything on the planned route is subject to change based on the weather, park permits and wildlife sightings — Mother Nature will be in charge.”

With no traditional “ports of call” during the 614-nautical-mile cruise, the Legacy would serve as a wildlife and adventure platform and our comfortable home.

Alaska cruise adventures aboard UnCruise's Legacy

The charming 90-passenger Legacy. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Introducing the SS Legacy

The 192-foot S.S. Legacy, built in 1984 (and renovated in 2018) as a replica of a Victorian-era steamboat, would have fit perfectly into an Alaskan Gold Rush movie.

While there was nothing fancy about the Legacy, I found her Victorian-style décor and furnishings exceedingly comfortable and welcoming.

Her four decks include a sun deck with two hot tubs, an exercise room and lounge chairs. An elevator between Decks 1 and 3 makes it easy for those with mobility issues.

Alaska cruise writer Judi Cohen aboard UnCruise's Legacy

Writer Judi Cohen at the bow of the 90-passenger Legacy. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

The dining room and Pesky Barnacle Saloon are on Deck 1, while the lounge and bar are set on Deck 2 along with some cabins. The rest of the cabins line Deck 3.

Most of the 48 passengers on my Alaska cruise were active and fit with an average age of 50. We had options for morning and afternoon excursions including free and guided kayaking, bushwacking, “yak and wack” (combo kayaking and bushwacking), and skiff tours — tours on small 12-passenger inflatable boats. Morning stretch class or yoga was offered on the sun deck.

An Alaska cruise on a small ship

Excursions by skiff were a daily event on Judi’s Alaska cruise. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Wonderfully All-Inclusive

Adventure equipment (kayaks, paddleboards and skiffs) were carried on a portable launch pad called the “Sea Dragon.” Equipment like walking poles and “Alaskan Tennis Shoes,” aka rubber boots, could be borrowed. And lessons and excursions are included.

Alaska cruise and kayaking excursions

Judi and Lawrence being lowered into the water off the Sea Dragon platform. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Wine, spirits, soft drinks, juices, snacks, coffee and tea are also included. Wine could be ordered by the glass or bottle and Kyle the bartender was open to all requests.

There was a signature cocktail in the lounge before dinner that we enjoyed with hors d’oeuvres daily. Coffee, tea and snacks were always available.

The busy Lounge and bar

Lounge and bar: a hive of activity all the time! * Photo: Judi Cohen

Naturalists & Crew

There were five naturalists and experts on board our Alaska cruise. They were our expedition guides, sharing their knowledge and passion about Alaska’s wildlife, plants and history on board and during our many excursions.

In addition, Kate Troll and Bill Hanson, Alaska residents since the 1970’s, were invited onboard to provide a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to live, work and play in Southeast Alaska. Called “Alaska Insiders,” they never ran short of interesting stories shared in the lounge, dining room and the bow, and during our excursions.

They told us about their careers in natural resources, and their lives as hunters and foragers. The pair spoke about changes in the glaciers, wildlife, local people, variety of salmon, and effects of commercial fisheries. I learned, for instance, that Alaskan salmon is the gold standard due to stringent sustainability legislation.

Kate read passages from her book, The Great Unconformity – Reflections on Hope in an Imperiled World, and spoke about the dramatic changes she has seen in Alaska.

Alaska cruise with UnCruise lecturer Kate Judi with Kate

Judi with Kate, one of the cruise’s “Alaska Insider” special lecturers. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

Bill shared a passionate story during a presentation about hunting for venison, discussing their connection to the land and the necessity to eat what they harvest. I was moved when Bill said “there is some sadness felt about killing a deer.” He explained the ritual of putting their favorite food in the deer’s mouth, placing his hand on the dead deer, and saying thank you for giving them food.

The Uncruise team, notably the expert guides, Sarah, Andrew, Jessie, Teresa, Bobby and the expedition leader, Megan, along with  Captain Tim Voss, were all vital in making our awesome Alaska cruise as memorable as it was. No doubt they loved what they were doing and encouraged us to try everything, going out of their way for first-timers like us.

They generously shared their experiences and knowledge during our excursions and onboard the ship. In the same spirit, the captain welcomed everyone in the bridge whenever we were sailing.

On cruising days, the captain excitedly announced wildlife sightings, as everyone poured out onto the bow or the top-deck of the ship. The guides were as excited as the guests to see and talk about the sightings.

Alaska cruise mountain goat sighting

Guides pointing out bearded mountain goats in Glacier Bay. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Alaska cruise wildlife

Bearded mountain goats in Glacier Bay. * Photo: Uncruise

Cozy  & Compact Cabins

Cabins range from 110 square feet to a 600-square-foot two-room “Owner’s Suite” on the sun deck with its own wet bar and library. All have outside windows, and accommodate singles, triples and quads. Each offers a private bathroom with shower, bathrobes, alarm clock, safe, small flat-screen TV with DVD player, and an iPod docking station.

My cabin (306) on deck 3 was a 145-square-foot “Commander” category, with a private bathroom with shower, and a window and a door opening to the outdoor promenade. With fixed twin wooden beds, storage drawers, small desk, and closet with a safe and binoculars (to borrow), we had room to move around and unpack all of our clothing and gear.

A nice surprise was that we could drink the water from all sources on the ship, including in our bathroom.

Cabin #306 aboard the 90-passenger Legacy

Judi’s cabin, #306. * Photo: Judi Cohen

I loved seeing the sunrise from the bow. It was my favorite place on the Legacy. With my hair blowing and the ship’s flag waving, all I could hear was the movement of the water and the call of seabirds.

There is something romantic about being out front on the bow. Day or night, it’s like having a front row seat to the greatest nature show on earth.

Alaska cruise with writer Judi Cohen on bow

Judi on the bow of the SS Legacy. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

One night, we were woken up with an announcement to get out on deck if we wanted to see the Aurora Borealis on the port side. Everyone scrambled from their rooms. Some came out in bathrobes, while others quickly threw on some clothes.

Alas, by the time I made it out the colors remained for only a few seconds, replaced by large white streaks of light in the dark sky. I guess seeing the Aurora Borealis will remain on my wish list for a future Alaska cruise.

The Grand Salon Lounge and Bar

The Lounge on deck 2 was the ship’s hub, with its welcoming bar area that comprised a small library with books and DVD’s (a good thing since there is no internet access on the Legacy). It was the gathering area not only for drinks, but also presentations, games and general relaxation. There were comfortable sofas, marble-topped tables, and large picture windows.

The Klondike Dining Room

The dining room on deck 1 was bright and warm with large windows, an old-fashioned tin ceiling, two-tone wooden pillars and carpeted floors. It featured a mix of booths along the windows with larger round tables in the center.

Dining Room with swinging doors into Pesky Barnacle saloon

Dining Room with swinging doors into Pesky Barnacle saloon. * Photo: Judi Cohen

I enjoyed sitting with different guests at each meal since there was no assigned seating. We regaled each other with stories about the day’s adventures and talked about the day ahead.

Swinging saloon doors from the dining room opened to the Pesky Barnacle Saloon with wrap-around windows and a poker room vibe. It was the perfect place to play cards or just enjoy the panoramic view. On our sailing, the space was also used as a place to gather before excursions, don lifejackets, put on sunscreen, and fill our reusable water bottles.

Getting ready in the Pesky Barnacle

Getting ready in the Pesky Barnacle lounge. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Mealtime was Pure Joy

With many active and fit guests on our Alaska cruise, there were healthy options that also satisfied cosmopolitan foodies like my husband and me. All of our meals were served in courses, like dining in a restaurant.

Breakfast was served at 7:30 or 8:00am depending on the planned activities, and always included choices of eggs, yogurt, fruit, bacon, and fresh squeezed orange juice. A daily omelette made with a choice of carmelized leek, manchego, artichokes, chorizo and other ingredients.

And if that wasn’t enough, there were frittatas with roasted peppers and a crispy kale topping, blueberry pancakes with whipped cream, a full English breakfast, and cornflake-crusted French toast with bananas foster topping.

Full Breakfast with all the fixins

Full Breakfast with all the fixins. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Lunch one day included bison chili, vegetarian chili or a mixed salad with hardboiled eggs, shredded chicken and tortilla strips. On another day we had the choice of BBQ brisket, pulled jackfruit with coleslaw, mac ‘n cheese, or a salad with sockeye salmon.

There were no bad choices! Delicious freshly-baked breads, pastries and desserts accompanied every meal.

Following happy hour in the lounge, dinner was served at 6:30pm. Our dinners always started with a homemade bread and an appetizer or antipasti board with cheeses like baked brie, gruyere or blue-cheese custard, nuts, poached apples or other jams and berries.

An appetizer shared board with blue cheese, date topping, carrot butter, fruit, nuts and fig bread

An appetizer shared board with blue cheese, date topping, carrot butter, fruit, nuts and fig bread. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Our plated dinner included a meat, fish and vegetarian option. I found it difficult to choose one night from among beef tenderloin with mushrooms and demi-fried shallots, Coho salmon with rhubarb marmalade and pickled strawberries, or the vegetarian beet Wellington with leek cream and roasted radish.

Two of my favorite meals were the pepper-crusted lamb popsicles with fenugreek curry and the poached ling cod with cilantro basil oil.

Lamb Popsicles with fenugreek curry and charred broccoli.

Lamb Popsicles with fenugreek curry and charred broccoli. YUM! * Photo: Judi Cohen

Our all-you-can-eat Dungeness crab dinner was both a gourmet treat and a learning experience as we mastered how to crack the claws and pull the meat out of the shells.

Dungeness Crab Dinner with guests from Australia, UK,and California

Dungeness Crab Dinner with guests from Australia, UK and California. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Chef Cooper kept bringing out large bowls of crabs. It was quite a messy job and I concluded that it would not be wise to order Dungeness crab on a first date!

Alaska cruise dining on Dungeness crabs

Chef Cooper with Dungeness crabs galore. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Desserts were beautifully presented and always worth saving room for. The pastry chef’s creations included pumpkin cake with fresh whipped cream; fruity pebbles, candy floss and root beer macarons; and salty toffee brownies that could all have come from the finest gourmet bakery!

Dessert, fruity pebbles and candy floss macarons

Delish dessert: fruity pebbles and candy floss macarons. * Photo: Judi Cohen

A Week of Non-stop Adventure 

Map from bulletin board, updated daily

Map from bulletin board, updated daily. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 1: Juneau

We were welcomed aboard around 4pm by the captain and crew, shown to our cabins and given a safety briefing. Before we knew it, our Alaska cruise had begun and we were on our way to Glacier Bay National Park.

With almost 15 hours of daylight at this time of year, we enjoyed the golden sunshine on the bow until late in the evening.

Day 2: Tidal Inlet & Glacier Bay National Park

We anchored in Tidal Inlet with breathtaking views of the snow-peaked mountains, rocky shores and the glassy smooth water for most of the day.

Alaska cruise reflections in the waters of Glacier Bay

Stunning reflections in the water in Glacier Bay. * Photo: Judi Cohen

I was very excited that my husband and I, along with nine other guests, chose to take the “Kayak 101” lesson with Bobby from the expedition staff. After 90 minutes we were both confident and comfortable in our kayak.

Judi and Lawrence in a Kayak

Judi and Lawrence at the Kayak 101 training, at Tidal Inlet in Glacier Bay. * Photo: Judi Cohen

We were thrilled to embrace this learning opportunity and could hardly wait to kayak again on our Alaska cruise.

Alaska cruise kayaking

Judi fell in love with kayaking on her UnCruise Alaska adventure. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

Following lunch, Ranger Caitie, who boarded at Bartlett Cove wearing her National Parks uniform, gave an orientation session on Glacier National Park. She noted that “only two large cruise ships, four small ships, and a few kayaks are allowed in the park at a time.”

So this part of the trip felt like a privilege, especially since we would be in the park for two full days!

Judi with Ranger Caitie before she departed in Bartlett Cove

Judi with Ranger Caitie before she departed in Bartlett Cove. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

As the Legacy sailed along Tarr Inlet in Glacier Bay, Kate pointed out the partially hidden Grand Pacific Glacier in the distance where Canada meets Alaska.

We slowly approached the majestic blue-veined Margerie Glacier and Ranger Caitie requested a moment of silence. We stood on the bow listening to the glacier grumbling and bergy bits growling and crackling in the water all around the ship; it was a highlight of my Alaska cruise.

Alaska cruise approaching Margerie Glacier

Approaching Margerie Glacier. * Photo: Judi Cohen

With the clear skies, we were able to see the snow-covered jagged peak of Mount Fairweather, the highest mountain in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

Lawrence on the sundeck

Lawrence on the sundeck. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 3: Lamplugh Glacier & South Marble Island

A planned morning skiff ride and beach walk near the magnificent Lamplugh Glacier quickly changed to just a long skiff ride after a brown bear was spotted a short distance away on the beach and another bear was swimming towards the beach.

We passed slowly by the odorous South Marble Island with lazy sea lions and seals making belching and farting noises. Meanwhile, loads of seabirds were flying overhead. Humpback whale blows and flukes could be seen in the distance.

Alaska cruise wildlife includes Sea Lions

Sea Lions enjoying the sunshine on South Marble Island. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Before lunch about half of the passengers and many of the staff did a “polar plunge” off the Sea Dragon into the frigid waters of Glacier Bay. The rest of us cheered them on (I have to admit, I hate cold water and couldn’t fathom jumping in!).

Alaska cruise UnCruise Polar Plunge

Polar Plunge in Glacier Bay. Brrrrr! * Photo: Judi Cohen

We then sailed to drop off Ranger Caitie at Glacier National Park headquarters in Bartlett Cove. Along the way we saw many bears digging for food on the shore — and we could see them without binoculars, that’s how close they were (this could never happen on a big-ship cruise!).

The sight of a mother brown bear with two fuzzy cubs was my best Mother’s Day gift ever! My Alaska cruise was even better than I had imagined.

Mama Brown Bear and Two Cubs

Mama Brown bear and two cubs on Mothers Day! * Photo: Judi Cohen

After dinner, we all went for a walk to see the Huna Tribal House on the shoreline of Bartlett Cove. We admired the carved totems and the exterior painting representing the stories of the Glacier Bay clans.

Guests walked along the one-mile Bartlett River shoreline trail or just relaxed on the sandy beach near the dock to enjoy the colors and listen to the sounds of the birds.

Huna House Bartlett Cove in Glacier National Park

Huna House in Bartlett Cove in Glacier National Park. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 4: Neka Bay Wildlife Extravaganza

The Legacy was anchored in the untouched wilderness and the quiet calm in Neka Bay. Our morning skiff tour turned out to be a wildlife extravaganza, with eagles, gulls, golden plover, pigeon guillemot, harlequin ducks and sliders.

Alaska Cruise Bald Eagle Sighting

A majestic Bald Eagle sighting. * Photo: Judi Cohen

We were treated to humpback whales blowing and breaching, and harbor seals and porpoises playing near our skiff.

When we returned to the ship, I decided to do some free-kayaking for an hour before lunch in magical and serene Neka Bay.

Judi and Lawrence free-kayaking in Neka Bay

Judi and Lawrence free-kayaking in Neka Bay.

In the afternoon we were dropped off on a rocky beach with an array of spitting clams, starfish that were 10-20 inches across, and red rock crabs. Here we would experience a two-hour bushwack.

Giant starfish on Judi's hat before bushwacking trek.

Giant starfish on Judi’s hat before bushwacking trek. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

Our guide yelled “aaayo” loudly many times to let any bears know that we arrived. Unlike a hike along a marked path, bushwacking required effort and attention as we made our own way through the forested and mossy undergrowth. We stopped to learn about the moss, fungus and flowers and even tasted some of them.

Judi bushwacking

Judi bushwacking! * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

I worked up quite a sweat and peeled off my layers of clothing right down to a T-shirt! When we made it to a clearing, we spotted a lumbering brown bear and quickly planned a detour back to our skiff.

Our many bear sightings were definitely a very special feature of an Alaska cruise on a small, nimble ship like the Legacy, that can meanuever close to shore.

We sailed all evening and night to Thomas Bay, also called “The Bay of Death” or “Devil’s Country.” As the story goes, early prospectors reported seeing “Kushtaka,” the shape-shifting creatures of Tlingit tribal legend that can take the form of man or otter.

We passed Huna, a fishing village, that is now a cruise ship dock with the longest zipline in North America. Thankfully we did not stop here!

Captain Voss announced that a pod of Orca killer whales were on our port side. He stopped the ship so we could enjoy them bobbing and moving gracefully. The guides even lowered a microphone into the water to hear them better.

Killer Whales portside - binoculars focused

Killer Whales port side: binoculars focused! * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 5: Scenery Cove & Baird Glacier 

Our morning excursion was a skiff ride in Scenery Cove, just in front of Baird Glacier. We navigated around large oddly-shaped grounded icebergs of many colors, which is only possible in a skiff with a very experienced operator familiar with the changing tides and water levels.

We did an easy guided hike in the afternoon up to Cascade Creek to see a winding waterfall that flowed from the top of the mountain down through rocks and forests. The mist from the waterfalls made the steep rocky stairs very slippery, so ropes were available along the sides for stability.

Hiking at Cascade Creek Alaska

Hiking at Cascade Creek. * Photo: Lawrence Cohen

Day 6: Robert & Crow Islands, Plus Woodspit

This morning our skiff was surrounded by dozens of playful Steller sea lions as we soaked in the lush green surroundings. We spotted Arctic terns, puffins, cormorants and murrelets and other birds.

Lawrence and Earl on a skiff

Lawrence and Earl on a skiff. * Photo: Judi Cohen

On our way to Woodspit in the afternoon, we were on a whale search and sure enough Captain Voss spotted a pod of Humpback whales.

Humpback Whale fluke

Humpback Whale fluke. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The breaching whales put on a show that lasted a couple of hours. The ship turned several times so we could get the best views.

What a show!

On the bow watching humpbacks

On the bow watching humpbacks. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Day 7: Endicott Arm & Dawes Glacier — The Highlight of my Trip!

This was the highlight of the trip for me as we sailed through the sapphire-colored near-frozen waters in Endicott Arm surrounded by turquoise icebergs. I was on the bridge as we sailed through this tranquil paradise with waterfalls, forests and ice.

On the Bridge with Captain Voss heading towards Dawes Glacier

On the bridge with Captain Voss heading towards Dawes Glacier. * Photo: Judi Cohen

On our skiff tour we heard the crackling of icebergs in the water as we moved closer to the face of Dawes Glacier — over 600 feet tall and a mile wide. We witnessed the thundering sound of the calving glacier when giant chunks of ice broke off and crashed into the water without warning, creating waves that rocked our skiff.

It was a sobering reminder of the reality of climate change and a dramatic way to end the cruise.

Day 8: Disembarkation in Juneau

When we disembarked in Juneau, Dan Blanchard took us on a fascinating tour of downtown Juneau pointing out the rich history of prospecting and gold mines. We had succulent Alaskan halibut and chips on the pier and took in our last views of the beautiful cloud-shrouded mountains, lush forest and choppy seas before our transfer to the airport.

Lawrence Cohen enjoying our last Alaskan Fish and Chips on the dock in Juneau

Lawrence Cohen enjoying our last Alaskan Fish and Chips on the dock in Juneau. * Photo: Judi Cohen

End Note

I was grateful for the opportunity to be unplugged and disconnected from my normal wired life, and reveled in reconnecting with my body and curious spirit on this very special Alaska cruise. Blessed with a week of sunshine, I enjoyed all of the adventurous activities and up-close wildlife sightings in the water, on land and in the sky.

My interest has been piqued, and I look forward to seeing more of the untouched wilderness and incredible miracles of Mother Nature in Alaska. I hope to return again one day for more adventure and genuine UnCruise hospitality!

UnCruise’s 7-night “Glacier Country Adventure” cruise starts at $4,795. per person; click here for more details.

Alaska cruise aboard UnCruise's Legacy

The Legacy is an excellent way to explore Alaska’s Inside passage.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

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UnCruise USC Kayaking

Cruising Alaska on a Small Ship

By Ted Scull.

Alaska, America’s largest state, is 2.5 times the land area of Texas and 430 times the size of Rhode Island, and unlike all the other states, except Hawaii, its mass is not contiguous to the Lower 48. For many folks, it appears to be two different states — the huge central portion that is most obvious on a map and location for the major cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks and Denali National Park, and the longish Alaskan Panhandle that juts southeast along the British Columbia coast. I

t is to the latter that most visitors go for the majestic sights of snowcapped mountains, deep fjords, the multiple moving tongues of ice in Glacier Bay, forests habitats to bears and moose, varied activities such as fishing, kayaking, paddle boarding and hiking, visiting native Alaskan communities and walking amongst those tall colorful totems, some recently carved to carry on the tradition.

The big cruise ships depart northbound for the Panhandle from Seattle or Vancouver or southbound to one of those two cities from Seward, a port just south of Anchorage. Many cruises are round trip from Seattle or Vancouver. Steaming time between the Panhandle and any of these three ports is two nights and one day each way. That necessarily limits the number of Alaskan port calls to three or four.

For the small ship fleet featured in QuirkyCruise, nearly all departures are from a prime Panhandle port, usually Juneau, the state’s capital, or Ketchikan. Both cities have direct flights from the Pacific Northwest. Being positioned in Alaska the week is spent entirely in the Panhandle making one of two port calls or landings a day.

These voyages are more expedition-style than the mainstream mega-cruise ships. Some small ships sail the Inside Passage to position themselves in the Panhandle for the summer, with a single voyage up in May and down in September, while most others spend the winter layup in Alaska.

Why Go? 

To experience America’s vast last frontier, a natural wonderland of fjords, mountains, forests, glaciers and wildlife.

The Panhandle’s prime cruising area is relatively small requiring just a few hours of sailing time each day to locate sea lions, sea otters and harbor seals basking on the rocks, watching black bears and moose come down to the water or spotting pods of whales and dolphins in Icy Strait. Getting close up views without putting them in danger is easy for highly maneuverable small ships.

While sailing along narrow fjords beneath steep cliffs you may spot a small herd of mountain goats high above you and ease close enough to waterfalls to feel the spray. At the far end of Misty Fjord come face to face with a calving glacier that gently rocks the ship as a block of ice drops into the sea.

When to Go?

The Alaska cruising season begins in May and tapers off in September. The earlier in the season the more snow that will be present on the lower mountain slopes, but the higher peaks are snow-capped year-round. Newborn wildlife will be clearly evident in the spring and early summer. Whales migrate north to Alaska in late winter and early spring, hence the May to September whale period coincides with the cruise season. There are fewer tourists early and late in the season and many more, including families, from mid-June to August.

The Alaska Panhandle has a maritime climate, which means more clouds and possible rain at any time, but little of the searing heat that visitors may face in Alaska’s interior. Mid-summer has the least amount of rain.

Cruising Alaska Itinerary Options

While most expedition cruises last a week, some are longer and others combine two different non-repeating itineraries to make two weeks. Coming all this way, think about adding a land package that takes in Denali National Park and the Alaska Railroad. The train operates between Anchorage, the state’s largest city, Denali and Fairbanks and is equipped with sightseeing dome cars. Denali, the tallest peak, at 20,310 feet (6,190 meters) can be viewed on a clear day from a low base camp altitude that is 1,000 to 3,000 feet, making the mountain’s vertical rise one of the world’s highest. Caribou, moose, Dall Sheep, wolves, and maybe grizzly bears, may be seen in the valley below the park’s access road. Fairbanks is the gateway to sternwheel steamer trips, rafting and a visit to a native Alaskan community above the Arctic Circle and the wilds of the Brooks Range.

Small vs Very Small in Alaska

The ships that we cover may carry as few as a dozen passengers on up to a couple hundred. A group of friends or extended family groups may like chartering their own small yacht with lines like Alaskan Dream Cruises. Those traveling on their own, as singles or as one or two couples, may prefer a larger vessel with more people to meet and a wider variety of activities offered at any one time, yet still small enough to call at isolated ports without the big cruise ship infrastructure that serves thousands.

Alaska Small Ship Port Overview

Many of Alaska’s destinations are not the ports but the majestic fjords, landing at wooded islands for mountain hikes and glaciers, including Glacier Bay that combines several glaciers with abundant wildlife. What follows is a brief description of the main port towns, all but Juneau relatively small, but be warned that some many have more population from the big cruise ships on big boat days than local residents.

  • Ketchikan. Starting from the south end of the Alaskan Panhandle, Ketchikan may be one of the most crowded port call when several massive cruise ships are tied up, and what you see is mostly a shopping mecca. Some small ship operators use this port and for embarkation or disembarkations. While Ketchikan has a lot of mining history and is known as the salmon capital of the world, the most worthwhile sights are the Tlingit village of Saxman, displaying totem poles and the town’s cultural past and the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, educating all ages life-like displays of rainforests, salmon streams, and native buildings.
  • Petersburg. A much smaller town, Petersburg has a Norwegian heritage that is kept alive with culinary, musical and dancing events with participants (often children) wearing traditional celebratory Nordic clothing. However, it is the fishing industry that is the lifeblood of the economy and the locals give small-group tours.
  • Juneau. Built up against a mountainside, the state’s relatively isolated capital with no road access to the outside world, offers a couple hundred miles of hiking trails, the large and receding Mendenhall Glacier just out of town, the Mt. Roberts Tram for spectacular views, several museums touting the state’s and immediate area’s cultural and gold-mining history, and plenty of shops to peruse. Juneau is often the start and/or end of the small ship cruises. If you’re hankering for a “flightseeing” floatplane excursion above the glaciers and mountains, Juneau is the place to do it because there’s a better chance of clear weather (they’re offered in Ketchikan too, but it rains a heck of a lot there).
Downtown Juneau with Mt Roberts Tramway. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Downtown Juneau with Mt Roberts Tram. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

  • Sitka. Its main claim to fame was serving as Russian America’s capital, and a thriving place Sitka was during that period. Then in 1867 the U.S. bought Alaska and the deal took place at Castle Hill, an historic site with remnants of fortifications and Baranof’s Castle was located. St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church is the most impressive holdover and an active center for church services. The original 19th century structure burned in 1966, and then rebuilt in pretty much its original style. If open to the public is well worth visiting for its religious artifacts. Just outside town, Sitka National Historical Park displays a collection of totems set in an attractive 100-acre heavily-wooded forest and the Haida and Tlingit peoples’ cultural heritage is on display here.
  • Skagway. The most northerly of the Panhandle towns, tiny Skagway was once the only coastal point to access the land routes to the Klondike region of northwestern Canada’s Yukon Territory — on foot over the Chilkoot Pass and White Pass or via the White Pass and Yukon Route, a narrow-gauge railroad that stretched all the way to Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon Territory. After gold was discovered in 1898 the railway line became the principal access route to the Klondike. The remaining portion of the line is Skagway’s main attraction for cruise passengers offering a highly scenic mountain and lake ride. The train also serves small groups of hikers. Architecturally, the town retains much of its gold rush atmosphere in spite of the hordes of milling tourists.

Alaska’s Fjords, Straits, Bays & Arms

Icy Strait. Located due west of Juneau and south of the entrance to Glacier Bay, the waterway teems with sea life because of its rich nutrients, orcas and humpback whales that come north in the spring to feed here, and coinciding with the start of the Alaska cruise season. Sport fishing is also a draw, and it is not uncommon to see bears and deer on the nearby shorelines. Small ships have the advantage of being much less of a danger to sea life, while their relaxed schedules permit extended dawdles to perhaps take a position in the very midst of a pod of whales.

Misty Fjord. Designated as a National Monument, a trip along the narrow passages bracketed by sheer cliffs that soar straight up two to three thousand feet, and though unseen, drop down to 1,000 feet below sea level. At the start of the season, the peaks will have a heavy overlay of snow that as it melts creates cascading waterfalls where a close approach can wash the decks. Located in extreme Southeast Alaska in the immense Tongass State Forest, the nearest port is Ketchikan off to the west.

A whale thrusts itself almost completely out of the water.

Tracy Arm.  Along with Endicott Arm, these two 30-mile-long fjords are located 45 miles south of Juneau in Tongass State Forest. Tracy Arm, the better known, is noted for the North and South Sawyer Glaciers that together cover nearly 20 per cent of the surface. In the summer, large and small chunks of ice break off and create a sea of floating ice that the small ships gingerly pass through to reach the face of the glacier and watch it calve. On shore, bears, wolves and harbor seals are often spotted, and if lucky, mountain goats may be staring down at you.

Glacier Bay.  The best known of all Alaska destinations is Glacier Bay, a vast national park with lots of wildlife, fjords and inlets, and no less that nine glaciers, both receding and advancing. The largest receding glacier is also the most famous, Margerie, where small ships stand off of to watch the calving ice collapse into the sea, while the Johns Hopkins Glacier is the longest advancing river of ice.

You can expect to see at least three-quarters of the most common wildlife — humpback whales that enter from Icy Strait, Steller sea lions. harbor seals, sea otters, harbor porpoise, brown and black bears, and if your National Parks guide spots them, mountain goats and moose. Look up to the west when approaching Margerie Glacier and spot the eternally snow-capped Mount Fairweather, at 15,300 feet, taller than any mountain in the Lower 48 states.

Alaska Small Ship Excursions

Generally, small ship Alaska cruises are more active, sporty and hands-on than their larger counterparts. Directly from a small ship, you board a Zodiac accompanied by a naturalist to look for wildlife at close range, or step ashore and take a hike in the temperate rain forest or form a fleet of a dozen kayaks to explore a nearby bay. Excursion options may also include bicycle and rafting tours.

Kayaking around the Wilderness Discoverer in Alaska. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

Kayaking around the Wilderness Discoverer in Alaska. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

Small ships spending the afternoon in Glacier Bay, after the big ships leave, often cruise up to multiple tongues of ice, while bald eagles, oyster catchers and blue heron soar above and wildlife comes down to the shore. National Park guides come aboard to supplement the ship’s own naturalist staff.

Flight excursions are super memorable if the weather cooperates. * Photo: Arun Sarna

The small ship fleet may call at towns and villages where big cruise ships cannot to see first-hand what remote native Alaskan island life is like or to experience Norwegian cultural traditions at Petersburg, a charming town where the fishing industry is still paramount and highly lucrative. Fishing trips can be arranged here and at other Panhandle towns.

Your small ship may call at ports where the big ships dock too — such as Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway — though organized activities are kept as separate as they can from the milling hoards.

Ted’s Favorite Small Ship Alaska Moments

Sailing into a fjord, one never knows what lies around the corner, and then you see a slim waterfall or maybe two, one cascading down the cliff face and the other in free fall, a glacier at the far end and another narrow passage forking off from the main channel.

The most serene times of day are early morning and at sunset when the ship is at anchor, and the solitude of the Alaskan wilderness can settle in around you. If I am in a kayak, I like resting the oars and taking in the stillness, sights and sounds of nature — a family of ducks serenely gliding along, dolphins cruising by, and startled fish erupting skyward. On clear evenings, stand at the ship’s railing and watch the moon above reflected in the calm waters below. At times like these you don’t want your expedition voyage to end.

Heidi’s Favorite Small Ship Alaska Moments

My first small ship cruises more than 20 years ago were to Alaska and they got me hooked. One I took with my father, and I still remember the serenity of walking through Sitka’s National Park, dwarfed by the cedar trees and totem poles, and smitten with the cool fresh air and simple but profound beauty of the pristine forest. Another day in Petersburg, we went on a fishing excursion with just four other passengers, on a trawler operated by an endearing couple who looked like Mr. and Mrs. Clause. They helped us catch crabs and then cooked them up for us right on board to eat in the tiny galley with melted butter and plastic cups of white wine. It may have been dreary and drizzly outside, but we were warm and happy clams that afternoon. Still one of my favorite cruise memories of all time.

Small Ship Lines That Serve Alaska

Abercrombie & Kent
Alaska Dream Cruises
Alaska Marine Highway (regular ferry routes on ships with cabin accommodations)
American Cruise Lines
Lindblad Expeditions
Silversea Expeditions
UnCruise Adventures

These lines range from operating a single ship to a small fleet, with the latter naturally offering many different itineraries and the possibility of returning for a second expedition cruise in another area and with a different thrust.

Read More About Cruising Alaska on a Small Ship

Alaskan Dream Cruises Adventure by Lynn & Cele Seldon

Alaska Cruise Adventures with UnCruise by Judi Cohen

Finding My Route to Alaska by Car, Ferry, Trains & Small Ship

Small Ships vs Big Ships in Alaska

Definitely an UnCruise Adventure: Safari Endeavour to Alaska is a Wonderful Small Ship Cruise 

 

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