Facing Alaska's vastness can be a daunting prospect, as the state's wilderness is so huge, so extreme, that the only way to bring it down to a tangible level may be by going small.
Expedition cruises -- so named because they feel more like personalized outdoor adventure trips than typical port-based itineraries -- have long provided an alternative to the megaships that clog the Inside Passage. With fewer than 100 passengers, these ships focus solely on nature, and the crew often comprises wildlife guides or photographers. You'll wake up moored in quiet bays and coves instead of dockside near tacky jewelry stores. There are no formal nights here; dressing up on an expedition ship means putting on enough layers to withstand a glacier trek or a zodiac trip through iceberg-infested waters.
Sounds perfect, right? Yet I had doubts before my cruise on Wilderness Discoverer, a refurbished expedition ship launched by InnerSea Discoveries in 2011. I worried that I wasn't fit enough for the itinerary, which featured daylong kayak trips, rigorous hikes and standup paddle-boarding. I fretted how my stuff would fit in the cramped 8 x 10 cabin space, and I wondered if we'd find fun-loving people among our fellow passengers. (I get enough exposure to uptight outdoor fanatics at home in Seattle.)
Most of my fears were alleviated. My husband and I managed to enjoy the best features of an expedition cruise, while staying true to our lazy personalities. Activities were ranked by level, and we interspersed our time outside with lengthy afternoon naps. The ship's pastry chef kept up our calorie count; even with daily exercise, my husband gained 10 pounds. And, yes, we did find like-minded friends to share meals with -- although our bar bill seemed considerably less than what we've racked up on regular cruises.
Still, an expedition cruise isn't for everyone. If you're already in love with the glitz and glamour of a megaship, you'll be scared off by the no-frills style of a small ship. There are no casinos, nightclubs or specialty restaurants. And, if your mobility is compromised, an expedition ship probably won't be right for you, as many shore excursions rely on inflatable skiffs for "wet landings" on beaches or rocky shorelines.
But, if you're someone who looks askance at ships that dwarf the cities they dock in, the intimate size of an expedition cruise will delight you. Most of the people I talked to on Wilderness Discoverer had no interest in experiencing a typical cruise. They preferred to spend their vacations closer to the ground, with opportunities for hiking, biking and paddling.
To see if you're ready for an Inside Passage closeup, check out this list of expedition cruise pros and cons, based on my experience with Wilderness Discoverer.
You might love an Alaskan expedition cruise if:
You want to see wildlife. "We've got a pod of humpback whales ahead of us," the captain said over the ship loudspeaker. "So we're going to hang out here for a while." And so we did, staying in Frederick Sound for over an hour as the whales breached around us. Some came so close to the ship that I could hear air whistling from their blowholes as I sat in my cabin, watching them through my open window.
Such moments came all week. A harbor seal popped up in front of our kayak in Misty Fjords National Monument, coming so close that I almost bonked him with my paddle. Snorkelers scrambled out of a salmon-filled river, just as a mother bear and her cub wandered down to the bank. Eagle sightings were a daily occurrence. It's a serene way to connect with nature.
You can handle uncertainty and change. Because expedition cruises aren't focused on ports, they have more flexibility with their routes. The captain may lower anchor in a different bay than originally promised because the hiking trail there is in better condition. An optional excursion may be canceled because not enough people sign up.
If you're the type of traveler who checks your itinerary several times a day to make sure you're still on schedule, you'll resent this go-with-the-flow attitude. People who live in the moment will love it though, as your day can flow depending on your mood -- or the weather. On my trip, I pushed back a massage in favor of some paddling, simply because the sun came out. It's harder to change course on a dime when you're on a larger ship.
You enjoy quiet evenings. Happy hours on Wilderness Discoverer were well-attended, and passengers mingled, chowed down on snacks and yammered about the activities they did that day. Drink specials kept the bartender busy. But, after dinner, the bar cleared out, with only one or two couples remaining. A group of cousins onboard for a family reunion played a board game. All others retired to their rooms early, mostly to collapse, exhausted, into bed.
So no shows, no nightclubs, no staying up all night (unless you're on deck, searching for the Northern Lights). On many expedition ships, you're out of Internet and cell phone range; the InnerSea Discoveries ships only show ship-sponsored programs (naturalist talks, videos of the day's wildlife spotting, etc.) on the in-cabin televisions. Load up your Kindle; expedition ships are not the place for partiers.
You hate dressing up. I'm not sure which day I first left my room wearing socks without shoes. But at least I managed to put on pants; one teenager onboard with his family came to breakfast every morning in his Pink Floyd pajama bottoms. Suffice it to say that a formal night would never fly with this crowd.
The main labels you'll see on an expedition cruise are REI and North Face. Passengers dress for comfort, as the Inside Passage is notoriously rainy, even in the summer. Forget about heels or dress shoes; you're much better off with a pair of rubber boots. Let the young and athletic crew serve as your inspiration. Who knew XtraTuf boots could look so cool?
You like to learn on vacation. Some lines, such as Lindblad Expeditions, have biologists, photographers or naturalists onboard to give lectures and presentations. (Lindblad partners with the National Geographic Society.) On their Northern Passages itinerary, InnerSea Discoveries has a national park ranger provide interpretation as Wilderness Explorer travels through Glacier Bay.
You hate crowds. Get hives at the thought of spending time with 3,000 of your not-so-close friends? You're in luck. Expedition cruises have almost the opposite problem. Most ships carry fewer than 100 people; one of the yachts from American Safari Cruises has only 12 passengers. Of course, fewer people means that boisterous groups that already know each other will stand out. On our cruise, a family of 14 dominated many of the activity signups, leading to a grumble or two. But, by the end of the trip, I knew the names of almost all of the people onboard, which can lead to a wonderful feeling of camaraderie.
You should skip an Alaskan expedition cruise if:
You enjoy luxurious cabins. With the exception of the American Safari Cruises yacht fleet -- which boasts niceties like flat-screen TV's, Tempur-Pedic mattresses and heated tile floors -- many expedition ship cabins are on the utilitarian side. Our 8 x 10 cabin on Wilderness Discoverer had room for a queen-sized bed, a bedside table, a vanity ... and that's about it. (Although, to be fair, the large window that we could open made up for the cramped space.)
Other things that you generally won't find on an expedition ship: Mini-bars, room service, full-service spas, waterslides, zip lines, lawn courts, rock-climbing walls or any of the other popular bells and whistles that you see popping up on larger cruise ships. But who needs a fitness center when you're steps away from some of the best kayaking around?
You won't go outside in the rain. Alaska's Inside Passage is home to Tongass National Forest, more than 17 million acres of temperate rainforest. And you know what it does in a rain forest, right? It rains ... a lot. June and July are known to be drier than other months, but you should still prepare to get wet.
On our August cruise, we enjoyed several days of perfect, sunny weather. Yet the crew made it clear that activities would take place, rain or shine. Luckily, our group lived up to the challenge. At Yes Bay, snorkelers donned wetsuits in the drizzle, while others put on their water-resistant clothing for wildlife boat trips, hikes, guided paddles and stand-up paddle-boarding. Take it from a Seattleite: A little drizzle never hurt anyone.
You hate buying gear. "Are we really REI people?" I asked my husband as the bags from the outdoor store kept arriving. Rain pants, gloves, water-resistant leggings, fleece tops: We were acquiring a wardrobe completely out of touch with our sedentary lifestyle, at a significant cost. The worst offender? A huge pair of rubber boots. (Just try fitting them in your carry-on suitcase.)
And yet, we ended up wearing everything. The rain pants that I scoffed at came in handy when my kayak skirt dripped. The boots proved perfect for the deep mud that we traversed on Baird Glacier. The leggings kept me warm as our skiff maneuvered the icebergs in Tracy Arm. Best of all, we may actually use the gear again, as I've discovered that I really like paddling. Maybe we're REI people after all.
You want to be anonymous. When there are fewer than 100 people onboard, it's a little hard to hide. The Wilderness Discoverer crew took our pictures when we embarked and put them out to facilitate relationships. We even wore name tags for several days in a row.
Oh, introverts can still stick to their cabins. But with open dinner seating, you're likely to find yourself next to strangers once in a while. Most activities take place in groups, too, so chances are someone will strike up a conversation. The ships just aren't big enough to stay invisible.
You love shopping. The whole point of an expedition cruise is to get as close to nature as you can. You can pick up a few souvenirs before you board, but otherwise, you'll probably be out of luck until you disembark, which is probably a good thing. While our Wilderness Discoverer cruise did make a port stop in Wrangell, we simply wouldn't have had much room in our cabin for any elaborate purchases. We picked up our Tlingit print in Ketchikan after the cruise was over.
You want to save money. Expedition cruises are not cheap, especially compared to the recession-friendly deals that cruisers have received on big ships recently. The increased price goes for the small crew-passenger ratio, as well as the outdoor activities that are included in the cost. Plus someone has to pay for the tricked-out technology that you see on some of the ships. Lindblad has bow cameras, a hydrophone, Splash-Cam, underwater video camera and a video microscope, not to mention people onboard who are trained to use and interpret it all. Plus, you'll probably spend some money on gear, and plane tickets to smaller airports can add up.
With all of the one-of-a-kind experiences that you'll have on an expedition ship, though, you'll probably come away feeling that your money was well-spent. Most of my fellow passengers felt they received value for their money, as well as memories that they couldn't wait to share with others. And that's the true sign that a cruise turned out right for you.
--by Chris Gray Faust, Cruise Critic contributor and editor of travel blog Chris Around The World