Life onboard an Alaska small ship, which typically would carry fewer than 100 passengers, is a far more relaxed experience than you find on a standard cruise. You wake up to the sound of birds instead of noise from the balcony next door. Your days consist of kayaking or hiking, rather than shopping and taking helicopter tours. Evenings are spent reading in your room or listening to a naturalist talk. And there's no need to buy a new cocktail dress, although you might spend just as much in outdoor gear.
The 2010 bankruptcy of Cruise West, a line which dominated the Alaska small-ship market for years, left a hole. Now, two years later, several cruise companies have come forward to fill the void. Here's a look at who's going where:
Alaskan Dream Cruises
Who: Now in its second season, Alaskan Dream Cruises started running multi-night, expedition-style cruises after company owner David Allen, of the established boat-building firm Allen Marine, acquired several Cruise West vessels in late 2010. The company, which is well established in Alaska and had long offered whale-watching day trips out of Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka, specializes in voyages that have a strong cultural component. (The Allen family are members of the Tlingit Kaagwaantaan Clan).
Ships: Alaskan Dream, formerly the Executive Explorer catamaran owned by Majestic America and Glacier Bay cruise lines, carries 42 passengers. Admiralty Dream, formerly Spirit of Columbia from Cruise West, has cabins for 66 people. Each ship has lounges for happy hours, as well as post-dinner lectures and programs.
Itineraries: The Sitka-based line offers seven itineraries. Ports of call include the larger cities of Ketchikan, Skagway and Haines, as well as Thorne Bay, Kasaan, Wrangell, Gustavus and Glacier Bay. Town stops include historical walking tours and cultural performances, while nature stops offer hiking and wildlife-viewing. Another unique offering is a day of activities with ATV's, sea kayaks and small power boats at the company's private "Adventure Base Camp" in Hobart Bay.
Web Site: www.alaskandreamcruises.com
American Cruise Lines
Who: Making its first Alaskan sail this season, American Cruise Lines has been running cruises in numerous areas of the country, including New England, Chesapeake Bay and the Columbia and Snake rivers. It's traditionally drawn an older crowd that's more interested in ports than adventure, and its Alaska sailings are heavy on narrated boat, coach and walking tours.
Ships: American Spirit, built in 2005, carries 100 passengers. Most of the staterooms have private balconies and, at an average of 243 square feet, they're billed as being among the largest in the Alaska arena. There's elevator service to all decks, a boon for seniors.
Itineraries: Roundtrip sailings out of Juneau, or between Juneau and Seattle, include stops in Glacier Bay, Icy Strait Point, Petersburg, Sitka and Tracy Arm.
Web Site: www.americancruiselines.com
American Safari Cruises/InnerSea Discoveries
Who: Headquartered in Seattle and run by Cruise West veterans Dan Blanchard and Tim Jacox, American Safari Cruises and its sister line, InnerSea Discoveries, have been the most aggressive in claiming the Alaska small-ship market by sending six ships into the area for the 2012 season. While it launched InnerSea Discoveries as an expedition line in 2011, the company is starting to unite all of its vessels under "The UnCruise" mantle (trying to appeal to people who might not normally cruise). The larger ships in the line feature built-in docks for kayaks and standup paddleboards, while the smaller yacht-style ships include drinks and a spa treatment in the fare.
Ships: Under the InnerSea Discoveries expedition-style label, the line has three ships. Seventy-six-passenger Wilderness Discoverer and 60-passenger Wilderness Adventurer both launched in 2011, enjoying sold-out seasons. In 2012, Wilderness Explorer, formerly owned by Cruise West as the Spirit of Discovery, joined the expedition fleet after extensive renovations that included cutting the number of passengers from 86 to 76. All ships have kayaks, standup paddleboards and hot tubs onboard.
An April 2012, fire consumed the smallest American Safari Cruises vessel, Safari Spirit, leaving the division with three ships. The newest, Safari Endeavour, is a renovation of Cruise West's Spirit of Endeavour and is the largest under the ASC umbrella, with 86 passengers. Safari Quest, the smallest at 22 passengers, and the 36-passenger Safari Explorer will also sail Alaska this season. The ASC vessels are meant to be more luxurious, with larger cabins and all-inclusive pricing.
Itineraries: InnerSea Discoveries has added a northern Inside Passage route this season that includes several days in Glacier Bay. (The American Safari Cruises itineraries will also stop there.) Most of the cruises sail between Ketchikan and Juneau, between Seattle and Juneau, or roundtrip from Juneau. The line doesn't do many typical "port of call" stops, but ships may visit Wrangell, Misty Fjords and Tracy Arm.
Web Site: www.innerseadiscoveries.com
The Boat Company
Who: Michael McIntosh started The Boat Company in 1979 as a nonprofit educational organization. What does that mean? A portion of the fare is tax deductible, and your trip will have a strong emphasis on conservation. This year, The Boat Company has partnered with Philippe Cousteau and EarthEcho International to create an educational program focused on the ecology of southeastern Alaska.
Ships: The company has two small ships, 24-passenger Mist Cove and 20-passenger Liseron. Both come with fishing equipment, so this might be your top choice if you want to spend a significant amount of time reeling them in. Past passengers have reported that the onboard chefs will cook your catch, and cleaning, packing and freezing your fish is included in the cruise price. (Orvis, the fly-fishing outfitter, occasionally sponsors trips.) An open bar is also included in the price.
Itineraries: The ships cruise between Sitka and Juneau, stopping for nature activities at places like Admiralty and Brothers islands, with glacier-viewing at Tracy or Endicott Arms along the way. There are no traditional port calls on these cruises, although the rates include your hotel for the first Saturday night you arrive. Your time is almost entirely spent on the water, with stops for hiking, wildlife-viewing and from-land fishing.
Web Site: www.theboatcompany.org
Who: Based in Seattle, Fantasy Cruises is owned and operated by Jeff Behrens, who also acts as the cruise line's captain. (His wife, Catherine, is onboard as cruise director.) The ship has a naturalist in residence, and a hummingbird feeder onboard is a good place to practice your nature photography skills. Besides its summer Alaska trips, the line runs cruises through Puget Sound's San Juan Islands in the fall.
Ships: Island Spirit carries up to 32 passengers. It has a panoramic top deck observation lounge, and each stateroom has a window that opens for fresh air. Wine is included with your meals, as well as daily cocktails. The ship is the only U.S. Coast Guard-licensed small ship allowed to use battery power to charge its public areas at night. That means Island Spirit can turn off its engine at night to preserve quiet. (Using battery power also reduces the ship's carbon footprint.)
Itineraries: Itineraries include cruises between Sitka and Petersburg, as well as Juneau roundtrips and repositioning cruises heading up from Seattle. Stops include Dawes Glacier, Tenakee Springs and Baranoff Warm Springs on Baranoff Island.
Web Site: www.smallalaskaship.com
Who: Lindblad, the company that has run all of National Geographic's cruises since 2004, pioneered the expedition-style cruise several decades ago, and it remains a leader in the field of naturalist-led travel. You'll find not just one or two naturalists onboard these cruises, but four or five. Plus, the line's new Undersea Alaska Program adds a marine specialist onboard, who will dive up to 80 feet down to collect footage that will be shared with passengers in the evenings. You'll definitely feel like you're on a learning vacation.
Ships: The Lindblad Alaska fleet includes Sea Bird and Sea Lion, both of which fit 62 passengers. These ships are known for being family-friendly, with more children onboard than similar small ships. (Although this type of vacation isn't a good choice for kids who need their electronics; you're out of cell range the majority of the time.) A National Geographic certified photographer is also onboard to help with those nature shots.
Itineraries: Most weeklong voyages embark in Juneau and end in Sitka, and vice versa. Stops include Petersburg, Glacier Bay and Tracy Arm. Denali National Park trip extensions are also available.
Web Site: www.expeditions.com
Maple Leaf Adventures
Who: Now for something completely different: Since 1986, Maple Leaf has been operating sailing cruises in British Columbia, the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) and the Alaska Inside Passage. Expect an even more intimate experience than on a regular small ship, and a program that is full of First Nation history.
Ships: The 92-foot-long Maple Leaf schooner usually carries eight passengers and four or five crewmembers. The ship has two inflatable boats for shore excursions and wildlife-viewing. Instead of cabins, a sleeping area has large bunks with walls on two and a half sides and thick, heavy curtains on the rest. Bathrooms are shared. Wine with dinner is included.
Itineraries: The line's 12-night Alaska itinerary travels from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to Sitka, with stops at Baronof, Kruzof and Kupreanof islands, as well as Ketchikan and Petersburg. The Maple Leaf has a permit to bring its cruisers to the Pack Creek bear-viewing area on Admiralty Island.
Web Site: www.mapleleafadventures.com
--by Chris Gray Faust, Cruise Critic Contributor