While many cruisers have their first glimpse of Alaska through bigger ports such as Ketchikan and Skagway, there have always been those who want to take the route less traveled through the Inside Passage. Enter small ships. Able to dock in isolated bays and tiny cities like Petersburg and Wrangell, small ships provide more intensive -- and usually more expensive -- ways to explore Alaska's coast.
Life onboard an Alaska small ship, which typically carries 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 on outdoor gear.
Fortunately for adventurous travelers eager to embark on Alaska expeditions, several cruise companies offer these intimate, nature-focused experiences. Even better, the lines are expanding their fleets, as well as their itinerary and excursion offerings. Here's a look at Alaska's small ship cruises and where they're going.
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Alaskan Dream Cruises
Who: Owned and operated by a family of native Alaskans, Alaskan Dream Cruises specializes in voyages that have strong community and cultural components. (The Allen family is a members of the Tlingit Kaagwaantaan Clan.)
Ships: Alaskan Dream Cruises operates a fleet of small, expedition-style ships. The line welcomed a new ship (its largest yet) for the 2016 sailing season: the 74-passenger Chichagof Dream. Alaskan Dream, formerly the Executive Explorer catamaran owned by Majestic America and Glacier Bay cruise lines, carries 42 passengers. Admiralty Dream has cabins for 66 people. The 143-foot Baranof Dream carries 49 people. And the line's expedition vessel Misty Fjord carries 12 passengers and features a hull modeled after that of Alaskan commercial fishing boats. With the exception of Misty Fjord, each ship has lounges for happy hours, as well as post-dinner lectures and programs.
Itineraries: The Sitka-based line offers five itineraries plus a special family-focused cruise called "Become a True Alaskan" that features an onboard Youth Expedition Leader. 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 and demonstrations, while nature stops offer hiking and wildlife-viewing.
More About This Line: Alaskan Dream Cruises
American Cruise Lines
Who: American Cruise Lines operates cruises in numerous areas of the country, including New England, Chesapeake Bay and the Columbia and Snake rivers. Its Alaska offering includes Inside Passage and Southeast Alaska sailings. The line has traditionally drawn an older crowd 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 through Alaskan waters. 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: Round trip sailings out of Juneau, or between Juneau and Seattle, include stops in Glacier Bay, Icy Strait Point, Petersburg, Sitka and Tracy Arm.
More About This Line: American Cruise Lines
Who: Headquartered in Seattle, Un-Cruise Adventures offers sustainable small-ship expeditions focused on local culture, regional cuisine and nature. 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: The line has nine ships; six of those offer Alaska itineraries. Seventy-six-passenger Wilderness Discoverer, 60-passenger Wilderness Adventurer, 74-passenger Wilderness Explorer, 36-passenger Safari Explorer, 84-passenger Safari Endeavour and 22-passenger Safari Quest (a 120-foot yacht) all have kayaks, standup paddleboards and hot tubs onboard.
Safari Quest is the smallest and most intimate of Un-Cruise's Alaska fleet, with a 2:1 guest-to-crew ratio, plus luxuries such as heated bathroom floors and iPod docking stations.
Itineraries: Most of the cruises sail between Ketchikan and Juneau, between Seattle and Juneau, or round trip from Juneau. The line doesn't do many typical "port of call" stops, but ships may visit Wrangell, Misty Fjords and Tracy Arm. In addition, the line offers a post-cruise Denali package that departs from Fairbanks.
More About This Line: Un-Cruise Adventures
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.
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 in the day's catch. 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, all shore tours, hotel accommodations and airport transfers are 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; your time is almost entirely spent on the water, with stops for hiking, wildlife-viewing and from-land fishing.
More About This Line: The Boat Company
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 batteries to power 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 round trips and repositioning cruises heading up from Seattle. Stops include Dawes Glacier, Tenakee Springs and Baranoff Warm Springs on Baranoff Island.
More About This Line: Fantasy Cruises
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 "Big Picture Alaska" itinerary features a team of professional photographers onboard to help you snap the best possible shots.
Ships: The Lindblad Alaska fleet includes Sea Bird and Sea Lion, both of which fit 62 passengers. The larger, newer National Geographic Quest, added in 2016, carries 100 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.)
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.
More About This Line: Lindblad Expeditions
Maple Leaf Adventures
Who: 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.
Swell, a unique 88-foot converted tugboat, carries up to 12 guests in six private en-suite cabins. The classic wooden construction of the vessel has been maintained, and cabins are paneled with wood. There is a hot tub on the aft deck.
Itineraries: On the line's nine- and 11-night Alaska Supervoyage itineraries, Swell travels between Prince Rupert (British Columbia) and Sitka, and between Sitka and Ketchikan, with stops at Baranof, Kruzof and St. Lazaria islands. Maple Leaf has a permit to bring its cruisers to the Pack Creek bear-viewing area on Admiralty Island. Maple Leaf also offers eight-night Inside Passage voyages between Petersburg and Sitka, and between Petersburg and Prince Rupert.
More About This Line: Maple Leaf Adventures
--Updated by Caroline Costello, Cruise Critic contributor