My husband and I have traveled widely but never taken a cruise- we were always turned off at the prospect of mega-ships, crowds, long lines, activities that didn't interest us, and nickel-and-dime extra fees for everything. We ordered Innersea Discoveries' DVD on Alaska and were sold within 3 minutes of viewing it. We were not disappointed. Here's what we experienced.
Embarking/Disembarking: remarkably fast. Not impressed with "hospitality suites" at either end, which were really a large, chaotic meeting room with coffee and water available and a lot of people and luggage sitting around.
Your fellow passengers: a smart, down-to-earth, curious group of people. Occasional references to their day jobs (or previous jobs) led you to believe there were some pretty high-powered people in the crowd, but no one flaunts anything here. Age ranges all over the board, average age probably 40 with some seniors (especially grandparents in family groups) and enough teenagers to keep a poker game going for most of the trip. The kids were wonderful- clearly the parents who had chosen this expedition knew their kids were they type who would enjoy the adventures. One intrepid 10-year old boy made the "polar plunge" off the ship 3 times.
Things you can borrow from their supplies at no charge: insulated metal water bottles, hiking sticks, binoculars, boots. The boots are worn only with socks; bring some heavy wool ones. I didn't own hiking boots and these were perfect for climbing in and out of streams and occasionally sinking ankle-deep into muskeg (soft, spongy peat). A good pair of hiking boots would have been waterlogged and muddy. The snorkeling expedition includes the use of a well-protected wet suit appropriate for use in Alaska. Locally themed books and a wide variety of movie DVDs are also available to borrow in the lounge. A hair dryer is in each room.
Food: Finally, after seeing way too many menus on land in Alaska where everything was fried and a vegan would starve, on board our ship there were plentiful portions of food that was truly good in both senses: made from fresh ingredients, and with enough options for people who wanted to eat healthy. One lunch was fresh-baked pita bread, curried chickpeas, Greek salad, chicken souvlaki, and tzatziki, a wonderful Greek sauce made with yogurt, dill and cucumber. Dessert was ginger-chocolate cookies. There were always some type of hors d'oeuvres at cocktail hour; once there were hot pretzels, which apparently required most of the crew to put together the night before. Another time there were oysters purchased from local vendors who came on the boat and talked about their work. They were available raw or grilled (with the captain manning the grill).
Staterooms: Our room was the cheapest class on the ship; it was on the lowest level but still above the waterline with a nice-sized window. We realized that the two floors above us had rooms with windows facing out onto public walkways, which meant that if you wanted privacy you had to close your curtains. Our floor had only a tiny rail running around the outside of the ship with a handbar running up above it for crew use. It was, however, on the same level as the engine so a little noisier. We liked where we were and were happy to find that everything important fit into the room, or on hooks outside, or in the lockers up top where we stored the PFDs (personal flotation devices) for kayaking, our boots and our rain gear. The area under the bed also provides generous storage for a suitcase.
Because the ship is small, everything was close by and there were no elevators. Our room was so convenient to everything we never even used one of the few public restrooms.
Weather: unpredictable. We got much better weather than average on our trip, which was the second week in July. When we left Ketchikan it was miserable and rainy. We rarely saw those conditions after that and had a couple of days of full sunshine and air temps in the 50s. A couple of times the captain changed plans slightly to get into an area with better weather or to stay longer than planned if the area was sunny. I was out in shorts and a light jacket on the paddleboard one day and was fine. You really do need to pack layers to prepare for anything. Include a pair of sandals or flip-flops for getting around the ship; they're very informal on board but do require footwear in the lounge. My husband brought a parka and never used it; the day we went out near the glaciers in skiffs, we just loaded up all our other layers, including rain gear, and were comfortable.
Activities: my husband and I have very different fitness levels- he's 15 years older and has a bit of a balance problem- and we both had a great time. I did just about everything in the promotional material- guided kayak tour, independent kayaking, paddleboarding, snorkeling dressed like Jacques Cousteau in heavy neoprene, hiking in caves and around boulders and logs, skiff tours. My husband took the lighter hikes, skiff tours and kayaking. This is all apparently quite dependent on weather, so we were blessed. The staff was pretty accommodating; they ended up going out with 3 different groups for snorkeling due to high interest. If there's something you REALLY want to make sure you do, let them know before they make up the schedule the night before. They're very good about describing difficulty levels, in detail so you get a good idea of whether it fits your own skill and fitness level.
Extras: almost nothing is extra. The snorkeling was $30 per person and an overnight campout was $150 but had no takers. Alcohol is reasonable. Espresso is $2. Just about everything else is included.
Staff: an amazing group of people, passionate about Alaska and about the ship. All mingled with the guests and answered questions; most made presentations on their area of expertise (intertidal marine life, salmon, etc.) or gave tours of their area (the engine room, the kitchen). The Chief Mate managed the entire project of taking the decrepit vessel bought from a bank that had foreclosed on it and left it sitting in the water for 5 years, retrofitting it for the kind of travel they wanted to provide. She participated in a lot of the manual labor and showed pictures of the work as it progressed. The pastry chef shares his recipes. The bridge was open to guests at any time. While each crew member had a specific job description, they all pitched in and did what was necessary. Four of the crew (besides the captain) had licenses that qualified them to pilot the ship. Some had multiple degrees in areas such as marine biology.
Stability: I've probably got average susceptibility to seasickness and was fine. One night I woke up vaguely queasy, reminded myself we were on a boat, and went back to sleep. I heard later we'd gone through some swells. One night rough weather was expected and a bowl full of packets of motion-sickness pills was set out on the bar, leading to a few joking reminiscences about parties in the 1980s. They ended up going on the lee side of islands to minimize turbulence; I felt the motion and had taken the pills but it was like being rocked to sleep.
Wildlife: one group saw a bear and 3 cubs; the rest of us saw mostly moose and bear droppings but no moose or bear! That's nature, though. If you want animals to come out and pose for you, go to the zoo. We saw plenty of whales, bald eagles, otters, a few porpoises, a variety of birds, and sea lions. I could write a whole 'nother paragraph on the beautiful wildflowers and the awe-inspiring rock formations.
We will do this again. If you want a cruise where someone will fold your jammies into animal shapes every night you will be disappointed. If you want someone with a relevant degree to show you phytoplankton under a microscope or answer your questions about marine mammals, this is the ship for you. One of the grandparents said near the end of the trip that taking this trip with the grandkids was the best decision they ever made. We've already put a deposit down for the Juneau-to-Ketchikan itinerary for 2014.