We originally booked an Alaska cruise with Oceania, but it was from Vancouver to San Francisco, making any significant excursions to Denali National Park or Fairbanks difficult. Our agent recommended a Regent Seven Seas cruise ending in Anchorage and then a land package through another travel company. When I went to their site, I found Un-Cruise, and having enjoyed hotel barge cruises in France, we decided that a small ship approach would be something we might enjoy. We did a seven-day cruise from Ketchikan to Juneau.
Here's the deal. If you want butler service, formal dinners, gigantic cabins, and lots of excursions, this is not the ship for you. If you want to see Alaska (or one of the other Un-Cruise destinations) up close and personal, this is the way to do it.
We watched the 145-foot, 36-passenger Safari Explorer pull into port in Ketchikan early in the morning on our departure day. It was docked alongside four gigantic cruise ships and the difference was stunning. We gathered at the Cape Fox Lodge in the late afternoon for a welcome session with our shipmates and an introduction to the Tlinglit tribal culture from one of the elders of the tribe. We boarded a small bus to go to the dock. We were greeted by most of the 15-person crew, including the delightful Captain Mike Bennett. A crew member showed us to our room and our luggage was there waiting for us.
There were only 24 passengers on board for our week, giving us an even better chance to get to know our fellow travelers. They were mostly 50+, well-heeled folks, who are experienced travelers, and the majority were Americans. This was the ninth Un-Cruise trip for one couple so they obviously were pleased with their experiences with the line.
The staff was outstanding -- personable, knowledgeable, attentive, accommodating -- and seemed genuinely interested in ensuring that the passengers had a good cruise. We had an expedition leader and an expedition guide to take us on hikes, shore walks, or skiff rides. The two young women knew a lot about the local flora and fauna and were quick to share their knowledge.
The Luxury cruises have a little less emphasis on adventure, but guests were able to decide every day what they wanted to do. Some chose more strenuous or adventurous pursuits -- visiting a cave, taking a long hike, or kayaking. Others chose less strenuous shore walks, skiff rides, or stayed on board for a massage or to nap, read, talk, or work on a jigsaw puzzle. The day we spent at Dawes Glacier was spectacular for everyone, whether staying or board, paddling up close in a kayak, or viewing it from a skiff. Hearing the thunderous sound of a glacier calving and passing close by the "bergy bits" of ice, some with seals lounging on top, is an experience you'll never forget.
This is not the type of cruise where you cruise all night to get to a port so you can get on a coach to go on an excursion. The ship generally travels during the day. When we encountered a pod of Orcas, the ship stopped, passengers gathered on the bow with their cameras, and our guides were there to talk to us about the whales, their behavior, where they are found, how they stick together in pods, etc. There was only one scheduled port visit during the week, in Klawock, where we toured a native tribal village in the company of several members of the tribe. They walked us through town, showed off their hand-carved wooden competition canoe, their clan meeting hall, the carving center where totem poles are made, and the park where more than 20 totems can be seen. Most nights, we anchored in an inlet or cove without any other ships in sight.
The galley is staffed by a chef and a pastry chef and it's amazing how flexible they are able to be in meeting passenger food preferences. Continental breakfast is set out every morning at 6:30 am -- fresh fruits, cold cereal, oatmeal, juice, and some sort of pastry. Full breakfast is served at 8 am. The stewards come to each table and let you know what the breakfast special is that day -- for example, a spinach and Swiss cheese quiche or a Greek yogurt, fruit, and granola parfait. If you don't want the special, you can order what you want -- for example, eggs to order, bacon, and an English muffin or a bowl of oatmeal. Toward the end of breakfast, the chef comes to the dining room and describes what he has planned for lunch and dinner. Lunch was usually sandwiches, wraps, or salads and dessert. There were three courses for dinner -- usually soup or salad to start, then three choices of entree for dinner each night -- one meat, one fish, and one vegetarian, and finally dessert. The stewards would them come back to each table and ask each guest (by name by the second day on board) what they wanted for lunch and dinner. Again, they were willing to accommodate special requests. Give me a sandwich for lunch instead of the salad. Or, I'd prefer a green salad to the potatoes with my dinner entree.
Mid-afternoon, the pastry chef put out a snack -- brownies, cookies, etc. At 6 pm, the passengers gathered for cocktails and there was a different appetizer each night -- crab in puff pastry, tacquitos, chips and guacamole, etc. Speaking of cocktail hour, drinks are included in your fare, unless you want something premium, like a high-end bottle of champagne or wine from the onboard "wine library." And if there isn't a steward behind the bar, passengers are welcome to mix their own drinks or pour themselves a glass of wine. Wine is served with dinner. If you don't like what they are offering, you may request something else from the bar selection.
A few other things to mention about the Un-Cruise experience. There is a massage therapist/yoga instructor on the crew. She taught a yoga class on the sun deck every morning at 7 am. I really enjoyed her classes despite my lack of experience with yoga. There also is a hot tub on that deck and a dry sauna. There are lounge chairs but it was still a little early in the season for sunbathing in Alaska in late May.
The ship has an open bridge policy so at any hour of the day or night, as long as the door to the bridge is open, passengers are welcome to hang out there. Several passengers from our group took to spending time on the bridge with binoculars scanning for wildlife. We saw plenty of it during our trip: orcas and humpbacks, porpoises, sea otters, seals, black and brown bears, Dall sheep, and more bald eagles and other birds that you can imagine.
There is no Internet package to buy and you are not in range of cell towers for most of the trip, at least not on our itinerary. There is a flat-screen TV in the cabins but no cable TV (except for one channel showing wildlife videos and another with the daily schedule).
Dress is very casual, especially since there's a fair amount of hiking and exploring on shore. Onboard, most guests stuck with "REI casual" -- fleece, hiking pants, and so on. No problem with coming to dinner in jeans and a sweatshirt. No laundry facilities are available on the ship for passenger use.
That's a lot of detail, but I wish we'd known a lot of this beforehand. Bottom line? It's not an inexpensive trip, but it was worth every dollar. We would go again in a heartbeat. In fact, we put down a deposit for our next Un-Cruise before we left the ship. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Un-Cruise.