My husband and I took the Wilderness Discoverer from Ketchikan to Juneau last week. We’d taken this ship and this itinerary two years before, so we knew what it would be like and were looking forward to it!
In many ways, it was even better the second time. We were blessed with the same wonderful weather as last time but the caprices of nature (especially in Alaska) and the Captain’s ability to divert to more interesting places that aren’t on the itinerary mean that every trip is different.
Embarkation and debarkation: Fast and smooth due to the small vessel size. They offer a "hospitality suite" at either end, but it's basically a large, windowless conference room with tables, chairs and just coffee and water supplied. Don't plan on spending a lot of time in them. Both Juneau and Ketchikan have plenty of places to explore and the Cape Fox lodge is a good choice for a leisurely lunch.
The ship: A good, solid vessel bought from American Safari Cruises after their bankruptcy and thoroughly refurbished. Staterooms are small and unpretentious (those on the top deck are larger), with plenty of hooks inside and outside for hanging things up. View windows are good-sized with effective blackout curtains. 200-level rooms are much closer to the noises of the engine and the anchor; we stayed in 300-level this year and there was a difference. Most of the 200- level is taken up by the lounge, the main indoor public area. It’s a good size for the passenger capacity; it never felt crowded except a meal times (a bit). There are also outdoor decks that are open; the fantail on 400 is the largest, and has some exercise equipment (partly sheltered by a clear plastic curtain on one side). Morning yoga and afternoon stretch classes (both free) are held here daily. When the ship is at anchor, the 200 stern deck has kayaks and paddleboards available to anyone. I’ve never had to wait for a kayak. You’re free to explore within some pretty reasonable boundaries the crew will tell you (they don’t want you out of sight of the boat and you aren’t permitted to beach the boat and go ashore).
Ship stability: very good. I've probably got average susceptibility to seasickness; I can't handle deep-se fishing in the gulfstream without meds- but on both cruises we had significant rocking only at night (presumably traveling in more open waters) and I found it very relaxing. It helped me sleep! Dramamine is available for free if they think it will be turbulent.
The food: I love their philosophy on food. This is not a 24/7 moving feast and no one is trying to out-eat or out-drink anyone else. The food is very good, well-prepared from as many fresh ingredients as possible. Salads were always a variety of greens; I’m not sure I ever saw iceberg lettuce. A typical menu is shown. Breakfast and lunch is buffet style; dinner is served plated. There were always good vegetarian selections. If you didn’t like anything on the menu, the staff were very accommodating in making you something else.
This is my favorite part of UnCruise. Every night they tell you about the available excursions the next day. They can be guided kayak trips, skiff excursions, bushwhacking hikes, easier shore hikes… something for everyone. The staff is very clear about the demands of each excursion so you can choose something that suits your abilities and interests. No extra charges except the snorkeling which was all of $35. (That included use of a lot of expensive wet-suiting plus snorkel and fins.) While the snorkeling was in water temps in the low 40s, it was pretty interesting. I saw a lot of beautiful sea stars, some ribbon worms, a few jellyfish (no danger- I was padded), a couple of anemones and a nudibranch. We were in the water a little over an hour. Make sure your wet suit is just short of being too tight. My first cruise, I got one that was a little looser and the layer of water between my body and the suit was too much for my body heat to warm up. This time the suit was tighter and I was a lot more comfortable. That layer of water should be THIN!
I also loved the bushwhacking hikes- this is pretty much virgin forest. Another hike led to El Capital Cave (there was a series of elevated ramps and steps up the mountain on that one), where the rangers told me only about 500 people per year visit. Note that the ship supplies rubber boots. Bring your own if you want, but we were fine on both trips using boots from the ship’s supply, with heavy wool socks.
This isn't Sea World, so no one can promise that whales will jump up in front of your camera on cue, but this crew knows where to find them and has the flexibility to stop where they are and enjoy them. Thursday night on this cruise, we were in the middle of a group of whales creating a bubble net to trap fish. They were on all sides of the boat, floating and then diving. I even got a picture of an orca. It was far away but hey, it was my first orca. They kept the boat in the area till 11:15 PM so we could make the most of it.
UnCruise must hire very carefully. The crew are uniformly helpful and the ones who guide the excursions generally have advanced degrees in fields such as marine biology. They are passionate about Alaska. Sarah, our guide on one hike, was just thrilled to encounter this leopard-spotted sea slug and cooed at it and petted it till its little eye stalks emerged. Folding your jammies into animal shapes is not in their job description. Explaining how glaciers recede is!
They were exceptionally helpful when my husband needed medical attention for a flare-up of gout. The good news was that it was the day before we were scheduled to be in port at a small town (Klawock). The request was promptly relayed to the captain, who found the name of the local medical center and gave me the number. It was a short walk from the dock and my husband got the attention and meds he needed (after an inexpensive taxi trip to the Whale’s Tail Pharmacy in Craig, the next town- all part of the adventure). We were back on the ship before the group that had taken the tour of Klawock returned, although one passenger later said the crew had told him they NEVER leave anywhere without all of their passengers. We were glad we didn’t have to test that.
Your fellow passengers:
This is a group that’s doing pretty well in order to spend this much on a vacation, but no one is trying to impress anyone else. I’m sure most of the group had bling, bespoke suits and ballgowns at home, but we don’t want to drag them with us on vacation. The stateroom doors didn’t even lock. We mostly met smart, curious people who were as interested as we were in our surroundings. One night before dinner I heard an animated conversation about some unfamiliar animal droppings a group had seen on the trail; based on its apparent contents (seeds, fruits) they were trying to figure out what kind of animal it was. Our kind of people!
Finally, for those of you who are trying to reconcile the “spending your kids’ inheritance” prices and the unpretentious nature of the vessel, here are a few things to note. The ship is a US-flagged vessel. They pay their crew by US standards and are subject to US laws. On our first cruise, 3 out of the 25 crew members were licensed captains. We liked that. Second, you are not an income stream. Nearly every on-board activity and offshore excursion is covered by the stated cost. (Exceptions: massages, alcohol and specialty coffees, and the snorkeling excursion I took). Our total for uncovered amounts, which included my snorkeling excursion as well as our alcohol bill, was $121 before gratuities. The latter are voluntary (5-10% is suggested) and NOT added automatically to your bill. They do not get kickbacks from stores in port (too few passengers, only one stop was in an actual town, pop. 845). They provide funding for park rangers at El Capitan caves and for lecturers for the mostly-Tlingit village of Klawock.
UnCruise is aimed at a very non-traditional section of the cruise market and we’re happy to see that they’re expanding their reach to cruises in Hawaii, Baja, Washington State and the Glapagos (in the near future). For us and for many people, this is the way to cruise!