If you look on either side of Hurtigruten's expedition ship MS Roald Amundsen, you'll find the words "Hybrid Powered" emblazoned in bright blue letters and featured even more prominently than the ship's name. It's a not-so-subtle callout to the vessel's use of hybrid technology that allows it to alternate between electrical propulsion and fuel-powered energy.
Equally deserving of the hybrid label is the fact that, in certain destinations, the 530-passenger ship alternates between the traditional expedition experience -- where the ship's expedition staff handles all shore excursions -- and a classic version of cruising, where excursions are sold onboard and conducted by third-party operators.
Alaska is one such destination, where guests participate in excursions with third-party operators. It's a place that boasts a wealth of natural sites but is also home to towns and settlements that can provide cultural experiences and access to nearby attractions.
We sailed on MS Roald Amundsen's inaugural Alaska itinerary of 2023 in May -- a 15-day voyage from Vancouver to Seward titled "Alaska and British Columbia-Wilderness, Glaciers and Culture." Here's what we learned about Hurtigruten's approach to cruising in the Last Frontier.
MS Roald Amundsen is unusually large for an expedition ship. The 20,890-ton vessel has 11 decks, 265 cabins and can accommodate 530 passengers (500 in Antarctica). It even boasts a 57-foot LED screen -- Hurtigruten says it's the tallest at sea -- towering from decks 4 to 10 in the ship's atrium.
Typically, ships from cruise lines wholly devoted to expedition -- like Lindblad, Aurora or Quark -- are much smaller, with capacity for less than 200 passengers so they can expedite more landings in places like Antarctica that restrict visitors. Even other larger expedition ships, such as Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris, still have fewer guests at 378 passengers. Only Hurtigruten has an expedition ship that truly compares to MS Roald Amundsen: sister vessel MS Fridtjof Nansen, which is identical in nearly every way.
Despite its size, MS Roald Amundsen is still small enough that it can access places in Alaska that megacruises can't. Small ports like Petersburg or Cordova were featured on our itinerary, and we were also able to explore wild areas like Misty Fjords, Tracy Arm or William Henry Bay with ease.
On board, the ship has enough room for expedition-purposed areas and equipment, like a fleet of inflatable boats and kayaks. The Science Center on Deck 6 is where most enrichment lectures and a slew of onboard activities take place, but Roald Amundsen features other amenities including three restaurants, a pool bar, a gym, a sauna and plenty of vantage points to take in the Alaskan scenery. The Observation Lounge and Bar on Deck 10 is the ship's best indoor location for panoramic views, but many passengers on our sailing (particularly photography aficionados) preferred the outdoor observation decks forward on decks 7 and 11.
The ship also followed a relatively flexible itinerary when sailing to capitalize on impromptu opportunities to enjoy Alaska's natural bounty. If a pod of humpback whales was spotted or a brown bear made an appearance at a nearby shore, the captain would modify the course to give passengers the opportunity to get a closer look, and for the expedition staff to share insight and context as well as photography tips.
The high passenger capacity, however, can mean more traffic in certain situations. Our Alaska sailing was well below capacity, with just under 300 cruisers, so crowding was not an issue. There were times, however, when the lines at the buffet-style Aune Restaurant on Deck 6 would pile up, and some of the more popular lectures in the auditorium could feel a little snug (though you can also follow each lecture from your cabin's TV set). At full capacity, it's easy to see how some areas of the ship can feel overcrowded.
The relatively easy accessibility to Alaska for North American cruisers means American and Canadian cruisers are most likely to be your fellow passengers. Our sailing, however, also featured a sizable number of European passengers, mostly German speakers, to the extent that all announcements on board were made in English and German. This aspect also gives Hurtigruten's Alaska itineraries a distinct international vibe.
It's also worth noting that the onboard currency -- regardless of where Hurtigruten sails -- is the euro. All prices onboard are in euros. Additionally, the outlets in the cabins and throughout the ship are all 220V/50hz, European two-pin plugs, so North American cruisers require an adapter. Some of the cabin outlets, however, also have USB ports.
On our Alaska sailing, the European passengers felt more at home with the ship, and many were repeat Hurtigruten cruisers. On the other hand, the use of the euro currency in Alaska can perhaps feel a little unusual for U.S. passengers.
Upon entering the ship on Deck 6, you're greeted not by the reception desk but instead by the expedition team in the ship's Science Center. The approach is calculated: Hurtigruten wants to place its expedition credentials front and center, and familiarize passengers with the crewmembers who are responsible for upholding said credentials.
Brimming with state-of-the-art lab equipment, detailed maps and charts, and artifacts that wouldn't be out of place in a natural history museum, the Science Center can feel a bit intimidating at first. But it soon becomes apparent that this is the heartbeat of MS Roald Amundsen, where most enrichment lectures and a host of other activities take place that bring the destination to life onboard the vessel.
The expedition staff also leads the ship's Citizen Science program, which allows passengers to contribute to current scientific research projects. The program is fairly accessible and has several options. Most are connected to smartphone applications: iNaturalist, for example, is a database that allows users to upload images of flora and fauna. Depending on the quality of the content, it can be approved as research-grade material. Another popular program on our sailing was Happy Whale, a whale tracking app that allows you to upload photos of tail flukes and dorsal fins.
Passengers also had the option to go out on a tender with marine biologists from the expedition team to collect phytoplankton. The samples could then be examined back on board under the Science Center's microscopes.
Our sailing also featured a daily evening session titled "What did we see today." Here, the expedition staff shares photos of the wildlife and plantlife observed in every destination.
Onboard activities during our sailing were not all scientific in nature. Some were as whimsical as arts and crafts sessions, while others took a culinary approach. In Tracy Arm, for instance, the ship's chefs organized a salmon quesadilla cookout on the pool deck.
Off the ship, the expedition focus is less consistent. Shore excursions on MS Roald Amundsen's Alaska itineraries come in two categories: included and optional (for a fee).
Depending on the port or destination, the included excursions would either consist of outings carried out by the expedition team with the ship's fleet of inflatable boats or shore excursions arranged with local tour operators. On our itinerary, the former category took place in destinations like William Henry Bay, Misty Fjords or Tracy Arm. In some cases, an additional kayaking excursion was offered, but incurred a fee (€124 per person).
In two destinations -- Haines and Petersburg -- the included excursions were very basic affairs, to the point of hardly qualifying as excursions at all. In Haines, it consisted of a self-guided walking tour of Fort William H. Seward, a former military facility built in 1904 that now serves as a National Historic Landmark. In Petersburg, our visit coincided with the annual Little Norway Festival that commemorates the Scandinavian country's Constitution Day (also known as Syttende mai, or Seventeeth of May), so we were given a schedule of the town's day-long activities, which included a parade, musical performances, and the traditional herring toss. (Normally, the included tour in Petersburg consists of a cultural performance at the town's Sons of Norway Hall.)
The optional tours not guided by the expedition staff featured activities like jetboat tours, canoe outings and hiking excursions with an emphasis on the natural riches of Alaska. Other excursions tours emphasized the cultural side of the state, with visits to Chief Shakes Tribal House in Wrangell and the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center in the Tlingit village of Klukwan, 20 miles northwest of Haines on the way to the Canada border.
Prices for the optional tours ranged from €60 for hiking excursions to €375 for floatplane tours. In some cases, it was possible to go on both the included tours and one optional tour, but this typically made for a very busy day with tight transitions.
For the most part, it seemed like Hurtigruten had hand-picked the optional excursions with local tour operators to ensure that the enrichment level was on par with what the brand offered onboard the ship. In Wrangell, for example, we went on the Rainbow Falls hike optional tour and our guide was a local botanist, providing expert context and insight about all the flora we encountered along the way.
And in Petersburg, we embarked on the jetboat tour of Lecomte Glacier, where our captain had a commanding knowledge of practically every topic imaginable -- from glaciology and geology to biology and oceanography. She never skipped a beat, all the while masterfully navigating the increasingly crowded maze of icebergs of varying sizes of eternally calving from the glacier.
But these are, presumably, tours that you can book on your own or possibly with other cruise lines when visiting Alaska. One or two members of the expedition team would often accompany passengers on these tours to familiarize themselves with the content and report their findings, but their involvement was otherwise minimal.
As our sailing took place in mid-May, wildlife wasn't as abundant as in other months of the summer season, so wildlife enthusiasts might have been somewhat disappointed at the relative dearth of sightings throughout our itinerary. On the other hand, the weather was practically perfect: a satisfying mix of warm, sunny days and slightly colder days with overcast skies, but not a drop of rain. (Find out more about the best time to visit Alaska.)
All in all, that's the dichotomy of MS Roald Amundsen. It's a ship built for expedition cruising, but its Alaska itineraries are only partially built for expedition.
If you are looking for a taste of expedition cruising without going all-in, Hurtigruten provides a nice balance of onshore activities and a ship large enough to enjoy other comforts. And if science is one of your hobbies, the Citizen Science Program is another good reason to choose Hurtigruten in Alaska.