Exposing passengers to the "real Alaska" is the mission of Alaskan Dream Cruises, and the programming on Baranof Dream reflects that philosophy. Most of the ship's customer-facing staff are either native Alaskans or have spent a great deal of time in the "Last Frontier" -- and they mingle easily with passengers, answering questions and telling stories. Allen Marine CEO Dave Allen even showed up for one Happy Hour.
As is the case on most expedition or small ships, Baranof Dream includes shore excursions in its price. The city tours are low-key and mostly focused on cultural performances or visits to historic sites. Passengers who decide not to take the provided tours can spend time in town on their own; this is not a cruise where you feel like you have a babysitter. The ship uses motorized skiffs to give passengers a closer look at glaciers, fjords and wildlife on shore.
One of the highlights on an Alaskan Dream Cruise is the day at Hobart Bay, on former logging land that's owned by Tlingit shareholders. Allen Marine has a dock there with kayaks, Zegos (small motorized pontoon boats) and RTVs, rough-terrain vehicles that handle like golf carts. Passengers have ample time to try each activity, and almost everyone comes back smiling.
Back on ship, passengers keep to their books and Kindles at night; the line does not attract a late-night, partying crowd. The cabins do not have television, although the ship occasionally shows movies in the lounge. The lounge also houses the ship's bar, where spirits are sold and local beers are on tap. (Be sure to check out the spruce-tipped ale from Baranof Brewing Company.) Drinks range from $6 to $11 (for premium Scotches and wine), and there's a special discounted cocktail every evening.
The program directors interacted often with the passengers frequently during down time; on our cruise, one program director played his guitar and sang during happy hour, and the other read a "bedtime story" aloud over the in-room loudspeakers.
Refurbished in 2012, Baranof Dream features some of Allen Marine's signature aluminum finishes, with cushioned chairs and furniture designed to make the expedition vessel as comfortable as possible. Black-and-white photos of Alaska's bird and animal life dot the rooms and hallways.
Passengers enter the ship into the lounge on the Main Deck; there is no "hotel-style" front desk. Cruisers use a portable board with magnets to check themselves in and out as they leave the ship. This lounge, with banquettes and large windows that open, is the primary public area, where announcements are made during the day and lectures are given in the evening. There's a small library of Alaska-themed books, as well as board games for passengers to play there or take back to their cabins.
Passengers are each given their own set of binoculars during the cruise, and you are encouraged to carry them with you for impromptu whale sightings. You'll be out of Internet and cell phone range for most of the trip, so don't look for onboard Wi-Fi (although you may find service when the ship pulls into Petersburg, Sitka and Juneau).
Outdoor viewing areas forward on the Upper and Bridge decks are the best places to scout for whales, eagles and other Alaskan wildlife. The Bridge Deck also has a larger, partially covered sun area in the back, with chairs and tables. Smokers can indulge in a small space aft on the Upper Deck. There is no elevator.
Baranof Dream has no fitness or spa facilities, although an evening yoga class took place on the top deck several nights. Unlike some of its competitors, Alaskan Dream Cruises does not keep kayaks on its ships or offer fishing. That being said, passengers who like to be active can find opportunities in port during guided walks and free time.
Alaskan Dream Cruises has introduced several family-oriented itineraries on Baranof Dream. The program is centered on the geology, biology and culture of the region, with geocaching, rock-collecting, and arts and crafts projects for the kids. Stops include the Sitka Sound Science Center and Alaska's State Museum, as well as the usual draws of Tracy Arm, Mendenhall Glacier and Hobart Bay.
There is no age minimum on the regular cruises, and children as young as 7 have sailed with the line. On Baranof Dream, rooms on the 200 level, offering both queen and single beds, are well suited for families; children younger than 18 will need to have at least one adult in their cabin.