Horizons: Cruising Alaska is the Perfect Holiday
October 18, 2014
Like everything in larger-than-life Alaska, the cruising possibilities in the region reach far and wide. While there are plenty of major-player, big-ship cruise lines to choose from (such as Princess and Holland America), there’s a lesser-known network of small-ship cruise companies well worth considering. Carrying anywhere from just over a dozen to up to 500 passengers, these lines provide the opportunity for onboard intimacy with like-minded guests, as well as unrivaled access to the off-the-beaten-path wilds of Alaska, with its dramatic scenery, abundant wildlife, and indigenous cultures.
While you’ll trade out most of the onboard bells and whistles common to larger ships (such as casinos, spas, and Broadway-style shows), you’ll instead get immersive itineraries that are heavy on active excursions (kayak tours, nature hikes, etc.), uncrowded deck time (to spot whales and calving glaciers without bumping elbows), and enrichment programming highlighting Alaskan history, culture, and wildlife.
Just be prepared to splurge — small ships mean fewer paying passengers onboard to offset the costs of the journey, though you’ll get, in return for your investment, wonderfully personalized service along with shore excursions and other good-value extras typically bundled in.
While peak cruising season won’t roll around till summer, now’s the time to look ahead to your 2015 Alaskan cruise vacation, since the best cabins are often snatched up as far out as six to nine months in advance. (Tip: Consider utilizing the expert booking services of an Alaskan small-ship cruise specialist such as AdventureSmith Explorations.)
For smooth sailing to the Last Frontier, take a look at these leading small-ship Alaska cruise operators:
Un-Cruise Adventures (operating since 1997) provides nine active itineraries, ranging in length from seven to 21 nights, through Alaska’s Inside Passage and Glacier Bay National Park. Spirited guests tackle Alaska while out kayaking, paddleboarding, hiking, snorkeling, or riding skiffs. The company’s fleet of a half-dozen ships range in capacity from just 22 to 84 guests, and they tout such perks as hot tubs, saunas, and massage. Itineraries run between Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, and/or Seattle from April through September; rates (from $1,895/person) include ground transfers, most activities, and alcoholic beverages (on some ships).
Alaskan Dream Cruises
Four-year-old, Native-owned Alaskan Dream Cruises brings together personalized service executed by lifelong Alaskans, a laid-back onboard atmosphere, expert scientific and cultural expedition leaders, and culturally intensive itineraries. Sailings typically incorporate a stop or two in larger Southeast Alaska ports (e.g., Juneau or Ketchikan) but otherwise heavily focus on wilderness and cultural encounters (often via pontoon boats) in off-the-beaten-path Native villages like Kake, Kasaan, and Petersburg. Their three-ship fleet, accommodating 43 to 56 passengers, operates six different seven- to 12-night Inside Passage itineraries in 2015 from May through September (rates from $2,749/person, including ground transfers and excursions).
With more than 30 years’ experience plying Alaskan waterways, Lindblad Expeditions, in partnership with National Geographic, runs two 62-passenger expedition ships in the region. Each comes staffed with four onboard naturalists, who lead guests through Alaska’s wilds, along with an undersea marine specialist and a photography pro. Cruise to spots like Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, including the totem-pole-lined UNESCO site at SGang Gwaay. Embarkations leave from May through September on two itineraries (a seven-night run between Juneau and Sitka or a 14-night option between Seattle and Sitka). Rates start from $6,290/person, including all excursions (kayaking, zodiac runs, hiking, etc.).