Alaska is one of the top destinations for cruise passengers this year. In addition to sailing on large cruise ships holding thousands, there are much more intimate and personalized ways to explore Alaska by water. Small ship cruises allow passengers to get close to nature, visit tiny towns and inlets, and experience the real Alaska in a way not possible on large ships.
How is seeing Alaska aboard small ship different from the experience on a large cruise mega-liner? I've never taken a small ship cruise in Alaska, but as Jeff Behrens of Fantasy Cruises explained to me, these two types of Alaska cruise experiences are worlds apart. While major cruise line ships spend two or more days sailing through Canada on their 7-night Inside Passage itineraries, passengers on small ships spend their entire vacation exploring the beauty of Alaska. The big cruise ships all visit the same large ports of call, leading to potential overcrowding with 10,000 to 15,000 cruisers coming ashore on the same day. On a small ship cruise, it's just you and a few fellow passengers visiting Alaska's tiny authentic towns. In addition, cruise ship shore excursions in Alaska can easily cost hundreds of dollars per person per day. On a small ship, they're included.
Fantasy Cruises takes its guests on all-inclusive vacations of 9 days or more aboard the 32-passenger Island Spirit. These cruises run through Southeast Alaska's Alexander Archipelago, visiting wilderness bays and little known spots like Dawes Glacier, Ford's Terror canyon, Baranof Warm Springs Bay, and the tiny town of Tenakee Springs with its population of 97 people. In addition, there are plenty of opportunities for up-close viewing of humpback whales directly off the bow or dolphins right below, watching for bears and seals, kayaking in placid coves, and much more. The roomy ship has a panoramic top deck observation lounge, allowing guests to enjoy the scenery no matter what Alaska’s weather brings.
In addition to their appealing itineraries, each Fantasy Cruises sailing features an onboard certified Alaska Naturalist to provide insights into Alaska and its wildlife. The beauty of seeing Alaska in this fashion is that the ships' small size allows for unparalleled access to Alaska's wonders. Passengers get so close to waterfalls that they can fill up a pitcher of water, and even the icy blue glaciers appear to be within reach. The itinerary is flexible so that the captain can change course for whale sightings, or linger in a tidal inlet if bears are foraging on the beach. If guests decide they want to spend more time kayaking or hiking, so be it. Although the course is set, no two cruises are exactly the same. After all, it's your trip.
Another small ship cruise operator, American Safari Cruises, offers luxurious Alaska small ship cruises aboard elegant yachts. These small yachts, the Safari Escape, the Safari Spirit and the Safari Quest, carry a maximum of 12 to 36 guests. On these Alaska yacht cruises, travelers will enjoy kayaking in wilderness bays, exploring untouched spots - such as Misty Fjords National Monument or the Tracy Arm Wilderness Area, coming face to face with glaciers and icebergs, hiking on a remote trails in the rain forest, and hopping shore-to-shore by zodiac. With a high ratio of crewmembers to guests, passengers are accompanied on a variety of personal-choice excursions while the yacht is at anchor.
Lindblad Expeditions is third small ship operator, providing Alaska cruises developed in collaboration with National Geographic. This association is important asset for adult passengers as well as families, as it provides access to expedition leaders who are widely recognized experts in their fields. The emphasis on these Alaska small ship vacations is clearly on learning. Lindblad's family travel experts work in conjunction with National Geographic's education department and National Geographic Kids magazine to train all staff members and special children's and teen's activities are also offered on Alaska cruises. Lindblad cruises carry 62 passengers onboard and visits to Glacier Bay National Park are included.
New to Alaska this year, InnerSea Discoveries focuses on active Alaska cruise experiences aboard their two newly renovated ships, the Wilderness Adventurer and the Wilderness Discoverer. Guests aboard these 60-passenger vessels can choose from two different 8-day itineraries touring either the Western or Eastern Coves of Alaska's Inside Passage. While these cruises include a naturalist and opportunities for education, the emphasis is much more on active pursuits such as hiking, kayaking and fishing.
By its very nature, Alaska conjures up images of adventure and rugged independence. After all, this is America's last frontier -- the "great land" as the native Aleuts called it. For those who don't want see Alaska with hordes of other cruise passengers, take a small ship cruise and experience Alaska's spectacular beauty in a unique and more personalized way. This is one of the best chances to experience this destination's magic and see the little known wonders Alaska holds.
Fantasy Cruises: www.smallalaskaship.com
American Safari Cruises: www.amsafari.com
Lindblad Expeditions: www.expeditions.com
InnerSea Discoveries: www.innerseadiscoveries.com