Alaska is one of the most popular cruise destinations in the industry. Hundreds of thousands of people visit Alaska by cruise ship every year. Travelers on the mega-cruise ships get to see a lot of Alaska. However, unless you spend lots of extra dollars on shore excursions, you really won’t experience Alaska’s bounty (with the exception of the jewelry shops which are owned by the cruise lines). With an Alaska small ship cruise, you’ll see, do, and experience more, much of which the large ships simply can’t.
To summarize, here’s our top ten list with reasons why to explore Alaska via a small ship cruise in 2012.
Go where the big ships can’t. We hate hammering this so much, but it is true. Many times, the big ships simply cannot travel where the small ships can. And those places are, in most cases, the most memorable.
Here’s an example. Tracy Arm, and one of its highlight’s Sawyer Glacier, are on the itineraries of both large and small ship cruises. Tracy Arm is a beautiful fjord, over 30 miles (48 km) long, one-fifth covered in ice. The culmination of the voyage through Travel Arm is seeing Sawyer Glacier, which frequently calves, sending huge chunks of ice peeling from the glacier into the adjoining icy waters. Due to these ice-blue “bergies” floating in the water, which can range from ice cubes to a three-story building, the large ships cannot navigate close enough to really see the glacier.
Get up close and personal with the bears, whales and glaciers. On the large ships, you can see birds, sea lions and whales with the same proximity as a seven-story apartment building. And due to the size of the larger ships, forget about seeing bears; you’ll just have to spend hundreds of dollars on a shore excursion for that.
On a small ship Alaska cruise, not only will you see birds, sea lion, whales and bears, you’ll be with them. Bears are not a dot in the distance; you can see them fishing, the fur on their back. Whale tails are a dime a dozen in Alaska. On a small ship cruise, you’ll not only see whale tail, but you’ll see them feeding, spy hopping, even bubble-net feeding. You’ll even be able to smell their breath (ok, it’s not that great). You’ll see sea lions, not just laying in the distance, but frolicking in the waters near you, maybe even feeding on fresh caught salmon.
Explore in a group of less than 100 like minded travelers. And become best friends with the staff who interact with you 24/7. Fellow passengers on a small ship cruise come from all walks of life. Yet, they all share certain common interests; exploration, discovery, education and enrichment, nature, wildlife, adventure. These interests are what create bonds among passengers. Sometimes, even lasting relationships years beyond the cruise.
The ship’s staff will become more than just employees of the ship. They’ll share their knowledge of Alaska, its features and wildlife. They’ll enrich your experience, by plucking a bergy out of the water, by pointing out little known facts on a rain forest hike. And they might even share a family cookie recipe with you. Each member of the staff enjoy making Alaska special for the ship’s passengers, because Alaska is special to them.
Food on ship is fresh, picked up along the way, special requests speak to the chef personally. You’ve likely seen the volumes of food that are stowed away on a mega cruise ship before embarkation; thousands of pounds of meat, dozens of eggs, gallons of ice cream, etc. And the food is good. But when you travel to a region, like Alaska, wouldn’t you like to eat fresh Alaskan food, like Salmon, halibut, crab, and wild blueberries?
Small ships have limited room to store food stuffs. So much of the delicious food prepared and enjoyed onboard an Alaskan small ship cruise, is obtained fresh, in transit, during the cruise, at the same ports where you go exploring. Imagine eating fresh salmon, caught that same day, grilled to perfection, on deck, while staring at the face of a calving glacier. Or fresh Alaskan crab for your delicious crab cakes for that evenings dinner.
Think the food on a small ship is basic, nothing special? Think again. The cuisine aboard small ships is fine dining, yet not stuffy, pretentious. An exmaple: you might be served a Roast Beet & Orange Salad for starters. Then an Alaskan Troll Caught King Salmon with chardonnay beurre blanc, or a Roast Rib Eye with glazed shallot red wine sauce. Vegetarians never go hungry, with a fine Risotto. And there’s alternatives every night, including Breast of Chicken, Chicken Caesar Salad and NY Strip Steak (not too shabby). Dessert lovers won’t be disappointed, with sweets like Chocolate Mousse Cake, Fruit Plates and Ice Cream. Can you say Yum!?
Kayaking and zodiacs take you where even the small ships can’t. On a large ship cruise, a ride on a zodiac or kayaking is considered a shore excursion, and will cost you plenty. On a small ship cruise, these methods of exploration extend the small ship cruise, getting you even closer to the glaciers and wildlife, and are included in the price.
Kayaking is a natural in Alaska. After some initial instruction, you’ll be gliding across the water, seeking out your own exploration. Imagine gliding towards a stream, and discovering a bear hunting for spawning salmon. This is not a dream; this happens frequently throughout the season.
Zodiacs are inflatable craft that can transport small ship cruise guests closer to the action or simply to a small beach to then take a hike in an Alaskan rain forest.
Imagine floating in a bay with humpback whales all around you. And as you peer out waiting for the next dorsal fin or whale tail, a humpback whale pokes its head out, right next to your zodiac, to get a peek at you. Remember, you are in the wild, and as curious as you are about the wildlife, so they can be curious about you.
If the Northern Lights are visible in the middle of the night, the crew will wake you up. On larger cruise ships, events are scheduled according to predetermined activities. So if a pod of whales are spotted in the distance, the only way you’ll find out is if fellow passengers mention it.
On a small ship cruise, expect to be interrupted; your discussion, meal, even your sleep. If Alaska is presenting itself to you, you’ll be told. If whales are breaching in from to the ship, an announcement will be made, and you’ll likely drop your fork and head on out onto the deck with your fellow passengers. Likewise, in the change that the Northern Lights make an appearance in the middle of the night, expect to be notified. It’s just that simple; you won’t want to miss a thing.
Education every evening on where you have been and where you are going. Each evening, you’ll meet in the ship’s lounge with fellow passengers, naturalists and expedition leaders to discuss what happened that day, sharing the highlights and explaining events. The expedition leaders will then provide a summary of where you’ll be headed the following day, what you might see and the activities for the day. You’ll be well informed up-front and get much more from the experiences of the day.
Locals invited on your ship to share their life living in Alaska. On many sailings, locals from the area you are visiting will come on board and share their lives with guests. This provide rich insight into the destination, the culture of the people and their daily lives. You just can’t get this type of experience on a larger ship cruise without paying for a shore excursion.
Photo experts on every sailing. Alaska is a natural for photography; photographic subject are plenty. Most large ships provide no guidance, except possibly a photo manipulation class (i.e. Photoshop). Small ship cruises naturally attract serious photographers, for the up-close nature of the sailings. There are several photographic-specific sailings by many of the small ship cruise lines. In fact, sail aboard Lindblad Expeditions, and you’ll likely have a National Geographic photographer shooting right next to you. They’ll even provide guidance and tips in getting “the shot.”
No extras, price is the price. Excursions all included. Many of the larger cruise ships have pretty good prices upfront. But then, they nickle & dime you, with drinks, bingo games, excursions, etc. On a small ship, practically everything is included in your cruise price. What to use binoculars to see shore in detail? included. What to go kayaking in a secluded cove? Included.
Small ship cruises simply offer the richest experiences in Alaska for the best value.