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Small-Ship Alaska Cruises: Insider’s Guide to the Best Ones

by | November 11, 2016

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for small-ship expeditions: Ashton Palmer of ExpeditionTrips.

Trusted Travel Expert
Ashton Palmer

Infectiously enthusiastic about small-ship cruising, Ashton spent nearly a decade as an expedition leader, guide, naturalist, Zodiac driver, avid bird-watcher, and photographer in the Arctic, Antarctica, the Amazon, and the South Pacific. (He has traveled to Antarctica more than 50 times and spent a collective of three months in the Arctic.) In 1999, Ashton started a company to match travelers with the right small-ship expedition trips everywhere from the Galapagos to Papua New Guinea and the two poles. He’ll be the first to tell you when a two-week trip to the Arctic may not be your cup of tea, and when a specific ship or cabin just isn’t worth the extra expense. And because of his relationships with the top cruise lines and tour operators, Ashton often secures preferred rates or other perks (such as shipboard credits or a bottle of wine).

Expect trips orchestrated by Ashton to start at $600 per person per day (based on double occupancy) for expedition cruises to Alaska.

Best Ships

Kayak and sculpted iceburg, Tracy Arm Fjord: Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, Tongass National Forest, Southeast Alaska

Kayak and sculpted iceburg, Tracy Arm Fjord: Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, Tongass National Forest, Southeast Alaska. Photo: Lindblad Expeditions, Ralph Lee Hopkins.

Best short cruise
The typical Inside Passage itinerary requires eight days, but the National Geographic Sea Bird pilots a six-day option that includes Sitka’s Raptor Rehabilitation Center, the Chilkat Tlingit village of Klukwan, tidewater glaciers and humpback whales in Tracy Arm or Endicott Arm, guided nature walks, kayaking, and Zodiac tours.

Best-value ship
The 36-passenger Safari Explorer feels like a cozy Pacific Northwest lodge with the maneuverability to explore the most remote inlets; you get an all-inclusive, personalized experience almost akin to chartering a yacht, but without the exclusive price tag. Travelers are free to choose among an array of activities each day—from kayaking to hiking to skiff rides to a wellness program and massage—and the naturalist guides are excellent.

Best ship for a splurge
The 100-passenger National Geographic Quest combines state-of-the-art expeditionary hardware with supreme comfort; its itineraries explore shallow coves and narrow waterways in search of humpback whales, waterfalls, and wildlife. The ship has kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, an outdoor grill, a spa, a spacious sundeck, and an undersea specialist who can operate a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Several cabins have interconnecting doors for families, and some have small balconies.

Best large ship
It’s almost unfair to classify a 264-passenger vessel as a “large ship,” but Le Boreal is one of the most comfortable and elegant ships in the expedition world, offering mega-yacht style in the midst of the coastal wilderness. The ship was built to the highest environmental standards and has a feel of casual, sporty luxury.

Cascade Creek Trail, Thomas Bay, Tongass National Forest, Southeast Alaska

Hiking Cascade Creek Trail, Thomas Bay, Tongass National Forest, Southeast Alaska. Photo: Lindlad Expeditons/David Vargas

Best small ship
With a capacity of only 22 guests (ideal for a large family or group to charter), the Safari Quest explores the most remote coves and anchors in secluded sites at night. This all-inclusive yacht has a Jacuzzi, lounge, reading nook, and fully stocked bar. Optional activities include kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, guided hikes, and fishing.

Best ship for foodies
The 132-passenger, elegant Silver Explorer was purpose-built for navigating waters in some of the world’s most remote destinations—including the Bering Sea on itineraries from Alaska to the Russian Far East—but it has many sophisticated amenities usually found only on larger ships, such as a signature menu created by the Grands Chefs of Relais & Châteaux.

Best affordable ship for families
The 74-passenger Wilderness Explorer definitely checks the box for outdoor family fun with kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, yoga, bushwhacking, shore walks, and the occasional bonfire—plus, they offer discounts for children. The accommodations are modest, but there are panoramic views from the lounge, plus a hot tub for stargazing and a sundeck for optimal wildlife viewing.

Best ship for a solo traveler
Small ships are known for having a convivial atmosphere, so they are ideal for people traveling alone. Book a dedicated single cabin—on the Safari Endeavour, for example—to avoid paying a single supplement. This has to be done especially far in advance, as solo cabins are limited.

Best-value cabin
They’re certainly not the cheapest around, but the Commander Suites aboard the 84-passenger Safari Endeavour are an excellent value at approximately $8,800 per person for an eight-day itinerary. (People are often surprised at how expensive an Alaskan expedition cruise is, but it takes a lot to get these ships up there for a relatively short season.) All four of the 216-square-foot suites are identical, with a step-out French balcony, a full bathroom with Jacuzzi tub, and a separate sitting area; they can also be configured as a triple cabin for families. You’ll get more for your money—including a complimentary massage—in these suites than in any other equivalent accommodations.

Best splurge cabin
The Owner’s Suite on stylish, French-flagged Le Boreal measures 484 square feet, with a 97-square-foot balcony, a separate living-and-dining area, two bathrooms (one with a soaking tub), and a double-width teak balcony. This cabin comes with butler service, so you can wake up to room-service breakfast in the sitting room of your spacious suite, sample sweet French treats upon returning each afternoon, and lift a glass of Maison Veuve Clicquot champagne to toast the magnificent Alaskan wilderness from your private balcony.

Best cabin for families
Cabins in categories 1, 2, and 4 aboard the National Geographic Quest interconnect, keeping your family together while accommodating different bed times.

Top Ports and Shore Excursions

Brown Bear in Kelp Bay, Alaska

Brown bear spotted in Kelp Bay, Baranof Island, Tongass National Forest, Southeast Alaska. Photo: Lindblad Expeditions/Ralph Lee Hopkins

Can’t-miss port
Petersburg, on the northern tip of Mitkof Island, is a busy and scenic fishing village lined with all kinds of Alaskan ships, from large fishing trawlers to sailing boats. Many of its streets showcase the town’s distinctive native and Norwegian heritage. Taking a stroll is the best way to experience Petersburg’s wide range of public art, Tlingit Totem Park, and Norwegian heritage sites (including a Sons of Norway hall). Chances are, you’ll also see an abundance of bald eagles and ravens perched on the numerous port pilings.

Many expedition ships that visit Petersburg will take passengers to LeConte Glacier, 25 miles east of town, for guided kayaking and Zodiac rides through a large sculptural iceberg garden. Harbor seals, harbor porpoises, and bald eagles frequent this area for feeding and solitude.

Best shore excursion
Most expedition-style vessels include hiking, kayaking, and Zodiac cruising at no additional cost. The eight-passenger Ursus is intimate enough that you can view coastal grizzly bears from a close but careful vantage point in Katmai National Park. Scenic flights are often wonderful—but wait until you’re there to sign up, in case the weather isn’t cooperating; expect to pay about $200 per person.

Worst shore excursion
There really are no bad shore excursions in the remote coastal areas of Alaska’s Inside Passage, but avoid the main shopping areas near the large cruise-ship piers in the busier ports and instead spend your time getting off the beaten path.

Port most worth the trek
Very few people have the chance to go spelunking at El Capitan Caves, the largest known cave in Alaska, on Prince of Wales Island. The 74-passenger Wilderness Explorer and the 76-passenger Wilderness Discoverer visit this gem on their Western Coves itineraries. Travelers are given hardhats with lights before entering the karst wonderland and, once inside, a history lesson on Southeast Alaska’s ice age.

Contact Ashton

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Best Time to Go

The first two weeks of June in Southeast Alaska—the region that nearly all expedition cruises focus on, also known as the Inside Passage—typically offer drier days and better wildlife spotting on the beaches at low tide. This is also a prime time to spot transient orcas, migrating humpback whales, and hauled-out harbor seals. Winds coming off the snow-covered mountain peaks make the air crisp, and the forests showcase an abundance of colorful and diverse wildflowers.

Worst Time to Go

At the end of the cruise season in mid-September, Southeast Alaska’s weather becomes rainy and cold, and wildlife sightings are at a low. Birders especially should avoid this time, since several migrating species leave the area, including the puffins in Glacier Bay.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

Don’t shop for diamonds, tanzanite, and generic curios in the prominently located stores at the main ports of call, as those items are overpriced and inauthentic, and most of those shops are owned by international cruise companies that don’t support the local economy.

Best Itinerary

The best itineraries include Glacier Bay National Park, which can only be reached by boat or air, and only with a National Park Service ranger escort. Here you’ll see tidewater glaciers that are constantly crackling and may calve before your eyes, as well as stellar sea lions, puffins, and murrelets on South Marble Island.

When to Book Your Cruise

Fall is the best time to book, especially for families who need a certain cabin type or for those who want to travel during the peak of the season, in July and August. The most desirable cabins and departures are often sold out by the end of November.

Most Interesting Shipboard Activity

The Wilderness Discoverer offers the unusual opportunity to snorkel in Alaska, with 7mm wetsuits for the 55- to 65-degree seas. You’ll see an abundance of vibrantly colored intertidal marine life, including ochre sea stars, rockfish, sea anemones, giant barnacles, jellyfish, and kelp crabs.

Most Photo-Worthy Arrival into Port

Haines is nestled on the Lynn Canal, the deepest and longest fjord in North America; it sits before a backdrop of majestic snow-capped mountains, which are mirrored on the still waterway most days.


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