I’ve always said that the best way to experience Alaska is on a cruise. “The Last Frontier” is surrounded by amazing waterways that define the way of life for its residents. These waters have always been vital as the region carved out its identity from pioneering and mining beginnings to its modern place as a hub of commercial fishing and tourism.
So, let’s get this out of the way right up front: Any cruise to Alaska is going to be a special experience. So, there is no right way to cruise in Alaska – you’ll just have to choose which type of voyage is right for you.
I have been to Alaska three times, each on a different style of cruise ship.
I’ve explored little-visited spots through the intimacy and ruggedness of an expedition cruise with UnCruise Adventures.
I also sailed to Alaska’s historic frontier towns and cities with a couple thousand others on the larger Golden Princess cruise ship, which carries more than 2,500 passengers.
And, I was supremely spoiled when I was among the 700 passengers cruising in comfort on the luxury ship Regent Seven Seas Mariner.
So, what cruise style would you prefer?
I’ll tell you this: I enjoyed them all, because they each feature distinctive aspects of exploration and adventure that you’ll only find on that particular type of voyage.
Here is what you can expect . . .
On a Big Cruise Ship
Take a mass-market cruise ship to Alaska if you appreciate the wide variety of onboard activities that accompany an interesting enrichment program. While sailing in Southeast Alaska, the large ships such as Golden Princess offer a lot of outdoor deck space ideal for passengers to gather to observe wildlife during times of scenic cruising in fjords, channels and passages.
The ships also feature a naturalist who gives talks (heard over the loudspeaker) while you sail in special places like Glacier Bay National Park or Tracy Arm Fjord. If the weather is chilly, you have the option to watch from inside. The large public spaces on the big ships allow you to view through windows and often within a few steps of getting a nice cocktail or some food to savor as you gaze out the windows while sailing past bobbing icebergs or in the midst of glaciers.
Excursion programs are varied and include things like helicopter rides, dogsledding and fishing experiences or bear-watching outings. You’ll visit mining towns and historic cities like Skagway, Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau.
However, these ports can get fairly crowded when the entire ship (or multiple ships) empties onto the streets of these tiny villages.
The benefit of the large-ship experience in Alaska is that you can enjoy your time cruising or in interesting ports while still having access to amenities like a gym, great restaurants, spa services and nightly included entertainment.
On a Luxury Cruise
You get to head out into the wilds of Alaska in style. My cruise on Regent Seven Seas Mariner was delightful because the ship carries just several hundred passengers — so you get to enjoy this great destination with a certain intimacy and level of comfort not available on other ships.
Regent Seven Seas Mariner also features a large Observation Lounge where travelers gather to hear enrichment talks on the region, enjoy cocktails and live music while sailing in some of the prettiest places on earth in Southeast Alaska. Drinks, excursions, gratuities and even airfare and transfers are included in your fare.
On these types of cruises in Alaska, you’re going to get more gourmet food options and better service, as well as more space onboard and in your cabin. Every stateroom on our ship had a balcony, too, which is a must when cruising in Alaska. I opened the door to my veranda one morning just in time to see a humpback emerge, blow water from its spout, then slide back below the surface.
You also will have entertainment, pools, hot tubs, fitness centers and spa services.
The best benefit of a luxury cruise in Alaska is the highly curated shore excursions that feature smaller group sizes, plus the great food and service. It’s a high-end, hassle-free trip because you get nearly everything included in your fare upfront.
On an Expedition
Any type of cruise in Alaska offers a feast for your eyes.
It’s a truly stunning place, filled with beautiful things to see.
An expedition cruise in Alaska, however, feeds your soul.
I sailed with UnCruise Adventures on its Wilderness Explorer ship on an itinerary that — true to the line’s name – was full of adventure. The ship carries a maximum of 84 passengers, and there were about half that many during my voyage in early spring.
Expedition ships are not fancy. The trips are more about what you can see and do off the ship. These cruises are ideal for travelers who want to get out into nature for active (even challenging) days.
They also appeal to nature-lovers, photography buffs and people who love to learn more about their destinations by interacting with expert guides and naturalists who provide daily enrichment talks and activities. I really enjoyed my time on UnCruise Adventures because a strong bond was quickly formed among our group of a few dozen like-minded travelers who didn’t mind the somewhat austere nature of the ship and stateroom accommodations. Instead, we formed camaraderie over tasty locally sourced meals, as well as daily excursions like hiking, snorkeling, kayaking and skiff tours.
On an expedition, you will sail to smaller islands and bays where you might be the only people. We went on 10-plus-mile hikes on rugged trails to see rivers, waterfalls, bogs, valleys and natural hot springs. Imagine sitting in a natural hot springs bath while looking up at snow-capped peaks.
The smaller ships get you closer to glaciers. The captain can also adjust the daily sailing schedule to move the ship to areas where creatures are spotted. Our Wilderness Explorer ship often would linger amid a pod of breeching whales, and we also had orcas and Dall’s porpoises follow along just feet from the sides and bow of the ship. It was a jaw-dropping experience to be that close to these animals. (Bald eagles were a daily sighting.)
We also kayaked about five miles against the winds and current into Misty Fjords National Monument. It was among the most grueling – yet satisfying – excursions I’ve ever enjoyed.
So, while the ship has limited amenities – a hot tub, bar, lounge and tiny cabins – this type of cruise is memorable for so many other reasons.
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