Let the planning begin!
After carving out two weeks to spend in Alaska, the next step was deciding where to go and what to do. Without question, the most popular way to see the Last Frontier is by cruise ship. Close to 60 percent of all visitors to the state arrive on one of about a dozen lines serving its waters from May to September.
For some, the idea of spending a vacation on a ship doesn’t hold much appeal. Our family of four has enjoyed cruising in the past, but our priority was to take in the region’s extraordinary scenery and abundant wildlife in the most intimate and authentic way possible – while still keeping the kids excited and engaged. So, after careful consideration, we decided that traveling the Southeast panhandle’s famous Inside Passage on a smaller ship was the best route for us.
There are several operators in this category to choose from, including Lindblad Expeditions, American Cruise Line, and Silversea. We went with one of the newer, and, with a capacity of only 42 guests, perhaps smallest options available: the Alaskan Dream.
Being aboard a ship that’s only 104 feet long is an intimate experience. By the time our 8-Day Inside Passage Soujourn ended, we knew almost all of our fellow passengers by name, not to mention the captain and crew.
Speaking of the captain, he emphasized that the bridge was open 24/7 to everyone and invited us to visit any time. This turned out to be a very popular viewing area when it was too cold or rainy to stand on deck. On one occasion, the captain asked my oldest son to help steer the ship – something I can’t imagine being commonplace on larger cruise lines.
Other features that make cruising with a small ship so attractive include the fact that there’s no need to pack any formalwear. (This is Alaska after all — jeans and sweaters will do just fine. They even hand out rain gear and binoculars to everyone.)
But that doesn’t mean you have to give up fine dining. The ship’s gourmet chef consistently prepared Alaskan-inspired cuisine that would make any native proud.
The biggest difference between our small-ship experience and the bigger cruise lines was highlighted during an exchange I had with another passenger as we passed through Glacier Bay. It was his first cruise, and he asked me which I preferred. As I explained the pros and cons of each, our ship maneuvered sharply towards the rough-hewn coastline and the captain announced that he had spotted a bear.
Within minutes, the Alaskan Dream was yards from the one thing most people want to see while they’re here, but few do – and we didn’t even need a 500mm lens to get a decent picture. So after the photo shoot was over and the bear resumed its quest for salmon, I turned back to my new friend and declared, “there’s your answer right there!”
Another advantage to taking a small ship is the ability to explore Alaska’s more out-of-the-way places. Stay tuned for my next post as I reveal what we saw and what we did — some of them based on the Alaska tourism board‘s recommendations — and highlight some of the most popular and less traveled ports of call on our itinerary.
Follow Rainer’s story on Twitter at @JenssTravel