10 Great Alaskan Small-Ship Cruises

Southeast Alaska from the stern of Cruise West's <em>Spirit of Endeavour</em> Photo by Matt Hannafin
By Matt Hannafin

Late last week, venerable and well-loved small-ship line Cruise West closed up shop in the face of insurmountable financial difficulties, closing out a quarter century as one of America's most visible alternatives to the big ships. Though the past decade had seen CW expand to a near worldwide presence, it was still associated most closely with Alaska, where it had sailed its first cruises in the mid-1980s and where it was still the dominant small-ship player. The line's demise leaves a huge hole in that market, but there's no shortage of small-ship operators ready and willing to fill the void. Here're ten of the best, most of them sailing in Alaska and a few concentrating on the Canadian Inside Passage and other parts of coastal British Columbia, just south of the Alaska border.

Photo Caption: Southeast Alaska from the stern of Cruise West's Spirit of Endeavour
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<em>Safari Quest</em> Photo by American Safari Cruises
This company's three ships -- the 12-passenger Safari Spirit, 22-passenger Safari Quest, and 36-passenger Safari Explorer -- are honest-to-god yachts offering a "luxe meets adventure" experience, with expedition leaders to give insight into natural Alaska. Days might be spent kayaking in the wilderness, fishing right off the side of the yachts, taking out a Zodiac boat to investigate shoreline black bears or river otters, and visiting small ports of call, where the boats sometimes dock overnight to give passengers a taste of the local nightlife. Cabins are spacious and comfortable (a few of the larger ones even have step-out balconies with sliding glass doors), and public areas include a main lounge, dining area, and hot tub. For 2011, all three ships will be sailing round-trip from Juneau mid-May through early September, visiting the Ford's Terror fjord, Endicott Arm, Admiralty Island National Monument, Frederick Sound, Icy Strait, Point Adolphus, and Glacier Bay National Park. Per-person rates run between $5,500 and $6,995 for 7 nights. Right now, American Safari is offering various deals and discounts to Cruise West passengers whose cruises have been scuttled by that line's demise.

Contact: www.amsafari.com

Photo Caption: Safari Quest
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The <em>Island Roamer</em> Photo by Bluewater Adventures
Founded in 1974, this Vancouver-based company concentrates more on British Columbia cruises, but for 2011 is also offering a dozen 7-, 8-, and 9-night sailings in Southeast Alaska aboard the 16-passenger, 68-foot sailing ketch Island Odyssey (one of the few sailing ships offering trips in Alaska) and the 12-passenger, 65-foot motor yacht Snow Goose. Both were formerly private yachts, built in 1984 and 1973, respectively. Sailings adhere to a casual, low-impact, eco-tourism ethic, focusing on wildlife watching, visiting Native village sites, cultural and nature hikes, kayaking, and excursions by inflatable launch. Cruises aboard Island Odyssey sail between Prince Rupert, BC (just south of the Alaska/BC border) and the small Southeast Alaska fishing town of Petersburg. Cruises aboard Snow Goose sail entirely in Alaska, between Petersburg and Juneau, Sitka, or Wrangell, or between Wrangell and Sitka. Per-person rates are $4,209 for 7 nights (Snow Goose), $4,807 for 8 nights (Island Odyssey). BC cruises visit the wildlife-rich Queen Charlotte Islands, the coastal Great Bear Rainforest (home to black bears, grizzlies, and the white spirit bear), northern Vancouver Island (great for orca sightings), and Canada's Gulf Islands (home to Canada's Gulf Islands National Park), and sail along BC's north coast (home to the port of Prince Rupert and the Khutzeymateen grizzly bear sanctuary).

Contact: www.bluewateradventures.ca

Photo Caption: The Island Roamer
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The <em>Mist Cove</em> Photo by The Boat Company
The Boat Company is a true rarity: a not-for-profit cruise line, whose revenues after operating expenses all get channeled back into conservation efforts in Southeast Alaska. Founded in 1980, the company offers cruises aboard two small vessels: the 20-passenger Liseron, a restored, wooden-hulled former Navy minesweeper built in 1952, and the 24-passenger Mist Cove, a metal-hulled re-creation of Liseron built by the company in 2000. All trips are focused completely on nature, sailing among the islands and coastal wilderness of the Tongass National Forest and steering well clear of the usual cruise stops. Fishing is a big draw on these boats, which are licensed to allow passengers to fish from the skiffs that are carried on board. Other activities include nature hikes, kayaking, and excursions by inflatable launch. Only the embarkation and debarkation ports and dates are set; the rest of each trip is flexible, based on the interests of the guests sailing that week. Several cruises each summer are designated as family cruises -- a rarity in the small-ship world. Weeklong cruises sail mid-May through mid-September, operating between Juneau and Sitka. Fares for 2011's first sailing start at $4,895 per person, double occupancy, but prices for the majority of cruises fall more in the $5,895 to $6,395 range.

Contact: www.theboatcompany.com

Photo Caption: The Mist Cove
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<em>Discovery in Harriman Fjord, Prince William Sound</em> Photo by Discovery Voyages
This one-ship operation offers cruises in Prince William Sound aboard the 65-foot, 12-passenger M/V Discovery, a former Presbyterian mission vessel specifically designed for service in coastal Alaska, and now dedicated to casual passenger cruising. Cruises are themed on whale-watching, birding, hiking and kayaking, photography, and general "adventure," but all concentrate on quiet natural destinations. A nice touch: All cruises have their carbon load offset through Vermont-based Native Energy, among whose renewable energy programs is the conversion of some remote Alaska Native villages to wind-powered electricity. The 8-day "Classic Discovery Voyages" sail round-trip from Anchorage/Whittier, spending 6 days sailing aboard Discovery exploring Prince William Sound, with pre- and post-cruise B&B stays in Anchorage. There are no port calls; instead, passengers spend their days hiking, taking trips by inflatable launch, fishing, whale/nature/wildlife-watching, visiting (and sometimes hiking around) glaciers, and stopping at a local oyster farm. In the evening, the vessel anchors in one or another quiet coves, making for peaceful sleep. Per-person rates for the Classic cruise hover in the $4,150-$4,300 range, though May and September shoulder-season cruises drop down to $3,000.

Contact: www.discoveryvoyages.com

Photo Caption: Discovery in Harriman Fjord, Prince William Sound
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The <em>Wilderness Adventurer</em> Photo by InnerSea Discoveries
Brand-new for 2011, InnerSea is a less expensive, more adventure-oriented sister-company to American Safari Cruises. The line will launch with two ships, the near-identical 72-guest Wilderness Adventurer and 88-guest Wilderness Discoverer. Built originally by and for American Canadian Caribbean Line (now Blount Small Ship Adventures) and operated in the 90s and early 2000s by now-defunct Glacier Bay Cruiseline, both vessels have very shallow draughts that allow them to access shallow waters, while dry-launch platforms in the stern allow passengers to board sea kayaks right from the ships. Very spartan during their years with ACCL and Glacier Bay, Adventurer and Discoverer are currently getting a refurbishment that will add hot tubs, saunas, exercise equipment, and upgraded decor -- including more comfortable cabins and a lodge/pub-style lounge that will stock a dozen microbrews. For InnerSea, both ships will sail Inside Passage cruises late May through early September, sailing between Juneau and Ketchikan and visiting natural areas like Prince of Wales Island, Sea Otter Sound, Baranof and Kuiu Islands, Frederick Sound, Admiralty Island (known for its bear population), and Endicott Arm. Days will focus on hiking, snorkeling, inflatable boat and kayak excursions, beachcombing, and whale-watching, with optional activities like caving, glacier walks, river rafting, fishing, and overnight backpacking and kayaking trips. Both vessels will be fitted with underwater hydrophones so guests can listen to whale-song, onboard yoga classes will be available, and naturalists will lead excursions and give lectures. Rates for 7-night cruises generally start at $2,295 per person, double occupancy, though May and September shoulder-season rates go as low as $1,795.

Contact: www.innerseadiscoveries.com

Photo Caption: The Wilderness Adventurer
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National Geographic <em>Sea Lion</em> Photo by Lindblad Expeditions
Lindblad Expeditions is the most adventure- and learning-oriented of the small-ship lines, offering itineraries that stay far away from the big ports, concentrating instead on wilderness and wildlife. In business since 1979, the line was started by Sven Lindblad, son of adventure travel pioneer Lars-Eric Lindblad, who led the first tourist expedition to Antarctica in 1966 and has a cove on the continent named after him. In 2004, the company strengthened its already outstanding academic and enrichment program through a partnership with the National Geographic Society, whose scientists and photographers sometimes sail with the vessels. In Alaska, the twin 62-passenger vessels National Geographic Sea Bird and National Geographic Sea Lion sail Inside Passage cruises from early May through August, sailing between Juneau and Sitka and visiting Glacier Bay National Park, Tracy and Endicott Arms (for the Sawyer and Dawes Glaciers), the fishing town of Petersburg, and the whale-watching waters of Frederick Sound, Chatham Strait, and Point Adolphus. Activities include hiking, kayaking, excursions by inflatable launch, and lectures and insights from a team of naturalists and expedition leaders. Both ships are outfitted with underwater video cameras, video microscopes, kayaks, inflatable Zodiac landing boats, and a hydrophone to eavesdrop on marine mammals. Particularly fun is an underwater "bow cam" that allows you to glimpse dolphins swimming in the bow wave or watch schools of fish below you while the ship is anchored. Per-person rates for 7-night cruises start at $5,990, double occupancy.

Contact: www.expeditions.com

Photo Caption: National Geographic Sea Lion
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The <em>Maple Leaf</em> Photo by Maple Leaf Adventures
This BC-based company has been in business since 1986, offering nature and cultural history cruises aboard the restored, 92-foot, 1904-built tall ship Maple Leaf, a onetime pleasure yacht that spent six decades as a fishing vessel before being reconverted back to passenger use. Carrying only 10 guests, the ship offers cabins that look like sleeper compartments on an old-time train, plus a dining lounge/library, and a sitting area in the above-deck wheelhouse. The three bathrooms aboard are all shared, as is common on relatively small sailing ships. Maple Leaf carries two inflatable launches for daily off-vessel exploration, as well as kayaks for use while the ship is at anchor. While most of the company's summer trips stick to British Columbia, they do offer two 11-night "Alaska Supervoyages" in June and July, sailing between Sitka and Prince Rupert, BC, and visiting Ketchikan, Petersburg, and Baranof, site of a natural hot spring, with at-sea days spent sailing and whale/wildlife/glacier-watching. Per-person rates for these trips are $5,793, double occupancy.

Contact: www.mapleleafadventures.com

Photo Caption: The Maple Leaf
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<em>Columbia III</em> in Prideaux Haven, Desolation Sound, BC Photo by Mothership Adventures
This small, one-ship, family-run company is centered around the classic, 68-foot, 12-passenger wooden boat Columbia III. Built in 1956, the boat was intended for service as a hospital ship with the Columbia Coast Mission, which provided medical and social care to coastal BC's remote settlements and logging camps between 1905 and 1969. Refurbished for passenger use in the early 1990s, Columbia III won first place in Victoria's Northwest Classic Boat Show in 2003. Her cabins are small but nicely appointed, with either bunk-style or double beds. The boat's three bathrooms are shared, and the dining room doubles as a lounge. In May and June, the ship sails 3- to 5-night cruises in the Discovery Islands, the Canadian Inside Passage, and the Broughton Archipelago, with all sailings carrying a theme (kayaking, coastal history, photography, First Nations culture, or watercolor painting, for instance). July through September, the focus shifts to 4-, 6-, and 9-night trips focused on sea kayaking, exploring the same regions plus the Great Bear Rainforest. On typical days, passengers leave the vessel by kayak right after breakfast and paddle amid the islands and fjords all morning before stopping ashore for a picnic lunch and hike or tide-pooling excursion. Per-person rates for 2011 start at around $1,948 for 4-night trips, $2,925 for 6-night trips, and $4,488 for 9-night trips.

Contact: www.mothershipadventures.com

Photo Caption: Columbia III in Prideaux Haven, Desolation Sound, BC
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The <em>David B</em> Photo by Northwest Navigation Company
Built in 1929, the classic David B served for decades as a tow boat, pulling a string of sailed fishing craft from Alaska's Libby, McNeil and Libby Co. cannery out into the salmon fishing waters. She was converted to passenger use in the late 1990s and now offers cruises for just six passengers. Though the majority of her trips are in Washington's San Juan Islands and Puget Sound, she also offers several 6-night Alaska trips annually, sailing between Juneau and Petersburg. Trips focus on natural areas and quiet anchorages like Wood Spit and No Name Cove. When the ship is at anchor, guests can go kayaking or head ashore to hike. Per-person fares for 2011 are $4,200, double-occupancy.

Contact: www.northwestnavigation.com

Photo Caption: The David B
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The <em>Pacific Catalyst</em> Photo by Pacific Catalyst
The wooden, 75-foot, 11-passenger Pacific Catalyst was built in 1932 as a research vessel for the University of Washington, and her maiden voyage was up the Inside Passage and across the Gulf of Alaska. Today she's a wonderful bit of history, offering trips that eschew port visits entirely, focusing instead on natural areas. For 2011, cruises will include a 6-night "Wilderness Discoveries" itinerary sailing between Juneau and Petersburg; a 6-night Misty Fjords National Monument cruise that sails between Ketchikan and Petersburg and spends four full days in its namesake area; and a 9-night Glacier Bay National Park cruise that spends a full week in the park. Cruises include kayaking as well as extensive hiking ashore. A pair of 10-night cruises in Canada's Inside Passage bracket the ship's Alaska season in April and August, and in September she sails 2- to 5-night cruises among Washington's San Juan Islands, round-trip from Friday Harbor. Per-person rates for 6-night Alaska cruises start around $3,850 per person, double-occupancy. Rates for 5-night San Juan Island cruises start at $1,600 per person.

Contact: www.pacificcatalyst.com

Photo Caption: The Pacific Catalyst
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