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It's a paradox that when it comes to cruising in Alaska, the nation's largest state, the best and most appropriate ships are actually the smallest -- those little 10- to 100-passenger niche vessels that can get you into places the big megaships can't.

That's something that's been on my mind a lot this week, as I watch the 2009 Alaska cruise season begin winding down to its September close. Soon the mainstream megaships will start sailing south to Mexico, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Asia. What's left, mostly, will be the small ships, many of which sail into the third week of September, at which point they have Alaska's waters almost to themselves, at least from a tourism perspective.

With that in mind, it seemed an opportune moment to give those little ships some equal time -- because I admit it: I'm guilty of limiting myself (and by extension, you) by focusing on the two dozen or so cruise lines that dominate the current seagoing market: the big mainstream lines, the luxury lines, and a handful of relatively "major players" in the small-ship market. There's some logic to that -- after all, those companies together probably carry 98 percent of the all travelers taking their vacations at sea -- but it's not exactly adventuresome, nor thorough.

Big Among the Small

That's not to say that I've ignored the smaller operators completely. In fact, I feel some pride that in my annual Frommer's Cruises & Ports of Call guidebook, the owner-operated 20-passenger schooners that sail Maine's coast in summer get as many pages as major lines like Costa, Disney, MSC, and Crystal. I admit, however, that I've tended to focus on just a few of the small-ship operators: companies like Cruise West (www.cruisewest.com), which has a fleet of 11 ships it owns or charters, and sails internationally. Or Lindblad Expeditions (www.expeditions.com), which is so established, high-profile, and internationalist that it's the official cruise line of the National Geographic Society. Star Clippers (www.starclippers.com) and Windstar Cruises (www.windstarcruises.com) always get a shout-out too, as they both have an international sales presence and cruise in widely scattered parts of the world.

But what about everybody else? There are literally hundreds of smaller cruise lines out there in the world today, many of them mom-and-pop operations that have just one ship and stick to a particular geographic area. Their vessels are small, usually carrying no more than 20 passengers at a time, and their trips tend to concentrate on the small ports and quiet natural areas that big ships ignore because there's just no way to highlight them for 2,000 guests at a time.

Below, I'm taking stock of ten of those small operators, all of whom sail Alaska's waters during the summer months. Some operate converted Navy vessels while others operate under sail power; some own their own vessels, while others use chartered ships; some of them go for luxury while others are humble and low-key. What they all have in common is their intimacy and independence, and the fact that they concentrate on scenic wild areas rather than the usual big ports. They are, in fact, the antithesis of what we've come to think of as "cruise." They also fall on the expensive side when compared to a mainstream megaship cruise, but on the other hand, all of them include excursions and adventure activities in their base rates and some include pre- and/or post-cruise hotel stays and onboard beer and wine, so your fare could represent the complete cost of your trip, aside from flights.

A Grab-Bag of Alaska's Small-Ship Operators, A to Z

AdventureSmith Explorations (www.adventuresmithexplorations.com): AdventureSmith is a sort of aggregator for small-ship cruises, selling trips aboard Cruise West, Lindblad, American Safari Cruises, and others. The company is staffed by naturalists and former trip leaders who can help you plan exactly the kind of trip you want. Bonus: Through its "Carbon-Free Cruising" campaign, AdventureSmith arranges offsets for all emissions created by its passengers, investing in solar energy, methane sequestration, high-efficiency low-income housing, and other projects around the world. Trips from $1,299 to $7,599.

American Safari Cruises (www.amsafari.com): 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. Fares are all-inclusive, covering off-vessel excursions as well as all drinks and etc. Days might be spent kayaking in the wilderness, fishing right off the side of the yachts, and visiting small ports of call, where the boats sometimes dock overnight to give passengers a taste of the local nightlife. Per-person fares start at $4,895 for weeklong sailings.

Bluewater Adventures (www.bluewateradventures.ca): Founded in 1974, this Vancouver-based company offers 7- to 11-night Alaska Inside Passage sailings aboard two vessels, 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 are former 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. Weeklong trips are priced from $4,080 per person.

The Boat Company (www.theboatcompany.com): Operating in Alaska since 1980, this company sails very flexible itineraries 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. The focus of all trips is the grandeur of Southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest. 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. Per-person fares start at $5,300 for a weeklong voyage.

Discovery Voyages (www.discoveryvoyages.com): This one-ship operation offers cruises in Prince William Sound aboard the 65-foot, 12-passenger M/V Discovery, a former fishing trawler that's been converted into a casual passenger yacht. Cruises are themed on whale watching, birding, hiking and kayaking, photography, and general "adventure," but all concentrate on quiet natural destinations. 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. Per-person rates for weeklong voyages run north from $4,150, and include pre- and post-trip hotel stays and all onboard beverages.

Maple Leaf Adventures (www.mapleleafadventures.com): 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 10 passengers in cabins that have been described as resembling luxurious sleeper compartments on a 1930s train. 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, priced at $5,725 per person.

Northwest Navigation Company (www.northwestnavigation.com): Built in 1929, the classic David B served for decades as a tow boat, pulling a string of sailed fishing craft from the Libby, McNeil and Libby Co. cannery into salmon fishing grounds. 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, she also offers several Alaska trips annually. Trips focus on natural areas, quiet anchorages like Wood Spit and No Name Cove, and small communities like Petersburg. The per-person fare for a 6-night Alaska voyage in 2010 is $4,200.

Pacific Catalyst Expeditions (www.pacificcatalyst.com): 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. Special cruises in Glacier Bay National Park spend five full days in the park, and include kayaking as well as extensive hiking ashore. Per-person rates for 6-night cruises start around $3,900 per person.

Sea Wolf Adventures (www.seawolfadventures.net): The 97-foot Sea Wolf was built as the Navy minesweeper USS Observer in 1941 and protected San Francisco Bay until 1947, when she was sold into private hands. She was decommissioned after serving as protection for San Francisco Bay. Refitted as a charter vessel in the 1980s, she now offers nature-oriented Alaska cruises for just 12 passengers, who can explore via the ship's skiffa or its six 2-person kayaks, or view the scenery from the enclosed, heated aft deck or covered side decks. Like Pacific Catalyst, the Sea Wolf offers special Glacier Bay trips that spend five full days in the park, hiking, kayaking, whale-watching, and glacier-viewing. These 5-night trips are priced at $3,000 per person.

Wanderbird Expeditions (www.wanderbirdcruises.com): The 12-passenger Wanderbird is a 90-foot, Dutch-built trawler that fished the North Sea from 1963 until 1990 and is now based in Maine, where she's one of the weirder vessels among that coast's more characteristic schooners and sloops. On the outside, she could almost pass for a working research or fishing vessel, if she weren't so spic and span (and if you discount the sails, which provide auxiliary power). On the inside, she's got a woody, homey, yachtlike interior. Her cruises mix total relaxation (i.e., few planned activities) with nature observation and exploration, whale and bird watching, wildlife photography, and unusual touches like listening to and recording whale songs. She also carries two small boats and several kayaks for off-vessel exploration. For 2010, Wanderbird will be sailing three quarters of the way around North America, from Maine through the Panama Canal to Alaska, where she'll offer eighteen 6-night sailings departing variously from Petersburg, Sitka, and Juneau, all priced at $2,000 per person.

Two More Options: Public and Private

No question, the majority of the cruises listed above are out of a lot of people's price range -- but that doesn't mean you have to sail a megaship by default if you have your heart set on Alaska. Instead, you can take the bus -- 'cause in Southeast Alaska, where many communities are only accessible by air and sea, that's pretty much what the Alaska Marine Highway System (www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/index.shtml) is. Hopscotching year-round between 30 communities in Alaska (plus Bellingham, WA, and Prince Rupert, BC), the system's 11 vessels have various levels of cabins to accommodate long, multi-leg voyages, but you can also opt to just sleep in one of the recliner lounges or covered solariums on the upper decks. You can even pitch a small tent on the upper decks, if you have a mind. Fares vary depending on where you're going, how many legs you're undertaking (you can, of course, stay as long as you want in any of the system's ports, and continue on at a later date), and whether you're booking a cabin. As an example, though, per-person rates from Bellingham to Ketchikan are $239, Ketchikan to Juneau are $107, and Juneau to Skagway is a fast $50. The ferries also continue north and west to Whittier, Kodiak Island, and the Aleutians.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are full-ship charters -- a great option if you've got a lot of family and/or friends traveling with you, and beaucoup bucks. Many of the companies profiled are happy to charter their full vessels. You can also check out Alaska Charter Yachts (www.alaska-charter-yachts.com), which represents eight small, charterable vessels.

Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers in our Alaska Forum today.