That experience in the 1990s hooked me on small-ship cruising and inspired me to start QuirkyCruise.com to share reviews and news about this special corner of the cruise world.
On a small ship you can get much closer to Alaska’s unspoiled natural bounty, its glaciers, old growth forests and fjords, and its wildlife, from brown bears foraging along the shoreline to harbor seals and their pups lounging on chunks of ice.
The small, agile ships themselves get you closer, and so do excursions via even smaller Zodiac boats and kayaks.
Small-ship cruises in Alaska offer you the luxury of access and serenity. When the captain cuts the engines near a shushing waterfall or a surfacing whale exhaling gusts of air through its blowhole, you not only see nature but hear it, too.
There are countless straits, canals, narrows, fjords, and sounds in the maze-like Inside Passage that only small ships can fit through. And while big ships spend no more than half a day in Glacier Bay National Park, the smallest ships can linger a full day and sometimes more.
The majority of Alaska cruises last a week (though there are longer itineraries), exploring southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage via round-trip or one-way journeys from Juneau, Sitka, Seattle, and Vancouver.
Here are seven small-ship cruise lines in Alaska to consider.
(L–R: Alaska's Inside Passage and view of Alaskan Dream Cruises' Kruzof Explorer from shore | Credits: Shutterstock / Larry Lamsa)
Owned and operated by the passionate Captain Dan Blanchard, UnCruise has the largest fleet of small ships in Alaska. The line’s eclectic 22- to 86-passenger ships explore the nooks and crannies of southeast Alaska’s inlets, bays, and coves.
Ships have stern marinas for easy access to kayaking, paddleboarding, and even swimming for those brave enough to take the chilly plunge. New late winter sailings in March and April come with opportunities to ski and snowshoe.
All-inclusive fares bundle excursions and open bar. UnCruise.com
(Plunging into Alaska's Glacier Bay from an UnCruise Adventures ship | Credit: UnCruise Adventures)
Alaskan Dream Cruises
This is the other small-ship Alaska company with the deepest connection to the region. Alaskan Dream Cruises is owned and operated by the Allen family, who have been cruising the Inside Passage for more than 45 years.
The company’s five cozy vessels were built in the 1970s and '80s, getting refits over the years to carry 12 to 76 passengers each.
Besides showcasing Alaska’s wildlife and landscape, Alaskan Dream Cruises offers experiences that focus on the region’s Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian native cultures.
Fares include excursions and house wine or beer at dinner. AlaskanDreamCruises.com
The pair of historic wooden ships operated by Pacific Catalyst have varnished wood paneling, mahogany furniture, and great backstories. The 12-passenger Catalyst was built in 1931 as an oceanographic research vessel for the University of Washington, while the 1924-built 11-passenger Westward offered adventure cruises in the Pacific Northwest for celebrity passengers like Bing Crosby and Walt Disney.
Today both vessels are equipped with diesel engines and battery power that allow them to cruise silently through the wilderness for up to 12 hours.
Fares include excursions, wine, and beer (hard liquor is BYOB). PacificCatalyst.com
(Whale watching on a Zodiac boat during a Lindblad Expeditions cruise in Alaska | Credit: Roderick Eime / Flickr)
Lindblad wrote the book on adventurous small-ship cruising worldwide, so it’s no surprise the company has four ships in Alaska this summer—two carrying 100 passengers apiece and the other two vessels carrying just 62 passengers apiece.
Lindblad employs a talented expedition staff, with one naturalist (including a photo expert) for every 10 guests. Each ship carries multiple Zodiacs, kayaks, and paddleboards.
Fares include all excursions, but not open bar. Expeditions.com
American Cruise Lines
The bright white 170-passenger American Constellation looks like a miniaturized version of a standard cruise ship, down to the spacious sundeck for scenery viewing and living room–esque main lounge with retro couches.
Most of the Constellation’s cabins have private balconies, and six are designed for single travelers. An elevator serves all the main passenger decks.
Fares include some complimentary excursions (but not all) as well as a daily cocktail hour and wine and beer at lunch and dinner. Starlink Wi-Fi and tips are covered in the fare, too. AmericanCruiseLines.com
American Queen Voyages
The new, 186-passenger Ocean Victory is a luxury expedition ship built to cruise through polar ice, spending winters in Antarctica. In the summer, the vessel heads for the relatively warmer waters of southeast Alaska.
Eighteen Zodiacs keep excursion groups small. There are also sea kayaks and hydrophones to hear whales underwater. Onboard, most cabins have balconies. Among the ship’s other amenities: a gym, spa, and outdoor pool with two hot tubs.
Fares include excursions, open bar, Starlink Wi-Fi, and tips. AmericanQueen.com
(Veranda suite on Silversea Cruises' Silver Whisper | Credit: Silversea Cruises)
The poshest (and largest) small ship in Alaska is Silversea’s 392-passenger Silver Whisper, an all-suite vessel with doting service from a crew of 302. Each guest unit has a walk-in closet, stocked mini bar, and marble bathroom with a tub; most suites have balconies as well.
While cruising through the wilds of southeast Alaska, Silversea’s pampered passengers enjoy creature comforts like butler service, four restaurants, a casino, a show lounge, a gym, and an impressive spa.
Fares include open bar, tips, and at least one excursion in every port. Silversea.com
Heidi Sarna is a veteran travel journalist and the cofounder of QuirkyCruise, a top source for news, reviews, and information about small ship cruises and unconventional vessels.