Life onboard an Alaska small ship, which typically would carry fewer than 100 passengers, is a far more relaxed experience than you find on a standard cruise. You wake up to the sound of birds instead of noise from the balcony next door. Your days consist of kayaking or hiking, rather than shopping and taking helicopter tours. Evenings are spent reading in your room or listening to a naturalist talk. And there's no need to buy a new cocktail dress, although you might spend just as much in outdoor gear.
The 2010 bankruptcy of Cruise West, a line which dominated the Alaska small-ship market for years, left a hole. Now, two years later, several cruise companies have come forward to fill the void. Here's a look at who's going where:Alaskan Dream Cruises
Who: Now in its second season, Alaskan Dream Cruises started running multi-night, expedition-style cruises after company owner David Allen, of the established boat-building firm Allen Marine, acquired several Cruise West vessels in late 2010. The company, which is well established in Alaska and had long offered whale-watching day trips out of Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka, specializes in voyages that have a strong cultural component. (The Allen family are members of the Tlingit Kaagwaantaan Clan).
Ships: Alaskan Dream, formerly the Executive Explorer catamaran owned by Majestic America and Glacier Bay cruise lines, carries 42 passengers. Admiralty Dream, formerly Spirit of Columbia from Cruise West, has cabins for 66 people. Each ship has lounges for happy hours, as well as post-dinner lectures and programs.
Itineraries: The Sitka-based line offers seven itineraries. Ports of call include the larger cities of Ketchikan, Skagway and Haines, as well as Thorne Bay, Kasaan, Wrangell, Gustavus and Glacier Bay. Town stops include historical walking tours and cultural performances, while nature stops offer hiking and wildlife-viewing. Another unique offering is a day of activities with ATV's, sea kayaks and small power boats at the company's private "Adventure Base Camp" in Hobart Bay.
Web Site: www.alaskandreamcruises.com
American Cruise Lines
Who: Making its first Alaskan sail this season, American Cruise Lines has been running cruises in numerous areas of the country, including New England, Chesapeake Bay and the Columbia and Snake rivers. It's traditionally drawn an older crowd that's more interested in ports than adventure, and its Alaska sailings are heavy on narrated boat, coach and walking tours.
Ships: American Spirit, built in 2005, carries 100 passengers. Most of the staterooms have private balconies and, at an average of 243 square feet, they're billed as being among the largest in the Alaska arena. There's elevator service to all decks, a boon for seniors.
Itineraries: Roundtrip sailings out of Juneau, or between Juneau and Seattle, include stops in Glacier Bay, Icy Strait Point, Petersburg, Sitka and Tracy Arm.
Web Site: www.americancruiselines.com
American Safari Cruises/InnerSea Discoveries
Who: Headquartered in Seattle and run by Cruise West veterans Dan Blanchard and Tim Jacox, American Safari Cruises and its sister line, InnerSea Discoveries, have been the most aggressive in claiming the Alaska small-ship market by sending six ships into the area for the 2012 season. While it launched InnerSea Discoveries as an expedition line in 2011, the company is starting to unite all of its vessels under "The UnCruise" mantle (trying to appeal to people who might not normally cruise). The larger ships in the line feature built-in docks for kayaks and standup paddleboards, while the smaller yacht-style ships include drinks and a spa treatment in the fare.
Ships: Under the InnerSea Discoveries expedition-style label, the line has three ships. Seventy-six-passenger Wilderness Discoverer and 60-passenger Wilderness Adventurer both launched in 2011, enjoying sold-out seasons. In 2012, Wilderness Explorer, formerly owned by Cruise West as the Spirit of Discovery, joined the expedition fleet after extensive renovations that included cutting the number of passengers from 86 to 76. All ships have kayaks, standup paddleboards and hot tubs onboard.
An April 2012, fire consumed the smallest American Safari Cruises vessel, Safari Spirit, leaving the division with three ships. The newest, Safari Endeavour, is a renovation of Cruise West's Spirit of Endeavour and is the largest under the ASC umbrella, with 86 passengers. Safari Quest, the smallest at 22 passengers, and the 36-passenger Safari Explorer will also sail Alaska this season. The ASC vessels are meant to be more luxurious, with larger cabins and all-inclusive pricing.