Travel Tips

Small-Ship Cruising Expeditions to Alaska and Beyond

Locations in this article:  Anchorage, AK Columbia, SC Seattle, WA

Kayaking in Alaska, photo credit: Bill ManderfeldIf you enjoy floating casinos and Lido decks, a small-ship cruise may not be for you. On the other hand, if you enjoy access to harbors and coastlines where the big ships can’t go, allowing you to go kayaking to get up close and personal with calving glaciers, viewing bears or hiking 200-foot summits, a small-ship cruise may be exactly the right experience. Sandra Kennedy reports on her experiences on an Alaskan adventure and uncovers some last-minute winter sailing deals.

Small-ship cruises are generally pricier than their larger counterparts, the tradeoff being the intimate experience with low staff-to-guest ratio and upscale, all-inclusive amenities. There are 12 to 138 shipmates sharing your adventure, compared to thousands, as you experience wildlife stops instead of port calls.

Onboard amenities tend to include educational lectures and spa treatments, rather than lounge singers and magic shows. A comfortable atmosphere and casual dress code is the norm, even while dining on gourmet food paired with wine and microbrews. And what travelers lack in onboard entertainment is rewarded with closer views of wildlife and wilderness, whether in a skiff, Zodiac, kayak, or on foot.

Due to the limited space, these excursions generally need to be booked well in advance. That’s good news for the ever-popular Alaska excursions, which will pick up again May through September, 2010.

This year, however, perhaps due to the sluggish economy, some winter sailings to warm-weather destinations still have some spaces for last-minute travel planners.

Find more outdoor experiences in our Adventure & Sports Travel category.


This past September, my eight days on the American Safari Explorer cruise to Glacier Bay and the Inland Passage felt like being on a mega-yacht with 20 friends and a friendly crew.

In 1997, American Safari Cruises began with one yacht and a single itinerary. Today, it is a division of InnerSea Discoveries and continues to expand.

This all-inclusive experience means that no wallets are needed as everything was in included in the price. Each meal is gourmet, with two entrée options each night—seafood, meat or a combination of both—along with free-flowing wine and a full bar.

While sailing, onboard activities include steaming in the top deck sauna or hot tub, working out, wildlife viewing from the Captain’s Bridge, reading in the wine library or salon, watching a movie, or getting a 50-minute massage (included in the price).

Whale in Alaska, photo credit: Bill ManderfeldIn life onboard a small ship, the suffix “ish” is an integral part of the vocabulary. For example, although there is a daily schedule of events, the first priority at any given moment is spotting wildlife. Consequently, whether you’re eating a meal, sailing in a kayak or skiff, or off hiking, if a whale, bald eagle or bear appears, all attention turns toward that. Flexibility is key, so depending on events, dinner may be at 7 or 7:30-ish.

Each wildlife excursions was preceded by lectures from expedition leaders, Kevin and Vanessa, as well as Ranger Randy, aboard with us for two nights. Many of the sightings were from the bow, using binoculars to scan for birds, bears, humpback whales, dolphins, and other animals.

We also viewed wildlife from our kayaks and skiffs, where guests are advised to remain silent and keep a safe distance from the animals. On board, each guest is constantly watched by guides while kayaking respectful distances from glaciers and wildlife, ensuring that no one disturbs the flora or fauna.

From May to September 2010, the flagship Safari Explorer, as well as the Safari Quest and Safari Spirit will take 12 to 36 passengers on the following cruises:

An eight-day round-trip cruise from Juneau to explore the Inland Passage will include anchoring in Glacier Bay National Park for two nights. American Safari Cruises has been awarded a premium two-night permit to anchor in Glacier Bay and hike on shore.

Another cruise is from Seattle/Juneau for a 15-day cruise of the Inland Passage, northbound in May and southbound in September. Land extensions include luxury trips into Alaska’s interior with deluxe suite accommodations and floatplanes to wilderness lodges for kayaking, hiking, canoeing, fishing, and bear watching.

This winter, other small-ship destinations include an eight-day trip along the Sea of Cortez departing November through March, starting from $6,995 per person. In 2011, the Safari Explorer is scheduled to begin inter-island cruises in Hawaii.

Going on a cruise with your spouse? Read A Cruise Veteran’s 12 Tips for Cruise Holiday Satisfaction

InnerSea Discoveries, sister cruise line to American Safari, is adding a less-expensive, non-inclusive program focusing on adventures at sea, for 2011. The soon-to-be-renovated 66-passenger Wilderness Adventurer and 80-passenger Wilderness Discoverer will offer seven-day trips between Ketchikan and Juneau without port stops. Instead, the adventures will include sailing through fjords, around glaciers and through the islands and coastal cruising areas of Southeast Alaska.

Passengers on Zodiacs will explore glaciers and wildlife up-close and make landings for guided hikes through remote areas. Other activities will likely include beachcombing, whale watching, caving, and backpacking. Prices will run from $2,500 to $3,000 per week. 888-862-8881,


Sixty years ago, Chuck West began the Cruise West Company and it continues to operate today as a family business with his son, Richard.

Snow-capped mountain, photo credit: Bill ManderfeldNew programs have been introduced as the “Spirit of Destination” which includes the Compass Enrichment Program, Palate Wine and Food Program and upscale Explorer Class Cabins.

The Compass Enrichment Program focuses on science, culture and cultural immersion, which includes guest lecturers as well as Exploration Leaders presentations and additional Zodiac expeditions on some itineraries.

The Palate Wine and Food Program highlights coveted wines and food pairings, with wine sommeliers on each sailing.

The Explorer Cruise Cabins are more upscale than most, and feature “eco-amenities” in the cabins, such as bamboo and cotton waffle weave robes and environmentally friendly toiletries.

2010 cruises to Alaska range from four to 16 nights from May to September, with vessels that carry 78 to 138 passengers.

Their itineraries include four nights cruising the Inland Passage to Glacier Bay or Prince William Sound. Also, a 10-night, Gold Rush Inside Passage cruise has been revised to include the Misty Fjords and Tsimshian Community, Metlakatla.

Ten departures will be available on all four ships: the Spirit of Yorktown, Spirit of Endeavor, Spirit of Columbia, and Spirit of Discovery. A new seven-night, Alaska’s Inland Passage cruise along with more Zodiac, wilderness and authentic ports; Sitka, Wrangell and Petersburg are included. Land Extensions include stops at Denali National Park and Preserve, Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Can’t get enough of Alaska? Learn how to explore the state like a local in From Snowmachines to Moose Hunting, Travel Like a Palin

Spaces are still available for 2009 winter destinations through the Panama Canal and Costa Rica, along Mexico’s Sea of Cortes, and through parts of Asia.

Also of note is the new “Voyage of the Great Explorers” 355-day round-the-world cruise.

Cruise West is offering also offering “Stowaway” discounts of up to 25 percent off for guests who choose a 30-day departure window instead of a specific sailing date. 888-851-8133,


Lars-Eric Lindblad began the first expedition groups of travelers in the late 1950s. In 1979, his son Sven founded “Special Expeditions” as a division of Lindblad Travel.

Lindblad Expeditions also has a longstanding partnership with the National Geographic Society which offers sailings with a natural and cultural focus, often times with National Geographic experts on board. These experts include historians, naturalists, photographers, undOutdoors in Alaska, photo credit: Bill Manderfeldersea specialists, expedition leaders and video chroniclers.

Lindblad is known for employing various gizmos and gadgets to enhance the experience, including Remote Operated Vehicle, electronic charts, a crow’s nest camera, underwater video cameras, and “critter cams.”

The partnership with the National Geographic Society also works to promote responsible tourism and conservation practices, such as their work with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and Alaska Whale Foundation.

Don’t miss our Cruises Section for more cruise news you can use.

In 2010, Lindblad’s Alaskan Cruise itineraries will remain the same. Its two 62-passenger ships, the National Geographic Sea Bird and National Geographic Sea Lion, offer itineraries such as an eight-day cruise of the Inland Passage and a 12-day cruise to British Columbia, San Juan Islands and Alaska. Land Extensions in Alaska include Denali Park and Preserve, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Sitka or Juneau.

Besides Alaska, Lindblad also offers multiple itineraries worldwide, including several winter sailings to Central America and Antarctica, and various family-oriented and photography expeditions. 800-EXPEDITION,

By Sandra Kennedy for Photos by Bill Manderfield.