Small Ship Alaska: Do You Want To Share Alaska With Thousands? Or A Few Hundred?

Alaska is one of the quintessential cruise destinations. Every year between April and October, thousands of passengers sail the scenic Inside Passage to ports like Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway from Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco.

The Streets of Skagway. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The Streets of Skagway. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Many of the cruise ships sailing to Alaska, however, are large, mainstream megaships. These typically carry thousands of guests, and they’re getting larger every year. In 2016, for example, Royal Caribbean will bring the massive 3,114-guest Explorer of the Seas to Alaska for the first time. It will be the largest cruise ship Royal Caribbean has ever deployed in the region.

But there is another way to see Alaska. Hidden among the clusters of megaliners that crowd the docks in Juneau and Ketchikan are a handful of smaller, more intimate cruise ships. Carrying fewer than 1,000 guests, these ships typically offer a more luxurious, customized cruising experience in Alaska than their large-ship brethren.

Small Ship Alaska

Heading back to re-board the Star Princess at Skagway's Ore Dock before we...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Alaska is the domain of large, mainstream cruise ships – but smaller options exist too. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Cruising to Alaska on a small ship has its advantages. Smaller ships can dock where larger ships cannot, which opens up an entirely new range of ports of call. These can include docking in places like Wrangell, with its fabulous and mysterious Petroglyph Beach; or Haines, a wonderful little town near Skagway that serves as a jumping-off point for nature explorations.

Small ships also stand a better chance of getting up-close to the glaciers than big ships do. A large ship can barely transit Tracy Arm Fjord; a small ship can make it all the way to the North and South Sawyer Glaciers, if ice conditions are right.

So who sails to Alaska? Here’s a look at the major players offering sub-1000 guest ships in Alaska in 2016.

Small Ships Sailing Alaska In 2016

Ponant

Ponant's L'Austral, sister to Le Soleal, passes a fishing trawler near Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Ponant’s L’Austral, sister to Le Soleal, passes a fishing trawler near Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

In 2016, the French cruise line Ponant returns to Alaska with its sleek, elegant Le Soleal – a ship that embodies the very spirit of the French joie de vivre. Carrying between just 224 and 264 guests, Le Soleal offers the luxurious, yacht-like experience that Ponant has been fine-tuning ever since debuting the trendsetting Le Boreal back in 2010.

Although Le Soleal operates a relatively short Alaska season that runs from June to August of 2016, Ponant makes up for it by offering some of the most original and creative itineraries in the region. These voyages are also convenient, with a handful of potential embarkation ports including Vancouver, Seattle, Juneau, Seward and Anchorage.

Itineraries run between seven and 16 days, and a few even travel as far as Anadyr, the most eastern town in Russia.

If you like your cruises with French-inspired cuisine and a decidedly European flair, Le Soleal provides a cultured, intimate way to experience Alaska’s natural beauty and wonders.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Regent Seven Seas Mariner anchored off St. Barts. | by Ralph Grizzle
Regent Seven Seas Mariner in slightly warmer climes,  anchored off St. Barts. | by Ralph Grizzle

Regent Seven Seas Cruises returns to Alaska once again in 2017. For the past few years, the line has deployed the 490-guest Seven Seas Navigator on trips to the Last Frontier from Vancouver, but in 2016, the popular Seven Seas Mariner returns to her former stomping ground, and Alaska cruisers are glad to have her back.

Capable of carrying 700 guests, Seven Seas Mariner is the largest cruise ship in the luxury market in Alaska. If you like your ships large and amenity-laden, chances are good you’ll find plenty to like within this striking and well-appointed 713-foot long ship. Regent just put her through a multi-million dollar refurbishment that has significantly spruced up her suites and public areas, and Regent’s repeat guests like the air of informality and conviviality that prevails throughout the ship. This is most apparent on sailing day, when guests are invited to stand outside their suite doors to meet their neighbors and enjoy champagne toasts with the ship’s officers.

Regent’s Alaska season begins in May, with a 10 night voyage to Alaska from San Francisco, ending in Vancouver. After that, Seven Seas Mariner operates a series of weeklong North/Southbound voyages between Vancouver and Seward, used as a port for Anchorage. The 2016 season concludes on August 24, 2016, when Seven Seas Mariner once again operates a 10-night voyage between Vancouver and San Francisco.

Regent is one of the true ultra-luxury cruise lines operating in Alaska. To that end, expect to pay a lot up front, but next-to-nothing onboard. Everything from shore excursions to drinks to gratuities are included in the cost of the voyage, and although Seven Seas Mariner features several specialty restaurants, not a single one carries a cover charge.

Silversea

Silversea's luxurious Silver Shadow was built in 2001, and has sailed to Alaska nearly every year since. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Silversea’s luxurious Silver Shadow was built in 2000, and has sailed to Alaska nearly every year since. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The other ultra-luxury operator in Alaska is Monte Carlo-based Silversea, and it’s no accident that this award-winning cruise line also uses Vancouver’s Canada Place Cruise terminal as the homeport of choice in Alaska.

Silversea has been sending the 2000-built Silver Shadow to Alaska for the summers for almost her entire operating life. Capable of carrying just 382 guests, she sports one of the highest Passenger Space Ratios in the industry. This means that she provides more space per individual passenger than the average cruise ship, including some of her luxury competitors.

Like Regent, Silversea focuses on inclusivity. To that end, all gratuities are included in the cost of the cruise, as are all beverages.

Silver Shadow’s Alaska season begins on May 19, 2016, as she sails southbound on a weeklong from Anchorage to Vancouver. While the company used to offer a variety of longer cruises, it’s clear that this weeklong Northbound/Southbound format has proven to be most popular with Silversea’s discerning but busy clientele.

A typical weeklong voyage aboard the Silver Shadow next summer includes port calls in Sitka, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan, plus scenic cruising off massive Hubbard Glacier. Her season concludes on September 8, 2016, with a final southbound sailing from Seward to Vancouver before Silver Shadow sets out across the Pacific to winter in Southeast Asia.

For those who desire luxury but still want a little adventure, Silversea’s Silversea Expeditions arm might have the answer. The company is sending the nimble, 120-guest Silver Discoverer to Alaska on two fascinating voyages: a 12-day journey from Nome to Seward on July 11, 2016; and a massive 16-day exploration of the Pacific from Seward to Otaru, Japan.

Un-Cruise

Un-Cruise Adventure's Safari Endeavour in Alaska. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders
Un-Cruise Adventure’s Safari Endeavour in Alaska. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

There is one other option for small-ship lovers in Alaska, and that is Seattle-based Un-Cruise Adventures.

Unlike the other vessels on this page, the ships of Un-Cruise are more functional than luxurious – though all-inclusive elements, like included microbrews, wine and spirits are included on some of the line’s fleet. Ships are basic, with small staterooms and just a handful of public areas.

Where Un-Cruise truly excels, however, is in its itineraries that revolve around adventure and exploration. Most Un-Cruise ships carry a variety of watersports equipment onboard like stand-up paddleboards and kayaks that will let you get up-close with nature.

Additionally, the line offers a wide variety of overland excursions, all of which are included in the cost of your cruise. You can take part in beach explorations, gentle forest walks, or proper hands-and-knees wilderness adventures that will have you exploring the gorgeous terrain of places like Glacier Bay and Baranoff Island.

The Un-Cruise fleet operates between April and September, primarily on weeklong voyages out of Juneau and Ketchikan – though longer cruises are also on the roster. What the line lacks in luxury, it more than makes up for in originality. You’ll never view Alaska the same way again.

Alaska is truly majestic and larger than life, but there’s no better way to experience it than on a small-ship cruise.

Also see Five Reasons Why I Prefer Cruising On Small Ships

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3 Comments

  • Ralph, good article on the merit of small ships. Being a travel agent whos tag line is “small ship adventures”….one of the main differences are what route the ship has to sail. For instance, Silverseas, Regent and Ponant being smaller still have to sail in the same channels as the mega Explorer of the Seas. Of the “small ships”, it is only Un-Cruise and Lindblad that are small enough to be allowed to sail in and out of the fjords and nooks and cranies of the inside passage. Others are deligated to the main shipping channel.

    Reply
    • Hi Linda, Great news that you are all about the small ships. Very happy to hear that. We have Micro-Cruises (www.mirco-cruising.com) and we have 9 companies that sail BC and Alaska on ships from 6 passengers to just over 100. We think this is the way to actually experience the real Alaska and not have to see a port other than the embarkation and disembarkation port/s.

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