Alaska By Small Ship

When it comes to cruising through the heart of Alaska and British Columbia, there are no shortage of choices. But Alaska, much like the Caribbean, is dominated by big, mainstream cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers apiece. Because of their size, they also tend to call on many of the same ports of call, eschewing smaller towns and anchorages along the way.

The Gold Rush town of Skagway, Alaska. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

But small ships aren’t entirely left out of the equation. From pocket vessels carrying a few dozen guests to more rugged expedition ships and elegant luxury vessels, small ship cruising has never offered so many choices in Alaska. And more lines are poised to enter the region over the next two years.

In 2018, Windstar Cruises will deploy the 212-guest Star Legend to Alaska, where she will operate sailings that depart from both Vancouver, Canada and Seward, Alaska. It’s the first time in two decades that the line has sailed these waters, and its return is likely to generate significant interest.

Windstar’s sailings will be longer than the average Alaska cruise, most of which top out at a week in length. Instead, the small-ship line has crafted a season of 11, 12, and 14-night voyages that explore the inner reaches of Alaska and the coast of British Columbia.

Star Legend. Photo courtesy of Windstar Cruises.

“We are so excited to be enhancing the Alaskan travel marketplace by introducing our brand of true small ship cruising to Alaska,”  said Windstar President John Delaney. “Sailing closer to pristine deciduous shorelines, delving deeper into all-enveloping fjords, kayaking in icy straits right off the ship’s Watersports Platform, and viewing an endless wilderness from sea level. We are bringing our guests right to the heart of what makes Alaska and the Great Pacific Northwest such an amazing destination and magical place to visit.”

Delaney noted that Windstar was hard at work developing a unique assortment of shore excursions for the line’s return to Alaska – something that will be aided by the fact that Star Legend carries her own onboard complement of kayaks and nimble Zodiac rafts, perfect for explorations where other ships can’t go.

“We are working hard now to arrange customized bucket-list moments like the chance to hike atop the massive Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska’s capital of Juneau, zipline over crystal-clear creeks in bear country, snap a classic whale tail picture on your mobile phone – during a romantic deckside dinner, fly over majestic Glacier Bay in a private plane, uncover Sitka’s rich Russian heritage, or check out Petroglyph Beach in Wrangell – a destination rarely visited by cruise ships,” he said.

Windstar will offer three distinctive itineraries in Alaska next year: the 14-night Wonders of Alaska and Canada departing from Seward (Anchorage) and returning to Vancouver; the 11 or 12-night Alaskan Splendors that sails northbound from Vancouver to Seward; and the 12-day Islands and Inlets of the Inside Passage, which operates conveniently roundtrip from Vancouver.

Each Windstar voyage will visit Tracy Arm Fjord and Misty Fjords, and select voyages will even manage to offer scenic cruising in the Kenia Fjords, rarely visited by cruise ships.

But Windstar isn’t the only line making its small-ship return to Alaska in 2018. Ultra-luxury cruise line Seabourn will be back again for its second season in the region after a multi-year absence, with the elegant, 450-guest Seabourn Sojourn leading the way.

Seabourn is sending the sleek Seabourn Sojourn to Alaska in 2017; the company’s first sailings to the region in 15 years. Photo courtesy of Seabourn

As with this year, Seabourn will again offer a variety of Alaska itineraries in 2018 that are longer and unusually in-depth compared to their big-ship counterparts. The line will also offer departures sailing roundtrip from Vancouver, or one-way between Vancouver and Seward.

The nimble size of Seabourn Sojourn allows the line to offer voyages that call on completely out-of-the-way ports of call. Places like Alert Bay, British Columbia. A small village of roughly 1,500 people, nearly half of the population of Alert Bay are First Nations peoples. It’s not a big town, but it is an authentic town – and therein lies the difference. Skagway, Alaska is a lot of fun – but it exists predominantly for the pleasure of cruise tourists. In Alert Bay, the centuries-long First Nations traditions are preserved in this working town nestled in some of British Columbia’s most breathtaking natural scenery.

Other out-of-the-way ports of call on Seabourn’s second Alaska cruise season include Klemtu, British Columbia; Prince Rupert, British Columbia; Rudyerd Bay, Alaska; and the Behm Narrows, the latter of which is actually used by the United States Navy to test the soundproofing capabilities of their latest submarines. 

And of course, the line offers port calls to the “big three” destinations of Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway.

Silversea’s Silver Explorer off the coast of Svalbard, in Norway’s High Arctic. She will make her Alaska debut in 2018. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Luxury competitor Silversea is also sharpening its itinerary calendar next year. While the 382-guest Silver Shadow will return again to operate weeklong luxury sailings between Vancouver and Seward, the 132-guest Silver Explorer will make its debut in Alaska for the first-time ever.

The luxury expedition ship is going to sail three separate adventure cruises in 2018: a 19-day roundtrip Nome voyage that explores the eastern reaches of Alaska and Russia’s Far East (July 25, 2018); a 12-day sailing from Nome to Seward (August 13, 2018); and a 12-day sailing from Seward to Vancouver on August 25, 2018.

These voyages also focus on far-flung ports of call, including Yakutat, Alaska; Point Adolphus; Walker Cove; Alaska, and British Columbia’s picturesque Johnstone Strait that feeds into Discovery Passage and eventually, the Strait of Georgia that runs between Vancouver Island and Vancouver.

These are but three of the cruise lines offering unique itineraries aboard small (but not too small) ships in Alaska next year. Even if you’ve already sailed to the region a dozen times aboard the big Princess and Holland America ships that ply these waters, these ships will show you a side of Alaska you never even knew existed.

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