If clients are seeking a friendly, laid back small-ship cruise around southeastern Alaska, one good option is Alaskan Dream Cruises, which operates multiple ships in the region.
Its vessels sail to off-the-beaten path ports, call at remote harbors and deliver fun eco-adventures including hiking, kayaking and up-close wildlife/marine viewing. Cruisers will also learn about Alaskan heritage and native Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures. Owners of the line, the Allen family, are of Tlingit descent. They also own Allen Marine, well-known in Alaska for marine operations.
Travel Agent sailed on the 74-passenger Chicagof Dream from Juneau to Sitka this past May. The ship operates week-long cruises on this route through the summer season. Here are our “take-aways” about the ship itself. A second story coming soon will detail the itinerary and guest experiences.
Large Observation Lounge
As the largest ship in Alaskan Dream Cruises' fleet, Chichagof Dream has several large public spaces, including a spacious Observation Lounge (shown below) with multiple functions.
Along one wall is a robust library, with many books and materials guests can borrow as they wish during the cruise. Plus, there are Alaskan products and small gifts/souvenirs for sale.
The lounge also has a full-service bar, with a professional bartender (ours was very good, both at concocting the drinks and chatting with guests) and bar stools.
Mostly, though, guests sit in lower chairs with tables. It's a comfortable space to relax with a book, watch the stunning scenery, enjoy coffee/tea from the tabletop station (shown in the photo above) or just chat with other guests.
It's also the ship's lecture/presentation/movie spot. Two onboard naturalists (one doubling as a cruise director), two Tlingit native guests and other expert speakers -- including a U.S. National Park Service ranger and Mark Kelley, a renowned Alaska scenery and wildlife photographer -- spoke during lounge presentations on our cruise.
For those who like a bit of traditional cruise fun, the naturalists also led a game of Alaskan charades, a meet-the-crew Q&A and trivia contests. For example, guests wrote down when they thought a large chunk of floating glacier ice (brought onboard during one of the expeditionary outings) would melt; the winner received a small prize.
I loved the lounge's large picture windows, perfect for "oohing" and "aahing" at the sights, right from a comfortable (and warm, as it was fairly cool in May) interior space.
But when such wildlife as black bears, Orcas, humpback whales or sea lions were spotted, we all barreled straight for the two forward doors of the Observation Lounge. Presto, we were right outside for great photos.
As the ship's hub, this lounge also helped guests bond and created an onboard community.
A Surprise? Superb Dining
One deck below the Observation Lounge is the large dining room, with tables for four or eight predominantly. Dining has set hours, but guests select where they wish to seat and with whom.
Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, the dining room also has large picture windows on both sides so guests and waiters are never out of touch for wildlife spotting.
In addition to menu items, wait staff will inform the guests about daily specials.
During our cruise, there was an executive chef, two other chefs and a dedicated pastry chef, so let's just say it wasn't one guy back there cooking for the crowd.
The level of choices and quality of the cuisine was a bit of a pleasant surprise. Frankly, I didn't expect this level of dining excellence or the range of culinary choices on a remote small-ship cruise.
For breakfast on one day, the menu choices included cereal, yogurt and fruit; a Taste of Alaska - Wild Alaskan Nova-Scotia Style Smoked Salmon served with tomato, capers, cream cheese, onions and a lemon wedge; eggs and omelets made to order, served with a side of bacon, ham or link sausage; short stack pancakes or French toast; or a breakfast special.
One night our dinner was as follows: Spinach Artichoke Dip (appetizer); Butternut Squash Bisque (soup); Cranberry Spinach Salad or Market Greens (salads); and Razor Clam Linguine, Coq au Vin, Roasted Vegetable Gnocchi, Grilled Alaska Salmon or Halibut Filet (shown in the photo above) and Grilled Free Range Chicken Breast (entrees), accompanied by sides of a baked potato or vegetable mix.
The pastry chef was a wizard at whipping up fresh baked goods, breads and yummy desserts. For example, one night, guests chose from among a daily dessert special, Artisan Cheese Plate, Cinnamon Apple Crisp, and a choice of ice cream, sherbet or sorbet.
One perk? Late in the afternoon, the line served warm cookies in the lounge, particularly appealing for those who'd just returned from a hike or kayaking adventure.
On the last evening of the cruise a celebration led by the captain and crew concluded upstairs in the lounge with a bountiful dessert buffet.
Other Public Spaces
At the other end of the corridor from the dining room is a warm salt room, a small space that delivers a sense of Zen.
It's small, simple, and offers bench seating. It proved popular with guests who were chilled after exploring ashore and wanted to warm up, or with those who simply wanted to open up their sinuses.
Two decks up is an outdoor, top-deck terrace with tables and chairs. It's open to the sky and a good spot for soaking up the sun.
Besides the outdoor bow deck forward of the Observation Lounge (shown below), guests had other other deck spaces from which to take photos.
An Unplugged Experience
Chichagof Dream has no TVs in staterooms and there is no Internet/Wi-Fi onboard for guest use. The line likes it that way, and has no plans for a change.
Alaskan Dream Cruises says its small-ship experience is designed to allow guests to "unplug" on vacation, hence no Wi-Fi. Yes, it's possible here and there throughout the cruise, such as in Juneau, Sitka and Petersburg, to get individual cell phone service.
But we found that at many spots throughout our cruise, such as remote bays and coves, cell service was sporadic or non-existent.
Tip? If clients are sailing on the same itinerary I did -- Juneau to Glacier Bay (two days), Tracy Arm, Saginaw Bay, Petersburg, Kake and ending in Sitka, one good mid-way point for free Wi-Fi is the Petersburg Public Library; it's just two blocks off the main commercial area street.
Basic, Comfy Accommodations
Guest staterooms are located on three decks. On the two lowest of those, guests exit their cabin into an interior corridor that leads either to the dining room or the lounge. On the upper deck, guests exit to an outside corridor and traverse stairs down one deck to the lounge or two decks down to dining.
Be advised that there is no elevator for guest use. Guests must be able to traverse stairs to sail comfortably on this ship.
Accommodations all have private bathrooms, with a sink, toilet and small shower. Certainly, the staterooms are comfortable, but guests shouldn't expect "extravagance."
I stayed in cabin #204, a AAA cabin of about 109 square feet. Spacewise, I found the cabin perfectly adequate but just a tad tight on either side of the bed. The ship's A, AA and AAA category accommodations range from 105-109 square feet. Deluxe stateroom are 155 square feet and two two-room Suites are 218 square feet. That said, most guests on an expedition ship aren't spending a ton of time in their cabin.
Overall, we were comfortable. In fact, the bedding, sheets, duvet and pillows were so soft to the touch, I fell asleep quickly every night.
Our cabin was on the same level as the Observation Lounge. It had a nice sized picture window with a cloth shade that pulled up/down. However, the bed was positioned under the window, so there was no way to sit in bed and really enjoy the scenery passing outside.
There were nightstands on either side of the bed, and a chair in the corner of the main bedroom space. A small wall shelf was a nice touch. It held a few make-up or personal items and there was a mirror directly above.
Closet space in the cabin was very good. Three separate closets had plenty of hanging space and multiple drawers for storage.
Those drawers had easy lock pulls that secured them so they didn't roll/open/make noise while the ship was under way.
Guests are asked their “clothing sizes” ahead of time, and the line has rain gear including a jacket, pants and boots placed in the guest's cabin upon arrival. That clothing helps keep intrepid explorers dry as they head out in small craft or go hiking on beaches or on woodland trails.
Just be aware that this ship has no keys or key cards for guests to lock their cabin when they leave it. Yes, while sleeping, there is an interior lock that can be turned to secure the cabin. Also, there is a blue yarn tag that guests can hang on their cabin's outside door knob that means "Do not disturb."
That said, when I left for dinner, the lounge or to go ashore, I pulled the door shut but essentially anyone could open it. Since there is also no personal safe in the cabins, I carried my valuables (passport, money, jewelry, etc.) with me.
Chichagof Dream carries two motorized DIBs (rubber-like small boats, resembling Zodiacs) plus 10 kayaks (some two-person, some one person) for guest use.
Guests went exploring with those multiple times during this cruise, such as in Glacier Bay to get "up close" to a glacier and take a beach walk, or in Saginaw Bay to go ashore for a wet landing and then a subsequent hike.
Expeditionary crew members were helpful to guests in making cruisers feel comfortable in operating the kayaks and in getting in DIBs, and even guests in their 70s and 80s headed out for the eco-adventures.
What's nice is that the captain is able to maneuver the ship into remote coves and harbors, and adjust the schedule a bit as needed for weather in order to provide guests the best experiences out in the wilderness.
Guests who go off the ship move a button on a magnetic board to show they're off the ship. That way the crew knows exactly which guests are back onboard and which aren't. That assures no one is left behind.
I can't say enough about the crew on this ship -- from the waiters (who also doubled as stateroom stewards) to the bartender, naturalists, deck hands, maritime operations and bridge crew members. All were exceptionally friendly and eager to please.
Along the way, they became more like friends and family than just friendly cruise ship workers. Proof of that was in the goodbye, when Chichagof Dream docked at Sitka in front of the Allen family home.
As guests left the ship, they all took time to hug the individual crew members. It happened over and over again.
Travel Agent will detail the highlights of this Chichagof Dream's southeastern Alaska itinerary from Juneau to Sitka in the second part of this story -- coming in the next few weeks.
We'll talk about pre- and post-cruise arrangements, as well as sightseeing and eco-adventures. Yes, one day in Tracy Arm involved seeing bears in the wild -- in fact, five of them.
This ship creates a lovely, small-ship Alaska experience, operated by qualified maritime people who know Alaska. It has a local flavor, given its ownership.
In addition, I liked that the Tlingit cultural experience is not only explained well, but “lived” onboard by the experts who stayed overnight for several days to impart their wisdom and tidbits about culture/heritage to guests.
Dining was exceptional – day after day. Only on one occasion did I have one entrée that was so-so, which is something that happens on any ship, big or small. Every day on Chichagof Dream, guests looked forward to the high quality and creativity of the dining experience.
I disliked the "no lock" situation when I left the cabin, but, overall, I had a wonderful time on this cruise. No, clients expecting a big-ship experience won't find that here.
But for what it does promise -- getting up close to nature, getting “off the beaten path” in Alaska and for getting to meet "real Alaskans" and enjoying the 49th state with them -- it delivers the goods.
At least a third or more of all guests on our cruise actually hailed from either Juneau or Sitka. They were Alaskans getting out to see their own state. They chose Alaskan Dream Cruises for doing just that.
Feedback I secured from them the last day of the cruise revealed that they -- for whom glaciers, wildlife and eco-sites can be a day-to-day occurrence -- had a fabulous time on the cruise. Perhaps that's the best compliment.