Up Close, Eco Voyages: The Latest News on Small-Ship Alaska Cruises in 2017

UnCruise Adventures offers Alaska small-ship cruises that allow guests to head out by kayak to get up-close to wildlife. Photo by Cameron Zegers provided courtesy of UnCruise Adventures

More than 1.08 million cruisers are expected to take an Alaska summer cruise this year, most on medium to large ships of the major cruise lines.

Check out this week's Travel Agent magazine cover story about what's new and different for Alaska cruising this year and beyond.

But there's also another way to see Alaska from the water. Prefer a more intimate Alaska cruise experience? Then consider a small ship voyage on a mega-yacht, small coastal vessel or expedition ship.

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Who wouldn't love seeing bears in the wild, from the vantage point of a kayak just launched from your small ship? (See the photo above from UnCruise Adventures). 

Small ships get cruisers up close to wildlife and Alaska's rugged landscapes. They also offer the luxury of flexibility, something big-ship voyages typically can't offer.

It's not unusual for a small ship's captain to stay at a secluded cove later than expected just so guests can take breathtaking sunset photos, or to even make an unexpected stop for an hour to view marine life or eagles in the trees.

So what's new for small ship products in Alaska this year and beyond? Here’s a sampling of developments. 

New ship? Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic will offer Alaska cruises on its first new build, the 100-passenger National Geographic Quest. Built in Seattle, it will sail two 13-day “Treasures of the Inside Passage: Alaska & British Columbia” expeditions and eight-day “Exploring Alaska’s Coastal Wilderness” voyages.

The vessel's interior is light an airy in appearance. Check out the category 4 stateroom shown in the rendering below:

Photo by Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic

What's also nifty? You won't have to strain to "see around" guests standing in front of you at the bow -- when trying to view a bear or moose.

This new ship's bow was creatively designed so the anchoring gear is separated from the guest space via a tiered viewing system. That allows more guests to line the bow for unobstructed views.

Another of the line's ships, National Geographic Sea Bird will also sail two new itineraries, a six-day “Wild Alaska Escape” and an 11-day “Big Picture Alaska” with a photography focus.

A second new build, National Geographic Venture, also will sail to Alaska on its June 24, 2018 inaugural voyage, the 14-day “Treasures of the Inside Passage: Alaska & British Columbia.” It will then operate multiple eight-day “Exploring Alaska's Coastal Wilderness” voyages.

AdventureSmith Explorations is among the companies using the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic vessels for its cruise offerings. 

Alaska Native-owned Alaskan Dream Cruises is adding a second day in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve to its seven-night family cruises on the 74-passenger Chichagof Dream

The small ship will overnight inside the national park. Guests can go ashore in Bartlett Cove near the park’s visitor center and near Reid Glacier, a remote wilderness area.

Recently renovated in the company's own shipyard, Chichagof Dream has new carpets and furnishings in public spaces and staterooms. Cruisers will have expansive scenic viewing spots both inside and outside. 

While guests may come for the close-up wildlife viewing and eco-immersion, they'll also gain insight into the culture and heritage of three different Native Alaskan cultures -- the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian -- through visits to small villages. 

Thanks to a new partnership with John Hall's Alaska, those on Alaskan Dream Cruises' seven-night "Alaska's Glacier Bay and Island Adventure" cruises between Sitka and Juneau can couple that with the tour company’s seven-night "Denali Explorer" or eight-night "Grand Slam Alaska" land explorations. 

Luxury small-ship operator, Windstar Cruises, positions the 212-passenger Star Legend in Alaska this summer. Among the itineraries is a 12-day “Alaskan Splendors” cruise from Vancouver to Seward (Anchorage).

The motorized vessel was recently totally refurbished/reconfigured to the tune of $8.5 million. It also can cruise into Misty Fjords and Kenai Fjords, which larger ships can’t.

Star Legend's 12-day “Islands & Inlets of the Inside Passage” voyage sails roundtrip from Vancouver to such ports as Ketchikan, Juneau and Wrangell. The 14-day “Wonders of Alaska & Canada” voyage features adventures like dogsledding and flightseeing. 

Repeat Alaska cruisers may be particularly enticed by Ponant’s 14-night “In the Wake of Pioneers” itinerary from Nome, Alaska to Vancouver on the 254-passenger Le Boreal (departing September 13) or sister ship, Le Soleal (departing September 18).

The route takes cruisers along Alaska’s remote northern and western coasts. Calls on the September 13 voyage include Saint Matthew and Saint George Island in the Pribilof archipelago; Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, plus much more.

Ponant, a luxury line with high-end features and a focus on top-notch services, also includes the outbound Seattle-to-Nome flight ticket in the cruise fare.

Photography buffs and birdwatchers likely will be drawn to Silversea Expeditions’Russian Far East & Alaska” voyages on the 120-guest Silver Discoverer this summer. 

For example, one 17-day itinerary departs from Seward (Anchorage) to Otaru, Japan, on August 11 with viewing of Holgate Glacier and such calls as Kukak Bay, Semidi, Chignik, Unga Island, Dutch Harbor, Attu Island and others.

Photo by Silversea Cruises

Refurbished in 2016, Silver Discoverer  also calls at Petropavlovsk and several other Russian Far East destinations.

Onboard, guests enjoy a luxurious, inclusive product, and the expedition vessel carries 12 Zodiacs for guest use in exploring eco-areas.

Launching three wellness-themed cruises in Alaska this month is UnCruise Adventures, which for 2017 will also add half-day visit to Kake, a Tlingit village, on its “Inner Reaches Western Coves” Ketchikan-to-Juneau itinerary.

Overall this summer, the small ship line will field 157 Alaska sailings of seven to 21 nights.  

UnCruise Adventures' seven-day "Exploring Muir's Wilderness" itinerary on either the 84-passenger Safari Endeavour or 36-passenger Safari Explorer departs roundtrip from Juneau. That gives cruisers a different embarkation option than the typical Seattle, Vancouver or Seward departures.

Voyage highlights include: Glacier Bay National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where a U.S. National Park Service ranger comes aboard for commentary; viewing of Dawes Glacier and either Grand Pacific, Margerie, or Johns Hopkins glaciers; whale watching in Icy Strait and Frederick Sound; a forest hike from Glacier Bay National Park headquarters in Bartlett Cove; kayak, paddleboard and skiff exploration in Port Houghton and Chatham Strait; nature walks, tide pooling, and hikes in the Tongass National Forest; and birding and wildlife viewing throughout the voyage.   

American Cruise LinesAmerican Spirit sails seven-night Southeast Alaska voyages roundtrip from Juneau (also with a Kake call) and more lengthy Inside Passage cruises as well.

The non-profit Boat Company offers southeastern Alaska eco-cruises on the 24-passenger Mist Cove and the 20-passenger Liseron. Discovery Voyages sails Prince William Sound. Other small ships also sail in Alaska waters.

Again, readers can check out our robust cover story this week on a sampling of mid-sized, large and mega-ship lines sailing in Alaska waters this summer. Reflecting the region's popularity, Azamara Club Cruises last week announced that it will sail for the first time to Alaska in 2019

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