Un-Crusing Alaska: Discovering the Inside Passage by Small Ship

Un-Cruise adventures
Kraig Becker

Alaska the Un-Cruise Way

For most adventure travelers, Alaska is a dream destination. After all, the largest state in the U.S. offers some of the most remote and beautiful landscapes imaginable, and is home to an array of amazing wildlife, rich history, and even a fascinating native culture that is an integral part of the state's heritage. Of course, one of the most popular ways to visit Alaska is by cruise ship, which typically runs counter to the way most adventure travelers like to explore a new place. But as we told you last month, Un-Cruise creates small-ship itineraries designed specifically with active travelers in mind.

One of their best options takes passengers through Alaska's famous Inside Passage, a stunningly beautiful place that simply has to be seen to be believed. 

The Inside Passage is a popular place for cruise ships, with many major companies operating within the region. But what sets the Un-Cruise options apart from the crowd is that they take place on relatively small ships. While most of the other cruise lines sail on vessels that carry hundreds – if not thousands – of passengers, the Un-Cruise ships typically have less than 80 passengers onboard. For instance, the Wilderness Explorer, is a 186-foot ship that carries just 74 guest when its at capacity.

That makes for a very different experience from the other operators, which often can feel impersonal and superficial. 

My Un-Cruise journey was a 7-day itinerary that set sail from Alaska's capital city of Juneau and ended in the lovely sea-side down of Sitka. That same itinerary can be done in reverse as well, although the experience is largely the same. Over the course of a week on the water, the ship visits a number of places that were so strikingly gorgeous that it will likely leave even experienced travelers shaking their heads in awe. The views extend from remote inlets and coves to snowcapped peaks that tower thousands of feet overhead.

This gives the Alaskan coast an unprecedented sense of scale that simply isn't found in many other places on Earth.

Into Glacier Bay National Park

Of course, the grand jewel of these dramatic and breathtaking landscapes has to be Glacier Bay National Park, a 3.3 million acre wilderness preserve that encompasses jagged mountains, temperate rainforests, and massive fjords. Un-Cruise takes passengers to the very edge of Marjorie Glacier, an impressive wall of ice that stretches 25 stories in height. At that size, even a cruise ship can feel minuscule, getting dwarfed by the massive wall of ice.

Access to the park is only granted by boat, and most major cruise lines can only spend a limited time within its waters before having to move on. But because Un-Cruise operates with smaller vessels, their itineraries have more lee-way when it comes to exploring Glacier Bay's confines. Travelers can even leave the Wilderness Explorer to take a short hike through the rainforest located near the town of Gustavus, a place that is home to just 400 inhabitants and about 200 dogs. Other highlights of a visit to the national park included cruising by the gigantic Johns Hopkins Glacier, watching mountain goats on the towering peaks overhead, and spotting harbor seals nursing their young.


Active Adventures

A typical day on an Un-Cruise trip gives passengers a chance to take part in some very active excursions. Usually they are given an option for one type of activity in the morning, and another in the afternoon, although there are also occasional all-day outings too. Those excursions give travelers a chance to get off the ship for awhile and explore the Inside Passage by other means. For instance, on some days passengers can elect to go on a "bushwhacking" hike, trekking through the surrounding wilderness without much of a trail to guide the way.

Alternatively, they can choose to go sea kayaking, take a walk along the shore, tour the area in a zodiac skiff, or some combination of all of the above.

These activities bring an element of adventure to the cruise, and simply aren't available to passengers aboard larger ships. Most of those vessels don't make too many stops along the Inside Passage, let alone allow their guests embark on these kinds of excursions. But these activities also provide the possibility for some very memorable encounters. For instance, on a guided kayak tour one group of guests came across a curious seal who ended up following them around for the better part of an hour.

During that time period, the friendly little creature approached every kayak in the group, getting within just a few feet. That's the kind of encounter that travelers will always remember, and it simply couldn't have happened on a typical Alaskan cruise. 

On another occasion every passenger aboard the Wilderness Explorer received a clear-cut example of just how Un-Cruise differs from the competition. One day the ship received word of a pod of humpback whales passing through the area, and the shop ended up traveling 85 miles out of its way just to get a first hand look at those amazing creatures. From the deck of the ship the passengers were able to see the giant mammals swimming through the water, often flashing their tales or even breaching the surface just off the bow.

The Explorer had to sail through the night just to make it to the next destination by the morning, but everyone onboard agreed that it was well worth it. The larger cruise ships have a fixed itinerary and they stick to it.

Onboard the Wilderness Explorer

Life onboard the Wilderness Explorer is comfortable and congenial. The cabins are of course small, but well designed and cosy. The crew, wilderness guides, and staff are top notch, bending over backwards to make sure travelers have everything the need and ensuring the rooms are clean and well maintained. The kitchen staff goes above and beyond in making three good meals every day, while the captain keeps passengers informed of what was happening at every stage of the trip. The ship is even equipped with a hot tub, which can come in handy after some of the busier days hiking or kayaking.

Those therapeutic waters offer soothing relief with an amazing view of some of Alaska's best landscapes. 

Additionally, the small ship atmosphere makes it possible for just about every passenger aboard the vessel to get to know one another. Whether it is over a delicious meal, spending time in the ship's lounge, or enjoying an active excursion, everyone has the chance to spend some time with everyone else. This creates a great sense of camaraderie amongst the both the passengers and the crew, which makes saying goodbye at the end of the week that much harder. 

The Un-Cruise experience is indeed an impressive one. Not only is the trip professionally run on every level, it is also clear that travelers were given access and exposure to the Inside Passage that simply wouldn't be possible on a larger ship. Additionally, the more active nature of the trip adds a sense of adventure that isn't found elsewhere, which definitely helps Un-Cruise to live up to its reputation of being the best choice for adventure travelers.

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