Small Ship Adventure Cruises in Alaska: Alaska's Inside Passage is best enjoyed when seen by small ship. There are some excellent Alaska cruises available on many mega ships from Princess Cruises, Holland America Lines and Disney Cruises etc.., but until you have seen Alaska up-close and personal, you have not really seen Alaska. And, you simply cannot get intimate with this great state when you are surrounded by 2,000 other people scrambling to get the latest free trinket from Diamonds International in Juneau or Ketchikan. That's not Alaska..
There are some very basic guidelines that one should follow through life. Caviar should only be eaten from a mother-of-pearl spoon; BBQ ribs and fried chicken should always be eaten with your hands, and so on. I would propose a new rule to follow: Alaska is best enjoyed when seen by small ship. There are some excellent Alaska cruises available on the mega ships, but until you have seen Alaska up-close and personal, you have not really seen Alaska. And, you simply cannot get intimate with this great state when you are surrounded by 2,000 other people scrambling to get the latest free trinket from Diamonds International in Juneau or Ketchikan. That's not Alaska.
For as long as I can remember, Cruise West was the predominant player in the small ship Alaska market. It was a great company with an excellent product. Unfortunately, the economy took its toll and Cruise West filed for bankruptcy in 2010. While it is sad to see a market leader go by the wayside, the demise of Cruise West left a vacuum that someone was sure to fill. Enter InnerSea Discoveries. A sister company to American Safari Cruises, InnerSea Discoveries comes to Alaska for its maiden season with two purpose-built vessels designed for serious adventure cruising. While not brand new ships, both have recently undergone major refurbishment and refitting to serve the unique purpose of sailing Alaska's Inside Passage.
Having sailed in Alaska many times, on both large and small ships, we were looking forward to our 7-night Southeastern Alaska Inside Passage sailing on Wilderness Discoverer. Alaska is one of our favorite destinations and one of the few places in the world you can return to time and time again and never tire of the amazing scenery and wildlife. The pre-cruise documentation from InnerSea Discoveries, while scant, was specific. Guests are advised to only pack what they will need for the 7-day journey and to pack in a soft-sided duffel bag if possible so it is easier to stow the emptied bag under the bed. That is very good advice. In fact, we have included a packing list below for anyone planning an InnerSea Discoveries cruise. Please keep in mind that this is an adventure cruise. There are no formal nights and it is not necessary to "dress up" for dinner. It is casual in every sense of the word. Most wore "convertible" pants with the zip-off legs with a sweater and hiking boots to dinner, similar attire to what is worn during the day.
Juneau Backcountry Wilderness Cruise Departure
We arrived in Juneau following our seven hours of flying from Dallas to Seattle then on to Juneau. We were greeted in baggage claim by InnerSea Discoveries' ground transportation representatives who gave us luggage tags to add to our bags and quickly collected our larger checked bags to take them directly to the vessel. With our hand luggage, we were then transported to the Goldbelt Hotel at the edge of downtown Juneau where a hospitality suite was at our disposal until the 5:30 embarkation time. We basically had four hours to explore Juneau on foot. After dropping our carry-on luggage at the Goldbelt, we headed off to explore all that downtown Juneau has to offer. There were four large ships docked in Juneau today, so the little main street was pretty busy. This main street is lined with souvenir shops, art galleries, bars, etc. Our first stop was a local drugstore to buy me a new pair of sunglasses. Mine fell apart as soon as we exited baggage claim! As you walk farther south, toward where the larger ships dock, the town starts looking more "cruisey" with the ubiquitous Diamonds/Tanzanite International, Del Sol, et al. All the usual suspects are waiting to drain dollars from passengers on Carnival, Princess, Disney, or any other ship stopping here. So, if you want to experience the "charm" of Juneau, stay north of the famous Red Dog Saloon.
We were very fortunate that it was not raining during our brief visit to Juneau. It was cloudy and cool, but dry. Rain is very common in Alaska this time of year, so it was nice to be able to walk around and stay dry. By 3:30, we were back at the Goldbelt where many other guests were beginning to congregate. The hotel arranged for us to use their Wi-Fi for Internet access so we were able to send some last minute emails and re-connect with the outside world for what could be the last time over the next seven days. InnerSea Discoveries' ships do not have onboard Internet access, telephones or even television for that matter. We will go into more detail on this later in the review. At 5:00 pm, our Expedition Leader for the week, introduced herself to the crowd of anxious guests and invited us to walk across the street and join Wilderness Discoverer. Captain Marcella "Marce" Branniff was waiting at the gangway to greet each guest before we stepped on board. We boarded the ship on Deck 2, basically walking right into the ship's small lounge. A young man introduced himself as Connor and showed us to cabin #315, our home for the next week.
The Wilderness Discoverer
Wilderness Discoverer is only slightly larger than her sister ship, Wilderness Adventurer. The ship is 169 feet long with a breadth of 38 feet and a draft of 6.5 feet. She has a cruising speed of 10 knots. Both ships have been outfitted with an Easy Dock at the stern capable of launching kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and zodiacs. Guest accommodations are on decks 2, 3 and 4 with a single staircase amidship. There is no elevator so those unable to traverse steps should be so advised. There is a cocktail lounge and dining area on Deck 2. The lounge also doubles as the ship's library which contains a small collection of books about Alaska, some board games and a few movie DVDs. The decor is rustic and simple, but everything looks new and recently updated.
Deck 3 is primarily guest cabins but also has an outer "promenade" deck that can be used as a viewing area. Aft on Deck 3 you will find two hot tubs, each capable of holding at least four guests. This is also the area from which you go down one deck to access the kayaks and board the rubber motorized inflatable skiffs. There are only four cabins on Deck 4 with the rest of the space used for a "sun deck" with outdoor seating, a small sauna, and some exercise equipment. All of the ship's kayaks, skiffs and paddle boards are stored aft on Deck 4. Forward, you will find the Bridge and more viewing area space overlooking the bow.
There is an onboard "logo" shop selling gear such as trekking poles, water bottles, polar fleece jackets, backpacks, hats, maps and other items needed for an adventure cruise in a temperate rain forest area. The ship is small with an advertised capacity of 68 and, when it is fully booked, can feel a little crowded at times, but not uncomfortably so. We never had a problem finding a good viewing spot on deck, or a place to sit to enjoy a meal or a drink in the lounge even though it was reported that there were 72 passengers on this trip, including a 5-month-old infant!
While there are a few different cabin categories on Wilderness Discoverer, all share one common feature. They are all small. The cabin (315) was only 8' X 10' including the bathroom and closet! The closet is able to hold a modest amount of clothing and has three shelves and a hanging bar but no drawers. We had to remove the life vests from one of the shelves and put them under the bed in order to have more space to put our clothes. Fortunately, each cabin has a lot of hooks on the wall where you can hang items like jackets, pajamas, shirts, and these really come in handy. Each cabin even has hooks outside in the hallway for hanging items that may be damp such as rain gear, hats, and gloves. By the second day of the cruise, hallways are lined with rain gear and even rubber boots! Each cabin is assigned a locker located outside on Deck 3 where you can also store rubber boots, rain gear or snorkel gear The bathroom is about as small as one can imagine but has a nice full-length mirror on the outside of the door. The shower and toilet are combined, separated only by a shower curtain that you pull when you use the shower. There is a small bedside table large enough to hold a laptop computer, water bottles, etc. The highlight of the cabin is the bed. The memory foam mattress is one of the most comfortable we have slept on. There are no chairs in the cabin, so if you plan to sit, you must do so on the bed. There are a few slightly larger cabins that do have a small sitting area. A few cabins have a door that opens out to the deck and a few cabins have a third bed that pulls down from the wall. The ship also offers a few cabins for single travelers.
Backcountry Cruise Activities
Experiencing Alaska is what InnerSea Discoveries (ISD) specializes in. A lot of thought and planning has gone into organizing a week's worth of activities designed to give guests a true Alaska immersion. Every Alaska adventure activity is ranked with an Activity Level Rating and Activity Description to ensure that you feel comfortable with your selection. Activities include hikes, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and small boat sightseeing. All of these are included in the cost of the cruise. Optional excursions for a fee are also available such as "flightseeing" by float plane, fishing, a petroglyph walk and jet boating. Each evening after dinner, Kristen would announce the following day's activity choices. A large magnetic whiteboard is used so guests can sign up for their chosen activity. Kayaking and hikes usually start around 9:00 am so there is plenty of time for everyone to enjoy breakfast before engaging in the day's activities, even those who chose to participate in early-morning yoga held on Deck 4. Some hikes and guided kayak excursions are all-day affairs, in which case the galley prepares "to go" lunches in bear-proof plastic boxes and snacks that guests can take with them on their journey. Many activities, however, are split between morning and afternoon, returning to the ship for lunch. Often, guests are able to choose one activity in the morning and another one in the afternoon. The Wilderness Discoverer employs experienced excursion guides, most of whom are certified Wilderness First Responders, that lead various hikes and guided kayak trips. We found every guide to be very well versed in the local environment and willing to share their depth of information.
As stated earlier, the ship carries its own fleet of two-person kayaks. When the ship is anchored in calm waters, "open kayaking" is available. This means guests can simply jump in a kayak and head off exploring on their own. Of course, the Captain advises kayakers of the boundaries for safety reasons. And, the ship will deploy a skiff to go check on kayaks that stray beyond the recommended boundaries. However, ISD is fairly liberal in where they will allow you to explore on your own. That is a very nice feature for those who are comfortable kayaking. The kayaks themselves were new models and in excellent working condition. When preparing for a kayak trip, in addition to your life jacket, you would put on a "skirt" which attached to the kayak around where you are seated and kept you dry! We had kayaked before but had never used a skirt. It was a nice feature. Also, getting in and out of the kayak was so much easier using the "Easy Dock" which was a floating, stable platform at the rear of the ship on which the kayaks rested. Once you were comfortably seated in the kayak, the guides pushed you out into the water. When you wanted to come back to the ship, you paddled up to the Easy Dock and the guides pulled the kayak onto the Easy Dock using a rope attached to the front of the kayak. Nice!
We boarded the small rubber motorized skiffs on several occasions to visit glaciers and explore waterfalls. Sometimes we would just ride around taking in the magnificent scenery that surrounded us. These skiffs transported us to places where we hiked, like Baird Glacier and Tongass National Forest. In Misty Fjords National Monument, while we were motoring around looking at the gorgeous scenery, we were able to spot a grizzly bear on shore and get to within about 100 yards of him and observe from our location on the water. We spotted a total of three bears in various locations while sailing through the majestic Misty Fjords. We have been to Alaska five times but this is the first time we have ever seen bears. From the ship, we observed humpback whales and on our last day, orca! We spotted eagles in the surrounding trees and saw harbor seals poke their little heads up above the water, only to quickly disappear. The variety of birds was astounding. If you forgot to bring binoculars, don't worry. The ship has several pair that they will be glad for you to use
All meals are served buffet-style in the dining room on Deck 2. Meals can best be described as simple, basic fare. If you are expecting a "typical" cruise ship menu with lots of exotic choices, you will be disappointed. If, however, you enjoy simple fare that is well prepared, you are in luck. Every dish we tried was above average. The preparation and seasoning of the dishes was better than you might expect on such a small ship. So, not a lot of choices, but lots of flavor. Early risers can enjoy coffee as early as 5am. Good job ISD! And, the coffee is actually pretty good, not the swill you typically find on cruise ships. As anyone who follows our blogs and reviews knows, cruise ship coffee is one of my biggest complaints. InnerSea Discoveries has avoided my wrath in this area. By 6am, a continental-style selection of pastries, bagels, English muffins, cereals, yogurt and fresh fruit is available. Hot breakfast is served from 7:00am to 8:00am (or 7:30am to 8:30am depending on the day). The hot breakfast menu changes every day. The big winner at breakfast was the amazing thick bacon.
Lunch is served from 12 noon until 1:00 pm. Lunch offerings can be as simple as a couple of soup choices and salad. There is usually one meat dish offered and a vegetarian option. There is also a single dessert offered at each meal service. Like I said, "simple". For those diners with special dietary needs, just let the kitchen know and they will accommodate you. It was not unusual to see lactose-free or gluten-free items on the buffet. Dinner is served from 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm and, like lunch, usually offers a meat or fish dish, a vegetarian option and accompanying salad and vegetables. All seating is open, so you can sit wherever or with whomever you wish. You can even take your meal into the adjoining lounge area if you wish to dine there.
Even though all meals are buffet-style, wait staff is available to bring you a choice of drinks, or get anything else you may need. It was amazing how quickly all the crew learned and used the passengers' names! We were well taken care of by Nee, Connor, Brenden and Sean. One morning, Rickee was running late for breakfast (as usual), and Nee, one of our favorite wait staff, noticed this and went to our cabin to tell Rickee that they were about to start putting breakfast away and ask if she could put something aside for her. Now that is service! There is a Cocktail Hour each evening in the lounge at 5:30 pm. The crew lays out a very nice selection of snacks during the Cocktail Hour that often filled us to the point that we would skip dinner! One night, the spread was Dungeness crab legs from crab that some passengers had caught. Another night it was mounds of boiled shrimp and cocktail sauce! Any cocktail you desire is available from Sean or Danielle at the bar as well as a selection of beer and wine. Prices are very competitive and they have a "drink of the day" each day at a reduced price. A Dewars on the rocks is only $5. A glass of beer, $4. Soft drinks, tea, lemonade and most coffees are complimentary. Help yourself from pitchers of water and iced tea and lemonade set on one side of the bar on Deck 2 and available all day. Captain Marce referred to Chef Ashley as a "rock star". We agree. The menus were limited and the food simple, but the execution was near perfect. Simple food, quality ingredients served in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. What more could you ask for?