The differences between big and small ships in Alaska -part 2
June 5, 2006 Part 1
In Part 1 of this story, I wrote about an 11-day Holland America cruise/land tour that included three nights on Zaandam and seven nights in hotels while gadding about Alaska by rail, luxury motor coach and small boats. It was an excellent experience and I came away believing that everyone who goes to Alaska should include a significant land portion in their trip.
For Part 2, I want to talk about seeing Alaska from a small ship – something I did recently on Glacier Bay Cruiseline's Executive Explorer. This was also a terrific experience -- one that I would recommend to people looking for a casual, non-glitzy trip.
A Close-Up View
On the morning we were in Alaska's Frederick Sound, four of us were up bright and early as always, sitting in the observation lounge around 5:30 a.m. Suddenly, right in front of us, two large humpback whales starting doing "full breeches" -- with complete rolls and jumps out of the water. Amazing! The captain stopped Executive Explorer and we were treated to more than an hour of exhilarating whale activity. Around 6:30, after the captain made his wake-up announcement (complete with daily limerick), other guests came to watch, and a third whale joined in the fun. This is the essence of the small-ship Glacier Bay Cruiseline experience. There was no exact schedule to be kept; the captain had the flexibility to stay in one place and let the passengers enjoy nature while it was there. We were able to dawdle and watch bears walking along the shore. The little ship went nose-in for a close-up look at gorgeous waterfalls. And we anchored during an evening at the northern end of Misty Fjords. The big ships just cannot do these things.
This truly was a small ship. Throw out conventional measures such as space ratio; the ship, which is a twin-hulled catamaran, carries a maximum of 49 guests in 24 staterooms. The ship's tonnage of just 98 is incidental to the experience. The on-board ambience is casual all the way, with one inside observation lounge, one outside observation deck (partially covered), and one dining room. It's essentially an all-U.S. crew on an American-registered vessel -- thus itineraries can move from one U. S. port to another without having to worry about the restrictions of the Passenger Services Act (frequently and erroneously referred to as the Jones Act) that apply to foreign-flagged vessels.
The 24 rooms come in three types: there are two presidential suites, forwardly placed, offering 148 sq. ft. each, with excellent viewing possibilities; and 22 "A" or "AA" cabins of 104 or 120 sq. ft. While not large, they really have everything you need: twin beds that can be moved together; adequate lighting (less so for reading when the beds are moved together), closet and drawer space; color TV/DVD player; and individual temperature controls. There is a combination toilet/shower room; the sink is part of the main room. A hint: A small switch at the top of the shower can be pushed shut to avoid turning on the shower by accident.
Public Facilities and Meals
There's a bar in the observation lounge that also serves as the gift shop – this should give you an idea of how efficiently space must be used. The observation room is the only real inside gathering space, but it serves the purpose well. It has a couple of larger-screen TVs for nature films or movies (a nice selection of DVDs for group or stateroom use is available). All meals are served in the dining room, with tables set for six or eight; the number of tables varies based on how full the ship is. The outside observation deck (partially covered but not wind-protected) is great when the ship gets up close to the sights or just for being outside. The covered aft portion of the deck below is wind-protected and makes for a nice alternative. There's no pool, spa, etc. There are no planned activities or entertainments on board. This is a cruise for those who do not need or want the range of daily activities offered by the larger ships; it's for those of any age who want to see a place up close with like-minded travelers.
As you might expect, galley space on such a small ship is limited. Thus it is amazing to see the range of menu items beautifully prepared and presented. Breakfasts and lunches varied from day to day, and were full of both healthy and hearty foods. The variety of breakfast potatoes and bacon was of special note; the lunches included a range of various comfort foods, including lasagna and Philly cheese steak sandwiches. In the evenings, passengers had a choice of two entrees (fish or meat), with excellent appetizers, salads and desserts.
Service on the Executive Explorer was excellent. Each crew member performs a variety of jobs, and thus they really get to know the guests. It's not unusual for the dining staff to wind up sitting in the lounge at night watching a movie along with the guests. On the big ships, this would be a no-no. On Glacier Bay Cruiseline it works very well.
The Highlights A real strength of this cruise line is the ability to take you to places the big ships cannot. On my cruise, from Juneau to Ketchikan, the only "big" city we went to was Skagway. Haines and Sitka, two ports less often visited by the big ships, were on the route; but the highlights were Petersburg, Wrangell and Metlakatla, three places I've never seen -- and that more clearly represent the "real" Alaska, with virtually no touristy stuff. While some would say there's not much there there, for me it was interesting to see folks just going about their daily lives and being proud to share them with visitors. There was also plenty of scenic time, with visits to Glacier Bay, Frederick Sound, Tracy Arm and Misty Fjords. Some of my fellow guests got to Juneau just in time to board and/or got off in Ketchikan and went directly home. I'd suggest anyone taking this type of cruise consider overnighting before or after the cruise to see these two important coastal cities.
Glacier Bay's fleet of four ships covers southeastern Alaska well, but also goes to the Columbia and Snake Rivers during the spring and fall; an itinerary to Mexico's Sea of Cortez will be introduced in 2006. The cruise fare includes basic shore excursions in most places, and soft drinks. Tips are additional, as is alcohol (reasonably priced). Look for 2006 pricing to be lower than the brochure fares listed for 2005. (the line is now out if business - ed. 2013)