The Small Ship Advantage in Alaska

| Saturday, 05 Mar. 2005

A small ship cruise in Alaska gets you closer to the beauty and wonder of nature

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What are the benefits and/or disadvantages of cruising on a small vessel versus a mega-ship? There are two basic questions you must ask yourself in choosing between these options: How much are you willing to pay; and how much of the real Alaska do you want to see beyond the ship's railing?


There's no question that the large ships are less expensive, but the dollar gap can significantly shrink depending on your personal spending habits. Thanks to the many ways you can spend money on a mega-ship, your projected budget might balloon big-time when you sign off on your final bill.

True, there are plenty of deals for big-ship Alaska cruises this season, but the low lead-in price will probably get you an inside cabin; don't expect a private balcony at this low rate. Don't forget to add in port charges; tips and drinks (roughly the same with small ships, 100 passengers or less); the extras that aren't available on small ships -- like the alluring spa treatments, the jingle-jangle of the casino, all the photographs of yourself, and the on-board shopping opportunities. And now all the major cruise lines are addsing fuel surcharges of about $5 per person per day. The price gap is narrowing.


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Shore excursions are another major difference. On a big ship, you won't get very close to shore, so you probably won't see much much wildlife other than bald eagles, shore birds and maybe a humpback whale. To get closer, you must pay for the privilege, and that can cost from $40 for a cheap half-day hike up to $500 for helicopter and float plane flights. Many small-ship lines include some or all shore excursions in the cruise price, these include Cruise West and American Safari. On these small ships you get much closer to the shore so you see a lot more animals for "free," so to speak, right from the deck.


Obviously, the mega-ships have more passenger amenities. They offer larger, better equipped cabins, some with private verandas; 24-hour room service; multiple dining options; extensive menus; a variety of lounges and bars; outdoor swimming pools; whirlpools, spa and gym; elaborate entertainment; and a little or a lot of dressing up depending on the cruise line.

What do the little guys have to offer? Small ship aficionados consider that all those amenities in the previous paragraph as simply getting in the way of being part of the Alaska experience.

Most people taking big-ship Alaska cruises come home very happy; but a small-ship cruise is an altogether different experience. You commune with nature - the stupendous landscape, the weather, birds, wildlife, scents and smells (those Steller sea lions!) - in an almost spiritual way. On a small ship in Alaska you can "get under its skin."

On one small ship cruise on the 192-foot Spirit of '98 (Cruise West) we sailed from Seattle's Pier 69, next to the cruise terminal where the 778-foot Holland America Amsterdam was slipping its lines. Both ships were northbound up the Inside Passage to Ketchikan. The purposeful Amsterdam made straight for Puget Sound, while we first took a tour of Seattle's recreational and commercial waterfront. The Amsterdam's speed would put her into the first port after two nights steaming; our slower ship would take three. But more to the point, the relaxed schedule allowed the captain to dawdle and detour from the set course when there was good reason.

The first opportunity came on the second day, when we encountered a large pod of more than 100 Pacific white-sided dolphins. Once we were in their midst, the captain brought the ship about, and passengers standing one deck above the waterline looked directly down on the frolicking creatures as they played in our bow wave. A few yards away, others rolled on their sides and even breached. On Day Three, the Spirit of '98 slipped into Green Inlet. Running as slowly as the engines would permit, the little ship silently eased up to within a few hundred yards of four brown bears -- a sow and three cubs -- grazing on the sedge grass and pawing at rocks encrusted with mussels.

In Misty Fjord (aptly named for its almost constant drizzle), we trailed well behind the 50,760-ton Norwegian Dream. When she paused nearly half a mile off South Sawyer Glacier, we went on by through floating ice to within 400 yards and remained for an hour, studying the massive formations and varied colors. On the way out, passengers on the bow took some spray from a waterfall, one of several we nosed up to over the next few days.


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Shore excursions were offered at Ketchikan, Skagway and Haines. Many of them were similar to those offered by the big ships, but there were differences. The big ships with their loads of 1,500-2,500 passengers have more choices; they get preferential time slots for the helicopter and float plane trips. But apart from these two examples, Cruise West contracts its own excursions. And the number of passengers in each tour group is generally smaller when the ship's 100 travelers are spread over three to five tours.


The biggest plus came on the final day, when we entered Glacier Bay at 6:30 a.m. and didn't have to leave until 8:30 p.m., while the big ships stayed only half a day and visited only glaciers. While two big Holland America ships hovered alongside the main attractions - the Margerie and Grand Pacific glaciers - our captain took us up close to the tufted puffins and pigeon guillemots in rookeries on South and North Marble Islands.

Then we entered Tidal Inlet, and at one point there were black and brown bear sightings at four compass points, a moose on the beach, a rare wolverine peering at us from the brush, and a humpback whale feeding close into shore. In South Sandy Cove, we watched mountain goats cavort and scramble and yet manage to maintain their footing on what looked like a 90-degree slope. At the waterline, a pack of Steller sea lions, mostly males, gave off guttural grunts and an odor that left us gasping.

At Margerie Glacier, we stood watching the calving ice, and when one sizeable blue-white tower collapsed, the captain aimed the ship's bow into the oncoming waves. On our last evening, in Icy Strait, there was not a cloud in the sky, a light ashore, or another vessel in sight. The full moon rose in the east and the sun set over the St. Elias Range to the west. As we slowly drifted, the sea first reflected patches of pinkish purple then took on a golden hue, and the calm waters rippled from diving ducks and a lone humpback whale. Dozens of sharp snow-capped peaks enveloped us in a complete circle, and without a chart, one wondered which way Captain George Vancouver might have chosen to seek the open ocean. No one wanted to leave the decks, even at 11 p.m., on the last night before we landed in Juneau.


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Most of the passengers, ranging in age from 30 to past retirement, hailed from the Lower 48. But 10 percent were Australian, helping to enliven the open-sitting meals, which were mostly taken in the big-windowed dining room. A buffet breakfast was served in the lounge to early risers and light eaters, and a deck barbecue featured spare ribs, fresh Coho salmon, sausage and burgers. Dinner menus offered just one soup, fresh hot breads, two salads but a choice of six main courses, and a featured dessert plus sherbets. For the cocktail hour set, the hot pre-dinner hors d'oeuvres served as appetizers. Cooking was straightforward American style and uniformly good, even better than expected.


Cabins were all outside and small, the majority opening onto a covered promenade. The announcement of a humpback whale meant just a step out the door and a few yards forward or aft one to three decks above the sea. TVs, unusual for most small ships, had VCRs for screening freely selected videos. Cabin windows opened, a big plus, allowing the sound of the sea to lull one asleep, and it is not an exaggeration to report that I slept better on this ship than I do at home.

Entertainment included Native American oral traditions, costumes and dancing, talks by the two Cruise West interpreters and National Park Service personnel, much socializing and bonding, and Alaska.

It may be some time before I return to Alaska but when I do it will be aboard a small ship. I'll save the big guys for itineraries where nature and wildlife are not so intense.

But there is a price to pay for choosing small ships. You are seeing the 49th state with fewer than 100 fellow travelers, having an intimate close-up experience, and sailing with interpreters who are always available for those seeking knowledge.

The lowest brochure rate with port charges and early booking savings for most ships of 100 passengers or less are at least double what you pay for similar accomodations on big ships. That is for an outside cabin, as there are few inside cabins, and rarely does a small ship have a balcony cabin, which is probably the only advabtage a larger ship can offer.

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