It’s still a few weeks before the tourist season begins. But the small cruise ship Wilderness Explorer is already tied up at a Juneau dock.
“One thing you’ll notice if you look at the back of the vessel is that it’s been modified to accommodate a platform that can be easily lowered into the water to launch kayaks and things,” says Larry West, an Un-Cruise Adventures staffer providing the tour.
“Once you’ve done your active adventure, we always have saunas and hot tubs on all of our vessels, so you can come back on board and relax until the next day’s adventure,” adds Laurie Cooper, an expedition guide for Un-Cruise Adventures.
The 76-guest Wilderness Explorer is one of several ships added to the company’s line-up in recent years.
This year’s addition is the 88-passenger Legacy, where West will lead a team of costumed guides.
“We will be focusing especially on recreating authentic historical moments,” he says.
The living history theme is a different approach for Un-Cruise Adventures, the new name for sister lines InnerSea Discoveries and American Safari.
“The vessel itself is designed to look like and be patterned after a vessel from the late 19th century that would have brought anxious miners to Alaska in search for gold in the Klondike,” West says.
The Legacy will have its first sailing in August.
It used to be the Spirit of ’98, one of a fleet of small ships operated by Cruise West, which went out of business in 2010.
Other companies, including Sitka-based Alaskan Dream, have purchased and renovated other Cruise West ships for Inside Passage operations.
“I think this coming season, we’ll actually be seeing more small cruise vessels in Southeast than ever before,” says Joel Hanson of Sitka, who works for The Boat Company, a two-ship line sailing between Juneau and his hometown.
Unlike the big cruisers, there’s no centralized database of small-ship sailings. But Hanson’s convinced capacity is increasing.
“I think the trend is: It may not grow rapidly, but it does seem to be and it has the potential to continue to grow,” he adds.
The small ships are particularly valuable to Southeast’s smaller ports.
“It’s always nice to have visitors come to town and be interested in our unique culture,” says Liz Cabrera of the Petersburg Economic Development Council.
Her town sees no large cruise ships dock during the summer. So when a new small vessel ties up, the passengers are noticed.
“And hopefully spending a little bit of their money on our local shops downtown. And that’s great for our merchants and also for our sales tax revenue for our borough,” she says.
Many small-ship passengers have more money. Their cruises often run in the range of $3,000 to $12,000 per person. Larger ships offer deals below $1,000 — or less.
A number of the small lines employ regional residents.
Sitka’s Alaskan Dream cruises make that part of its marketing with the slogan, “True Alaska with True Alaskans.”
Dan Blanchard, of the Un-Cruise line, says his company is opening an office in the Capital City this May.
“We are slowly moving more and more up to Juneau, particularly in the form of our operations end of the company. It’s hard to say how far we’re going to go with that, but we’re definitely headed into that direction,” he says.
His company’s 60-passenger Wilderness Adventurer leaves Seattle for Alaska at the end of this month. Other small lines will follow, sailing along with the much larger ships, through September.
Companies sailing small ships in Southeast include:
- The Boat Company
- Un-Cruise Adventures
- Alaskan Dream Cruises
- American Cruise Lines
- Lindblad Expeditions
- Fantasy Cruises
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- Alaska’s largest ferry will be down for repairs longer than expected. Another ship will fill in, but it’s smaller and some travelers will have to make other arrangements.