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If you think of Alaska as the Last Frontier, you might be surprised to find it overrun by fanny-packing cruisers, all scurrying from one Disneyfied shore excursion to the next. After all, tiny towns such as Ketchikan, Hoonah, and Valdez are welcoming upwards of a million passengers a year—despite having as few as 760 local residents.
Take Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas: It started sailing to Alaska last summer, with a shipboard population that, at 3,835 guests, is about one and a half times the entire population of Seward, one of the state’s largest ports.
The crowd-averse will look at numbers like those and cross an Alaska cruise off their bucket lists. But they’d be overlooking a stunning, intimate new option that’s geared toward luxury travelers with a thirst for adventure.
Seabourn Cruise Line Ltd., the small-ship cruise company whose restaurants are run in partnership with legendary chef Thomas Keller, is sailing to Alaska this summer for the first time in 15 years. Its itineraries, which start at 11 days and $5,800 per person, put a premium on active exploration: kayaking through fjords, hiking on glacier faces, trekking into ice caves, and paddling to waterfalls. And they’re capped at 458 passengers.
“I think Seabourn saw an opening in the Alaska market for cruises for those who want a luxury-meets-expedition experience,” said cruise expert Fran Golden, writing from Alaska, where she’s currently updating Frommer’s EasyGuide to Alaska Cruises and Ports of Call. “They are targeting the same crowd that might go glamping or on a luxury safari. You can get in a skiff and follow a pod of whales, while back on the ship you can hang out in your big suite, get a great massage, and eat some of the best cuisine at sea.”
Small Ship, Big Adventures
“Other cruise ships are ticking boxes,” said Robin West, director of expedition operations at Seabourn. And who can blame them? “Alaska sells extremely well for many companies, so there’s probably no need for them to deviate from an itinerary that sells,” he explained.
Seabourn’s Encore, which made its debut in 2016, was purpose-built for adventure—and for itineraries that vary from the norm. It doesn’t have all the high-tech, icebreaking bells and whistles of an expedition ship, but its back deck includes a marina-inspired dry dock for tons of zodiacs, kayaks, and catamarans. Combine that with the ship’s slender proportions—at 92 feet, the Encore is almost half the width of Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas—and you get access to remote places that are ripe for high-octane thrills. [Editor’s note: The Seabourn ship currently sailing in Alaska is Sojourn, built in 2010 with a slightly smaller width of 84 feet.]
Some of these places aren’t even that far out of the way from Alaska’s most populous ports. Aialik Glacier, said West, is a stone’s throw from Seward and includes a mile-long glacier face that’s among the largest such formations visible on any cruise itinerary. In the summertime, when harbor seals give birth, the area is populated with tiny pups and their whiskered parents, all lying on ice flows and sunbathing. You can see them up close from your kayak. Then it’s just 4 miles onward to the even lesser-known Holgate Glacier, where you paddle along calving ice formations until you stumble upon colonies of puffins and sea otters.
Much of the adventure is on the water, whether you’re in a kayak or a catamaran—this is Alaska, after all. But some of the biggest thrills are reserved for not-so-dry land. In often-overlooked Haines, you can strap on crampons and walk across the Davidson Glacier with local mountain guides; near Juneau, you can hike through the ice caves of Mendenhall. The full-day adventure gets you wading through rocky river paths that run beneath glacial arches, each as blue as the clear summer sky.
Rethinking the Classics
Unlike expedition craft, Seabourn offers a five-star experience back on deck—with all the creature comforts and amenities of a full-scale ship. (Think multiple restaurants, a theater with productions by Broadway lyricist Sir Tim Rice, a casino, and onboard lecturers with Ph.D.s in the local ecology.)
“They go to many of the same towns other lines do so but with a new twist,” said Golden. “For instance, in Sitka, you go by catamaran to get up close to St. Lazaria Island, a protected wildlife refuge, so you can spot puffins and other birds through your binoculars. Then you have lunch at Dove Island Lodge, which has a 2016 Wine Spectator award.”
And while Misty Fjords is a popular scenic spot that cruisers can visit, they often have to do so by float plane from Ketchikan—which means half of their excursion is wasted on transit to and from the fjord itself. Seabourn sails directly into the fjord and coordinates float planes to meet them shipside at a floating dock, so passengers can spend more time hovering over the dramatic sights.
“We’re not only cutting out some of the tedious logistics, we’re also offering a really cool experience,” said West. “When you sail straight to Misty Fjords, you pass through high walls of ice and waterfalls, and you have a high chance at seeing bears. It’s very dramatic, very out-of-the-box.”
“We needed to expand our portfolio,” he said, “and Ventures was a natural option in Alaska—it really is a branding differentiator for us, and nobody else is doing it like we do.” Golden agrees. “For repeat cruisers, you’ve cruised to the Caribbean and Europe, and now you want to go to Alaska,” she said. “For newbies it’s a bucket list place, and a cruise is the best way to see the glaciers and other highlights of the Inside Passage. Doing that on a ship that serves caviar on deck as you look at a glacier? It’s a nice perk.”
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.