Exploring South East Alaska's panhandle by sea makes a lot of sense: this is the way to travel at a leisurely pace, and enjoy the spectacular setting and wilderness wonderland. So do you choose a stylish cruise ship, or a small ship expedition? We look at four ways to choose...
Take a look at any basic cruise ship itinerary and you will find the same ports of call: Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, Sitka and so on. Some days you'll wake to find as many as four or five huge ships in port, each carrying upwards of 2,000 guests. Unsurprisingly, the towns are overrun.
On an expedition itinerary, you will probably use these key ports to embark and disembark - you have to be able to join the ship somehow! But for the rest of the week you are under the radar and far from the crowds: you will maybe see a cruise ship on the horizon, a tiny day-boat on the other side of the sound. But for the most part it is just you, and the sounds of nature. You're going to miss some of those fascinating frontier towns though…
2. Enrichment and entertainment
Classic cruise ships will definitely have experts lecturing on board, and often a local guide will join the ship, for example when it enters the Glacier Bay National Park, for a commentary over the public address system. In the evenings, by contrast, you will enjoy the full range of cruise ship entertainment, with lots of variety and so many options to choose from. In contrast, expedition guests will enjoy a daily recap, expert lecture programme, and the opportunity to engage their naturalists and guides face to face on deck, on tour or in the bar over a drink.
On an Alaska cruise you have such an extraordinary choice of excursions, from float-planes to heli-hiking, from bicycle rides to bear watching. Whatever your fitness level, there will be something for you. But tours ashore are time-consuming as you leave the ship, join a bus, wait for others and transfer to more remote locations to start your activity. Adventurers on the other hand need a certain level of mobility which enables them to set forth on tours from the vessel itself: take a kayak or a stand-up paddleboard from the back of the ship, or join a zodiac for a wet landing on a deserted beach in preparation for a lengthy hike. Your guides and experts are with you all the time, to ensure that not a single moment is wasted.
4. Up-close encounters
I will never forget the excitement of clustering on the deck of our cruise ship, binoculars pressed to our eyes, watching the humpbacks bubble-net feeding about a mile away. We were warm and dry, we didn't have to worry about seasickness, and when we got cold a smiling waiter appeared with hot chocolate. Yet I couldn't help but feel envious of the people on the tiny expedition ship that was right next to the action! On an adventure ship, you will get closer, for longer, and see more of the wildlife.