PHOTO: Celebrity Solstice sailing through Tracy Arm Fjord. (photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises)
It’s officially Alaska cruise season and there are bigger ships than ever plowing the state’s coastal waters. By next year, Norwegian Cruise Line’s new Norwegian Bliss will be larger still.
But which cruising experience in Alaska is better? The bigger or the smaller?
From a guest perspective, the difference between the 167,800-ton, 4,000-guest Bliss will be striking from that aboard UnCruise Adventures’ 84-guest Safari Endeavour, which I have sailed aboard roundtrip from Juneau. (By comparison, the largest cruise ship I have personally been on in the Last Frontier is Celebrity Cruises’ 122,000-ton, 2,850-guest Celebrity Solstice.)
Truth be told, I love both cruise styles for different reasons. Mega-ships are simply comfortable, offering plenty of accommodation choices and activity picks onboard. You will never be without an abundance of dining and entertainment selections either.
Itineraries are equally basic, heading mostly to the highlights, which makes this the ideal way to go for someone who has never been to Alaska before.
Alternatively, small ships are more rugged. By no means are they camping at sea, but amenities tend to be more utilitarian. By virtue of size, opportunities onboard will be particularly limited.
However, activities ashore abound.
With far fewer fellow passengers to contend with, intimate encounters with nature are more frequently available. Itineraries are also more fluid with time allocated for impromptu stops should wildlife be spotted along the way.
Expedition ships generally stay clear of where the big boys are because they can. They are less reliant on tying off to a dock to unload thousands of passengers. Instead, they can navigate into smaller bays and anchor for only dozens to disembark via zodiac direct to shore or for a cruise around the surrounding area. Guests can typically even kayak or participate in other water sports conveniently off the vessel.
Larger ships anchor at times too, but they must tender guests ashore in much larger groups, and usually only once on land do any excursions actually begin.
Meanwhile, big vessels moor up at the most common ports of Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway where several others also call, making for potential crowds descending upon each town. (Of course, Alaska is still a sizable state with generally enough room to go around for the masses.)
However, besides shore excursions, the closest big ship guests ever get to nature are when they sail through the Inside Passage or Tracy Arm Fjord, into Glacier Bay or up to Hubbard Glacier. These moments are without question breathtaking, and the sprawling observation lounges—especially those planned for the Norwegian Bliss—are perfect venues to take everything in.
It is the cushy approach, and there is nothing at all wrong with that.
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Those looking for more adventure, however, likely prefer the expedition kind of vessel that may too visit Glacier Bay but with the opportunity to kayak its silty glacial waters. These are the daring souls that may challenge themselves to a polar plunge. (Yes, I did it, and it was exhilarating, and cold—very, very cold.)
This is really the best for those who have visited Alaska many times before and are looking to take a deeper dive.
Nonetheless, I still love to switch it up and alternate between expedition cruises and mega-ship cruises in Alaska. Or you may opt for something in between. More ships heading north fit in the middle of the two extremes with hybrid experiences. Consider perhaps Seabourn and its luxuries onboard and Ventures by Seabourn program ashore, for instance.
Alaska really does have a cruise for every travel preference.
This post first appeared on TravelPulse.