The latest on Alaska's small-ship cruise options

We have highlighted some exciting new additions to the Alaska market for next summer in the luxury small-ship market. What is new with my most popular cruises: the casual adventure small ships. This refers to expedition-like boats in the 10-100 guest range, though today's expedition is definitely not roughing it.

In general, this category includes cruises whose emphasis is definitely on the glaciers, whales and wildlife up-close, rather than the cities and towns where the big cruise ships dock. There is no dress-up, unless you consider rain pants and rubber boots a fashion statement. The main goal is on experiencing Alaska, not the Broadway shows, casino, spas and movie theaters (and now rock-climbing, skating rinks and bowling).

The prices for the megaliners have gone down in a very competitive market, and they are a great deal for the right person. But this is in part because they include less and less. Ship owners have added all kinds of activities to keep people spending money on the ship. (Remember the saying, "It's not what you pay to get on a ship; it's what you pay to get off.") This is not to say that the small ships are a bargain; you will pay more for an all-inclusive experience on a U.S.-registered ship that does not have the economy of scale that a 3,000 guest ship does.

Apparently, many people are willing to pay for a once-in-a lifetime experience on these small ships -- they are extremely popular and we see more repeaters than ever. On a typical day, you will cruise by a glacier, get out in a skiff or kayak to get closer, then have a gourmet lunch. After fortifying yourself with delicious calories, you have a choice of an afternoon hike, bushwhack or paddle board. Or, read a book while in the hot tub. Then it's cocktail time (salmon dip, anyone?) and a fabulous dinner, followed by a lecture by an expert in a given field. If the captain spots bears or a pod of whales, the ship will stay in the hour for hours, so you can watch nature in her glory. The whales have been particularly active this season with more bubble-net feeding "shows" than I remember, much to the delight of passengers.

So, here is a brief look at the three most popular small-ship companies, and what is new for 2018:

Alaskan Dream Cruises: This is an Alaskan Native-owned company that has some great itineraries for those who want to combine their wilderness with some port stops, including their awesome Orca Point Lodge where you have an all you can eat Salmon bake and King Crab feast. Itineraries are from seven to 11 nights. Not as heavy an emphasis on the kayaking/hiking as the others, but they do spend a couple days in kayaks and skiffs to get even closer or for hiking, The history of this family is very interesting, and they have a Native onboard which adds a unique touch for people who want it all: wildlife, scenery, towns and culture. I wrote about my Alaskan Dream cruise on their new ship last September.

UnCruise Adventures: This is an extremely popular company and has the largest fleet and choice of itineraries. Their vessels carry kayaks, paddleboards, and offer daily hiking (all levels), whale watching, kayaking (no experience needed), snorkeling on some boats, or you can just revel in the majestic beauty. Their ships carry from 22-88 passengers and range from spartan expedition to luxury yacht and one old-fashioned steamer. There are evening lectures by naturalists, and their itineraries don't really go to any ports of call -- just wilderness. Yet, you have outstanding food, memory mattresses, yoga and massage (not all cabins or ships), etc. -- a really nice way to go. And this is a fun company! We have never had a complaint and have sent numerous clients.

Uncruise has many new things for 2018. They are bringing the SS Legacy back to Alaska, a replica steamship with period decor, and the only small ship with an elevator. Most of the itineraries are new for next summer; the addition of Haines has me excited as it is one of the most scenic towns in Alaska, with great hiking, rafting by the eagles and much more.

National Geographic is a household name, and their ships always sell out way in advance. What is most excited about for next summer is they have built a new 100-guest ship (just started a few weeks ago) and it has balconies -- a game-changer in the expedition field. And, they are now building a sister ship, so they will have two new ships for 2018. It goes without saying that they have incredible photographers and expedition leaders onboard.

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