Alaska is vast and wild, a place where travelers can explore miles of secluded coastline, parks and forests. The Last Frontier is at the top of many people’s bucket list of travel destinations. When you go to a place that has such a special blend of stunning geological formations and fascinating creatures, it’s best to do it in a way that gets you up close and personal. This is where an expedition cruise shines. Some places in the world are best explored on small ship cruises. Think Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands, the Norwegian Fjords and of course Alaska!
I sailed the new 186-passenger ship on an expedition cruise to Alaska Ocean Victory from American Queen Voyages. Our 10-day sailing from Vancouver, British Columbia to Sitka, Alaska delivered a mix of delightful experiences that showcased why cruise lines flock to adventure travel.
Dozens of expedition ships have been built and debuted in recent years, and the number of travelers embarking on expedition cruises has increased dramatically over the past decade (2012 to 2022), rising from just under 70,000 to over 367,000, according to a Cruise Industry News market report 500,000 are to be reached annually by 2027.
I’ve taken expedition cruises on a variety of cruise lines, including the incredibly active and immersive off-grid voyages with UnCruise Adventures in places like Alaska and Costa Rica, and luxurious cruises around the Galapagos Islands with Silversea and to Antarctica with Ponant.
My journey on the little ship Ocean Victory presented more of an easy expedition adventure. This is an ideal trip for people of all ages and skill levels who are looking for their dream Alaskan vacation but want to avoid the big crowds of mass market ships.
1. You will see wild animals on the display
When we left Vancouver Ocean VictoryI could feel the anticipation among the 124 cruisers on board as they wandered the exteriors of the eight-story ship and made new friends. Members of the expedition team, led by Liz Gifford, introduced themselves and explained what we would be doing during our voyage.
The animals would of course be the main entertainment.
On our two-day cruise from Vancouver to Ketchikan, we spotted seabirds, Steller sea lions, Pacific white-sided dolphins and a large pod of net-feeding humpback whales.
Brown bears, mountain goats, orcas (and several other whales), otters, seals and eagles are the big ones to look out for. Cruise ships also have the opportunity to see a variety of seabirds and other creatures in the intertidal zones and rainforests such as starfish, anemones and banana snails.
Pro Tip: Book your expedition cruise for May or June if you want to see the best wildlife activity. Bears wake up from hibernation and very actively feed on the coasts. This is also when birds fill the skies and forests and flowers bloom. The colors and sights are at their most vibrant as Alaska awakens in spring.
2. You have the opportunity to explore remote fjords and historic port towns
Small expedition ships can go deep into fjords or to secluded bays and islets that large cruise ships cannot reach. That means you’re very close to the glaciers—and often even closer on Zodiac tours or kayak excursions.
Our skiff tour into Tracy Arm Fjord continues during our cruise Ocean Victory brought us close to South Sawyer Glacier. The ship stayed in the bay all day as we went out to see mountain goats scrambling down the hills, waterfalls cascading down the cliffs and blue ice calving off the glacier wall and crashing into the water with the sound of thunder.
We also kayaked around Punch Bowl Cove during our full day at Misty Fjords National Monument. That day was pure bliss. The weather was clear and sunny and we were the only people in the majestic fjord, surrounded by sheer granite walls and birds lazily circling overhead. The only sounds as we paddled—other than the chatter in our small group of kayakers—were soft swishes of kayak strokes plunging into water as smooth as glass.
At Port Malmesbury we got in the water to see bald eagles, otters and whales. American Queen Voyages offers a mix of expedition days and port visits with shore excursions on their Alaskan voyages, and we enjoyed port stops at Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg and Sitka where excursions such as forest walks and museum visits were on the agenda. In Wrangell, for example, passengers are piling up Ocean Victory took a cultural discovery tour to visit a Tlingit tribal home followed by a tour of the Wrangell Museum and a stop at Petroglyph Beach to see ancient rock carvings.
Some expedition lines like UnCruise Adventures offer more intense activities, including long hikes and bush walks in ancient rainforests. You can even do things like tidepooling (shore walks when the tide is out), snorkeling and stand up paddling in beautiful tranquil spots.
Pro Tip: View the range of activities available throughout the cruise itinerary to find the right expedition cruise line for you.
3. You will enjoy the scenery while sailing
Your expedition voyage is built around beautiful destinations and ships Ocean Victory are designed with spaces that seamlessly blend the interior with the exterior. We enjoyed the top sundeck with its sun loungers and two hot tubs located aft of the ship. This is the perfect spot at sunset for a drink at the bar and a dip to soothe your body after a day of adventure.
The ship also has large glass windows in the main lounge and restaurant, as well as an observation lounge on deck 8 and innovative bow viewing platforms on deck 5. Additionally, there are open deck areas on decks 5 and 6, allowing passengers to enjoy a variety of things places to see nature or go outside to bird or whale watch as we did many times during our trip.
You can borrow binoculars for the entire cruise Ocean Victory features scopes on tripods strategically placed in observation areas so you can zoom in on the coast or scan the sky for wildlife.
Pro Tip: Be dressed and ready to go to the outside decks when announcements are made that animals are in sight. You might see bears feeding on the shore or humpback whales feeding with nets. Carry your camera, binoculars, hat and jacket if conditions call for it so you can quickly switch to a nice vantage point. Also, consider booking a cabin with a balcony or direct access to an outside deck. This way you can enjoy nature to the fullest and always have the opportunity to spot wildlife and incredible landscapes.
4. You will share intense experiences with new friends
Small ship cruises bring together groups of well-travelled people who share common interests. There are no casinos or production shows aboard most traditional expedition ships.
Ocean Victory features a main lecture lounge where naturalists and guest lecturers present lectures on topics such as humpback whales, Alaska Natives or the Tongass Forest. We’ve made new lifelong friends on these trips, and chances are you will too, meeting like-minded travelers with similar interests, such as: B. A passion for active travel and learning.
It’s a great time to join in after-dinner trivia competitions and sing along, or just chat with new friends over dinner or drinks in the bars or lounges about the day’s wonderful activities.
5. You will wander beyond your comfort zone
An expedition cruise is a great time to try something new. It might be your first time cruising through the water in a Zodiac with the wind in your face and riding the gently bucking waves. You might also catch a splash if you sit all the way up front. Try kayaking. Hop on a paddle board or take a hike in the forest. You look out for bears, deer and birds. You might even get the chance to jump into the frigid waters if your cruise ship offers a polar jump. We continued to do the Punch Bowl Plunge Ocean Victory to round off our day at Misty Fjords and dozens of people happily attended.
Pro Tip: Pack the right clothes. You’ll usually need the right footwear, rain gear, and clothing that you can wear in layers. Before you travel, consult and follow the packing list provided by American Queen Voyages.
6. You will enjoy an immersive way to learn something new
The expedition leaders aboard these cruises have a passion for the environment, travel and active adventures. On Ocean Victory, we had a team of 18 naturalists, kayakers and zodiac drivers who together had a wealth of information. Many had degrees or certifications in subjects such as marine science, conservation, or backcountry survival.
Our crew on Ocean Victory hosted daily enrichment talks, hands-on science sessions, and informal after-dinner “after-hours” talks. We learned about plankton, algae, the migration of humpback whales, seals and sea lions and how to tie a series of knots. A visiting docent also joined the cruise to give lectures on Native American culture in Alaska and Haida and Tlingit art and history.
Of course, you will also constantly experience wonderful new things away from the ship, such as For example, connecting with your guides and new friends as you go wildlife viewing in the wilderness, or visiting quirky Alaskan towns and villages. We had great conversations with Petersburg residents and Kake to learn what life is like in such a remote and harsh part of the world.
7. You will be inspired to see more
Once you’ve visited Alaska on an expedition cruise, you’ll be hooked. It’s one of my favorite destinations (probably my favorite). The constant animal activity, beautiful scenery, and daily opportunity to do something active and exciting make it a breathtaking experience.
For more information on Alaska cruises, see these articles: