When Cruise West went bankrupt in 2010, small ship cruise lovers who wanted to explore Alaska's nooks and crannies were left with few options. Luckily, Un-Cruise Adventures has stepped into the void with two Inside Passage itineraries on three expedition vessels aimed at active travelers that bring guests much closer to nature than the deck of a megaship.
The line's Wilderness Discoverer, bought from the now-defunct Glacier Bay Cruise Line and completely overhauled, isn't glamorous. In most cabins, showers share space with toilets, and a plastic shower curtain keeps the toilet and your towels dry while you bathe. But thoughtful touches, such as memory foam mattresses, bedside stands with pull-out laptop spaces and outside hooks for bulky gear, abound. Best of all, each cabin has an outside window that opens, so you can breathe in the fresh Alaska air, day and night.
The ship does have its comforts. The two hot tubs were packed many nights on our August cruise, and the onboard masseuse will rub out your kinks (for an extra fee). A full bar offers drink specials, as well as a thorough wine list, but you'll see more action at Happy Hour than after dinner. Most passengers spend their evenings reading, playing cards and other games, or watching borrowed movies in their cabins. It's not a ship where you'll see people downing shots at the bar, although the bartender will make you a Duck Fart if you ask.
The minimal onboard amenities don't seem to bother Wilderness Discoverer's passengers because the focus of these cruises is Alaska's nature and wildlife. We woke up in isolated bays surrounded by mountains and trees, instead of noisy ports. Rather than battling the crowds in Glacier Bay, we had Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm all to ourselves. And when the ship came upon a pod of humpback whales in Frederick Sound, it lingered for several hours so everyone could observe the majestic creatures. In order to make the most of Alaska's unpredictable wildlife, a certain go-with-the-flow attitude is required, and the schedule we received when we boarded was merely a guideline.
And that's just fine with this ship's crowd, which places outdoor exploration high on its agenda. REI is the dominant label, and fisherman-style rubber boots will get more wear than heels. On one recent cruise, multigenerational families dominated the passenger list, with ages 5 to 85 represented. With a maximum of 76 people on board, you'll know everyone's name before the week is over. (Mingling is encouraged with name tags.)
No matter what your age, you'll get plenty of activity on Wilderness Discoverer. Your days will be filled with guided paddles and hikes that are well off the beaten cruise path, with opportunities to try stand-up paddle-boarding, glacier-trekking and even snorkeling. (Don't worry, you wear a wetsuit.) Hikes are ranked by difficulty, and the crew is honest with its fitness appraisals. More traditional Inside Passage cruise excursions, such as saltwater-fishing, flight-seeing and jet boat trips, are available for an extra fee. Morning comes early in the Alaska summer, and you'll likely fall exhausted into bed while it's still dusk.
And the Wilderness Discoverer crew -- many veterans of Cruise West -- keep it all lively with outstanding service and a "can do" approach to the outdoors. Expedition leaders do their best to make Alaska accessible to even the biggest couch potatoes; every day, people were seen trying activities that they originally claimed were out of their comfort zones. You'll leave feeling like you stretched your limits to meet Alaska's challenges, and that's an excellent way to experience such a vast wilderness.
As you might expect from the emphasis on activity, Wilderness Discoverer passengers tend to be more athletic and outdoor-minded than typical cruisers (although not necessarily younger). The line has struck it big with families, and multigenerational groups of a dozen or more have been common.
Do shoes count as a dress code? Even then, you'll see plenty of passengers padding around in warm socks. Wilderness Discoverer is strictly casual, and people are more likely to comment on your gear than your outfit.
Speaking of gear, believe the recommended list that Un-Cruise Adventures sends out before the trip. You will need tall waterproof boots, for example, as well as rain pants, a raincoat and other things to keep you warm. Sunny days are the exception, rather than the rule, in this corner of Alaska. If you aren't dressed to get wet, you'll be a very unhappy camper.