Alaska is vast and wild, a place where travelers can explore miles and miles of remote coastlines, parks, and forests. The Last Frontier sits at the very top of the destination wish list for many people. When you go to a place that is such a special mix of impressive geological formations and fascinating creatures, it’s best to do it in a way that gets you up close. This is where an expedition cruise shines. Some places in the world are best explored via small-ship cruising. Think Antarctica, the Galapagos, the fjords of Norway, and, of course, Alaska!
I sailed on an expedition cruise to Alaska on the new 186-passenger ship Ocean Victory from American Queen Voyages. Our 10-day sailing from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Sitka, Alaska, delivered a mix of delightful experiences that revealed why cruisers are flocking to adventure voyages.
Dozens of expedition ships have been built and debuted over the past few years, and the number of travelers taking expedition cruises has grown dramatically during the past decade (2012 to 2022), rising from just under 70,000 people to more than 367,000, with the number expected to approach 500,000 annually by 2027, according to a market report by Cruise Industry News.
I have taken expedition cruises on a variety of cruise lines, including the incredibly active and immersive off-the-grid voyages with UnCruise Adventures in places like Alaska and Costa Rica, as well as luxurious sailings around the Galapagos with Silversea and to Antarctica with Ponant.
My trip on the small ship Ocean Victory represented more of a light expedition adventure. This is an ideal journey for people of all ages and ability levels who are seeking their dream trip to Alaska but want to avoid the large crowds of mass-market ships.
Here is why.
1. You’ll See Wildlife On Display
As we pulled away from Vancouver on Ocean Victory, I could feel the sense of anticipation among the 124 cruisers onboard as they wandered the outer areas of the eight-deck 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 were going to be the primary entertainment, of course.
We spotted seabirds, Steller sea lions, Pacific white-sided dolphins, and a large pod of humpback whales bubble-net feeding as we sailed for two days from Vancouver toward Ketchikan.
Brown bears, mountain goats, orcas (and several other whales), otters, seals, and eagles are the big ones you’ll be on the lookout for. Cruisers also get a chance to spot a wide array of marine birds and other creatures in the tidal zones and rainforests like sea stars, anemones, and banana slugs.
Pro Tip: Book your expedition cruise for May or June if you want to see the best wildlife activity. Bears are awakening from hibernation and very active feeding along the shorelines. This is also when birds fill the skies and forests and flowers come into bloom. The colors and sights are most vibrant as Alaska awakens during the spring.
2. You’ll Get A Chance To Explore Remote Fjords And Historic Port Towns
Small expedition ships can reach deep into fjords or navigate to remote bays and islets that the large cruise ships can’t reach. This means that you’ll be up close to glaciers — and often get a chance to move even closer via Zodiac tours or kayaking outings.
Our skiff tour into Tracy Arm Fjord during our cruise on Ocean Victory brought us up close to South Sawyer Glacier. The ship stayed in the bay all day as we went out to see mountain goats scrambling along the hillsides, waterfalls streaming down the cliffs and blue ice calving from 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. This day was pure bliss. The weather was clear and sunny, and we were the only people in the majestic fjord surrounded by steep granite walls and birds lazily tracing circles overhead. The only sounds while we paddled — other than chatter among our small group of kayakers — were gentle swooshes of the kayak strokes dipping into water that was as smooth as glass.
At Port Malmesbury, we got into the waters to see bald eagles, otters, and whales. American Queen Voyages offers a mix of expedition days and port visits with shore excursions on its trips to Alaska, and we enjoyed port stops in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and Sitka, where the program included excursions like forest walks and museum visits. In Wrangell, for example, passengers on Ocean Victory joined a cultural discovery tour to visit a Tlingit tribal house followed by a tour of Wrangell Museum and a stop at Petroglyph Beach to see ancient rock carvings.
Some expedition lines, such as UnCruise Adventures, offer more intense activities, including long hikes and bushwhacking outings in old-growth rainforests. You can even do things like tidepooling (shore walks at low tide), snorkeling, and standup paddleboarding in beautifully serene locations.
Pro Tip: Check the lineup of activities available during the cruise itinerary to find the right expedition cruise line for you.
3. You’ll Savor The Scenery As You Sail
Your expedition voyage is built around beautiful destinations, and ships like Ocean Victory are designed with spaces that seamlessly connect the inside with the outdoors. We enjoyed the top sun deck with its loungers and two hot tubs located aft of the ship. This is the perfect spot at sunset for a drink at the bar and to slide in for a soak to soothe your body after a day full of adventures.
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, so passengers have a great variety of spots to see the outdoors or pop outside to watch birds or whales, as we did many times during our voyage.
You can borrow binoculars for use throughout your cruise, and Ocean Victory features scopes on tripods placed strategically in the observation areas so you can zoom in on the shoreline or scan the skies for animals.
Pro Tip: Be dressed and ready to go to the outer decks when announcements are made that animals are in sight. You might see bears feeding at the shoreline or humpback whales bubble-net feeding. Carry around your camera, binoculars, hat, and jacket in case conditions call for them, so you can quickly move to a nice viewing area. Also, consider booking a cabin with a balcony or direct access to an outer deck. This way, you can fully enjoy the outdoors and have opportunities to spot wildlife and incredible scenery at all times.
4. You’ll Share Intense Experiences With New Friends
Small-ship cruise travel brings together groups of well-traveled people who share common interests. There are no casinos or production shows onboard most traditional expedition ships.
Ocean Victory offers a main lecture lounge where naturalists and guest lecturers give talks on subjects like humpback whales, the indigenous people of Alaska, or the Tongass Forest. We’ve made new lifelong friends on these trips, and you’re likely to, as well, because you meet like-minded travelers with similar interests, such as a passion for active travel and learning.
It’s a blast to join trivia contests and sing-a-longs after dinner or just sit and chat about each day’s wonderful activities with new friends over dinner or while having drinks at the bars or lounges.
5. You’ll Wander Beyond Your Comfort Zone
An expedition cruise is a great time to try something new. It might be your first time in a Zodiac zipping around in the waters with the wind in your face and riding the gently bucking waves. You might catch a splash, too, if you’re seated right up front. Try kayaking. Get on a paddle board or venture out on a hike into the forest. You’ll be on the lookout for bears, deer, and birds. You might even get the chance to jump in the frigid waters if your cruise ship offers a polar plunge. We did the Punch Bowl Plunge on Ocean Victory to cap our day at Misty Fjords, and dozens of people gleefully participated.
Pro Tip: Pack the right kind of clothes. Typically, you’ll want to have the proper footwear, rain gear, and you’ll need clothes that you can wear in layers. Consult the pre-trip packing list provided by American Queen Voyages, and take it to heart.
6. You’ll Enjoy An Immersive Way To Learn Something New
The expedition leaders onboard these cruises have a passion for the environment, travel, and active adventures. On Ocean Victory, we had a team of 18 naturalists, kayak guides, and Zodiac drivers who together had a wealth of information. Many had degrees or certifications in topics covering marine science, conservation, or backcountry survival.
Our crew on Ocean Victory hosted daily enrichment talks, hands-on science sessions, and informal post-dinner “after hours” chats. We learned about plankton, algae, humpback whale migration, seals and sea lions, and how to tie a series of knots. A guest lecturer also joined the cruise to give talks about indigenous culture in Alaska and the art and history of the Haida and Tlingit people.
Of course, you’re constantly experiencing wonderful new things off the ship, such as engaging with your guides and new friends when out in the wild spotting animals, or visiting quirky towns and villages in Alaska. We had great chats with residents in Petersburg and Kake to learn what life is like in such a remote and harsh part of the world.
7. You’ll Be Inspired To See Even More
Once you’ve visited Alaska on an expedition cruise, you’ll be hooked. It’s one of my favorite destinations (likely my favorite). The continuous animal activity, beautiful scenery, and daily chance to get out to do something active and exhilarating make it a breathtaking experience.
For more information on Alaska cruises, check out these articles: