It’s become something of a family tradition for me to accompany my dad on a trip every year in the fall for some prime father-son quality time. Recently, however, his mobility has become more of an issue, so on this occasion we decided to take a cruise to Alaska, which would not require my dad to walk as much as on some of our past excursions.
I’ve been on more than fifteen large ocean-liner cruises all over the world, but lately I find that I prefer small-ship cruises like those that tour the rivers of Europe. With fewer than 200 passengers on board, small-ship cruises offer a more intimate, relaxed experience: no crowds or long lines for dining or activities, more personalized attention from the crew, better food, tours and day-trips included with the cruise package, and myriad other advantages. Thus, when I began planning the annual trip with Dad, I searched for small cruise lines in Alaska and found Un-Cruise Adventures, a company for travelers like me who are tired of the impersonal big-line corporate cruise.
Un-Cruise specializes in small-ship adventure cruising, with tours in locations such as Hawaii, Mexico, the Galapagos Islands, and the Northwest. From their Alaska tours, we chose the cruise through the Northern Passages and Glacier Bay, which started in Sitka and ended seven days later in Juneau. We got the lowest-priced room they offered, which was still much costlier than cabins for comparable tours aboard large ocean liners. However, when you calculate the value of the day-trip tours that Un-Cruise includes with their cruise package and for which a large cruise line would charge extra, the difference in total cost is not that great.
We were a bit taken aback when we saw how tiny our cabin was: barely long and wide enough to accommodate two side-by-side berths, with a bathroom smaller than the closets at most of the hotels in which I’ve stayed. Located on the lowest deck of passenger cabins, the room was very near to the engine room and generator, so we had to put up with quite a bit of noise as well. Both Dad and I are used to sleeping with earplugs, though, so it was worth saving $1000 or more rather than upgrading to the next higher room category. As for the small space, we would only need to be there to sleep. The rest of the time, we intended to be out adventuring!
After a breakfast of a $15 French dip sandwich and $9 bagel in Sitka (food in Alaska is expensive!), we settled in aboard ship for the usual preliminaries: a briefing on emergency procedures and an introduction from our guides about the various tours and activities available to us. There are generally around four activities from which to choose each morning and afternoon, and they vary depending on the current location and weather conditions of the cruise. The choices include beginning and advanced kayak tours (either solo or with a guide), paddle-boarding, vigorous hiking, and even snorkeling for the more active passengers. Dad and I selected a few of the mellower options: skiff tours, beach walks, and a short hike.
The highlights of the Un-Cruise experience are unquestionably the excellent staff and the breathtaking scenery. Our adventure guides gave fascinating on-board presentations about a variety of subjects and proved highly educated and knowledgeable about everything we encountered during our outdoor tours. As a huge added bonus for the cruise, a park ranger joined our cruise when we arrived in Glacier Bay and stayed with us for the next two days, giving several informative talks aboard ship and leading a few of our tours each day. Dad and I went on the scenic forest hike with her, and she delighted us with her enthusiasm for all things Alaskan.
We also enjoyed the delicious food served on the ship and the pleasant company of our fellow travelers. The small cruise boat had fewer than 80 passengers, and it seemed like half of them were gregarious Australians and New Zealanders. Mealtimes gave us a great opportunity to socialize, for Dad and I would share a table with as many as four other people. By the end of the cruise, our new comrades had become like old friends. The last two days of the trip, Un-Cruise thoughtfully offered an e-mail list for us on which we could sign up to keep in touch with each other, and the company also sent us a link to all of the photos the staff had taken of us.
My main regret about the cruise is that I didn’t get as many good photos as I’d hoped. I was constantly concerned about water damaging my gear, for it rained nearly every day and many of our best photo ops occurred while we were out on the bay in small skiffs. I brought some dry bags to protect my extra lenses and kept my camera nearly covered in another waterproof bag, ready to drop it in and seal it up whenever the rain got too heavy. I didn’t go kayaking, but even if I had, I don’t think I’d ever risk my Sony on a kayak ride.
Also, I wish I’d brought along a better lens for telephoto shots. My longest lens is the Sony 70-200mm f/4 for my Sony A7rII. Since I don’t often get to shoot wildlife, I didn’t think to bring a longer lens with me, but I should have been prepared with at least a 600mm. As you might imagine, I couldn’t get very close to the wild bears, bald eagles, mountain goats, orcas, humpback whales, and sea lions we saw, so I needed all the reach I could get.
I made do the best I could with the gear I had. Fortunately, the 42 megapixels of the A7rII allowed me to crop my pictures quite a bit, although their resolution wasn’t as good as that of the photos taken by one of our guides, who had a Nikon DSLR and 600mm lens. I’ve learned my lesson: It may be inconvenient to travel with a long and heavy lens like the 600mm, but if you’re going to shoot spectacular flora and fauna, don’t leave home without it! Beg, borrow, or rent one if you have to. I recommend Borrowlenses.com as a good place to find reasonable rental rates.
Dad and I had such a great time on the Un-Cruise that we were sad to see it end. The smaller boat turned out to be the perfect choice for Glacier Bay, for it allowed us to approach much closer to the glacier walls than the large cruise ships could get. I imagine the folks on the ocean liner Norwegian Sun must have envied our view, for they could only sail past at a distance.
If you’re traveling without children and are keen to see Alaska’s glacial landscapes and diverse wildlife in all their glory, I’d say an Un-Cruise Adventure is the way to go. It may not offer the most luxurious ship, but the obliging staff, outstanding guides, delectable food, and the camaraderie with our fellow passengers made this voyage one of the best father-son vacations I’ve ever had.