My coffee is steaming, as is my breath as I exhale in the cold morning air. I’m in Alaska. My home state. I’m back, for the first time in three years, and it’s May. There’s still a bite of winter in the air.
I’m standing aboard the bow of the Safari Endeavour, a ship operated by Seattle-based UnCruise Adventures. When most people think “Alaska Cruise” they don’t think of UnCruise ships. They think of gargantuan white-hulled ghosts that power churn through the waterways of Southeast Alaska in search of whales, wildlife, and wilderness – but often see very little of any because of their heavy ecological footprint.
UnCruise, as their name suggests, approaches cruising differently, seeking to take visitors deeper into a destination than other cruise companies do (or can). As part of their new campaign to promote shoulder season travel in Alaska (May and late August/September), I was invited to board the Safari Endeavour in May, when the snow has stopped – mostly!
UnCruise Itineraries in Southeast Alaska
Many people want to book an Alaska cruise from Seattle. It’s convenient to fly into Seattle, board a ship, and spend a week cutting a path through the wilderness of Southeast Alaska. If you’re craving an Alaska cruise experience, you’re not alone: nearly 1 million travelers took a cruise from Seattle to Alaska in 2016!
UnCruise offers 22 different itineraries in Southeast Alaska; two depart from Seattle, and the rest depart and return to cities like Ketchikan, Juneau, and Sitka:
Three route examples from UnCruise. See more on the UnCruise Adventures website.
Regardless of how long your Alaska cruise is (choose from 7 to 14 nights) or where you embark and disembark, UnCruise offers a truly unique cruise opportunity. You will see Alaska as it actually is. Alaska is open and wild and for the most part empty – big ships that cruise through Southeast Alaska can’t reach the coves, bays, and fjords that give you a sense of how huge Alaska is (and how small you are in it).
An Average Day Aboard UnCruise Adventures
An average day on UnCruise starts with yoga on the aft deck in the chilly morning air. There’s nothing quite like waking up – and warming up – through some yoga on an Alaska morning.
Afterward, I would enjoy my coffee in the lounge or on the forward deck, followed by breakfast in the dining room. The food aboard the Safari Endeavour is on par with every meal I’ve had on other cruises.
After breakfast, you’ll have the opportunity to head out on a morning activity. These activities are announced each evening before by the Expedition Leader for the boat, and you have time to sign up that previous evening. This can be any activity ranging from kayaking to skiff tours to hiking; see the next section of this post for more info about excursions.
Lunch is another indulgent affair, followed by more activities off the ship. One of my favorite parts of UnCruise was how each day our goal was to get off the ship. Bigger cruise companies want you to stay on the ship where you spend more money; UnCruise wants you to experience the destination, and all activities are in service of this goal.
Most people would spend the late afternoon relaxing in their cabin, the open air hot tubs, or the lounge. At 5 pm, Happy Hour would begin as Jimmy, our bartender, unveiled the day’s specialty cocktail. Dinner was around 6 pm, followed by an evening talk in the lounge on subjects ranging from glaciers to grizzly bears. Then, most people would wander off to bed or stay in the lounge for an additional glass of wine or whiskey.
The rhythm of life on the ship was immediately predictable and reassuring, without ever feeling dull. After a few days, I looked forward to each new phase of the day, and by the end of the 7-night cruise, I was reticent to give up my new lifestyle of delicious meals, adventurous activities, and a lot of lounging around.
Read on to dive into the exact activities and experiences I had on my UnCruise trip in May 2017.
My UnCruise Adventures Inner Reaches Eastern Coves Itinerary
Here’s the 7-night Inner Reaches Eastern Coves itinerary I sailed aboard the Safari Endeavour. My friend Marissa from Postcards to Seattle joined me on this trip, so you may see her in some photos!
Day 1 – Embark from Ketchikan
After flying from Seattle to Ketchikan in the morning, Marissa and I explored the small town while waiting to go board our ship. We wandered past the huge cruise terminal, tiny local souvenir shops, and ate at a local bar.
Top Sights & Activities in Ketchikan:
- Creek Street, with its colorful houses suspended above Ketchikan Creek
- Cape Fox Hill Tram, with stunning views as you rise up above the city
- Totem poles, including Totem Bight State Park, Saxman Native Village, or the Totem Heritage Center
Day 2 – Walker’s Cove & Rudyerd Bay in Misty Fjords National Monument
We woke up our first morning as we pulled into Misty Fjords National Monument. With fjords that rival any you’ll see in Norway, mirror-smooth glass, and my favorite type of clouds in the trees, it was the perfect spot for our first off-ship excursion (kayaking!).
Misty Fjords is one of the most stunning spots I’ve seen in Alaska – it’s also a place you’ll never see if you take a big ship cruise!
Day 3 – Bailey Bay in Tongass National Forest
Another day in the Alaskan wilderness, we spent the day doing skiff tours and hiking. This is where we learned the expression “boot sucking mud,” and had our chance to experience it directly.
Day 4 – Port Day in Wrangell
After three days aboard the ship, it was weird to spend most of the day on land in Wrangell, Alaska. Marissa and I spent the morning exploring Petroglyph Beach, where 8,000-year old Tlingit stone carvings were left scattered across the beach. We then learned about more modern Tlingit traditions at Chief Shakes’ House, where local resident Arthur Larsen told us his family history – and heritage.
Top Sights & Attractions in Wrangell:
- Petroglyph Beach, a one-mile walk from the boat terminal, where 40 stone carvings are revealed at low tide.
- Chief Shakes’ House, where you can learn the history of the Tlingit people in the Wrangell area of Southeast Alaska
- Mount Dewey and/or Rainbow Falls trails, both short hikes with equally impressive views.
After dinner, we also passed through Wrangell Narrows, a 22-mile channel that requires small ships to time their passing by the tides. It’s so narrow and shallow, large cruise ships can’t pass through!
Day 5 – Thomas Bay, Scenery Cove, & Baird Glacier off Frederick’s Sound
Among the several bays and coves we visited on this day, Scenery Cove was most aptly named – it was a picturesque spot to soak in the stunning mountains on all sides.
In the afternoon, most people on the boat took a skiff tour to see Baird Glacier. We had to hike across the alluvial plain and various moraines to see the face of the glacier. It was our first glacier encounter (but not our last) and my group was lucky enough to have a glaciologist among us, so we had an extra knowledge boost.
Note: What I really liked about the whole UnCruise experience is that it showed that it takes an effort to see the most beautiful sights in Alaska. Yes, there are glaciers you can cruise right up to, but there’s something special about the ones where you have to pick your path across huge smooth boulders and silky silt to get there.
Day 6 – Frederick Sound & Robert and Crow Islands
If there’s one animal everyone wants to see in Alaska, it’s whales (followed closely by moose and bear). On our day crossing through Frederick Sound, we spent most of the midday dancing with some humpback whales feeding in the area.
While we never saw a breach, we saw plenty of breathing and feeding – and even a mother/calf duo! Afterwards, we set out on another set of afternoon activities, and again I opted for kayaking. It was such a peaceful yet active way to see the land up close.
Day 7 – Endicott Arm, Dawes Glacier & Tracy Arm Wilderness
On our last full day abroad the Safari Endeavour, we had two treats: a bigger glacier encounter, and activity “free time!” First, we spent the morning in the shadow of Dawes Glacier, a massive tidewater glacier whose icebergs we passed for hours leading up to our arrival.
At the glacier, everyone boarded skiffs to navigate the ice-strewn waters to get closer to the face of the glacier. We enjoyed hot chocolate and spotted some harbor seals in the area too. In a week of breathtaking and picturesque moments (yes, two of the most cliched ways to describe it!), this was a grand finale.
Our last afternoon was relatively calm: most people took out kayaks or standup paddleboards at their discretion, took one last dip in the hot tub, or relaxed in the lounge. I opted for the latter.
Day 8 – Disembark in Juneau
We woke up to disembark in Juneau, the capital of Alaska. It was luckily not a ship day for larger cruise companies, so we had the town to ourselves. Marissa and I met up with Midgi from Juneau Food Tours to explore the blossoming food scene in this tiny town.
After a walk through town and delicious brunch, we boarded a bus to the airport and winged back to Seattle… do we have to go home??
Top Sights & Activities in Juneau:
- Juneau Food Tours, a walking and eating tour of the state capital
- Mount Roberts Tramway, which helps you rise above the city and shows sweeping landscape views
- Mendenhall Glacier, a half-day trip from Juneau that lets you get up close and personal with a popular glacier
A Few Notes on UnCruise Itineraries
By Alaska cruise standards, we had a short route of roughly 700 nautical miles (if my memory serves). That’s not much of Alaska:
For context, most large cruise ships cover up 700 nautical miles in one day. With UnCruise, you spend seven days moving slowly and quietly through the massive waterways of Southeast Alaska, getting a real sense of the beauty of this state.
The other important thing to remember is that UnCruise is different for every single route. Even if you take the same Eastern Reaches Inner Coves route I did, your ship will likely dock in different places, offer different activities, and feature a different crew and menu. UnCruise adapts to Alaska and all it has to offer: some days you may not go hiking because it’s too muddy, other days you may get a special skiff tour that I never had the chance to do.
Activities and Excursions with UnCruise in Alaska
Despite my love of lounging, the best part of UnCruise by far are the off-ship organized activities and excursions each day. Typically, we had to choose between two or three of several options:
- Skiff (small inflatable boat) Tours
- “Go Getter” Hiking (for the ambitious types!)
- Standup Paddleboarding
Aboard the Safari Endeavour, our Expedition Leader Kent would brief us on the options for the next day just before dinner. He would detail the two or three options and then come around to collect our preferences. The Expedition team would then organize tour groups and departure times – all of our gear was provided by UnCruise, so all we did was show up for whatever adventure awaits!
In addition to organized activities each day, there are a variety of less structured activities aboard the ship:
- Morning Yoga Sessions
- Workout Equipment
- Massage Treatments
- Hot Tubs (Open from After Lunch to Dark)
- Evening Lectures
- Team Trivia
These happened intermittently (or every day) throughout the cruise, and added some relaxing aspects to an otherwise active, adventurous cruise.
Cost Comparison for UnCruise and Other Alaska Cruises
Many people shopping for an Alaska cruise are cost conscious. At first, the price tag for UnCruise made me nervous. After spending a week aboard their ship, I’m confident it’s the best way to see Alaska – and budget friendly. Let’s run some numbers.
Note: I chose Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line as they are two popular cruise providers for Alaska. I have not used their services, and am basing my comparison on their prices as of August 2017. I am comparing prices currently listed for May 2018 cruises, similar to the one I did.
|Cruise Company||Nights||Base Price*||Average Excursion Price**||Average Drink Package||Average Spa Treatment||Total|
|Norwegian Cruise Line||7||$849||$1250||$79||$150||$2881|
*Base Price for single cruiser
**Based on an average of $250 per excursion across 5 average ports per cruise
At the end of the day, UnCruise may have more ‘sticker shock,’ because of the high up front cost – but you’ll end up getting an equal (or better) value because so much is included. No need to consider a drink package, whether that massage is worth it, or which excursions you’re willing to miss. On UnCruise, everything is part of the experience, and you get to decide how much you want to do.
While UnCruise might not be the best fit for family travelers who want more shipboard kid-friendly activities, I would argue it is the best way to see Alaska for any traveler. It’s certainly the only recommendation I can make for cruising in Alaska if you want to actually see Alaska, rather than the inside of a very large ship.
If I sound like I’m ‘selling’ UnCruise, it’s because I am! As an Alaskan, I want people to see Alaska the way UnCruise shows it: majestic, vast, and relatively untouched wilderness.
Cruising to Alaska in the Shoulder Season
As I mentioned in the beginning, I specifically traveled with UnCruise during the shoulder season for Alaska cruises. In May and late August/early September, mornings and evenings are quite cold, and it’s not unreasonable to see frost (or even an early/late season snow!). Here are some tips on why taking a shoulder season cruise to Alaska with UnCruise is a great option.
While Alaska is never a balmy destination, it’s only marginally colder in the shoulder season.
In addition to the standard extra layers and rain gear I advise all travelers to book, you don’t need much more than a hat, gloves, scarf, and extra wool socks to be set for the spring and autumn in Alaska.
Prices are lower across the board.
As is the case for all shoulder season travel, you’re far more likely to find a deal on airfare and cruise costs. In addition, tour providers and souvenirs may not be marked up for summer crowds. Speaking of crowds…
You can beat the summer crowds if you cruise during the shoulder season.
There’s never a crowd aboard an UnCruise ship due to their smaller size. But, days in ports like Seward, Ketchikan, and Juneau can be downright unpleasant during the summer. In the shoulder season, there are far fewer ships and fewer crowds to interfere with your experience of Alaska.
Do you have questions about UnCruise? I’m happy to answer in the comments!
I was hosted by UnCruise aboard the Safari Endeavour, and this post was produced in partnership with them. Learn more about UnCruise and all of their awesome destinations (Galapagos! Mexico! Alaska!) on their website.