Alaska cruise Vancouver to Sitka
May 27 - June 7 2022
American Queen Voyages - Ocean Victory
American Queen Voyages includes a pre-cruise hotel night at the starting city with all of their cruises. I think this is wonderful since I always recommend getting in at least a day prior to the cruise. Besides relieving some travel stress having the day before gives you time to explore the city where your trip starts. Our cruise started in Vancouver however when looking at flights I found much better options for flying into Seattle. I had always wanted to take the train from Seattle to Vancouver so I thought this was perfect. However I was disappointed when arriving at the train station to find that due to staffing shortages the train wasn't running so they were taking us by bus. Let me just say it was a not pleasant surprise. The bus took twice as long and requires everyone to get off the bus and get their bags to go over the border. I do not recommend the bus.
We made our way to the pre cruise hotel which was the Hyatt Regency Vancouver. It was a great hotel conveniently located not too far from the port with plenty of things in walking distance. Transfers to the ship were included but they were in the afternoon so we had the morning to explore. I realized the nice part about the later transfer was the port was pretty empty even though there were quite a few big ships also leaving the same day. We boarded our ship and explored a bit before it was time for the safety drill and and sail away.
Day 1 and 2 - Inside Passage and scenic cruising
Our first 2 days were sea days where we learned what was to come on our cruise. We got to see the mud room and request boots and raingear if needed. We also learned about the zodiacs and what wildlife we might see along the way. There was a leader from the Tlingit tribe onboard that gave a few talks about life in Alaska.
Day 3 - Ketchikan, AK
We made our fist stop which was Ketchikan. I have been there a couple times on bigger ships and was a little disappointed that our small ship that can go places the big ones can't was stopping here. We were also docked at the port that is a bit of a ways out of town so we had to rely on shuttles to get into town and back to the ship. There were a few big ships docked right in town so it was a bit crowded, but not as crowded as I have seen in before covid. The cruise did include an excursion which was a city highlights tour but since I have been there before I chose to skip that. There were also some premium excursions available for book for a fee but none of those appealed to me. It was just nice to wander around town, grab some lunch, and do some shopping.
Day 4 - Misty Fjords
This is what I have been waiting for - an expedition day! We started out with a zodiac ride and got really lucky to have an Orca go past us rather close to our boat. After lunch it was time to kayak! They were keeping us travel agents together so our kayaking group was a big larger than the other groups so it took quite a bit of time to get everyone out on the water but it was a nice paddle. Misty Fjords is almost 2.2 million acres of National Monument Wilderness so it is a wonderful protected area for spotting wildlife. I had been to Misty Fjords on my first Alaska cruise but it was via floatplane from Ketchikan so it was nice to go back and spend time on the water.
Day 5 - Wrangell Island, AK
We are on land again but this time in a cute small town that the big ships cannot stop at. It is the 3rd oldest town in Alaska. There was an included heritage tour along with some premium excursions for purchase. We opted to explore town on our own. We found a little pizza shop for lunch that has the most delicious crust I think I have had. Everyone in town was super friendly and genuinely seemed happy to have us. One local even said that the residents of Wrangell are the friendliest of all Alaska. There was a Petroglyph Beach that was an easy walking distance so we headed there to check out some of the carved rocks.
Day 6 - Bay of Pillars
Another expedition day. We started with kayak in the morning and this time they split our group up so the more experienced paddlers got to do a bit more. We came across a bunch of otters and I loved watching them watching us. After lunch we did a zodiac ride but didn't really see much of anything new. It was still fun just to be out on the water. Alaska's cruise season is rather short from May - September but there are big differences in what you will see based on when you visit. In May and early June you will see a lot of snow topped mountains and floating ice but you also have a lot of melting snow creating lots of amazing waterfalls. We got to see a lot of them on this cruise some of which looked like they started miles above of us as we looked up from the zodiacs. Mid June - July is salmon running season so that the time go if you want to see them and the bears grabbing them out of the water. June and July also tend to be the rainiest and most crowded though. August tends to offer nice weather and usually clearer skies so if you are looking for those photos filled with flowers and mountain tops instead of clouds August can be better. You can spot wildlife anytime you visit though.
Day 7 - Petersburg, AK
On land again, and our first really rainy day (we got really lucky with the weather since SE Alaska is part of a temperate rainforest you usually have rain every day). This is another town the big ships cannot get to so it was nice to enjoy the small town vibe again. This town was founded back in 1910 by a Norwegian and it turned out a lot of people from Norway ended up joining him here so you almost felt like you were in Norway when walking around. I have always thought Alaska and Norway were very similar. There was the usual included excursion and a couple premium options. One of the premium was a sport fishing experience. I did not try it but it did sound like a fun an adventure. The Sons of Norway Hall is where you can experience a bit of the culture from Alaska's Little Norway. Here we were treated to a private dance from the local kids and tried a few local pastries. It was a cute experience.
Shortly after leaving Petersburg our expedition leader, Jess, announced that there were some Orca off the front of the ship. What I love about expedition cruises is the Captain can decide to stop or change course if we spot some wildlife. While keeping a safe distance away our ship pretty much sopped and allowed us to watch these playful Orcas for over an hour! It really was the highlight of the trip for me. We later found out it was 3 pods of resident Orcas that were pretty much just playing around and showing off for us. They were rolling around, tail flapping and spy-hopping (term for when they pop their head out of the water like the photo below). Then just as the ship decided to turn around and get back on our way one Orca decide to breach! I of course had walked right to the back of the ship as soon as we started sailing away so I could watch these guys as long as possible so I had a perfect view of it. One thing I have learned from 4 visits to Alaska is that trying to capture the perfect photo means you really do miss out on just enjoying yourself so I did not have a camera out at all and totally loved just watching!
Day 8 - Tracy Arm
This was our last expedition day (if you ask me they need to add more expedition time if they really want to call this cruise an expedition) Today we were going to be getting close to a glacier. Unfortunately not by kayak though. Today was zodiac only. Our group got really lucky and we saw a lot of calving with some humongous pieces falling off the glacier while watched. Our guide said the one piece was probably as big as a 2 story building. It sounds like thunder when it happens and then you will feel the waves is creates as it crashes into the water. You cannot get too close to the glacier due to this but our zodiac drivers were always within safe distance. We also saw some momma and baby seals but not as many as I saw last year in this area.
Day 9 - Kake, AK
Well this was supposed to be our last stop but unfortunately we were not able to go on shore. They did bring some locals onboard to talk and perform for us though. Kake is a tribal village and 70% of the residents are of Tlingit heritage. This is the location of the tallest totem ever carved from a single tree. We could see if from the ship but it was a bummer not to get to stand in front of it.
Day 10 - Sitka
Sitka is where our cruise ended. You could choose from a couple premium excursions here all of which pretty much got you to the airport. There are a couple of hotels in town so if you wanted to enjoy Sitka a little more you could stay over. The airport is very small so not a lot of flight options so that could be another reason to stay over a night. I however opted for a long day of traveling to get home. We flew out of Sitka to Seattle and then had a few hours before our red-eye flight back home which connected in Philly before getting us back to FL. It was pretty much 24 hours of traveling. This is why it can be easier to get to Europe from the East Coast instead of Alaska. It was a wonderful cruise though so well worth the time to get there.
Overall Cruise rating
Ship - 5 Stars. Beautiful small luxury ship with all the extras needed for expedition.
Food - 3 Stars. This was a tough one for me because for a luxury cruise I just do not feel like the food was up to that standard and if you know me you know I am not a foodie person. The only reason I even give it 3 stars was because there was an option to order steak and lobster for dinner every night. I am hoping part of the food issues were from supply chain problems. I really hope they will start including local foods and more variety.
Excursions - 2 Stars. I think this is an area they really need to work on if they want to be an expedition cruise. There just was not enough expedition time. They need to add some hikes, bushwhacking, and beachcombing. The culture excursions are nice for an expedition there has to be as much adventure as culture.
Ports - 4 Stars. I loved the 2 small towns we stopped in. I also understand that things happen so while is was a bummer to miss one port that can happen on any cruise. I would avoid the big port like Ketchikan and instead build in some time to get to on land on uninhabited islands.
Crew - 4 Stars. I would love to give them 5 stars however there was still a bit of learning to do. Plus I also know there are shortages thanks to covid so that definitely played a part in the service. The dining staff were always eager to please but without enough of them things were a little slow. The guides onboard were friendly and knowledgeable.
I would definitely recommend this cruise. As a brand new ship and new destination for American Queen Voyages I do think they have some things to work on but it was a true luxury small ship experience in Alaska which is hard to find. I also believe they will improve on the things that were lacking.
Ocean Victory is a new and very unique looking ship that was built for sailing in cold waters. Ocean Victory started her first year down in Antarctica sailing for Albatros Expeditions. Then American Queen Voyages took over when she headed north to Alaska. American Queen Voyages is known for its iconic looking paddlewheel boats that sail the rivers of the US but they are branching out into more adventurous waters with Alaska on Ocean Victory. For the half the year that American Queen Voyages is running the ship they are offering one way sailings from Vancouver to Sitka and reverse. I will talk more about the cruise portion in my trip report. Today let's just talk about the ship.
Ocean Victory is a brand new build and really is one of the most modern small ship vessels in the market. I am going to break this report into 3 sections - Technical Details, Staterooms, and Public Spaces.
The vessel is part of a brand new generation of low-energy vessels, with 4 diesel engines and 2 electro engines, all controlled electronically to optimize speed and fuel consumption.
The stateroom was definitely the most luxurious room I have had on an expedition ship. Of course being a brand new build helps with that since the other expedition ships I have been on have been older ships. The bathroom was a nice size with walk in shower but the best feature was the heated floor! The ship has no single-use plastics onboard so do not expect to find any take home toiletries. They do have the shampoo and body wash caddies in the shower that most cruise ships and hotels are using now. I am used to expedition ships not offering fancy toiletries so I knew to bring my own stuff but some guests did not.
The room could be set up as 2 twins or the bed put together just like most ships. I found the bed to be comfy but I will say 2 of the 4 pillows were the hardest pillows I have ever felt. There is a large TV that even offered a nice selection of movies and tv shows to watch. Most expedition ships do not have TVs in the room or if they do the TVs only play things like video from the underwater camera on the ship. Honestly on my other expeditions there just wasn't really time for tv watching but this one was a bit different (more on that in my trip report to come next).
There is also a couch and desk area with plenty of space and then the door out to the balcony. My room was one of the ones that could sleep 3 so the couch could turn into a bed (more child size I would think). Rooms also include things like binoculars, hair dryer, and a mini fridge. The sockets might seem like they won't work for your plugs but pretty much most things were fine without a converter. The things we heard that were not compatible with the room sockets were hair styling things.
I did get to tour a few other stateroom categories and to be honest they are all very similar. The suites of course are larger but that was about the only difference.
For a small ship Ocean Victory actually has a lot of public spaces. There are 6 decks of guest area and there is an elevator to get to most floors. I am going to start from the top down.
Ocean Victory really offers a premium experience for an expedition cruise. If you want to get out into nature on your vacation but don't want to rough it this is the ship for you. I would call it the glamping of the seas. If you are ready to explore Alaska or Antarctica on this beautiful ship just let me know.
I have been to Alaska 3 times in the past 5 years and each time has been a totally different type of trip. Alaska is one of those places that you could even do the same exact trip 3 times and each time will be totally different.
I used to think of cruising as something I only wanted to do somewhere with warm weather so I always balked at an Alaska cruise. I finally decided to cruise Alaska in 2016 and then I wished I hadn't put it off so long. Alaska is a gorgeous place with so much to see and do. It is always chaging too so even if you have been before there is still reasaon to go back again!
7 night Round Trip Seattle or Vancouver
This was what my first Alaska cruise was - technically mine started in Fort Lauderdale and went through the Panama Canal before heading up to Seattle and I added the 7 night Alaska cruise onto that.
This is is the typical cruise that most people will take and it is a great way to try Alaska and see if you like it. This cruise will take you to the main tourist areas in Southeast Alaska but it is sort of just a taste of Alaska. Alaska is so huge that just visiting that small area is just the tip of the iceberg literally. These cruises will generally visit Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway. They will also include some sort of glacier. The best cruises will go to Glacier Bay but those permits are very limited so that isn't possible on every cruise. Other popular options are Hubbard Glacier or Tracy Arm. Either way it is just breathtaking to get to see a glacier up close.
1 Way Cruise - Northbound or Southbound
These can be a 7 night cruise but the best thing to do is a Cruisetour. They will either start in Seattle or Vancouver or end there. The other end is usually Anchorage. This way you get to see the same areas at the 7 night round trip cruises but then you also get further North in Alaska. Adding a Cruisetour onto the cruise gives you the opportunity to really explore Alaska on land. This is the option that will give you the scenic train rides and a chance to get into Denali National Park. My second visit to Alaska was a Cruisetour followed by a 7 night cruise southbound to Vancouver. We started up in Fairbanks and worked our way back down to Anchorage to get our cruise going South. Getting to see more of the land portion of Alaska really gives you a better perspective of how huge Alaska is and how much the weather can vary.
Small Ship Cruise in Alaska
This was my most recent way to see Alaska and this is way to go if you are looking for more of an adventure and less touristy stuff. Our cruise didn't stop at any other towns during our 7 nights. We were in Glacier Bay for 2 days whereas my previous cruise on the big ship only had a few hours to explore it. Small ships can get into smaller areas and closer to wildlife so it is a different experience. These cruises can either go round trip out of an Alaskan port or sometimes they also go one way. Ours was round trip out of Juneau but some will do one way like Juneau to Ketchikan. Those towns you begin or end in will be your option for shopping.
No matter which way you choose to see Alaska you won't be disappointed.
Last week Canada announced no cruise ships in Canadian waters until February 2022. This really is a big blow to Alaska since this could mean the end to the summer cruise season this year in Alaska. You might be asking why would that matter if the ships just went from Seattle to Alaska but there is a law that prevents foreign flagged ships from going from one US port to another US port without stopping at a foreign port. All of the big cruise lines are foreign flagged so that only leaves just a couple small ships that US based that can still sail Alaska if things do not change.
The cruise lines and Alaska representatives are petitioning to have that one law, which is 135 years old, either revoked or maybe just waived for this year. Alaska relies heavily on tourism so going a second year without cruises is just crushing to them.
None of the cruise lines have cancelled the Alaska sailings for this summer just yet. They are hoping to find a way to somehow salvage the season and I hope they are able to as well. I love Alaska really hate to see all of those people who depend on the tourists hurt by this.
There are a few small cruise lines that will be sailing Alaska for sure so if you have your heart set on Alaska this summer or you really love the idea of maybe getting to see Alaska with not as many other people you might want to grab a room on one of these soon!
Here are the 4 Cruise Lines that are not affected by the Canada Ban -
Uncruise - This one is my favorite! I sailed with them in Sea of Cortes last year (had no idea at that time it would be my last cruise for a long time). "Our Alaska adventure cruises deliver action, exploration, and the unexpected—paddling and hiking, calving glaciers, Glacier Bay National Park, bears, whales, and polar plunges. Nobody does Alaska better."
American Cruise Line - This one offers more of a river cruise experience onboard the ship vs the expedition style of UnCruise. So if you are looking for a more relaxed cruise this might be the right choice. "Onboard the newest small cruise ships in the region, you will experience the breathtaking scenery and inspiring wildlife of Alaska like never before. Get up close and personal to the natural beauty of Alaska as we cruise to Mendenhall Glacier, Glacier Bay and more. Choose from three unique and fascinating itineraries."
Linblad - This is another expedition style like Uncruise. They are partnered with National Geographic so you know you will get up close with nature. "You’ll hear the thunderous crack of calving glaciers. Sail alongside pods of orca; see breaching humpbacks and foraging brown bears on our small ship Alaska cruise. Hike verdant old-growth rain forests and kayak peaceful coastlines. In the 30+ years we’ve been exploring, we have provided the richest experience possible on our Alaska expedition cruises."
Alaska Dream Cruise - Like the name says they are truly Alaska focused. "Our all-inclusive, small expedition itineraries offer a mix of excursions in intriguing towns and Native villages and adventures in raw wilderness bays and glacial fjords. This approach to small vessel expeditions in Alaska offers travelers a comprehensive look at all the Inside Passage has to offer. Every experience is hand-picked for its value in immersing you in True Alaska."
If you want to be sure you don't miss out on the Alaska cruise season this summer or if you are want to plan for 2022 I would be happy to help you find the right ship and itinerary for you!
You might be asking - what does Shoulder Season mean? Most travel destinations will have a Peak Season and an Off Season but there will also be a bit of in between time which is the Shoulder Season. Most popular travel destinations will have some sort of shoulder season. In some places where year round travel is pretty popular, like here in Central Florida for example, we don't have much of an off season or shoulder season.
Cruising in Alaska has such a short Season in total that it offer a great example of Shoulder Season. Cruise ships can only sail Alaska in May - September (maybe very late April and into very early October but not much). The Peak Season is Mid-June through Mid-August so that leaves May and September as the Shoulder Season. The rest of the year is totally Off Season since the ships cannot even go there if they wanted to. There is some good and bad to choosing shoulder season anywhere.
There are 2 good reasons to cruise Alaska during Shoulder Season -
#1 - Lower Prices - since it isn't the most popular time the rates are lower to try and entice more visitors.
#2 - Smaller Crowds - Most people either only want to or can only travel during the dates of the Peak Season so there are more crowds at that time leaving smaller crowds in the Shoulder Season.
There are also 2 not so good reason to choose Shoulder Season -
#1 - Not everything will be open or available. For example Denali National Park won't open until Mid June so if you want to go there you need to pretty much stick to Peak Season. Another thing to consider is snow melting over summer will cause some excursions to not be offered in September.
#2 - There won't be as much wildlife. If you are really going to Alaska for the wildlife the best times for that is going to be Peak Season when the Salmon are running and the Bears are out of hibernation.
You might think that weather would be a reason to choose peak season but in Alaska the weather can be all over the map at anytime of the cruise season. You should be prepared for rain anytime you cruise Alaska. It is possible that May and September will be colder than June - August but it might not be. There is a slight chance you could catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights during shoulder season but you shouldn't plan your trip around that since it isn't very likely.
I have cruised Alaska twice - once in May and just this year the end of August so my dates have been shoulder season. The photo I posted above shows one of the big differences in May and August since you see a lot less snow in the August photo. As pretty as the snow was in May we almost didn't get close to the glacier because there were still a lot of big ice chunks and frozen water in that area. I enjoyed both times of year and I think the smaller crowds of shoulder season were nice too but I would still like to try peak season too.
Alaska really is an amazing wilderness and one that everyone should have on their must see list. An Alaska cruise is not your typical cruise though. There are certain things that are worth the splurge when it comes to an Alaska Cruise.
#1 Your room - This is one of those times when splurging for a balcony is really worth it. There will be a lot to see outside and it is nice to be able to watch some of it from the comfort of your room.
#2 The excursions. On some cruises you can get away with just exploring town or finding a beach to relax on but in Alaska the excursions are really worth the splurge. There are many that can be a bit pricey so it is good to budget for those in advance. I have done a few that were big splurges and they were all worth every penny. On this visit I went big with the Helicopter to a glacier to go dog sledding. It was truly amazing! There were only a total of 4 adults on our excursion so it felt very private and we got a lot of time on the glacier with the dogs. This is something you really cannot do anywhere else so it one of those once in a lifetime moments you won't soon forget. The other big splurge we did last time in Alaska was a flight-seeing ride on a float-plane. Alaska is really best seen by air and you can only get to some places via a plane. Our float-plane flew around some fjords and even landed on a lake so we could pop out of plane for a bit. Again there were only 4 people total in our plane so it was pretty much a private excursion. If you are into fishing then Alaska is one of those places you must book a fishing excursion. You can even have the chef back onboard cook up your catch for your for dinner! You can also ship your big catch home if you prefer.
#3 Private viewing areas. Find out if you ship offers any private areas that you can reserve for your time in Glacier Bay or whichever glacier you might visit on your cruise. The top decks can get very crowded on the glacier day so if you ship offers a private area you can reserve a spot it is worth the cost. For our cruise Princess offers the Sanctuary up on the top deck in the very aft of the ship. This area is available to reserve anytime during the cruise for a small fee but on glacier day it really it a great place to be. The lounge chairs are super comfy with extra blankets and attentive service. You do get to actually reserve a specific chair so you can come and go and not worry about losing your spot. For our cruise they served pastries, lunch, and tea during our time in Glacier Bay. They would also bring hot chocolate, coffee and tea or water anytime you needed more. With the limited number of guests in the Sanctuary it was very easy to get all the perfect photos you wanted while viewing the glaciers.
#4 The right wardrobe. Packing for Alaska can be tricky as you really do need a little bit of everything since you just never know what kind of weather you might get. Generally in summer you can pretty much count on rain though. Having the right gear can really help make sure you get the most out of your vacation. Depending on where you live you might not get a lot of regular use out of some of these things but they are worth the splurge to have for Alaska. Number one would be a nice pair of waterproof hiking type shoes. It is no fun to be walking around in wet shoes with cold feet. Another item that you might not normally purchase would be some water resistant clothing. I bought a pair of water resistant hiking pants from Columbia that worked out really well for the wet days. A good rain jacket is also much easier than carrying an umbrella. One tip though when it comes to certain excursions be sure to note if they will provide some gear. We did a few excursions that did give us boots or other outerwear to keep us protected on the excursion so that was a nice bonus.
#5 Camera - Alaska has a lot of wildlife to catch a glimpse of and if you want to really capture that image your cell phone camera just isn't going to cut it. This is one of those trips when having a nicer camera is worth it. Binoculars also come in handy so they are worth picking up a pair before your cruise.
#6 - The spa. With all the excursions and outdoor activities to choose from in Alaska a spa treatment might be just the splurge you need to recover and also warm up. Some ship spas will also offer a thermal spa and I cannot think of anywhere better to warm up than a heated lounge chair inside the relaxing atmosphere of the spa. Some ships will have the thermal spa set up where you can even have an amazing view of the outside while lounging. You might be able to get just a day passes but many times only length of cruise passes are offered. There are even some ships that have specific stateroom categories that will come with spa access included with the room.
Did you know all of that about Alaska? I was amazed by how big Alaska really is when you see it laid on top of the rest of the US! That trivia doesn't even mention things like how big Glacier Bay National Park is (3.3 million acres by the way). Glacier Bay is just a small part of the 25 million acre World Heritage site (one of the world's largest international protected areas).
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