When I told friends and family we’d be experiencing SE Alaska on a cruise ship, the image that came to everyone’s mind included a huge ocean liner, busy ports of call, fancy restaurants, kids clubs, and maybe a climbing wall. After all, kids don’t go on those intimate small ship cruises you read about, right? Wrong! (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?) Small ship cruise options are more accessible to families with Alaskan Dream Cruises family cruise itineraries.
Why book a small ship?
Small cruise ships can go where the mega ships cannot, offer a more personal travel experience, afford families with hands-on learning and intimate ports-of-call, and include educational and cultural experts to enrich the travel experience. The cruise industry defines small ship cruising as 150 passengers or less; our Alaskan Dream cruise carried a whopping 28. Itineraries are more flexible, excursions are more in-depth, and service is more personal. A small ship cruise is also more expensive, and we know families need all the information they can gather before making such an investment. In this first of a three-part series, we offer our day-by-day Alaskan Dream Cruise experience, to help you decide if small ship cruising is for you.
An overview: nine days on the Baranof Dream in three minutes:
Day 1: Sitka to embarkation
An Alaskan Dream Cruise starts before your family boards one of their three cruise vessels. We arrived in Sitka, Alaska the day prior to our sailing, and were met at the airport by an Alaskan Dream representative. She quickly tagged all our luggage, loaded us into a van, and drove us to our hotel for the night, the Totem Square Inn. We explored the town during the evening on our own before bedtime.
The first morning of our cruise, we met our Expedition Leader Emily and our fellow passengers for a morning of Sitka sightseeing. (Our tagged luggage went directly to the ship, and we held onto only our day luggage.) Together, we toured Sitka, seeing the Alaska Raptor Center, Sitka Sound Science Center, and Sitka National Historic Park. This was a good way to get to know the other families (six families in total, with members ranging from grandparents to children; the young people ranged in age between 6-19).
At lunchtime, we boarded an Allen Marine Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest vessel (Alaska native-owned Allen Marine is a sister company of Alaskan Dream Cruises) for a tour of Sitka Sound and a rendezvous with our home for the next nine days, the Baranof Dream.
One of the most exciting moments of our cruise arrived when our Allen Marine vessel turned a corner around a small island in beautiful Sitka Sound to the sight of the Baranof Dream waiting for us. We boarded at sea, and explored our 144-foot ship. The Baranof Dream has 25 cabins, but only a handful were in use for our family cruise itinerary (passengers are generally capped at 30 during family cruises). With 28 guests onboard, we found the common spaces (such as the dining room, lounge, and sun deck) to be comfortable and never crowded.
Cabins sleep 2-3 people, depending on the type, so our family of five had two. Kids cannot occupy a cabin alone (none are connecting) so we slept three of us in the more spacious Lydonia cabin and two in a standard cabin. While cozy, Baranof Dream cabins have adequate storage space as long as you put things away after using them and assign everything a space. We met our crew and experienced our orientation to the Baranof after embarking, and learned more about our course through SE Alaska thanks to a GPS-enabled interactive map always on screen in the lounge.
Our first meal set our expectations high (they were never disappointed). All meals (and wine or beer with dinner) are included in your cost, and the dining room is casual and friendly. Kids can order off the adult menu, which always offers three choices for a main course, or the kids’ menu (with both the adult offerings and staples such as burgers, hot dogs, and excellent mac and cheese). In addition to three meals per day, ample snacks, appetizers, and drinks are offered in the lounge.
We learned to go to bed our first night with the sun still trying to set (sunset is after 11 pm) but it wasn’t hard; we were all exhausted after our first day!
Day 2: Juneau
We awoke to the Baranof Dream cruising into Juneau, Alaska, where the mega cruise ships dwarfed our small vessel. Our itinerary of a Mendenhall Glacier tour followed by time exploring the city included a last-minute surprise (not unusual on small ship cruises): we’d also be visiting a sled dog and mushers’ camp. All transportation was provided to us: we took a guided bus ride to Mendenhall Glacier, where we hiked to Nugget Falls, then were issued tickets to the Mt. Roberts Tramway in Juneau. We found the tram to be overrated, but enjoyed the excellent views and ample hiking at the top of Mt. Roberts. We enjoyed vouchers for lunch at a restaurant of our choice (we opted to watch the float planes land from The Hanger), then made our way through touristy downtown Juneau to meet our bus to Sled Dog Discovery and Mushers Camp.
We spent the better part of two hours in this beautiful camp in the Tongass National Forest, where we met sled dogs, learned about their training, and held Alaskan sled dog puppies. On every Alaskan Dream cruise are both scientific and cultural expedition leaders who spend every day with you; ours, naturalist Emily and Tlingit Alaskan Native Howard (Koo Hook) were accompanied by two youth expedition leaders, Jess and Sophia, as well. Throughout the day, they offered guidance, friendship, and knowledge.
Days on the Baranof Dream usually end with a post-dinner presentation by the expedition leaders to help us prepare for the day ahead; in this case, it ended with a special treat. Forty-five minutes after departing Juneau, we docked at a private day lodge, Orca Point Lodge, for a king crab dinner. The kids explored the rocky beach with their youth expedition leaders and learned about the intertidal zone at a touch tank, and the adults enjoyed getting to know each other better over wine and beer and gorgeous views. We loved seeing the kids try new foods at dinner, and afterward, everyone enjoyed a beach bonfire.
Day 3: Hobart Bay
Hobart Bay is a private section of Alaskan Native-owned shoreline only native-owned Alaskan Dream Cruises can access. On the itinerary: playtime! Following breakfast, each family was issued a schedule, rotating through kayaking, Zego-riding (a Zego is a personal motorized watercraft), and RTV-riding. Kayaking offered a peaceful escape onto the water, where we shared the space with a Stellar sea lion, salmon, and sea birds, and the RTVs (though too noisy for my taste) took us on a fun adventure along logging roads to view black bears and pick berries. The kids loved the Zegos best, which they could drive as we zipped around the many narrow passage-ways surrounding Hobart Bay.
In the late afternoon, crew and passengers alike gathered to participate in (or watch) the ‘Killer Whale Club’ initiation, which involved a leap into the 38 degree water of the bay. Between events, we enjoyed a BBQ lunch, and after dinner, we sat around a second bonfire with s’mores. The bartender, John, made friends with the kids onboard by making smoothies with the berries they picked, and the pastry chef, Lemmick, followed suit with a muffin-making class. During free time on the Baranof Dream, anyone can access the bridge to talk with the captain, Stu, and his crew; our boys especially loved learning to tie knots from crew member Hank.