I'm sure the small ships get you much much closer and give you a much more personal experience with the ship naturalist. We too were much more interested in the Alaska experience than the cruise experience and found that we were satisfied by the large ship approach (particularly given the comparative costs). For us, the Alaska experience meant exploring, solitude, culture, natural beauty and wildlife and we found that the way to capture this was picking the right excursions ... those that got us to where we wanted to be, with the best guides, and with the fewest number of other people ... and having a really spectacular land trip on our own. We spent a good deal of time on deck watching the scenery and still enjoyed quiet reading time on sea days...never really participated in cruise activities other than some of the more educational offerings. To give you a flavor:
In ketchikan, we went kayaking with S.E. Sea Kayaks for a tour with just the 2 of us and the guide...very remote so we didn't see anybody else and we got to paddle where we wanted to go...the only sound was salmon jumping all around us and the cry of bald eagles flying overhead, we also saw a pari of bald eagles hanging out on a beach that we paddled right up to. We then explored the town on our own with several targeted activities (totem heritage center, creek street, salmon hatchery).
In Juneau, we took a guided hike through the Tongass rain forest ... small group with very knowledgable and friendly local guide...its a very unique environment especially as it grows on minimal soil since the glacier's recession leaves only bedrock...great to learn about the environmental history, fauna, and even taste berries. We then took a helicopter flight over the ice fields and went on a 2-hour hike on the glacier ... breathtaking and a lot closer experience than even the smallest ship will get you. We saw waterfalls and streams on the surface, walked through tunnels of ice, climbed up pretty high (looked down at the tiny people at the landing site), and looked into huge moulins (200+ foot deep holes that are a deep electric blue in color). This still gave us time to walk around town and take in a few historical sites.
In Skagway, we took part in most of the national park programs, which were great. Then we headed out to Haines, which was nice but what we got was probably not worth the length of the trip out there. Glacier days (both glacier bay and college fjord were amazing and we got surprisingly close to Harvard Glacier). Glacier Bay was moterated by national park rangers who brought a great deal of insight. By ship, we saw several humpbacks (2 of which were really close to the ship), seals and otters a bit further. But sea life and a variety of birds were the extent of our wildlife on the cruise...better views available with a whale watch or if you take an excursion to see the bears, etc. At the end of the day, it was nice to relax with lots of space on the ship, take a swim or sauna, etc.
We did the land tour on our own, which was definitely the way to go ... experience what we want, on our own schedule and without hoards of other people. Denali provided great wildlife (caribou walking right around our bus as well as several further out on the tundra, grizzly literally just off the road, dall sheep walking down a 2-lane street that we were standing on so that they actually reacted to us in a way that demonstrated the behavior of the dominant male v. the subordinate male and 2 females, plus merlins and a variety of other birds, ground squirrels and similar animals...and a moderately distant view of a moose). We did a fair amount of hiking there too. In Anchorage, we biked the coastal trail for some beautiful scenery and took in some museums, etc. Stopped in various places along the way...Talkeetna, etc. In Seward, we did a Kenai Fjords tour, which gave us a taste of the small boat experience ... getting us much closer to the glacier and much closer to the sealife and larger numbers of them (a few otters, maybe 20 seals, 30+ sea lions, infinite puffins, 12 orcas, 5 humpacks, etc.). The land tour was relatively easy to plan and incredibly simple to execute and drive.
Hope this helps.
Post Edited (10-21-04 14:28)