As for the Sea Bird, she sails where giant ships can't go, maneuvering in shallow coves and through narrow fjords. With flex time built into the schedule, her captain is free to follow a pod of swimming orcas or to stop to photograph a raft of sea otters.
"Each trip has an intended itinerary," said Brian Silver, an adventure specialist at Lindblad's headquarters. "But these are expeditions with a purpose, to show you wildlife and the wildness. And since animals travel and weather conditions vary, it's possible that you'll visit slightly different places."
The onboard naturalists on our trip -- experts in marine biology, geology, regional history or native cultures -- guided most onshore outings and led the daily pre-excursion orientations, sometimes with spot-on timing. We were standing by the rail, talking about melting glaciers just as a giant chunk of ice calved off into water.
Our only port-of-call was at Petersburg, a fishing village settled by Norwegians. We stretched our land legs on a guided "bog walk," then wandered about, visiting the history museum and the drugstore (handy if you run out of toothpaste). And we sampled one of the town's several fish-and-chip joints, serving the world's best (no kidding) fresh halibut, beer-battered and deep-fried.
The Sea Bird's interior is small but efficiently designed, with several lounges, a dining room and 32 outside cabins. The décor, in simple blue and white, is renovated annually; the cabins are small but have adequate space and spotless efficiency bathrooms. Dress and meals are casual, with buffet service at breakfast and lunch.
Hearty three-course dinners with white and red wine were waiter-served at a single seating, with no assigned tables. That gave us a chance to move around and sit with passengers we'd met on excursions, kindred spirits with similar life experiences and sometimes even politics. "The people on these kinds of cruises are birds of a feather," said Joyce Hunter, a retiree from Michigan.
For this or any expedition cruise, I recommend hiking boots or sturdy tennis shoes. You may have to walk on a dirt path, a gravel beach, and will probably climb in and out of the Zodiacs. Our passenger contingent ranged from 35 to 65 years old, but there were exceptions: a toddler, two teenagers and several octogenarians. While we tramped on the beaches and paddled kayaks, the seniors were happy to watch from the deck or the lounge. On a small ship cruise, Alaska is that close.
Want to go?
OVERVIEW: Per-person rates for Lindblad Expedition Cruises include all meals, guided shore excursions, and use of kayaks, sports and weather gear. Not included are alcoholic beverages and some outfitter-guided shore tours, mostly in Sitka and Juneau. To understand the region, invest in my favorite map, the "Inside Passage Cruise Guide," from Coastal Cruise Tour Guides, at $15.95, available at www.trektools.com.
ITINERARIES: Most small ship routes in the Silver Triangle sail half-circle routes between Juneau and Sitka. Check websites for specifics.
PRICES: Rates for a seven-day cruise can range from $3,000 to $7,000, depending on the cabin type and date: early season, mid-summer or late summer. All meals, table wines and use of kayaks, snorkels, rubber boots and Zodiac excursions are usually included; alcoholic beverages and tips may not.