Ocean Victory: How this new, small ship is a game changer for Alaska cruises

Editor’s note: TPG contributor Jeri Clausing sailed on Ocean Victory on a free trip provided by American Queen Voyages. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren’t subject to review by the line.

When it comes to cruising in Alaska, there have long been just two distinct options: the big ocean liners that cruise-averse travelers love to hate and the small ships that cater to outdoor enthusiasts seeking adventure over amenities.

I’ve generally avoided both, being put off by the crowds and mass-market feel of traditional ocean liners and too spoiled by years of luxury travel to be tempted by the more basic adventure ships.

Enter Ocean Victory, which merges luxury and adventure for an experience that is as unique to Alaska’s waterways as its pointy, submarine-looking X-bow nose. The new 186-passenger expedition ship is operated during the summer Alaska cruise season by American Queen Voyages, a company best known for its red paddle-wheelers that ply America’s rivers.

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Ocean Victory marks the company’s first foray into Alaska and expedition cruising. The itineraries are designed to appeal to a younger demographic than AQV’s more senior-oriented river, Great Lakes and coastal cruising trips.

Judging from the reactions of passengers and travel advisors on its inaugural sailing, the ship is going to be a huge hit. On its face, the blue and white polar-class vessel radiates pure adventure. It features retractable, over-the-water observation decks that offer in-your-face wildlife viewing and special lower deck doors and a fold-out platform for launching kayak and Zodiac expeditions. The ship is so hardy it will spend winters sailing Antarctica for Albatros Expeditions.

Inside, the contemporary boutique-hotel vibe says pure comfort. Balcony cabins and spacious suites come equipped with large televisions, luxury bedding and heated bathroom floors. The ship is laden with amenities, including a small spa, fitness center, infinity pool, two outdoor hot tubs, two dining areas and three bars.

I was hooked the minute I boarded the vessel for a three-day preview sailing to showcase the new ship to travel advisors and other industry VIPs as it made its way from Bellingham, Washington, to Vancouver, British Columbia. I ended up liking it so much that I cast aside other obligations to stay on board for its 10-day maiden sailing through Alaska’s lesser-traveled passages, islands and remote towns.

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My only regret: not being able to find an excuse to stay on even longer.

Immersive experiences ashore

Locals dance for Ocean Victory passengers in Wrangell, Alaska. (Photo by Jeri Clausing)

Ocean Victory offers what AQV founder John Waggoner calls “encounter” travel, or “getting deeply immersive in things through experiences,” with its adventure offerings and itinerary that sails into lesser-traveled areas of southeast Alaska.

Setting out from Vancouver to Sitka, Alaska, the ship spent the first two days at sea, veering off from Canada’s more widely traveled Inside Passage. Instead, it sailed through the narrower Fiordland Conservancy area and past the ghost town of Butedale, British Columbia, known for its proximity to a concentration of white-furred black bears known as spirit bears.

My shipmates and I made good use of the scopes and binoculars the ship provides in guest cabins and across the ship to search for wildlife. Though we weren’t lucky enough to spot one of the rare bears, over the course of our sailing we saw whales, bears, sea lions, otters, moose and bald eagles — both from the ship and from the water.

Our first stop was Ketchikan, Alaska, the only port on Ocean Victory’s itinerary that’s also a regular stop for the big cruise ships. We docked a few miles from the heart of town, away from the larger vessels, but Ocean Victory provided plenty of shuttles, as well as options for a free, traditional city highlights tour. Passengers could also pay extra for more culture- and culinary-focused excursions.

Related: The 6 coolest things to do on an Alaska cruise

After that, the itinerary alternated between expedition days and stops at lesser-visited ports, such as Alaska’s Wrangell Island, population 2,500.

There, I passed on the group excursions, opting instead to wander the streets and then join AQV’s culinary ambassador Regina Charbonneau for an informal “pub crawl” and a fish-and-chips lunch at what appeared to be the town’s only, and very popular , having dinner. She was on board to start developing regionally focused menus as well as some culinary-focused excursions, which she said will include local diners and dive bars.

As a fellow writer and I wandered the main street, which was delightfully devoid of souvenir shops, we heard an odd, and quite loud, water-like sound coming from the sky.

“Oh, that’s the raven,” said Zak’s Cafe owner Catherine George-Byrd, who had emerged to see if she could help the two started visitors on Wrangell’s otherwise empty main street. “It’s imitating dripping water. Some imitate cats, others crying babies.”

I didn’t expect to be learning about local wildlife from a friendly diner owner, but that’s just the kind of random encounter I came to expect on Ocean Victory. I likely would not have experienced this type of local interaction while wandering the souvenir and jewelry stores that dot the streets of the larger ports frequented by the big cruise lines.

For instance, in Kake, Alaska, population 500, the town mayor greeted us on arrival. We saw the world’s tallest totem pole and went to the community gym to meet residents committed to keeping their indigenous Tlingit culture alive. Their children performed traditional dances and a woodcarver taught us how totem poles are made. A bonus: A local World War II veteran was there, and he and a fellow veteran sailing on Ocean Victory sang “The Marines’ Hymn” together.

Ocean Victory shore excursion in LeConte Bay, Alaska. (Photo by Jeri Clausing)

In Petersburg, Alaska, we hopped aboard the 13-passenger Point Retreat jet boat operated by a father-son team, Rob and Teagen Schwartz, who promised to get us closer to the LeConte Glacier than any of the other small boats in the town, which gets regular visits from small adventure ships but not the larger ocean liners.

On the way, they took us on a detour along the coast to see whales and bears – a route that also took us past Bootleg Creek, where Rob said his great-grandfather used to buy moonshine from a man who in 1929 was found “deader than a doornail, curled up with a bottle.”

Ultimately, they kept true to their word, navigating for nearly two hours through dense fields of breathtaking blue and white icebergs while regaling us with stories of life in the Last Frontier.

Sea days with extra adventure

One of Ocean Victory’s naturalists holding glacial ice. (Photo by Jeri Clausing)

Every other day, Ocean Victory anchored in remote passages and fjords, where we spent the day exploring from the ship’s fleets of kayaks and Zodiacs. Sea days on big ships are full of trivia contests, poker games and line dance lessons; on this small ship, they offered extra adventure.

While Ocean Victory is the first adventure offering from AQV, the expedition team and onboard naturalists are seasoned experts, having collectively sailed hundreds of Alaska and polar cruises.

The naturalists taught us how sea otters carry their young, pulled glacier ice onto the Zodiacs to show off the pieces’ unique formations and gave informed narratives about the flora, fauna and geology of our surroundings. They were also expert spotters, helping us find everything from starfish to moose, bears and mountain goats on the surrounding coasts and cliffs.

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The company has also teamed up with founder John Waggoner’s alma mater, California Polytechnic State University, as well as whale and wildlife experts from the Sound Science Research Collective and the Sitka Sound Science Center, who will conduct whale and marine biology research from the ship.

Between the water outings on expedition days, two recent graduates of Cal Poly gave fun hands-on lessons about our surroundings. We peered through microscopes at sea algae, watched them make miniature glaciers that model ice floes and learned about everything from whale snot to regional plants and wildlife from the expedition team’s naturalists. I was engaged and involved, not falling asleep in the back of a huge ship’s theater.

Casual luxury on board

A deluxe balcony cabin on Ocean Victory. (Photo by Jeri Clausing)

Where Ocean Victory really sets itself apart from traditional adventure operators is with the onboard experience. Most adventure ships in Alaska are quite basic, with few onboard amenities other than a simple dining hall and lounge and cabins featuring fixed twin or queen beds and picture windows. Ocean Victory ups the ante, offering the type of public spaces and accommodations you would expect to find on luxury river and yacht cruises.

The cabins are spacious, even by ocean liner standards, and offer all the amenities of a luxury hotel. Most have private balconies; some feature picture windows or French balconies, and a few are suites with separate living and sleeping areas. My deluxe balcony cabin featured a queen-size bed, sitting area with a small couch and a desk that offered a comfortable working space. The Wi-Fi worked well except when we anchored in the remote Gut Bay, Alaska.

Related: The best Alaska cruise for every type of traveler

My favorite spot was Deck 8, which has a large glass-walled lounge with a bar and a variety of tables and comfortable chairs, as well as a large outdoor observation deck. It was great for reading or relaxing and taking in the sweeping views.

The deck’s casual-dining area with indoor and outdoor seating will be the perfect spot for barbecues and other informal meals. Unfortunately, it was not operating on the first sailing (never mind that it was still too cold for outdoor dining). The weather was perfect for relaxing in the Deck 7 hot tubs under the stars, even if the weather didn’t allow a dip in the infinity pool.

Ocean Victory’s pool deck. (Photo by Peter Szyszka)

Deck 5 is the main public area, with a central lounge, private library area and a lecture hall, all surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows. The lecture hall is laid out theater-style, but the seating is more lounge-style with comfortable chairs, bench seating and tables in each row.

Just behind the lectern are doors that lead to the fold-down, over-the-water observation decks. Whenever the officers or expedition leaders spotted a whale, bear or other interesting creature, announcements were made and activities halted, so passengers could grab binoculars or a scope and hit the decks to take in the views.

The main dining room has the formal feel you would expect to go along with its fine-dining options. But this is Alaska, so passengers are equally welcome in dresses and heels or jeans and sneakers. The menus change daily, with a good variety of gourmet meat, fish and vegetarian options. I was a fan of the homemade soups and the outstanding pasta options from the ship’s Italian chef that changed daily.

I didn’t use the spa, which looks to be more substantial than what’s offered on other adventure ships in Alaska. The menu showed ample offerings from traditional massages to hot therapies, even manicures, pedicures and hair-cutting and -styling services.

Evenings were for casual socializing, listening to stories from the naturalists after dinner or simply sipping wine in the spacious lounge while the onboard pianist tickled the keys.

Oh, and did I mention the service? Whenever you turn around, there’s a crew member at the ready. I barely needed a key as my cabin attendant always seemed to know when I was coming down the hall and would be there to open the door for me. As soon as I left for coffee or breakfast, he was there ready to clean up and take care of all the little extras, like filling my water bottle, without being asked.

Bottom line

Ocean Victory’s fleet of kayaks. (Photo by Jeri Clausing)

While a few smaller luxury ships sail Alaska, Ocean Victory stands apart with its hybrid mix of intimacy and adventure.

“We’re right in the sweet spot,” Wagoner said.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s a sweet spot that I predict will be a huge hit with cruisers and non-cruisers alike who are seeking a truly immersive Alaska vacation.

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