Chichagof Dream Review – Cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage
I’m not a stranger to small ship cruising, but this was my very first time aboard what I would call a “soft” expedition ship. Accommodating up to 76 passengers in 38 staterooms, it was truly a small ship. Alaskan Dream Cruises is owned by the well-known-in-Alaska Allen family. They’ve been in Alaska for generations and their expertise in Alaskan cruising and tourism is apparent.
With all the conveniences of a traditional cruise ship stateroom, impeccable cuisine, attentive crew and staff plus two planned kayaking trips, we were setting out on our adventure to explore in comfort. No Class 5 rapids or summit-seeking hikes.
Any Alaska Inside Passage cruise offers the chance to see a multitude of wildlife, including whales, bears, otters, dozens of bald eagles, colorful little puffins and much more. One of the big advantages of small ship cruises in Alaska like Alaska Dream Cruises is their ability to offer beach landings, raft drive-bys right up to a glacier, water sport activities and even provide wet weather gear.
On this cruise from Juneau to Sitka, when a ocean-going cruise ship was sighted, it wasn’t difficult to overhear passenger conversations about their preference for small ships. There weren’t many passengers who’d been on any mega-ships. And most had no desire to do so.
Welcome Aboard Alaskan Dream Cruises’ Chichagof Dream
Itinerary: August 12 – 19, 2018
Day one: Mendenhall Glacier Tour, Board Chichagof Dream, salmon and king crab fest at Orca Point Lodge.
Day two: Cruise Glacier Bay
Day three: Tracy Arm Fjord
Day four: Petersburg
Day five: Cruise Frederick Sound
Day six: Kake & Saginaw Bay cruising
Day seven: Cruising
Day eight: Depart the ship.
This is something different. Before you actually board the Chichagof Dream, Alaskan Dream Cruises has a pre-cruise tour planned. This is how it worked for us on this cruise from Juneau to Sitka. If you were doing the opposite, from Sitka to Juneau, there’d still be a pre-cruise tour.
The Westmark Baranof Hotel was the meeting point for all passengers, whether or not you stayed overnight at the hotel or like me, in a (by chance) nearby AirBnB. Everyone was instructed to have their luggage in the hotel hospitality suite by noon. We had the option to stroll through Juneau on our own for an hour and a half, or join a guided walking tour. With either choice, the next step was to meet at the downtown Alaska State Museum to board their buses for a trip to nearby Mendenhall Glacier.
I opted to go out on my own with my daughter and show her around Juneau. I’d already been in town for nearly a week so I had my favorite spots to show her. We stopped in at Tracy’s Crab Shack for a cup of thick seafood chowder followed by slightly spicy rockfish tacos at Deckhand Dave’s outdoor stand. Food is always a good idea.
Dinner at Orca Point Lodge
What a way to begin the week. After an afternoon tour of Juneau, then Mendenhall Glacier and boarding Chichagof Dream, we set out to have a salmon and seafood feast at Orca Point Lodge. Also owned by the Allen family, it’s a log cabin dining/banquet hall accessible only by water craft.
Our first evening with Alaskan Dream Cruises could not have been better. The freshly caught wild Alaskan salmon and king crab legs were amazing. The meal was rounded out with an assortment of breads, chowder, vegetables and a bar where you could purchase beer and wine.
About the Ship: Chichagof Dream
Chichagof Dream was built in 1984 and renovated in the family shipyard in 2017. The 76-passenger ship features expansive viewing areas on the bow and aft promenade decks. In the public spaces and staterooms, new carpet and furnishings were added. The ship itself was built for cruising in Alaska, in any weather. In the lounge, forward-facing panoramic windows afford the best views of the magnificent scenery with none of the wind, rain or cold.
On a ship with only 38 cabins and a max of 76 guests, boarding was a breeze. Captain Mike and crew were on-hand to personally greet all of us as we walked the gangway to step aboard. It was easy to find our cabin, AAA 105, on the Main Deck, closest to the water but certainly no where near the waterline. Because the dining room is also on the Main Deck, it was a very short walk at mealtime.
The jovial crew were mostly between 25 – 35 years old, hired on as seasonal workers. Almost everyone did double-duty; waitstaff pitched in with housekeeping, shore tour preparations, loading provisions in port and just about every task imaginable.
Tipping is not included with the cruise fare.
ALL shore excursions are included. They are extensive in both time spent and effort involved. Twice we were treated to kayaking adventures; no easy feat for the crew to coordinate. Each kayak trip requires organizing the passengers into small groups, launching DIBS (small inflatable boats similar to Zodiacs) for staff to help corral us and to give non-kayakers a boat ride for chance on the water.
One glass of beer or wine is included with dinner. However, bar prices are pretty reasonable, ex. $6.00 for a mixed cocktail and $5.00 for beer. You’re not allowed to bring beer, wine or spirits onboard.
The public spaces on Chichagof Dream consist of the Dining Room on the Main Deck, the Lounge and bow viewing area on the appropriately named, Lounge Deck. The Upper Deck is mostly outdoor space with white plastic tables, chairs and loungers. Several cabins were also on this deck. I was told that in 2019, some of the unused deck space would be transformed to accommodate 13 new staterooms.
Click here for Chichagof Dream Deck Plan
There’s a small smoking area at the very aft end of the ship. While there were a few smokers onboard, it was either at a minimum or I didn’t notice it.
Every nook and cranny, public areas and hallways were sparkling clean, neat and ready for its next seven-night cruise. On with my inspection.
If you expect to see a gleaming reception area, the Chichagof Dream doesn’t have one. Instead, everything happens in the spacious Lounge. That’s where you’ll go for shoreside activity briefings, and to listen to various cultural and enrichment talks by the onboard naturalists and Native American representatives.
There’s an L-shaped bar with several bar stools, an assortment of familiar board games as well as a few shelves stocked with logo merchandise, Alaskan foods and souvenir books to purchase.
Oh! And now for something really unexpected…a Salt Room!
At first glance, the Dining Room seemed extremely under-crowded with it rows of tables and chairs. No crowding here or bumping elbows with guests at neighboring tables. And even a table for two.
After Captain Mike led a brief muster drill, introduced the crew and glanced over our week’s cruise and onboard activities, we went to our cabins to settle in, unpack and get ready for our first dinner.
Accommodations – My Cabin AAA 105
My cabin, AAA 105, though barely 110 sq. ft. seemed quite a bit more spacious than I had imagined. Two closets, plus a half-closet with three latched drawers, helped to reduce a lot of the clutter. Hooks and a small shelf kept straggling clothes and accessories off the floor. A small chair in the corner rounded out the room.
The small bathroom was well-designed (l love how nautical designers manage to cram so much into tiny spaces!) and both sink and shower had great water pressure. More hooks and a small shelf in the shower were perfect.
See the blue cord on the cabin doorknob? This is a keyless ship, meaning that you don’t lock your cabin when you leave it. If for some reason you do not want housekeeping to straighten your cabin when you go ashore, simply take the blue cord and place it on the doorknob on the other side (hallway side).
Of course there’s a lock on the inside for when you’re in your room. There’s also a safe for your valuables, so no need to worry about leaving the cabin unlocked when you leave.
Every cabin is equipped with two pairs of binoculars to use during your cruise. Alaskan Dream Cruises also outfits guests with waterproof rain jackets, pants and boots, in your requested size.
Cruise Maven Loves: The bed sheets! They’re so soft you’ll almost melt into sleep.
Unlike some small ship cruises, every meal aboard Chichagof Dream is served rather than a buffet. And expect freshness. From fish to vegetables to delicious desserts and breads, there’s not a lot of frozen food. If you’re not a fish or seafood fan, no worries. There’s plenty of choices on the menu, including that “big ship” classic; grilled chicken breast.
Something I really liked is the opportunity to have lunch ashore and order fresh-caught wild Alaskan salmon, crab and halibut. More on that in the day-to-day articles coming up. Of course, lunch was always served onboard, but it was special for me to chow down in local places, too.
I’m a soup fan and by the time I boarded the Chichagof Dream, I’d had just about enough of shoreside seafood chowders…usually way too thick, overly heavy on the potatoes and less on the seafood. Aboard Chichagof Dream, they managed to get the consistency just right; smooth and creamy without globs of potatoes doing the thickening. The broths were light and full of flavor.
Meat-lovers will have their share of protein from pork and cattle beef. I didn’t see bison or reindeer on the menu despite the fact that reindeer sausage is de rigueur all over Alaska.
Since this cruise was in mid-August, salmon were running…literally, if they had legs. Every stream and river had hundreds of salmon trying to make their way to the interior from far out in the ocean. Needless to say, wild caught Alaskan salmon was offered in some form or another almost at every meal, including sockeye (my favorite).
Gluten-free? No problem. Same for low/no sodium, vegetarian and vegan. Simply notify the cruise line 30-60 days before your cruise, or as soon as possible and they’ll cater to your needs and requirements.
There’s also a coffee and tea station in the lounge that’s refreshed throughout the day and night, until just about the time the bar closes.
All in all, I was very impressed with the quality of ingredients and the preparation, presentation and taste. I didn’t have to ask for low or no sodium. Flavors were right there without a load of salt to enhance. Despite how active we were, this is probably the first time that I’ve gained weight on a cruise. I usually lose 5 lbs…and a lot is from water-weight gain from the salt.
Cruise Maven Loves: Complimentary bottled water. Not bottled from the ship’s water, but actual bottled spring water. Just ask the bartender.
Onboard Entertainment and Enrichment
No gala production numbers or crew talent shows. On small ship cruises where the focus is on off-ship adventures and experiences, onboard entertainment is usually self-directed. Passengers get chummy with each other and take advantage of various board games, cards and simply sitting around getting to know one another.
Trivia games were held every so often, with Alaska being the central theme and conducted by one of the crew members. Alice, a local resident and member of the Tlingit tribe, stayed with us on board for a couple of days. She brought along many Native American items, that included traditional clothing, items from home, and samples of various skins and furs of local creatures used by the Tlingit people. Alice taught us a few words in Tlingit, too.
The naturalist stayed with us nearly the entire cruise and played a key role in narrating and pointing out all the wildlife along the way. In the late afternoon, she conducted her own enrichment talks that covered geology, biology, historic and cultural information as we cruised the Inside Passage. She was a wealth of information about the glaciers.
Outdoor and Shoreside Activities
If I wasn’t outdoorsy before this cruise, I left the week as a huge fan. From two kayak adventures, DIB rides right up to the glaciers, hikes in the woods, on deck at midnight to watch the Northern Lights to braving the cold and wind while standing at the bow to watch whales bubble-net feeding, I was in the thick of it all. There’s never a boring moment. Even if you’re not up to standing in the cold to get the perfect photo, so much can be viewed in the Lounge or even from your cabin.
I packed clothes so that I could layer them and with the help of the cruise line’s waterproof and windproof coat and pants, it really wasn’t that bad at all. Invigorating, really. And I’m from Florida!
Nothing is really too strenuous. If you’re not sure, ask the crew. Yes, the trails can be slippery and if you have mobility issues of concern, staying back on the ship might be the way to go. We had several people who chose not to hike or kayak. In those cases, the crew helped those passengers who wanted to at least get a feel for the adventure, DIBS were launched and boarded so everyone could get a glimpse of the location without the effort of hiking of kayaking.
With a tag line like, “True Alaska with True Alaskans” after a week aboard Chichagof Dream, I totally get it. This cruise line knows the territory. Our ship scooted right up to glaciers, took us to visit small island communities, and provided us with a means to experience southeast Alaska up-close and personal and in comfort.
I learned that days start and end early in Alaska. At the bleak time of 6:30am, Captain Mike’s voice came through on the in-room speaker to greet us to the new day and rustle us up to get to the dining room for daily breakfast at 7am.
In the evening, there were several passengers who, in the first couple of days, lingered in the bar til maybe 10-11PM. By the fourth day, the early mornings must have caught up to them because the bar emptied out much earlier. Until the last night of course, when new friendships brought nearly everyone to the lounge until almost midnight. Plans were made to meet up the next day in Sitka, as most of us had extended our trip by at least one day after the cruise.
Cruise Maven Loves: The idea to stay in Alaska a few days before and/or after the cruise. It’s too far to travel to leave too soon.
In a Nutshell
Cruise Line: Alaskan Dream Cruises
Category: Soft Expedition ($$$)
Internet/Wifi: None offered because you’re in the USA but be prepared to be off the grid for hours on end.
Where you’ll find the ship: Cruising glacier-filled southeast Alaska and its major cities.
You’ll love this cruise if: You want to experience some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world without being herded in a crowd. Great food, very friendly crew and overall atmosphere is laid-back, and the excitement of being in Alaska is palpable.
You won’t like this cruise if: You must be connected to the internet 24/7. There are no cell towers on the glaciers.
Read next: How I got to Juneau, Alaska from Florida…without flying!
For more information, visit: AlaskanDreamCruises.com
Disclosure: I was a guest aboard Alaskan Dream Cruises Chichagof Dream. As always, I’m under no obligation and all opinions are my own.