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

June 03, 2022
12 min read
Ocean Victory adventure cruise ship in Alaska
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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, diner. 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 startled 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.

Related: Best time to cruise Alaska

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,” Waggoner 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.

Planning an Alaska cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured image by Ocean Victory in Alaska. (Photo by Peter Szyszka)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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    Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership.

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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
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Why We Chose It

Sometimes it's worth a large investment to reap the benefits of a great credit card. That's exactly the case with the Amex Platinum card. In exchange for the annual fee, you'll unlock access to the Amex Membership Rewards program that let you access airline and hotel transfer partners, along with new lifestyle and travel credits. This card is also incredibly rewarding for travel purchases, helping you rack up a ton of Membership Rewards points for your next award trip.

Pros

  • The current welcome offer on this card is quite lucrative. TPG values it at $1,600.
  • This card comes with a long list of benefits, including access to Centurion Lounges, complimentary elite status with Hilton and Marriott, at least $500 in assorted annual statement credits and so much more. (Enrollment required for select benefits.)
  • The Amex Platinum comes with access to a premium concierge service that can help you with everything from booking hard-to-get reservations to finding destination guides to help you plan out your next getaway.

Cons

  • The high annual fee is only worth it if you’re taking full advantage of the card’s benefits. Seldom travelers may not get enough value to warrant the cost.
  • Outside of the current welcome bonus, you’re only earning higher rewards on specific airfare and hotel purchases, so it’s not a great card for other spending categories.
  • The annual airline fee statement credit can be complicated to take advantage of compared to the broader travel credits offered by competing premium cards.
  • Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Apply and select your preferred metal Card design: classic Platinum Card®, Platinum x Kehinde Wiley, or Platinum x Julie Mehretu.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year and earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • Get $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection bookings, which requires a minimum two-night stay, through American Express Travel when you pay with your Platinum Card®.
  • $240 Digital Entertainment Credit: Get up to $20 back each month on eligible purchases made with your Platinum Card® on one or more of the following: Audible, Disney+, The Disney Bundle, ESPN+, Hulu, Peacock, SiriusXM, and The New York Times. Enrollment required.
  • $155 Walmart+ Credit: Cover the cost of a $12.95 monthly Walmart+ membership with a statement credit after you pay for Walmart+ each month with your Platinum Card. Cost includes $12.95 plus applicable local sales tax. Plus Ups are excluded.
  • American Express has expanded The Centurion® Network to include 40+ Centurion Lounge and Studio locations worldwide. There are even more places your Platinum Card® can get you complimentary entry and exclusive perks.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one select qualifying airline.
  • $200 Uber Cash: Enjoy Uber VIP status and up to $200 in Uber savings on rides or eats orders in the US annually. Uber Cash and Uber VIP status is available to Basic Card Member only.
  • Get up to $300 back per calendar year on the Equinox+ digital fitness app, or eligible Equinox club memberships when you pay with your Platinum Card. Enrollment required. Learn more.
  • Breeze through security with CLEAR® lanes available at 100+ airports, stadiums, and entertainment venues and get up to $189 back per calendar year on your membership when you use your Card. Learn more.
  • $695 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees