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Small Ship Cruising on Alaska's Inside Passage

I was halfway off to dreamland when I heard the noise. Thump-bump. Although it was only my fourth day at sea, I was accustomed to most of the shipboard noises, but this one was different. Thump-bump. Lazy Candy wanted to go back to sleep and ignore the noise, but inquisitive Candy wanted to seek out its origin. Thump-bump. In the end, inquisitive Candy won out. I stumbled out onto my balcony to investigate. My jaw dropped when I finally focused on what I thought was water; then I realized it was white. We were completely surrounded by a sea of ice and my mysterious thump-bumps were actually chunks of ice hitting the ship. In a word, it was breathtaking; and for a brief moment I imagined I was on an arctic ice-breaker.

In reality, I was cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage on the Empress of the North. More specifically we were approaching La Conte Glacier just west of Petersburg. As I watched the glacier calf from my balcony, I realized this was the essence of Alaska small ship cruising. It was an impromptu, intimate and utterly unforgettable experience.

Empress Access

Operated by Majestic America Line, the Empress of the North was launched in June 2003. Today this sternwheeler (paddleboat) sails a number of Alaska itineraries, the most popular one being a seven-night Inside Passage cruise from Juneau. This itinerary is a great choice for first time Alaska cruisers, as it features a different take on the more touristed ports as well a stop at some off-the-beaten-track gems. If you’d prefer a longer cruise, Majestic American also offers 12-night repositioning cruises between Juneau and Seattle.

The Empress of the North can accommodate a maximum of 223 passengers in 112 staterooms, including two that are wheelchair-accessible. The accessible staterooms include one BB Superior (#346) and one CC First Class (#341). Both rooms have wide doorways, level thresholds and adequate pathway access. The bathrooms in both staterooms are identical and each has a roll-in shower with a hand-held showerhead, a fold-down shower seat, grab bars in the shower and around the toilet and a full five-foot turning radius.

The BB Superior stateroom is the more spacious choice, with 228 square feet of area; 12 square feet more than the CC First Class stateroom. Some furniture may need to be removed from the rooms in order to comfortably maneuver a wheelchair, and most wheelchair-users will need help with the heavy doors. Additionally, there are three-inch coamings (lips) on the balcony doors. Still, the rooms are nicely accessible, especially for a small ship.

Access to the public areas is also good. There are two large elevators, accessible public restrooms, wide hallways and level access to most decks. The first deck has doorways with two-inch coamings, but to be honest, this outside deck area is mainly used by the crew. The dining room can be hard to navigate when it’s crowded; however if this proves a problem just ask for an assigned seat near the door.

The Empress of the North Inside Passage itinerary includes calls on Skagway, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell and features a day-long cruise on Glacier Bay. The longer repositioning cruise also calls on Ketchikan, Victoria and Vancouver and includes a day of scenic cruising in the San Juan Islands. All shore excursions mentioned in the itinerary are included, and accessible transportation is available at all ports (with advance notice). Of course, as with all Alaska cruises, boarding and disembarking can be difficult, due to the fluctuating tides; however crew assistance is always available.


After our first night of cruising, we docked in Skagway. Years ago Skagway earned a reputation for being pretty inaccessible, but today it’s one of Alaska’s most accessible ports. We docked at the end of Broadway and it was smooth sailing from there, with ubiquitous curb-cuts, wide pathways and level access to most of the town.

Make no mistake about it, Skagway is a tourist town; in fact without tourism it would probably cease to exist. But it’s also a fun town, with plenty of shops, a small visitors center, renovated storefronts and a Yukon gold rush atmosphere. Access-wise, it’s very nicely done as even the boardwalks have curb-cuts. We had plenty of time to enjoy Skagway, before and after our White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad excursion.

Our afternoon excursion departed from the train depot, conveniently located just a block from the ship. The train features lift-equipped cars, and you can stay in your own wheelchair or transfer to a seat for the journey. We enjoyed a two-hour ride past ice fields, waterfalls, gorges and lots of great scenery. The speed rarely got up to 25 mph, and most of the time it was considerably slower. Be sure and pack your binoculars for this trip, as there are many wildlife viewing opportunities along the way. Be on the lookout for Rocky Mountain sheep!


Sitka is known as one of Alaska’s most exotic ports, with a diverse heritage that includes both the Tlingit Indians and the Russians. Unfortunately this port lacks any deep water docks, so most large cruise ships have to tender. Not so for small cruise ships. Because of her shallow draft, the Empress of the North is able to dock at the pier and bypass the whole tendering process.

Our shore excursion featured stops at St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral and Sitka National Historical Park, a dance performance by the New Archangel Dancers and a tour of the new Alaska Raptor Center.

All of the attractions have a high level of access. St. Michael’s Cathedral features ramp access and plenty of room to maneuver, Sitka National Historical Park has a hard-packed dirt trail and an accessible visitors center, and the dance performance takes place in a wheelchair-accessible auditorium. But by far, my favorite stop was the Alaska Raptor Center.

Constructed in 2003, the Alaska Raptor Center features excellent access. Their mission is to treat, rehabilitate and release injured raptors. There is level access to the flight conditioning center, where raptors are acclimated before their release, and plenty of room to navigate a wheelchair throughout the center. Our tour featured an educational show with an intimate look at Volta, an unrelaseable bald eagle. Outside there are accessible pathways to enclosures which house more raptors. It’s a fascinating place, and I could have easily spent the whole day there.

Petersburg and Wrangell

One of the benefits of small ship cruising is visiting some of the less touristed ports. Such was the case when we called on Petersburg and Wrangell. Our entertainment in Petersburg began before we even got off the ship, when a group of children came on board and performed some traditional Norwegian dances. Afterwards there was shuttle service over to the Norwegian Museum. Some people opted to walk into town, but the 1.5-mile route lacked curb-cuts or sidewalks. The museum was really the more accessible choice.

We called on Wrangell in the afternoon and our shore excursion included stops at the Wrangell Museum, Chief Shakes Clan House and Petroglyph Beach. The eclectic museum was nicely accessible; however uneven terrain, steep inclines and sporadic steps made the other two stops difficult, if not impossible, for wheelers.


Ketchikan was our last Alaskan port, and the highlight of our shore excursion was a stop at Saxman Totem Village. This unique park features 29 totems that were retrieved from abandoned villages and then restored. There is ramp access to the visitor center and level access to the carving shed. The accessible pathway to the park itself is not marked, but it’s on the right, near the carving shed.

We also stopped at Creek Street on our way back to the ship. This boardwalk area features a number of shops and restaurants with level access. As an added bonus, we also got a close-up look at two humpback whales feeding in the cove at Mountain Point. We just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Unexpected Bonus

Although the Alaskan ports were exciting, they were only part of the small ship experience. Because of the Empress of the North’s shallow draft we were able to cruise into small bays and inlets (remember the thump-bump incident). We also had some great wildlife viewing opportunities.

For example when we were cruising near the San Juan Islands, the captain turned the boat around so we could get a better view of a pod of Orca whales. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In short, small ship cruising is the best way to see the real Alaska; and the Empress of the North is your most accessible choice for this unique experience.

If You Go

Majestic America Line
(800) 434-1232

Candy Harrington is the editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of Barrier Free Travel: A Nuts and Bolts Guide For Wheelers and Slow Walkers. Visit her blog at for access news, resources and industry updates.