Camping on the Deck of a Cruise Ship
Alternative Travel Through the Inside Passage
What cruise line provides campers with deck space for their tents?
Some may think it a stretch to refer to the ships of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system as cruise liners, but in a very practical sense, they have evolved into just that. For the more adventurous ocean traveler, many of the AMH ferries offer open-air camping space at the rear of the cabin deck. This area is sought out by the more spirited passengers who want the maximum experience from their travel through the Inside Passage, which offers some of the most picturesque scenery in North America. On deck, campers find shelter in a large, glass-covered, radiant-heated, semicircular solarium where they can cast their sleeping bags on one of the many plastic lounges and call this special deck space “home” for the duration of their cruise.
From their berth, passengers have an unobstructed view of the passing mountains, look into fjords, observe fishing vessels and cargo barges, view towns and abandoned settlements, count passing whales, and possibly spy a bear foraging along the shore. During the summer night hours (approximately 10:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m.) campers can observe brilliant stars in the crystal-clear night sky while snuggled in their sleeping bags within their little community of like-minded voyagers. A popular alternative, it is not uncommon to find several tents pitched on the open deck space immediately beyond the solarium.
The ship offers its campers showers, lockers, and toilet facilities conveniently located inside the ship immediately behind the solarium. Campers can bring their own groceries for snacks or meals. Or they can enjoy a variety of hot meals from the cash-based cafeteria.
You won’t find swimming pools on the AMH ferries. Nor will you be entertained by nightly off Broadway shows. However, you may be treated to an impromptu choral presentation by a traveling choir group. On most trips, there are scheduled lectures by forest service staff providing information about the history and ecology of the passing settlements and landscapes. There are also children’s story-hours about relevant subjects such as sea otters that may be seen along the cruise. Regardless of whether you pitch your tent on deck or take an inside cabin, you will share your experience with passengers who also appreciate a low-key and more social mode of ocean travel.
Typical of any AMH passage is a wide variety of personal backgrounds among the campers. On this voyage, the solarium campers included a adventurous mother traveling with her two adolescent boys, an ecologist, the president of a small import-export business, and a commercial fisherman. Ann Young, a doctor from Hampshire, England, summed up the attitude of many of the travelers: “I’ll be back. I like Alaskans.” The woman traveling with her two pre-teen boys found the solarium camping area a safe environment where the boys could burn off energy using their creative imaginations. A couple from New Zealand specifically chose to sail on the AMH ferry because of its unique Alaskan travel experience coupled with the relatively small number (198) of passengers. “The solarium community makes it so easy to meet and chat with people,” stated Fran Zeigler.
The Inside Passage
The Inside Passage is the waterway situated along the western coastline of British Columbia and Alaska. The passage is sheltered from the often-tumultuous Pacific Ocean by a series of large and small islands paralleling the continental shoreline. These islands serve as a buffer from the weather coming inshore off the Pacific. Vessels northbound to Alaska enter the passage from the Puget Sound in Washington state, just south of the U.S.- Canadian border at the southern tip of Vancouver Island and proceed north as far as Skagway, AK., a little over 1,000 miles in length.
The Inside Passage is rich in history. In the late 1700s, the waterway provided access for explorers and hunters to abundant sea life (whales, otters, sea lions, seals, salmon, and halibut) and land animals (bears, reindeer, and fox). In addition to their trade interests the British, Spanish, French, and Russians sought opportunities for territorial acquisition. Mapping of the Inside Passage by Captain James Cook (1778 – 1779) and Captain George Vancouver (1792 – 1793) accelerated the influx of traders and settlers and the establishment of many settlements. Most of these settlements grew when profitable trades flourished but fell on hard times as demand for local resources diminished or were depleted. Today, some remnants of these earlier settlements are visible from the ship’s solarium campground.
One of the advantages of taking passage on an AMH ferry is its ability to traverse some of the more interesting waters, unlike larger cruise ships. Passing through Wrangle Narrows, about 30 miles south of Petersburg is a torturous route with many turns and fluctuating sandbars. It requires the ship’s captain to steer the ship with the precision of threading a needle to avoid getting into too shallow water. Captain John Smith, the captain for this cruise, commented, “On a night passage through the Narrows, all of the red and green channel-marker lights make the course look like a Christmas tree.”
The Alaska Marine Highway Ferries
A common sentiment expressed by deck campers is their desire to maximize their Alaskan adventure by being out of doors and more intimately connected with the wilderness coastlines passing by. The ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway ply the same routes as the mega cruisers which often carry thousands of passengers. They provide many of the same amenities, albeit scaled down and without many of the frills. Yet what the AMH ferries lack in plush accommodations is offset by the ship’s unique ambiance, the intimate experience, and the caring attitude of its colorful crew. For some passengers, it is the only way they will travel the ocean route from Sitka or Kodiak, Alaska south through the Inside Passage to Bellingham, Washington, or ports in between.
During a mid-June voyage on the M/V Malaspina, affectionately referred to by the crew as the Mal, from Sitka, Alaska, to Bellingham, Washington (a four-day, three-night journey), approximately 90 percent of the ship’s crew were current or former Alaska residents. Many of the crew referred to their fellow members as “family.” Passengers can expect to hear colorful stories of life in a unique land. On this passage, Robert, the Purser, a jovial man known for his many quips, shared many interesting stories that stretched back over 20 years.
The Malaspina carries a maximum of 450 passengers and provides 45 four-berth and 26 two-berth cabins, one of which is wheelchair accessible. The Malaspina is 408 feet long, 74 feet wide, with capacity for 83 vehicles (20 foot lengths) and has a service speed of 16.5 knots. Passenger services include a cafeteria, gift shop, theater and cocktail lounge, the solarium, and a forward observation lounge.
If you are looking for a unique adventure, consider choosing one of the Alaskan Marine Highway’s six ferries. Whether camping on deck or taking an indoor cabin, it will be a cruise experience that rivals all others.