The Discovery towing a dinghy in Prince William Sound.

The Discovery sails along the Prince William Sound and offers picturesque views of Alaska.

Patrick Endres/Discovery Voyages

I round a corner on a hike in Alaska and spy a big black bear less than 50 yards away. My heart is racing. But luckily, the fierce-looking furry creature seems interested only in hundreds of rosy-hued spawning salmon flipping upstream around him. Surrounded by carcasses, he extends a clawed paw and pulls another fish from the icy water. I am not a wilderness explorer by nature. But after sampling Alaska's smorgasbord of natural wonders with 1,800 other passengers on a big-ship cruise in the summer of 2004, my loved ones and I decided a few years later that we wanted to experience the state's breathtaking beauty in a far more intimate — and spectacular — way.

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Instead of fighting for prime spots on decks high above the water to watch distant whales through binoculars, this time we're up close and personal with nature — but on a smaller ship that doesn't skimp on the gourmet treats and onboard pampering.

Captain Dean Rand and his crew of four meet us at a dock in Whittier, about 60 miles southeast of Anchorage. They stow our bags and serve us a selection of cheese, crackers, blueberries and other fruits before settling us into simple but cozy cabins on the 12-passenger Discovery. We're casting off for five days of exploring Prince William Sound, where the big boats can't go because of the shallow waters in parts.

While the 65-foot vintage yacht motors down a misty fjord in the shadow of the Chugach Mountains, we toast our departure with bottled waters, Alaskan craft beers, and gin and tonics from the well-stocked bar. Unlimited alcohol and chef-cooked meals are included in the fare, which runs $4,350 a person for a five-day cruise, including two additional nights in Anchorage and transfers.

Our party of seven spans three generations, including me; my boyfriend, 63-year old grandpa Barry Blechman; his three daughters (Jenny, Ali and Emilie); Jenny's husband, Tim; and their 1-year-old son, Zack. The other passengers are two therapists from New York, as well as their two offspring, with significant others in tow.

See also: How to plan a stress-free multi-generational vacaton

After our toast, Captain Rand steps away from his post in the wheelhouse. We learn he used to be a commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea (think TV's Deadliest Catch) and that he has a passion for showing cruisers the Alaska few outsiders ever see. The amiable Rand regales us with local lore, including the fact that we're following in the wake of famed explorer Captain Cook and naturalist John Muir. He maps our route, which can change quickly depending on weather and wildlife sightings.