S.S. Legacy exterior shot

(3:10 p.m. EDT) -- After a nearly four-year hiatus, UnCruise Adventures' S.S. Legacy has returned to Alaska -- this time, as a true expedition cruise ship.

The expedition cruise line has put the 86-passenger vessel, a replica of an 1898 gold rush steamer, into Alaska's Inside Passage for the summer season. It now gives cruisers the opportunity to get even closer to nature, thanks to a recently added watersports platform dubbed the Sea Dragon. (The ship offered Alaska itineraries that focused on history and enrichment up until 2014 and spent the last few years cruising the Columbia and Snake rivers.)

The addition of the Sea Dragon has transformed S.S. Legacy into a ship for adventure lovers, with easy access to kayaks, inflatable skiffs and paddleboards, all while preserving the ship's original charm. What hasn't changed about the ship is that it still goes to places big ships can't. Its flexible and ever-changing itinerary is determined each day by the weather and the potential for wildlife sightings.

We just returned from Alaska after having experienced the "Whales, Wildlife & Glaciers" itinerary, which took us from Sitka to Juneau, with stops in very remote and special places. Most of the time, we never encountered other people on our skiff rides, hiking and paddling excursions. Two stops where we did were at the Glacier Bay National Park and Haines, our last stop before disembarking in Juneau.

If you're considering an Alaska cruise, here are five highlights of S.S. Legacy's new itinerary that might help you decide if this is the ship for you.

1. The Ability to Visit Off-the-Beaten-Path Places

First off, while there's obviously a planned route -- the ship is definitely going along the Inside Passage, heading to Glacier Bay National Park -- there is not an exact itinerary of where the ship will anchor or where you'll be exploring in advance. We found that each night the expedition crew would give a general overview of what the next day might hold, but we were asked to remain flexible and openminded.

S.S. Legacyhas the advantage of being able to go where larger cruise ships simply can't access, due to its small size. Each day, there were several options of what activity we could choose, but we were pretty much guaranteed we'd be the only ones there. The two exceptions were at Bartlett Cover in Glacier Bay National Park and in Haines.

Orcas in Alaska

2. The Chances You'll Get to See Wildlife

Of course, simply going to wild places doesn't guarantee that you'll see wildlife, but that's always the goal with UnCruise, and in Alaska during the summer, there's a lot to look for.

Each cabin is outfitted with two pairs of handy binoculars, saving you the need to pack that particular item, and we found them invaluable. From day one, we were lucky enough to spot eagles, brown bears and harbor porpoises, and it only became more incredible each day. The entire crew has uncanny abilities to spot wildlife, and passengers would race from one side of the ship to the other with every announced sighting.

One day, while cruising in the Lynn Canal, we spotted an enormous pod of orcas -- the first time the crew had seen any all season. We came to a stop for a couple hours to watch them surface and dive over and over again. At one point, the crew dropped a hydrophone into the water and we could hear an orca making sounds!

More than one person, myself included, teared up to experience such a magical moment. By the end of the cruise, we had seen several brown bears, countless eagles, humpback whales, harbor seals, sea lions, otters, deer, mountain goats, a moose, a porcupine, what seemed like thousands of sea stars, and all sorts of birds.

3. The Breadth of Unique Shore Excursions

Every day, we had a hard choice to make: Which excursion to pick? Many days, bushwhacking through the forest was an option, one that was universally popular with the half-dozen or so kids and teenagers aboard. Other choices usually included a moderate hike, a shore walk or easy inland hike, and kayaking, paddle boarding or riding in a skiff to see what could be spotted on the shore.

For those who didn't bring rain gear or boots, or simply forgot them, the ship has some you can borrow. And the packing list you get in advance of the trip is right: rubber boats are an absolute must! The expert guides, who were ever mindful of bears, advised us to make loud noises as we traipsed through the forest and had a wealth of knowledge to share with us.

To a person, they were passionate advocates of the wild and their enthusiasm was infectious. With degrees in everything from marine biology to environmental education, just speaking with them about what was around us was a revelation.

4. Getting as Close as You Can Get to Glacier Bay National Park

When the larger cruise ships go to Glacier Bay National Park, they spend only a little time cruising around to see the glaciers. With UnCruise, you get right out into the park on skiffs, kayaks and foot. It's an absolutely humbling experience. The UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve is stunning to behold and a park ranger jumps aboard to explain what you're seeing.

Our trip took us up close with Margerie and Lamplugh Glaciers, with hiking, kayaking and skiff options. This was also the day where passengers could jump into the water on a Polar Plunge, a bragging rights activity if there ever was one. We jumped in once, and our companion opted to go twice. Even the captain and the park ranger jumped in, which all the passengers absolutely loved.

After dinner, we docked at Bartlett Cove, the only developed area in Glacier Bay National Park, to check out a complete whale skeleton and walk along an easy trail through the woods. This is where we spotted a moose.

Haines, Alaska

5. Haines' Adventure, Culture and History

After days of wilderness and water, it was fun and even felt a little odd to be in a town again. Haines, with a population of just about 2,600 people, is home to historic Fort Seward and offers all sorts of adventures, from hiking to biking to rafting. It is also the home of the Chilkat Indians, whose mother village is Klukwan, located about 22 miles north of Haines. (Originally, some Chilkat Tlingit members were scheduled to come aboard S.S. Legacy to share their tribe's cultural history, but that didn't happen due to unforeseen circumstances. Future trips will probably feature this event.) Finally, Haines is also off the regular big cruise ship itineraries; it doesn't have the same vibe as more trafficked ports such as Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan.

Once again, different activities were available. One of us headed off on a guided hike, while we went on a float raft trip on the Chilkat River through the bald eagle preserve. There, we saw lots of bald eagles, as well as a brown bear (from the shuttle when we were en route). Back in town, we explored the museums -- don't miss the Hammer Museum -- as well as shops and other attractions. There's both a distillery and a brewery in town, where many passengers sampled the local brews and liquors. Haines is also home to a large artist community, and it's hard to resist picking up some locally made artwork. We certainly couldn't resist.

--By Kim Foley MacKinnon, Cruise Critic contributor