Small Ships, Big Views, Sailing Alaska's Wild Coast
Anne Z. Cooke
Alaska tidewater glacier
On a bright June day last year, the 62-passenger Sea Bird glided through a narrow passage on the eastern fringe of the Inside Passage and anchored in an isolated inlet. Here, far from the main channel, in a corner of Alaska's northern wilderness, six passengers climbed into an inflatable dinghy and went ashore for a walk in the woods.
"We could be the first people to ever step on this spot," said
Fast-forward to this coming June, and a Monday morning in the port town of
"You can hardly walk down the sidewalk or get a seat in a restaurant," grumbled
The gold rush is on again in southeast
So the question is: Will you feel cheated if your ship is so huge and tall that you can't see a grizzly bear on a distant beach, or the furry heads of sea otters floating in the water?
If you think so, see
Casual dress is the rule on most small ships, so leave your tuxedo in the closet. And don't worry about how much to tip; on most small ships, tips, some shore excursions, guided wildlife tours and port fees are folded into the fare.
The 62-passenger Sea Bird, a Lindblad Expeditions ship, and its twin, the Sea Lion, sail 11-night trips with guided port tours, wilderness kayaking, beach landings and nature walks. Functional rather than elegant, the ships focus on adventure and discovery. Onboard guides and trained naturalists specialize in Alaskana, from marine life and flora, to pre-European cultures (Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Yupik and Aleut) and regional history, with interpretive talks in the lounge.
You'll have an outside cabin with big windows, comfortable furniture and individual climate controls. Storage spaces are limited, but since casual dress is the byword, it works. The food is excellent, with choices for all tastes, and open seating gives everyone a chance to meet. It helps to be reasonably spry if you plan to go ashore in one of the Zodiacs (inflatable rafts), and rocky beaches call for sturdy hiking shoes; in any case, you'll see plenty from the deck.
Cruise West, based in
The smallest ships -- think of them as your private yachts -- are the 78-passenger Spirit of
Between them, these seven sail five different cruises, each one varying slightly depending on the weather, unexpected sightings of orcas, humpback whales and otters, or brown bears and moose onshore, and even on the weather. The shortest cruises, four-day and five-day circle trips in Prince William Sound, visit islets, channels and tidewater glaciers, a trip guaranteed to cap a longer land trip with a spectacular end. Two ships sail the Glacier Bay Highlights, a five-day close-up of this most famous of
Cruise West's eighth ship, the 120-passenger Spirit of Oceanus, is the company's only true ocean-going ship. A luxury all-suite vessel, it sails longer coastal runs and two
In its own glamorous category is Majestic America's sternwheeler, the 231-passenger Empress of the North, sailing its own version of the bawdy Gold Rush trek to the
With so many ships, the damage to
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: Most Inside Passage cruises start in
PICKING A ROUTE: Don't sail in
BOOKING A CRUISE: To choose a ship and specific itinerary, check the following Websites. Book directly or through a cruise agent specializing in
SHIPS AND ITINERARIES:
Lindblad Expeditions, www.expeditions.com.
Cruise West, www.cruisewest.com.
Majestic America, www.majesticamericaline.com.
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