All content was accurate when this story was published in April 2009.
I'll admit it; I've got a soft spot in my heart for "soft adventure." Give me a chance to get close to Mother Nature -- to kiss her on the cheek, to get my boots wet hopping ashore from a Zodiac or to muddy the seat of my pants by taking an unintentional slide down a hillside trail in a rainforest. And there's not much that could make me happier than a chance encounter with a moose.
I also feel fortunate to have been witness to one of the earliest of these meldings. Ten years ago, I sailed aboard a yacht, called Obsession, which was launched by a fledgling company in an attempt to combine naturalist-led expedition cruising with an upscale yachting experience. The company name was Alaska Yacht Safaris, which became known, shortly thereafter, as American Safari Cruises. That first yacht accommodated 14 passengers in cramped quarters, but it has been refitted twice in the interim, renamed Safari Quest, and now carries 22 in a more purpose-built design that's far less cramped. Nonetheless, that cruise was an eye-opener for me and -- after multiple sightings of bears and whales, close encounters with Tlingit and Chilkat Indians and a seal's-eye view of calving glaciers -- I was hooked on expedition cruising.
Day 1 in Juneau
Deplaning from my Alaska Airlines 737 at the Juneau airport, I was surprised to find that my shore transfers were by stretch limo, rather than the cruise-typical motorcoach. I asked my driver if this was standard, and he replied with a typically easygoing Alaskan answer: "Yes, sometimes, maybe, not always, depends." From what I could gather, the limo is used if available (and if the passenger load doesn't exceed its capacity). Given the size of the ship, I would guess that that doesn't happen often. Regardless, if I was looking for the first clue that my ASC voyage would be distinguishably more upscale than the typical cruise, this was it.
I was transferred to the historic Goldbelt Hotel on the Juneau waterfront. The Goldbelt is ground zero for two major expedition cruise operators: Cruise West and American Safari. The hotel provides hospitality rooms and refreshments for passengers as they wait to embark. For those with longer flight schedules, American Safari offers discounted overnight rates at the Goldbelt.
Our scheduled meeting time was 2:30 p.m., which left me time for lunch and a little exploration. Juneau could be any medium-sized town in the Lower 48, if that medium-sized town had more than 100 days of rain a year, an average of three cruise ship visits a day in summer and municipal garbage cans with bear-proof lids. Juneau is also the only state capital in the country that can't be reached unless you're on a boat or plane.
I gave myself three choices for lunch: The Hangar, The Red Dog Saloon and The Twisted Fish, all of which I had visited in the past. I chose The Twisted Fish because, ironically, it was the furthest from the Goldbelt and would allow me more time to peruse the shops along the way. Like most cruise ports, Juneau has been overrun with the big chains: Diamonds International, H. Stern and the like. Locals plaster hand-painted "Owned by Locals" signs in their windows to try to lure tourist dollars away from the giant, commercial juggernauts, but it really mattered little; for the three items on my shopping list: an ulu (Alaskan native knife) and bowl set, a pair of after-ski boots and a hand-sewn quilt, only the boots were competitively priced.
After my lunch of planked Coho salmon and local oysters -- both excellent and topped off with a very nice Pinot Noir -- I made my way back to the Goldbelt to meet up with my hosts and fellow guests.
After meeting most of my shipmates, we piled into a small tour bus for a trip up to Mendenhall Glacier to visit the recreation area. On the way, our guide offered tidbits of local lore, factoids and observations. This bit of narrative color helped to paint an in-depth picture of Alaskans – specifically, Juneau residents -- and their lifestyles. I had absorbed much of it before, but much was new since my last visit. I hadn't heard, for example, the story of Romeo -- the lonely, lazy wolf, who found that, during the winter, befriending families and begging handouts was much easier than chasing the seasonally scarce game. Despite the warnings of park rangers, many residents steadfastly refused to stop feeding Romeo.
I also learned that nearly every homeowner has a dog. For companionship? To foil criminals? To hunt with? No. Amazingly enough, folks up here keep dogs to protect their property from bears. It seems like a bit of a mismatch to me, but Juneau residents swear that bears avoid properties with even a small dog on the premises.
The more our guide described life in Juneau, the more it seemed just like living in the Florida Keys, which I did for about seven years. First, both Juneau and Keys residents tend to be fiercely independent and distrustful of "big government." And, as in the Keys, nearly every family owns a boat, and residents are typically passionate anglers. (We didn't, however, have much call in South Florida to field dress a moose, a skill a certain newly prominent Alaskan is proud to claim.) Lastly, a tradeoff of living far from the madding crowd is not being able just to jump in the car and run to the local mall for whatever you need. Like residents of Juneau, those of us living in the Keys wound up having to buy nearly everything on the Internet.
We were dropped off at the Mendenhall Glacier Recreational Area to explore on our own for a couple of hours before returning to Juneau to board Safari Explorer. Much had changed in the four years since I last visited the area. For one, trails, which loop around places where wildlife encounters are most likely, have been vastly improved; most are now in the form of elevated wooden walkways. The other thing that struck me was that the vista of Mendenhall Lake, the surrounding peaks and the face of Mendenhall Glacier all seemed different somehow, but I couldn't put my finger on what the difference was.
I started out by exploring a trail that roughly followed a small, rushing stream. Salmon struggling upstream to spawn were plentiful and should have been a major attraction for bears, though I didn't see any. However, some of our group, following the same trail shortly thereafter, were fortunate enough to see a black bear come down to the stream and attempt to catch a salmon, which turned out to be a good omen for sighting wildlife.
Afterwards, I went to the visitor center to view a documentary film titled "Magnificent Mendenhall," and that is when I realized what had changed in the vista. The recession of the Mendenhall Glacier has accelerated by nearly 1,000 percent in the last decade! Ten years ago, the glacier retreated about 60 feet per year; now it loses 500 feet per year. No wonder the scenery looked different to me; there was nearly a half mile of new land between the lake and the glacial face.
Returning to Juneau, we disembarked from the bus right onto the pier where Explorer was docked and were greeted by a receiving line of Captain Tim Voss and the entire crew. Then we boarded, enjoying glasses of Champagne, fruit and cheese platters and vegetable crudites with hummus.
Cabins, as we've mentioned in our review of Safari Explorer, are comfy for a ship of this size and type but are hardly spacious. I also found that locating sufficient storage space for everything was a challenge, but I managed to find enough nooks and crannies to at least make the room seem relatively orderly. Then, it was back to the lounge (adjoining the dining room) for pre-dinner cocktails and conversation with my fellow guests, who I found to be loquacious, interesting and convivial.
Dinner each night consisted of three choices -- meat, seafood or half and half. The first night, it was New York pepper steak or sockeye salmon with Alaskan birch syrup. I had decided to stick, for the most part, with the seafood choices throughout the voyage, as Safari Explorer provisions locally, and the quality of fresh Alaskan seafood is so excellent. I ordered the salmon, and it lived up to my expectations.
After dinner, Beth Pike -- one of the two expedition leaders onboard -- introduced us to the entire crew. Introductions were followed by a presentation on safety issues and shipboard procedures (reserving kayaks, slots in organized shore experiences and the like). Then, most of us opted to retire early, given the long and intense arrival day.
Orca Pods and Overnighting In Glacier Bay
As you might expect, on an expedition cruise there are no PA announcements, enthusiastically pitching upcoming bingo games or art auctions, but that doesn't mean the speaker in your cabin remains silent for the duration. I learned that when, at 6:30 a.m., Captain Tim Voss announced from the bridge that a pod of orcas had been sighted close by. (This was the first such announcement of the trip. As the abundance of wildlife sightings soared, the announcements became increasingly selective and rare.)
Getting into a good viewing position was simple. My Mariner-class stateroom opens onto an outside promenade, which circles the entire ship, so it was a simple matter to slide the door open, take a step outside and voila -- instant orcas.
I made my way down to the dining room to experience my first breakfast onboard. Each day, a menu, containing a listing of offerings for breakfast, lunch and dinner, is printed. The self-serve continental breakfast was up and running early; at eight a.m., it would be augmented by the chef's hot selection, for which eggs- or omelets-to-order can be substituted.
Today's route from our anchorage in Funter Bay to Russell Island would take us deep into Glacier Bay National Park for the first of our two nights there. Access for cruise ships to Glacier Bay is strictly rationed. If you are planning to cruise Alaska, always asks at the time of booking if cruises include entry into the park; not all do. On top of that, it is extremely rare to have a two-day permit, a privilege only granted to small vessels.
After the orca sighting, it was a fairly long, uneventful passage to Barlett Cove at the opening of Glacier Bay, where we would dock to pick up Lindsay, the park ranger who accompanied us and provided running commentary on our two-day visit to the national park. She boarded at 10 a.m., and we immediately set a course for South Marble Island, a bird rookery for numerous species of waterfowl, and "haul-out" (or dry-land hangout) for a large population of Steller's sea lions. The visit to South Marble was executed as a slow cruise-by; no skiffs or kayaks were launched. Ranger Lindsay provided commentary on the sea lions for us on the foredeck and also identified various types of birds.
As we left the Marble Islands, it was time for lunch, which consisted of a parmesan- and gruyere-crusted chicken breast and penne pasta. Our afternoon expedition was at Lamplugh Glacier, which could be explored in any of three ways: climbing the hillside along the side of the glacier, kayaking or being taken by skiff to the icy face, hopefully to witness calving at close range. The good news is that the weather, which had been gloomy and drizzly since Juneau, cleared completely, giving us a bright, colorful background for our photos. Unfortunately, Lamplugh Glacier did not cooperate, serving up only a single mini-calving the entire time. But, we were able to snap some close photos of waterfalls and ice formations.
In her initial presentation on first night, Beth had told us that "-ish" was the most oft-used suffix aboard Safari Explorer, meaning that itinerary and schedule are so fluid that listed places and times are only approximate estimates. We certainly learned how true that is. According to the schedule, cocktails and appetizers were supposed to be served at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 p.m. Given the fact that the skiffs and kayaks didn't even return to the ship until after 6 p.m., it was a very big "-ish."
Cocktail hour is the pivot point every day, with almost 100 percent attendance -- even by those who are nondrinkers. With a maximum passenger load of 36, it's easy to get acquainted with all of your fellow passengers, and, in our group, there was a true and instant camaraderie and an energy level that more than made up for the lack of organized activities or entertainment onboard. And they were an interesting group, from Colorado ranch owners and investment bankers to college professors and Northern California artists. The appetizer offerings almost always included an assortment of cheeses, plus one or two other items. That night, it was warm spinach dip with puff pastry straws.
Dinner is always a choice of two entrees, one of which is invariably a local seafood option. Though portions tend not to be enormous onboard Safari Explorer, tonight's seafood choice was a notable exception: all-you-can-eat steamed king crab legs. They were fantastic. The other choice -- a ponzu-marinated citrus duck breast -- was, to my taste, very overcooked, and there was no option to ask for a temperature when ordering it. I learned for the rest of the trip to pick the non-seafood item only if it was a cut of meat typically grilled to order, such as steaks or chops.
During dinner, we sailed to Russell Island, our overnight anchorage.
Massages and Glaciers
Sunday morning onboard Explorer is like Sunday anywhere; it's the traditional day of choice for weekend brunches. Chef Phil Bunker put out an extensive buffet spread of meatless eggs Benedict, Tillamook cheddar and caramelized onion quiche, potato rosti with rosemary sour cream, orzo pasta Greek salad with lemon and fresh oregano, Taku River smoked salmon lox, caramelized bacon, minted fresh fruit salad and fresh-baked sticky buns.
Our morning excursion destination was Margerie Glacier, at the extreme north end of Glacier Bay National Park. Skiffs and kayaks were launched. The weather continued to be sunny, though a bit chilly, and Margerie refused to accommodate us with any calving photo ops. Upon return to the ship, we were delighted to be offered steaming mugs of Irish coffee -- just the thing to melt the chill in our bones.
As we made the long trek southward, through Glacier Bay, Fay, the wellness instructor and masseuse, asked if I would like a massage. (Like every other amenity on Safari Explorer, massages are complimentary.) So, let's see: would I like a free massage or a spot on the rail to watch the weather deteriorate? Hmmmmm, can I think about that … for about three seconds?
After my massage, I went back to my cabin for a bit of a nap, only to be rudely awakened by the ship's general alarm and the voice of Captain Tim on the PA system, ordering us to muster on the aft deck -- for real; he assured us it wasn't a drill, but a possible fire in the engine room. Not only were all crew members calm and professional, but so were the passengers. As it turned out, it was only a fan belt that had burned, and we were released from our muster station in 15 minutes or so. Explorer continued to the dock at Bartlett Cove without further incident.
Once we were ashore, there were guided hikes along trails surrounding the Bartlett Cove Lodge. Being able to go ashore within the boundaries of the National Park is one privilege seldom offered to the passengers of the large, conventional ships. Though the weather was now gloomy and misty, against the darkness of the deeper forest, the colors of the nearby trees, bogs and ponds were vivid and bright.
Back onboard, cocktails and appetizers were served and consisted of little baskets of wontons, filled with Italian sausage, smoked mushrooms and fontina cheese. Dinner's choices were leg of lamb or pecan-crusted halibut. Again, to my taste, the halibut was definitely superior; I heard a few passengers complaining that the lamb was dry and overcooked.
And, as if on cue, just as we finished dessert, an announcement from the bridge alerted us to the nearby presence of a family of four orcas, of which we all shot numerous photos.
Leaving Glacier Bay, An Orca Battle
Our exit from Glacier Bay National Park marked the end, for now, of glacier-centered excursions and passages and the start of three days more concentrated on wildlife. Though orcas had been plentiful, we had yet to have any close encounters with humpbacks. But, before we had even finished breakfast, they were all around us, and as the captain slowed to idle we all dashed around the promenade balcony, snapping pictures of the pod surfacing and sounding, tails flipping vertically as they dove for the depths. Conversely, if we were hoping to catch a shot of them breaching completely out of the water, that was yet to happen.
Late that morning, we reached our pre-lunch exploration spot along the eastern shore of Chicagof Island, where a salmon stream poured over a small waterfall into Chatham Strait. Kayaks and skiffs were launched. I waited for the skiffs.
I love kayaking, but for this trip, photography was at the top of my list. Kayaks were fine for people with pocket-size cameras, as they could slip them into their waterproof jackets and not worry about them getting wet. Those with larger equipment -- e.g., digital SLR's -- were much more at risk, with water in the bilges, spray from paddling and from the frequent, misting rain. For those who want both camera and kayak, a waterproof camera bag is a must for this type of trip.
As the first kayaks reached the shore, a whispered announcement came over the radio: "Here comes a bear." Sure enough, as our skiff approached the kayaks, all eyes of the paddlers were focused on a young brown bear, fishing for salmon in the riverbed. He caught and ate one early on, before the skiff had arrived, but continued to hang around, seemingly oblivious to our presence. Interestingly enough, all the clatter of cameras snapping failed to get his attention, but, as we were told, a few words spoken soto voce spooked him, and he galloped up the riverbank, only to return a few minutes later. Before heading back to the ship, I had shot nearly 2,000 pictures! Such is our brave new digital world, where you don't have to worry about the cost of film or developing.
The enjoyment of our afternoon stop at Sitkoh Bay was reduced by the worsening weather -- wind, rain and choppy waters -- and the lack of anything significant to see (photos taken at morning stop: 2,000; photos taken in Sitkoh Bay: 0). Of course, our disappointment was mitigated by being served hot chocolate (with either Godiva chocolate liqueur or peppermint Schnapps) upon our return!
In my review of Safari Explorer, I reflected on the appropriateness of the word "safari" in the name of the ship (and cruise line, for that matter). I remember -- years ago, in college -- discussing African photo safaris with a friend who had lived for several years in Kenya. He commented that most people on safaris fervently hope to witness a "kill" -- that is to say, for example, a lion bringing down a wildebeest. Almost all return home disappointed and without that "National Geographic" shot they were hoping for. Witnessing such an event is virtually a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
And, when it comes to encountering "nature in the raw," it often becomes a case of "be careful what you wish for." That's the way it was for us when, while just starting our main course at dinner, the engines backed off to idle, a sure signal that wildlife had been sighted. Most of us grabbed cameras and headed topside, where we saw a humpback on the surface.
Then Captain Tim got on the P.A. to announce that we were about to witness something very sad. At that point I saw them: a pack of orcas attacking the young humpback, which was on its side, flailing its tail back and forth in an attempt to fend off the orcas. Beth Pike, our expedition leader (a cetologist by training) told us that she had never before experienced what we were seeing, but that the odds of the humpback's survival were extremely slim.
So, for an hour and a half, we watched the battle, deeply ambivalent; on one hand, we were fascinated to be witness to such a rare, "National Geographic" moment, but we felt helpless and guilty for not being able to tear our eyes away from the drama. Then, the humpback's flailing tail made contact with one of the orcas, which was either stunned or killed; it was hard to say. In any case, it rolled over on its back, white belly exposed to the air, and slowly sank below the surface. The humpback was tiring, and every time it surfaced to breathe, it "trumpeted" through its blowhole in pain and distress -- a sound like a bellowing bull elephant. And then, out of nowhere, like the cavalry coming to the rescue in an old Western, a second humpback appeared and sidled up, side-by-side, to the victimized whale, presenting the orcas with a reinforced flank.
The orcas, seeming to dislike the new odds, turned tail -- literally -- and fled.
The battle was over; the humpback had prevailed.
Back in the dining room, our dinner had turned cold. In the hushed and reflective silence, none of us thought to reorder.
According to weather forecasts, this day was to be the wettest of the trip, and it was. So hard was the rain falling that a planned skiff and kayak excursion to get a close look at a large sea lion colony had to be cancelled. But, as we steamed east in Frederick Sound, there was no shortage of humpback sightings -- three separate pods were encountered between breakfast and lunch, including one group that was acrobatically and dramatically breaching.
After lunch, Beth gave her twice-delayed talk on marine mammals -- of particular interest, given the previous night's whale and orca encounter. What I learned that I hadn't known before is that there are two types of orcas: transient and resident. Though there are some physical differences -- for example, the shape and size of the dorsal fins -- they are the same species. The differences are mostly social and behavioral. Resident orcas travel mostly in large groups and feed on fish. Transients travel silently in smaller groups that stalk marine mammals. Clearly, it was transient orcas we had witnessed.
We anchored overnight at Thomas Bay and went ashore for a hike that crisscrossed the path of a large, powerful waterfall. As with all our hikes, we were divided into three groups. Faith, our masseuse/yoga/wellness maven took those who wanted to hike in an exercise mode, moving faster and farther than the other two groups. The second group consisted of those who wanted an active hike, though not as athletic as the one the first group took. The third group hiked a shorter distance at a more leisurely pace, perfect for mature passengers or those who wanted to stop often for photo ops.
The seafood choice at the dinner that night was king salmon with phyllo and Bernaise, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Our schedule called for a short run south to the harbor at the town of Petersburg, a community of 3,500 founded by the Norwegians at the turn of the 20th century. Peter Buschman, for whom the town is named, began a fishing operation there in 1897. Not only were both salmon and halibut extremely plentiful, but, in an era prior to modern refrigeration, the nearby, dependably calving Le Conte glacier could be depended on as a source of ice for shipping his catch.
Plans for the day were either to explore the town on our own, on foot or on one of the ship's eight bicycles, or to take an organized hike. Since the rain was still coming down fairly steadily, the bikes were cancelled, and the hikes got only a few takers. But the rain wasn't so inclement as to keep me away from exploring the town.
Petersburg is tiny, quaint and redolent of its Norwegian heritage. The Norwegian flag flies everywhere, and many signs are written in that Scandinavian language. Petersburg still has a thriving, commercial seafood industry, so my first stop was Tonka Seafood to order some halibut and wild Alaska salmon, which I had shipped back home. (Alaska seriously frowns on farm-raised salmon, as do many health and culinary experts, but wild salmon is sometimes difficult to find it in the States.) Tonka took my order and promised to ship the early part of the following week. (They did.)
My continuing municipal exploration of Petersburg told me that the second most popular endeavor -- after fishing, of course -- had to be quilting, as I saw shop after shop offering hand-crafted quilts at really low prices. There were also a number of galleries, and many offered ulus and bowls, also hand crafted and of higher quality than those I'd seen in Juneau. (I have found, over time, that most native Alaskan crafts can be had for much lower prices if you are out of range of the major cruise ports -- Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, Seward, Skagway, etc.) My ulu and bowl set ran about $200 -- half the tariff of equivalent sets offered in Juneau.
On my way back to the ship, I passed another major seafood market in Petersburg -- Coastal Seafood. Safari Explorer does part of its provisioning there. I saw a sign in the window, touting live, local oysters at an incredibly low price of $10 per dozen. I couldn't resist, so I purchased two dozen to take back to the ship to share with my fellow passengers at cocktail hour.
When I returned to the ship, I went to the galley and asked Chef Phil if he would shuck them and put out a presentation with the typical accouterments on the bar that evening. He was only too happy to oblige. (Ah, the joys of small ships!)
We were back onboard in time for a barbecue buffet lunch at 1:30 p.m., during which we cast off and headed north through Stephens Passage toward our nighttime anchorage at Holkam Bay. Just before dinner, we sighted more humpbacks.
Dinner was a choice of braised elk or seared Alaskan weathervane scallops. For once, the meat offering was a grilled-to-order preparation, which allowed for temperature selection, so my choice was obvious: one order of each! Both were excellent.
Our Last Day, Back to Juneau
We got underway early (6 a.m.), making our way from Holkham Bay to our morning stop at Dawes Glacier, which sits at the head of a spectacular fjord with waterfalls on either side. As we approached the glacier, numerous seals watched our arrival from their perches atop small icebergs. The amount of ice in the water alerted us to the likelihood of more glacial calving action than we had previously seen but also made it difficult to bring Safari Explorer too close to the face of the glacier -- a perfect situation for breaking out the kayaks and skiffs. In the calving department, Dawes certainly obliged, and we witnessed several massive bergs breaking off the face of the glacier at very close range.
After lunch, the afternoon was devoted to packing for disembarkation. Dinner included all the crew (except those on watch) for a farewell celebration, and a slideshow of photos taken during the voyage was shown on the dining room's large, flat-screen monitors. (The CD ROM -- which included photos, a route map, daily programs and menus -- was distributed to passengers as a souvenir of the trip.)
Disembarkation was quick and simple. Bags didn't have to be put outside the cabins until after breakfast. Carry-on bags were left on the beds until we were ready to leave the ship. When we did leave, we were given a dockside sendoff by a receiving line of Captain Tim and the entire crew, a mirror image of our welcome aboard from a week ago. Our checked luggage had been trucked to the airport and was unloaded for us on our arrival.
While waiting for our flight to board, I shared a drink with a couple whose company I had enjoyed aboard Safari Explorer. We all agreed that this upscale expedition cruise was an ideal way to see Alaska by water, especially for those whose lists of priorities are topped with close encounters of the wildlife and geologic kind. While it is certainly possible to take a large, mainstream cruise ship through the inside passage and get your whale and glacier fixes on shore excursions, the encounters are nowhere near as frequent or as close as on a ship that is, ipso facto, a seven-night, unending shore excursion.
This is my third Alaskan expedition cruise, and on each one, I have witnessed something that I have never been privy to before -- whether it was a face-to-face encounter with a brown bear, a life-and-death struggle between orcas and humpbacks, or simply being close enough to a breaching humpback to smell its hoary breath.
The Inside Passage is ideal for this type of cruising. Its sheltered waters are calm enough for even the most motion-sickness-prone travelers to easily tolerate small-ship cruising.
I can't recommend it more strongly.