AN ALASKA UN-CRUISE: WHERE NATURE SETS THE COURSE


In the wake of InnerSea Discoveries’ inaugural ‘un-cruise’, southeast Alaska - with its mountains, glaciers and watery wilderness - is open for adventure and it’s up-close-and-personal.

Like many adventurous travelers, there was a time when I dismissed cruising as the domain of gawkers and grandparents. A no-go zone for real travelers. Shame on me.

Truth told, there were a few gray hairs among us and whole lot of oohin’ and aahin’ going on last week as we plied the wild reaches of southeast Alaska aboard the first-ever InnerSea Discoveries adventure cruise. But that’s where any cruising clichés ended. There was a wild streak than ran thru the passenger ranks that defied age - from the 20-something rebel rousers thru the mid-life explorers and right on up to the no-adventure-left-behind AARP members. 

 More Photos

My husband, Hank, and I had been enlisted, along with 14 other intrepid explorers, by InnerSea Discoveries to travel-test their new small-group wilderness adventure voyage. From snorkeling shallow tide pools teaming with marine life and paddle boarding glacial ice flows to kayaking with humpbacks and meeting outback oyster farmers and native totem carvers, the 8-day, 7-night voyage cranked up cruising to a whole new level.

Alaska, measuring more than twice the size of Texas, is among the world’s most biologically and culturally diverse destinations. It is also among the world’s most protected, with nearly 65 percent of its land mass and waterways set aside as public lands, wilderness areas, forests, parks, and wildlife refuges. Within the boundaries of the Inside Passage alone are 16,000-foot mountains, temperate rain forests, 1,000 islands, 15,000 miles of shoreline and thousands of coves and bays. But Alaska is also one of the world’s most inaccessible and inhospitable regions. The drama of its natural world is matched by its ability to humble the inexperienced.  Can you say, Into the Wild?

As a consequence, this eco-rich destination has long stayed at a mega-ship distance for just about everyone but a fortunate - or risk-addicted - few. But under the umbrella of safety provided by a three-to-one guest/crew ratio of professional guides and an experienced expedition staff, and a self-described operational style of ‘rigid flexibility,’ the voyage brought us up-close-and-personal with wildness on a daily basis. Instead of tight timetables and crowded ports of call, the InnerSea itinerary followed the wildlife and introduced us to the frontier people who inhabit the small towns and remote coves along the route.

We settled easily into the agreeable rhythm of expedition cruising, rising with the sun and spending our days seeking adventure – hiking, paddle boarding, kayaking, skiffing and beachcombing - at our own pace. When the ship was underway, afternoon naps were not unheard of with whale watching from the hot tub or storytelling on the bridge as prime alternatives. Mealtimes were for catching up with one another, sharing the day’s highlights over a delicious meal of locally caught seafood (or meat options) and lingering long afterwards over convivial conversation and a glass of wine, Alaskan microbrew or an evening whisky.

After only a few days at sea, we’d already enjoyed ample opportunities for lengthy forest hikes, overnight kayak camping, bear spotting from the skiff, polar plunges followed by steamy soaks in the hot tub, a visit with Jon Rowan, a Tlingit master carver, and a feast of freshly harvested oysters and shrimp courtesy of onboard guests and local fisher folk, Eric Wyatt of Blue Starr Oyster Company and Mike and Kathy Sheets of the Alaska Oyster Cooperative.

It was day six when we anchored at the southern end of Admiralty Island. The initial plan for the day was to remain in Chapin Bay for morning kayaking. But weather conditions dictated a change of plans and we departed for whale watching followed by an afternoon anchorage at “The Brothers”, a grouping of small islands where Stephens Passage meets Frederick Sound. There, calm conditions and sunshine made for a perfect day for adventuring as our group departed by kayak for an eight-mile paddle to Sail Island, while others remained to take out a paddle board, hike or nap in a mossy meadow on one of the islands.

As Captain Dan Blanchard, principal and CEO of InnerSea Discoveries and its sister brand, American Safari Cruises, guided our small fleet of five kayaks across open seas, we fine-tuned our eyes and ears for the telltale blow of the whales we hoped to see. It was a picture-perfect scene – glassy smooth seas, blue sky to the horizon, and the healing alchemy of salt and sunshine more suggestive of the Caribbean than the icy waters of southeast Alaska.

I’d have been content enough to maintain a steady paddle and soak in the beauty and grandeur of the snowcapped mountain ranges, rocky islets and shimmering blue sea that surrounded me. But as we neared Sail Island, Dan spotted the steamy breath of a humpback in the distance. Paddling as a group toward the spout, we quickly assessed that we’d happened upon a sleeping whale drifting languidly to the surface to breathe then slipping back beneath the water to float a few feet below the surface until its next breath. Time stopped as we drifted alongside the sleeping giant. I was thoroughly immersed in the present moment. And never have I felt as awed or exhilarated by the magic of Mother Nature and the privilege of travel.

 

 Video courtesy of Lesley Suppes www.freerangecafe.com


IF YOU GO DETAILS:

InnerSea Discoveries “Inner Reaches” 8-day/7-night cruises northbound from Ketchikan to Juneau explores the western region and the reverse itinerary explores the eastern region. There’s no duplication on the two itineraries, so guests can choose a one-way voyage or stay aboard for a 15-day, 14-night round-trip sailing.

Prices begin at $1,795 per person, double occupancy, with roundtrip rates beginning at $3,325 pp. Triple accommodations and ‘family discoveries’ programs with discounted savings for kids 12 years and under available.

Expedition activities include:

  • Whale-watching
  • Kayaking
  • Paddle boarding
  • Inflatable boat excursions
  • Wilderness hiking
  • Shorter hikes
  • Beachcombing
  • Snorkeling
  • “Polar bear club” swims
  • Birding
  • Glacier viewing

Optional add-on adventure activities include:

  • Caving
  • River rafting and jet boat excursions
  • Fishing with expert guides and fully-outfitted boat
  • Glacier floatplane tour
  • Overnight wilderness backpacking
  • Overnight kayak camping

Leisurely activities offered onboard include:

  • Provocative lectures about the surrounding environment
  • Yoga
  • Massage (additional charge)
  • Viewing the amazing scenery
  • Hot tub and sauna with a view
  • Relaxing lounges and deck areas

Activity gear and equipment provided include:

  • Huahine 7 x 50 Center-Focus Binoculars
  • Black Diamond Rail Compact Trekking Poles
  • Necky Kayaks
  • REI EcoSensitive Daypacks
  • REI Kids Super Nova Daypack
  • Fishing Poles and Tackle

About InnerSea Discoveries:

Built on a unique reputation for luxury, InnerSea Discoveries ‘un-cruises’ pamper up to 49 guests with a three-to-one guest/crew ratio, fresh healthy meals, creature comforts like DVDs and iPod docks, experienced Expedition Leaders/Naturalists who know Alaskan culture and topography, high-end expedition gear plus a wide variety of excursions to suit any activity level.

Onboard comforts include Tempur-pedic® memory foam mattresses, hot tubs and saunas, exercise equipment, yoga classes and optional massage. Executive Chefs pair locally caught seafood with regional and international wines. Educational opportunities come in many forms: listening to a provocative naturalist-led lecture in the main salon, listening to whales via underwater hydro-phone and engaging with local natives in their villages or as an Alaska family comes aboard in the wilderness to describe their rugged and remote lifestyle.

InnerSea Discoveries is a proud member of Sustainable Travel International which focuses on promoting responsible travel and eco-tourism, supporting sustainable development, and helping travelers and travel providers protect the cultures and environments they visit.

For more information, call 1.877.901.1009 or visit www.InnerSeaDiscoveries.com.

 

PRE- AND POST- CRUISE SEATTLE LODGING:

Offering good value and ease-of-planning, cruise travel based out of Seattle is on the rise and many travelers arrive a day or two early to take in the sights on Seattle’s waterfront. For two very different pre- and post- cruise alternatives, I recommend the following Seattle hotels:

Ideally located in the heart of Seattle’s Music and Cultural Center, The Maxwell Hotel is within walking distance to the Pacific Science Center, Space Needle and Experience Music Project (EMP). The hotel features 139 guestrooms in a 5 story property.  Amenities include 42 inch flat panel televisions, complimentary high speed Internet access, DVD players, MP3 docking stations, premium bedding and pillowtop mattresses, complimentary bikes and helmets, heated swimming pool and fitness center. All guestrooms provide microwaves , refrigerators, coffee/tea makers and personal electronic safes.  For information and reservations, call 1.877.298.9728 or visit www.TheMaxwellHotel.com.

The Edgewater Hotel, conveniently located at Pier 67, offers two packages ideal for pre- or post-Alaskan cruises. Guests can select from the No Ship! package, which features a choice of waterside or cityside accommodations and a $50 credit in Six Seven (The Edgewater’s signature restaurant) – no ship required! Guests preparing for their cruise will find the Nautical But Nice package ideal. Featuring accommodations, breakfast and baggage transfer to the cruise terminals, it’s the stress-free way to begin any cruise vacation. In addition to being located at the water’s edge, The Edgewater offers guest rooms with dramatic views of Elliott Bay or the downtown Seattle skyline. For more information and reservations, call 1.800.624.0670 or visit www.EdgewaterHotel.com. *Click here for my Pampered Passenger review of this hotel. 

 

GETTING THERE:

Alaska Airlines is the #1 choice for Alaska air travel. And for those who like to stay connected, the trip there just got better. Alaska Airlines is now offering wireless Internet service on some flights, and passengers can use it for free through July 31, 2010. The Wi-Fi allows passengers with wireless laptop or mobile devices to browse the Web and send and receive e-mail during flights. Currently available within the continental U.S., the service will be expanded by early 2011 to provide Wi-Fi to major Alaska destinations.

Through an agreement with Visa, Wi-Fi is free to passengers who enter the promotional code ALASKAVISA on the login screen. See www.alaskaair.com for details.

After July 31, costs within the continental United States will be $4.95 per flight for flights up to 1 ½ hours; $9.95 for laptops and $7.95 for mobile devices for flights of 1 ½-3 hours; and $12.95 for laptops and $7.95 for mobile devices for flights longer than three hours.

 

Comment

Ellen Barone has been creating words and images for travel and tourism since 1998. She co-founded and publishes the travel blog YourLifeIsATrip.com and is currently at work on her first book "I Could Live Here".