Cruising the Inside Passage
From our February Issue: Available Now!
The paddles cut through the glacial water. Six kayaks glide toward the coast, passing jellyfish, harlequin ducks, and the occasional sea otter. When a collective gasp rises up from two sets of paddlers, the boats facing shore try their best to spin around to glimpse the disappearing breach of a humpback whale. The kayakers in its path erupt in nervous laughter and grab for cameras with hopes that he’ll reappear again. Though the people are in kayaks at the moment, this isn’t a kayaking expedition. It’s part of an eight-day Alaskan cruise along the Inside Passage.
While the “big” cruises have their amenities, small ship enterprises provide unique experiences that some visitors claim offer the best way to see Southeast Alaska. Last summer, Sheridan Samano set out with Un-Cruise Adventures on a 35-passenger, luxury yacht from Juneau on an 8-day round trip journey. There were no ports of call. Instead, she received a personalized itinerary, with options including kayaking, standup paddling, and day hikes. A few months earlier, Samano says she took a Princess cruise, a massive floating hotel, from Seattle to Skagway with family members. The large cruise ship had its perks, but when she returned months later, she wanted the intimacy and solitude of a smaller boat. “The large cruise ships have all-you-can-eat buffets, casinos, and movies, but they don’t offer the flexibility of a small boat. On our trip, they altered the course to take a few passes by some fur seals on an ice floe. You can’t do that with a huge ship carrying 2,000 people.”
Experiencing the Inside Passage, rather than interior of the boat, seems to be the focus of the smaller vessels with less than 100 passengers. Sarah Scoltock, Director of Communications for Un-Cruise Adventures likes to say that once their boats leave Juneau, they’re out in the wilderness. “We don’t have to be at a certain port at a certain time, so we can seek out wildlife.” Considering that most travelers only get to Alaska a few times in their life, the smaller boats maximize (if not guarantee) the chance to see bald eagles, whales, grizzlies, black bears, moose, sea lions, and calving glaciers. So even though large cruise liner trips are less expensive than small boat cruises, passage aboard a smaller vessel could be worth the investment if you want to ensure you see the Alaska you envisioned.
Linda Gregory from Denver, Colorado, likened her trip aboard a luxury yacht to having “box seats” en route to Glacier Bay National Park. When her boat departed Juneau for the 60-mile sojourn to the tidewaters of the Grand Pacific and Margerie glaciers, Gregory said guests were invited to sit in the Captain’s quarters to enjoy the view while staying protected from the cold and windy weather that day. “After they set anchor, we headed out in large skiffs and slalomed around icebergs. In the morning, we kayaked in the bay with puffins.”
For those who choose to stay on the diminutive ships rather than paddle or hike, the boats have some posh amenities of their own. Drink champagne in a hot tub or select a glass of merlot from the wine library. Stake out a corner of an inside seating area with panoramic views and a quiet reading area. Enjoy gourmet meals prepared to order with flair and style and complexity. Or listen to the naturalist guide from Glacier Bay National Park tell of the rich history, ecology, and geology of this UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.
Glacier Bay is just the beginning. During the eight-day cruise, passengers like Gregory stopped for a hike at Gloomy Knob, where they saw a grizzly with her cubs. They listened to the din of sea lions around the Five Fingers Lighthouse. At Chichagof Island, the crew guided the yacht toward places only known by the locals, beneath waterfall-laced fjords and alongside sea otters playing next to the boat. In one of the coves, Gregory tried standup paddling and ate sea lettuce from the waters. “It wasn’t bad,” she said.
If you’re imagining a different kind of cruise than one aboard the huge ships—you might just picture the vacation ending this way:
On the last day of the cruise, you enter Endicott Arm and Ford’s Terror and explore the fjord by kayak, approaching Dawes glacier, majestic and undulating as if it’s alive. And in a way, it is. You look up at the ice castle of a mountain and it breaks off, calves into the water, rippling tides that rock your kayak and your sense of wonder. And just as the chill starts to infiltrate through layers of clothing, a skiff appears beside you with hot chocolate and an offer of Bailey’s. After the refreshments, you straddle the coastline to linger in the kayak for the remaining moments of the trip. A black bear tries to catch fish and your reflection almost touches his atop the clear water until he retreats inland and you, alas, return home.