Called the “Great Land,” Alaska has 100,000 glaciers, 3 million lakes, 3.2 million acres of State Park lands, and is 2.3 times the size of Texas. It also has 33,904 miles of coastline and is home to 80% of all the active volcanoes in the U.S. Great Land? Yeah, I think that’s just about right.
I was aboard an expedition vessel – Un-Cruise Adventures Safari Endeavor – to explore a land that has always tantalized me. We’ve all heard from friends: “You’ve gotta go!” “It’s amazing!” “It will blow your mind!” Now, I was about to have my No.#1 bucket list destination finally realized – and I couldn’t believe it was happening.
What’s an un-cruise you may ask. It’s a small-ship exploration that combines an unbeatable mixture of activity and discovery, service and expertise, awe-inspiring encounters and – most importantly – value. One thing I’d heard again and again: “It’s not like a cruise at all!” That it isn’t. There are off-the-beaten-path journeys to discover unspoiled natural wonders and provide in-depth cultural encounters; all in a casual and relaxed atmosphere (read Leave Tuxedos and Gowns at Home). The Company engages experts and historians to interpret, narrate, and bring history to life. This was true on our Alaskan adventure when a U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger hopped aboard to speak about upcoming activities and his special bond with the land. Pair all of this with Un-Cruise’s great regional cuisine, exceptional service, high crew-to-guest ratio, and what you’ve got is one very unforgettable cruising experience. We departed from Juneau, Alaska’s capital, an eclectic, Old-West-feeling town that reflects a mix of its prospector heritage and native culture with small-town hospitality. Before setting off, I walked through the town and got a good dose of the local color – Juneau’s oldest establishments – pubs.
Glaciers True and Blue
We sailed 60 miles northward and reached Glacier Bay National Park for an up-close and personal experience with the tidewater glaciers of Grand Pacific and Margerie, which frequently calve huge icebergs into the bay. The morning dawned calm and clear as the crew lowered kayaks for passengers to paddle about the ice that had fallen from the face of glaciers. An eagle circled overhead, gracefully looping higher and higher, and those most vocal of all mammals, sea lions, barked a raucous welcome as we glided through black mirror water. The realization was startling and sudden: I am now in Alaska!
See – Otters!
True Alaskan wilderness is found on Baranof Island, with its stunning fjords, dense forests and icy waterfalls. Adorable sea otters bobbed on the water’s surface as we sailed along; their big eyes staring up from the supine position they seem to favor; their gazes as curious of us as we were of them. And there! – a brown bear ambling peacefully along the sand, seemingly keeping pace with our ship. Finally, night fell with stars shyly blinking in a violet sky and all was silent as snow.
Hope was high for humpback whale watching as we pulled into Frederick Sound, and hope was rewarded as the crew began pointing out a group in the distance. It’s permitted to approach them up to 100 yards, and we were doubly rewarded because they didn’t swim away; instead, they showed off their wild acrobatic moves. Humpbacks have two blowholes on top of their heads, so there was spouting aplenty. Ten to twenty foot column-like sprays and clouds of condensation filled the air as we watched mostly in silent awe, punctuated occasionally by squeals of joy at the sight of their majestic flukes breaching, then quickly disappearing into the deep.
One of our last ports was Fords Terror, its cliff-walled fjords and rugged ice-covered mountains make this area one of the most beautiful in the state. As it was a perfect place for kayaking, several passengers were brave enough to ignore the frigid water; others, like me, chose to hop in a skiff and tool around ice-filled fjords. All too soon, we found ourselves toasting our voyage with a festive Farewell Dinner.
A brilliant surprise awaited us: Once filing into the comfy lounge, we sat back and watched our “photo journal” that the crew’s photographers had put together with surprising, hilarious, extraordinary and utterly unforgettable moments that we shared. So, why was this voyage unlike other cruises? The reason is in its very name – Un-Cruise. The difference: Unrushed. Uncrowded. Unbelievable. My sentiments exactly!
“The mountains are calling and I must go,” said John Muir, environmental philosopher and early advocate of wilderness preservation in Alaska. My advice to you: Heed the call. You must go!