Sailing Southeast Alaska with American Safari Cruises
It was with some trepidation that I pushed off from the stern of my anchored ship, the Safari Endeavour, wearing only a bathing suit and shirt. I was making my first attempt ever at paddle boarding, and a few strokes later, I found the courage to stand up. “Fine,” I thought to myself, “this would be just fine if I were in the Caribbean.” I wasn’t, however. I was in Glacier Bay National Park and the Alaskan water looked shockingly cold.
Wobbly feet notwithstanding, I managed to remain upright and scan, hurriedly, the fresh, stunning landscape. The sun shone brightly overhead, lighting up the fissured glacier nearby, and lush evergreens covered the landscape like the thick pelt of an otter. I felt triumphant, having managed to stay balanced above the water. My girlfriend, Kathryn, was not so lucky.
Taking her unexpected dip in stride, she suggested that since she was already wet and cold, why didn’t we both go for a polar plunge? Moments later, finding no way around her questionable thinking, we were jumping into 50-degree water. A few even briefer moments later, we were pulling ourselves out of the water and racing towards the hot tub. There, a waiting bartender brought glasses of hot chocolate generously spiced with Baileys. Ten fellow passengers soon also lost their sense, and we watched their cannonballs and listened to them shrieking from the cold water one deck above.
Admittedly, swimming and paddle boarding may not be the first activities that come to mind when considering an Alaskan cruise. But during my week sailing Southeast Alaska with American Safari Cruises, I found little resembling a typical cruise aside from the inevitable similarity of floating. Instead of sailing with thousands, I was exploring with a maximum of 86 passengers. Instead of paying for shore excursions, all our hikes and kayaking trips (as well as drinks and a massage) were included. We were on what the company brands an ‘un-cruise.’
American Safari started in 1997 with a 12-person yacht and has grown to be the largest small ship operator in Alaska. Along with its sister brand InnerSea Discoveries, they operate seven ships with three styles: luxury, active adventure, and historical.
Kathryn and I were sailing on their newest ship, the luxury branded 86-passenger Safari Endeavour. Extensively rebuilt after being purchased in late 2011, she is the largest ship in the fleet. During a winter-long refit, capacity was reduced, as several cabins were combined into larger suites; two hot tubs were added on the aft decks; two massage rooms were added; a new water sports platform full of toys was built; a self-service wine bar was fitted, and significant investments made in décor and soft furnishings.
The end result is one of the sleekest, most attractive small ships to sail in Alaska. Her bow is long and pointed, and her raked funnel and mast convey a sense of both style and speed. Interiors are contemporary and welcoming; the forward lounge, with its wall of windows on three sides, is particularly appealing thanks to the superb views it affords. Cabins, while small by big ship standards, are comfortable and almost all either open directly to the outside or have large windows to take in Alaska’s scenery. Some have private balconies.
This was my third small ship cruise to Alaska, and I am fully indoctrinated in the benefits of cruising 'The Great Land' this way. Sailing on a large cruise ship is visiting towns where shopping is a main activity and experiencing nature is likely done through organized shore excursions. While Alaska on a big ship can still be wonderful and enriching, it will be a fundamentally different experience than what American Safari offers.
Ours was a more intimate, tangible and possibly moving experience. We never visited ports or cities; instead, we anchored in empty, fog-shrouded coves on small islands, well away from cell phones or cars. Rather than contending with crowds jostling on Main Street, our biggest concern hiking through damp old growth forests was making enough noise to not startle nearby bears. Instead of gazing at a glacier from the distant decks of a ship, we took a memorable march that finished on top of a glacier’s undulating waves offshore.
We often explored by small boats, once traveling far up a river surrounded by a brilliant meadow. Newly arrived salmon darted in the crisp, clear waters below us, and a snowcapped mountain completed the perfect backdrop. We kayaked most days, poking around rocks in the intertidal zone or paddling towards small waterfalls. Once, we paddled hard for over three hours, and sat silently while humpback whales surfaced 500 feet away. The sound of their massive breaths carried for miles over the still water.
Returning to the ship was always a welcome affair, no matter the allure of the scenery outside. Fresh baked cookies and hot hors d’oeuvres ensured we were never without a delectable treat. In the unlikely event the bartender wasn’t nearby when we were thirsty, we could simply walk behind the bar and fix ourselves our own drink. Each night, we feasted on ambitious and well-received dishes of fresh seafood and a variety of creative contemporary American cuisine. Our favorite was a dinner with a delectable (and unending supply of) Dungeness Crab, bought fresh from local fisherman that morning.
The young American staff was friendly and tried hard to please, and were more polished than many of the college aged kids that crew other American small ships. (The one weak point, however, were the ship’s guides, or naturalists, who were decidedly less knowledgeable or experienced than those found on some companies. Rather than an intensive exploration of Alaskan flora and fauna, American Safari is offering an active, decadent and supremely comfortable, casual experience in the wilds of Alaska. In that, it succeeds admirably.)
Admittedly, with 86 passengers and 35 person crew, the ship can’t offer the kind of personalized attention, and ability to adjust itineraries to the whims of the guests, that American Safari’s smaller 22 or 36-passenger ships offer. Nevertheless, Safari Endeavour still offers a decidedly more comfortable and luxurious environment than its similar sized competitors do, and the onboard spirit still hews much closer to yacht than cruise ship. Families will find that the vessel’s larger size allows more room to roam without overwhelming fellow guests.
One morning in particular vividly sticks in my mind. We had been following a pod of 30 Killer Whales from the ship for an hour, all of us transfixed and lining the rail. We watched babies breach and muscular males with six foot dorsal fins repeatedly surface near the ship. Just when it seemed the viewing couldn’t get any better, it was announced that we could all get into the small boats for an even more intimate experience. (We were lucky: the ship was half full, meaning we could all get in the boats at the same time rather than do two shifts.)
Ten minutes later, with the skiff’s engines shut off, a dangling hydrophone, or underwater microphone, in another boat let us listen in on the unworldly clicks the whales were using to communicate. Soon, the whales were approaching nearer and nearer, until a sudden, powerful breath was so close we were momentarily stunned. Only feet away, a full grown male had surfaced, giving us an incomparable thrill.
The next boat over, however, had an even more remarkable moment. There, a whale swam directly under their boat and tug gently at the dangling hydrophone 30 feet below the water. The amazed guide on the boat pulled back, and the whale responded one last time as if in a friendly tug of war before swimming off.
Of course, we all knew such an experience would never have been possible on a larger ship. American Safari had given us an intimate, once in a life interaction with Alaskan wildlife. Looking around at the awestruck expressions on my fellow passengers, I came away convinced that this was the way wild Alaska was meant to be seen.
For more information on American Safari cruises, click here.