. Cruise Alongside the Majestic Mountains of Alaska by Suzanne Carmel : ROAD & TRAVEL Magazine

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Cruising Alaska's Inside Passage on Cruise West

Cruise Alongside the Majestic Mountains of Alaska

By Suzanne Carmel

Cruise West cruiselinesSomething about the concepts of cruising and communing with nature don't seem completely in-sync. Big, commercial cruise ships with thousands of passengers just don't seem in line with quiet and the great outdoors. They don't seem…well, natural. When booking a cruise in Alaska's Inside Passage, I was skeptical I'd find a way to cruise and still enjoy the natural surroundings - even on one of the smaller ships. That is, until someone suggested the Cruise West line.

The founder of Cruise West, Chuck West, was a bush pilot in Alaska in 1946 and wanted to share the wonders of Alaska with the rest of the world. One way was to develop a small-ship cruise line, with routes that covered much of Alaska's coastline. None of the ships in the fleet carry more than 114 passengers, and all of the ships are small enough to navigate narrow waterways.

My trip aboard the Spirit of '98 began in Juneau, Alaska's capital city and home to 30,000 residents. If that number seems a bit small, consider that there are only 600,000 people in the entire state. Juneau is the third-largest city in the state, after Anchorage and Fairbanks. It's accessible only by air and water and is surrounded by mountains. Ships of all sizes dock here daily. The mega-liners dwarfed Cruise West's Spirit of '98, which is just 192 feet long and 40 feet wide.

Though the ship was built in 1984 and purchased by Cruise West in 1993, its name harkens back to the Gold Rush and its design to the early 20th-century coastal steamers. The public space has several outdoor viewing areas including a covered deck, dining room with an adjacent bar and the Grand Salon, complete with a player piano and full bar and decorated with dark wood and floral upholstery. The Spirit of '98 gives passengers a hint of discovery and adventure, the pioneering spirit that people had when first arriving in Alaska.

Alaska cruise accommodationsDue to the size of the ship, cabins are small with the exception of the Owner's Suite and deluxe cabins. Two twin beds, a small closet, an equally small desk and chair and a cramped bathroom are all there is room for. However, picture windows help brighten up the room, enticing passengers to move to the decks to the views outside.

Even in the most inclement weather, spectacular scenery and wildlife sightings bring everyone to the deck, binoculars and cameras in hand. Every cabin is equipped with two pairs of binoculars and umbrellas. During our nine-day adventure, we frequently needed both.

On the Explorer's Route itinerary, after an overnight in Juneau, guests board the ship and spend eight days and seven nights sailing the Inside Passage, ending in Seattle. The ship spends a day cruising through Glacier Bay; a day divided between the ports of Skagway and Haines; a day cruising Tracy Arm and Fredrick Sound; a day divided between the port of Ketchikan and cruising Misty Fjords; and two days cruising the waters of British Columbia, including Desolation Sound. Along the way, passengers see scenery and wildlife that have them forgetting cool temperatures and
rainy days.

I was told by the crew that our captain, Roy Vest, enjoyed getting as near as possible to interesting scenery and as close as permissible to wildlife without disturbing it. There is a fine line between the need to protect nature and wildlife and the desire to permit passengers to experience as much as possible. Captain Vest accomplished both. By the time our cruise was over, we had both a better respect for nature and a better understanding of Alaska.

Wildlife viewing on Alaska cruiseWe were able to see Humpback whales lunge feeding; colorful tufted puffins skipping across the water; dozens of bachelor Steller sea lions hauled out on the rocks; a black bear feeding in the inter-tidal zone, and later brown bears mating; a mountain goat with her kids perched high on a rocky slope; several glaciers; a pod of Orca whales; a swimming moose and, later, Humpback whales -- all in the first two days at sea!

Wildlife sightings were announced over an intercom system that could also be turned on in individual cabins. The captain or exploration leaders would call out starboard or port side of the boat and identify the location by the hour positions on a clock. During the day, exploration leaders also gave talks about the history, flora and fauna in each location. There were also talks in the
Grand Salon.

During the rest of our week at sea we managed to sight glaciers calving (pieces falling off the face and into the water); harbor seals and pups resting on the icebergs; Dall porpoises swimming in front of the bow of the boat; bald eagles soaring high above us, searching for food; a humpback whale bubble-net feeding (circling in the water and blowing bubbles to round up food); and a final evening with Orcas playing in the water close to the boat.

Viewing glaciers on Alaska cruiseWhen we weren't outside enjoying the scenery and wildlife, or in port exploring historic, coastal towns, we played cards or board games in the Grand Salon, read books or watched movies from the ship's collection in our cabins and mingled with guests while sipping hot cider and cocoa. Meals were a casual affair, as was everything onboard. Food varied between passable and tasty, but was always ample. No one seemed to mind when a dish wasn't quite up to par or the rooms weren't cleaned early in the day. Cruising on a small ship like the Spirit of '98 puts Alaska center stage.

For those who wish to experience as much as possible while in Alaska, to feel the mist of waterfalls from the bow of a ship or feel it rock from side to side by the waves set off by a calving glacier, a small ship is the only way to travel. The casual, comfortable camaraderie onboard the Spirit of '98 made our trip through Alaska's Inside Passage unforgettable.

For more information, call Cruise West at 800-888-9378 or visit their website at www.cruisewest.com.

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