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