Patrick J. Endres/AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com
I round a corner on a hike in Alaska and spy a big black bear less than 50 yards away. My heart is racing. But luckily, the fierce-looking furry creature seems interested only in hundreds of rosy-hued spawning salmon flipping upstream around him. Surrounded by carcasses, he extends a clawed paw and pulls another fish from the icy water. I am not a wilderness explorer by nature. But after sampling Alaska's smorgasbord of natural wonders with 1,800 other passengers on a big-ship cruise in the summer of 2004, my loved ones and I decided a few years later that we wanted to experience the state's breathtaking beauty in a far more intimate — and spectacular — way.
Instead of fighting for prime spots on decks high above the water to watch distant whales through binoculars, this time we're up close and personal with nature — but on a smaller ship that doesn't skimp on the gourmet treats and onboard pampering.
Captain Dean Rand and his crew of four meet us at a dock in Whittier, about 60 miles southeast of Anchorage. They stow our bags and serve us a selection of cheese, crackers, blueberries and other fruits before settling us into simple but cozy cabins on the 12-passenger Discovery. We're casting off for five days of exploring Prince William Sound, where the big boats can't go because of the shallow waters in parts.
While the 65-foot vintage yacht motors down a misty fjord in the shadow of the Chugach Mountains, we toast our departure with bottled waters, Alaskan craft beers, and gin and tonics from the well-stocked bar. Unlimited alcohol and chef-cooked meals are included in the fare, which runs $4,350 a person for a five-day cruise, including two additional nights in Anchorage and transfers.
Our party of seven spans three generations, including me; my boyfriend, 63-year old grandpa Barry Blechman; his three daughters (Jenny, Ali and Emilie); Jenny's husband, Tim; and their 1-year-old son, Zack. The other passengers are two therapists from New York, as well as their two offspring, with significant others in tow.
After our toast, Captain Rand steps away from his post in the wheelhouse. We learn he used to be a commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea (think TV's Deadliest Catch) and that he has a passion for showing cruisers the Alaska few outsiders ever see. The amiable Rand regales us with local lore, including the fact that we're following in the wake of famed explorer Captain Cook and naturalist John Muir. He maps our route, which can change quickly depending on weather and wildlife sightings.
Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com
Over the next four days, we glide past colonies of harbor seals lolling on ice and sea lions showing off with water acrobatics. I spot an impossibly cute whiskered otter eyeing me curiously while perched on a mini iceberg.
One morning a school of porpoises takes a ride on the waves created by Discovery's bow, delighting the younger passengers. And when onboard naturalist-guide Hugh Rose yells "Whales!" we rush up to the deck to gape at gigantic orcas breaking the water's surface nearby. Fortunately, they don't seem to view our ship as a tasty minnow.
Another day, Captain Rand lets the boat drift in the Montague Strait. He and Rose bait huge hooks and hand us rods so we can fish off the boat. "Keep a tight hold," Rose warns. I soon learn why.
One tug. Then another. Suddenly, I am almost pulled overboard by something very big beneath the water. "Help, I've got something!" I shout to Barry and Tim. The two run to my aid and finish the chore of landing a huge, flopping, white-bellied creature.
It's a halibut, Rose says, and it's at least 30 pounds. I beam proudly. That night the chef serves my catch to all. Never have I had a better dinner — it's melt-in-your-mouth delicious — and rarely have I had a better time. Families are mingling, swapping travel tales and belting out show tunes over after-dinner quaffs.
But we get lots of chances to shake off our sea legs with a range of shore excursions, assisted by two inflatable dinghies: One day we walk trails that lead to stunning meadows of wildflowers. The next day we're in northern rain forests lush with lacy-leafed lady ferns. The day after that, we're standing on rocky outcroppings that overlook glaciers spilling down slopes. After one sweaty climb, we women do an impromptu victory dance.
As the cruise nears an end, I grow braver and even more adventurous, joining 14-year-old Emilie in a kayak to navigate toward a towering glacier. It's like paddling in a sea of ice cubes.
Straight ahead, the mammoth glacier rumbles and roars, as pieces hit the water with thuds, in a process called calving—rocking all the small craft in the area. The wind whistles; conversation is impossible. We venture closer until an avalanche of ice hits the water, forcing us to back-paddle furiously. Only a plastic shell lies between us and the bone-chilling waters of Prince William Sound. When we finally return to the ship, I clamber aboard with newfound confidence as a novice explorer — feeling on intimate terms with nature rather than being an outsider looking in.
Kitty Bean Yancey is a travel writer based in Washington, D.C.
Small Boat Notes
- Don't expect razzle-dazzle. There are no stage productions, casinos or splashy pools on a boat built to go where the biggies cannot.
- Explore adventure. You'll find it in lines such as Lindblad Expeditions–National Geographic and Oceanwide Expeditions, or boats including Discovery Voyages' Discovery, Silversea's Silver Discoverer and Celebrity Cruises' Xpedition.
- Consider the craft. Small boats may not be for those prone to seasickness; you feel every wave and wind gust.
- Be prepared to know thy neighbor. Dislike mingling with strangers? Think twice.