To Cruise Or To Un-cruise?

Follow me as I share my latest adventures with Rick in this blog series on cruising in Alaska .

The cruise ship industry booms in Europe and in Alaska (shown here).

The Saturday nights of my childhood kept my eyes glued to the TV, watching The Love Boat.  It littered my head with grandiose images of cruise ships as floating cities of decadence where every need and want you had was filled by a fatherly Captain Stubing, a cheery “Doc”, a cool bartender named Isaac with an even cooler moustache, a goofy yeoman purser (what the hell is that?) that everyone called Gopher, and a toothy, eternally jovial cruise director named Julie McCoy.  Life seemed pretty fabulous on that ship, but I never really saw myself taking one of those cruises.

That is, until a year ago.

Rick and I had the good fortune of taking two cruises in the Mediterranean to do research for his book Mediterranean Cruise Ports.  While the ships were merely vessels to get us to the places where we need to do the research, we did, nonetheless, get to experience life on a luxury liner.  They’re everything (positive and negative) that everyone says: decadent, a floating Las Vegas, worry-free, a good value, mindless, entertaining, and filled with of all kinds of people (read that as you will).  We, admittedly, enjoyed the trips quite a bit.  It’s great to not have to pack your bags every two nights, to relax by the pool with a Mai Tai being delivered to you by the pool butler, to be rocked to sleep by softly rolling waves, and to eat till you bloat and float.  But it’s certainly not how we would prefer to travel.

So when we discussed taking a cruise to Alaska, we had to thoughtfully consider whether we really wanted to vacation with 2,500 of our least close “friends” for a week or find an alternate option.  Thanks to the recommendation of two good friends, we opted for something much more intimate: a seven-day, small-ship cruise through the Inside Passage of southeastern Alaska with American Safari Cruises.  No stops in small towns.  Just making our way from Juneau up Icy Strait to Glacier Bay, back down and around through various fjords and bays, exploring several islands and harbors, cruising through Frederick Sound and back to Juneau.  (While a far better experience for us, small ships do cost about double what the big ships charge.)

Rick and I flew up to Juneau to start our small boat cruise.
Examples of First Peoples’ totem poles at the Alaska State Museum

We flew up to Juneau and had a day to explore the state capital before joining our 60 shipmates on the Safari Endeavour.  We wandered the high streets to visit St. Nicolas Russian Orthodox Church, originally built in 1894.  We passed by the Capitol Building (meh) and the governor’s mansion, before heading closer to the water and popping into the Alaska State Museum.  With it’s proud collection of First Peoples’ artifacts and art, and its historical galleries—which includes a reproduction of the check used to purchase Alaska, rusty remnants of the Gold Rush, and paraphernalia from WWII—the Alaska State Museum gave us a new appreciation for Alaska’s role in U.S. history.

Having a whale of a time in Juneau.
You could almost see the dollar signs in the vendors’ eyes.

As we wandered the main streets near the harbor, it was striking to note that in a town of about 32,000, the passengers of four cruise ships (the equivalent of about 30% of Juneau’s population) so easily overwhelmed and obliterated the potential charm of this town.  Like locusts, REI-clad tourists infiltrated every single store and food venue on Franklin Street, looking for the cheapest deal on postcards, knives, crab, and beanies.  I couldn’t imagine doing that for the next seven days and was thankful I didn’t have to.  Some passengers did make their escape route via the cruise-sponsored excursions that work with local operators.  But even looking at that line of makeshift booths with adventure outfitters hollering their special deals at passers-by made me cringe and head in the opposite direction.

Getting up-close and personal with a blinded bald eagle.

For a bit of respite from the throngs of landlubbers, we took the tram up to Mt. Roberts.  While it is a tourist activity, it’s not crowded with tourists because the cost and the hiking activities available at the top seem not to be everyone’s cup of tea.  For us, it gave us a chance to get in some much needed physical activity and to see a remarkable view of Juneau’s harbor.  At the summit, we got up-close and personal with a majestic bald eagle.  Because of a gunshot injury to her eye that would limit her survival in the wild, she’s been and will remain lovingly cared for in captivity.  The relatively short interpretive trails offered informative detail on the flora and fauna, intimate paths through wooded lanes, and the bonus of a cardio workout.  While waiting to make our descent back into town, we were treated to photo-worthy views of the harbor and distant mountain ranges.  But the most jaw-dropping thing for me was seeing the four cruise ships dwarf our tiny ship and home for the next seven days.

From left to right: big cruise ship, bigger cruise ship, another big cruise ship, a medium cruise ship (hidden by trees)…and off to the right against the dock is our tiny little 86-passenger boat.

When we finally boarded the Safari Endeavour, we took a few moments to unpack our bags and make the most efficient use of space in our slender stateroom.  Close quarters can lose their cozy appeal real quick if you’re not well organized.  Afterwards we explored the boat a bit: exercise equipment, check; two mini hot tubs, check; kayaks, check; 24-hour accessible wine taps, check.

We settled comfortably into our home for the next seven days–luggage under the bed and belonging tucked away in every possible drawer.
Rick makes good use of the boat’s outdoor exercise equipment…for two minutes.
Captain Jill introduces the lead crewmembers to us.

Beneath a deliciously blue sky and wrapped in the warmth of the September sun, we gathered with the other guests on the main deck to meet Captain Jill and her crew.  We huddled around her, cocktails in hand, and eagerly listened to her cheerful yet authoritative voice (which bears a remarkable similarity to Ellen DeGeneres’ voice) as she introduced herself, her first and second mates, the engineer, the hotel manager, and Matt, the expedition director.

There was a clear and immediate sense that she had implicit trust in them and that they were eager and proud to follow her anywhere.  She let us know about her open-bridge policy and that we were welcome to visit her there anytime.  Her hotel manager encouraged us to make full use of all the amenities onboard and to not hesitate to ask a crewmember for anything that would make our experience on the ship better.  And Matt excited us with the idea of our “un-cruise”—explaining that we had the flexibility in our itinerary to stop where we wanted, to explore inlets and fjords that the big ships didn’t have access to, and to adjust our schedule according to what would make our experience more memorable.  It was at that point that Rick and I knew we were hooked.   This is exactly how we wanted to explore Alaska.

Be sure to check out upcoming posts to learn all about Glacier Bay, to see whales breeching, a bear who catches salmon with a single paw, and so much more as I continue blogging about our Alaskan adventures.  Stay tuned!

3 thoughts on “To Cruise Or To Un-cruise?

  1. Your words are poetry and your photos are stunning. I was so glad to have shared our hike together; your laughter was infectious.

    1. Hey, Lissa. Thank you so much! I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. Stay tuned for even more. By the way, I’m still sorting through my 1400+ photos and will email you the shots of you very soon. Take care!

  2. As I mentioned to you on the un-cruise, your photographic talent is amazing! There’s a great National Geo Photography Contest going on right now. You ought to glance at the site if you get a chance.

    It was a fabulous trip made even more enjoyable by meeting (and hysterically laughing) with you all, Polly and John. Dinners were never dull ! When I complete my “My Publisher” photo album I will share the link with you. Like you, I am still sorting through all of my pictures. I will forward some of you and Rick within a week or so. Our Best to both of you.

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