Small expeditionary ships deliver the Alaskan coastal experience up close and personal!
Southeast Alaska, the sliver of land more commonly called the Alaska Panhandle, begs to be explored aboard a small expeditionary cruise ship. With hundreds of forested islands to deflect the wind and wave power of the Pacific Ocean, there are steep-walled glacier-carved fjords, narrow waterways with strong tides and uncountable marine and land animals to observe. It is an acknowledged natural paradise, but, digging a bit deeper, it is equally a precious resource of indigenous culture and unique settler history. Join Travel with a Challenge’s editor, Alison Gardner, as she revisits a favorite destination and discovers new reasons to sing its praises.
I had already explored pieces of the Panhandle region three times over the previous 20 years, traveling aboard intimate, agile expeditionary vessels where engagement in small numbers with the environment and coastal towns was the goal. Expert educational sharing was predictably served up to guests who consumed it as eagerly as the gourmet cuisine.
So why go back again? This time I was tempted by unfamiliar place names on the itinerary and by the cruise company’s mission that promised new experiences, visits to remote communities where tourism is an unfamiliar concept, and a chance to learn more about the region’s earliest settlers: the Tlingit Indians whom archaeologists tell us arrived from Siberia an estimated 10,000 years ago. An authentic set of eyeglasses on the native heritage theme was an important motivation to me, so when I discovered that Alaskan Dream Cruises had been in business through three Tlingit-family generations, I knew my interest in native heritage and present-day culture was sure to be satisfied.
Every guest on our cruise, some in their 70s and 80s, wanted to try out ocean kayaking. For many, this was a first; others showed themselves to be veterans. AdventureSmith Explorations
The Admiralty Dream is the perfect size for adventure in Alaska’s wilderness waterways with a capacity of 58 guests in 27 staterooms. Alison Gardner
After spending a few days exploring the beautiful, culturally-fascinating town of Sitka, Alaska, I boarded the 58-passenger Admiralty Dream, one of five well-appointed ships in the Alaskan Dream Cruises fleet. For the next eight days/seven nights, I joined fellow guests from Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand on a remarkable adventure under the guidance of two expedition leaders who expertly represented what we had all come to share in Alaska. In their early 30s, both men were blessed with an ability to communicate their excitment and knowledge with a great sense of humor. No question or discussion point phased either of them!
Our naturalist Jon Ciser’s illustrated presentations on marine life revealed fascinating insights about Steller sea lions, Orca (known world-wide as killer whales even though they are dolphins!), harbor seals, sea otters and of course, humpback whales — the stars of any wildlife show. Whether learning about them in the forward lounge with a pre-dinner drink in hand or out on deck for hours with binoculars in hand, we all thrilled to the antics of the whales that frequently surrounded the Admiralty Dream, as it dropped to a low idle for an hour or two allowing guests to take in this spectacle in the silence of the moment. While feeding, diving with graceful tail flips or full-body breaching into the air, the natural agility was astonishing, knowing that these whales average 46 feet/14 meters in length and 80,000 pounds/36,500 kilograms.
Our Tlingit cultural ambassador and co-expedition leader, Lee Vale, proved to be a talented storyteller and educational resource on land tours or aboard ship. Alison Gardner
Serving a native cultural ambassador role, our Tlingit expedition leader, Lee Vale, proved to be a talented storyteller and font of environmental knowledge interpreted from an indigenous perspective. Recounting tales of his childhood so different from the life of an average North American child, he shared with equal ease traditional stories from his community that explain the ways of nature, the animals of land, sea and air, and the foibles of humanity. Through Lee’s eyes, the rich cultural heritage of the Tlingit people sprang to life, and our shore visits to villages and towns where Tlingit culture was a significant part of the itinerary were all the more appreciated.
Glaciers cover approximately 29,000 square miles or 5% of Alaska. This is 128 times more than in the rest of the US. There are an estimated 100,000 glaciers in the state. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve on the Alaska Panhandle is the world’s largest protected marine sanctuary where over three million carefully-regulated visitors a year share this true spectacle of nature, mostly from the decks of cruise ships or smaller vessels each summer season. The park is home to 16 tidewater glaciers, 30 valley or alpine glaciers and a dozen smaller, unnamed glaciers. The ice calving into the bay is an average of 200 years old.
As expected, our cruise included major attractions, not to be missed on any visit to Southeast Alaska. For a full day, we explored Glacier Bay National Park, the region’s highest-profile crown jewel, with a knowledgeable park ranger and a native cultural interpreter taken on board while cruising this spectacular body of water fed by tidewater glaciers hundreds of feet tall. We also spent a day in Alaska’s diminutive state capital, Juneau, accessible only by air and sea, then sailed away to an all-you-can-eat dinner of Alaska king crab legs and other sea food delicacies, hosted ashore by the company’s Orca Point Lodge on Colt Island. I still dream of that meal as one of the finest I have ever consumed.
A 12-mile long river of ice, Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier is the only glacier you can drive to and the only one whose face is inside a town’s city limits. Nearly 500,000 travelers visit annually. Alison Gardner
A Zodiac exploration at the head of Tracy Arm brings cruisers close to the glacier, floating icebergs and dramatic waterfalls of this deep fjord. Alison Gardner
On another full day we sailed the less-visited 32-mile length of Tracy Arm Fjord, to witness icebergs noisily fracturing off the glacier faces into bright turquoise waters. Icebergs can be as large as a three-story building, and endless waterfalls and spectacular cliffs rise thousands of feet. Wildlife in the area includes black and brown bears, deer, wolves, harbor seals and a variety of birds. Occasionally, a pod of Orca (killer whales) swims into the fjord in search of a seal meal or a mountain goat family navigates a cliff face, both icing on the cake for patient wildlife spotters. Whatever a visitor experiences, the fjord itself is spectacular and worth the trip in its own right.
In Petersburg, we shared traditional Norwegian dances performed by children in their community hall. Alison Gardner
The millennia-old native heritage and present-day cultural creativity of the Tlingit people are demonstrated by performances of Sitka’s Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Dancers. Jocelyn Pride
With a stated mission to bring a rare taste of tourism experience and income to remote communities, Alaskan Dream Cruises also introduced us to 100-year-old Petersburg, a flourishing fishing community founded by Norwegian immigrants, and to Kake, a largely-Tlingit community of 600 people where logging and salmon fish hatchery facilities are chief income earners. In both communities, we were treated to dance performances that speak to vibrant living traditions that span the generations.
With the exception of Sitka, Glacier Bay and Juneau, neither our destinations nor many of our activities are likely to appear on the itinerary of a large cruise ship any time soon. Alaskan Dream Cruises’ motto is “True Alaska with True Alaskans”. On this, my fourth Alaska cruise, the company delivered exactly that, declaring as promised to help guests “squeeze every drop of wonderment out of Southeast Alaska!”
Out of its home port of Sitka, Alaskan Dream Cruises offer eight-, nine- and 11-day cruises from May through August. Bookings for all Alaskan Dream Cruises itineraries may be made through US-based small-ship specialist, AdventureSmith Explorations, www.adventuresmithexplorations.com, which handles every detail and question with unsurpassed knowledge and professionalism. See descriptions of all AdventureSmith’s Alaska small ship cruises.
Founded in 2003, AdventureSmith Explorations is based in California. A recognized leader in small ship cruising, owner Todd Smith joined the ranks of Conde Nast Traveler’s prestigious Annual Travel Specialists List in 2012 as the world’s expert on small-ship expeditions.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge web magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.