Small-Ship Alaska Cruise Adventures.
By Judi Cohen.
The moment I arrived in sunny Juneau where my Uncruise “Glacier Country Adventure” would begin and end, I knew this would be no ordinary 7-night Alaska cruise. As we were welcomed aboard the 90-passenger S.S. Legacy, UnCruise owner Dan Blanchard flashed the cruise brochure and exclaimed: “These brochures are out of date as soon as they’re printed. Everything on the planned route is subject to change based on the weather, park permits and wildlife sightings — Mother Nature will be in charge.”
With no traditional “ports of call” during the 614-nautical-mile cruise, the Legacy would serve as a wildlife and adventure platform and our comfortable home.
Introducing the SS Legacy
The 192-foot S.S. Legacy, built in 1984 (and renovated in 2018) as a replica of a Victorian-era steamboat, would have fit perfectly into an Alaskan Gold Rush movie.
While there was nothing fancy about the Legacy, I found her Victorian-style décor and furnishings exceedingly comfortable and welcoming.
Her four decks include a sun deck with two hot tubs, an exercise room and lounge chairs. An elevator between Decks 1 and 3 makes it easy for those with mobility issues.
The dining room and Pesky Barnacle Saloon are on Deck 1, while the lounge and bar are set on Deck 2 along with some cabins. The rest of the cabins line Deck 3.
Most of the 48 passengers on my Alaska cruise were active and fit with an average age of 50. We had options for morning and afternoon excursions including free and guided kayaking, bushwacking, “yak and wack” (combo kayaking and bushwacking), and skiff tours — tours on small 12-passenger inflatable boats. Morning stretch class or yoga was offered on the sun deck.
Adventure equipment (kayaks, paddleboards and skiffs) were carried on a portable launch pad called the “Sea Dragon.” Equipment like walking poles and “Alaskan Tennis Shoes,” aka rubber boots, could be borrowed. And lessons and excursions are included.
Wine, spirits, soft drinks, juices, snacks, coffee and tea are also included. Wine could be ordered by the glass or bottle and Kyle the bartender was open to all requests.
There was a signature cocktail in the lounge before dinner that we enjoyed with hors d’oeuvres daily. Coffee, tea and snacks were always available.
Naturalists & Crew
There were five naturalists and experts on board our Alaska cruise. They were our expedition guides, sharing their knowledge and passion about Alaska’s wildlife, plants and history on board and during our many excursions.
In addition, Kate Troll and Bill Hanson, Alaska residents since the 1970’s, were invited onboard to provide a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to live, work and play in Southeast Alaska. Called “Alaska Insiders,” they never ran short of interesting stories shared in the lounge, dining room and the bow, and during our excursions.
They told us about their careers in natural resources, and their lives as hunters and foragers. The pair spoke about changes in the glaciers, wildlife, local people, variety of salmon, and effects of commercial fisheries. I learned, for instance, that Alaskan salmon is the gold standard due to stringent sustainability legislation.
Kate read passages from her book, The Great Unconformity – Reflections on Hope in an Imperiled World, and spoke about the dramatic changes she has seen in Alaska.
Bill shared a passionate story during a presentation about hunting for venison, discussing their connection to the land and the necessity to eat what they harvest. I was moved when Bill said “there is some sadness felt about killing a deer.” He explained the ritual of putting their favorite food in the deer’s mouth, placing his hand on the dead deer, and saying thank you for giving them food.
The Uncruise team, notably the expert guides, Sarah, Andrew, Jessie, Teresa, Bobby and the expedition leader, Megan, along with Captain Tim Voss, were all vital in making our awesome Alaska cruise as memorable as it was. No doubt they loved what they were doing and encouraged us to try everything, going out of their way for first-timers like us.
They generously shared their experiences and knowledge during our excursions and onboard the ship. In the same spirit, the captain welcomed everyone in the bridge whenever we were sailing.
On cruising days, the captain excitedly announced wildlife sightings, as everyone poured out onto the bow or the top-deck of the ship. The guides were as excited as the guests to see and talk about the sightings.
Cozy & Compact Cabins
Cabins range from 110 square feet to a 600-square-foot two-room “Owner’s Suite” on the sun deck with its own wet bar and library. All have outside windows, and accommodate singles, triples and quads. Each offers a private bathroom with shower, bathrobes, alarm clock, safe, small flat-screen TV with DVD player, and an iPod docking station.
My cabin (306) on deck 3 was a 145-square-foot “Commander” category, with a private bathroom with shower, and a window and a door opening to the outdoor promenade. With fixed twin wooden beds, storage drawers, small desk, and closet with a safe and binoculars (to borrow), we had room to move around and unpack all of our clothing and gear.
A nice surprise was that we could drink the water from all sources on the ship, including in our bathroom.
I loved seeing the sunrise from the bow. It was my favorite place on the Legacy. With my hair blowing and the ship’s flag waving, all I could hear was the movement of the water and the call of seabirds.
There is something romantic about being out front on the bow. Day or night, it’s like having a front row seat to the greatest nature show on earth.
One night, we were woken up with an announcement to get out on deck if we wanted to see the Aurora Borealis on the port side. Everyone scrambled from their rooms. Some came out in bathrobes, while others quickly threw on some clothes.
Alas, by the time I made it out the colors remained for only a few seconds, replaced by large white streaks of light in the dark sky. I guess seeing the Aurora Borealis will remain on my wish list for a future Alaska cruise.
The Grand Salon Lounge and Bar
The Lounge on deck 2 was the ship’s hub, with its welcoming bar area that comprised a small library with books and DVD’s (a good thing since there is no internet access on the Legacy). It was the gathering area not only for drinks, but also presentations, games and general relaxation. There were comfortable sofas, marble-topped tables, and large picture windows.
The Klondike Dining Room
The dining room on deck 1 was bright and warm with large windows, an old-fashioned tin ceiling, two-tone wooden pillars and carpeted floors. It featured a mix of booths along the windows with larger round tables in the center.
I enjoyed sitting with different guests at each meal since there was no assigned seating. We regaled each other with stories about the day’s adventures and talked about the day ahead.
Swinging saloon doors from the dining room opened to the Pesky Barnacle Saloon with wrap-around windows and a poker room vibe. It was the perfect place to play cards or just enjoy the panoramic view. On our sailing, the space was also used as a place to gather before excursions, don lifejackets, put on sunscreen, and fill our reusable water bottles.
Mealtime was Pure Joy
With many active and fit guests on our Alaska cruise, there were healthy options that also satisfied cosmopolitan foodies like my husband and me. All of our meals were served in courses, like dining in a restaurant.
Breakfast was served at 7:30 or 8:00am depending on the planned activities, and always included choices of eggs, yogurt, fruit, bacon, and fresh squeezed orange juice. A daily omelette made with a choice of carmelized leek, manchego, artichokes, chorizo and other ingredients.
And if that wasn’t enough, there were frittatas with roasted peppers and a crispy kale topping, blueberry pancakes with whipped cream, a full English breakfast, and cornflake-crusted French toast with bananas foster topping.
Lunch one day included bison chili, vegetarian chili or a mixed salad with hardboiled eggs, shredded chicken and tortilla strips. On another day we had the choice of BBQ brisket, pulled jackfruit with coleslaw, mac ‘n cheese, or a salad with sockeye salmon.
There were no bad choices! Delicious freshly-baked breads, pastries and desserts accompanied every meal.
Following happy hour in the lounge, dinner was served at 6:30pm. Our dinners always started with a homemade bread and an appetizer or antipasti board with cheeses like baked brie, gruyere or blue-cheese custard, nuts, poached apples or other jams and berries.
Our plated dinner included a meat, fish and vegetarian option. I found it difficult to choose one night from among beef tenderloin with mushrooms and demi-fried shallots, Coho salmon with rhubarb marmalade and pickled strawberries, or the vegetarian beet Wellington with leek cream and roasted radish.
Two of my favorite meals were the pepper-crusted lamb popsicles with fenugreek curry and the poached ling cod with cilantro basil oil.
Our all-you-can-eat Dungeness crab dinner was both a gourmet treat and a learning experience as we mastered how to crack the claws and pull the meat out of the shells.
Chef Cooper kept bringing out large bowls of crabs. It was quite a messy job and I concluded that it would not be wise to order Dungeness crab on a first date!
Desserts were beautifully presented and always worth saving room for. The pastry chef’s creations included pumpkin cake with fresh whipped cream; fruity pebbles, candy floss and root beer macarons; and salty toffee brownies that could all have come from the finest gourmet bakery!
A Week of Non-stop Adventure
Day 1: Juneau
We were welcomed aboard around 4pm by the captain and crew, shown to our cabins and given a safety briefing. Before we knew it, our Alaska cruise had begun and we were on our way to Glacier Bay National Park.
With almost 15 hours of daylight at this time of year, we enjoyed the golden sunshine on the bow until late in the evening.
Day 2: Tidal Inlet & Glacier Bay National Park
We anchored in Tidal Inlet with breathtaking views of the snow-peaked mountains, rocky shores and the glassy smooth water for most of the day.
I was very excited that my husband and I, along with nine other guests, chose to take the “Kayak 101” lesson with Bobby from the expedition staff. After 90 minutes we were both confident and comfortable in our kayak.
We were thrilled to embrace this learning opportunity and could hardly wait to kayak again on our Alaska cruise.
Following lunch, Ranger Caitie, who boarded at Bartlett Cove wearing her National Parks uniform, gave an orientation session on Glacier National Park. She noted that “only two large cruise ships, four small ships, and a few kayaks are allowed in the park at a time.”
So this part of the trip felt like a privilege, especially since we would be in the park for two full days!
As the Legacy sailed along Tarr Inlet in Glacier Bay, Kate pointed out the partially hidden Grand Pacific Glacier in the distance where Canada meets Alaska.
We slowly approached the majestic blue-veined Margerie Glacier and Ranger Caitie requested a moment of silence. We stood on the bow listening to the glacier grumbling and bergy bits growling and crackling in the water all around the ship; it was a highlight of my Alaska cruise.
With the clear skies, we were able to see the snow-covered jagged peak of Mount Fairweather, the highest mountain in the Canadian province of British Columbia.
Day 3: Lamplugh Glacier & South Marble Island
A planned morning skiff ride and beach walk near the magnificent Lamplugh Glacier quickly changed to just a long skiff ride after a brown bear was spotted a short distance away on the beach and another bear was swimming towards the beach.
We passed slowly by the odorous South Marble Island with lazy sea lions and seals making belching and farting noises. Meanwhile, loads of seabirds were flying overhead. Humpback whale blows and flukes could be seen in the distance.
Before lunch about half of the passengers and many of the staff did a “polar plunge” off the Sea Dragon into the frigid waters of Glacier Bay. The rest of us cheered them on (I have to admit, I hate cold water and couldn’t fathom jumping in!).
We then sailed to drop off Ranger Caitie at Glacier National Park headquarters in Bartlett Cove. Along the way we saw many bears digging for food on the shore — and we could see them without binoculars, that’s how close they were (this could never happen on a big-ship cruise!).
The sight of a mother brown bear with two fuzzy cubs was my best Mother’s Day gift ever! My Alaska cruise was even better than I had imagined.
After dinner, we all went for a walk to see the Huna Tribal House on the shoreline of Bartlett Cove. We admired the carved totems and the exterior painting representing the stories of the Glacier Bay clans.
Guests walked along the one-mile Bartlett River shoreline trail or just relaxed on the sandy beach near the dock to enjoy the colors and listen to the sounds of the birds.
Day 4: Neka Bay Wildlife Extravaganza
The Legacy was anchored in the untouched wilderness and the quiet calm in Neka Bay. Our morning skiff tour turned out to be a wildlife extravaganza, with eagles, gulls, golden plover, pigeon guillemot, harlequin ducks and sliders.
We were treated to humpback whales blowing and breaching, and harbor seals and porpoises playing near our skiff.
When we returned to the ship, I decided to do some free-kayaking for an hour before lunch in magical and serene Neka Bay.
In the afternoon we were dropped off on a rocky beach with an array of spitting clams, starfish that were 10-20 inches across, and red rock crabs. Here we would experience a two-hour bushwack.
Our guide yelled “aaayo” loudly many times to let any bears know that we arrived. Unlike a hike along a marked path, bushwacking required effort and attention as we made our own way through the forested and mossy undergrowth. We stopped to learn about the moss, fungus and flowers and even tasted some of them.
I worked up quite a sweat and peeled off my layers of clothing right down to a T-shirt! When we made it to a clearing, we spotted a lumbering brown bear and quickly planned a detour back to our skiff.
Our many bear sightings were definitely a very special feature of an Alaska cruise on a small, nimble ship like the Legacy, that can meanuever close to shore.
We sailed all evening and night to Thomas Bay, also called “The Bay of Death” or “Devil’s Country.” As the story goes, early prospectors reported seeing “Kushtaka,” the shape-shifting creatures of Tlingit tribal legend that can take the form of man or otter.
We passed Huna, a fishing village, that is now a cruise ship dock with the longest zipline in North America. Thankfully we did not stop here!
Captain Voss announced that a pod of Orca killer whales were on our port side. He stopped the ship so we could enjoy them bobbing and moving gracefully. The guides even lowered a microphone into the water to hear them better.
Day 5: Scenery Cove & Baird Glacier
Our morning excursion was a skiff ride in Scenery Cove, just in front of Baird Glacier. We navigated around large oddly-shaped grounded icebergs of many colors, which is only possible in a skiff with a very experienced operator familiar with the changing tides and water levels.
We did an easy guided hike in the afternoon up to Cascade Creek to see a winding waterfall that flowed from the top of the mountain down through rocks and forests. The mist from the waterfalls made the steep rocky stairs very slippery, so ropes were available along the sides for stability.
Day 6: Robert & Crow Islands, Plus Woodspit
This morning our skiff was surrounded by dozens of playful Steller sea lions as we soaked in the lush green surroundings. We spotted Arctic terns, puffins, cormorants and murrelets and other birds.
On our way to Woodspit in the afternoon, we were on a whale search and sure enough Captain Voss spotted a pod of Humpback whales.
The breaching whales put on a show that lasted a couple of hours. The ship turned several times so we could get the best views.
What a show!
Day 7: Endicott Arm & Dawes Glacier — The Highlight of my Trip!
This was the highlight of the trip for me as we sailed through the sapphire-colored near-frozen waters in Endicott Arm surrounded by turquoise icebergs. I was on the bridge as we sailed through this tranquil paradise with waterfalls, forests and ice.
On our skiff tour we heard the crackling of icebergs in the water as we moved closer to the face of Dawes Glacier — over 600 feet tall and a mile wide. We witnessed the thundering sound of the calving glacier when giant chunks of ice broke off and crashed into the water without warning, creating waves that rocked our skiff.
It was a sobering reminder of the reality of climate change and a dramatic way to end the cruise.
Day 8: Disembarkation in Juneau
When we disembarked in Juneau, Dan Blanchard took us on a fascinating tour of downtown Juneau pointing out the rich history of prospecting and gold mines. We had succulent Alaskan halibut and chips on the pier and took in our last views of the beautiful cloud-shrouded mountains, lush forest and choppy seas before our transfer to the airport.
I was grateful for the opportunity to be unplugged and disconnected from my normal wired life, and reveled in reconnecting with my body and curious spirit on this very special Alaska cruise. Blessed with a week of sunshine, I enjoyed all of the adventurous activities and up-close wildlife sightings in the water, on land and in the sky.
My interest has been piqued, and I look forward to seeing more of the untouched wilderness and incredible miracles of Mother Nature in Alaska. I hope to return again one day for more adventure and genuine UnCruise hospitality!
UnCruise’s 7-night “Glacier Country Adventure” cruise starts at $4,795. per person; click here for more details.
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