Wild and Wonderful

Words and photography by Jan Masters, Editor

Offshore, inland, taking flight … Seabourn opens up the natural beauty of Alaska’s southeastern coast in superlative style

I want to see a whale. Do you think we’ll see a whale? And a bear. Do you think we’ll see any bears? And sea otters. I’ve never seen a sea otter. Do you think we’ll see a sea otter?” The poor naturalist who is hosting my table at the welcome dinner aboard the Seabourn Sojourn on this 12-day cruise along the coast of southeastern Alaska is bombarded with my overenthusastic questions, but a rundown of the excursion list quickly reassures me. Whales are pretty much a given in the crystal waters of the Inside Passage along which we are sailing. And if I want to see sea otters, when there’s an excursion that specifically sets out to spot them.

I can relax, then. A lot. Because the Sojourn is a floating haven of happiness. The suites are spacious, with large bathrooms, walk-in wardrobes and – in most instances – private verandas. The restaurants offer exceptional food. And the staff are super-attentive – but not annoyingly so. Then there’s the sublime spa, fascinating talks, nightly entertainment, 24-hour room service, and space . . . lots of luxurious, calming space. Forget cruise ships that look like floating blocks of flats filled with thousands of guests. This bijou craft is a boutique hotel, with capacity for no more than 458 passengers, where the ethos is a mix of pampering and exploring – a combination that pretty much sums up why I have developed a passion for cruising. More specifically, my thing is expedition cruise (to destinations such as Antarctica or northwest Australia) and adventure-filled cruising – which is how I would categorise this Alaska trip. I like being whisked to dramatic waterfalls, caves, cliffs, rivers and beaches that can’t be found by travelling overland. I’m more than happy boarding a smaller boat during the day, and I don’t mind getting freezing cold while taking pictures of a polar bear, a soaring eagle, a passing iceberg. But I also love stepping back on board and immediately being asked if I’d like a chilled glass of Champagne while I get ready for dinner.

Before I discovered this kind of trip, I would probably have said I’d pay not to go on a cruise. Just the idea . . . hordes of sunburnt campers eating too much, watching naff entertainment and playing shuffleboard in a vain attempt to break the knuckle-gnawing boredom – a bit like being trapped for a fortnight in a queue for a buffet set up on the stage of Britain’s Got Talent. But small luxury ships are a whole different deck game, especially when it comes to the level of service and surroundings provided by Seabourn (which also offers a selection of classic as well as more adventurous destinations).

Here, it’s all Thomas Keller menus, fluffy robes, and personalised service. Case in point: earlier in the day my stewardess (you are assigned the same one throughout your trip) was told by a colleague that I had commented on how delicious a chocolate mousse looked as it was being carried aloft en route to a suite (at 9.30 in the morning, I might add). When I get back to my suite that evening, said chocolate mousse is there for me to try. You get the picture.

As a perfect counterpoint to this serenity, there’s no lack of the spectacular as you gaze out from your veranda (or from the hot tubs on deck or the contemporary panoramic Observation Bar). The Inside Passage, shaped by ancient glacial activity, is a waterway buffered from the north Pacific Ocean by a chain of more than 1,000 coastal islands. Our round trip starts in Vancouver, peaking at Juneau, before dropping south again, back across the Canadian border. And it’s a diverse area of Alaska and British Columbia (BC), promising spruce-covered mountains, fjords and icebergs as well as, surprisingly (to me anyway), temperate rainforests and quiet little towns ablaze with nasturtiums and hydrangeas.

The waters surrounding the islands provide the perfect habitat for wildlife, and my first excursion is a quest to see those oh-so-cute sea otters. Heading out to sea in a catamaran – which we’ve boarded not far from the town of Sitka, where the ship has docked for the day – the naturalist on board informs us that sea otters, unlike other marine mammals, do not have a layer of blubber to keep them warm. Instead, they have the densest fur of any mammal (which up until the early 1900s meant they were hunted, leading to a sharp decline in their numbers). As they never really leave the water, when they sleep they drape kelp over their bodies to anchor them. They often keep a favourite rock (an essential tool for hammering open shellfish), in a pouch under their arm. And they even hold hands (OK, paws) so families don’t become parted. How adorable is that?

We’re soon put on standby to have our binoculars at the ready. The captain has spotted something and speeds up. We bounce over the waves and are rewarded by no, not sea otters, but the flukes of a humpback whale, emerging from the ocean and tipping its huge body to perform a deep dive. Sparkling water cascades evenly off its mighty tail as if from a Roman water feature. Wow. Whale seen on my first outing. And the fluke show keeps on giving – after a few minutes underwater, up comes the whale again, spouting a plume of mist into the air as if flagging its new position (all very poetic). The mist isn’t seawater, by the way; it’s a mixture of hot air from its lungs and bacteria (less poetic).

As for those sea otters, yes, we seem them too. Closer to the shore there’s a whole group, bobbing about in bundles of cuteness; it’s like something Walt Disney might have sketched. We also spy sea lions lazing on rocks and bald eagles raising their beaks in the air as if posing for the camera, then swooping down from the trees, their stocky, feathery legs, yellow toes and black talons hanging low like the landing gear of a plane.

On this trip I want to see as much as I can, so I book up for a heap of excursions even though almost all are charges as extras and some are costly. While a simple guided hike is only about $7 and whale watching around $179, the Taku Glacier Adventure By Air, Water & Ice is $579 for three and a half hours. Is it worth it? Hell, yeah. A small group of us take a helicopter flight above the Juneau Ice Field, then land on a remote deck in the Taku River basin, where we board an airboat and streak alongside the five-mile face of the advancing Taku Glacier. The terrain is strikingly stark; a striated backdrop of silver water, pale-yellow river bank, grey rock and turquoise ice. Then we return to the helicopter, which whisks us to the surface of the glacier – where walking is only possible thanks to our specialist ice boots (conveniently supplied).

There’s just one tiny problem with the excursions: the huge number of them. A good strategy is to forward-book those you absolutely don’t want to miss; then, once you’re on board and have the lie of the land (as it were), you can sign up for more. The concierge desk at Seabourn Square – a lounge area that’s the beating social heart of the ship, with a bar serving up everything from Champagne to cappuccino, sandwiches to ice cream – is the place to tweak your itinerary.

In addition to the wealth of excursions run by external companies, Ventures by Seabourn offers trips ranging from kayaking to extreme hikes (we’re talking sub-glacier) devised and organized by the specialist staff onboard. One British couple, who are celebrating their golden wedding anniversary during the trip, have a go at kayaking to the Dawes Glacier . . . fair play to them. I follow a similar route, but opt for an easier mode of transport – the catamaran. And it’s just as thrilling. As we sail close to the sheer face of the hulking ice wall in the 30-mile-long Endicott Arm fjord, the ice seems too blue to be true. And it’s vast: the face of the glacier soars almost 300ft above us.

Another incredible trip is the flight over the Misty Fjords National Monument. A tender transfers us from the ship to a floating dock, from where we take to the skies in a seaplane. The pilot banks close to the granite mountains and then lands on a lake, allowing us to listen to . . . absolutely nothing.

OK then, about the bears. I do see less bear action than I anticipated, but that’s because my trip falls in a brief window when neither of the two species of salmon are heading upriver to spawn. If you get it right, however, there are plenty of places where you can see bears grabbing the salmon from the fast-flowing waters. And I do see one black bear in the wilderness and a couple of brown bears at Icy Strait Point near Hoonah – a place I love. Home to Alaska’s largest Tlingit community (one of the country’s indigenous peoples), its shops and tours are locally owned and organized, making for an authentic experience – complete with carved totem poles.

Some towns and villages along the Inside Passage do seem a little desolate, although Wrangell, where the beaches feature rocks carved with petroglyphs, and Sitka, with its fascinating Russian heritage, are well worth exploring. My favourite is Alert Bay in BC, where more than half of the population are ‘Namgis First Nations people, making it a great place to enjoy the native art and culture.

Alert Bay is actually our final stop before returning to Vancouver, and I have to run to catch the last tender heading back to the ship. On our penultimate afternoon on deck, there’s just time to laze in the late-afternoon sun, enjoy an ice cream, and watch Pacific white-sided dolphins skitter through the waves across the bow. It’s as if they are giving us a farewell escort . . . what could be finer?