With a rapt audience gathered in the ship's lounge, Alaskan Dream Cruises' onboard naturalist Simon Hook was giving his slideshow presentation about humpback whales when his audience ran for the doors.
He wouldn't have wanted it any other way. To his surprise and delight, a humpback whale was breaching off the port side of the Chichagof Dream.
"That was amazing," Hook said. "I keep losing my audience to the real thing."
Humpback whales breaching can be seen from the ship.
Like many of Alaskan Dream Cruises' employees, Hook bubbles over with enthusiasm about his love for Alaska and sharing its natural wonders with passengers aboard the nicely appointed Chichagof Dream, an 84-passenger ship with 8-knot cruising speed, just right for traveling Alaska's Inside Passage.
Alaskan Dream Cruises strives to provide guests with a "true Alaska experience" seen through the lens of Southeast Alaska's Native cultures. All-inclusive tours come with onboard cultural interpreters who share their experience of being an Alaska Native with the guests as they proudly show off their ancestral homeland.
"We're the only locally owned small-ship cruise operator in Alaska, and not just locally owned, but family-owned and Alaska Native-owned," said Zaide Allen, third-generation owner. "Through personal relationships and exploration, we're able to provide our guests access to an Alaska that many travelers don't get to experience."
Alaskan Dream Cruises is the only cruise line to be owned by Alaska Natives.
Alaskan Dream Cruises is for travelers who want a small cruise ship experience offering insights into the natural world and Native cultures, as well as premier wildlife viewing.
The onboard style is relaxed. Staterooms come with private toilets and showers. The staff is friendly and helpful. There's daily room service and evening turndown. The food is exceptionally good, with four-course menus featuring a variety of locally sourced seafood, meat and vegetarian dishes. Wine and beer are available with dinner, and the ship's full-service bar features daily cocktail specials and locally distilled spirits. There's social hour in the lounge in the late afternoon and coffee and pastries available for early risers.
Small boats take passengers close to the face of glaciers. The cruise line is designed for travelers who want to experience Native cultures, explore the wilderness and see the wildlife.
My hosted cruise began in Juneau with a land tour of Alaska's capital city. Stops included the new Alaska State Museum, rich in Native artifacts and history, and the nearby Mendenhall Glacier. In the evening, guests dined on Alaskan king crab legs, flame-grilled salmon and prime rib at Alaskan Dream Cruises' Orca Point Lodge at Colt Island. Guests then gathered on the beach to take in the sunset, toast s'mores and get to know each other.
Alaskan Dream Cruises' cultural interpreters bring a light touch to their talks, which are filled with humor and personal stories. This attitude was best exemplified as we were preparing to go kayaking. I am an experienced kayaker, but I could see traces of apprehension on the faces of some of my fellow passengers bundled up in rain gear and life jackets.
"So here's the scoop," said our paddling leader, Native interpreter Koo Hook, as we were getting set to launch. "Let's go live our lives," and with that we were off paddling like ducks to water.
Alaskan Dream Cruises' five small cruise ships have the advantage of being able to get to remote and wild places unavailable to the larger cruise ships. The Allen family, which owns the company and began offering sightseeing tours in 1970, is from Sitka and has spent decades exploring the many bays, coves and inlets of the region. It partners with the Forest Service, Glacier Bay National Park and private organizations to bring guests an authentic Alaska experience.
More than a day was spent in Glacier Bay National Park. The ship stopped at some of the park's stunning tidewater glaciers while guests looked for bears, wolves, mountain goats, Steller sea lions, puffins and humpback whales. A park ranger, as well as a Native cultural interpreter, was onboard to provide talks about wildlife and insights into Native Tlingit culture.
The Chichagof Dream then headed to Saginaw Bay where some guests went kayaking and others chose to take a walk on a nearby beach. The next day was spent in the fishing town of Petersburg, known as "Little Norway," where youths put on a charming display of folk dances at the Sons of Norway Hall and guests were offered Norwegian pastries and coffee. There was a narrated bus tour of the town and enough time to do some gift shopping.
The Chichagof Dream rounding a bend.
The next destination was the 32-mile Tracy Arm fjord with its towering granite cliffs, aquamarine blue icebergs and cascading waterfalls. Each turn of the ship offered a new and exciting vista as it closed in on the Sawyer Glacier, a stunning, blue jewel of ice. I have never seen such a lovely glacier.
The remainder of the tour included a visit to the Native village of Kake, which is home to the world's tallest totem pole. Guests enjoyed a Native dance demonstration, and received instruction on how to carve a canoe and weave a grass basket. Then it was back to the ship to explore the world-renowned whale waters of Frederick Sound. There, several pods of orcas put on an exciting display. As a pod of seven gathered at the front of the ship with the large male leading the way, a young man yelled to his father, "Dad, this is the best thing you ever did!"
Alaskan Dream Cruises offers numerous itineraries for Alaska's Inside Passage. Its Alaska's Glacier Bay & Island Adventure tour aboard the Chichagof Dream departs from May 28 to Aug. 27. Prices range from $4,390 to $6,990.
More information is available at www.alaskandreamcruises.com.