Cruise West plies Bering Sea, sails to Siberia

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SEATTLE -- Last year, a few Alaska vacationers decided to skip a traditional cruise voyage in favor of a cruise with an unusual side trip to Siberia, courtesy of Cruise West.

As a smaller, specialized cruise line, Cruise West can tailor offbeat itineraries to more adventurous clientele.

Jeff Krida, Cruise West president, said the line's Voyage to the Bering Sea sailings started as a repositioning cruise from Asia to Alaska for its newest acquisition, the 114-passenger Spirit of Oceanus (formerly a Renaissance Cruises vessel).

"I think we discovered, after the first two trips, that people were thrilled by the experience," Krida said. "That got our attention."

He described cruising the Bering Sea as "kind of like going to southeast Alaska 50 years ago."

Passengers visit Yanrakynnot and Provideniya, areas of Russia where Chukchi and Yupic natives live in traditional villages.

Some of the sites on the trip, Krida said, are pretty intense.

Cruise West's 114-passenger vessel the Spirit of Oceanus will carry guests from Alaska to Russia on four Voyage to the Bering Sea sailings this year. In one area, he said, "You see, 100 yards from the village, the rusted metal from the Soviets -- oil drums to heat their homes and trucks, now just brown, rusted metal.

"And then there's a mile-long strip of 150 to 200 skeletons of bowhead whales. To walk through a graveyard of bleached-white whale skeletons is mind-boggling."

Krida said he and Cruise West CEO Dick West traveled on the second Bering Sea voyage, where the group saw a dead gray whale being eaten by orcas.

"Our naturalist said they'd never seen that before," Krida added.

To explain the culture and native animal life of the region, the ship carries an ethnologist, a marine mammal specialist and a historian.

The Voyage to the Bering Sea is a 14-day sailing from Nome to Anchorage (or vice versa) that cruises to the Arctic Circle and the very western tip of Russia before heading to national wildlife refuges in Alaska, the Pribilof Islands, the tip of the Aleutian Islands (the chain of islands off the Alaska coast), Kodiak and Homer.

Brochure prices for the itineraries begin at $7,199.

The two voyages proved so popular in 2002 that the line doubled its itineraries for 2003.

In 2004, Krida said, the line will dedicate the Spirit of Oceanus to the region and offer about eight cruises.

Cruise West said sales momentum on the Bering Sea voyages are 20% ahead of the rest of its 2003 sales.

"We just decided to gamble that there are a lot of people who are hoping to have that experience ... up-close, personal, casual," Krida said.

And, he added, the voyage takes passengers to a place whose natural beauty and culture could dissolve with the introduction of oil drilling there.

"The Russians are going to discover they have a North Slope," Krida said. "When they do, this type of Yupic village is going to disappear."

For additional information on Cruise West, call (800) 426-7702 or visit www.cruisewest.com.

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