Cruising Alaska, for the love of nature

Managing editor Laura Dennis explored Alaska's Inside Passage aboard Cruise West's Spirit of Discovery. Her report follows:

ABOARD THE SPIRIT OF DISCOVERY -- The announcement came at 4:40 a.m. It was the one we were hoping for.

En route to LeConte Bay, near Petersburg, the captain had spotted some humpback whales breaching.

We scrambled to grab warm clothes, binoculars and the digital and video cameras, and hurried outside to capture the moment.

We waited and watched until two sets of humpback whales cruised along, diving and spouting but not breaching.

About 20 minutes later, one set decided we had waited long enough and dazzled us with full-on breaches for about five minutes. Not a bad way to start the morning.

Ketchikan is one of Cruise West's port calls.Thanks, Mother Nature

Mother Nature was on our side during this nine-day Juneau-Ketchikan itinerary.

With five days of sunshine, we were able to spend a great deal of time outside looking for wildlife and mixing with fellow passengers.

The well-traveled guest mix ranged in age from 7 to 85 and included an Oregon family of four, a Florida neurosurgeon and his wife, a retired electrical engineer from California and a Michigan teacher and her husband. Even the 7-year-old was no slouch in the travel department. He and his 11-year-old brother were getting ready to go to Italy in the fall, where their father, an English professor, was going to teach for the semester.

Many passengers already had bonded because they traveled together on the line's cruise-tour program prior to the sailing. Conversation flowed freely in the dining room, the observation lounge and on the decks, but it could come to an abrupt halt if wildlife was spotted.

The dining room almost cleared out on a few occasions, especially when an orca (which proved to be the most elusive creature during this sailing) was sighted out the window.

Leisurely stops to observe wildlife were routine, and the captain would shut the motor off and angle toward the wildlife without intruding on their turf.

Eagle sightings were so commonplace that we almost became blase about them. Whales were just as plentiful during this sailing, and as we traversed the waterways, we came upon Steller's sea lions, tufted puffins, harbor seals and Dall's porpoises.

We also spotted a black bear and her three cubs climbing a mountain, and one morning, four brown bears walking on the shoreline.

The most thunderous moment came at Johns Hopkins Glacier in Glacier Bay, where a roar signaled another calving.

Jen, our onboard interpretive guide, kept track of each day's adventures and traced our route on a large map in the hallway of the lounge deck.

The line supplied guests with the completed list at the end of the trip -- a thoughtful touch.

Metla-where?

Cruise West visits many of the popular Inside Passage spots like Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Glacier Bay, but also ventures to some lesser-known areas like Petersburg and Metlakatla.

This is one way the line distinguishes itself from the big guys. Another way is offering one complimentary shore excursion at each port.

In Metlakatla, a village on Annette Island south of Ketchikan, the included tour (and the only shore excursion available) introduced us to the Tsimshian people, who are newcomers to tourism.

This small settlement is trying to get in touch with its Tsimshian roots and involve young and old alike.

Metlakatla is making inroads in that department and it's quite evident at the Tribal Longhouse, where residents show off for visitors with an enthusiastic song and dance performance.

Another performance that earned kudos from passengers was an impromptu jam session with the captain and crew.

Armed with guitars, bongos and a kazoo, the crew played some original tunes and familiar songs one evening. We demanded a repeat performance, and later that week they obliged.

They engaged the crowd with sing-alongs, and two of the most lively participants were a pair of octogenarians who showed the younger folks a thing or two.

Settling in

It was easy to get comfortable on this ship and settle into a routine. The dining room is on the main deck, the bar and lounge on the lounge deck and the pilot house on the bridge deck.

The ship's 43 cabins, which range from single to deluxe, are apportioned almost equally among the three decks.

All of the rooms have outside windows and the basic amenities. A nice touch was the pair of binoculars available in each cabin (additional binoculars could be found in the lounge).

For those who want some extra perks, the ship's two deluxe cabins come equipped with a TV/VCR, a minirefrigerator and a queen-size bed.

No big surprise, the lounge, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, was the hub of activity.

Passengers gathered there to have daily continental breakfast (a full breakfast was served in the dining room) and pre-dinner hors d'ouevres, to peruse the small library of paperback novels and Alaska-related books and to read, play games, write postcards, show off digital photos or just enjoy the majestic scenery.

At night, it served as the gathering spot for after-dinner drinks and entertainment, including lectures on ports, wildlife and Alaskan personalities and a mock game show with the crew.

The ship's staff was small in number and seemed to have a million duties. For example, the person who makes your bed might also serve your meals and wash the windows in the lounge.

Gratuities are pooled, and the suggested amount was about $10 per passenger, per day.

I found the staff to be attentive, friendly and hard-working.

Cruise West touts its casual dress code as a strong selling point.

But with the advent of terms like elegant-casual and business-casual, what does cruise-casual mean?

Jeans were fine for dinner, but some passengers opted for a more refined look (meaning khakis and button-down shirts for men and sweater sets and slacks for women).

In terms of the menu, there were some disappointments but overall the meals were of good quality, especially the homemade soups and breads.

While the Spirit of Discovery doesn't have the bells and whistles of a megaship, the line has carved out a niche by giving passengers ample time at each port, by inviting specialists on board to enrich the cruise experience and by allowing for unscheduled port calls and wildlife viewings.

Line adds two new itineraries for 2003

SEATTLE -- Cruise West wrapped up a "better-than-expected" season in Alaska, according to Jerre Fuqua, the line's vice president of sales and marketing.

Like most other lines, Cruise West experienced a pattern of last-minute bookings this summer, and so far it is "too early to tell" what will happen during the 2003 season, he said.

Fuqua said the line is halfway through its breakfast seminars program for the trade and is surveying its top-producing agents about possible new destinations -- north and south Asia and the South Pacific.

Cruise West also will survey past guests about their interest in those areas.

For next year, the line added two Alaska itineraries to its lineup.

Coastal Odyssey is a 12-day cruise that sails between Vancouver and Anchorage. Port calls include Prince Rupert in British Columbia, Petersburg, Juneau, Sitka and Homer.

Also on the itinerary are Kenai Fjords National Park, Misty Fjords National Monument, Frederick Sound and Glacier Bay National Park.

The new Wilderness Waterways voyage is an eight-day roundtrip from Juneau.

The line said this sailing focuses on the remote bays in the network of islands -- including Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof -- in the northern part of the Alexander Archipelago.

The cruise also explores Sitka, Tracy Arm, Glacier Bay and Kake, a Tlingit village on Kupreanof Island.

The line increased the departures for its Voyage to the Bering Sea itinerary.

Four sailings are on tap for 2003 (the line had two this year), and those voyages will either embark or disembark in Anchorage.

The sailings are aboard its flagship vessel, the Spirit of Oceanus (a former Renaissance vessel).

Itineraries for the line's non-Alaska destinations are outlined in its Americas Experience brochure.

For a copy of the line's 2003 brochures, call (800) 888-9378. For reservations, call (800) 426-7702 or visit www.cruisewest.com. -- L.D.

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