Alaska is at the top of many a cruise wish list — but how many lines can truly get you up close to the state’s natural wonders?
Someday you’re going to go to Alaska. You can say you hate the cold, but you’ll still go. There are puffins, whales, otters, bears, glaciers, and fjords in many places around the world, but eventually you’ll give in, because only Alaska feels like Alaska: vast, empty, disconnected, and, as you start to realize during your 10th hour in the air to Anchorage, farther away than you’d imagined. It’s the end of the line, and not in a Key West kind of way.
“Alaska isn’t a reserve. It’s wild,” I was told by Chris Srigley, the leader of the expedition team aboard my Seabourn Sojourn cruise last July. “Wild” is not quite the same as the pure, still majesty of Antarctica, which fills you with peace. Wild is a charge in the air. It’s the dark, ominous, infinite evergreens. It’s watching everything trying to eat everything else, while keeping a respectful distance from the things that want to eat you. It’s the nagging thought in the back of your mind that the most powerful earthquake recorded in America — an incomprehensible 9.2 — occurred where you’re standing. The ground in Anchorage shook for four and a half minutes.
Champagne flowed freely as the 450-passenger Sojourn explored the wild for two leisurely weeks, starting in the southern port city of Seward and then following the Inside Passage to Vancouver. I’d sailed Seabourn on expedition itineraries before and knew its cosseted take on adventure and the people it would attract. They came from around the world, and they weren’t boring: an Australian TV celebrity, a producer of Sharknado, a lawyer from Liechtenstein, who finally explained Liechtenstein to me. As always, the cabins were spacious and the bathrooms were marble, while the food ranged from country-club solid to stellar. Chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry has his own handsome restaurant on board and also creates menus for the main dining room.
Most ships do this itinerary in one rat-a-tat week. Two weeks gave Sojourn the time to linger, to call on obscure ports, and to dig in with 116 shore excursions, many a part of Ventures by Seabourn. Available in Alaska since 2017, Ventures consists of more rigorous outings — the kind you’d traditionally find on an expedition cruise. The program, now over three years old, has transformed this luxury cruise line in unexpected ways. Everything has become less formal, more youthful, and much more active. There’s not a lot of vegging in a deck chair anymore. You’re in a kayak, alone in silence, or in a Zodiac, racing along with a guide telling stories about bears and avalanches. You’re focused on fishing, ethnography, nature photography, hiking, mindful living, or a zipline. You’re always wondering what you’ve missed: I’d go to dinner thrilled about my spin through the Tracy Arm iceberg field and leave envious of a new friend’s six-mile, eight-hour march in cleated boots across Davidson Glacier (after which he moaned in his cabin for a full day).
Each of us really designed a personal cruise. The birders were attached to their binoculars perpetually, hoping for one more pigeon guillemot. The whale-watchers would spend hours on deck, scanning the water for the tip of a fin. The bear people would lose their minds over every brown speck in the distance. “Look, at two o’clock....” “Sorry, it’s a rock....” “No, I saw it move....” “Too late, you missed it....”
I — a generalist — chose one ice outing, one search for sea and bird life, and one bear trek, though I wasn’t quick enough to book the coveted Ventures Anan Creek bear viewing, which sold out months in advance. And I like dogs, so I signed up for a helicopter jaunt to go sledding. I didn’t fully grasp that I’d be dropped onto a glacier with 200 huskies in training for the Iditarod, the legendary thousand-mile sled race from Anchorage to Nome. These weren’t the blue-eyed glamour dogs I was expecting; they were more like mutts, powerful, affectionate, smart, and bred solely for endurance. All they want to do is run, and if you make them stop, all they do is bark. Our musher had to spell out their commands — I can still see his breath in the cold air as he mouthed the letters H…A…W… — because if you even whisper the command “Haw,” every dog within earshot will take off like a rocket to the left. Within minutes of landing I was standing on the rails of a sled with 10 ecstatic dogs that thought they were galloping for Nome, ready to bump for miles through a valley of snow and ice. And then someone stuck a puppy in my arms. Total goner.
The wild side of Alaska is less apparent when you’re docked in Juneau or Ketchikan along with 14,000 people from other ships. But walk 200 yards beyond the shorefront stores, and you’ll find it. In Ketchikan, I spent an hour over reindeer sausage and eggs at the Pioneer Café, making futile small talk with the locals, who tend to answer in one word. Like most of the state, Wrangell, population 2,369, is accessible only by plane or boat, and the boat sometimes appears at 4:30 a.m. I found a café there that made Red Bull smoothies, and then reviewed a supermarket noticeboard where every kind of bullet was for sale.
Every day brought something a cruise brochure can’t quite capture: the distinctly un-touristy cultural demonstration by the First Nations people of Klemtu, British Columbia, where Seabourn is the only cruise line that calls, or the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines, where my heart was stolen by a bird named Arden that had been rescued after an encounter with a power line.
But I always liked knowing what was waiting for me at the end of an exhausting day: the yachtlike Sojourn, its clubby atmosphere, a crew I looked forward to seeing again, and — what every cruise revolves around — dinner. Months later I’m still thinking about a cut of prime beef Keller called a calotte, wondering if I’ll ever eat anything that good again. Two weeks of living like that goes to your head. At one point I caught myself standing on deck in hiking boots and waterproof pants saying, “I have to keep it simple tonight. Caviar and lamb chops.”
To book: seabourn.com; 10, 11, or 13-night Alaska sailings from $4,699 per person, all-inclusive.