ALASKA'S INSIDE PASSAGE IS A POPULAR CRUISING AREA BECAUSE AMERICANS YEARN TO SEE WILDLIFE AND ENORMOUS, AQUA-TINTED GLACIAL WALLS. Most park permits limit cruise ships to five hours within the Inside Passage's Glacier Bay National Park, and passengers are required to stay onboard during that time. But some of American Safari Cruises' itineraries, including our Safari Quest cruise from Juneau to Sitka, spend two full days within the park.
American Safari Cruises (ASC) also holds park permits that entitle its guests to explore the park's shoreline in kayaks and skiffs. This close-to-nature, small-group experience is the cruise line's most extraordinary feature. ASC's yachts accommodate between six and 22 guests; its newest vessel—the 39-passenger, 150-foot Safari Explorer—will debut in Alaska next spring.
The Safari Quest is 120 feet long, has a 28-foot beam and carries up to 22 passengers, making guests feel as if they are on a friend's well-staffed yacht. A crew of nine served our group of 18 and included a very competent and friendly captain, mates, engineer, stewards and chef (and pastry chef), plus a highly knowledgeable expedition leader.
The landscape and the wildlife are the "wow factors" when traveling Alaska's Inside Passage, and the yacht's interior is designed to afford excellent views. While some of the more active crowd boarded kayaks or skiffs at every opportunity, most passengers spent some time each day on deck with camera in hand, observing wildlife in the water (otters lazing belly up, sea lions clustering on rocks, humpback whales dipping and blowing water), on the beach (bear families strolling), on steep ledges (mountain goats walking), atop Sitka spruce trees (bald eagles perching) or in the sky (white-tailed and bald eagles circling).
Some passengers enjoyed the scene from indoors. Some lounged—reading a book, knitting or having a drink—in the salon on a curved couch or leather chairs, all within view of large windows.
Others stayed on the top deck, in the hot tub, on one of two exercise machines, on lounge chairs or in the small library overlooking the rear deck. Another spot for viewing is the window-walled bridge, where the captain has an open-door policy and welcomes guests with a smile and binoculars.
Even the dining room is framed by a window-wall, and its views are reflected on a mirrored wall inside. The chef, who announced menu choices at breakfast—and who offered to prepare any dish according to personal preference—served food made from the freshest ingredients available. The pastry chef, who bakes muffins and breads three times daily, plus cookies for teatime and desserts, also accommodated individual requests.
Airy, light-filled cabins on the upper level (A1–A4) have tiny balconies and views through sliding glass windows. Reached through the dining room on the main level are a small stateroom with bunk beds (±) and a comfortable Captain's Stateroom (B2) with a queen-size bed and a large window that opens.
On the lower level, the Mariner Staterooms have paneled walls and one small, non-opening porthole. All cabins have adequate storage, a closet and a comfortable "head" (bathroom) with a heated floor and a shower.
Angela Wallace from the Virtuoso-affiliated Travel Agency (www.thetvlagency.com) in Amelia Island, FL, traveled aboard the Safari Quest with her fiancé, a chef. She says, "We were both quite impressed with the cuisine aboard this vessel. It was very exciting to watch them handpick our crabs from a local fisherman and then prepare it for us that same evening. We were always welcomed back onboard with a special beverage and snack after kayaking or hiking. There was much attention to detail, to say the least." She notes that the passengers she spoke with had learned about the vessel from their travel agents.
Seven-night Alaska cruises start around $5,000 per person (add approximately $2,000 per person for upper cabins with balconies). ASC yachts can be booked by the cabin or as a full-yacht charter, and rates include airport transfers, excursions and alcoholic beverages (but not the recommended 5-10 percent for gratuities). Children under 12 are not allowed except on the "Kids in Nature" (KIN) cruises, which feature special educational programs.
For more information on the cruise line, including reservations and commissions, contact American Safari Cruises at 888-862-8881, 904-261-5914 or www.amsafari.com.