On September 7, 2013, I returned from Alaska. I love the outdoors. This was the trip of a lifetime - raw, wild, wonderful beauty from the comfort of a small ship, the Wilderness Discoverer (176 feet, 76 passengers max).
Before this cruise we visited famous Glacier Bay, staying at Glacier Bay Lodge.
- Unlike most cruises, the ship does not stop port to port. Instead, it anchors nightly in small bays and fjords surrounded by forest and meadows, towering cliffs, and near the bases of massive glaciers. Then it offers everyone the opportunity to kayak, stand up paddleboard or hike or take small skiff tours of the area.
- The kayaks and stand up paddleboards are launched and retrieved from the stern of the ship. You do not get wet from the kayak launch, a good thing, since the water temperature can go as low as 32 degrees. Sometimes there are kayak tours of the area led by expert naturalists. Very often open kayaking is offered - you can go where you like, within site of the ship for safety. This latter opportunity was especially appealing to me - it's a very peaceful way to enjoy the beauty and wildlife of Alaska. My favorite experience doing this was sneaking up to within a few feet of a sea otter sleeping in a mass of seaweed in the middle of a small peaceful bay.
- The hikes range from beach walks (fascinating diversity of life under every rock), to beautiful forest pokes, to bushwhacks though beautiful forests and boot sucking muskeg and bogs. All of the hikes are guided by expert naturalists. Almost none of them were on trails (there aren't any!).
- The skiff tours are on motorized pontoon boats holding up to 12 passengers. I thought the best of these was those winding though the small to massive pieces of ice dropping off the nearby glaciers.
- The wildlife viewing was fantastic. Mountain goats, bears (species brown and black), seals and sea lions, salmon, bald eagles, cute sea otters, and an abundance of creatures under rocks when the tide is out. (Have you ever kissed a Slug? No, not the human kind. Probably should be no more than a once in a lifetime experience, for both types.)
- And then there were the whales! In Frederick Sound we were surrounded by about 100 40 ton Humpback Whales, trumpeting, bellowing, breaching, fin slapping, leaping fully out or the water while twisting and turning before slapping back into the water, all the while with Dahl Porporpuses zipping around them like race cars, and some of this action within a few feet of the ship. I have lived.
- I saw the Northern Lights!
- The ship's schedule is flexible. All they promise is to get you between Juneau and Ketchikan on time, and to do different routes going south and north. They go more or less on the advertised route, but stopping and changing that route depending on weather and tides. Examples:
- Whales and bears will stop the ship and interrupt dinner.
- Rough seas changed our turn route to include Petersburg (with tours) in stead of the Native American village. The ship is not built for comfortable navigation of 6' waves.
- For the first time this season the ship was able to visit Ford's Terror, a Fjord off of Endicott Arm that is like a small Yosemite Valley with mountains like El Capitan and the North Dome, but with water filling the valley and with no other people there. Tides usually create dangerous currents into and out of this place (thus its name), but our captain knew this special place was accessible on our tour
- In only a few places at which we anchored was there anyone else there, and then only one small private boat or one small day tour boat from Ketchican.
- Have you ever seen Glacier Ice floating in the bay? It's pure blue, because all of the air has been compressed out of it. Have you ever tasted it? (Bland, but cold, and makes a good photo.)
- The weather varied from typical Alaska drizzle and cold wind (especially near the glaciers) to beautiful mist (yes, in Misty Fjord), to bright, sunny, comfortable days. But no problem - the ship has two hot tubs and a sauna.
- The tour is run by an aptly named company, Un-Cruise. The specific tour I took was the 14 day Ultimate Adventure - Roundtrip Juneau
- The ship is comfortable and the food, though not gourmet, is good. The service is simply outstanding. Except for the most expensive ones, the cabins are tiny, but adequate, giving that you only sleep and bathe in them. For all but the most expensive cabins, choose a twin configuration so you have enough room between the beds to move and can store your luggage under both beds. Of the expensive cabins on the 400 deck, cabins 400 and 401 are the best, as they have both forward and side facing windows.
- You can choose do to only one way of this trip for 7 days. There is a 10% discount for the second 7 days. Both directions are fantastic, but if you are only doing one, I suggest the southbound leg from Juneau to Ketchikan.
- Alaska Airlines flies to both Juneau and Ketchikan. You can access these flights via miles from Alaska Air or its partners, including American and Delta Airlines and British Airways.
- If you choose to take this or any other Un-Cruise adventure, mention my name, Gary Steiger and the fact that I was on Juneau -Ketchikan - Juneau 14 day cruise departing August 24, 2013, to get a $150 discount.
- We saw rugged scenery, great wildlife, including a large colony of massive and smaller Sea Lions, and Puffins, one of my favorite birds, and of course, Glaciers.
- The Glacier Bay Lodge all inclusive 3 day, 2 night package was very worthwhile. It included the all day boat tour of the bay, and another day to enjoy the surroundings and the excellent National Park naturalist programs.
I highly recommend spending the extra few dollars for a view room.
- Free camping is available in a very nice walk in campground with heated bathrooms.
- If you are doing the 14 day Un-Cruise tour, you can fly on one ticket from your home airport to Gustavos (Glacier Bay), the return with a 15 day stopover in Juneau to do the cruise. If you are doing the 7 day tour, consider an open jaw ticket to Juneau, return from Ketchikan, then buying the very short flight ticket between Gustavos and Juneau (about 15 minutes in the air each way).
- There is a ferry from Juneau a few times a week in the summer. 4 hours I am told.