Wilderness Discoverer Cruise Travel Journal Introduction
Un-Cruise Adventures Overview
Un-Cruise Adventures is a small ship cruise line started in 2013, but her roots go back to 1996 when American Safari Cruises was established. In 2008 American Safari Cruises gained a new parent company when its former CEO Dan Blanchard – who headed American Safari Cruises from 2001 through 2008 – formed InnerSea Discoveries, LLC with partner Tim Jacox and purchased American Safari Cruises. After a significant fleet expansion, the company changed its name to Un-Cruise Adventures in January 2013. The fleet currently consists of eight ships directly operated by the company. The ships sail Alaska, the Sea of Cortes, Hawaiian Islands, coastal Washington, British Columbia and Columbia & Snake Rivers.
Overview of Un-Cruise Adventures' Wilderness Discoverer Cruise
I sailed from Ketchikan to Juneau on the 76-passenger Un-Cruise Adventures' Wilderness Discoverer in early September, and loved the small ship experience. We had a ship full of adventure-seeking nature lovers, all anxious to hike, kayak, and explore the wonders of Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage. I don't think anyone on the ship was disappointed in our cruise experience. The crew was fantastic, adjusting the itinerary to avoid gale force winds blowing down the passage. Since Southeast Alaska is primarily a giant rainforest, most days it rained, but not enough to keep anyone from getting out and exploring. As detailed on the following pages, the food greatly exceeded our expectations, especially given the size of the tiny galley. And, the wildlife sightings and natural wonders of the area continually amazed us each and every day.
Join me on the Un-Cruise Adventures' Wilderness Discoverer as we sail the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska.
A Day in Ketchikan and Embarkation
Arrival in Ketchikan
I was reminded that Alaska attracts adventurers from all over the world when I was sitting at the gate in Seattle, waiting to board the plane for Ketchikan. The flight appeared to only be about half-full, but about 90 percent of the passengers were men, and all were dressed in denim and flannel rather than the business suits often seen on other flights. In addition, most were carrying fishing rods rather than briefcases.
It was sunny when we left Seattle, but lightly raining when the flight touched down in Ketchikan. The Ketchikan airport is on an island, so arriving and departing passengers must take a ferry or a water taxi to get into town. As we waited on the ferry, it was fun to watch the float planes landing and taking off. Sometimes the water "runway" has over 500 take-offs and landings in a single day! While on the ferry, I saw one of the fishing boats made famous by the cable TV show, "The Deadliest Catch". During the week, we would see other boats from the series.
Driving along the coast, I noted that Ketchikan, like Juneau, is a little town packed along the narrow channel dividing it and a nearby island, with water on one side and mountains on the other. There were two large cruise ships in port--one from Holland America and the other from Celebrity, so many of those flights may have been for passengers going to see Misty Fjords or other nearby natural wonders.
We arrived at the New York Hotel, which is on Stedman Street, right next to the bridge over Ketchikan Creek and famous Creek Street, the old "red light district" of Ketchikan. The managers (and Jack & Jill of all trades) of the quaint old hotel, Jessica and Jose, warmly greeted me, and Jose drove me the short block over to the fisherman's wharf at Thomas Basin and harbor where my suite was located. Jessica and Jose have been renovating some of the former bordello buildings on the wharf into lofts and suites. The outside of the building is corrugated metal and very rustic, but the inside is spacious and modern. It even had two large flat screen televisions and cable TV. Our second floor suite had two bedrooms, a living room, den, full kitchen, dining area, bath, and good view of the Thomas Basin. The hotel was probably much nicer than when the "sporting women" were working there! I loved the location and ambiance of this hotel, and it's a great place to stay either before or after an Alaskan cruise. A family could easily stay in the suite and cook their own meals if desired. Also, it was fun to tell our friends back home that we stayed in an old bordello!
Although it was pouring rain, I put on the rain gear and took a walk to get some dinner. I found a Thai restaurant, ate some Singapore noodles, and read my Kindle while listening in to the conversations around me. My friend Julie arrived not long after dinner. It was still raining hard, and we kept our fingers crossed that the next day would be better.
A Day in Rainy Ketchikan
The next morning, I awoke about 7 am and peered out the window. It was still raining. I laid back down, and almost immediately felt a shake, followed by two more gentle tremors a few seconds apart. An earthquake! I got up, dressed, and discovered that Julie was already up. The first thing out of her mouth was, "did you feel the earthquakes"? Glad to know I wasn't dreaming, but doubt if I would have noticed it if I hadn't been lying in my bed half-awake.
Because of the rain, we took our time getting ready to go out and explore Ketchikan. We sloshed over to the hotel, had a delicious breakfast, and checked out of the room. Jose had already told us just to leave the bags and he would pick them up around 10 am and make sure they were delivered to the Cape Fox Lodge where we were to meet up with our Wilderness Discoverer cruise group at 3 pm.
We explored the city, not finding much open. Julie and I wanted to tour Dolly's House Museum, a renovated bordello, but it was closed, as were many of the shops. Only one small ship other than ours, the 382-guest Silversea Silver Shadow, was in port. The cruise season was almost over, and I guess the shops didn't think that less than 500 cruise visitors warranted opening on a very rainy Saturday. (Ketchikan was expecting over 10,000 cruise passengers the next day. I bet all the shops were open then, no matter what the weather was!)
We hated to go inside even the few shops that were open since we were dripping wet. We did go into a local cafe for a hot chocolate. Delicious on a cold, wet day!
Julie and I sat at the hotel for a while and used the Internet, but finally went on up to the Cape Fox Lodge about 1:30. Although there is a funicular going up to the lodge, which sits on a hill overlooking downtown Ketchikan, we opted to walk to get a little exercise. We ate a light lunch at the hotel. I had a spinach salad, with cranberries, pecans, and Gorgonzola cheese and a light vinaigrette. Julie had a crock of the creamy seafood chowder, which was loaded with scallops, clams, halibut, and potatoes. She said it was the "best ever".
Since there are many things to do and see in Ketchikan, I wish the weather had not been so horrible the day we were there. Glad I had visited before, and guess I'll have to return.
When we met at 3 pm, we had an hour's presentation by Joe, a native Tlingit who lives near Ketchikan. He spoke for an hour on the Tlingit culture and traditions. Very interesting and kind of sad that the Tlingits abandoned the family traditions that had been followed for about 10,000 years when the tribe decided in the 1930s/1940s to assimilate with the white man. For years when Joe was growing up (he was 68), he didn't learn very many native songs, dances, or cultural history. Today, they are teaching the young people about their cultural past since they realized that it is important to understand both the culture and traditions of the past as well as the present time.
At the conclusion of the presentation, our cruise expedition leader came in, and I was both surprised and delighted to see that it was Kristan Roth, one of the crew I had enjoyed sailing with last year on the small ship the Mist Cove. After her presentation, I went up and reintroduced myself. She recognized my face, but couldn't place where we had met. However, she suddenly asked if my husband was the exceptional bass fisherman from Georgia. So, she remembered Ronnie, but not me!
Boarding and First Evening on the Un-Cruise Adventures' Wilderness Discoverer
We were on the Un-Cruise Adventures Wilderness Discoverer by about 4 pm, and it was really raining. The ship was full -- 68 passengers or so (a couple of cabins had solo travelers). We never even had to show our ID to board--just give them our names. We went to the cabin, and our suitcases were already in the cabin. Our cabin was very small. We had twin beds on either side of the window, with a small space in-between. We had a cabinet between the two beds and a sink in the room. The shower/toilet is very tiny, but has a shower curtain to keep you from getting the toilet wet. The cabin worked out fine, especially since we could hang our coats and put our rubber boots out in the hallway and store our suitcases under the beds.
We went to happy hour where they had really cheap well drinks at the bar -- $2 before dinner. They also had brownies, grapes, thinly sliced apples, and prosciutto, grapes, and bread with ricotta cheese spread to go along with the drinks. Nice appetizers!
Dinner was absolutely delicious. We had halibut with a salsa verde sauce (olive oil and herbs), potatoes with skins, carrots with fennel and chard, and a spinach salad with cranberries, nuts, cheese, etc. Julie said the bread was extra good--kind of nutty, grainy white bread. (I resisted) Dessert was a marvelous mixed berry cobbler topped with sour cream. All meals are served buffet style, so you can control your own portion size. Wine was only $3 per glass, so it's cheaper than on other ships. One guy at our open-seating table didn't like fish, so they grilled him a chicken breast. They also had a vegetarian option--grilled portobello mushrooms.
After dinner, Kristan the expedition leader gave a talk about the next day. Since they were expecting 40+ mph winds and driving rain, the Captain decided to stay at the dock until 4:30 am rather than face 8-9 foot seas on our smallish boat. Good decision.
We were asleep before 10 pm. Lucky for me, I had been in Ketchikan before on a gorgeous sunny day, which makes everything look better and results in a more festive, resort-like atmosphere. The town has many outdoor activities for vacationers such as hiking, fishing, or ziplining. Ketchikan also has several museums, and fascinating totems are scattered around the town. Like much of Southeast Alaska, it's also one of the rainiest areas in the USA, so be sure to take along your rain gear!
Bubble Net Feeding Whales in Alaska - Day 2
First Morning on the Wilderness Discoverer
Our first full day on the Un-Cruise Adventures ship, I was awake by 4:20 am, having slept hard for six hours. The Wilderness Discoverer hadn't sailed yet, but there was activity on the deck. In addition, the marvelous smell of bacon cooking was evident in our cabin. We had left the window cracked open, and it was near the exhaust vent from the galley! What a marvelous aroma. I read until 6:30 and then went outside on the deck. It had stopped raining (temporarily) and was a lovely morning. We were rapidly sailing north.
Although they had coffee/tea available 24 hours, the first "fresh" pot of coffee was out at 5 am. At 6:30 is a yummy continental breakfast, consisting of fresh fruit, oatmeal, and pastries. They had cranberry orange scones and apricot nutty bread. Both the breads were delicious.
I stood outside and chatted with some of our fellow passengers. I was surprised to find many Australians on board. At 7:30, they announced regular hot breakfast, which included all the dishes we had for continental breakfast, plus scrambled eggs and the bacon I smelled earlier.
After breakfast, we had a short meeting with Kristan to discuss the day. Since the Wilderness Discoverer didn't leave Ketchikan until almost 12 hours later than planned, they were adjusting the itinerary. We would stop at a bay they thought would be quiet and calm. In that bay, we would have three kayaking levels--tours for those who were experts and those who were experienced, and a "kayak 101" class for those of us who needed instruction. Julie and I both signed up for this class. Even though we had kayaked "some", neither of us had ever used a kayak "skirt" (to keep the water off your legs), or a kayak with foot pedals for steering.
Bubble-Net Feeding Whales!
As we sailed towards the bay, we sat in the lounge and drank tea/coffee. Suddenly someone announced--whales, so we all grabbed binoculars and ran outside to see them. At first they were very far away, but Captain Marce (a very tiny, young female Captain whose name is pronounced Marse) brought the ship around and approached the humpback whales. The law allows ships to get within 100 yards before killing their engines. I was so excited because the humpback whales were "bubble-net feeding", i.e. working cooperatively to round-up small bait fish (krill) and feast on them. Note that these giant humpbacks have an esophagus the size of a cantaloupe, so no "Jonah" whales here!
Even the crew got excited since it was only the second time this year they had seen this type of humpback behavior. For over an hour, we watched them feed. They would flip their flukes (tails), dive down, and we would wait patiently. After about 3-4 minutes, huge swarms of birds that had been sitting on the water would fly up and start circling the water. (A couple of scout birds stayed in the air the whole time while the others rested.) The whales release bubbles to entrap their food, and the birds can see the bubbles and the whales as they approach the surface. The little bird beggars love to join in on the easy feast.
After the birds started circling, within another 30 seconds we saw six or seven whales coming way up out of the water. Kind of like in square dancing where everyone comes into the middle of the square with their arms/hands up, except in this case the whales have their huge mouths open, taking in thousands of gallons of water and straining the krill out through their baleen. Very impressive. One of the passengers said they looked like very good synchronized swimmers, which was an excellent analogy. Best whale activity I had ever seen. The humpbacks are continually feeding while in Alaska, and this is the only place in the world where this type of cooperative feeding activity occurs. Although these humpbacks move to Hawaii for the winter to breed, they only feed while in Alaska. No wonder they are constantly feeding. I would be too if I could only eat for less than six months a year.
The chef delayed lunch for about 30 minutes so we could continue to watch the show. Amazing. I didn't get very good pictures since my camera (and my reflexes) aren't fast enough. Plus, I was so mesmerized, I kept forgetting to snap as soon as they burst through the surface of the water.
After all that excitement, we dived into the lunch spread. It was another terrific salad, two hearty soups (creamy mixed seafood and/or a potato corn chowder made with coconut milk) Dessert was giant cookies--coconut, chocolate chips, nuts, raisins, and cranberries.
Lake Bay, Alaska - Day 2
By the time we finished lunch, we had arrived at Lake Bay on Prince of Wales island, a secluded cove on Alaska's Inside Passage out of the wind. Using the small crane, the crew started launching the kayaks and small boats used for sightseeing tours.
Kayaking at Lake Bay
Julie and I had our kayak 101 class at 1:30 and boat tour at 4:15, so it was a busy afternoon--no time for napping. The Wilderness Discoverer had a nice floating platform used to launch the kayaks, so you don't run the risk of tipping over when you get in the kayak since you are "on land". The rule to enter the kayak was "boot, butt, second boot", so it's pretty easy to get in (getting out was more difficult). I took the back seat and Julie the front since I had paddled a little more than she had. We attached our skirts and the guides pushed us into the water. We did okay, paddling around the cove with a small group of other "newbies". The guide helped us with our kayaking technique, and the whole group even saw two Sitka black-tailed deer in a glade next to shore. The deer watched us with amusement as we tried different paddling strokes, never moving from their beds. I thought maybe the deer came weekly for the show, but this was the first time the ship had been in this cove all year, so no wonder they were mesmerized.
We were back at the Un-Cruise Adventures' ship by around 2:45, so Julie and I sat in the lounge for a while. I worked on this journal (before I forgot stuff) and Julie read up on bubble feeding and Alaska flora and fauna. We were going to have another cookie, but decided to have a drink instead. Julie had one of the $2 vodka tonics and I had the mini-margarita $3 drink special (it was good, not too sweet). We also snacked on a few salty pretzels and snack mix. They don't want us to go hungry on this cruise!
Exploring by Small Boat from the Wilderness Discoverer
Our 4:15 boat tour group went out in one of the two pontoons, which seats about 12. The smaller inflatable boats seat six. Our guide had spotted an interesting abandoned fish cannery near a narrows and we went to explore. We rode near the shore, watching the many birds with our binoculars. The fish cannery was very quaint and a little spooky. Would be an excellent location for a horror movie!
We continued along the shore, seeing several eagles. As the waterway narrowed, the tidal current became much stronger, and it was like we were riding on a river. The guide almost hit a submerged rock, which served to add to the excitement. The tide was coming in rapidly and we all enjoyed watching the bull kelp sweeping back and forth with the current. Finally, it was time to turn around and head back to the ship. Unfortunately, we didn't see any bears. They must all be feeding in the salmon streams. As we went back by the old fish cannery, our guide spotted a mink running along the shore, darting in and out of the old wharf pilings. We stopped to watch him, and he watched right back! We were back at the ship by about 5:30.
Dinner was at 6:30, and so I decided to take a shower while Julie opted to join some of our fellow passengers in one of the two, six-person hot tubs. After showering and getting dressed, I went outside to check on her, but she was fine, sipping a glass of white wine and enjoying the amazing Southeast Alaska views. It was raining a little, but didn't bother the hot tubbers. I immediately realized it would be a popular place during our cruise.
Dinner and Planning for the Next Day
Dinner was another delicious meal--roast beef, wheat berries with caramelized onions and roasted tomatoes, grilled asparagus with roasted mushrooms, and panna cotta for dessert. Yummy.
After dinner, we had the nightly talk from Kristan. The Wilderness Discoverer was going to Petersburg the next day. Like Lake Bay, it was another unscheduled stop. The weather forecast was for heavy rains and gale-force winds starting in the afternoon. The expedition team had scheduled three hikes in the morning -- a level 3+ difficulty mountain trail, which was 6 miles round trip. Un-Cruise Adventures ranks its hikes from level 1 to level 3, with level 3 being the most difficult. According to the guides, this hike was much more than a 3+, it was closer to a "10". The hike started with a 1.5 mile "trot" along a flat gravel roadbed to the trailhead and then a 2700-foot climb almost straight up for the next 1.5 miles. Then, you had to go back down the same way and back to the ship. Hiking up Petersburg Mountain is a rite of passage for Petersburg citizens, and young people often make the trek in the eighth grade. It usually takes a full day, so our group would not have time to make the full ascent to the top. They would stop whenever the group gave out or they ran out of time, whichever came quicker.
The second hike was a level 2 coastal trail, which was about 4 miles. Similar scenery through a rain forest. It would be led in the morning and again in the afternoon. The third hike was a historic walking tour of Petersburg, an easy one for the morning. At 11 am, there would be a fisheries presentation in the lounge. All morning hikes would be back for lunch.
After lunch was an easy harbor walking tour and some folks (about 15) signed up for a flightseeing tour of LeConte glacier ($200 per person for a 45 minute ride). Julie and I had both done Alaska flightseeing, and Ronnie and I had been to LeConte via boat, so we decided to skip this extra tour.
Believe it or not, Julie signed up for the 3+ hike, but saner me signed up for the level 2 coastal walk. My gut told me we would both get wet.
Hiking in Petersburg, Alaska - Day 3
Hiking the Kupreanof Trail to Petersburg Creek and Petersburg Mountain
The Wilderness Discoverer arrived in Petersburg during the night. Petersburg is a major fishing town, with one of Alaska's highest per capita incomes. Although it rained during the night, it wasn't raining when we got up. Had a nice breakfast of fruit, a spicy peach coffee cake, and scrambled eggs. The chefs also had sausage and "baked oatmeal", along with regular oatmeal, and a selection of breads and Greek yogurts. We had a short break in the middle of breakfast to run outside and see some "transient" orcas who were cruising the harbor. (Note: Transient orcas are more aggressive and more likely to attack the seals and sea lions who hang around Petersburg than the "resident" ones.)
Julie left with the other 9 on her 3+-level hike at 8:30, taking a small boat across the harbor to start the hike up Petersburg Mountain. This is a 3.5 mile hike, which goes up 2700 feet. Most people take a whole day, but our group from the Wilderness Discoverer was only hiking for 4 hours, so they didn't make it all the way to the top. They did have a very difficult hike, although most of it was climbing rather than hiking. Julie got back to the ship about 12:30, tired but not completely wiped out as I feared. She was (rightfully) proud of her accomplishment, and was less muddy than I expected she would be.
My level-2 Petersburg Creek hike left at 9:15, and we got back to the ship at 11:40. Our hike was much easier than I expected, with a boardwalk covering the boggy soil. We hiked through rainforest most of the way, crossing an interesting muskeg (peat bog) arriving at a nice inlet leading to the Wrangell Narrows after about an hour. It was lovely, but wet and slippery. They had just replaced the boardwalk this year, so it was easy walking (other than the slippery-ness). We saw several eagles and a bunch of other birds, but no bears or other wildlife.
After all the hiking, lunch sounded great, and it was. Fresh salad with Kalamata olives, onions, and feta cheese, along with a delicious vegetarian lasagna, Italian sausage, and foccacia bread. Dessert was yet another spectacular cookie--this one was a shortbread with cranberries, pistachio nuts, and a little rum.
Walking Around in Petersburg, Alaska - Day 3
After lunch, we walked around Petersburg. The small town near the dock wasn't much except for the cannery, but we did get a close-up view of a stellar sea lion in the marina. I always forget how big they are! We also saw the interesting Fisherman's Memorial Park and monument.
Returning to the ship about 2:30, we enjoyed watching a performance by a group of eight young dancers in Norwegian costumes. Petersburg was first settled by Norwegians, and many families still celebrate this heritage. In addition to dancing, each young person shared a story of their life in a small town in Alaska. These stories were fascinating, and provided the youth with the opportunity to enhance their public speaking skills.
After the morning activities, many on the Wilderness Discoverer just lounged around in the late afternoon before dinner. Julie and I watched a National Geographic special on the TV about humpback whales. We had a glass of wine before dinner, letting everyone else go through the buffet line first. Dinner was couscous, baked garlic chicken with a green yogurt sauce on the side, and a vegetable mixture with mostly snap peas. Another impressive meal. Dessert was a chocolate brownie with sliced fresh pears baked inside and topped with nuts.
One of the other passengers noted in our nightly meeting after dinner that he thought the crew deserved an A+ for innovation, and I think everyone agreed. Our cruise hadn't done anything on the "possible" itinerary because of the continuing gale winds and rain. Captain Marce and her crew did an excellent job of selecting the calm harbor in Petersburg for us to spend the day. The plans for the next day were to us to visit a secluded, remote cove the next day, which would be quiet enough for kayaking and paddle boarding.
Cruising in Endicott Arm - Ford's Terror - Day 4
Glacier Day on the Wilderness Discoverer
The next morning, I woke up about dawn and realized the Un-Cruise Adventures Wilderness Discoverer was still sailing. I guessed the Captain was continuing to look for a calmer cove where we could kayak, so she was probably on plan "D" by now, having had to cancel plans A, B, and C. The wind was really blowing a gale during the night, so I was not surprised it might be difficult.
As noted on the previous page, the Captain had planned for us to go to a secluded harbor and have hiking, kayaking, and paddle boarding. However, after sailing around all night (rather than anchoring about midnight as planned), she finally decided that we would have "glacier day" instead of more active pursuits. She just couldn't find a place with flat enough water for us to board the small boats or the kayaks. So, we crossed Stephens Passage and went up Endicott Arm, a narrow fjord that splits into two smaller arms several miles up--one goes to Sawyer Glacier where the Wilderness Discoverer went the previous week, and the second went leads to Dawes Glacier.
As it turned out, it was an excellent decision. We soon found calmer water, started seeing glaciers such as my favorite-named Sumdum Glacier, and arrived at Ford's Terror, a narrow pass of water that juts out of larger Endicott Arm about 10 am. While sailing, one of the expedition guides Randall gave a presentation on glaciers to acquaint/re-acquaint us with these fascinating rivers of ice.
Waterfalls in Ford's Terror
During our revised "port talk" over a breakfast of grits, scrambled eggs with veggies, and the yummy bacon, Kristen the expedition leader had said the fates would have us arrive at Ford's Terror near slack tide, which would allow us to use the four small boats to ride through the narrow passageway into the fjord. The Wilderness Discoverer stopped (too deep to anchor) and the first group of 11/11/6/6 (number of passengers in each boat) hopped in and explored the fjord for about an hour or so. They came back raving about how magnificent the waterfalls were. Guess all the rain they'd had in the summer came in handy for something! It's only the second time this season the ship has been there at the right tidal time.
Julie and I had signed up for one of the six-passenger Zodiacs, and we had Kim for a guide and Kristen as our driver. We were the last boat to leave for Ford's Terror. The trip was amazing. We saw huge waterfalls, with tons of water dropping thousands of feet. The tide was strong, and it was almost like riding on a river as Kristen navigated the boat up the fjord. We clung to the rock walls, looking at vegetation and the geological formations, only venturing out to avoid the waterfalls. Kristen showed us "her favorite" waterfall, and we loved watching the changing clouds and the small icebergs.
Dawes Glacier in Endicott Arm - Day 4
We got back to the ship about 1:30; they loaded up the boats, and moved the Wilderness Discoverer towards Dawes Glacier, arriving about 3:00 pm. We had lunch while sailing--red beans and rice, andouille sausage, another great salad, and triple chocolate cookies for dessert. Julie and I signed up for the first group out to go ride in the small boats to get up closer (within 1/4 mile) of the glacier. We lucked out and got Kristen for the driver again, and Jenny as our guide. You have to sit on the sides of the 6-passenger Zodiacs, so they are not as comfortable as the 12-passenger pontoon boats, but we liked the Zodiacs better, although I did worry a little about falling backwards into the water.
Up Close and Personal with Dawes Glacier
Kristen navigated the small Zodiac as close as allowed to the glacier, and we even got to see it calve several times (only small ones, but still dramatic). Adding to the fun was looking for a piece of glacial ice to take back to the ship to make drinks with and a second piece to take back for a guessing game--how long before it melts--contest. The growler (small glacier bit) had to be just the right size.
We had excellent views of the hanging North Dawes glacier on the left side of the tidewater Dawes glacier and another hanging glacier on the other side. While slowly moving around the bay in front of the glacier, a harbor seal watched us as intently as we watched him.
We got back to the Un-Cruise Adventures ship about 5 pm, reluctantly relinquishing our seats to the second group. On the way back to the ship, Kristen had mentioned how fun it was to sit in the hot tub and watch the glacier, so Julie and I put on our suits, bought a glass of wine, and got in the hot tub. Two other women joined us--a young woman traveling alone from Australia, and a second woman from Australia traveling with her husband.
Best Way to Watch a Glacier -- From a Hot Tub!
While in the hot tub sipping our wine (others were drinking hot chocolate), the Norwegian Sun cruise ship came into the fjord. It came up as close as our little ship, but only stayed about 45 minutes, spinning around to allow passengers on both sides to see the glacier. Only sone small lifeboat was launched to gather a piece of the glacial ice. We all agreed our "up close and personal" experience was better.
By 6 pm, we were out of the hot tub, cleaned up for dinner, and had joined the rest of the group for dinner. We had a spinach/wheatberry salad, baked cod with wasabi/lime sauce, broccoli/cauliflower mixture, and a peanut butter pie for dessert. Julie and I almost missed the hummus and red pepper spreads they were serving with pita bread during cocktail hour, but did get a small taste before dinner.
They showed a movie with popcorn, but Julie and I took our books and went to bed. The next day, we would be in Halleck Bay (off Saginaw Bay) on Kuiu Island. Kayaking, hiking, and small boat exploring are on the morning agenda, followed by whale and marine mammal watching in the afternoon.
Halleck Bay - Kuiu Island, Alaska - Day 5
The boat rocked and rolled some during the night as the Wilderness Discoverer crossed Frederick Sound, but the sun was shining and the waters calm when we arrived at Kuiu Island about 6:30 am. About a dozen sea otters were out having breakfast in the cove as the Wilderness Discoverer dropped her anchor. The sun was peaking through the usually-present clouds, so it looked like we had a good day ahead.
Breakfast featured mango/cheese pastries, blueberry pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage, Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, and a bunch of different cereals. If the rest of the day was as good as breakfast, I figured it would be a great day.
Halleck Bay, Alaska Activities from the Wilderness Discoverer
The hiking, kayaking, and paddle boarding started about 8 am following breakfast. We had 3 hikes scheduled--a 2.5-level hike to a beaver dam/pond through the dense forest, a 3+-level exploratory hike that would be mostly hiking and not much stopping (some ambitious souls on our cruise were requesting the ability to sweat and get some "real" exercise), or a 1-level shoreline hike to poke along the tidal rocks and do some "beach combing". Those who didn't want to hike could take a small boat ride to see petroglyphs and look for wildlife, go kayaking, or use the paddle boards, which look like surf boards, but you stand on them and use a long paddle to move the board around (and keep your balance). Six people donned thick wet suits and explored the clear waters of a nearby cove with snorkeling equipment. They saw lots of starfish and some small fish, but I got the impression that being able to tell their friends that they went snorkeling in 50-degree water was the biggest part of the trip. One woman about my age was snorkeling for the first time, so she really deserved a big "atta-girl". It was a busy morning for all!
Julie did the 2.5-level beaver dam hike, but since it involved lots of "90-degree raising your knees" to climb over logs and mucking through the swamps, I decided to do the more benign beach walking on the fascinating rocky beach and tidal pools. I borrowed a collapsible professional walking stick from the ship, and we poked around in the rocks and walked in the shallows in our waterproof rubber boots, spotting lots of small crabs, snails, and interesting fungal life on the trees.
Julie's hike was interesting, too, but I was glad I didn't get into the muck and all the climbing. Taking time to enjoy the lovely shore and quiet cove was enough for me. The third hike involved a lot of chopping through the rainforest with machetes, so I think that group got their desired workout. One woman told me they didn't see much and that Randall the guide did all the machete-wielding. She said they were happy to go home and tell everyone they had bushwhacked through an Alaskan rainforest. The Wilderness Discoverer has two exercise bikes and two elliptical machines out on the back deck, all of which were used more than I expected, given the activity level of the shore excursions.
A few people tried the paddle boards, and they looked like they were having fun and almost "walking on water". Julie and I debated about trying them later, but we were both fearful of ending up in the freezing water.
We had a choice of two hot soups (lentil curry or potato bacon) for lunch, along with a chopped lettuce salad, and two types of cookies--a thumbprint pecan cookie with a dollop of strawberry jam or lemon bars.
Since Frederick Sound is famous for its many whales, the Captain planned for us to spend the afternoon cruising the quiet sound. Glad all those gale winds had disappeared.
Orcas in Frederick Sound - Day 5
We rode around Frederick Sound all afternoon watching for whales. The water was calm, but we only saw a few whales in the distance a couple of times. After watching them bubble-net feeding the first day, it would take something pretty good to top that experience. Many of us tired of scanning the horizon with our binoculars, and retreated to the lounge for a beer tasting at 3:30, knowing that we would get an announcement from the bridge if anything exciting happened.
Shaun the bartender didn't even get a chance to give us a listing of the beers we would taste. As we gathered in the bar area, an announcement came over the loud speaker; a large pod of orcas (killer whales) were ahead! So, we all grabbed coats and hats and scurried outside with our binoculars and cameras. At first, the pod was quite a ways ahead, near the Safari Explorer, a sister ship of the Wilderness Discoverer. Apparently the passengers on that ship had been entertained for a while by the orcas, because the ship moved off soon.
Sleeping Orcas off the Bow
We watched the orcas for over an hour. They were in a very tight pod, and one of the guides said that might mean they were sleeping or resting, since they couldn't feed packed so tightly together, and they weren't exhibiting any play-like activity similar to what Ronnie and I had seen orcas doing a few years ago when on the Safari Quest in the Sea of Cortes. We counted at least 14 orcas, three big males, some females, and some young ones. They were porpoising as a group, making a huge circle. We all had a big thrill when they once passed very near (less than 10 feet away) the ship!
We finally left the orcas and moved along. What a great experience! Julie and I headed down to the bar for a glass of wine before dinner. I managed to take a couple of sips before Connor, the staff member who always announces the meals (he has a wonderful radio voice), invited us to dinner. I think maybe one or two people had gotten their plates when the bridge said there were bubble-net feeding humpback whales ahead.
Humpback Whales Bubble-Net Feeding All Over Again - Day 5
Although people who know me might be surprised, but humpback whale watching was much more important than dinner. We abandoned the buffet line, ran by the cabin to get coats, hats, gloves, cameras, and binoculars and headed outside. It was 6:30, and the sea was perfectly calm. In addition, the bubble-net feeding was the best any of us (including the crew) had ever seen. A pod of at least six humpbacks demonstrated the technique over and over (at least 25 times) during the next 1.5 hours. Captain Marce finally moved the Wilderness Discoverer away, since about 20 of us weren't going to go to dinner as long as the whale show was on. The water was so calm that we got to see the ring of bubbles every time before the whales popped out of the water. They came very near the ship one time as they rested before diving again, and we all got a great close-up look. After an hour or so, Marce slowly moved the ship away and we adjourned to dinner.
After dinner, Jenny did a presentation on marine mammals. Soon it was time for bed. This day just showed how things can change. About 2:30 in the afternoon, we were talking about what a quiet day it had been. Five hours later, many claimed it was the best day yet. You know when the galley crew is out on deck during dinner hour snapping photos that something very special is going on!
Captain Marce headed the ship through the calm waters towards Port Houghton Bay, where we anchored about 10:30 pm. Early the next morning, we would move further up the narrow harbor and have a day of kayaking, hiking, and small boat riding.
Alaska Sunset - Frederick Sound - Day 5
While watching the bubble-net feeding whales, the guests and crew on the Wilderness Discoverer were treated to a marvelous sky. The early evening light was amazing, and a huge rainbow looped over the snow-capped mountains. It was one of the most gorgeous skies any of us had ever seen--all pink and yellow, with magnificent reflections on the water.
Port Houghton Bay - Day 6
The next morning, I was up early (as usual), and was a little dismayed to see we had lost the sun. Southeast Alaska had returned to its mysterious normal self--cloudy, with a good chance of rain.
Early breakfast--fresh fruit and the "coffee cake of the day", were put out by 6:30, but by then the usual half-dozen of us were up, drinking coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. The coffee cake was another good one--banana maple nut. We had a good laugh during breakfast. The Captain came on the PA and announced that there was an orca cruising off the stern of the ship. The day before, we had all ran to see the orcas and humpbacks. Eighteen hours later, almost all continued to sip their coffee and taste the delicious frittata (vegetarian or sausage). One of our table mates said, "Don't think I'll go outside for only one orca." How quickly we had become jaded as to the wonders of Alaska!
Port Houghton and the Salt Chuck
Captain Marce had moved the Wilderness Discoverer to the back of Port Houghton bay, and we were anchored, with the kayaks out by 8:30 for the first group to depart. This day featured an all-day hiking and kayaking excursion, which included a box lunch ashore. Half the group would kayak and the other half would hike to the lunch spot, switching for the return trip. We had six groups on the ship, depending on where your cabin was located. Who gets to sign up first rotates each day. Our "300-cabin odd" group was next to last for this day's adventure, so most of the all-day kayak/hike spots were signed up. So, Julie and I signed up for a small boat tour in the morning and a meadow hike in the afternoon. We weren't too disappointed to miss out on the full day excursion, especially since we knew we'd be miserable if it rained all day or the kayaking was more strenuous than we wanted.
Our small boat tour left at 9:30, and we rode with Aron, the boatswain, further into the bay. It has a very narrow entrance into a large salt chuck, a very shallow estuary, lake-like area. The tide was going up into the salt chuck, and the current was very strong. We rode around for almost two hours, and saw many eagles, counting up to a dozen white heads in the trees at one time easily, with many juveniles (without the white heads) and adults flying overhead. We also saw many harbor seals laying on the rocks (and swimming around) on a small island in the middle of the harbor. The highlight was a black bear, the first seen during the week. It was on a small beach, but quickly retreated into the tall grass. However, he continued to watch us closely and we could see him, too. Julie and I both thought he was a baby, but Aron said he was full grown and just looked small since the grass was so tall.
Returning to the ship, we faced a fierce tidal current and were surprised to see the kayakers moving along the coastline. Julie and I went really glad we did the boat tour since it had also started raining very hard.
The onboard lunch was much better than eating a box lunch in the rain--meat loaf, buttered noodles, vegetables, and chocolate chip cookies. It was still pouring rain over Port Houghton, so Julie and I scratched the meadow walk. We decided even the wildlife would stay out of this rain. It was a lazy afternoon on board, and many who did the all-day kayak/hike combo were happy that they did it, but acknowledged it was more survival treking through the muck of the muskeg (peat bog swamp) than hiking.
In the late afternoon, we all enjoyed galley and engine tours. The bridge on the Wilderness Discoverer is almost always open, which is certainly different than what is found on the mega-ships. The chef told us that the ship has 17 different types of flour on board and almost as many grains. They cater to all sorts of dietary restrictions, and have been working on improving the tastes of their "gluten-free" and other offerings for those with allergies.
Before we knew it, cocktail time arrived and we got to hear the stories of everyone's day. Appetizers were the best yet--boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce, cheese quesadillas, and guacamole and salsa.
Dinner was salmon, bok choy, grilled polenta, and a marvelous chocolate concoction.
After dinner, hotel manager Terry and Kristen did a "future cruisers" presentation, followed by a recap of all the places we have been on the big screen TV, using an excellent map. Un-Cruise Adventures' new ship, the Wilderness Explorer, sails between Juneau and Sitka, with three days spent in Glacier Bay National Park.
Time for bed and then our last full day on the Wilderness Discoverer.
Windham Bay - Last Full Day on the Wilderness Discoverer
Our last day on the Wilderness Discoverer, we were in Windham Bay. Like most days, we had opportunities for hiking, kayaking, or boat riding. Breakfast was a southern treat--homemade biscuits with either sausage or mushroom (for the vegetarians) milk gravy. The biscuits were made with whole grain and were especially tasty. We also had the usual fresh fruit platter, all kinds of bread to toast, and scrambled eggs.
Julie and I decided to do the early (9:30) small boat ride with Aron the boatswain since we had seen a bear with him the day before. He really has a great eye for spotting wildlife. He also was the guide who spotted the mink on our first day at Lake Bay. A few of our diehard companions used this last chance to go paddle boarding.
Unfortunately, our Un-Cruise Adventures luck ran out, and we didn't see any new wildlife. We did see some eagles, and sat in the boat near a small stream looking for bears for about 15 minutes, to no avail. When we returned to the boat about 11 am, Julie and I thought we might give paddle boarding a try (just for a short time to say we did it and take a photo), but the swells and waves had come up while we were gone and they had discontinued it.
Lunch was a choice of two hot soups--broccoli and cheddar or tomato basil, along with fresh focaccia bread. All were delicious. The pastry chef went all out and had three kinds of cookies the last day--coconut, oatmeal, and chocolate chip (like the first day); snickerdoodle; and a trail mix cookie. All were tasty.
Some people went boat riding or meadow hiking in the afternoon, but we both opted to be lazy. We watched eight of our companions (including 3 women) join the polar bear lite club. They donned their swim suits and went swimming in the 50-degree water. None of them stayed in long, although all but one did a few strokes.
Dinner was table service and took longer than usual. We had Caesar salad served in an edible bowl made from Parmesan cheese, beef filet, mashed potatoes, and asparagus. Dessert was creme brulee. As usual, all were delicious. I continued to be amazed at the quality and variety of food coming out of the small galley. A magnificent sunset entertained us for our last dinner on the Wilderness Discoverer.
After dinner, we had a slide show that summarized our week. It was fun and entertaining for all of us to re-live this great week. It was later than usual when we got to bed since we had to pack.
Juneau and Disembarkation
We were up at 6:30, packed, and out of the cabin by 7:30 and down at breakfast, which consisted of breakfast burritos, homemade cinnamon rolls and cranberry/orange scones; accompanied by all the usual items I loved, including the fresh fruit and yummy bacon.
At 8:30, it was time to disembark the ship in Juneau. The crew lined up along the pier, shaking everyone's hands as they left the ship to walk just across the street to the day room at the Goldbelt Hotel. (The crew had already taken the luggage during breakfast.) From there, guests would move on to the airport or to their hotel when the rooms were available. Since Julie and I were staying an extra two nights in Juneau at a different hotel, the delightful Silverbow Inn, we hung back with our luggage, letting the others leave. It had been a great week in this remote, marvelous part of the world, and we were all sad to say goodbye, but many on our cruise were planning a return to Alaska next year with Un-Cruise Adventures. Nothing speaks better than repeat cruisers!
Conclusion - Great Cruise on the Wilderness Discoverer
This cruise on the Un-Cruise Adventures Wilderness Discoverer greatly reinforced my opinion of how much an outdoor-loving traveler could enjoy Alaska's Inside Passage (Southeast Alaska) from a small ship. Compared to traditional large ships, our small ship cruise had much more flexibility on the itinerary and the shore activities, without sacrificing onboard educational opportunities or quality of food. We didn't have a large balcony cabin, casino, dozens of selections at each meal, or evening entertainment, but I don't think any of us missed it.
The small size of the Wilderness Discoverer also gave us the ability to bond with the rest of our fellow guests, most of whom were active seniors who loved the out of doors and Alaska as much as we did. The base cost on a small ship cruise line like Un-Cruise Adventures is higher than on larger ships, but since almost all shore activities are included, the total cost might not be as high as what the base fare plus shore excursions will cost on a large ship. (The drink prices were less, too.)
I would definitely recommend these "un-cruise ships" to those who want to boat, hike, kayak, and explore Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage in an ultra-casual environment!
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary hotel and cruise accommodations for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.