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Exploring Alaska's Wonders Aboard a Small Ship

Alaska cruises are a popular way to see one of America's most scenic regions. One doesn't have to sail on a large cruise ships holding thousands of people to experience Alaska, however. There's a much more intimate and personalized way to see the "real Alaska." Small ship Alaska cruises allow passengers to avoid the crowds, get close to wildlife and nature, visit spectacular national parks and tiny inlets, and experience this treasured land in a way not possible on large ships.

Seeing Alaska aboard a small ship is completely different from taking an Alaska vacation on a large cruise mega-liner. While major cruise lines can spend two or more days sailing through Canada on their 7-night Inside Passage voyages, passengers on most small ship itineraries spend their entire vacation exploring the wild beauty of Alaska. Big cruise ships all visit the same major ports of call, often leading to overcrowding with more than 10,000 to 15,000 cruisers cramming into ports like Ketchikan, Skagway and Juneau on the same day. On a small ship cruise, it's just you and a few fellow passengers visiting Alaska's most beautiful places, such as 3.3-million-acre Glacier Bay National Park, Port Houghton, Thomas Bay and Ford's Terror. In addition, daily cruise ship shore excursions in Alaska can easily cost hundreds of dollars per person per day. On a small ship, it's all part of the vacation experience.

If you're seeking a cruise filled with nature, wildlife, and intimate Alaska experiences - check out cruises like those offered by American Safari Cruises. American Safari Cruises and its sister company, InnerSea Discoveries, take their Alaska guests on unique all-inclusive vacations aboard small ships carrying 12 to 86 guests. Aboard the 86-passenger Safari Endeavour, for example, guests explore Alaska's hidden treasures and spectacular scenery for seven nights without setting foot in any major Alaska city. Departing from Juneau on day one, the ship spends two full days among the massive glaciers and wildlife of Glacier Bay National Park. While passengers on large ships just cruise on by, Safari Endeavour guests are lucky to be among just 2,000 travelers per year setting foot on land in Glacier Bay National Park.

After two bliss-filled days spent kayaking, hiking, stand up paddleboarding and taking small boat rides to pristine glaciers, the ship moves on to unspoiled wilderness areas around Icy Strait, Chichagof Island/Baranof Island, Frederick Sound, Ford's Terror and Endicott Arm. Throughout the journey, guests find their companions are orca whales, sea lions, foraging bears, sea otters, bald eagles, harbor seals, tiny porpoises and humpback whales - not hoards of other cruise passengers pouring off massive cruise vessels.

There are plenty of opportunities for up-close wildlife viewing on the Safari Endeavour, like watching slack-jawed as a large pod of humpback whales engage in bubble net feeding, squealing with delight as orcas breach repeatedly next to the ship, seeing massive bears prowling near the shoreline, kayaking in placid coves with inquisitive seals and sea otters, observing Sitka black-tailed deer and bald eagles while hiking, and so much more. On these "un-cruises," guests have the opportunity to linger whenever there's action. The Safari Endeavour's staff knows that wildlife and sea creatures are the celebrities in Alaska and passengers want to stay to see the show. There's no rush, no strict schedule to keep, no crowds, and no hassles.

Because there are no more than 86 guests onboard, passengers and staff members quickly become close friends. In fact, the cruise experience aboard this small ship has a feel of an intimate boutique hotel. Well-traveled guests interact frequently and are on a first-name basis with the Captain, Expedition Leader, guides and the crew. Dress is casual on the Safari Endeavour and there are plenty of opportunities for guest and staff interaction as part of the daily activities as well as at the evening cocktail hour. On my recent cruise, our band of voyagers became close friends. When the time came to say goodbye at the end of our voyage on Sunday, tears filled guests' eyes and no one wanted to leave.

In addition to appealing itineraries, Safari Endeavour sailings feature onboard certified naturalists who offer insights into Alaska and its wildlife. The ship's small size provides unparalleled access to Alaska's wonders, allowing entry into tiny inlets and coves. Guests take part in many adventure activities throughout the cruise including hiking through pristine temperate rainforests and across glaciers, kayaking near waterfalls in quiet coves, stand up paddleboarding, skiff explorations, whale watching and more. Of course there's also time for morning yoga, taking long soaks in the hot tub, experiencing an invigorating polar bear plunge, and wine tasting. The itinerary is flexible, allowing the captain to change course for whale sightings or linger longer if bears are foraging on the beach. If guests decide they want to spend more time kayaking or hiking, so be it. Although the course is set, no two cruises are exactly the same. Each Safari Endeavour adventure is unique, just like its guests.

On a small ship like the Safari Endeavour, guests have the opportunity to take in the peaceful calm of Alaska's waters, enjoy a tranquil walk along the shore, explore tide pools, watch for native wildlife, and be lulled into a relaxing night's sleep. Listening to the sounds of a waterfall, the blow of a nearby humpback whale, or the shrill cry of a bald eagle is a real treat. It's the sounds of silence and the peaceful stillness in Alaska that echo the loudest.

Worried that you'll be missing out on gourmet food because you're on a small ship? Think again. The chefs onboard the Safari Endeavour turn out fresh gourmet cuisine and delicious baked goods for guests' enjoyment. A full breakfast is served each morning along with eggs made to order. Three delicious entree choices are provided at dinner, including fresh meats, a vegetarian option, and seafood accompanied by premium wines, spirits and non-alcoholic drinks. Some of our delectable choices included options like Roasted Leg of Lamb Noisettes, Seared Sea Scallops with Mojo Verde, Spinach and Feta Phyllo Parcels, King Salmon with Creme Fraiche Mustard Sauce, Aged Ribeye Steak with Shallot Sauce, Barbecued Wild Boar Ribs, and Dungeness Crab. Personal preferences and food allergies are catered to with a smile. Sure, you won't find the gargantuan midnight buffets and 24-hour meal service that you get on the mega-liners, but you won't get the bill for wine, mixed drinks or soft drinks either.

All meals, drinks, port charges, and taxes are included. So are kayaks, skiff tours and hiking excursions, transfers, and even a complimentary massage. Make sure to sign up for your massage early - they're heavenly. There's no charge unless you wish to add something special, such as a few more massages. Gratuities for the ship's staff and very high end wines and spirits are additional.

Many passengers on American Safari Cruises are couples or single travelers, but families are warmly welcomed, too. My voyage had three families onboard with children ranging in age from 9 to 17. All said it was their best vacation ever. American Safari Cruises (and InnerSea Discoveries) also feature their "Kids in Nature" program on selected family oriented departures with special activities for children. Themed cruises are also offered on a variety of topics aboard the Safari Endeavour. Check with American Safari Cruises for dates and more details.

We live in a world filled with constant jarring demands and interruptions from cell phones, e-mail, televisions and the Internet. It's hard to unplug from the world's overpowering drumbeat these days. Cruising in Alaska on the Safari Endeavour gives guests a rare chance to get off the grid for a few days and reconnect with those they treasure - and with themselves as well.

If You Go:

* For more information on American Safari Cruises and InnerSea Discoveries, visit their website at: www.innerseadiscoveries.com

* To avoid problems associated with flight delays, cancellations and lost luggage, make plans to arrive in Juneau at least one night before your cruise. The Westmark Baranof Hotel is a top notch place to stay, offering large rooms, a convenient location, comfy beds and superb service. The Westmark Baranof is also used as the meeting point for American Safari Cruises Safari Endeavour guests, making it the optimal choice as well.

* If you have time, plan to spend several days exploring Juneau before or after your cruise. This area of Southeast Alaska has so much to offer. Take a Wings Airways floatplane trip to idyllic Taku Glacier Lodge for a delicious salmon lunch, visit Mendenhall Glacier, plan to hike or view the scenery from Mount Roberts Tramway, and explore the temperate rainforest at Glacier Gardens. Don't miss dining at Tracy's King Crab Shack and The Hangar on The Wharf - the food is delicious.

* For more information about what to do in Juneau, make sure to visit the Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau website at www.traveljuneau.com

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