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Alaska with Roger Allnutt and Fantasy Cruises
Small Ship Cruising in Alaska Waterwaysby Roger Allnutt
The Island Spirit nudges closer to the face of the glacier which, even from 300m away, towers over us. Everyone keeps their eyes glued to the wall of ice. Sharp cracks ring out from within it until without warning, a large slab breaks free and tumbles into the cold water with a thunderous splash. All aboard were ecstatic at witnessing this dramatic event.
I had joined skipper Captain Jeff Behrens who owns and runs Fantasy Cruises out of Seattle on a small ship cruise in the Alaska waterways. Unlike the many large cruise ships that ply the Alaskan coast during the summer season from May to September, the 40m long Island Spirit is able to sail into small inlets and coves, and stop at tiny villages that dot the islands of the region of southeast Alaska. It provided a platform for watching the spectacular wildlife that abounds including whales, seals, many different birds and bears. In some places we had to wait for the tide to be right to get into small coves or else clamber onto a smaller ‘zodiac’ type boat to get ashore.
The Island Spirit takes a maximum of 32 passengers in small but comfortably appointed cabins with en suite facilities. There are large viewing decks and comfortable dining and lounge areas where passengers mingled. The cruise is all-inclusive with meals, pre-dinner cocktails and wine with dinner. The food, prepared by two chefs, was top-notch with fresh produce especially fish and salmon a highlight. There were cookies and muffins and all-day coffee and tea for those with extra appetites.
Photo: Cruising with Fantasy Cruises in Alaska
On my cruise there were only 19 guests, mostly middle-aged and including two in their 90s. This didn’t deter them from joining in all the activities. Jeff had invited a professional photographer John Greengo who gave a number of hands-on-n lectures and I learnt more in a few sessions than I have absorbed from any manual. Naturalist Richard Tanner was also a fount of information on wildlife and the natural history of the area.
Cruises are of nine-day duration and are usually from Sitka to Petersburg (or reverse) and explore some of the most exciting and tempting features of the waterways. Depending on tides and weather the itinerary can be slightly varied to include new inlets or extra places.
Sitka, which remained the capital of Alaska until 1912, had a long association with Russia from 1799 when Alexander Baranof built a fort there and this was continued during the period when the Russian American company was a big player in the region. In fact the ceremony to transfer Alaska to the United States (sold to the US for a mere $7.2 million) was carried out on Castle Hill at Sitka on 18 October 1867.
There are still many connections with Russia. St Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral, a Russian cemetery, the Russian Bishop’s House (now a museum) and a renovated old Russian blockhouse.
The First Nations people in the region are the Tlingit and the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka has a large collection of totem poles, ceremonial clothing and carvings of this group plus artefacts from Eskimo people. The Alaska Raptor Centre is the state’s foremost bald eagle ‘hospital’ and their shows are popular with tourists allowing them to see these magnificent birds up close.
At the other end of the cruise Petersburg has Norwegian connections and is named after its founder Peter Buschmann who started a salmon cannery and sawmill in 1897. Fishing is still the main occupation of the town’s 3,000 plus residents. On the final night of the tour we were hosted to a pleasant dinner at the Sons of Norway Hall featuring Scandinavian dishes and dancing by young people in traditional costume.
There are many small communities dotted around the islands and we visited Tenakee Springs with less than 100 residents. It is really getting away from it all but these places are connected by ferry or float plane to the larger centres.
The main town in the waterways is Juneau, the capital and administrative centre of Alaska. Many cruise ships visit each day during the season with hundreds of passengers pouring off to shop or take local tours. The Mendenhall Glacier is close to the town and there are some pleasant rainforest walks on the hills behind the town.
You can visit the Capitol building where Sarah Palin presided as Governor; the Governor’s residence is a lovely southern US style mansion. The Alaska State Museum is excellent, the Russian Orthodox Church is a reminder of olden days and the view from the top of Mt Roberts Tramway is panoramic.
However, it was the varied and magical places in between, both on land and the water, that will remain in my memory for many years. Throughout the trip the ship cruised close to steep escarpments, impressive torrents of water from the many waterfalls cascading down the steep slopes of the snow-capped peaks.
Beside one waterfall we climbed up to a couple of hot springs (Baranof Hot Springs) and took a relaxing dip. On the jetty where we landed there was a bath tub in a small shed and this also was available for general use.
Photo: Humpback whale from the deck of Fantasy Cruises
There were many sightings of humpback whales and on a couple of occasions the whales came up quite close to the ship and we were entertained by the whales feeding, their large mouths coming out of the water and also some breaching with their tails slapping the water. On land we saw some bears from a distance while bald eagles perched high on the tree tops. Our naturalist hung a container from a beam full of a sugary concoction and a number of hummingbirds appeared from nowhere to partake of this feast.
The highlight of the trip was the time spent in Endicott Arm and Ford’s Terror, narrow inlets off the main Stephens Passage south of Juneau. The latter can only be entered, even by a ship as small as Island Spirit, at certain tides. Inside Ford’s Terror the waterway was serene and calm and many passengers indulged in some kayaking. A couple of bears appeared on the shore on cue.
As we approached Dawes Glacier at the end of Endicott Arm large chunks of ice floated past, many of them holding seals and their cubs. The colour of the ice was a dazzling pale blue. Watching the glacier was fascinating and cameras clicked repeatedly trying to capture that perfect shot.
On the way to our final destination at Petersburg we stopped briefly at Five Fingers Island where Ed McIntosh from Juneau, accompanied by his two dogs, has spent the past ten summers living and ‘preserving’ the old lighthouse (now automatic) on the island. A labour of love. He welcomed us all especially the cake baked by one of our chefs.
Photos courtesy Roger Allnutt
Roger Allnutt is a freelance travel writer based in Canberra, Australia, and a long-time member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers. He travels widely around the world researching material for publication in newspapers and magazines in Australia, New Zealand, US, Singapore and other parts of the world.
Roger is happy to accept commissions and can provide material on many parts of the world. He can be reached at Roger.Allnutt@bigpond.com.
His other interests include food and wine, classical music and theatre and playing tennis.
Roger Allnutt was a guest of Fantasy Cruises