Exploring Alaska From a Small Ship 6-24-2005

The spirit of adventure is alive on the ‘Endeavor’

By: Maryann Hammers

As I boarded the Spirit of Endeavor, I immediately realized that on this cruise there would be no enormous midnight buffets, no Las Vegas-style comedy shows and casino games, no conga lines by the pool. For that matter, there was no pool.

This small-ship journey through southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage was not about the resort lifestyle or party-hearty hedonism inherent on a mega-ship. While I, for one, thoroughly enjoy the eating and entertainment, buffets and bars on the gigantic boats, Cruise West is proud to proclaim that you’ll get none of that. Instead, this trip is designed for travelers who prefer to set themselves apart from the Macarena-dancing crowds. It is for people who want to get as close as possible to the wildlife, wilderness and wonders of our nation’s largest and most pristine state.

Because the 102-passenger Endeavor, like the entire Cruise West fleet, is miniscule compared to huge ships, we could venture into narrow channels and waterways and dock at remote ports. Sometimes we passed so close to the shore that I felt like I could grab a branch off a pine tree. From the ship’s bow, I spotted soaring bald eagles, bears loping on a grassy knoll, sea lions plopped on boulders like so many fat slugs, whales spouting and porpoises frolicking all just a few feet away.

The journey began in Juneau, where, as part of the cruise, everyone spent the night at either the Goldbelt Hotel or (in my case) the Westmark Baranof. While the hotel is somewhat rundown, its location is ideal a quick walk from the waterfront, as well as downtown stores, restaurants (my favorite: Twisted Fish), and nightlife (most famous: Red Dog Saloon). The next day our luggage was collected from our hotel rooms and transferred to the ship, and we boarded the Endeavor.

After a few days, I began to think of the cruise as a watery road trip just as casual, spontaneous, and almost as flexible. With just 60 passengers onboard, it wasn’t long before everyone knew my name. When we came upon a dozen or so whales near Tracy Arm, the captain turned off the engine to give everyone a chance to grab jackets, cameras and binoculars even though it meant interrupting lunch and leaving half-eaten desserts on the table.

When we reached Glacier Bay, the ship stopped to pick up a ranger who chatted with us for hours, so we had ample time to learn about the forbidding walls of ice. When we ventured into waters thick with floating chunks of ice, the captain allowed us to climb into skiffs, 12 at a time, to get within touching distance of the blue-tinged icebergs. And when our ship happened upon a juvenile bald eagle bobbing in the water, unable to fly away, we paused for more than an hour as the crew sought ways to rescue the distressed bird. (Can you imagine the captain of a big ship doing that?)

On long, lazy sea days, crew members joined guests in the lounge for games of Yahtzee or Scrabble. There were no “formal” nights jeans, fleece and hiking boots were perfectly acceptable dinner wear. (Several male passengers said they specifically chose this cruise because they couldn’t bear the notion of donning a tuxedo.) It was all so laidback, in fact, that we had no keys for our cabins and no safes. Though I initially felt uncomfortable leaving my wallet, passport and possessions unprotected, I soon agreed that it was sort of nice to have one less thing to keep track of.

We docked for a few hours in Skagway, the charming and well-preserved gold-mining town, where we took a tour aboard bright yellow streetcars. Then, I, along with many other Endeavor passengers, spent the rainy morning on a three-hour, roundtrip train ride to British Columbia via the spectacularly scenic White Pass & Yukon Route. Later that day, we stopped in Haines. Since there’s no phone service in town, residents communicate with each other via the local radio station, which broadcasts personal messages every afternoon at 4:30 p.m. I opted for a rafting excursion there, which was disappointing in the utter lack of wildlife sightings, but the guide more than made it up with his tall tales and witty observations. He pointed out that single men vastly outnumbered single women.

“So for the ladies, the odds are good,” he noted. “But the goods are odd.” Other ports of call included Sitka on Baranof Island, where the Russian influence is apparent in everything from the restaurants to the ubiquitous nesting dolls displayed in store windows. In Petersburg, known as “Little Norway” for its heavy Norwegian influence, even the police station is decorated with prettily painted pastel flowers, and homes sport friendly vilkommen signs. We also docked in tiny Metlakatla on Annette Island, Alaska’s only Indian reservation. Here the Tshimshian people, decked out in traditional red and black garb, treated us to storytelling and ceremonial welcome dances.

I sorely missed the fitness center, spa and nightly entertainment of the big ships. Yet in hindsight, I am grateful that my memories of Alaska aren’t filled with visions of buffets and bars but rather of a captain who brakes for whales and bald eagles.


1.Passengers who have cruised on large ships with extensive workout facilities should be forewarned: There’s no opportunity for physical activity onboard. Make sure your clients are comfortable being sedentary for long stretches at a time.

2.Cruise West is ideal for clients looking for a more “exclusive” Alaska cruise experience, but don’t necessarily care about traveling in luxury. There’s no pampering onboard, and cabins are pretty spartan, lacking balconies or even windows that open. But, the ships nonetheless attract a highly educated, sophisticated traveler.

3.If you have clients who have stayed away from large ships because they hate crowds, and can’t stand the thought of standing in a buffet line with 2,000 people, suggest Cruise West. There’s nothing like a small ship experience in Alaska, and it’s a great way to “break clients in” to the idea of cruising.

4.On the other hand, if you have a client who’s a “loner,” Cruise West isn’t a particularly good choice. It’s hard to stay anonymous in such close confines. It’s perfect for those who would enjoy a cozy, family-style friendliness and getting to know their fellow passengers.

5.The ship does have wireless Internet access in the lounge, but it can be pretty spotty. Some days, it won’t work at all, depending on the vessel’s location. Make sure your clients know that they may be “out of touch” during this cruise. 

Cruise West


Itinerary: Juneau to Ketchikan or reverse, with same-day stops in Skagway and Haines, Sitka, Petersburg and Metlakatla. The ship explores, but does not stop at, Glacier Bay National Park, Misty Fjords and Tracy Arm. Departs every other Thursday, through Sept. 8. Prices start at $3,925; deluxe rooms start at $5,175; per person, double occupancy. Includes overnight stay in Juneau.

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