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Passage to Relaxation in Northwest : Spirit of Alaska touches nature in places where oceangoing vessels are too large to tread.

April 05, 1992|PAT HANNA KUEHL | Kuehl is a Denver free-lance writer.

VICTORIA, Canada — "What a wee vessel. No wonder I couldn't find you over there where the big cruise ships come in!"

My Canadian friend had finally located the 143-foot-long Spirit of Alaska, tied up among the private yachts in Victoria's Inner Harbor. It looked more like a party boat than a cruise ship. But with 82, mostly retirement-age passengers on board, it was more "wee" than "whee!"

I ended up here by boarding in Seattle on Sunday evening, awakening in Vancouver Monday and sailing three days. This visit was part of a five-day cruise that took us in a loop from Seattle, north through the Inland Passage between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, as far as Princess Louisa Inlet (roughly 100 miles north of the city of Vancouver), back down to Victoria in time for Wednesday afternoon tea, then through the San Juan Islands before returning to Seattle Friday morning.

It had been an hour since our spick-and-span little vessel had sailed into the busy harbor in the center of Victoria to dock almost in the shadow of the Parliament Building. Other passengers had disembarked and were off to Butchart Gardens to view the roses, savor high tea in the lobby of the grand old Empress Hotel or browse the exhibits at the Royal British Columbia Museum. And I was impatient to get on with renewing my acquaintance with this most British city in Canada.

The Empress had gotten a face lift and a convention center since my last visit, and I didn't remember all those upscale condominiums overlooking the harbor. It was all part of the preparation for the 1994 Commonwealth Games, my friend, who lives in Victoria, explained. Athletes would be coming from all over the world for the British intramural version of the Olympics.

As I walked with my friend along the cobblestone streets last October, I admired the baskets of vivid flowers adorning every street light and brick sidewalk in Victoria's historical section. We strolled up Parliament Street to look for bargains in British tweeds and sweaters, stocked up on royal teas at Murchie's Tea & Coffee Ltd. and sampled toffee at the English Sweet Shop. Low-key activity for a big-city dweller, perhaps, but high excitement compared with the itinerary of the cruise I had been on for the past few days.

Once on board, the passengers on the Spirit of Alaska had gotten their kicks from Mother Nature.

The yacht takes two days to make the one-way trip from Seattle up the craggy coast to spectacular Princess Louisa Inlet--the same territory the giant Alaska-bound cruise ships cover overnight. It's never in too much hurry to explore a beckoning inlet, check out whale spottings or circle a tiny island for another glimpse of a perched bald eagle.

What the Spirit of Alaska does best is to tiptoe through narrow passageways along the Canadian coast, permitting its passengers to window-shop natural wonders as if they were in a canoe.

Scenic highlight of the itinerary is the idyllic Princess Louisa Inlet, which has an entrance so narrow (60 feet wide) that even the tiny Spirit of Alaska seemed to inhale to squeeze between the rocky crags at slack tide. Once in the inlet, the vessel had to stay until the next slack tide allowed it to make its way back out. That can be up to six hours in a place that looks like paradise, if weather conditions are right. If conditions are less than perfect--well, frankly, six hours can seem closer to 24 as dark clouds blur the mirror image of the glaciers in the glass-smooth lake. After a couple hours of cruising along a shoreline of mountains covered with evergreens, I felt in need of a nap. My version of paradise comes equipped with sunshine, not an October drizzle.

Suddenly, as if ordered up by the British Columbia Department of Tourism, a seal appeared off the port bow to restore my humor. He swam by the yacht as if jet-propelled, then spun about--just eyes and nose above the water surface--to give us the once-over. He waited just long enough for his audience to reach for cameras, then disappeared, leaving a wave of laughter in his wake. We saw at least 100 seals that week, but that peek-a-boo clown is the one I remember.

After crisscrossing the four-mile-long inlet for ample opportunity to appreciate the scenery, the yacht made a bow landing at midmorning. Passengers could take the short hike to view Chatterbox Falls, gather wildflowers, search the shoreline for clams and mussels or dive from the deck into what turned out to be icy-cold water.

Much of the Spirit of Alaska's charm is her maneuverability. She can snuggle up to a rocky shoreline and stick her nose into tree branches so the cruise director who doubles as botany lecturer can pluck a leaf to illustrate a point. Or she can turn on a dime at the sighting of an Orca whale. Pods of Orcas--as many as 25 at a time--are common in this area. The Spirit of Alaska checks them out at every opportunity.

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