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Up Lazy Rivers

Two Cruises on Two Small- But Very Different Ships Sailing Historic Western Waterways

Bay Area

September 08, 1996|JOHN MUNCIE | Muncie writes the biweekly "Books to Go" column for Travel

SAN FRANCISCO — We leave Pier 40 and head into a cool, partly cloudy afternoon. Capt. Robert Gifford, a shipshape man with a careful mustache, looks out over the gray water and says skeptically: "So this is California, eh? I think we're practicing for Alaska."

A biting breeze sends many passengers down to the ship's lounge. The rest of us huddle on deck like little herds of caribou and watch the magnificent San Francisco cityscape glide by.

Northern California hasn't been a noted cruising ground--too few beaches, no fiords, no breaching orcas. But a handful of companies recently have begun to sail the Bay Area, including Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West, which came down from northern climes last year to offer a variety of wine country voyages.

The itinerary of our four-day, three-night cruise in March was typical. We left San Francisco on a Friday afternoon aboard the Spirit of Alaska, circled the northern part of the bay, ambled up the Sacramento and Napa rivers, and returned Monday morning.

These Alaska Sightseeing trips cater to savvy locals who want to explore the Bay Area from a new perspective--the waterways instead of the freeways--as well as to first-time California visitors. (San Francisco stopovers are available.) Passengers get a sampling of the California good life: wine, balloon rides, Gold Rush history and languid hours in the farm and bird-filled Sacramento Delta.

The farther we got from the city, the better the weather. (As Capt. Gifford is learning, Alaska is really practice for San Francisco.)

This was my second cruise experience ever. The first was a three-night, Israel-to-Greece sail on a huge Italian ferry distinguished by its unfriendliness. I booked deck passage on that cruise. This meant that I, and a bunch of other backpackers, had to sleep, literally, on a deck. At least we tried to sleep. Choppy seas had many of us leaning over the rail.

By night No. 3, cabin-bound passengers had found our scruffiness intolerable (or maybe our happiness--after all, we were paying less than half fare). After they complained, the crew forced us into a hold, where we sat on airline-style seats all night, facing a steel bulkhead. It has taken me the last 20 years to recover from Post Traumatic Cruise Syndrome.

Things were far more benign aboard the Spirit of Alaska, though veteran cruisers might quibble that I still haven't experienced a real sea voyage. The Spirit of Alaska, like its seven sister ships, is small--just 143 feet long, accommodating only 82 passengers (plus a crew of 21). It's built for adventuring in northern passages, where it goes nose-to-nose with icebergs and salmon-gulping grizzly bears. Compared with, say, the Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas (880 feet long, 2,744 berths), the Spirit is a cruise ship with training wheels.

Still, it had such advantages as cabins, fancy food, wine tastings, side trips to Old Sacramento and Napa Valley wineries, and optional massages and balloon rides. Not to mention a golden sunset by the Golden Gate Bridge.

*

By 6:30 Friday evening, we've cruised under the bridge's huge spans, swung by Alcatraz Island and are headed north toward the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Our eventual dock that night is along the lower Sacramento River. By 7 p.m., a rumor of smoked salmon clears the last hardy soul off the deck and into the lounge.

One of the few things this cruise has in common with my first voyage is casualness. There's nothing glitzy about the Spirit of Alaska. Everybody eats at the same time and there are no dress requirements. Company President Dick West, who was on this voyage, wore blue jeans every day. There's no pool, no casino. The spa consists of a single exercise bicycle.

The introductory meeting, held in the Spirit's only lounge, is like opening day at summer camp. The topics include safety and name tags. The cook comes out and says, "All those who want the fish entree for dinner, raise your hands."

The convenient trip length and lack of pomp has attracted some cruise veterans. A San Jose couple with 17 voyages behind them, for example, tells me they wanted a long weekend on the water without the "glitter and sparkle of a cruise line."

Around midnight on the first night, however, as my girlfriend, Sharon, and I are sleeping off the effects of Pacific cod in pesto sauce mixed with a Concannon Petite Sirah, the grinding sounds of the docking procedure wake us up. You take your chances in the Spirit of Alaska's cramped lower berths; next time, I'd go for a pricier room on a higher deck.

Saturday morning I get a captain's-eye view of the Sacramento River from the pilot house. As we head north toward the tiny town of Isleton, a drawbridge opens up--"Isleton Bridge, this is the Spirit of Alaska, thanks for the lift," Capt. Bob radios brightly--and we find ourselves in the middle of the Sacramento Delta.

The delta is a 1,000-square-mile triangle of rivers, sloughs, swamps and islands. The apexes of the triangle are, roughly, Sacramento, Stockton and Antioch.

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