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CRUISE VIEWS

No bingo, just Alaska wilderness

June 29, 2003|Harry Basch | Special to The Times

The last morning of the cruise was supposed to be for sleeping in. But at 7 a.m. an announcement blared forth from the cabin speaker that killer whales were ahead and the skiff would be lowered in a few minutes.

I was on an Alaska cruise, but it wasn't the usual Inside Passage or Glacier Bay trip on a ship carrying scores of passengers. We skipped the major towns, where four or more mega-ships can disgorge thousands of passengers. Our daily activities were not bingo, pool games and napkin folding.

I was aboard American Safari Cruises' Safari Escape, a 12-passenger luxury yacht, which boasts that it's the smallest cruise ship in Alaska. The boat is 119 feet long and has six passenger cabins, some with twin bunks, others with queen or king beds; one cabin has a sauna. All have private bathrooms with compact showers.

The ship's main social area is the salon and dining room, a large area with plush couches and leather armchairs, a bar and a dining table. There are a VCR, books on whales and glaciers and other information about Alaska.

Our expedition leader, Renee Weber, who is part historian, part geologist, part ichthyologist and all-round den mother, held our group of nine passengers together. The cruise staff -- Jenny and Kristy -- kept our cabins neat, served food and beverages and gave an occasional assist into a kayak or the Zodiac skiff.

Capt. Winston Warr, along with Shawanda Lamkin, his engineer and mate, sought out-of-the-way inlets and coves, keeping an eye out for whales, porpoises and bears.

Chef Dave Gibson rounded out the crew and prepared inventive and tasty meals. Crumb-encrusted sea scallops on a bed of couscous, rack of lamb and scampi with risotto were topped another evening by a crab feast.

But as nice as the yacht is, it is not the focus of the cruise. Alaska is

Many days started early with a ride in a skiff. On our first morning we donned survival suits, which made us look like the Michelin man, and set forth up Tracy Arm for close views of Sawyer and Little Sawyer glaciers.

The sea was filled with large chunks of ice that had fallen from the glacier, and as we sat quietly bobbing in the water, surrounded by ice floes covered with snoozing harbor seals and their pups, a sudden crack, like a rifle shot, announced the calving of the glacier. Chunks of ice the size of a two-story building slid with a roar into the sea.

Another morning skiff ride took us to a rocky beach that was home to hundreds of sea lions. Some were barking; others managed to sleep through the din. A pre-breakfast kayak expedition on another morning gave us a view of a young brown bear that played hide-and-seek with us as we paddled around an island.

Weber's talks on glaciers, whales and bears were always informative and sometimes amusing. When she led us on afternoon rain forest hikes, she pointed out rare plants and explained how indigenous people used them for medicine. The walks were strenuous for some, and the groups were split according to physical ability. This is not a cruise for the infirm or for young children.

Alaskan weather changes from minute to minute. A sunny morning can turn into a wet afternoon, so rain gear is a must. The rain never bothered me, whether I was hiking, kayaking or riding in the skiff. But the top-deck hot tub was welcome.

We spent most afternoons looking for wildlife. Eagles were plentiful, swooping and cruising or sitting regally on tall timbers. Herring gulls and pigeon guillemots glided by beside arctic terns. Under the water were giant starfish and sunfish; jellyfish and sea snakes were easy to see.

Dolphins would appear and swim with us, diving under the bow and leaping into the air.

Our excitement grew when a humpback was sighted. We sat in the skiff only a few yards away as one snared a school of herring by "bubble netting": The whale created a wall of air bubbles, using the shoreline as a barrier. Then with a lunge, mouth agape, it swept up hundreds of fish, expelling the water through the baleen in its jaw.

Every evening the yacht would anchor in a secluded cove, and after dinner kayaks were launched for a lazy paddle in the Alaskan twilight.

American Safari Cruises sails between Juneau and Prince Rupert every summer. Brochure rates for an eight-day cruise on the Safari Escape range from $537 to $936 a day per person, which includes a floatplane ride over LeConte Glacier. Early booking discounts are available.

The yacht will sail in the Pacific Northwest and California wine country in the fall and in the Gulf of California and Costa Rica from December to April.

For more information, call (888) 862-8881, www.amsafari.com.

Harry Basch travels as a guest of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears twice a month.

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