By Elaine Glusac
My husband begs off golf with the same excuse I used for avoiding cruise ships, “I’m not old enough.” A no-pain-no-gain adrenaline addict, I prefer travel that tests my body and soothes my soul. Not trips that advocate five meals a day, multiple naps and shuffleboard on the poop deck.
But I long had a conflicting desire to see Alaska and its glaciers. Ergo, I signed onto a 7-night cruise of Alaska ’s Inside Passage from Seattle , assured by hours of surfing the Holland America web site that there were plenty of active trips to get me off the decks and into the wild. In pre-registration I passed up the “historic gold panning & mining adventure” and the “Sitka highlights and dancers” tours for only those on-shore outings labelled “strenuous” (versus “moderate” and “easy”) and “eco-tour.” To their credit the line programs blow-outs including a four-hour advanced mountain bike ride with a 500-foot elevation gain, 3-hour hikes and open ocean kayaking. I sailed to determine if an outdoor-oriented cruise (as opposed to the rum-soaked Caribbean kind) could keep a fitness-fan from climbing the cabin walls.
Embarkation got me off to an upper-body start. I’ve traveled months abroad and never packed this much gear, two suitcases, with footwear alone ranging from hiking boots to strappy sandals. Cruising, I learned, requires an average of 4.3 clothing changes per day given morn-to-eve activities such as walks on the Promenade deck (running shoes, track pants), naturalist talks (jeans), port strolls (different jeans), port treks (Patagonia gear), and formal dinners (the little-black category).
Simply exploring the 951-foot, 10-deck, 85,000-ton ms Oosterdam (rhymes with toaster) got me exercise in transit. From my aft cabin on level four to the fore Crow’s Nest bar on the tippy top, a route I would regularly follow, took 10 minutes. Mental note: walk outside whenever possible; inside passages intentionally route right up to souvenir racks and jewelry display cases in the obstacle-filled shopping arcade.
Casting off with a plastic glass of chardonnay in hand I tallied two heads with dreadlocks aboard, several families with kids in tow and couples in rugged Outward Bound vestment – all of which I found encouraging given cruising’s geriatric reputation. I later learned the average age on board this May cruise was 50, and considered young.
“There are ship cruises and there are port cruises,” cruise director Jason Venner told me. “In the Caribbean it’s a ship cruise. People are there for the weather. In Alaska they’re not here for warmth.”
Nah, not us. On my first bracing, 52-degree dawn, the swells awoke me at 5am and I walked two miles around the third-of-a-mile Promenade Level track. By 8:30 I was considering my first nap. Thus far the brisk salt air and sea motion had only made me tired and hungry. I considered the day’s scheduled events from a deck chaise, nothing but beauty seminars and port talks about shopping. And that was the brainy stuff. There was also shuffleboard, a talent contest, bingo and Pictionary Fun. People were notably mellowed which I attributed to the swaying of the ship. I gave in to the nap at 10am and began to suspect that the real reason our over-tired, over-stimulated populace likes cruising is the permission to sleep.
From my veranda Monday morning I spied a spouting whale with fluke submerging which I took as a good omen for our first shore day in Juneau . En route up Stephens Passage we sailed past snowcapped mountains and a pod of white-sided Pacific dolphins joined me on my routine two-mile pre-breakfast promenade. Like a periscope a gray seal popped his head up 20 feet from starboard on my last lap and quickly swam away from the massive wedding cake of a boat.
“I think spring is the best time to come to Alaska ,” resident naturalist Debra Dozier told me after a pre-port lecture on wildlife and geology to prep passengers for excursions ahead. “Everything is growing in the forest. Animals are coming out. It’s incredible. If you know what you’re doing you can walk thru the forest and make a huge salad.”
By lunch we docked in Juneau , capital of Alaska and home to the 12-mile-long, 1.5-mile wide Mendenhall Glacier, so close to Juneau guidebooks call it the “drive-in glacier.” I struck up a conversation with a shop clerk about the ice trek I had scheduled there that afternoon. She approved, “That’s doing it the Alaska way.”
Something about the safety harness, helmet, parka, waterproof pants, insulated gloves, ice axe and crampons we were doled out told me I wouldn’t be disappointed in the 4-hour helicopter flightseeing and glacier trek. Suited to tackle Everest we shipmates flew over the glacier, spotting mountain goats on flanking rock ledges and wincing at the brightness of the glacier’s snow-packed accumulation zone. Once we set down on the powder blue glacial ice guides Jimmy and Kristen instructed us on glacier hiking. Rule number one: don’t get too close to the crevasses.
Above us the glacier spilled over in giant frozen boulders, an icefall we trekked to edging bottomless canyons, fording rushing streams of blue ice melt and hopping narrow crevasses. As glaciers are constantly moving the tour was unscripted and we trekkers assisted with path-finding. Which required we learn to use the ice axe on steep uphills, traverse grades by side stepping and back down steep cliffs by digging the toe of our cramptons into the ice.
Stopping to fill our water bottles from a pool of glacier melt, Jimmy noted, “That’s 300-year-old water you’re drinking.” After two hours on the ice we needed hydration. And though the honeymooning couple from Las Vegas , the family with twin 12-year-olds from Atlanta , the solitary jock and my mother and I had kept our distance from one another, we now-bonded survivors of a serious adventure toasted our taking of the Mendenhall.
During the strip-stop back at headquarters I asked the staffers if most cruise passengers are as able as our group, “Uh, no,” said one guide. “You guys were exceptional. There have been several who we had to steer to something else.”
Day 3. The Oosterdam entered Yakutat Bay , creeping up on the Hubbard Glacier, the longest to empty into the sea in Alaska with a six-mile-wide ocean face breaking off or “calving” into the water trailed by confectionary rains of ice shards. Bald eagles, harbor seals and sea lions perched on floating bergs. Servers distributed bowls of warm pea soup to binoculared outdoorsmen, reminding me that despite the captivating scenery food was still upper mind on board. Some 500 people had shown up for the public kitchen tour the day before.
“On the last cruise a lot of passengers were requesting lowfat products and soy milk. Some thought the Alaska cruiser could be healthier,” assistant food and beverage manager John Leitao told me over soup. “This cruise is the opposite.” He ladled out 120 gallons before lunch.
Come afternoon back out in high seas I landed hard on my gym mat attempting the side-bending Warrior One pose in yoga class, giving me a nautical excuse for my bad postures.
By 8am the next morning I was piloting my own kayak past moss-covered hemlocks and spruce that seem to grow straight out of the rock island that is Sitka, both the center of native Tlingit culture and the former seat of Russian Alaska. With a whole day in port I was determined to make the most of it. A harbor seal swam along and we boatmen quietly pursued in an aquatic game of hide and seek. One eagle chased another who had just swooped down to snatch a fish from the slate sea. At the end of the bay in the tidal flats we caught a great blue heron fishing just as a Sitka black tail deer emerged from the forest to graze, small and seemingly unafraid of us in the water. The oar work in tandem kayaks was lowest common denominator paddling – meaning the group tended to bob at the pace of the slowest paddler – but the guide didn’t mind if Mom and I muscled ahead during our 90-minutes on the water.
Another four hours of independent touring satisfied my lower body requirements. Though the ship programs many tours in Sitka it’s a small town that’s easily walkable. And the most interesting sites, those that combined nature and culture, were unsung. Totem poles carved up and down the Alaskan shore stake two miles of pathways through the wooded Sitka National Historical Park . And on the opposite side of town I hiked through a 19th century Russian cemetery where eagles roost in the old growth trees and the understory moss and fern are gradually reclaiming the Orthodox tombstones.
Back on board, having fulfilled my activity quota, I hit the spa for a double dose of indulgence: a well-earned massage and the more frivolous facial. To which my dinner companions gave the thumb’s up.
In Ketchikan , a frontier town built on fishing and lumbering, on-shore choices ranged from a lumberjack show to riding a Harley-Davidson on the Tongass Highway , which, while surely exciting, failed my eco-tour requirement. But snorkeling? In Alaska ? This I had to try.
Only four of us cruisers signed up to plunge into 54-degree water, three from Wisconsin and me from Chicago , indicating that cold-clime Midwesterners are surely daring. Or simply dumb. Quarter-inch wetsuits, hoods and gloves kept out most of the cold and as long as I kept moving I was warm. Or rather, too distracted to notice. The sea in Alaska looks rarely more bright than gunmetal gray. To my great surprise, below the surface the sea life is as colorful as a healthy tropical reef. Hermit crabs scuttle between shells, sea stars shine in spiny red, glowing tangerine and in violet with 32 arms. Ruby and purple sea urchins nestle next to fuzzy orange sea cucumbers and feeding barnacles resemble mini volcanoes with spidery tentacles darting out top. Safely neoprene-covered everywhere but my lips I tried not to kiss the stinging red jellyfish nor the purportedly safe white water jellies, both pulsing elegantly in the currents. With the help of a weight belt I submerged to imitate an otter and swim through a sea kelp forest. After 80 comfortable minutes in the water the only comedown was waiting in the parking lot for the bus. Thinking ahead our guides offered cups of hot water from the equipment van to pour down our wetsuits.
Back dockside just before departure I grabbed a bag of halibut and chips from a wharfside vendor.
“You a local?” he asked, spying my wool cap and wet hair.
I admitted I’d just done something very cold and very odd.
“In that case have a free cup of clam chowder to warm you up!”
By the final day of cruising I had adjusted to the boat motion and managed to hold my yoga positions in the gym. Since our last port of call, an evening stop in the British Columbia capital of Victoria , offered little in the way of pulse elevation I signed up for the local pub crawl, which was later cancelled for the hard-to-believe excuse of low enrollment. I spent that quiet evening wandering the harborfront, listening to a marimba band on the street and mentally cataloging the adventures that satisfied my exhilaration quest.
I well remember the thrills. But secretly, what I really miss are the naps.
A number of cruise lines offer Alaskan Inside Passage tours, largely following the island-buffered waterways that protect ships from the open Pacific. Some conclude with optional week-long excursiona to Denali National Park .
Celebrity Cruises, 800-722-5941, www.celebrity.com. Classy Celebrity, with one Alaskan ship featuring Cirque du Soleil performances, tours from San Francisco, Seattle, Seward and Vancouver in 5- to 14-days
Cruise West 888-851-8133, www.cruisewest.com. The smaller ships of Cruise West, which max out at 114 passengers versus up to 2600 on the bigger lines, can navigate narrow waterways others can’t.
Crystal Cruises 800-804-1500, crystalcruises.com. The luxurious 940-passenger Crystal Harmony offers 7- and 9-night round trips from Vancouver , and 12-night round-trip sailings from San Francisco .
Holland America , 877-724-5425, www.hollandamerica.com. Big ship departures from Seattle , Vancouver and Anchorage (see main story).
Norwegian Cruise Line, 800-327-7030, www.ncl.com. Four Norwegian ships depart from Seattle or Vancouver with five different Inside Passage itineraries.
Princess 800-774-6237, princess.com. A pioneer in the Alaskan “cruise tour,” which includes the land portion of the journey, the family-friendly Princess offers outings ranging from three to 14 days departing from San Francisco , Seattle , Vancouver and Anchorage .
Royal Caribbean 800-398-9819, royalcaribbean.com. The amenity-packed Royal Caribbean fleet, some with rock-climbing walls and volleyball courts, runs 7-night sailings from Vancouver and Seward.