American Safari Cruises -- Alaskan Adventure

| September 12, 2008

This small adventure cruise line offers close-up views of Alaska without sacrificing comfort.

When I worked for Holland America and sailed six Alaska cruises in a row, I thought I knew everything the state has to offer. But I learned how much I didn't know when I sailed American Safari, a small "adventure" cruise line.

There are hundreds of big-ship cruises to Alaska every summer, with vessels as large as 90,000 tons. Most start in Vancouver or Seattle and sail seven-day roundtrip voyages that stop in Ketchikan, Juneau and Sitka. These are fine cruises if you crave all the amenities of a large ship like room service, casinos, floor shows and non-stop cell phone and Internet access. But if you want something different, and you want to see the unique aspects of Alaska, you can't beat the advantages of the small adventure ship.

click on pictures below for larger images:

Sapphire Princess   Holland America   American Safari Explorer

Adventure cruise lines specialize in small cruise ships for 100 or fewer passengers. You still get great food and soft mattresses, but you get away from the typical cruise ship distractions and focus solely on your destination. You get an up-close view of nature in the company of naturalists who can explain everything you see.

*** See the entire American Safari in Alaska Photo Gallery here    

The Small Cruise Ship Advantage I have been in the cruise business for 25 years, but I only heard of American Safari Cruises very recently. In August we took a seven-day roundtrip cruise from Juneau aboard the American Safari Explorer, at 36 berths the largest vessel in the line's four-ship fleet.

The ship is a reclaimed diving boat from Hawaii that received a $3 million facelift. Now it is homey, extremely comfortable, and especially versatile thanks to a built-in boat dock that made it possible to jump into skiffs or kayaks at a moment's notice whenever we saw whales, orca or bears. Our up-close views of glaciers were unlike anything I ever experienced on a large cruise ship.

click on pictures below for larger images:

Onboard Boatdock with Skiff   Safari Explorer near Glacier   Black bear at Mendenhall, Juneau

What makes a small ship so worthwhile compared with giant vessels is the quality of the differences. Alaska is about natural beauty, especially wildlife. The small ship not only allowed us to get as close as possible without sacrificing safety, it also let us change our schedule on a whim to view events as they occurred. Yes, you sacrifice a few cruise amenities, but the quality of the experience more than makes up for anything you lose.

Our American Safari Cruise Adventure American Safari Cruises begin in Juneau, Alaska. Only two lines home port in Juneau; the other is Cruise West. Both are known as adventure lines, although Cruise West ships hold as many as 100 passengers. You have to pay the airfare to the 49th state, which was pretty expensive for the east-coasters, but turned out to be very worthwhile to us. We arrived two days early in Juneau, which allowed us to go flightseeing and even land atop Mendenhall Glacier. (See our Juneau article).

Our fellow passengers were surprisingly young, especially considering the cost: The price of a small cabin with limited amenities compares to a verandah suite on luxury line Silversea. But American Safari is a far different experience, as CEO and president Dan Blanchard will tell you. "We don't do port calls to get people on tours to see the true Alaska. Our entire cruise is like a tour. We get people in nature; hiking, kayaks and skiffs, directly from our vessel."

The veseel is too small to call a ship and too large to call a boat. Dan refers to it as an "expeditionary yacht." She is designed to sail all week without refueling, and there was only one brief (three hour) port stop all week, in the non-tourist town Petersberg. It is important to know what you want when you book American Safari, because if you are looking for a casino or floorshow you won't find it.

*** See the entire American Safari in Alaska Photo Gallery here    

We all checked in at a local Juneau hotel where a host watched our luggage while we explored the city. At 3:30 we boarded a bus for our first included-in-the-cruise-fare tour, to Mendenhall Glacier Park. The bus driver/tour guide, subcontracted from Cruise West, entertained us with stories of local wildlife encounters, especially the bears in Mendenhall Valley, while pointing out live bald eagles perching on the light poles.

Mendenhall Glacier is impressive, although it does not calve as often as those that terminate in seawater. We had been atop the glacier by helicopter the day before, so we chose to try bear sighting. We walked to a viewing platform where spawning salmon were swimming up a small stream. Dozens of people there were discouraged that no one had seen a bear all day, but we decided to lay low and see what happened.

I was the first to spot a mother black bear with two young cubs. We watched her catch a two-foot salmon and carry it back to the scrub in her clenched teeth. Apparently, she decided not to share it with her two cubs. We could hear their plaintive cries for several minutes.

click on pictures below for larger images:

bear enters stream looking for salmon   bear at Mendenhall River

Video of wild bear chasing salmon in Mendenhall Glacier Park   Highly recommended video! This is a wild black bear living in Juneau that we spied chasing salmon near Mendenhall River.

Another male bear came along to chase salmon upstream. We quickly spread the word, and because of our diligence hundreds of people observed these bears -- assisted by the park service boardwalk that elevates observers six feet above the ground -- safe from the bears but close enough to hear them thinking.

Continue Article >> American Safari Details (Part 2)

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