Alaska Up Close and Personal

| August 15, 2007

American Safari describes its cruising experience as "Luxury in the Pursuit of Adventure". Based on my experience, they hit the nail on the head.

Our recent Alaska Inside Passage cruise was American Safari Escape's first of the season. The little vessel has a passenger capacity of 12, but our sailing had just nine passengers and a crew of six. The crew to passenger ratio of 1 to 1.5 was evident in the service levels throughout the voyage.

The Yacht

We booked a Mariner Cabin (C-2 category) stateroom. While not particularly luxurious, the cabin was very comfortable. It had a queen-size bed with ample storage for our belongings. We had one porthole in the bedroom and one in the bathroom -- which was larger than your average large cruise ship bathroom. The cabin had the normal amenities of an upscale hotel room.

The parlor and dining room were very inviting. With so few passengers, there is only one dining table, with wonderful views through the panoramic windows. You could not ask for a more beautiful backdrop. The parlor had ample seating and was very comfortable.

We were free to roam around the yacht, and we did. We spent a lot of time on the bridge with Captain Ron. I also found myself in the galley on more than one occasion enjoying Chef Dave's company and expertise.

Some passengers took advantage of a hot tub on the sun deck, which offers comfortable seating exposed to the sun and in a covered area. This was a great place for spotting whales and the other abundant wildlife, or simply to sit and soak up the sun and enjoy the company of fellow passengers.

The Crew

Our crew was very young. I would have never guessed this was Captain Rob Earle's first voyage as captain for American Safari. He was extremely capable and professional in every way, and a joy throughout the trip. Captain Rob had a lot of company on the bridge throughout the week (another perk when sailing with American Safari). He kept us entertained with his great sense of humor while navigating the waters of the Inside Passage.

When I read that each voyage has an onboard expedition leader, I envisioned an elderly gentlemen with a monotone voice giving less-than-exciting daily lectures. I could not have been more incorrect. We were blessed with Nitakuwa Barrett, a beautiful young woman who is not only extremely knowledgeable but also perhaps the most enthusiastic person I've ever met. She loves her job and it was a pleasure to learn from her and spend time with her.

The meals onboard were wonderful. Chef David VanGelder shared his Cordon Bleu expertise with us in each and every meal. If you didn't care for the day's specials (there were two dinner selections each day), Dave would prepare anything you like. If he didn't have the ingredients for a special request, he would do everything in his power to accommodate you after visiting the next port. (The way to avoid this is to make note of special requests, including your beverage preferences, on the guest information forms prior to sailing.)

Our fantastic dinners included prime rib, salmon, rock fish, Alaskan King Crab Legs (the biggest I have every seen), coconut shrimp, lamb, steak, and an awesome barbeque night. Breads were homemade by Dave on a daily basis. We were also treated to delicious homemade soups for several meals. Dave began his day at 5 a.m. and worked in his yacht-sized galley for 12 to 14 hours a day. We had fresh seafood purchased in port several times during the cruise. American Safari takes no shortcuts in its dining options -- down to the homemade whipped cream. (We asked for it quite a few times; even to top off the Irish Coffee and hot chocolate enjoyed in the evenings.) I am pretty certain no other cruise would offer you chocolate-covered strawberries delivered directly to your kayak while you are exploring one of the many coves. This was just one of many wonderful appetizers we were treated to daily during cocktail hour. On another occasion, we received hot chocolate topped with homemade whipped cream during our skiff ride to the glacier.

The Chief Mate, Dirk Boschek, was able to repair anything on the ship that needed it. He also served as our skiff pilot and assisted Captain Rob. We also enjoyed the company and professionalism of the hotel manager, Rachel Palko, and the vessel's steward, Jessica Mitchell. Both looked out for each passenger's wants and needs. They did a wonderful job of pampering us.

Bears, Not Bingo

Well, this is only partially accurate, as our group enjoyed quite a few rowdy games of "Ocean Bingo" in the evenings. This is not the typical, high priced bingo game you find on large cruise ships. This bingo game is usually reserved for the children who sail on the "Kids In Nature" cruises. But that didn't stop us from having a great time playing.

Wildlife, Not Nightlife

You will not find a casino, art auctions, karaoke or live entertainment aboard an American Safari cruise. But you do find an abundance of wildlife. We encountered harbor seals, humpback whales, Dall's porpoise, Stellar sea lions, Sitka black-tailed deer, moose, brown bear, black bear and several varieties of birds, including many beautiful bald eagles. In addition, we saw many varieties of plant and ocean life on our daily hikes and/or kayak or skiff rides. Another form of entertainment was watching one of the many DVD's carried onboard, either on the TV in the parlor or in our stateroom. Each cabin has a TV with built-in DVD player.

We enjoyed seeing Alaska with our private excursions. Having only nine people on a tour, hike or skiff ride is quite personal and individualized. American Safari has relationships with several local people in their ports of call. It was a joy to meet them learn from them one-on-one. We truly learned about the "real" Alaska on these tours and excursions -- a far cry from the mass excursions of the large cruise lines. On all but one night, we dropped anchor and spent the night in beautiful, isolated coves. The yacht has four double kayaks onboard for exploring these wonderful areas. Escape also has an inflatable skiff for those who chose not to kayak. We chose the skiff on a couple of occasions and had the benefit of having Nitakuwa with us on our trips. She has the ability to spot wildlife I would have never seen, and to educate us about that wildlife.

The price of this cruise was truly all-inclusive, down to the stamps and post cards we sent from the Meyer's Chuck Post Office -- one of the few remaining U.S. Post Offices that hand-stamps its mail. Transfers to and from the ship, along with a tour of Juneau and Mendenhall Glacier before boarding, were included as well.

This journey ended in Prince Rupert, B.C. To say Prince Rupert is small is an understatement. There are only two flights out each day -- one in the morning prior to disembarkation at 10 a.m., the second at 7:45 p.m. After doing some research on the Internet prior to our sailing, I chose to book a hotel room for the day. We quickly explored the small town and retreated to our hotel room to rest before our flight. We learned that the guests who were arriving to board Escape for the return voyage to Juneau were treated to a day excursion prior to boarding the yacht, just as we were in Juneau. Knowing how American Safari wants to please its guests, I would suggest they give the departing guests the option to join new guests on the tour to make the trip complete. This would the icing on the cake -- or should I say the homemade whipped cream?

On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate this cruise a 10. American Safari does an excellent job of pampering guests. We enjoyed much of Alaska that I we would not have seen on the larger cruise ships. Another nice touch is American Safari presents guests with a CD of photos from their sailing. What a great way to remember this wonderful trip.

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