When we say small-ship operator, we don't mean the larger cruise industry's idea of small (500-700 passengers). Cruise West's 90- to 295-foot vessels carry just 70 to 114 people who like the idea that four decks above the waterline is as high as you can go.
Established three decades ago by Chuck West, an Alaska travel pioneer, the company was once known as Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West. As the family-owned firm, now headed by son Richard West, expanded its itineraries beyond Alaska to the Lower 48, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and the Pacific Rim, the simpler name Cruise West took hold.
Every cruise offers open-seating meals, a casual clothes policy, an onboard camaraderie between passengers and staff, including both trained expedition leaders who live aboard and specialists who visit for the day. Passengers are mostly 45 and older, and most hail from the U.S. -- although many Australians are now finding their way aboard.
From mid-May through September, the company's fleet of six shallow-draft "Spirit" ships and one daytime motor vessel concentrates on a varied program of scenic wildlife and cultural adventures as far south as Seattle and as far north as Nome on the Bering Sea. Some itineraries focus on a relatively small region in Southeast Alaska or Prince William Sound; others range the full length of the Inside Passage and on beyond the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage.
Alaska is a destination that's worth more than one visit, and by looking through Cruise West's fresh-off-the-presses 2003 brochure I easily came up with four highly diversified programs. I have already been to Alaska five times (on a long drive, twice aboard Alaska Marine Highway ferries, once on a big Princess ship and post-cruise land tour, and once aboard Cruise West's little Spirit of '98), but I still can't get enough of this multi-faceted, giant piece of America.
I go for Alaska's scenery, seascapes, wildlife, native and newly arrived people and their cultures, and not for what's inside the ship -- except for the enthusiastic company of fellow passengers and crew, and to sleep soundly, eat simply but well and get around in reasonable comfort. The Explorers' Route cruise I took last May aboard the stylish little Spirit of '98 provided all of that (see previous article, Cruise West - The Small Ship Advantage).
What's new for 2003 that might draw me back or entice a first-timer? Let's begin ambitiously -- in time and cost -- with the new Spirit of Oceanus program, a 13-day, 12-night "Coastal Odyssey" that begins in Vancouver or Anchorage. The 114-passenger ship is relatively fancy for Cruise West, an all one-room suite vessel with a deeper draft than the rest of the fleet to navigate stretches of open water safely.
From Vancouver, the route threads north along the British Columbia coast, calling in at Prince Rupert, then exploring the deeply incised Misty Fjords National Monument, the Sawyer Glaciers in Tracy Arm, expansive ice fields in Glacier Bay, and Frederick Sound for humpback whales. Passengers can see Alaskan native Indian culture at Petersburg, Russian heritage at Sitka, and the state's capital including its wonderful museum in Juneau. Crossing the Gulf of Alaska within the shadow of North America's highest mountain range, the ship calls at Homer's artist colony and cruises into the Kenai Peninsula fjords before disembarkation at Anchorage.
This itinerary is relaxed enough to allow the captain to scout for wildlife. The ship's nimble nature allows the master to bring the bow right up to a waterfall and close enough to meet the eyes of a brown bear (or four, as I saw last May in both Misty Fjords and in a corner of Glacier Bay). When the Spirit of '98 moved close to the Margerie Glacier and a large chunk broke off, the captain turned the bow into the ice-generated swells, so we saw, heard and felt the collapse in that order. The Coastal Odyssey itinerary has eight departures May 10-Sept 11; 13 days from $5,599 per person (air extra).
For the more adventurous, there are twice as many "Voyage to the Bering Sea" programs scheduled for 2003 aboard this same rugged ship. Passengers embark at Anchorage, and cruise west along the Kenai Peninsula and the Aleutian Island chain as far out as Dutch Harbor. The ship proceeds into the Bering Sea for Zodiac stops on both Russian Far East and American islands to look for seabirds, fur seals, walrus and whales, and to meet the local Eskimos living in traditional ways. Voyage to the Bering Sea has four departures June 11 to July 17; 14 days from $7,199 per person (air extra).
As a complete switch from the geographically expansive to a focused concentration on a small area in southeast Alaska, "Wilderness Waterways" is a brand-new nine-day, eight-night program featuring famous and less traveled fjords, glaciers, channels, islands and villages.
The diminutive 78-passenger Spirit of Alaska, carrying Zodiacs and equipped for bow landings, sets out from Juneau after an overnight at the Goldbelt Hotel across the street from the dock. Tlingit art and totems are on display in the state capital, the former Russian capital at Sitka, and the seldom-visited village of Kake. In between scheduled cruising into Endicott Arm, Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay, the captain has time to take the 143-foot ship through narrow, twisting channels into any fjord that might reveal a pod of whales, brown bears or Steller sea lions -- the latter often close enough to smell! The Spirit of Alaska anchors in secluded bays for the night, so you can watch the moon rise, study the stars and see dawn break in one of nature's beauty spots in the space of 12 hours. Wilderness Waterways has 16 departures May 16 to August 29; nine days from $2,599 per person, including all shore excursions (air extra).
Cruise West offers eight distinct Alaska itineraries on cruises lasting from three nights to 12, often with pre- or post-hotel stays, and land and air tour packages that take in wilderness lodges, Denali National Park and the Alaska Railroad. Prices begin at $1,499 for the shortest five-day cruise tour (air extra).
Outside Alaska, the Cruise West fleet explores the San Juan Islands and British Columbia's Strait of Georgia and deeply indented coastline; the varied landscapes of Lewis and Clark's route up and down the Columbia and Snake Rivers; the Napa Valley wine region and Sacramento River basin; Spanish culture and nature at its best in Baja California, the Sea of Cortez and Mexico's Copper Canyon; and the tropical rain forests, national parks, islands and largely inaccessible coastlines of Costa Rica and Panama, including an Atlantic-Pacific canal transit. See the Americas Experience Brochure for 2003-2004.
While enrichment programs vary from itinerary to itinerary, all cruises have an expedition leader and assistant trained for the destinations who give daily pre-dinner briefings in the lounge. Local and national park interpreters board for informal talks from the bow and audio-visual sessions in the lounge, or meet passengers ashore for cultural or nature presentations. Some cruises include the onshore and Zodiac or inflatable boat outings in the price; others offer optional tours such as helicopter flights, rafting, nature hikes, and native cultural events.
See www.cruisewest.com or phone 800-888-9378.