Windstar Once Again Plying Alaskan Waters
Experience thrilling adventures while sailing the Inside Passage
BY BILL FINK — Winter 2019
ith a low rumbling sound that echoes through the fjord, a chunk of ice the size of a small cruise ship breaks from the glacier and tumbles into the water below with a towering splash. The waves send our kayaks gently bobbing as we float at our vantage point safely a few hundred yards away.
“Whoa! Totally amazing calving! This is awesome!” our trip leader shouts excitedly. When even your guide is impressed, you know you’re on a special trip. About a dozen of us are in Alaska’s Tracy Arm fjord near Sawyer Glacier on a three-hour paddling excursion from our cruise ship. It’s one of many adventurous side trips Windstar Cruises offers during its new itinerary along the Inside Passage seaway between Vancouver and Juneau.
Windstar specializes in smaller-size cruise ship trips at destinations around the globe, ranging from the Mediterranean to the South Pacific, and now, British Columbia and Alaska, two destinations it returned to last May after a 25-year absence. My ship, the Star Legend, carries about 200 passengers in 100 upscale cabin suites, with more than 150 friendly crew members along to ensure we have a good experience up north on this 12-day “Islands & Inlets of the Inside Passage,” sailing round trip from Vancouver. The crew includes an in-house Expedition Team that guides exclusive tours for Windstar guests to supplement the wide variety of shore-based excursions offered by local companies.
On board, my fellow passengers make it clear they’re not here for a typical cruise ship experience. “I don’t do cruises,” says a woman in her mid-60s, about the average age of guests, mostly couples with a few families mixed in. “I consider this a private yacht trip I’m doing with some friends.” She’s one of many repeat Windstar passengers, over half of those on the boat, many of whom greet staff or guests they met on prior trips with affectionate hugs.
The on-board scene is friendly and communal, one where bartenders remember your drink of choice, the waiters your favorite table, and your fellow passengers your name. It’s a quiet ship life, particularly compared with that of the mega cruise lines — if you’re looking for a floating city of discos, waterslides, and bumper cars, then this isn’t the ship for you.
t sea, the Star Legend hosts a popular series of Alaska seminars on topics ranging from wildlife to fishing, photography, and city guides, along with chefs’ demonstrations, trivia contests, and even a hilarious crew talent show. Two mellow live-music duos provide entertainment at night, while during the days passengers can relax in the hot tubs with cocktails, get spa treatments, read the ship’s library books in the lounge, or even tour the bridge and chat with the captain and crew about engines and navigation.
But the real attraction and entertainment at sea is the landscape and seascape through which we’re traveling. The Inside Passage features a streaming wilderness show of different channels (literally) dividing forest-covered mountains, rocky islands, misty shores, distant snowy peaks, icy fjords, and a collection of quaint seaside towns, including native villages dotted with totem poles.
Our vessel’s smaller size, in comparison with the mega cruise ships, enables us to dock at some of the smaller towns and to access farther reaches within the icy fjords. The Inside Passage, mostly protected from large sea swells and winds, features smooth sailing, aside from one rocky day in open seas after leaving the shelter of Vancouver.
Working fishing vessels cross paths with us on their way to rich salmon habitats. Many guests lean on the rails with binoculars spotting escaping schools of salmon, the telltale waterspouts from migrating humpback whales, the soaring arcs of bald eagles, and some bobbing heads of curious seals and sea lions staring back at us.
he fun really begins once the ship anchors. The Windstar Expedition team has created a series of trips worthy of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Every iconic Alaskan experience is available, including flying by helicopter to the top of a glacier to meet sled dogs, gliding in a seaplane over mountains to dock by a riverside lodge for a fresh-fish meal, setting out on wildlife excursions for up-close views of wild bears feeding on salmon, embarking on popular whale-watching trips, and even soaring along the world’s longest zip line.
One of our local Alaskan expedition leaders declares, “Kayaking is the best way to truly feel present in the moment, and the most enjoyable way to see the state.” So I just have to hop aboard a kayak to see for myself.
Our ship has sailed far into scenic Tracy Arm fjord, anchoring after we start seeing a number of icebergs calving from the glacier. We launch from the ship on a six-person zodiac-style boat to putter over to a convoy of brightly colored kayaks that our guides have tethered together near the shore. The fickle Alaskan weather has brought us a misty day, bordering on rain, but nothing that will keep us from exploring. The ship’s crew provides waterproof pants and gloves and a trailing zodiac that sea-delivers hot chocolate and cookies to maintain our energy, warmth, and good mood.
On the kayaks, we paddle around icebergs shaped with a physics-defying array of swirls and curls of bright white and deep blues, as if Mother Nature is running her own ice-carving and air-brushing show for our entertainment. Mischievous harbor seals pop their heads from the frigid waters to spy on our bright flotilla, disappearing to re-emerge on the opposite side of us. We pass waterfalls and dramatic rock faces, but none of it compares to the massively impressive sight of a living glacier, creaking and popping and bursting pieces airborne like a frozen fireworks show.
Kayaking to Sawyer Glacier ranks as a true bucket-list experience, something that can’t be captured fully by photo or video. It really has to be felt in person. All your senses are engaged: seeing the epic scale of the towering glacier cliff face with bright white and deep blue ice; hearing the thundering sounds of the glacier calving; smelling the mix of briny sea and pine trees wafting from the hills; tasting salty splashes from the ocean and the rain water dripping from my hood; and feeling the grip of my kayak paddle and the chilly mist soaking into my bones. It all makes it seem, like the guide said, that I’m truly “feeling present” in this moment.
n another Windstar expedition a few hundred miles south, where the glaciers had long retreated, I ride in a zodiac boat to explore the Misty Fjords. Despite the fjord’s name, it’s a warm, sunny day as we motor past waterfalls, cliff faces, natural hanging gardens of vines, and a large brown bear browsing for food on the shore maybe 100 feet away from us. Our enthusiastic guide (whose name is, no joke, Captain Hook) unfurls nonstop patter about geology, local flora, and fauna that may have seemed boring in school, but in this, the ultimate wilderness classroom, is both welcomed and needed, opening our eyes to rocks, plants, and water currents that probably would have escaped our attention otherwise.
At other cruise stops, I sample side trips run by partner local companies. In Ketchikan, I make like a local and join a couple of other Windstar guests to go fishing aboard a small motorboat, trying our luck at spots our resident captain had fished for years. Reeling out plastic squid lures to depths of 250 feet, I hook and pull up a 10-pound bottom-feeding halibut, which puts up a serious struggle despite our disparity in weights. After I pull the fish on board, a bald eagle circles above us and eyes our boat from his perch high in a pine tree. “Oh, he knows exactly what we’ve got here,” the captain says. “Eagles have been known to swoop down and grab a fish right from our hands.” I feel like I have become “fully present” in the Alaska food chain before slamming and locking the fish safely in the cooler.
Ashore, the captain cleans the halibut and a rockfish we had caught, then delivers the fillets to a dockside restaurant that prepares them for our group with a classic beurre blanc sauce. Supplemented with recently caught crabs, prawns, and whitefish, it’s as fresh a seafood feast as one could ever hope for.
But the trip isn’t just about water and wildlife. At the small Icy Strait Point development on Chichagof Island, I go on a land-based cultural and nature trip with a native Tlingit tribal guide. This is no cheesy tourist dance with faux feathers and beads, but rather a skidding, rumbling jeep ride with a 20-something hipster who happens to be deeply immersed in his local culture.
As we cruise along gravel roads, he talks of learning his grandma’s traditional fry-bread recipe, interning with a totem pole carver, and leading a long-distance wooden canoe trip between tribal lands on the coast. He speaks of their day-to-day life, a mix of modern technologies and old-style living. “The woods, the hills, all this,” he gestures outside the window of the shiny new four-wheel-drive Jeep, “this is our refrigerator, our general store, our playground. We hunt for our meat, gather berries, even use the fibers in roots to make our baskets.” He guides us on trails through the forest with stories of growing up in these woods, his hunting adventures, and how the tribal grannies outworked him on their fiercely focused root and plant gathering trips. During our return drive to the ship, we watch a brown bear cub trot along a river as its kind has done for thousands of years.
Beyond these organized trips, it’s also possible on shore stops to just wander off on your own — but mind the timing; cruise ships leave ports on schedule, full house or not! I hike without guides on three different stops, making it to a mountaintop at Metlakatla, hiking to a spectacular forest waterfall; beachcombing in Wrangell; and strolling a new beachfront path at Canada’s Prince Rupert. Locals in these small towns seem more receptive to our modest-sized groups disembarking from our Windstar ship than they might have been with 3,000 passengers from a massive cruise liner paying them a visit.
Returning on board the Star Legend after excursions, guests trade stories over fresh salmon dinners or boast at the bar with our Alaskan Amber Ales about who caught the biggest fish, saw the closest bear, or witnessed the most dramatic whale breach. Like any good trip, the shared experiences make the journey what it is — in this case, a fun way to “feel present” in the Last Frontier that is Alaska.
Details: In 2019, Windstar offers 22 varied itineraries in Alaska from May through September aboard the Star Legend. The 12-day “Islands & Inlets of the Inside Passage” trip, sailing from Vancouver to Juneau and back to Vancouver, has two 2019 departure dates: Aug. 31 and Sept. 12. 888-297-1497; windstarcruises.com
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