The Island Spirit is tiny as cruise ships go-more like a yacht really, except it has a more “expedition” than luxury feel to her. There is a favorable ratio of 16 passengers and 11 crew on the vessel when we leave the port in Juneau. As soon as we’re clear of the dock, it’s happy hour, and they aren’t stingy with the free drinks. I like it already!
We begin by heading north around Admiralty Island. Dinner is served early. Tonight we have baked cod with vegetables and gluten-free, which is to say tasteless, bread, which the chef apologizes for, but otherwise it’s a good experience.
After an excellent dessert, as if on cue, the ship’s naturalist comes over the PA system to announce that orcas have been spotted. We hurry on deck to see at least 4 animals swimming by about 100 yards from the ship. The captain turns us around to follow them discretely, and for the next 15 minutes we get some great opportunities for viewing the mammals up close.
Before we even have time to relax, Humpbacks are spotted, and we’re back up on the bow of the ship again. The great whales are bubble fishing, which is a phenomenon wherein the pod circles a school of herring while blowing bubbles, which has the effect of trapping the hapless creatures in an underwater column of air from which they can’t escape. Then the whales swim vertically up through the column, gulping huge quantities of their favorite food as they go. From the surface, all you can see is bobbing whale’s heads and the occasional fluke. We watch the animals for about 30 minutes before moving on.
At night, we pass by a giant vessel, the first cruise ship, we’re told, cleared to do the Northwest Passage. It’s the Celebrity Solstice, and it’s lit up like a pinball machine as it looms up out of the deepening night and passes our tiny ship.
Later, I retire to my cabin. It’s a basic room, with slightly worn furnishings and a paucity of storage space, but it is nonetheless comfortably austere. There are two firm but supportive single beds, a tiny dresser (no closet), and the world’s smallest corner sink, which can barely accommodate my hands. The bathroom is cramped but functional and clean. The room’s best features are the 3 large windows that afford a great view.
A bonus is that one of those windows is operable, allowing for natural ventilation which is especially appreciated at night. The Island Spirit is the only vessel in Alaskan waters that is allowed to operate on battery power while moored, which means that it is blissfully quiet once we pull into a tiny cove to drop anchor. So, with the cool clean night air flowing through my open window, I’m able to sleep in the silence that only the wilderness can provide.
I’d say the first day has been fantastic. I’ve already seen whales up close, the food is good, and the cabin is clean and functional, even though some additional storage and/or a larger sink would be appreciated.
The all-American crew seems to enjoy their work, but of course you’re not going to get big ship levels of food and service on such a tiny vessel. Since crew members are expected to be adept at many things, they aren’t necessarily experts at customer service. So, for example, you’ll find the food cleared away before you’ve had a chance to eat, or some joking familiarity with each other and passengers which is verboten on the more formal lines in the cruise category. Nor of course will you find your bed turned down with a chocolate on the pillow at night. But they seem competent, casual, and friendly enough, and they’ve given me more than I expected so far-a close-up look at whales on day one. What more can I ask?
Tips-Bring a good book, or be ready to entertain yourself. There isn’t so much as a movie on at night on the single TV on the ship, nor is there any other kind of planned activity.
If you’re picky about booze, BYOB. They don’t mind.
Don’t bring any “nice” clothes. You won’t need them. Jeans and layered clothing work well. Rain gear is smart, as it drizzles frequently and unpredictably. I haven’t yet found the need for wet shoes. Take something to cover your head. I brought a baseball cap.
Seen any Orthodox churches up there? Supposed to have more than the average.
Not a one, except in Juneau, and that was badly in need of repair, even though it’s on the National Registry of Historic Places. I’m amazed that even in Petersburg, which we hit on a Sunday, there was NO Orthodox church!