It was obvious that something interesting had just happened. All the people on the bow suddenly moved to the right side of the boat and started pointing. It could only be bears. Word quickly spread throughout the ship. Two black bears were grazing down by the waterline. We had sailed up a tidal inlet in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, hoping for just such a wildlife sighting, but some of the passengers forgot for a moment to speak in the quiet tones we had been instructed to use so that we wouldn’t disturb the bears. They squealed instead. The boat stopped so we could watch the bears for 10-15 minutes because whatever the published schedule might be, the schedule of UnCruise’s Safari Endeavor is subject to “wildlife, weather, and whim.”
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UnCruise – Not Your Father’s Cruiseline
One of the big draws for tourists in Alaska is wildlife, but a small boat excursion like the Safari Endeavor promises a more up-close look in more out-of-the-way places than the big cruise ships can offer. With just 84 passengers it can sneak into small bays. It can also spend the night inside of Glacier Bay National Park while the two big ships allowed in per day have to exit the park by nightfall.
A smaller boat like the Safari Endeavor can’t offer the big stage shows, a pool, or a climbing wall. It also has only one seating for dinner and your dessert choice is often just “yes” or “no”. You don’t dress for dinner, there are no bingo games and no art auctions. You can’t buy tanzanite on board and our specific cruise from Juneau to Glacier Bay and the other islands and inlets around Juneau didn’t make a single stop at any other towns for a week. This is not the cruise to take if you are looking for shopping.
Packing for an Alaskan UnCruise
My wife and I arrived on the Safari Endeavor with just two carry-on suitcases. With no need to bring clothes for a formal night or even semi-formal or smart casual, we packed lighter. Admittedly, some people brought their own rain gear and rubber boots which are de rigueur on an expedition ship. We borrowed our gear from the ship at no additional charge. The cost of the voyage includes the gear, the excursions, an open bar, one massage, and a pair of binoculars in the room for wildlife spotting.
One of the notable differences in the crew versus a larger cruise ship is that they were almost entirely American-born. I am used to crews on a larger ship being from the Philippines and Indonesia. A more significant difference is that instead of using local guides for shore excursions, an UnCruise ship brings a complement of guides. For our two days in Glacier Bay, they were augmented by a park ranger who came aboard. Each night one of the guides gave a talk. We heard about local birds, the voyages of John Muir to Alaska, and researching the Juneau Ice Fields. Granted, one of these talks got interrupted by sighting pods of humpback whales and orcas.
The expedition crew is knowledgeable. They took us on guided kayak trips or bushwhacks through the landscape of southeastern Alaska. They explained how glaciers work from a zodiac near the base of one. They spotted bald eagles or pointed out to avoid the devil’s club brush.
The stewards both served our dinner and tended to our cabins. They did so with unflagging warmth and hospitality. The whole crew was hard-working, but they seem to enjoy the fringe benefits of a paddleboard or a kayak in a secluded Alaskan bay in their few off-hours. Even the captain took a break to pilot one of the skiffs to pick us up from a long bushwhacking experience. He greeted us at the beach at Geekie Inlet with cold beers and hot chocolate.
A bushwhack is something like a hike except without marked trails unless they are game trails. In some spots, it meant pushing through the scrub or waiting across creeks are small rivers. We did an all-day bushwhack in Geekie Inlet in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park. We spotted fresh moose and bear tracks, although did not add to this an up close and personal encounter with either.
My wife was a bit disappointed that we did not get a machete, as that is what she expected from bushwacking. Instead, we landed on a beach that showed no signs that any other human being had ever been there before and pushed through the alder bushes to get off the beach and onto a game trail.
Sometimes you find a way to cross the many streams coming from glacial melt, and sometimes you just have to double back and try and find another route. The guide has a general idea when you get dropped off, whether you are coming back to the same beach or making your way to a different one. You might be where the guide has been before, or you might just be exploring.
The glaciers in Glacier Bay are rapidly receding, which means that land that had been covered by ice for tens of thousands of years has been uncovered here in my lifetime. As you can imagine, when the land is first exposed, it is bare rock and glacial silt with nothing growing on it. Eventually, the red fireweed will take root. Over time alder bushes will take over from the fireweed, only to be supplanted later on by a full-grown forest of fir trees.
As you walk up one of the small valleys in Glacier Bay, you walk towards the toe of a glacier and towards the land that has been most recently uncovered.
The Safari Endeavor has an “easy dock” to more easily launch and recover a swarm of sea kayaks. Many of the outings that we did over the week were kayaking. When the boat would head into an inlet, the crew would often set out some boundaries for a “free kayak” area. Passengers could get in a kayak and explore freely within these boundaries.
In addition, there were also guided kayak opportunities. In a guided kayak outing, one guide would take a few kayakers to explore the area. That might involve kayaking around an island out of sight of the ship, whale watching from kayaks, or wildlife viewing.
On our cruise, we saw dolphins swimming in the wake of the boat, whales (grey whales and orcas at least), sea lions, bears, bald eagles, and more. The boat would stop and change directions if needed to see some great new wildlife sighting, as in the case of the story above. A whiteboard in the ship’s lounge kept a running tally of all the various animals that had been spotted, including a great number of birds.
The ice above calved off of the Dawes Glacier in the Endicott Arm in southeastern Alaska. I loved how there were so many different colors of blue in the same piece of ice.
Those passengers who were not excited about bushwacking or kayaking would often take a skift or zodiac excursion while we were anchored in some secluded bay. At some destinations like the Endicott Arm, all the passengers took turns in the kayaks to explore a glacier “up close.”
Up close is a relative thing when you are talking about a glacier and usually meant you would stay about a quarter-mile away from the edge of the glacier as ice might break off at any moment from either above or, in some cases from below the waterline.
One thing that was fascinating was the great variety of colors in the glacial ice, from clear to blues.
The cabins on the Safari Endeavor are rather spartan. My wife and I had a typical cabin with an exterior door. The cabin door does not lock, but you can put a “privacy knot” on the doorknob if you don’t want the steward to make up your cabin. Each of us had a separate bunk with enough space between to change your mind. With this kind of scenery outside, why would you want to hang out in your cabin anyway?
There were two main indoor communal spaces on the ship. The lounge was upfront, and the dining room behind it on the main deck. The lounge had a bar that was manned most of the day. Drinks are included in the cost. We would gather in the lounge to hear about excursions and plan the next day.
Meals were eaten in the dining room. The food was quite tasty. There might not be quite the large number of options that you would have a larger ship, but I heard no complaints about the food and quite a few compliments.
An UnCruise experience is not for everyone. We were guests of the cruise PR’s public relations agency, but the normal cost of the cruise starts at $4700 per person. While the cost may be prohibitive for some, a bigger barrier would be the necessary sense of adventure. The youngest passengers on our cruise were in their 20s, but the oldest defied categorization by age.
As we climbed a steep moss-covered hill in Endicott Arm, one of the women in front of me was gray-haired and looked like someone’s grandmother. She was bushwhacking with the rest of us, her sense of adventure seemingly undiminished by age. I can only hope that’s me in 20 years.
Did we enjoy our experience? Well… before it was over, we put down our deposit on another cruise (read about our UnCruise to the Sea of Cortez). We are now looking at cruising with UnCruise in Panama or Belize.
Learn more about this great cruise by listening to Cruising Southeastern Alaska on UnCruise – Amateur Traveler Episode 473.