The new Alaskan cruise is one for the bucket list

Muscat Daily - - FEATURES -

If you think of Alaska as the Last Fron­tier, you might be sur­prised to find it over­run by fanny-pack­ing cruis­ers, all scur­ry­ing from one Dis­ney­fied shore ex­cur­sion to the next. Af­ter all, tiny towns such as Ketchikan, Hoonah, and Valdez are wel­com­ing up­wards of a mil­lion pas­sen­gers a year - de­spite hav­ing as few as 760 lo­cal res­i­dents.

Take Royal Caribbean’s Ex­plorer of the Seas: It started sail­ing to Alaska last sum­mer, with a ship­board pop­u­la­tion that, at 3,835 guests, is about one and a half times the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of Se­ward, one of the state’s largest ports.

The crowd-averse will look at num­bers like those and cross an Alaska cruise off their bucket lists. But they’d be over­look­ing a stun­ning, in­ti­mate new op­tion that’s geared to­ward lux­ury trav­ellers with a thirst for ad­ven­ture.

Se­abourn Cruise Line Ltd, the small-ship cruise com­pany whose restau­rants are run in part­ner­ship with leg­endary chef Thomas Keller, is sail­ing to Alaska this sum­mer for the first time in 15 years. Its itin­er­ar­ies, which start at 11 days and US$5,800 per per­son, put a premium on ac­tive ex­plo­ration: Kayak­ing through fjords, hik­ing on glacier faces, trekking into ice caves, and pad­dling to wa­ter­falls. And they’re capped at 458 pas­sen­gers.

“I think Se­abourn saw an open­ing in the Alaska mar­ket for cruises for those who want a lux­ury-meets-ex­pe­di­tion ex­pe­ri­ence,” said cruise ex­pert Fran Golden, writ­ing from Alaska, where she’s cur­rently up­dat­ing From­mer’s EasyGuide to Alaska Cruises and Ports of Call. “They are tar­get­ing the same crowd that might go glamp­ing or on a lux­ury sa­fari. You can get in a skiff and fol­low a pod of whales, while back on the ship you can hang out in your big suite, get a great mas­sage, and eat some of the best cui­sine at sea.”

“Other cruise ships are tick­ing boxes,” said Robin West, di­rec­tor of ex­pe­di­tion op­er­a­tions at Se­abourn. And who can blame them? “Alaska sells ex- tremely well for many com­pa­nies, so there’s prob­a­bly no need for them to de­vi­ate from an itin­er­ary that sells,” he ex­plained.

Se­abourn’s En­core, which made its de­but in 2016, was pur­pose-built for ad­ven­ture - and for itin­er­ar­ies that vary from the norm. It doesn’t have all the high-tech, ice­break­ing bells and whis­tles of an ex­pe­di­tion ship, but its back deck in­cludes a ma­rina-in­spired dry dock for tons of zo­di­acs, kayaks, and cata­ma­rans. Com­bine that with the ship’s slen­der pro­por­tions - at 92ft, the En­core is al­most half the width of Royal Caribbean’s Ex­plorer of the Seas - and you get ac­cess to re­mote places that are ripe for high-oc­tane thrills.

Some of these places aren’t even that far out of the way from Alaska’s most pop­u­lous ports. Aia­lik Glacier, said West, is a stone’s throw from Se­ward and in­cludes a mile-long glacier face that’s among the largest such for­ma­tions vis­i­ble on any cruise itin­er­ary. In the sum­mer­time, when har­bor seals give birth, the area is pop­u­lated with tiny pups and their whiskered par­ents, all ly­ing on ice flows and sun­bathing. You can see them up close from your kayak. Then it’s just four miles on­ward to the even lesser-known Hol­gate Glacier, where you pad­dle along calv­ing ice for­ma­tions un­til you stum­ble upon colonies of puffins and sea ot­ters.

Much of the ad­ven­ture is on the wa­ter, whether you’re in a kayak or a cata­ma­ran - this is Alaska, af­ter all. But some of the big­gest thrills are re­served for not-so-dry land. In of­ten-over­looked Haines, you can strap on cram­pons and walk across the David­son Glacier with lo­cal moun­tain guides; near Juneau, you can hike through the ice caves of Men­den­hall. The full­day ad­ven­ture gets you wad­ing through rocky river paths that run be­neath glacial arches, each as blue as the clear sum­mer sky.

Un­like ex­pe­di­tion craft, the Se­abourn of­fers a five-star ex­pe­ri­ence back on deck - with all the crea­ture com­forts and ameni­ties of a full-scale ship. (Think mul­ti­ple restau­rants, a theater with pro­duc­tions by Broad­way lyri­cist Sir Tim Rice, a casino, and on­board lec­tur­ers with Ph Ds in the lo­cal ecol­ogy.)

“They go to many of the same towns other lines do so but with a new twist,” said Golden. “For in­stance, in Sitka, you go by cata­ma­ran to get up close to St Lazaria Is­land, a pro­tected wildlife refuge, so you can spot puffins and other birds through your binoc­u­lars. Then you have lunch at Dove Is­land Lodge, which has a 2016 Wine Spec­ta­tor award.”

And while Misty Fjords is a pop­u­lar scenic spot that cruis­ers can visit, they of­ten have to do so by float plane from Ketchikan - which means half of their ex­cur­sion is wasted on tran­sit to and from the fjord it­self. Se­abourn sails di­rectly into the fjord and co­or­di­nates float planes to meet them ship­side.

The Se­abourn En­core

The sun deck

The Se­abourn En­core at night

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