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Karen Knowlton


Occupation:Travel Professional

Number of Cruises:

Cruise Line: Cruise West

Ship: Spirit of Alaska

Sailing Date: August 20th, 2001

Itinerary: Seattle to Juneau

Having been interested in the casual style and emphasis on the surroundings and the destination, typical of small-ship cruising, led my husband Kim and me to the decision to spend an Alaska cruise vacation with Cruise West. We had previously been to interior Alaska (Anchorage and Denali National Park), and loved the spectacular mountain scenery, clean air, accessible wildlife and general atmosphere so much, we decided we had to go back someday. This time we wanted to see a different part of Alaska, the southeast, and knew the best way to do that was by water - the only other choice being by air. We also felt that a small-ship cruise would get us closer to nature and the wildlife than one on a standard-sized large cruise ship.

We chose Cruise West's 10-day "Gold Rush Voyage" itinerary because it included nearly all the ports that interested us, plus all the wilderness areas offered on their shorter Alaska cruises. Spirit of Alaska offered this itinerary with a Monday departure from Seattle, allowing us time over the weekend to fly there from the Midwest, get adjusted to the time change and visit friends in the area before embarking on the cruise. In effect, this is a kind of repositioning cruise, offered only once (by two of their ships) northbound in the spring and southbound in the fall. Those two ships offer a 7-day all-Alaska itinerary during the summer season.

Overview: With previous experience on big cruise ships, my first reaction seeing the Spirit of Alaska as she arrived at the Victoria ferry dock in Seattle was, "Isn't she cute!" (Apparently this reaction is not unique.) She is 143 feet long and has cabin space - nearly all doubles - for 78 passengers, and for about 22 crew. Our cruise was not a fully-booked one, with 61 passengers; the crew made several references to being a bit shorthanded, and they numbered 21. We found the cabins small but comfortable, with adequate storage space even for all the bulky warm clothes we brought (and needed), the ship itself small and cozy, but just fine for this type of cruise, where passengers are encouraged to relax and to enjoy Alaska - the focus being on the outdoors, wildlife encountered (both marine and land-based), glaciers and waterfalls and other features of the landscape, and the ports, some of which are small towns relatively unspoiled by tourism.

Fellow passengers we found to be mentally adventurous and active, but not necessarily athletic; age range was mid-30's to upper 80's, the majority probably between 55 and 65. This is not a cruise for children; the activities while cruising included reading, watching the scenery and wildlife, self-directed photography, and talking with other passengers. Even the biggest nature buff among children would undoubtedly find himself bored after the first day or so. Food was excellent - though with a much more limited menu, it was on a par with some of the best cruise food I have had in the past - and service was very good, friendly and personal. Crew and passengers alike are on a first-name basis; even Captain Drew Merget encouraged us to call him by his first name, and passengers are given name tags (Karen - IL, mine said) and peer pressure encouraged nearly everyone to wear them every day of the cruise.

Some aspects of Cruise West voyages are familiar to those experienced with big-ship cruising: shipboard accounts, gratuities, the opportunity to purchase future cruises, etc. These differ only in detail. Gratuities, recommended at $10 per guest per day, are pooled among the crew - a fair way to work this, considering how many jobs each does. (See People.) And, unlike many of the big-ship cruises, soft drinks are included in the cruise fare - much appreciated by the non-tipplers among us!

The Ship: As I previously mentioned, Spirit of Alaska is small, and may in fact be the smallest, in terms of individual passenger space, of all of Cruise West's overnight ships. Nevertheless, being campers, we were quite comfortable in our twin-bedded category A cabin on the upper deck, (often referred to as the "300 deck" because all the 300-numbered cabins are there); we had a draped view window (which opens), a frosted window in the door, a closet more than big enough for our hanging and heavy clothes, and several drawers and small cabinet tops to store clothing and small items. Even our big rolling duffle bag & suitcase fit easily under one of the beds. It should be noted that none of the cabins locks from the outside, though there is a small lever that one can flip up when inside the cabin that will disable the door latch. It must be turned back down in order to exit the cabin, so it's impossible to lock yourself out. The no-locks system has worked well for Cruise West - much better than having to deal with lost keys during a cruise! For those really concerned about their valuables, the hotel manager's office has a safe available for passenger use.

The lower category cabins are indeed lower, located amidships on the deck below the lounge and dining room. (Crew cabins are fore and aft of those, entered by different stairways.) These cabins are smaller than Cat. A, with almost the same amount of storage space. They do not have a view window, but a "portlight" located high on the wall, too high to possibly see out of, but offering some daylight into the cabin. Those staying in them felt a bit cramped, and of course with no view, spent their waking hours in the lounge or outdoors. Category AA cabins are located in the busy passageway between the lounge and the dining room. Their advantages are double beds and windows (which also open) located in the hull; no one will be walking around outside your window there unless you are in port. Disadvantage, however, I would think would be noise due to proximity to the public areas and the traffic right outside the door, which is pretty constant during daylight hours. Category AAA are at the stern of the upper deck, and have big closets, double beds and more space; one or two of these can be converted to triple accommodations. These cabins, as with the deluxe category on the top (bridge) deck, don't have numbers but names, such as Baranof, Admiralty, etc. The deluxe cabins have double beds, extra storage cabinets, TV's, refrigerators, and a window on each side of the ship - nice! They are located just aft of the captain's quarters, itself just aft of the bridge. Being up top, however, they are subject to more motion, usually not a problem except in Queen Charlotte Sound.

Incidentally, we have concluded that on the small ships, it does not matter whether one's cabin is on the port or starboard side, whether one is on a northbound or southbound cruise. The scenery is all around, and on this small a ship, getting to the other side to see something interesting is only a matter of seconds.

The bathroom would be familiar to anyone who has spent time in small to medium-sized RV's; there is a toilet (which flushes like one at home, not with the "explosion" common to the big ships' marine toilets); sink and small counter - big enough for toothpaste, shampoo, soap, cups, and a couple other small items; a medicine cabinet; two towel racks & a grab bar (also handy for hanging towels or wet clothes); it is also equipped with a retractable clothesline, which on a 10-day cruise we used! A shower curtain protects the toilet paper, toilet & towels while one uses the "telephone" shower head. There was always adequate hot water for our showers, but we practiced water conservation as requested, and tried to take "camper showers" - wet down, turn water off & soap down, then rinse off. The ship holds only 4500 gallons of fresh water, and we were unable to replenish the supply until our first port, on the 4th day of the cruise.

Public areas are the lounge, located in the bow on the main ( "200") deck, just below ours, and the dining room, astern of the lounge and the small group of category AA cabins behind the lounge. There is one main stairwell in the center of the ship, equipped with steep narrow stairs (familiar to Navy veterans). Everyone learned without too many mishaps how to get along with these stairs, but those with moderate mobility problems (or worse) should consider a different ship; apparently most of Cruise West's fleet has more gradual stairs, and more stairwells too. With our not-full complement of 61, we still found the lounge and dining room a bit tight. Both the lounge and dining room have large windows all along both sides (which also open), but we found that when these rooms were full, the windows had a tendency to fog up quickly! I might suggest an anti-fogging window cleaner be used; not everyone felt hardy enough to spend all their time outdoors, but everyone spent a great deal of time wiping windows so they could see outside!

Other public areas are outdoors: the bow viewing area on the upper deck, and a smaller area just in front of the bridge; and much of the bridge deck - this area is equipped with plastic chairs and a few small tables, and part of it is covered by an awning, handy during rainstorms. There is a smaller area at the stern of the upper deck, covered by the top deck but open on three sides. This area was generally used as a "smoking lounge," as well as a part of the awning-covered top deck; ashtrays are provided in both spots. Smoking is not allowed anywhere in the ship's interior. The décor of these exterior areas is utilitarian, reminding me of ferries: metal decking and storage lockers, etc. I was somewhat amused to note that the refrigerators and freezers for the galley are located outdoors at the stern of the upper deck, just above the galley. Like the cabin doors, these are not locked. However, food does not seem to go missing - probably because of how well we were fed! (See the Dining section.) Incidentally, the ship's "gym" - a single stationary bike - is located on the bridge deck under the awning. It got regular, if not heavy, use during our cruise. The other exercise facility is the upper deck passageway, which goes all around the ship, sort of a mini version of a promenade deck. Many of us used it for fitness walking - though dodging other passengers or crew members coming out of cabins, stationary photographers, deckhands, etc. We heard several opinions of the length: anywhere from 25 to 33 times around the ship totals a mile.

If one is looking for a private place, one's cabin is about it. However, the lounge is not usually loud & boisterous except perhaps at Happy Hour before dinner, and many passengers read, did needlework, played board games or just watched the scenery quietly from there. The crew seem to use the dining room for their lounge during non-mealtimes, and are usually equally quiet.

Dining: The food was simply wonderful! In fact, the chef got a standing ovation at the end of our cruise. No menu, main dish or dessert was repeated, seasonings were delicious and varied, produce was quite fresh - even the pineapple! Breads and rolls were baked fresh and served warm. We were offered a choice of 2 entrees for lunch and dinner each day (one at dinner always being fish or seafood); lunch consisted of soup, light entrée (usually a fancy sandwich or big salad) and dessert, and dinner was salad, soup, rolls or bread, entrée w/ vegetables and a starch, and dessert (choice of a special, like pie or cake; sherbet or fresh fruit). Breakfast had one special daily, usually some variety of eggs, pancakes or French toast. In addition, continental breakfast was served from 6 to regular breakfast time (which varied), and included pastries, muffins, toast, bagels, fresh fruit, juices, hot and cold cereal, and yogurt, plus of course coffee, tea and hot chocolate. Some passengers often opted to skip regular breakfast, filling up on the continental offerings instead. If someone didn't care for the entrée choices at dinner or lunch, they could request something else and it was made - we noted this several times, though never needed to take advantage of it.

Food portions were larger than I have noted on the big cruise ships, though not overwhelming. Though most of us "complained" about having too much to eat, we usually managed to finish off our meals! As previously mentioned, hot drinks were available almost 24 hours; Kim was always able to get a cup of coffee even when up at 5 AM, and the hot drink station in the dining room was open for passengers' use until past our usual bedtime (10:30-11), with regular & decaf coffee, hot chocolate and a variety of teas (black, green & herbal). Snacks, should one want any, were available at the bar. There was always a bowl of goldfish crackers or pretzels on the bar during the day, and sometimes a basket of granola bars and/or Oreos appeared there as well. There is a single seating for all 3 meals, the times varying depending on whether we were cruising or in port. All meals are open seating as well, and many of those passengers who did not travel as part of larger groups made it a point to sit at different tables and with different people during the course of the cruise. On occasion the captain would join us, sitting at whichever table had an open seat.

People: The passenger mix, as I noted, ranged in age from mid-30's to 87, most folks in the early years of their retirement. There were several groups of friends, from 2 to 4 couples traveling together; couples by themselves, parent-and-grown-children combinations, and several cabins occupied by singles traveling together. Most were Americans, and they came from all 4 corners and in the middle: Florida, Massachusetts, Oregon, California, Minnesota, North Carolina and Arizona were among the states represented. We also had 2 couples (not together) from Australia, 2 from England (also not together), and 87-year-old Hilda was accompanied by her daughter-in-law Shelley, both from New Zealand. (The captain later told us that Cruise West's Alaska trips attract many Aussies and quite a few from Great Britain, but rarely from continental Europe.) All had a keen interest in the nature and/or history of Alaska, and were definitely there to see Alaska, not just to take a cruise. Many were avid photographers with good equipment, and a few were birders.

The crew are all young (in their 20's and 30's) and an adventurous lot: several have already had exotic experiences such as trekking in Nepal or backpacking through Peru, and most have at least some college under their belt, usually majoring in marine biology or ecology/conservation/recreation-related fields. They were enthusiastic, friendly and eager to please. Service was very good to excellent; by midsummer I think will be routinely excellent - several crew members were very new and still learning their jobs and the finer points, such as timing of cleaning the cabins, etc. I found it especially nice with such a small and friendly crew to have an informal atmosphere - one day when the wildlife and the glaciers had been especially magical, the crew (many of them in Alaska for the first time themselves) were as excited about it as we were, and we discovered in the afternoon that one of the beds in our cabin had been stripped but not remade. On this small ship, I knew who had done our cabin that day, and found her a short time later to let her know the bed had been forgotten; she was apologetic, but didn't need to be from my standpoint, and of course took care of it right away. The crew are also a hardworking bunch, and they need to be a jack of all trades as well - the same kids who wait tables also clean cabins, and virtually everyone helps out with deckhand duties from time to time; we even saw the captain among the group wrestling the gangplank into position at several port stops, and deckhands folding napkins between meals!

Crew functions and positions are a bit different from large ships. There is no "purser" per se - the officer in charge of accommodations is called the "hotel manager" instead. The "cruise coordinator" (not "director") is also the onboard naturalist. Spirit of Alaska's bartender, reporting to the hotel manager, was in charge of shipboard accounts, and also ran the gift shop - basically a display case on one end wall of the lounge - and purchasing logo items, film or other things were done through her. If she was busy - say at Happy Hour - or if the lounge was full of people, she would take your order and obtain the requested items later, when the lounge was empty and she had access to the storage areas there. Fortunately for me, she had a good supply of not only film but disposable cameras; my own point-and-shoot broke early on the third day, and a couple of disposables got me by until we were able to purchase a new camera in port. (Incidentally, prices - even in the tourist areas - didn't seem much out of line with the lower 48 - a change from our first experience with Alaska in the mid-80's.) No single crew member is responsible for certain cabins - at least it seemed as though they rotated that responsibility, as different kids would do our cabin each day. They also do it in several passes: one to collect towels & trash, another to make beds, another to clean the bathroom.

During the course of our cruise, we all got to know each other, in some cases fairly well, and when we left the ship in Juneau at the end of the cruise, the crew all lined up on the dock to say goodbye. Handshakes and hugs were the order of the day, and a few tears as well. Cruise West likes to consider their cruises as having a family atmosphere, and I would say that was pretty much true. Along with our last day's Adventure Update newsletter, we received a sheet of paper with all our fellow travelers' names and addresses - something you won't see on a cruise with 1500 (or more) passengers!

Activities and entertainment: No casino, pool or stage shows here! Cruise West's emphasis is on enjoying Alaska, part of which means concentrating on searching for whales or understanding why glacier ice is blue, not being distracted by in-the-ship games and shows. Evening programs in the lounge were given largely by Margie, our cruise coordinator & onboard naturalist, and often featured slides she had taken in Alaska or the Klondike, and a brief presentation and Q&A session centered on a specific theme - perhaps whales, or the Gold Rush. One evening, in Ketchikan, we were treated to a humorous talk on Tlingit Indian customs and beliefs by Joe Williams, himself a local Tlingit, followed by his children displaying traditional Tlingit ceremonial costumes and performing a few dances. They even invited members of the audience to join them in the last dance, and a couple less shy souls obliged. The entire evening was highly entertaining and also very informative. We did have one contest: a "bergy bit," a small piece of iceberg, was taken on board in Tracy Arm, and passengers could register an estimate of the time & date when it would melt. The winner won a Cruise West logo sweatshirt.

As previously mentioned, daytime activities focused on observing our surroundings or relaxing. Fitness could be maintained by walks around the deck or rides on the bicycle, or perhaps climbing those steep stairs (using one's arms on the railings help, and also assure a bit of upper-body work!) In port, Cruise West offers one brief included tour or program: examples include a walking tour of Haines, tickets to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, or a short tour of Skagway in an old stretch van/truck. A variety of optional excursions (at extra cost, from $12 to $300) are offered, ranging from easygoing to very active. We could choose from a bus tour, kayaking in the harbor, a rainforest hike, a ride on the White Horse & Yukon RR, flightseeing by plane or helicopter to several different glaciers, and many more - comparable to those offered by the large cruise ships. One could also choose to just walk around on one's own and shop, or take a cab to a point of interest.

Keeping track of passengers who go ashore is informal, but carefully monitored. Spirit of Alaska uses a magnetic board, measuring about 2'x2', and each passenger is required to move one's magnetic token in the slot beside his cabin number or name to indicate whether he is ashore or aboard. In our case, the occupants of one particular cabin were often the last ones on board; 15 minutes before departure, Margie would announce that everyone was accounted for except those whose magnets had not yet been moved. We never were delayed by passengers returning late; usually the "missing" ones were already on board (having forgotten to move their magnets to the onboard position) or arrived just at the last minute required. Identity checks are no problem with this small a group; we were given lapel buttons to wear, bearing the Cruise West polar bear logo, and most wore them ashore, but the crew members monitoring the gangplank could recognize our faces after the first 3 days of cruising.

While cruising (i.e., not in port), Margie or the captain would announce when certain attractions (wildlife, glaciers, rainbows, etc.) had been spotted, and where to locate them, using the time-on-the-clock method of location familiar to birders, among others. Margie would often also elaborate with some interesting information about the animal or some aspect of the scenery we were seeing. Spotters were all over: passengers, Margie, other crew members if on a break, and especially the bridge; I began to wonder if they had 100-power binoculars up there, as they sure noticed wildlife before anyone else did, most of the time! The captain, with 7 or 8 years experience on Cruise West, also was quite familiar with the best areas to look for bears, whales, etc., and usually included those areas in our "flight plan" for the day. The P.A. system comes into the cabins via a speaker in the ceiling (with volume control), so no one had to miss out when humpbacks, bears or a particularly pretty rainbow or waterfall was spotted. Except at times when we were due into port soon, if something was spotted behind us, the ship would turn around and try to get closer to the action. A humorous sidelight to this: whenever the engines slowed or the ship seemed to turn especially quickly, heads would pop out of cabins and people festooned with cameras & binoculars would race up on deck to check out what might be happening! We all laughed at this, and sometimes thought the captain (or maybe Rob, the first mate) was slowing the boat just to see us react! And, true to the brochure pictures, we did indeed poke our bow under a waterfall in Tracy Arm, where the sides of the fjord are steep below the water, and quite deep.

Summary: For Kim and me, there aren't enough superlatives to express how much we enjoyed this cruise vacation. We also heard many extremely positive comments from our fellow passengers - and no negative ones! The scenery was nothing short of awesome (to use a much overused word!), the wildlife exciting and fun to watch, the social atmosphere casual, friendly and fun, the crew competent and approachable, and our fellow passengers interesting and pleasant traveling companions. I would take another Cruise West cruise anytime - just a marvelous experience!

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