Spirit of Columbia delivers everything on this writer’s must-see Alaska checklist

By Robert N. Jenkins

Special to AllThingsCruise.com

Let’s see what we have left on our Alaskan must-see checklist:

Orcas? We got a 5:40 wake-up call to watch a pod of them.

Up close with blue ice

Sea otters? Yep, floating on their backs looking up at us.

Eagles? One of them flew just off the port, seemingly racing the Spirit of Columbia.

Sea lions? We went to two rookeries to listen to the big boys offer their machismo roars that seemed to cross belching with barking.

Icebergs? Capt. Doane Brodie put the Spirit of Columbia so close to one we could have step on to it – except the thermometer on deck showed it was 37, with a wind blowing off the nearby glacier, too cold to do much more than huddle deeper into the sweatshirts and windbreakers …

It’s a typical soft-adventure cruise for this 78-passnger ship, one of the nine vessels in the Cruise West fleet. Passengers who book aboard these ships understand they are going to get up close and personal with nature. And if the passengers didn’t read their brochures closely before buying their tickets, they quickly come to realize there are trade-offs.

Dont be looking for entertainment

For instance, there is no entertainment – unless you happen on one of the college-age crew members strumming a guitar during some downtime.

There is no casino, no choice of restaurants or dining times, no pool or fitness center, no duty-free shopping.

And the toilet in each cabin sits at the back of the shower stall, with a curtain to draw across the stall to keep that part dry.

Spirit of Columbia and the rest of the Cruise West fleet embody the company’s motto: “Up-close, casual and personal cruising.’’

Voyages are designed for those who want to enjoy the Great Outdoors, not the great interior of the ships.

Mostly the fleet sails Alaskan waters during the May-September season, letting the passengers photograph the otters, seals, whales, and sea and shorebirds from open decks only a few yards above the water.

Lovely vistas on all sides

Furnishings are bright, but cabins a bit cozy

Originally launched in 1979, the Spirit of Columbia was bought by Cruise West in 1994 and was renovated in 1995. Its furnishings are bright enough but the accommodations are somewhere between “spartan’’ and “cozy.’’

There are six cabin categories ranging from 73.5 square feet (inside cabins, lowest deck) to 130 (one of only two cabins with a double bed; all other cabins have two singles.)

Each cabin has a bathroom but none of these has a tub. Some of the smallest cabins not only have the toilet but also their sink in the shower stall.

Cabin storage space is typically a small closet, one drawer and suitcase-space under each bed, a shelf on the headboard. Fewer than a third of the cabins have a small desk between the twin beds. The TV in each cabin only plays two music channels or DVDs; there is no reception of satellite broadcasts. There are no amenities typical of large cruise ships, such as a hairdryer or safe.

One serving, open seating for meals

There is one serving time for each meal, served in the single, snug, dining room. But the four-person galley crew rustles up a choice of entrees for each meal. Besides standards at each meal – for instance, the breakfast menu always offered pastries, cereals, yogurt, seasonal fruits, smoked salmon and bagel, eggs, and an omelet with your choice of fillings. But the specials on various mornings included blueberry pancakes, a spinach-and-goat cheese omelet and vanilla-stuffed French toast.

Similarly, lunch included a different soup daily, hot dogs and hamburgers. But the entrees ranged from Dungeness crab risotto to a Cobb focaccia sandwich of smoked turkey and bacon to beef bourguignon.

Dinner also included a changing selection of soups, and in addition to the house salad, options such as apple brie salad. Every dinner offered chicken breast and sirloin steak but also two other entrees. These included roast pork loin, veal scaloppini with a brandy peppercorn sauce, and sautéed sea scallops in sherry cream sauce.

Passengers enjoy sunny day on deck

There is just one “public room’ on the four-deck ship: the lounge. It serves as early morning continental breakfast room, cocktail bar, library (books and DVDs focus on the region being visited) and lecture hall.

For while the Cruise West fleet doesn’t carry entertainers, they do boast the excellent Exploration Leaders. Typically with formal education in the natural sciences but sometimes folks who are just nuts about the Great Outdoors, the Exploration Leaders usually offer nightly presentations that preview the next day’s locale.

They also offer the layman’s version of geology, botany and biology the region. Sometimes these presentations are supplemented with the kinds of soft documentaries you’d see on PBS, The Learning Channel or Animal Planet.

The Exploration leaders also go on deck and with a microphone narrate the passing scenery’s special features.

The ship has a young and enthusiastic crew

Another special feature of Spirit of Columbia and its fleet mates is the young crew. They work as the dining room waiters as well as the cabin stewards. They haul the luggage on and off the ship. And after a couple of days of a voyage, the crew often greets passengers by their first name.

Similarly, the passengers tend to get friendly quickly. The vessel is has just the two open decks and the multi-windowed lounge from which to observe the scenery and wildlife. And there is the single dining room. So you probably are going to meet or pass your fellow travelers a few times each day.

If you don’t bump into them reaching for one of the cookies baked fresh every afternoon, you’re sure to meet them passing the hors d’oeuvres during the cocktail hour, at the lectures or on deck, alternating binoculars — placed in every cabin and in the lounge — and cameras.

The whole trip is informal, with no dress code. There are not even locks on the cabin doors – Cruise West says theft has never been a problem.

Perhaps that’s why passenger often leave their books, hats and day bags at the tables or chairs they’ve been using at the stern of each deck. Indeed, these open areas invite relaxing while watching the changing landscape and horizon, or wildlife.

Four passenger decks, but no elevator

Though the vessel has four passenger decks, it has no elevators. The stairways are relatively steep and would challenge those with mobility problems.

The ship provides simple excursions, such as museum visits, when it makes a port call. There are a few organized adventures, such as walking to a glacier or rafting; these are available at added cost.

The passengers aboard my Spirit of Columbia trip were the most highly educated group I’ve encountered in more than 20 years as a travel writer. The typical Cruise West passenger manifest averages folks in their 50s, my four-night July cruise in Prince William Sound had two young teens, a few young professionals and couples in their 40s. And the company has recently begun offering 50-percent discounts for those passengers 18 and younger.

A pleasant feature of all Cruise West voyages is the no-tipping policy, except for gratuities you might offer to the local guides on the few shore excursions.

Clearly, there are trade-offs in sailing aboard a ship such as Spirit of Columbia – the frills, dancing lights, multiple bars and restaurants aren’t here. Instead, you get the basics, camaraderie and up-close views of nature – which is really why you came to Alaska, isn’t it?

For more information: Go to the cruise line’s Web site, www.cruisewest.com.

All photos by Robert N. Jenkins, former travel editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

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