ABOARD THE WILDERNESS EXPLORER — My cabin has a new flat screen TV. The Wilderness Explorer has a big library of DVDs. But I never turned on that TV. No way could it compete with the glorious show that Mother Nature is playing outside the huge windows in my room.
Gigantic humpback whales breach not far from my window. Cavorting and cartwheeling, they snort huge sprays of air and seawater as their bodies slap down on the ocean with massive thuds.
Orca “killer whales” skim through the sea, looking more like sharks with their black fins gleaming against the dark blue water. Once I even glimpsed a sea otter floating along on its back with its toes stuck up in the air. I think it was as surprised to see our vessel as I was to see it.
Forget about man-made entertainment on the Wilderness Explorer as it cruises Alaska. The real show out here is unscripted, the kind of beautiful adventure that can take your breath away.
“This is what I came halfway around the world to see,” Cassie Klinger of Melbourne, Australia, exclaimed on the first day of our weeklong cruise. Standing on the bow of the Wilderness Explorer,Cassie and other passengers count the impressive number of animals spotted on a broad beach south of Gloomy Knob.
The ship slows – a sure sign that Captain Marce or some other crew member or passenger has seen an animal – to watch a coastal brown bear amble along the beach with three cubs in tow. Then another bear shows up with two cubs. Soon after that, a wolf sidles up on a small hillside across a stream from the bears. A second wolf lifts his head to howl. Two bald eagles watch from a tall tree and seagulls circle overhead. But none of the animals seems afraid of the other – almost as though they have staked out their claim and, at least for the moment, are willing to live and let live.
“This is just unheard of, to see all of this within five minutes,” said expedition guide Julie Cardenas. When the ship moves around the corner, three mountain goats are perched on the hillside, their white coats contrasted against the craggy cliffs.
“This is just phenomenal,” Cassie said. “I never expected to see all this. All you can say is Wow!’ ”
Which is exactly what the InnerSea Discoveries executive team of Dan Blanchard and Tim Jacox hoped would be the reaction. Combining their 60 years of experience in yacht and small-ship cruising, the duo wanted to offer small group travel with hands-on, up-close exploration in some of the world’s most beautiful destinations.
Headquartered at historic Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle, Wash., InnerSea Discoveries and American Safari Cruises offer an alternative to traditional cruises by taking guests into areas that are not accessible to larger ships and on excursions that are exclusive, private and unavailable to most other travelers. They call themselves “the uncruise.”
InnerSea Discoveries specializes in adventure voyages in Southeast Alaska aboard three expedition vessels, the 76-guest Wilderness Discoverer, 60-guest Wilderness Adventurer and 76-guest Wilderness Explorer. Itineraries focus on exploring the wilderness – kayaking, hiking, skiff explorations, snorkeling, stand-up paddle boarding and whale watching.
Built in 1976 in Maine, the Wilderness Explorerhad several lives under different owners before it joined InnerSea Discoveries. After undergoing major renovations and getting InnerSea Discoveries’ signature forest green hull, the ship was launched in May 2012.
The cruise company includes many extras on its ships. They provide rubber boots free of charge, as well as equipment for the activities. Each cabin has water bottles to use on the cruise and binoculars are near at hand no matter where you are. Complimentary soft drinks, tea and coffee are available. Espresso is $2 on the honor system. A full bar offers reasonably priced drinks – $4 for local beer, $6 for wine and $3.50 for daily drink specials.
All cabins on the Wilderness Explorer are above deck with view windows. Three cabin categories consist of 21 Trailblazer, 13 Pathfinder and four Explorer cabins. Bed configurations include twin or queen with comfortable memory foam mattresses, plump pillows and warm comforters.
My cabin was a Pathfinder with two twin beds, a table between, closet, sink with storage underneath, hair dryer and a bathroom with a shower and toilet. Water pressure in the shower is good with plenty of hot water. Each cabin has a flat-screen TV, DVD player and iPod docks. Reading lamps are over each bed. In my cabin, framed photographs of a whale tail and a group of whales misting the air were hints to what we would see on our cruise.
A strong heater can warm into the room in minutes. Air conditioning consists of an open window to let in the crisp cool Alaskan air. As on most cruise ships, there are no clocks so be sure to bring a clock or watch. Of course, if you oversleep in the morning, you can always count on the friendly voice of a crew member announcing that breakfast is ready or that a whale has been sighted on the starboard side of the ship.
With all the activity on the Wilderness Explorer and the healthy dining options, I am hoping to lose weight on my eight-day cruise. It isn’t happening. Don’t know how chef Bob Ward and his culinary team prepare all that yummy food in such a small kitchen but they certainly do. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style so cruisers can get to their activities or can catch the action alongside the ship. Dinner is served sit-down style but even that can change if wildlife has been spotted. “When it comes to a choice between dinner and whales,” chef Bob notes with a grin, “the whales always win.”
Early risers can get coffee, juice, cereal, yogurt and pastries in the lounge beginning at 6:30 a.m. Breakfast is served buffet style at 7:30 a.m. Choices included Eggs Benedict, breakfast potatoes, sausage, banana nut french toast, blueberry pancakes, baked ham, cheese broccoli frittatas, smoked salmon scrambled eggs, fruit, pastries and some of the best bacon I’ve ever eaten. I’m picky about my bacon. Much of the bacon served in America is skinny little slices with little taste and too-often undercooked. Breakfast bacon on the ship has some heft to it, along with great taste and it is cooked just right – a little crisp but not burned.
Lunch is served at 12:30 and includes soup, salad, bread, entrée and dessert. Choices have been watermelon salad, beet salad, Asian noodle salad, lemon rice soup, egg drop soup, split pea soup, Tuscan white bean soup, seafood chowder, ginger sesame beef, pasta Bolognese, spinach mushroom lasagna, and cookies.
From 5:30 to 6:30, guests relax at cocktail hour with savory appetizers. Then it’s time for dinner. “For dinner, we always offer a choice of meat, fish and vegetarian,” chef Bob said. “We ask that you look at the menu in the morning and write on the bulletin board what your choice of meat will be.” Some cruisers find it so hard to make an entrée choice that they choose a half-and-half dinner – half a serving of meat, fish or vegetarian and another half of meat, fish or vegetarian.
Choices included red wine marinated pork chops with Mediterranean salsa, marinated cod, duck breast with port wine cherry compote, eggplant parmesan, sesame encrusted sole, chicken roulade with roasted red bell peppers, roasted pork loin with sweet onion marmalade and Greek chicken pasta orzo.
The ship’s lounge near the bow is a popular gathering spot with its fully stocked bar, board games, library and book exchange. The bow itself has plenty of tables and chairs and is a great place to watch the whales and other wildlife that seem to magically appear.
Other shipboard amenities include complimentary on-deck yoga classes, a hot tub on the bow, sauna and fitness equipment on the sun deck and a massage room. Wellness specialist Gabriella Coniglio is a professional masseuse and can schedule massages for $70 for an hour or $40 for a half hour. Gabriella also is a talented songstress and guitarist. A lovely way to end the day is to listen to Gabriella singing as the fog rolls in and the last bits of daylight fade away.
Enough writing for today. Time to go to bed and rest up for what tomorrow will bring. In later postings, I’ll introduce you to the captain, some of the crew and passengers and share activities enjoyed on the Wilderness Explorer. Sweet dreams.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch