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North To Un-Cruise Alaska!
Tomorrow will mark the start of another Live Voyage Report, and yet another journey that will take me back to the gorgeous State of Alaska. This time, though, I won’t be taking a mainstream ship there on the standard run from Vancouver or Seattle. Instead, my journey will begin right in the Alaskan capital of Juneau, where I’ll set out for a week of adventure to see a side of Alaska that remains elusive to many visitors.
On Sunday, I’ll embark Un-Cruise Adventures’ Safari Endeavour, an 84-guest ship that, at 232 feet in length, is positively petite when you see her docked alongside some of the much larger ships that call on Juneau. I know. I saw her there this past June, docked near the floatplane dock at the end of the pier, nearly resting in the shadow of one of the mega cruise ships that was berthed there.
Her intimate size is the entire point, though. Because she’s smaller, she can go to places where big ships simply cannot – and because she carries just over 80 guests, Un-Cruise can treat them to experiences that other cruise lines can’t.
Of course, for me, getting there really is half the fun. My journey will take me from Vancouver to Seattle, where I will hop onboard one of Alaska Airlines daily nonstop flights to Juneau. Juneau is only accessible by air or sea, and is the only United States capital outside of Hawaii that you can’t drive to. Alaska is the only airline that flies to Juneau year-round, though Delta Airlines did begin offering seasonal service this summer from Seattle.
I’ll also get to spend a night there pre-cruise at the Westmark Baranof, which I am quite looking forward to. I’ve always been to Juneau onboard a cruise ship on a day call, and I’d imagine that “Juneau After Dark” would make for a rather interesting book.
The full itinerary, both here and onboard:
|Day 1||Juneau, Alaska||Arrive Juneau; overnight stay at the Westmark Baranof|
|Day 2||Juneau, Alaska||Embark Safari Endeavour; Upon boarding, your crew greets you with champagne and smiles. Set sail for a week of scenic channels and secluded wilderness.|
|Day 3||Glacier Bay National Park||Accompanied by a National Park Ranger, over the two days in the park you’ll travel nearly 60 miles cruising up-bay to the tidewater glaciers of Grand Pacific and Margerie, which frequently calve huge icebergs into the bay. If conditions permit, we'll lower the skiffs and weave among the icebergs that have fallen from the face of the glaciers. Enjoy an evening at anchor, and mornings paddling your kayak in the quiet of this majestic wilderness. Here in the bay are puffins and sea lions, mountain goats and bears, moose, eagles, and scenery more spectacular than any place on earth. Glacier Bay is at its best when explored by small groups with unfettered time for treks and kayaking inside the bay and wilderness areas.|
|Day 4||Glacier Bay National Park||Enjoy another exclusive day exploring the glaciers and wildlife of Glacier Bay National Park.|
|Day 5||Icy Strait||Today’s the ultimate day of exploration. Set your course for arguably the richest whale waters in Southeast Alaska. Keep watch for the telltale blow of the humpbacks as you scour the nutrient-rich waters in search of whales, porpoise, sea lions, and other wildlife. Join the Captain on the bridge or go on deck with your Expedition Leader. Late afternoon, we’ll drop the skiffs and kayaks for closer inspection of the remote coastline with eyes set on shore for possible bear sightings. This evening, take in the solitude while relaxing in the upper deck hot tub or enjoy a nightcap with your fellow yachtmates in the salon.|
|Day 6||Chichagof Island / Baranof Island||With no binding agenda, today you’ll cruise the waterfall coast of Chichagof Island. Marvel at the grand scenery of Alaska’s wilderness as the crew expertly guides you through those “not in the guidebook” places known only to the locals. This evening, perhaps tucking away in a waterfall-laced fjord, there’ll be time for skiffing, beachcombing or treks ashore, and kayaking to look for sea otters and bears before calling it a day near Baranof Island.|
|Day 7||Frederick Sound / Stephens Passage||Spend the day exploring in Frederick Sound and Stephens Passage—another excellent chance to view humpback whales and other marine wildlife. Pass by Five Fingers Lighthouse and watch for playful antics at a large sea lion haulout made from dozens of rocky islets. Later, cruise picturesque bays, where evergreen forests crowd the shores.|
|Day 8||Fords Terror / Endicott Arm||Cliff-walled fjords sliced into the mountainous mainland are on tap today as you slowly slip into an area widely acclaimed as the most beautiful in Alaska. With more designated Wilderness Areas than any state in the nation, the finest include Endicott Arm and Fords Terror—a pristine tidal inlet and fjord. Explore this majestic fjord by kayak or skiff, a unique opportunity indeed. View rugged ice-covered mountains gleaming high overhead and a glacier that actively calves into the ice-filled fjord of Endicott Arm. Toast your voyage with a festive Farewell Dinner, and before turning in, your Expedition Leaders will share a “photo journal” of your trip together.|
|Day 9||Juneau, Alaska||Disembark Safari Endeavour; transfer to Juneau Airport and onward flights.|
During the off-season this past spring, Un-Cruise took the time to perform some modifications to Safari Endeavour to ready her for the 2014 season. During drydock in Anacortes, Washington, Safari Endeavour received new carpeting in the Main Lounge and her Deck 1 passenger corridor. Bunk lighting was completely replaced in all the Deck 1 staterooms, and a second massage room was added to the ship, reducing her passenger capacity to 84 from 86 guests. Awnings were also added to the balconies of her four Commodore Suites on Deck 2.
I’ll be up on Deck 3 in a cozy Commander Stateroom that features direct access to the open deck outside – not to mention the inviting sauna and hot tubs located at the aft end of Deck 3. These rooms feature fixed twin beds along with two view windows looking out onto the deck outside, and all staterooms feature TV and DVD players along with iPod Docking Stations.
Safari Endeavour is one of Un-Cruise’s Luxury Vessels. The line offers three distinct categories of cruises, each with their own unique features and attributes. On the line’s blue-hulled Luxury ships, all onboard drinks are included in the cost of the cruise, along with a complimentary massage, free onboard wellness program, and all transfers, port fees and taxes.
Down in the Sea of Cortes, Un-Cruise made an enormous impression on me based on the quality of the crew onboard and the sheer depth of the tours they offered. On most days, guests were presented with multiple options depending on their own preferences and desired activity levels. In Mexico, these ranged from overland hikes to donkey rides to kayaking, paddleboarding, and more.
They’re also educational. It’s surprising how much you can actually learn and absorb without even realizing it when you’re on a cruise like this.
What excites me most about this Alaskan itinerary aboard Safari Endeavour, though, is the prospect of enjoying two full days in Glacier Bay National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Glacier Bay is one of the places I can barely pull myself away from on a mainstream cruise aboard a much larger ship. On bigger ships, the visit to Glacier Bay lasts for about eight hours and is designated as ‘Scenic Cruising’ only. Aboard Safari Endeavour, guests not only get to see Glacier Bay, but experience it as well – up close and personal.
Of course, part of the Un-Cruise allure is that their itineraries are designed to be fully-immersive, and without distractions – which means there’s no internet access onboard. So while I’ll be writing my thoughts down each and every day, it won’t be until the week I return – September 7th – that I’ll actually begin posting them here and on Live Voyage Reports.
This will be my seventh voyage to Alaska, and I’m looking forward to being shown a completely different side of this beautiful State!
Our Live Voyage Report onboard Un-Cruise Adventures’ Safari Endeavour begins on Sunday, September 7, 2014 and runs until Sunday, September 14! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.
I am the reluctant explorer.
It’s not that I don’t like travel; far from it. I’ve loved travel for as long as I can remember – and you don’t get too far in this line of work if you hate travelling. It’s like a vegetarian working at Burger King – you just don’t see a lot of it.
For years, though, I was a very “safe” traveller. I stuck to cruises I knew I would like, on ships I knew I’d love to sail on, going to places I knew I’d enjoy. Then, one day I tried an Expedition Cruise – and everything changed.
See, the trouble is that I’m not Mr. Outdoors. Mother Nature and I have a love-hate relationship in that the heat drives me nuts, I can’t stand bugs, and the thought of camping sends genuine shivers up my spine. If I’m tenting, there’d better be a guy in the middle of the woods mixing cocktails.
Of course, what I discovered was that I was Mr. Outdoors – I just didn’t know it. The heat still drives me nuts and the bugs still eat me alive (if anyone from Off! is reading this, I need you to make something that’s just short of radioactive to keep the mosquitoes off me. Thank you.) I still won’t go camping…brrr!…but I will take an expedition cruise all day, every day.
Even “classic” cruises can be filled with adventure. My voyage on Hurtigruten’s Midnatsol still ranks as one of the most spectacular journeys I’ve ever taken – to Norway in the winter. It was cold, wet, and totally cool. In seven days I stepped ashore in nearly 20 different cities, towns and villages, saw the northern lights, and slept in a snow hotel. People who cruise to Norway in the summer months on other lines get none of those experiences.
Likewise, river cruising the Mekong aboard AmaWaterways’ AmaLotus was a real life-changer. It’s so hot in Cambodia and Vietnam that you’re constantly in various stages of melting, and there’s enough adventurous food in Vietnam to test the willpower of even the heartiest eaters. (Pass the ox testicles, please.) But it’s an experience like nothing else; one filled with history, culture, and some of the kindest people you’re liable to ever meet.
Then, there’s South Africa. I had to nearly have my arm twisted by a good friend to get me to go there. I was very unsure about the entire thing, not just because it was farther than I had ever travelled before (see? Even travel writers have fears), but because of all the horror stories surrounding violence and crime in Cape Town and Johannesburg. I wondered if perhaps this was too much to take on as a solo traveller – and it wasn’t. Credit Silversea with having such a soothing atmosphere onboard the Silver Wind and for creating an itinerary that allowed for ample time to go on Safari – which I did at every turn. I never like to say that one journey was “the best”, but this one remains steadfastly in my mind as one of the top five cruises I’ve ever taken.
The next time you go to book the same old voyage to the Caribbean or Alaska – nice as they are – have a look around. Try something you’ve never done before. You might be surprised at how much you enjoy it.
Then, of course, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.
From the Deck Chair will return tomorrow.
Disney’s Second Ship Still Sparkles
Last week, I had the opportunity to tour a very unique ship while she was docked at Port Metro Vancouver’s Canada Place Cruise Ship Terminal: Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Wonder.
Built in 1999 as Disney’s second ship, Disney Wonder is the sister-ship to Disney Magic, and was the newest vessel in the line’s fleet until the launch of the much-larger Disney Dream entered service in February of 2011.
Even if you have never sailed aboard a Disney ship before, you only have to hear the name to know that this is a decidedly family-friendly cruise experience. This is not the cruise to go on if you’re a couple looking for a week of quiet relaxation – but that’s not to say that it’s not for adults, too. In true Disney fashion, their adult offerings are every bit as impressive as the facilities they have set up for children.
Disney Wonder, like her fleetmates, has been designed to reflect the grace and elegance of the great transatlantic ocean liners – albeit in a modern, very Disney-fied way. Circular oversized windows emulate the portholes of days gone by, and Disney Wonder’s hull is painted in an attractive black-and-white scheme, with yellow accents running down her length and accenting her name and stern plate, where Donald Duck can be seen hanging down off the starboard side, paintbrush in hand.
My tour was a very ambitious, fast-paced one that didn’t leave a lot of time to admire the work Disney’s designers and the shipbuilding team at Italy’s Fincantieri shipyard had put into her. It did, however, give me a good impression of what cruisers can expect from this beautiful ship that doesn’t even look half her age.
Let’s have a mini-run-through and check out some of the highlights of the Disney Wonder:
Staterooms & Bathrooms
The biggest takeaway of my Disney Wonder tour was how well-designed the staterooms are. In most stateroom categories, a dual-bathroom system is employed. Through one door is a toilet and vanity, while behind Door Number Two is a shower/tub and another vanity area. It’s a clever arrangement that allows two people to get ready at a single time – which really helps when you’re a family of four travelling together. The very first cruise I ever took, as a teenager, was with my family in an oceanview stateroom on another cruise line, and getting ready in the morning bordered on absurd. Not so on Disney.
Disney’s staterooms are surprisingly spacious, and littered with interesting nautical and whimsical touches – like trying to spot all the “hidden Mickey’s” – instances of Mickey Mouse – spread throughout the room.
Staterooms are also equipped with cordless telephones that work anywhere on the ship – great for kids and parents trying to keep track of each other. On Disney, Mom and Dad are also free to bring a bottle of wine or a few beers on board to enjoy in the privacy of their stateroom; a decidedly upscale feature that many other “mainstream” lines are cracking down on.
Disney identify themselves as a mainstream cruise line, but I’d argue that they’re “upper premium.” Certainly, their pricing qualifies them for this (a Disney cruise is far from cheap), but you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck – particularly with kids. Case in point: juices, sodas, coffee and water are all complimentary if you get them from the Pool Deck self-serve drink area. In fact, Disney Wonder has the largest self-serve soda fountain area I’ve ever seen onboard a cruise ship, and it’s all free. Soft drink packages can set parents back quite a bit on other lines.
Also keeping with the “upper premium” designation is the general look and feel of Disney Wonder. Sure, some areas – most notably the Parrot Cay Dining Room on Deck 3 – border on theme-park-tacky, but Disney’s designers have worked their magic on the ship’s interiors, creating something that recalls the grandeur of the great ocean liners. It also seems to (consciously or unconsciously) incorporate some of the best features of Princess, Holland America and Carnival cruise ships.
Kids areas are whimsical and fun, while adults-only areas (of which there are more than a few) are downright elegant. Take Palo, Disney’s adults-only specialty dining venue. Everything in the room is imported direct from Italy, from the marble flooring to the Venetian glass accents on railings and supports. Located on Deck 10 Aft, it features expansive views looking over the stern of the ship, and sports a menu that would give many luxury lines a run for their money.
In addition to Palo’s, Disney also offers casual dining at the Beach Blanket Buffet up on Deck 9. Again, Disney’s skill with crowd control is in evidence here: dual serving stations on port and starboard sides of the ship all feature the same menu items, thereby eliminating the need for cruisers to criss-cross the room. They still have trays to carry your food on (!), and special kid-sized trays. Menu items were more varied than I’d expected, with frozen prawns and vegetable stirfry served up alongside classic Macaroni and Cheese. My inner kid came out, and I had to try the Macaroni and Cheese, which turned out to be a real guilty pleasure. Dessert? Jell-O with Mickey Mouse ears.
We didn’t get a chance to view much of the dining rooms as they were being prepared for embarking guests, but Disney does have a unique approach to dinner onboard: you are assigned a table and a wait staff, just like “the good old days” of cruising. The exception here is that your wait staff and tablemates travel with you, rotating through three different dining rooms over the course of a week.
Kids, of course, run the show onboard Disney Wonder – or do they? They have their own unique space on Deck 5, which cleverly features lowered ceilings and dropped portholes to make the kids feel big and the grown-ups, well, feel a bit like John Cusack working on the 7th ½ floor in Being John Malkovich.
But the kids facilities are nothing short of astounding, and the queue of parents looking to sign their little ones of all ages up for Disney’s fantastic onboard programs – which are free of charge for the most part – grew throughout the afternoon.
The adults-only-domains aboard Disney Wonder – like the Vista Spa – are soothing and elegant, but decidedly whimsical in their own way. More than a few adults might get nostalgic ambling up to the Cadillac Lounge that features Cadillac-styled elements from the 1950’s worked into the décor of the lounge.
Stairwells and corridors are also cleverly designed and are larger than usual, though some staircases and, most notably, Deck 4 access to the Walt Disney Theatre seem surprisingly snug.
Where’s the Wonder?
During the summer months, you can find the 964-foot long Disney Wonder sailing from Vancouver to Alaska. She also sails to Hawaii and the Pacific Coast before transiting back through the Panama Canal for a winter of cruises to the Bahamas from Galveston, Texas.
In 2015, Disney Wonder returns to Vancouver and Alaska, and in October of 2015 sails to San Diego for a series of Mexican Riviera cruises.
You can learn more about the Disney Wonder by viewing the overview of the ship on our sister-site, The Avid Cruiser.
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