Overall Impression Cruising the Inside Passage of Southern Alaska aboard the Island Spirit was the next best thing to an invitation from a friend with a yacht and a passion for the pristine wilderness of the Northern Pacific coast. Jeff Behrens, owner and captain of the Island Spirit, was such a man. His powerful 39-meter (128-foot) long ship was just the right size to wend its way between chiseled granite escarpments into secluded coves and get “up-close and personal” with the awesome glaciers and waterfalls that abound in the area. When Captain Jeff acquired the then Magnum Force in 1998, it was a rugged oil rig supply vessel. Over the next decade, he painstakingly repurposed it into the Island Spirit, a comfortable passenger ship with an enthusiastic crew of eight, who shared their skipper’s sense of mission. “We thrive to offer you the opportunity to let the wilderness embrace you,” Captain Jeff told me on my second day on board, when I stopped by the cockpit for a chat (unless we were sailing in especially narrow or challenging passages, the cockpit door was always open and guests welcome to drop in). I nodded knowingly. I had been on board barely 24 hours, and it already had.
We had left the sleepy fishing port of Petersburg on the evening tide. Soon the Island Spirit was advancing at a leisurely 10 knots per hour (that’s 11.5 mile or 18.5 kilometer for the landlubbers among us) past channel markers draped with sea lions, up Frederick Sound toward our anchorage for the night. Before long, all signs of human habitation faded away, cellular phone signal included. I was standing in the bow viewing area with several of the 15 guests that would be my traveling companions for the next nine days. All of us were bundled against the crisp evening breeze, watching in awed silence the pristine Alaska immensity unfold around us. Distant snowy peaks shone brightly in the evening sun. Puffy clouds were turning gentle shades of pink. The call of gulls and bald eagles could be heard over the discrete purr of the ship’s engines. By the time the crew cast the anchor in Portage Bay two short hours later, I was nearing a state of blissed contentment that remained with me for the remainder of the voyage.
The itinerary was loosely scheduled so that it could be adapted for changing weather conditions and wildlife viewing opportunities. We stopped for whales, orcas or porpoises. We slowed down for seals lounging on drifting ice floes, and accelerated when blankets of clouds rolled down the mountainsides, narrowing the horizon to the nearest shores. It was a time when most passengers retreated to the cozy glassed-in lounge and settled with a book in one of the inviting sofas; until the next announcement from the cockpit alerting us of marine life ahead. We’d all lunge for our coats, cameras and binoculars and rush back to the viewing deck. One of the pleasures of this small ship journey was its intimate, casual atmosphere. It was easy to quickly get acquainted with my shipmates, all of us linked by a common desire to get away from commercial cruising routes and conventional city block-sized vessels to explore at leisure some of the most pristine wilderness in North America.
With electronic communications unavailable for days on end, time became measured only by the breathtaking vistas and exciting wildlife sightings encountered along the way. And with its comfortable accommodations, warm and knowledgeable crew and laidback ambiance, the Island Spirit treated me to one of my most relaxing vacations ever.
Duration Nine days
Description Our journey started in Petersburg, a small fishing port with a population of 3,000, still solidly attached to its Norwegian roots. After an early dinner hosted by members of the Sons of Norway Lodge, with youngsters in traditional costume performing for us dances brought over by their ancestors more than one century ago, we headed up Frederick Sound. Our anchorage for the night was the serene inlet of Portage Bay. We were underway again the next morning, enjoying our first of many close range sightings of whales. Our destination was Ford’s Terror, a cove protected from the outside world by a passage so narrow that the Island Spirit was said to be the only commercial passenger vessel in the area small enough to undertake it. Additionally, fierce currents make it impassable at any time but slack tide (the moment when currents stand still while the tide turns). The cove is named for the late 19th century sailor who didn’t follow this wise procedure when he tried to row a dinghy through the twisting canyon and was trapped in its roiling waters for several terrifying hours. We waited in a narrow fjord framed by towering granite cliffs for the timing to be just right to engage into the passage. Meanwhile, we enjoyed the sight of waterfalls thundering down from the snowcapped mountain peaks. Captain Jeff carefully nudged the ship to the edge of the rock face, so closely that we could reach out to the water. A pitcher materialized, which we filled and passed around for a taste of the “sweetest water ever.”
When we finally emerged from the canyon, Ford’s Terror was revealed: a large oval cove rimmed with dramatic slopes covered with black pine forests interspersed with tumbling waterfalls. Above the tree line, shimmering snowy peaks reached out to the cloudless cerulean sky. And this dazzling panorama was mirrored in the undulating waters of the cove. A bald eagle soared overhead. This idyllic instant was only the start of a day of unfolding magic. As we were finishing our dinner, first mate Andy informed us that a grizzly bear was enjoying his at the water’s edge. One of the skiffs had been lowered for those who wanted a closer look. We donned our life vests and headed en masse for the skiff. The weather was still radiant the next morning. While kayaks were an option, I chose to board the skiff again for a ride around the cove. In addition to spotting unusual Harlequin sea ducks and bald eagles nesting high in the trees, I was treated to a rare, close range sighting of a black bear sow and her three tiny cubs. All too soon, it was afternoon slack tide time again and we had to head back out through the canyon. Although I surmise that the next night’s anchorage was suitably picturesque, all I recall of it is that it was not Ford’s Terror.
The next morning was gray and misty as we headed up Endicott Arm to Dawes Glacier. Ice floes became increasingly larger as we went along, until the ship slowed to a crawl. I stared slack-jawed at a mile-long wall of jagged ice about 20 stories high. We inched our way forward to a mere 600 feet (200 meters) from the glacier. From there, we could hear the ice crack as large slabs of it tumbled into the sea, sending waves of churning water across the surface thick with icebergs. Time flew while we challenged each other to locate the sound of the cracks and predict the next slide, and crew members passed out cups of hot cocoa to ward off the chill.
We went on for an overnight stop in Juneau, the state capital. The next morning, after a leisurely visit of the small downtown area and the State Museum, we continued on to Chichagof Island, and the tiny community of Tenakee Springs (population 129). Shore excursion here included a nature walk through the old growth Tongass Forest National Park and a stroll down Main Street, a stretch of gravel-topped dirt road lined with small wooden homes. I peered through the windows of Snyder Mercantile, a picturesque general store that has been a mainstay in town for over a century. It was unfortunately closed that day. A few steps later, I stopped by Party Time, the local bakery, for a freshly baked cookie and a chat with the proprietress.
Our final stop prior to reaching Sitka was the tiny settlement of Baranof Warm Springs, just off the Chatham Strait, with a seasonal population of 30. Its main thoroughfare was a boardwalk leading to hot spring pools located right next to a roaring waterfall for a soak with a view. There was also a bathhouse with three private tubs located right on the bay. Sitka, our final destination, was a bustling fishing port with a rich cultural heritage as the home of the native Tlingit people for over 10,000 years as well as the 19th century capital of Russian America.
Location The itinerary explored remote areas of the Alexander Archipelago (commonly known as Inside Passage) of southern Alaska, in the North West of the United States.
Specialty Small ship wilderness cruise
Transportation Alaska Airline had daily flights from Petersburg as well as Sitka to Juneau and Anchorage, Alaska and Seattle, Washington. Fantasy Cruises offered transportation to and from the dock to the airport as well as for shore excursions.
Owned and managed Fantasy Cruises was a private company owned and managed by its founder Captain Jeff Behrens.
Established Captain Behrens acquired the vessel in 1994 and refitted it as a passenger ship for day excursions in the San Juan Islands area of Washington state. After three years of planning and extensive rebuilding to further transform it into a cruise ship, the Island Spirit began operations in Southern Alaska’s Inside Passage in 2008.
Size and main features of vessel The Island Spirit had an overall length of 128 feet (39 meters). Its 25.6 foot (7.8 meter) beam and 7 foot (2.1 meter) draft made it ideally suited to access narrow passages. Its maximum speed was 17 knots (20 miles or 32 kilometers) per hour. It had 17 cabins that could accommodate up to 32 passengers.
Crew Captain Jeff Behrens
Number of employees In addition to Captain Behrens, the Island Spirit had a crew of eight, including Andy Peters, first mate, and Marie Wagner, a naturalist.
Common areas There were three passenger decks. The lower deck held cabins on both sides of a central hallway and an open viewing area in the bow. From this lower deck an interior staircase led to a spacious lounge and bar that occupied the rear two-thirds of the middle deck. The lounge was lined on three sides with large picture windows for optimum viewing ability. The ambiance was invitingly casual, with five overstuffed rolled-arm sofas covered in coral wool and a pair of matching armchairs constituting the main element of the décor. Several straight back beech wood chairs, upholstered in black cloth, provided additional seating around a long rectangular table in the center of the room. A bookcase held an assortment of reference books on the geology, culture and fauna of the area and a small lending library. A large LCD television screen hung from the ceiling above the banister of the staircase leading to the lower deck. The walls were covered with cherry paneling. Flooring was brown tweed carpeting. An L-shaped bar sat at the rear of the room. Next to it, a door led to a large outdoor viewing deck that ran the width of the ship.
The dining room occupied the front third of the middle deck. It featured rows of rectangular tables that could accommodate four guests each. Seating was a mix of banquettes fitted against the walls and beech wood straight back chairs with black upholstery. The partition separating the dining room from the cockpit at the front of the ship held a serving bar with a dumb butler that brought food up from the galley.
The front half of the top deck was a sheltered observatory with a canvas roof and a semi-circular Plexiglas outer partition. The rear half provided open-air storage for the kayaks and the inflatable zodiac-type excursion boats.
Cabin My forward cabin, Number 102, was a roomy 100 square feet (9.3 square meters) with headroom of 6.4 feet (1.95 meters). The walls were covered in off-white laminate with light wood trim. The floor was brown tweed carpeting. There were two twin size platform beds, one against the left side wall, the other against the hull. Two large windows made the cabin exceptionally light and airy. The cabin had individual climate control, although I didn’t find it necessary during my cruise. In addition to a central ceiling light, there was a light strip on the wall above each bunk. A wall mirror hung next to the small corner sink in the rear right side of the cabin. Under the mirror, a towel rack held two hand towels and washcloths. A large storage drawer and a compartment for life vests were fitted under the bunks. A small hanging rod was fixed on the ceiling at the foot of the front bunk.
Head (bathroom) On the right side of the cabin, a door led to a small but efficient en-suite bathroom with a pushbutton vacuum-flush toilet and a full size shower with overhead showerhead and reasonable water pressure. Two bath towels hung from a rod on the wall behind the toilet.
Amenities There were two life vests and two pairs of binoculars in the cabin. Toiletries included a box of tissues, individual sizes of house brand hand soap, shampoo, body cream and lip balm.
Meals, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages were complimentary, as were all activities and guided tours on water and shore, transportation to and from the ship and the use of kayaks.
Children Teenagers could be accommodated by prior arrangement on a case-by-case basis.
Handicapped access There was a wheelchair on board. Motion impaired guests could be accommodated by prior arrangements on a case-by-case basis.
Meals Lindsay, the chef, and Svetlana, pastry chef, quickly achieved star status among the guests for their wholesome, well prepared meals and irresistible breads and pastries. Temptation started for early risers with a healthy buffet of cut and whole fruit, yoghurt, cold cereals and granolas, assorted juices, tea and coffee, and one of Sveltana’s scrumptious breakfast pastries still warm from the oven. It was followed at 8:30 a.m. by a cooked breakfast. The family-style luncheon, seved at 12:30 p.m., usually included a delicious soup and imaginative salad, followed by another round of baked treats, most often bars or cookies that materialized on the bar while we were still in the dining room. The 4:30 p.m. cocktail hour, with tempting appetizers, had a way of stretching until dinnertime (6:30 p.m.), when a three-course dinner was served plated. It usually featured a salad, main course of fish or meat with a fresh grilled vegetable and an artfully presented, decadently delicious dessert. Most memorable for me were a creamy lemon tart, an airy génoise filled with light chocolate butter cream and, best of all, a rich and velvety smooth flowerless chocolate cake. Lest we should go hungry between meals, there was also a full coffee, tea and hot chocolate service with a plate of cookies and a bowl of fresh fruit on the bar throughout the day. Special dietary requirements could be accommodated by prior arrangement.
Service My cabin was serviced daily. Every member of the crew was friendly and attentive.
Activities In addition to viewing at close range the stunning natural wonders and wildlife of Southern Alaska there were lectures on the geology and fauna of the area on board the vessel. Guided excursions on inflatable skiffs were available wherever possible. There were single and double kayaks for guest use. Guests could also to take part in guided shore excursions including nature walks, a visit to a remote lighthouse, fish nursery, tiny fishing communities and in Juneau and Sitka, town and museum visits.
Land and sea mammals I sighted included: black bear, brown bear (also known as grizzly bear), fisher, marten, mink, river otter, sea otter, harbor seal, spotted seal, Steller sea lion, humpback whale, orca whale (a.k.a. killer whale), Dall’s porpoise and harbor porpoise.
Birds included: bald eagle, golden eagle, harlequin duck, marble merlette, arctic turn, herring gull, kittiwake gull and mew gull.
Power The ship had round the clock electricity throughout the guest and public areas. During the night-time hours, electricity was supplied by batteries charged from excess power generated during the daytime, to ensure ultra-quite evenings. There were two convenient outlets in my room that could be used to charge my camera, phone and computer batteries.
Internet connectivity There was no Internet connectivity on the ship, other than while at anchorage in Juneau.
Cellphone signal There was no signal while sailing in remote areas. There was an intermittent cellphone signal in habited areas.
Tours/excursions While in Juneau, I especially enjoyed my visit of the State Museum. Although small, it had a comprehensive and well-displayed collection of artifacts showcasing the historical traditions of Alaska’s distinct native cultures, including Inupiaq, Yup’ik, Athabascan, Aleut and Autiiq.
In Sitka, Saint Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, inaugurated in 1848 as the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church of North America, held a rich collection of 18th and 19th century religious icons and other religious artifacts. The Sitka National Historical Park offered pleasant walks through its old growth forest interspersed with historic totem poles. Its visitor center included an additional collection of totem poles as well as interesting museum exhibits depicting the traditions of the local native Tlingit people.
Date of voyage June 2011
Would you take this voyage again Yes