No roads lead to Alaska, and relatively few run through it, so for most, the only way to see the 49th state is by ship. Which leaves two options: behemoth cruise liners, or so-called “small ships,” like Cruise West’s 138passenger Spirit of Yorktown. I chose a nine-day trip on the latter, which, while lacking the luxuries of bigger boats, fits right up close to Windex-blue glaciers for an authentic experience. While tight quarters mean closer living, it is possible to break away: One night, bourbon in hand, I sat wrapped in a blanket on the deck, delighting in my utter solitude, until the sun rose and a trio of (what I swear were) killer whales shot through the surface of the water.
Leave your cocktail dresses and tails at home; a North Face fleece and denim are de rigueur. The same casual vibe extends to the accommodations. A standard room features two (comfortable enough) twin beds, a tiny but adequate bathroom, and a porthole or, for more money, an actual window. No matter; the point here is what’s outside. From $4,449 per person, excluding airfare (Cruise West, 888-851-8133, cruisewest.com).
LIFE AT SEA
There are no TVs, no slots, only one tiny bar — no real distractions whatsoever from the marine life, bald eagles and breathtaking fjords of Alaska’s Inside Passage. So this trip is not for children, or anyone who’ll object to the crack-of-dawn wake-up call from a voice over the P.A. (The same voice alerts you to chowtime, at tables with fellow passengers in a small, simple dining room with tremendous views, for food that’s nourishing if not elegant.) It’s perfect, though, for folks who like a little structure in their vacations, and who might need a little push toward adventure.
Nearly everything you’ll do off-ship will cost you, so be choosy. Some of the best day trips are in the departing city of Juneau, where you can soar at 35 miles per hour as high as 250 feet above the mountain rainforest attached only to a zipline (Alaska Canopy Adventures, alaskacanopy.com. Reserve through cruise; $185 per person). Or catch a helicopter that will land you, like a drunken man wobbling to correct his posture, atop a stunning glacier, for a guided hike you’ll never forget (NorthStar Trekking, northstartrekking.com. Reserve through cruise; from $339).
There are myriad tours and activities organized by the cruise, for a price, but sometimes the best experiences are free. Walk through the tiny port town of Haines, where snow-covered peaks climb across the breathtaking bay; stop inside its one-of-a-kind Hammer Museum (yes, hammers) (108 Main Street, 907-766-2374); or just watch life as it is for the 1,800 residents of this community straight out of Northern Exposure — accessible to the rest of the world only by sea or air — and muse, People actually live here?
GETTING THERE: Check Kayak.com for discount airfares, which run around $1,000 round-trip; you’ll almost certainly have to catch your connecting Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle, so try to save on the first leg.
DO: Drink the pristine water atop the glaciers — it makes Evian taste brackish.
DON’T: Go hiking alone in the woods; this isn’t Fairmount Park, so yes, bears and wolves and other potential dangers abound.