The old couple sitting on their porch wouldn't stop staring at us. They didn't even move when we trained our cameras on them. No, we weren't being rude or intrusive. The old couple was a huge pair of bald eagles watching us from a tree stump as we kayaked into the Salt Chuck, an area of Port Houghton in Southeast Alaska, on an excursion from our small 78-passenger ship, the InnerSea Discoveries' Wilderness Discoverer (www.innerseadiscoveries.com/wilderness-discoverer).
What a morning -- water a calm as glass, The harbor seals popped up in the water as if on cue, to say come play! Birds flew overhead. The mist lifted over the mountains. It was quintessential Alaska wilderness and it wasn't raining!
We sat in our kayaks mesmerized as a bear chomped on greens on shore, totally oblivious to our presence. Wow!
Our six-mile paddle -- one of the most spectacular I've ever enjoyed anywhere -- was just an example of how different touring Southeast Alaska on a small ship like this is from the way most visitors see this region -- from a giant cruise ship.
"We plan the itinerary so that we can stop like this," says our captain, Dano Quinn, who has been piloting vessels in Alaska for the last 16 years. "The best of Alaska is the wilderness," he adds. "Not in the towns and we provide the opportunities for that."
That's why we anchor in pristine wilder coves, not towns, and stop to watch the humpback whales or a glacier calve in front of us. "You can see Alaska from the big ships and they will take good care of you," says Second Mate Mike Kellick. "But with us, you can touch Alaska."
Literally. Because we can kayak from a landing dock on the back of our small ship, we can go out for a half-hour or two and a half hours. An "excursion" might be a hike following a bear's trail, a walk through a meadow studded with wildflowers -- purple lupine, red Indian Paint Brush, brown chocolate lilies, yellow marigold -- a snorkel in the frigid arctic water (cold even in heavy neoprene suits!) or stand-up paddle-boarding.
There's even the chance to take part in a polar plunge -- requested by the teens on board -- jumping off the boat into the cold water (just 40 something degree) followed by a soak in the deck hot tub, the wilderness all around you. I just wish they'd change the way passengers sign up for these activities so that families in separate cabins don't find themselves closed out of activities they want to share. Read more about our adventures in my trip diaries, http://www.takingthekids.com/category/travel-diary/page/2/.
Did I mention there's no extra charge for these excursions? Though this "un-cruise" at first blush costs significantly more than a major cruise ship, in the end, they don't because you aren't paying for pricey excursions that can double or even triple your cost.
Nor would you get these kinds of opportunities. Last night a group camped so that they could experience camping in the Alaska wilderness. "It was fun," 12-year-old Miller Sinyard reported, even if the crew forgot the graham crackers for the s'mores. "We almost saw a bear," he said. "I kind of wish we had."
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