While nature treated our eyes and ears to majesty and excitement, the chef and hospitality staff seemed determined to make sure our palates enjoyed the adventure as well. At breakfast, Dave offered choices of entrees and sides; for lunch and dinner, he paired these with special wine selections. Rack of lamb with herbed crust or shrimp scampi? Macadamia rockfish or mesquite-seasoned prime rib? The Cline Zinfandel or CSJ Fume Blanc? At cocktail hour we were treated to a different specialty drink each night, as well as ample ingredients for our own concoctions. Whether anchored in Ideal Cove or Scenery Cove, there was always plenty of eye candy to go with the artichoke crab dip or smoked salmon platter. Post-sunset, we sometimes turned our heads toward a slideshow, with Nitakuwa's commentary making the wildlife we'd seen even more fascinating.
Usually the captain avoided other boats, but one afternoon, we intentionally sought out our sister yachts, the larger Explorer and Quest, so we could check out their staterooms, lounges, and gyms. One carried a family reunion, and the other housed a gathering of couples that had known each other for decades. I could see the advantages of a larger yacht, but we preferred the intimacy of ours, the smallest yacht in the American Safari Cruises fleet.
Of course, we didn't expect to dislike the three other couples who had also signed up for our trip, but we didn't know we would enjoy their company quite so much. Every night felt like a scintillating dinner party with diverse conversations. We knew we would be a little pampered-this wasn't a cruise ship with thousands of passengers-but we didn't expect heated floors in our bathroom, large Tempurpedic beds, or chocolates on the pillows. Updates (also left on our pillows every evening) featured photos of us from that day, inspiring quotes, and little nuggets of naturalist information, as well as our next itinerary. Captain Tate let us hang out on the bridge, look at nav charts, and even take the wheel. The two Kims (aka, the hospitality staff) served us with panache but also made us laugh like friends-and they knew exactly the spot in the engineroom to dry our jackets and warm them up.
As hard as everyone worked to ensure that we had memories of seals, bears, otters, sea lions, and sounding Humpbacks, perhaps the greatest moment was an exceptional vignette that unfurled in a way no crew could plan. We were watching whales once again when some orcas moved in. They are called killer whales, but Nitakuwa explained that the Spanish, who first named orcas, put adjectives after nouns and "whale killers" was translated literally. Orcas are no more whales than dolphins are, but there is a variety of orca that kills whales. On this particular day, it appeared that these orcas might be herding a humpback whale away from his pod. Then, suddenly, the school of orcas veered off, moving faster than the yacht.
Soon we were all in the Zodiac, trying to catch up to them. Once we were in the vicinity, the orcas porpoised in and out of the water at high speed, parallel to our course and the pine-studded shore of Admiralty Island. We were speeding along, hunkered down so that our eyes were level with theirs as they arced out of the water. These were primal thrills and my Walter Mitty-esque fantasy of being Jacques Cousteau was fulfilled! Even the crew said they had never seen anything like it. After about an hour, we had to head back-not because the orcas left us, but because our inflatable's engine was running low on gas.
We had boarded the yacht with strangers in Petersburg and disembarked with new friends in Juneau. Traversing only a small fraction of Alaska's vast coastline, less than 70 miles a day, we'd still explored glacier fjords, bays, and sounds. We had whale tails, tales before cocktails, bears before brunch, and waterfalls as lullabies.
I wondered how a trip like this could ever be topped, and then I learned that American Safari Cruises offers trips in Baja's Sea of Cortez in the winter months. Sign me up.
American Safari Cruises, (888) 862-8881; www.amsafari.com