Alaska, the Inside Passage

A luxury cruise takes in the rugged beauty of America's wildest coast.

Alaska

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AlaskaYachting

With deeply luminous pockets of green and blue floated all around us-some were as tall as skyscrapers, others seemed like abstract sculptures carved by wind, or island dollops of frozen water. Baby seals practiced barking as their mothers looked on, occasionally sliding off the slippery bergs, then galumphing their way back up.

My husband Victor and I were weaving through the iceberg maze of the Alaskan fjord of Le Conte Glacier in an inflatable outboard with three other couples, a naturalist, and our mate, Danny. When he turned off the motor, we could hear the ice cracking, the seals barking, and our cameras clicking as we zoomed in on the faces of the beautiful pups. It was like being dropped into a three-dimensional National Geographic special with Surround Sound.

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Our naturalist, Nitakuwa, told us the seals hide from the predator whales by staying on top of the ice to confound the whale's sonar abilities. As the winds began to sting, she asked, "Would anybody like something hot to drink?" and pulled out a thermos and mugs.

Within an hour, we had powered back to our yacht (well, "ours" for the week). The inviting Safari Spirit was moored in a postcard setting, with Captain Tate standing on the stern to welcome us home. Kim, our "concierge," smiled like a loving mother as she offered up a platter of warm, freshly baked cookies and took our orders for hot cocoa or hot toddies. We shed our cold weather gear quickly and were soon padding around the Poole 105 in our socks, all grins and cookie crumbs.

Being encircled by glacial ice and seals, then basking in comforts, could be the peak experience for any vacation, but our entire trip was devoted to moments like these: the luxuries of a five-star hotel stay, with one of the world's last great wildernesses only an arm's length away.

Some moments were scheduled, like our hike through lush forests to Baranoff Warm Springs on the edge of a thunderous waterfall, where the staff produced chilled champagne. We sank into the healing waters with no other civilization in sight-the hot steam rising, the cold spray falling, and the bubbles tickling our noses. Some highlights were special requests: An outdoorswoman wanted to set crab pots and cast for salmon. Her wishes were granted, and she successfully pulled in a full trap and reeled in a beauty. The chef prepared her bounty, and we all enjoyed an extra-fresh taste of the yachting life in Alaska.

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Then, there was the morning we couldn't decide whether to stand on the starboard or port side, the bow or the stern. Humpback whales sounded all around, with no boats or buildings in view. We would catch a powerful tail slap in one direction and the geyser of a whale's exhalation spouting in the other. When an inquisitive whale calf headed too close to us, Mom surfaced from under our hull, emerging protectively between the yacht and her offspring. A couple of us were so close that we got a little slimed by whale snot and caught a whiff of cetacean halitosis-that's bad breath on an epic scale.

As the mammals dove, their iconic tail flukes were poetry and power in motion. Nitakuwa, a PhD marine biologist, told us that the tail muscle of the Humpback whale is the strongest muscle in the animal kingdom.

Another nominee for the best highlight award began as we all sat down for a leisurely brunch in the dining room-a well-traveled British couple, a creative New York couple (in publishing and music), a Hollywood couple (an actress and her studio-executive husband), and my happy-to-be-there husband and me. As the yacht got underway, I used a telephoto lens to take some pictures of a waterfall spilling into an estuary before I sat down to eat. I thought I saw some moving brown dots, but the crew was way ahead of me. The yacht stopped, and Nitakuwa ran in to ask "Who wants to see bears?"

Champagne flutes down. Brunch would wait. We donned our bright-orange Mustang suits and piled into the inflatable. A mother bear and her three cubs ambled about, oblivious to us. We floated close enough to hear the mother chewing sedge grass. Deer crossed the pools of a nearby waterfall, completing the sublimely beautiful panorama. A few months before, on safari in Kenya, I had cruised through seas of grass to watch wild animals in their own habitats. Now I was on safari on the waterways of my own country.

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Safari Spirit could anchor in places that larger ships couldn't, so when we settled in for the night, we usually had the sense that the only things existing above the waterline were the stars, the owls, and our floating heaven. We inhaled the peace and the clean, crisp, oxygen- rich air from the nearby waterfalls and tall trees. One night we found ourselves sharing a treasured bay with two other yachts. Our fellow travelers kept a respectable distance between us for mutual privacy, and actually added to the landscape.

That next morning, as wisps of mist lifted over the bay, we all wanted to be on the water. My husband Victor and I paddled a kayak up one little inlet, and I photographed an eagle flying overhead. Another twosome banked their kayak to photograph a bear. Starfish clung to the rocks and made looking down as rewarding as looking up and around.

An otter came tantalizingly close to our kayak but ducked down as soon as my camera was raised. The curious fellow glided back and forth between our kayak and that of another couple, playfully eyeing us and then disappearing as soon as a camera stared back.

Dan Blanchard, the adventurous principal of American Safari Cruises, joined us for a couple of days. He clearly enjoyed seeing everyone living "the good life" in a moving feast of pleasures, watching with delight as we found our favorite niches on the yacht. The English gent liked to go topside every morning to survey the expansive vista in the bracing open air. The Hollywood studio executive enjoyed sinking into the cushions in the comforting library, with an elevated view above the captain's wheel and good reading material nearby. The most athletic of the women opted for the stationary bike on deck, pedaling away as we slid smoothly past cascading waterfalls and dramatic fjords. The Jacuzzi on the top level offered a pampering place to relish a cocktail while surveying the horizon for whale tails. Even the sauna sported a window, so no one was ever deprived of rapturous scenery. My husband liked to meander into the galley (which also had a window) so Chef Dave, who catered to our culinary whims, could teach him about deboning fresh fish and making new sauces.

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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.

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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**