A few weeks ago, WIT Agent Gavi joined Lindblad Expeditions on a trip to Southeast Alaska. Read on for her review of the ship and the ports of call.
For two golden hours on a mid-May evening, I chased the Canadian sunset northward. I left behind clouds spread beneath me like fractured glass and entered Southeast Alaska: a land of glowing snow-dusted ridges, jagged peaks, frozen lakes, ice fields, fjords and mist. I spent the next week with Lindblad Expeditions, exploring Southeast Alaska’s fjords and glaciers from the 62-passenger National Geographic Sea Bird.
The town of Sitka nestles into Baranof Island’s eastern edge. It’s home to a small main street, which contains a well-stocked outdoor store (filled with any high-end brands you could ever want and an entire wall of rubber boots), an organic creperie, a coffee shop, and a few souvenir galleries (save your shopping for Juneau, although one of the shops does have a full mammoth skull on display, tusks and all). Two places in the town warrant time set aside for a visit:
- The raptor center happens to be one of the best wildlife rehabilitation centers I’ve ever seen. They have a symbiotic relationship with tourism in the town: it thrives because it’s able to charge admission to cover costs of an incredible operation. Flight training rooms have creeks to cover noise and one-way windows. Birds unable to fly are kept in expansive open-topped enclosures. The center has educational and hospital facilities, and permanent homes are found for all animals unable to be released.
- Totem Park: This beautiful national historic park lies 10-15 minutes’ walk from the Sitka town center. The trails in this forested area are lined with totem poles that have been relocated from throughout Southeast Alaska for the sake of cultural preservation and education.
The Boat: This boat is a smaller, expedition-style ship, which means we were able to go a lot of places many larger cruise ships were simply unable to navigate. It had a compact set-up, with several different communal areas that made it easy to get to know fellow passengers.
The lounge is cozy: it has lots of smaller tables with rotating armchairs, as well as padded benches around the edges. One large screen and several other screens set up throughout, so you can see presentations no matter where you’re sitting. There is a comprehensive library with literature relevant to the cruise area: natural history, cultural history, guidebooks and other reference materials. There was also a basket of novels (take one/leave one style).
The dining room was classy and practical. No assigned seating, so mingling and getting to know people was easy. Mix of round and rectangular tables.
There were wrap-around outside observation areas on the main deck as well as in front of the bridge, allowing a vantage point for anyone who wanted a view.
An area on the back of the third deck had a sun/rain cover and fitness equipment: three fitness machines, weights, foam rollers, yoga mats and some other things.
The Rooms: Comfiest. Beds. Ever. Cabins could be termed either “small” or “cozy,” depending how you look at it, but this is to be expected on a yacht-style expedition ship. Bathrooms are “wet” style, where the shower and toilet are right next to each other (a curtain can be drawn to keep the toilet and paper dry). Plenty of storage beneath the bed, and there is also a cabinet with several hangers and a shelf. Amenities include bath scrubby, conditioner and lip balm, your own steel water bottle to take home, and there are shampoo and soap dispensers in the shower. A small clothesline is provided that reaches across the bathroom.
Onboard Activities: Largely educational, focused on photography and local history (both natural and cultural), and conservation. Each Lindblad expedition has a Certified Photo Instructor on board (some select programs also have a National Geographic photographer). The photo instructor on our expedition had extensive experience all over the world, and is currently involved in the continuation of time-lapse projects used to document glaciers’ retreat (used in the 2014 documentary Chasing Ice).
During our trip, the instructor let a fantastic intro to photography session on the first day, followed by breakout sessions determined by camera style and experience. There were also evening lectures presented by onboard naturalists: some of the programs on this voyage included: marine mammal behavior and current research, history of fur trading in the region, formation of the area (including past, current and future hydrogeology), and Native American totem poles of the Pacific Coast. These programs reflected a set of naturalists with diverse strengths, and their passion and knowledge easily showed through their work.
There was great demo gear available on the boat including binoculars, camera bodies and lenses.
Morning yoga and stretching sessions on the back deck for those so inclined, and there was a wellness specialist on board who was available to book massages. The boat had an “open bridge” policy, as long as we weren’t navigating something tricky or pulling into/out of harbor: this was an amazing opportunity to look over maps and monitors and ask questions about navigation. It also provided a way to watch our surroundings from one of the best seats in the house, in a nice warm room shielded from any weather outside.
Excursions: In general, two per day: one in the morning and one in the evening. We had a variety of choices for each excursion, catered toward different physical levels. Some examples include:
- Short, medium or long hikes
- Stand up paddleboarding, Kayaking or Zodiac tours
- Hiking, Kayaking or Zodiak tours
- Hiking, cultural visit with river float, town time or flightseeing (port day in Haines)
It is important to remember that, due to nature of the location, schedule and location of excursions on an expedition-style cruise is fluid. Excursions may be adjusted based on any of the following: wilderness restrictions (only a certain number of people allowed on land at a time), weather, wildlife (boats are not allowed in areas where seals are pupping), accessibility (areas with established trails will allow longer hikes than coves with no established trail), and ability of the “slowest” person in a group.
The food: was phenomenal, especially from the perspective of a girl who usually looks to the “apply heat and consume” philosophy. Responsibly sourced. Breakfast and lunch usually consisted of healthy buffets with a wide variety, and dinner was sit-down with a choice of three protein options which changed daily. Portions were small compared to usual classic American meals, but no one ever left feeling hungry. Light snacks were available throughout the day: cookies, trail mix, afternoon hors d’oeuvres. Dietary needs were all catered to beautifully.
The drinks: Free coffee, tea, hot chocolate, chai latte mix, and anything you can make with a cappuccino machine, any time of day or night. Alcohol was not included: there is an honor tally sheet for beers from the fridge, and a bar tab kept on your on-board account. However, wine was comped on the first and last nights, and beer was comped at the first lunch. Alcohol was included free of charge on three other occasions:
- During our port day in Haines, we were given credit for drinks at one brewery and one distillery.
- We returned from a cold zodiac tour and the bartender was waiting at the sign-in board with a vat of apple cider and your choice of Captain Morgan or… some other liquor.
- Half way through the zodiac tour to the glacier, another zodiac full of crew dressed as Vikings “raided” our boat and distributed hot chocolate with a choice between three alcohols, and whip.
The vibe, overall: relaxed and casual.
Some Things to Note:
- If you have kids: your best Lindblad option will be an Alaska or Galapagos program, which will have a dedicated “Global Explorers” kid-specific program and naturalist on board. On trips without a “Global Explorers” program, activities are not generally geared toward the younger generation (ex: evening lectures rather than entertainment with other companies). If a child is uninterested in an activity and wishes to stay behind, a parental unit will need to accompany the child and be responsible for them.
- These are not ADA accessible cruises.
- Remember to pack:
- A waterproof cover for your day pack.
- Three pairs of shoes:
- sturdy, knee-high rubber boots (required),
- tennis shoes, and
- “camp shoes” for on the boat. (if your tennis get wet, you’ll be wearing your rubber boots everywhere on board, even when you want to relax).
- A long string to use as an additional clothesline in your cabin. There is no electric dryer on board, and this will be a lifesaver after rainy expeditions.
- Lots of warm layers (including gloves, hats, scarf): while Southeast Alaska has some absolutely stunning days, any time of year can also have cold, windy and rainy days. Zodiac tours can be a long activity, exposed with no movement, so you can get cold fast without the right clothing.
Alaska’s state capital has a few things worth doing:
On a clear day, take the tram up Mt. Roberts: this has a beautiful view down the channel and some trails at the top. Admission is covered by Lindblad.
While most “galleries” in town are maintained by cruise companies, there are two or three worth visiting:
- Mt. Juneau Trading Post: Family trading post maintained for generations by a Tlingit family. Old and new art from all over the Northwest coast, ranging from $5 to the sky. If you love art, you can get lost in here for hours.
- Trickster: Northwest Coast art designed and applied to modern purposes: skateboards, home décor, jewelry, apparel, etc.
Some other Juneau activities: The Mendenhall Ice Caves are a full-day excursion with a local company, accessible only by first kayaking and then climbing over ice. There is also flightseeing available in Juneau.
It’s worth an extra half-day in Juneau to see the galleries and Mt. Roberts tram (arriving the night before you embark, or catching a later flight the day you disembark). For any further activities, you will need to allow an additional day in the city.