was a collective gasp of awe and astonishment from everyone on deck as the
humpback whale breached about 200 yards away.
was August in Alaska, and we were aboard the 88-passenger SS Legacy, a revamped replica
coastal steamer with Victorian overtones and lashings of individual style. While
most of the state is infiltrated with cruise ships in the summer, the large
vessels clogging up the handful of viable Alaskan ports, this boutique bateau
follows her own trail into Alaska’s smaller towns, harbours and inlets.
by Un-Cruise Adventures, the Legacy keeps
things small-scale, casual and above all, unhurried. There are no show lounges,
casinos or rock climbing walls, and there is no rush to get from port to port.
If you come all the way to this immense, open territory – you should actually
the impromptu whale-watching episode with our skipper – the amiable Daniel
Quinn, or Captain Dano – who was able to spot the first signs of mammalian
activity and idle the engines for several hours when something interesting hove
board, the Legacy’s decor whisks you back to the 1890s, when this was Gold Rush
country and tens of thousands poured into the Yukon via Alaskan towns like
Skagway, Haines and Wrangell. The era is carefully re-created in the Legacy’s
public rooms – notably the delightful western-themed Pesky Barnacle Saloon – as
well as the period garb of the crew and the four resident re-enactors who bring
to life people like Scottish-born naturalist and national park advocate John
Muir and successful Gold Rush couple CJ and Ethel Berry, engaging passengers with
dramatic tales of the Yukon. This idea of living history extended to the shore
excursions too, which offered encounters with Native American tribesmen,
costumed interpreters and modern-day descendants of the frontier folk who
arrived and thrived in this stunningly beautiful – but unforgiving – area.
here, if the mountains don’t take your breath away, the colossal glaciers will;
if it isn’t the sheer scale of the vast forest vistas, it is the beauty of the ice-scoured
valleys and fjords; and if not the serene emptiness of this largely uninhabited
region, then it is the plentiful wildlife, from bald eagles and bears to seals,
sea lions, otters, porpoises and whales, that totally beguiles you.
the initial thrill of seeing the humpback breach, things became seriously
eye-popping. One day it was a pod of orcas cutting across our bow, diving and surfacing
regularly in chase of some unseen prey. The next it was the humpbacks again, as
two detached themselves from the main pod to give us the once over, drifting
first down one side of the ship, then the other, and finally surfacing right
under the bow as we watched with increasing incredulity.
another occasion, a school of Dall’s porpoises decided to have fun in our bow
wake, zipping backwards and forwards like black-and-white arrows in the foaming
waters, while indolent sea lions watched on from floating ice floes and otters
played among the thick kelp that drifted by.
all paled into insignificance, however, next to an epic encounter that brought on
looks of amazement even from the crew.
We had pulled into an isolated bay on Chichagof
Island (one of the three large islands that shelter the inland coast of
southeast Alaska), alerted by various whale spouts as four, then six, then
eight humpbacks joined together in a circling, roiling mass. And then it began:
bubble-net feeding; the Holy Grail of whale watchers, a rare phenomenon where
whales corral and feed on a concentrated mass of fish. Locals see it once or
twice a year, but never for very long.
In coordinated groups, the animals first cornered and then herded a massive
school of herring, blowing bubbles around them to confuse the fish and
make them swim tighter, until, surging through the middle of the school with
mouths agape, the humpbacks boiled to the surface in a feeding frenzy.
and again this cetacean dining ritual repeated itself until, three hours later,
we had to move on to our own evening meal, the ship’s small galley turning out
plate after plate of freshly prepared local fish, king crab, soups, salads,
vegetarian dishes and, for one of the four courses, bison steak. It was the
perfect ending to a compelling historical narrative, set alongside the natural
splendours of Alaska itself.
SS Legacy will operate seven-night Alaska's Golden History
cruises between Ketchikan and Juneau between June and August 2014, with an
11-night Gold Rush
Legacy voyage from/to Seattle at each end of the season. Prices start at
$5,195 per person for the seven-day voyage, and include all meals, most shore
excursions and all drinks (alcoholic and