The Island Spirit (Photo: Fantasy Cruises)
When we first found out we were going on a mother-daughter small-ship cruise of Alaska’s Inside Passage, we pictured a lot of snow and ice. We thought we’d be parka-clad the whole time, huddling together for warmth and drinking hot toddies (OK, well, maybe the alcohol-free version for a certain teen), wishing we had fur coats like the brown bears.
But what we found was a temperate climate full of wildlife, where the native peoples value tradition but the modern world is inextricably creeping in. As Abby put it early one morning when we woke up to singing and jumped out of bed to watch a canoe full of native Alaskans paddling past a giant cruise ship, “Alaska has something for everyone, sometimes all at once.”
While we both agreed that our experience on Fantasy Cruises’ Island Spirit, booked through the excellent and discriminating AdventureSmith Explorations, was totally fabulous, we also had some different perspectives, too.
Lisa and Abby at Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park (Photo: Lisa McElroy)
What’s the No. 1 reason to go to Alaska?
Abby: Glaciers, definitely. They’ve started to recede, meaning they lose the ice on the front of them faster than they develop more, and soon, there’ll be only a fraction of the ice that there was before. We visited Margerie Glacier, named for the geologist who discovered Glacier Bay in 1913. It’s sad to think that my own kids might never get to see it if the melting continues.
Lisa: Wildlife viewing (and, no, watching a teen girl do her thing doesn’t count). Especially on a very small ship like the one we were on, at any moment there’s the potential to catch a view of whales breaching, eagles catching prey, sea otters backstroking, or even a brown bear digging for mussels. It’s even better when the crew includes a trained naturalist who knows what to look for and tells you all the fun facts.
What was the best thing about small-ship cruising on the Island Spirit?
Abby: The food, for sure. As a vegetarian, I was a little worried I would end up eating frozen pasta every night while everyone else got meat and fish. This was not the case at all. From bow-tie pasta primavera to scalloped potatoes, my meals every day were delicious (and others with restricted diets said the same)! Another treat: the goodies that magically appeared as a happy hour snack every day in the sitting area. They had the best chocolate chip cookies you’ve ever had, and moist blondies.
Lisa: I loved how small and guest-friendly our ship was. The boat is very “green,” so it docks at night and doesn’t use generators (making it incredibly quiet and peaceful). The owner is also the captain, and he’s really focused on optimizing each guest’s experience. For example, he knew that I loved whales and made a real effort to follow them when he spotted them in the distance so I (and everyone else) could get a better look.
A whale lunge-feeding in Alaska (Photo: Fantasy Cruises)
What was it like sharing a ship cabin with twin beds and not much else?
Abby: One not-so-fun fact about my mom: She snores. She’s like a sea monster, sometimes skimming the surface softly, sometimes diving under the water for a few minutes, just long enough for her roommate (me!) to be lulled into a false sense of security — but then she always comes back up. Yep, just when I’m almost asleep, splash! Out of the water she comes, snoring like nobody’s business. Let’s just say I slept listening to music after that first night.
Lisa: I really loved being so close to my daughter, looking over and watching her read her book, fighting with her about whether to keep the window open or closed, asking her nicely to go up to the main deck and get me a Diet Coke. It brought us closer together — or so I thought until I found out what she really thought about my snoring.
Was it a good learning experience?
Abby: This trip was very good at weaving in information along with recreation. My favorite fun fact: Glaciers are blue. This is because the glacier can absorb every color of the spectrum except blue. The result: a stunning blue chunk of ice that can extend for miles and miles. I can easily say I’ve never seen anything like it.
Lisa: I’m going to agree with my daughter here, but add that we learned so many interesting facts about conserving wildlife and why that’s important. Actually seeing these wild animals up-close made us want to protect them at all costs. I’ll admit that there were certain things I was not necessarily expecting my 13-year-old to learn, like what a brothel was (it turns out there were lots of them during the gold rush), and it took some liquid courage to explain that one. But that was as PG-13 as it got. As my teen daughter would say, “NBD.”
A native dancer in Hoonah wearing a traditional button blanket (Photo: Abby McElroy)
So there were a lot of cool things to see?
Abby: Oh, yeah (and I don’t mean brothels, which aren’t there anymore). One day, we saw a mama bear was leading her two cubs along the shoreline just feet from us. “Come on!” I could practically hear her saying to her cubs, “Time to get back!” The entire boat was rushing to get photographs of this very special moment. When the bears eventually disappeared into the forest, you could hear everybody sigh softly.
Lisa: I was really fascinated by a native Alaskan dance troupe who performed for us in Hoonah, one of our ports of call. They acted and danced the creation story, in which a mischievous raven puts the stars and moon and sun in the sky. They explained the importance of ancestry and tribe affiliation in the native Alaskan culture and even invited us to dance with them for a while.
The Island Spirit as seen from a kayak (Photo: Abby McElroy)
Was there a ‘can’t live without it’ item?
Abby: My raincoat accompanied me everywhere, protecting me from the wind and rain while I watched whales bubble net feed (a rare Alaskan gift), bell porpoises play in the waves off the bow, and eagles swoop and soar over land and sea. Yep, my raincoat had a starring role on this trip (and REI private label rain gear was inexpensive and sturdy — perfect for this trip).
Lisa: It was a set of binoculars. Luckily, the ship had two quality sets in each cabin, so every passenger could get a great look at whatever was just outside the window.
Any top-secret tips on how to make the most of a trip on the Island Spirit?
Abby: You never know what you’re going to see when, so I would definitely say that the secret to this trip is always being ready to move. The captain announces wildlife over the intercom, so always know where your shoes and raincoat are, so you can run out to the bow at a moment’s notice.
Lisa: Get up superearly. There’s coffee and pastries out, and you can chat with the staff and learn a lot about Alaska. Plus, book ahead — next year’s trips are already available, and the ship only holds 32 passengers, so you’ll want to make sure you get a spot for your preferred dates.
Lisa (46) and Abby (13) McElroy are a mother-daughter travel writing team. They love nothing more than exploring the world together, even though Lisa snores and Abby groans. This small-ship cruise to Alaska accomplished Lisa’s goal of making sure Abby’s always learning and Abby’s goal of eating as many blondies as humanly possible.