Southeast Alaska is one of those rare places that belongs on absolutely everyone's bucket list. Diverse, untouched, grand, beautiful, and raw, it's a place where the circle of life is laid bare in all its timelessness. While an extended tour to experience this unique country for an extended stay would be the ideal, that's an understandably a tall order. The next best thing, then, is a trip that gives you a kind of in-depth taste of Southeast Alaska's varied wonders, such as what we experienced recently with Allen Marine Tours' Alaskan Dream Cruises, a mind-blowing combination of the best of on-water wildlife viewing and land-based exploration.
The 11-day journey starts in Sitka and heads through an inland loop of intersecting waterways with stops along the way to Ketchikan. While on the water (onboard the catamaran, but also in kayaks and jetboats), you'll see humpback whales breaching (they can actually guarantee a whale sighting on any given morning during the season), Orcas cruising with their enormous dorsal fins slicing through the glassy water, bald eagles soaring, sea otters munching on kelp, harbor seals hauled up and sleeping on icebergs, and cobalt blue glaciers calving. And during expeditions on land, you'll see grizzly bears fishing with their cubs, salmon spawning in the creeks, and the occasional river otter or beaver. Witnessing any one of those rarified happenings is the stuff of wonder. Collectively, it's simply mind-blowing – sort of like living through an entire season of your own personal Blue Planet series.
After a few days on the water, the cozy cabins and lodge at the head of Windham Bay welcomed us with a roaring fire and a delicious dinner of locally caught Dungeness crab paired with fine wine. The next morning we sea-kayaked on the bay, where we were entertained by a couple Steller sea lions, some harbor seals, and about a dozen bald eagles soaring above us, while large moon jellyfish bobbed below. After lunch, we explored the local streams that were still chock-full of spawning sockeye salmon, their bright red bodies flashing in the clear water. Naturally, that meant staying on high alert for bears, as the evidence of their recent fishing was everywhere in the form of mangled salmon carcasses. Permits for fly-fishing on the creek will be offered beginning next season, so you can go after the sockeye and chum salmon, or the local trout that feed on the salmon eggs and then grow to insane sizes. The trip finishes off with a visit to Pack Creek, home to one of the densest populations of brown bears on earth. In a morning visit, we witnessed around a dozen different bears, including large males, a few different sets of cubs, and one mama bear who fished less than 20 yards in front of us for over an hour.
The luxury catamarans that serve as your on-water home are built right in Sitka and sleep between 40 and 60 guests, making the whole experience far more intimate than you'd ever experience aboard one of the gargantuan ocean liners that come up from Seattle and are packed with hundreds or even thousands of tourists. And as you'd expect, Allen Marine Tours takes care of all the essentials of travel, as well as providing some more top-shelf items as well: the crew is friendly, the food is delicious, their naturalists are all highly educated and extremely enthusiastic, and their local knowledge of Southeast Alaska is unmatched, which means you'll always be at the right place at the right time. [From $3,359; alaskandreamcruises.com]