Alaska's Glacier Bay

My paddle dips silently, pulling through the still, gray water. A bald eagle soars overhead, its scream primal and piercing. Salmon leap from the water in balletic synchronicity. We glide our kayak through the wispy fog, searching for Alaskan brown bear.

Alli, my best friend from college, sits behind me and points quietly to the shore. A small black bear is ambling toward the water’s edge. He looks cautiously in all directions, then dips his paw into the bay, grabbing a bite of food. It is his season, summer in Alaska, when the salmon are spawning and cruise ships are running. But not in this bay — here our smaller boat, the 120-door Safari Quest, is the only ship in sight.

We boarded the luxury yacht in Sitka, a picturesque town celebrated as the site of Alaska’s discovery in 1741. We were looking for a break from our hectic Bay Area lives and found an eight-day trip of a lifetime, a unique private tour of the spectacular scenery and wildlife of the coastal waterway known as the Inside Passage.

The Inside Passage extends more than 1,000 miles from Vancouver, B.C., through southeast Alaska to Juneau. Alaska is one of the most popular cruising destinations and each year more than 100 ships visit its waters, bringing upwards of 350,000 people to its best-known destination, Glacier Bay and its 12 tidewater glaciers that calve into the bay. When the 10-person crew of the Safari Quest greeted us, smiling, immaculately dressed, with hot hors d’oeuvres and champagne, I realized this wasn’t a typical cruise to Alaska. The boat featured a Jacuzzi and exercise equipment on the top deck, a salon and bar next to the main dining room, a cozy living area with books and DVDs. It felt like we were boarding a good friend’s private yacht.

We left Sitka on a sunny afternoon and cruised north to explore some of the lesser-known bays and channels of the Inside Passage. The Safari Quest’s itinerary is designed to spend time off the beaten track, away from the massive cruise ships, with the flexibility to spend time observing wildlife.

The first few days we journeyed through long, narrow passages, each with scenery as serene as it was dramatic. Every morning we found ourselves in a new bay with kayaks ready for us in the water. We could venture forth on our own or join one of the onboard naturalists for a guided tour of the region’s wildlife. We kayaked next to grizzly bears, harbor seals and sea otters, hiked through pristine wilderness, and stopped our gourmet meals for sightings of humpback whales and porpoises. We hot-tubbed at midnight as the sky finally grew dark enough to see the stars, and sipped hot chocolate while curled up reading books in the comfy salon.

Baranof Warm Springs was one of the most beautiful bays we would see, crowned with a waterfall at the far end. We tied up to an old wooden dock and followed the handcrafted walkway to the two-person general store. Our plan was to reach the hot springs and take a dip. Snow on the trail was still deep—no challenge for our group, armed with mud boots from the boat. We tramped quite easily through snowpack and muddy puddles to the natural springs next to a gushing river. A quick change in the chill air and we were soaking in the springs, laughing when our guide pulled out a surprise bottle of champagne and fresh chocolate chip cookies.

For us, as for so many others, the highlight of the trip was Glacier Bay. Safari Quest is small enough to anchor in the bay, giving us time to explore for a full two days. We hiked through rain forest, saw humpbacks bubble-net feeding, rode inflatable skiffs through labyrinthine iceberg channels to watch calving glaciers and finally kayaked, dwarfed, next to the three-quarter-mile-long Lamplugh Glacier.

Our final day, Alli and I set out on our own. Wearing rain gear, we took our kayak out in light mist to see what we could find. A curious harbor seal popped up and stared at us with thoughtful brown eyes. As I tried to predict where it would appear next so I could photograph it, I heard a loud exhale — so loud I knew it wasn’t from a human. We turned to see a spray of water. A humpback had joined us in the small bay.

As we came in for breakfast, the staff greeted us with warm towels and steaming mugs of coffee for the last time before we cruised back to Juneau.

If you go

American Safari Cruises operates two yachts in Alaska: the 120-foot Safari Quest (22 passengers) and the 105-foot Safari Spirit (12 passengers). The company offers a variety of itineraries in the Inside Passage from mid-April through the end of September. Average rates are about $5,500 per person on the Safari Quest and about $6,400 on the Safari Spirit. 888.862.8881;