“Live” Cruise Review: Un-Cruise Safari Endeavour, Alaska 2013 – The Onboard Experience
I ask where can you partake in a good old polar bear plunge and enjoy dinner with a genuine park ranger all while in close proximity to some of the most beautiful flora and fauna you will ever see. As I discovered last week on the Safari Endeavour, the answer is only on an exceptional Un-Cruise adventure in the wilds of Alaska.
Generally, our Live Cruise Reviews are published in real time, but one of the many benefits of Un-Cruise is that you are clear outside WiFi and cellular territory while onboard (except for spotty reception here and there). And believe me, it’s truly a delight to disconnect for a week even if you’re like me, glued to an iPhone the rest of the time.
So, our “live” reports will instead come after the fact and be broken down into two articles exploring the onboard and offboard Un-Cruise experience followed by our usual Post Cruise Review and signature Video Review to recap it all. Let’s begin…
Getting Settled In
Like 7-Up’s famous “un-cola” ad campaign introduced in the 1960s, Un-Cruise also offers a pleasant alternative to typical cruise trends. Here you won’t find waterslides and rock climbing walls but neither will you find crowds and tourist traps. The ease of sailing onboard the Safari Endeavour begins at the point of embarkation. Rather than journeying roundtrip from the busy hubs of Seattle, Washington or Vancouver, B.C., our journey began right in Alaska’s capital city of Juneau.
Upon arrival at the airport, which rivals most city’s commuter terminals in size, Un-Cruise is there to gather your luggage to take it directly to your room onboard and take you to the historic Westmark Baranof Hotel until the boat, or ship still depending on who you talk to, is ready to depart. The size of the vessel makes embarking any earlier while she is readied unpractical, and this stop lends itself well to enjoying your first taste of Alaska in the meantime. Un-Cruise staff will gladly watch your carry-on items as you explore the city.
Once onboard, the size difference between the Safari Endeavour and the mega cruise ships across the waterway is impossible to conceal. There is no comparison, and that is part of the appeal much like that of intimate river cruising in Europe. In fact, the Un-Cruise experience might best be described as the perfect harmony between the river cruising lifestyle and upscale camping as you will soon see.
Cabins onboard the Safari Endeavour are small and no doubt remain constrained to the dimensions as she was originally constructed in 1983, but the rooms have since been remodeled and are quite comfortable and functional. Our commander stateroom featured two fixed twin beds that stretch from the centered doorway and two windows that look out upon a wraparound promenade deck or, in many ways, a 360-degree-view veranda. Berths are perfectly raised from the floor to provide ample storage for suitcases underneath.
Beyond one bed is a useful desk and chair, and beyond that is a set of closets and drawers which are surprisingly deep and plentiful for a week’s-plus worth of clothing. Do keep in mind that there are no laundry facilities or services available onboard. The only shortcoming of the cabin is the bathroom which is the smallest I’ve ever seen on an ocean or river going vessel. The shower is infantile and the rest is strictly utilitarian with a plain sink basin and an industrial-style toilet.
Still, the cabins are cosy with fine linens, a flat-panel TV/DVD combo, iPod docking station, wall art and welcome canteens for use on your adventures, and you can always upgrade to a suite where two smaller cabins are essentially combined into a larger one with an expanded bathroom. One thing that may take some getting used to is that there are no room keys. You can lock your cabin when you’re in it but not when you’re out, but security is truly not an issue onboard. The passengers and staff are all likeminded and ever respectful of others’ things.
Surely Safari Endeavour will enchant you most once out and about. While many cruise ships turn inwards with an eye on entertainment and shopping, the Endeavour is always focused on the surrounding environment. Both the Explorer Lounge and Resolution Dining Room feature wide picture-frame windows, and the lounge has binoculars available for when a bit more magnification is needed. However, unlike the big cruise ships, this boat already gets considerably closer to the action thanks to her small size and maneuverability in tighter coves.
In fact, where other lines have a rigid schedule to keep, may spot an animal in the far distance and just continue past it, Un-Cruise stops for the wildlife and even has no problem with interrupting meal service for us to enjoy it. On more than one occasion, we were excitedly called to the outer decks to enjoy the wonders of nature with dessert waiting for us in the lounge afterwards. That just goes to show the refreshingly casual nature and spontaneity of an Un-Cruise, and all the passengers and I loved it.
So, perhaps the best way to really describe the ship is to outline a day onboard …
To be sure, the bulk of an Un-Cruise day is about the excellent activities to be enjoyed offboard, and that will be the subject of our next report. But for now, suffice it to say that you could be just as satisfied with your voyage if you decided to stay exclusively onboard thanks largely in part to the great food. Breakfasts are typically at 8am (remember spontaneity requires rescheduling by a half an hour at times), and features a special entree plus usual favorites like eggs-to-order, sausage, bacon, oatmeal, toast and juices.
At this time, the chef also announces the lunch and dinner offerings for later in the day to get an initial order to gauge quantities. Lunch choices include a meat and vegetarian option plus dessert, and dinner choices expand to include a meat, fish or vegetarian option along with a soup or salad course and dessert. Even with fewer choices, nearly every dish was a home run, and I truly wanted to take the pastry chef home with me after the cruise. Hey, she’s also from San Diego, so I didn’t think it was entirely outside the realm of possibility.
Then the morning activities were next on the agenda. Stay tuned to hear more about these in our next piece. As the weather was always cold and occasionally rainy, it was nice to return to a hot beverage waiting for us on the fantail periodically. Highlights included a honey chai tea latte with Godiva white chocolate liqueur and a hot buttered rum. Of course, the lounge bar was always open too if you desired an alternative with or without alcohol.
The full-service lounge bar and self-service wine bar were real treats onboard. Not only did they have craft beers on tap, they had my two favorite breweries represented – the Alaskan Brewing Company and Kona Brewing Company, representing the 49th and 50th states and my personal refrigerator quite nicely. And the wines were also exceptional. Plus, all other liquor varieties and soft drinks were readily available throughout the day and entirely included in the cruise fare. May I suggest a rum and coke chilled with glacial ice.
Meals onboard were always very diverse and creative, and lunchtime was no exception. From pulled pork sandwiches and sweet potato chips to fish tacos and guacamole, our mouths were always watering, and the wait staff just made the experience that much more enjoyable with their kind attentiveness and smiling faces. Since our waiters and waitresses pulled double duty as our room stewards as well, their ever pleasant attitude was always remarkable.
Afternoon Activities and Happy Hour
After another batch of activities in the afternoon, scrumptious pastries or cookies would await us at the bar as would happy hour come 6pm. Besides the aforementioned drink service, tasty hors d’oeuvres were also available like smoked salmon and baked brie. At this time, the expedition leader would also describe the following day’s activities and go around and schedule everyone accordingly. A free chair massage is even available during happy hour as is a table massage during the day.
Like lunches, dinners at 7pm were also delectable. Sailing in Alaska, it seemed appropriate to select the local seafood for an entree more often than not as salmon, scallops and king crab spoiled us. The crab as you might expect was a favorite, and king was the correct adjective as these legs were massive and delicious. Seconds were requested by all. Of course, terrestrial gourmet dishes like duck confit were also exceptional. My compliments go out to the chef.
Thanks to the sun staying out much later in Alaska during the summer, some of our best viewing of the passing flora and fauna occurred after dinner or even during as you now know. Other evening activities included a lecture on occasion and a movie night. Lectures were also given during the day at times too. The slideshow presentation on the last evening was particularly fun as all the passengers and staff really do begin to feel like a family by the end of the cruise.
Staff and Passengers
Last but not least, it really is the staff and fellow passengers that make sailing onboard an Un-Cruise such a delightful experience. From captain Kendra Nelsen to expedition leader Mark Hopkins, the crew is extraordinarily friendly and dedicated. Our batch of fellow guests was such a hoot too with so many fun-loving and well-traveled Australians, Brits and Americans laughing it up constantly.
In fact, one Aussie guest in particular, the incomparable Fi Slaven, managed to convince every passenger to dress up in their “formal” bath robes for the captain’s dinner which made for quite the sight and indeed the first time the captain has ever seen such a playful display. I’m sure the Un-Cruise clientele is generally quite charming, but I do believe we hit upon a very unique bunch.
And after all of that, my favorite onboard feature was actually the open bridge for the spectacular views (like those in the header image above) and chance to chat and spend some time with the awesome navigational crew. Gear heads like me can certainly appreciate this opportunity, and I was up there nearly every day to enjoy it.
Continue on to The Un-Cruise Offboard Experience…
For more information on Un-Cruise and the Safari Endeavour, visit the adventure line’s website here.
Has your interest been piqued to try an alternative to cruising on the big ships? Please tell us what you think in the comments section below…