I loved the idea of a cruise -- unpack once, get comfortable, see lots of places. But I hated the idea of cruise ships -- 2,000 people, and at three stories tall, not so much boats as waterfront properties.
It was a case of conflicting desires. I wanted the travel and some of the pampering found on a cruise ship, but without the ship. I wanted good food, but not an irresistible all-you-can-eat buffet. I wanted picturesque ports, but not the commercialized Disneyfied harbors that target cruise tourists. Lastly, I wanted to keep costs down.
What I wanted wasn't really a cruise. It was an anti-cruise. And I found it aboard a homey 65-foot trawler touring the Inside Passage of Alaska.
I started on the right track more than a year ago, when California-based boat company Nordhavn invited me to join a five-day shakedown cruise from Seattle to Victoria, B.C., on a 50-foot trawler. Not like the commercial ones that haul up nets filled with shrimp, but a boat rigged for comfort, based on the same deep, stable hull design the fishing boats use. I liked the boat's deep-hulled stability, and that its leisurely pace didn't disturb wildlife or sailboaters. Despite the work-boat heritage, the trawler was very civilized.
But to re-create the Nordhavn cruise would have required me to charter a boat and skipper it myself, or hire a skipper. Skippering myself was out of the question -- I make Gilligan look like Magellan. I could hire a captain at $250 a day, but that ain't cheap.
Then, scouring the Internet, I found the Ursa Major -- a 65-foot trawler that nearly wound up as salvage. Initially a luxury yacht, the Ursa was refitted in the '80s for drug-running by legendary gangster Meyer Lansky's great-nephew Ben Kramer (who is now serving time for murder). The boat eventually ended up with Seattle physician V. Joyce Gauthier, who got rid of a diesel tank that served as a smuggling compartment and refitted the Ursa for vacation tours.
The Ursa's online brochure promised a luxury cruise at a lower price than you'd pay on a big ship. That was a bit of an exaggeration. The $3,000 (now $3,300) per-person price is higher than the base price of an Alaskan Inside Passage big-ship cruise. But a little number-crunching showed it to be a good deal for someone like me, for several reasons. The company offers a half-price deal to people willing to take an unpurchased berth on short notice, which brings cost in line with the big ships. The cruise lines also tack on extra fees for lone travelers and for trips to shore, hiking, fishing and other activities. At $1,500 for seven days of cruising, the Ursa looked like a bargain.
Each spring, the Ursa makes a lazy loop, leaving its Seattle winter berth in April and heading to Sitka, Alaska. It shuttles back and forth through the Inside Passage between the towns of Sitka and Petersburg until August, when it makes its way back to Seattle.
An empty cabin showed up in August, so for $1,500 plus airfare on Alaska Airlines, I met the Ursa in Sitka. The seaside town, a 31/2-hour flight from Seattle, is the kind of place whose buildings range from ramshackle to charming. It's also a town with a history. It was here that the Tlingit Indians massacred Russian trappers and their Aleut slaves in 1802. The Russians massacred the Tlingits in 1804.
A sign in the Sitka airport says that top industries are lumber and fishing, and that the town boasts 9,000 residents, 7,040 registered vehicles, 12.5 miles of paved road and rainfall 60 to 70 percent of the time.
Fortunately for me, it was a dry August. We had the windows down in the shuttle to the marina, passing a main street of touristy shops. Though it was early in the day, most were closed because potential customers had been motored back to their cruise ships offshore. A striking bronze statue of a prospector, modeled after William "Skagway Bill" Fonda -- rifle in hand, coffeepot dangling from his haversack -- stands in front of the Pioneers' Home for the elderly. A short walk down the road is Alaska's oldest federally designated park, Sitka National Historical Park, and its nature trail with totem poles from the predominant tribes, Haida and Tlingit. With 121/2 miles of road, pretty much everything in Sitka is within walking distance.
The marina was a warren of docks and boats, making it hard to spot the Ursa tucked in among fishing trawlers. But the bright white paint on the wood hull set it apart from the dark-hulled and rust-streaked boats alongside.
Like the neighboring work boats, the Ursa is deep-hulled -- designed for capacity, durability and range, not speed. With a hull that draws 12 feet, its top speed is about nine knots, roughly the same pace as a racing sailboat. Trawlers -- even new recreational fiberglass ones -- are designed to withstand heavy weather. The diesel engines, large tanks and slow pace makes trawlers long-distance champs: A 40-foot Nordhavn circumnavigated the globe in 2002, the smallest powerboat to do so.
I heaved my bag onboard, and Cami -- head cook and bottle washer, and sister of the boat's owner -- introduced me to the captain, Bob Anderson. We sat around and had an easy chat, swapping stories. Compatibility is a big concern. A 65-foot boat gets very small very quickly if you aren't well suited to your companions. For that reason, the Ursa, which accommodates up to eight guests, is often chartered by a group of family and friends.
Before I stowed my gear, an orientation was required. I was instructed in small-boat etiquette, such as always facing the ladders when moving between decks, where I was likely to hit my head in the passageway, and how to operate the toilet, which flushes with a manual pump. The boat was in nice condition, the salon well kept, with wood paneling, blue accents, Asian-style throw rugs and a glass-top table made from a ship's wheel. There was a small flat-panel TV with a DVD collection, and a stereo and CDs. The kitchen area was a little less squared away, with storage containers piled about -- typical of a boat with full-time "live aboard" occupants.
My cabin was a forward "V" berth, which meant my bed was oddly shaped to the contour of the boat's hull. But it was roomy enough for one, with plenty of locker space and its own skylight hatch.
We shoved off the next morning, having been joined by Paul and Stacy Brannon of Athens, Ga., a semi-retired couple in their mid-forties, onboard for a 20-day training session in preparation for buying their own trawler. With no specific itinerary, the captain asked us where we wanted to go. He plopped down a huge map and guidebook, then made a few suggestions. We all agreed on an inlet called Baranof Warm Springs.
Much of the day was spent motoring. We three passengers became acquainted, while a constant flow of snacks was offered us, and read in the sun on the top deck. The long Alaskan days allowed us plenty of time for activity in Baranof Warm Springs, once a Russian trapper's outpost. Now it's a tiny community of summer houses, just downhill from the eponymous landmark, which is suitable for soaking.
We started off kayaking -- my first attempt. Taking a kayak off the deck into the water, Bob towed it around the bow to the dock and -- with some effort -- I got in. After some instruction from the captain, I paddled the inlet.
The bounty of wildlife was almost unimaginable. From the Ursa, we had seen several bald eagles and nests with eaglets, and motored along humpback whales and a pod of orcas, who seemed unperturbed by our slow-moving craft. In the kayak, I glided silently within yards of a river otter on the shoreline.
Back at the dock, we hiked in our bathing suits a half-mile uphill to the warm springs, where we found three natural pools in the rock draining into a river fed by an alpine lake. That river became our waterfall farther down. The springs' three pools got cooler as we neared the river. We tried out all three, which ranged from the hottest tub you'd risk to languidly warm. For anyone who didn't care to make the hike, a plastic pipe fed the hot spring water to a bathhouse on the docks. Professional trawler fishermen, who lack for large quantities of hot water on board, stop there to soak in the three galvanized water troughs refitted as bathtubs.
Meals on board were a constant surprise.With a three-burner stove, Cami managed to turn out stick-to the-ribs breakfasts of sourdough pancakes, eggs or French toast with fruit, yogurt and cereal. Lunches were generally soups or stews with fresh-baked bread, and dinners were a production. One night we had an excellent grilled salmon, new potatoes and broccoli, followed by bananas Foster, minus the flambe -- leaping flames aren't a good idea. Other nights we had spaghetti and red sauce, shrimp that we caught in pots we threw overboard in the afternoon to pull up at dinnertime, fish Cami landed using a rod from the lower deck, and various chicken dishes. Cami even made a baked Alaska using a blowtorch that served double duty in the engine room.
Days developed a loose rhythm. We would pick a destination and activities, then decide when to motor there. While underway, we snacked, read, napped or sat in the salon to chat. With our slow boating and tight deck space, we got to know one another the way few strangers do on a trip. Paul and Stacy spoke wistfully of not having children but also of their close ties to 34 nieces and nephews. They had created family traditions, such as the trips Stacy takes with the nieces, commemorated by the purchase of a teapot that becomes part of a trousseau. Paul and Stacy planned to take family members on extended trips when they got their trawler. I wondered: Would I have learned this much about my shipmates on a big-boat cruise?
While the trip was what I had hoped for, it may have been a little less than was promised in luxury. How luxurious can a boat be that requires you to pump out the toilet? But luxury is relative in Alaska. It's still a rough country, and even towns where we stopped frequently lacked urban-quality amenities. In these environs, the complete comfort of the Ursa practically was luxury.
On my final day, we arrived at the boat's southernmost and final stop, Ketchikan, where I got a look at what I had traded luxury for. Ketchikan stands in stark contrast to the inlets and small communities where we had stopped. Enormous docks accommodate several cruise ships at a time, which spill thousands of well-fed tourists into the town's center. Around the docks, Ketchikan is a ginned-up frontier town, with an amphitheater featuring a lumberjack show and shops where you can buy native Tlingit crafts -- if you're careful. The majority of carved bowls I found were resin castings, and some of the Indian totems were made in China.
While I couldn't get a massage on the Ursa and had to pump the toilet, I did get to bed down in a remote inlet where the rhythmic slap of salmon leaping from the water lulled me to sleep. I kayaked in a cove so silent I could hear the flapping wings of a heron passing overhead. And I met some strangers I now count as friends. I wouldn't trade that experience for a proper flush toilet, or for all of the Tlingit bowls in China.
Roy Furchgott last wrote for Travel about a racetrack hotel in Sebring, Fla.