An Inside Look

Richard Connor

ALASKA FINALLY HIT the top of our bucket list. A number of friends had made the trip and returned with glowing reports of the scenery, wildlife and fresh seafood. Vicky and I each had our own No. 1 reason for the trip: She wanted to see whales, and I wanted to see the Northern Lights.

Alaska’s Inside Passage is often the destination for travelers headed to the 49th state. There’s a wide variety of ships that ply those waters, from gigantic floating cities to small private yachts. We aren’t large cruise ship people. We’ve taken one Caribbean cruise, on our 15th wedding anniversary. It was fun, and we had some memorable excursions, like sailing and snorkeling off St. Thomas. But the party boat aspect, and the thousands of fellow passengers, wasn’t really our style.

Our 25th wedding anniversary roughly coincided with our 50th birthdays. Our sons gave us a trip on the Stephen Taber. The Taber is a wooden schooner originally launched in 1871. It sails the beautiful waters of Maine’s Penobscot Bay. That’s one of our favorite parts of the country. The trip was memorable for the crew, passengers, scenery, sailing and food. It was also a wine-themed cruise, which added to the fun. The Taber might be described as rustic, but if you’re adventurous, I highly recommend it.

Photo by Vicky Connor

There are certain places that you need to see by ship, and Alaska’s Inside Passage is among them. We chose to bypass the large ships offered by the major cruise lines, and instead booked a small-boat trip with Road Scholar. Road Scholar organizes trips around the world, with an emphasis on active learning. Its trips usually have experienced faculty, and attract interesting and adventurous passengers.

We planned the trip with Vicky’s two older brothers and their wives. They had each taken previous trips with Road Scholar, and enjoyed the combination of learning, casual comfort and interesting people. The group’s prices seemed expensive compared to other cruise companies, but its trips are all-inclusive. Many other trips had significant additional fees for airfare and desirable excursions.

For this trip, Road Scholar partners with Alaska Dream Cruises. The latter is a family-owned business based in Sitka, Alaska. It specializes in small-ship experiences. The crew was uniformly professional, friendly and caring. Road Scholar provided two group leaders, Carole and Lee. Their love and knowledge of all things Alaska were infectious. Lee’s background and cultural experience as a native Tlingit was especially poignant.

The ship was the Admiralty Dream. Our three couples splurged on deluxe cabins on the upper deck. Each room was 134 square feet with a comfortable king bed, sink and a “schoilet”—a wet room containing both shower and toilet. The schoilets were adequate, if not exactly luxurious.

Excursions included trips on inflatable Zodiac boats through glacial ice fields, hiking, kayaking, visiting small villages and wildlife viewing. The first morning we woke up early and went on deck to catch the rising sun. Within minutes, we spotted our first humpback whale. We were soon in the middle of a pod of feeding humpbacks. Later in the trip, we saw orcas, harbor seals, sea lions, black and brown bears, salmon, puffins, eagles, ravens and mountain goats. We hiked a dramatic hillside cascade, and to the base of the Mendenhall Glacier.

There were 43 passengers, ranging in age from 52 to 87. I estimate the average age was around 70. The passengers were uniformly well-educated and well-traveled. It was impressive and a bit humbling to hear of their many adventures around the world.

About a quarter of the passengers were unmarried women. This was a bit of a surprise. Among the women, there were mothers and daughters, friends and cousins. There were no single men.

Our trip cost a combined $21,198. This included round trip airfare from Philadelphia on Alaska Airlines, as well as comfortable hotel rooms for the first and last nights in Sitka and Juneau, respectively. It also included airport transfers, daily excursions and the majority of meals. There was an open cash bar, but wine was included with dinner. Our bar bill for the eight nights was $145. The highlight was sipping bourbon poured over 250-year-old glacial ice harvested from the South Seward glacier.

Tipping the crew on cruise ships is customary. Road Scholar includes an “industry standard” tip in its fees. You could tip above that sum if you felt you’d received exceptional service. It appeared that many passengers, including us, chose to do so.

Mark Twain is credited with many quotes about travel. Many of them speak to the value of opening ourselves to different cultures, peoples and ways of life. This can be challenging and occasionally uncomfortable, but we think it’s worth the effort. A common theme on HumbleDollar is spending our money on experiences. For us, this trip fit the bill perfectly. The scenery, wildlife and excursions more than met the mark. But the convivial nature of the crew, passengers and Road Scholar group leaders were the real highlight.

Richard Connor is a semi-retired aerospace engineer with a keen interest in finance. He enjoys a wide variety of other interests, including chasing grandkids, space, sports, travel, winemaking and reading. Follow Rick on Twitter @RConnor609 and check out his earlier articles.

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