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Big cruise ships are great. We love them lots. But they're not the only game in town. In this, the latest installment in our multi-part series cataloguing the lesser-known small-ship options in the world's great sailing regions, we focus on an area that many cruisers think of simply as the gateway to Alaska, but which is really so much more: beautiful British Columbia and its American neighbor, the soggy but lovely Pacific Northwest.

Home to strong coffee, fine craft-brewed ales, rich Native culture, and some of the most beautiful coastal scenery you'll ever encounter, BC and the Pacific Northwest are a natural for cruising. In British Columbia, cruises are focused on three primary natural areas plus the cities of Vancouver, Victoria, and Nanaimo. In the Georgia Strait, between British Columbia's mainland and the east coast of Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands region comprises several dozen mountainous islands that offer a wonderful, temperate climate with much less rain than is usual here, plus a very mixed culture that mixes farms and neo-hippie hangouts with fine restaurants and galleries. The Gulf Islands National Park Reserve protects 13 square miles of the region's marine ecosystem, spread out across 15 islands, 50-some islets, and 10 square miles of marine areas.

Northwest of Vancouver Island, the beautiful Queen Charlotte Islands are the traditional home of the native Haidi people, and are known as the "Canadian Galapagos" for the richness and variety of their wildlife and plant life, some of which is particular to the islands. Like the islands of Southeast Alaska, the Queen Charlottes have few roads, so going by small ship is not only the best but pretty much the only way of visiting.

Facing the Queen Charlottes on the mainland coast, and stretching from Vancouver Island north to the border with Alaska, the Great Bear Rainforest is the world's largest remaining temperate rainforest, a 25,000-square-mile tract full of ancient western red cedars and sitka spruce that's also home to the Kermode or "Spirit Bear," a subspecies of black bear that's frequently born with a nearly white coat. Canada's portion of the Inside Passage stretches along this coast, from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert in northern BC, about 480 miles north of Vancouver and 80 miles south of Alaska.

Below the Canada/U.S. border, cruises in the Pacific Northwest are primarily focused on two area: Washington's San Juan Islands and, inland, the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The San Juan Islands are a southern extension of Canada's Gulf Islands, with much the same feel: green, peaceful, and temperate, with a mix of natural beauty and northwest culture. The Columbia/Snake route, on the other hand, is all about history and landscape, with cruises often stopping at sites associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, when Americans first ventured to the Pacific Coast and back. Along the way, the Columbia/Snake corridor offers more varied landscapes than any other North American river, from the Pacific Ocean breakers through the thickly forested slopes of the Columbia Gorge through a series of navigation locks, into the more arid regions of Washington's and Oregon's wine country, and finally to the multicolored buttes and mesas flanking the Snake.

Small-Ship Lines of BC & the Pacific Northwest, A to Z

American Safari Cruises (www.amsafari.com): This company's three ships -- the 12-passenger Safari Spirit, 22-passenger Safari Quest, and 36-passenger Safari Explorer -- are honest-to-God yachts offering a "luxe meets adventure" experience. Fares are all-inclusive, covering off-vessel excursions as well as all drinks and etc. Days might be spent kayaking in the wilderness, fishing right off the side of the yachts, and visiting small ports of call, where the boats sometimes dock overnight to give passengers a taste of the local nightlife. In September and October, Safari Spirit offers five 7-night "Northwest Passage" cruises that sail round-trip from Friday Harbor in Washington's San Juan Islands and mix visits to big cities, hideaway ports, and wilderness fjords. Ports and wild areas visited include Vancouver, Victoria, Degnen Bay, the Harmony Islands, Princess Louisa Inlet, Roche Harbor, and Jones Island. Rates from $6,095 per person, double occupancy. In March-April and October-November, Safari Explorer offers 7-night cruises on the Pacific Northwest's Columbia and Snake Rivers, sailing between Portland, OR, and Lewiston, ID. Rates start at $4,795 per person.

Bluewater Adventures (www.bluewateradventures.ca): Founded in 1974, this Vancouver-based company visits all the major BC sailing regions and then some, including 7- to 9-night trips in BC's wildlife-rich Queen Charlotte Islands, the coastal Great Bear Rainforest (home to black bears, grizzlies, and the all-white spirit bear), northern Vancouver Island (great for orca sightings), Canada's Gulf Islands (home to Canada's Gulf Islands National Park), and along BC's north coast (home to the port of Prince Rupert and the Khutzeymateen grizzly bear sanctuary). Sailings adhere to a casual, low-impact, eco-tourism ethic, focusing on wildlife watching, nature and culture hikes, visits to Native village sites, kayaking, and excursions by inflatable launch. All cruises are aboard the 68-foot, 16-passenger sailing ketches Island Odyssey and Island Roamer, rare sailing ships in a generally motor-driven market. Weeklong trips are priced from $3,990 per person.

Cruise West (www.cruisewest.com): The most high-profile of America's small-ship lines, Cruise West has been offering cruises in BC and the Pacific Northwest for decades -- a natural outgrowth of both its original Alaska focus and being headquartered in Seattle. The majority of its cruises -- especially in this region -- are geared to older, well-traveled, intellectually curious passengers, focusing on visits to historic sites and watching nature from the deck. On most of its trips, things rarely get more active than a quick excursion by inflatable launch or a walk around town. The line offers two different trips in the region. In April, May, and September (bracketing the Alaska season) the 102-passenger Spirit of Endeavour sails weeklong British Columbia voyages round-trip from Seattle, visiting Vancouver, Victoria, and Nanaimo (BC); cruising scenic Desolation Sound (home to BC's largest marine park); and stopping at the quaint Washington towns of Friday Harbor (San Juan Islands) and Port Townsend. Rates start at $2,999 per person. Between mid-April and mid-October, Cruise West is the most visible of the lines offering 7-night cruises on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, round-trip from Portland, Oregon, aboard the 96-passenger Spirit of '98 (a fantastic boat modeled on 19th-century coastal cruisers) and the more prosaic, 94-passenger Spirit of Discovery. All sail the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area and visit Pendleton, Hell's Canyon, Walla Walla, and Astoria. Rates from $2,999.

Duen Sailing Adventures (www.duenadventures.com): Operating the 8-passenger gaff-rigged ketch Duen (built in Norway in 1939, and spiffed up for passenger cruising in 1994), Duen Sailing Adventures offers an intimate sailing experience -- both in the small number of passengers and in the tiny, woody cabins and shared bathrooms, a fairly standard arrangement aboard this kind of vessel. Cruises focus on BC's wilderness and the area's natural and cultural history, with forest hikes, tidepooling, whale- and bear-watching, visits to Native sites, and stops at hot springs all part of the program. For 2010, Duen will be sailing 8-night trips in BC's Queen Charlotte Islands, exploring the area's rainforests, intertidal zones, wildlife, and rich Haida culture. Five trips are scheduled in July and August, with fares from $4,250 per person.

Lindblad Expeditions (www.expeditions.com): Probably the world's premier small-ship, nature-oriented adventure line, Lindblad is the official cruise line of the National Geographic Society, a distinction that's more than cosmetic. Founded in 1979, the line has long championed environmentally sensitive adventure/educational cruises to remote places in the world, and today it's also involved in promoting locally based conservation projects, sustainable food initiatives, wildlife and marine environment protection, and other green initiatives. With the National Geographic Society, Lindblad has created a fund to promote conservation, and National Geographic writers, photographers, and researchers accompany many sailings (the latter especially on sailings in distant areas like Antarctica). In the Pacific Northwest, Lindblad offers weeklong Columbia/Snake River cruises round-trip from Portland, OR, aboard the identical, 62-passenger National Geographic Sea Bird and National Geographic Sea Lion, exploring the Columbia River Gorge, Hood River, and the Palouse River; visiting eastern Washington's wine country; and stopping off in Astoria and Clarkston. Rates start at $3,830, and cruises are available in September and October. Sea Bird and Sea Lion are fairly standard (if comfortable) small ships that are outfitted with more tools than a Swiss Army knife, including kayaks, inflatable Zodiac landing boats, a hydrophone for eavesdrop on marine mammals, a microscope that projects onto the lounge's video screen (and is frequently used during naturalist lectures), and an underwater "bow cam" that allows you to watch what's going on beneath the waves -- as long as the water's not muddy, which it frequently is on Columbia/Snake River sailings.

Maple Leaf Adventures (www.mapleleafadventures.com): This BC-based company has been in business since 1986, offering nature and cultural history cruises aboard the restored, 92-foot, 1904-built tall ship Maple Leaf, a onetime pleasure yacht that spent six decades as a fishing vessel before being reconverted back to passenger use. The vessel carries just 10 passengers in cabins that have been described as resembling high-end sleeper compartments on a 1930s train. The three bathrooms aboard are all shared, as is common on relatively small sailing ships. Maple Leaf carries two inflatable launches for daily off-vessel exploration, as well as kayaks for use while the ship is at anchor. In BC, the line offers three different basic itineraries: 5-night cruises in beautiful Gulf Islands National Park (March-April and October-November; from $2,045); 5- and 8-night cruises around BC's wildlife-rich Great Bear Rainforest (April-June and September-October; from $2,475 for 5-night cruises, from $4,575 for 8-night); and 8-night cruises in the Queen Charlotte Islands (May-June; from $4,230).

Mothership Adventures (www.mothershipadventures.com): This small, one-ship, family-run company is centered around the 68-foot, 12-passenger Columbia III, a classic wooden working boat built in 1955 for service as a hospital ship with the Columbia Coast Mission, which provided medical and social care to coastal BC's remote settlements and logging camps from 1905 to 1969. Refurbished for passenger use in the early 1990s, she won first place in Victoria's Northwest Classic Boat Show in 2003. Cabins are small but nicely appointed, and have bunk-style beds. The boat's three bathrooms are shared, and public areas consist of the small salon (a combo lounge and dining room), the wheelhouse (which is open for visitors), and the open outside decks. For 2010, Columbia III will be offering 4- and 5-night cruises throughout June in the Discovery Islands, the Canadian Inside Passage, and the Broughton Archipelago, with all sailings carrying a theme: coastal history on one, photography on another, First Nations culture on a third, and watercolor painting on another. Rates start at $1,425. From July through September, the focus shifts to 3-, 4-, 6-, and 9-night trips focused on sea kayaking, paddling the same regions plus the Great Bear Rainforest. Typical days see passengers leaving the vessel by kayak right after breakfast and paddling through the fjords all morning before stopping ashore for a hike or tide pooling excursion. Rates start around $1,805 for 4-night trips and $2,710 for 6-night trips.

Northwest Navigation Company (www.northwestnavigation.com): Built in 1929, the classic David B served for decades as a tow boat, pulling a string of sailed fishing craft from the Libby, McNeil and Libby Co. cannery into salmon fishing grounds. She was converted to passenger use in the late 1990s and now offers cruises for just six passengers. The majority of her trips are in Washington's San Juan Islands, where she offers 2-night getaway cruises and 3-night kayaking cruises, all round-trip from Bellingham, Washington, May through June and mid-August through early October. Rates for 2-night cruises are $695; rates for kayaking cruises are $1,400. On June 20, the ship offers a special 11-night cruise of Canada's Inside Passage, sailing from Bellingham to Ketchikan and visiting Montague Harbour marine park, Lasqueti Island, Desolation Sound, Cameleon Harbour, Thruston Island, the Pearse Islands, Codville Lagoon, Shearwater, Bottleneck Inlet, Bishops Bay, Baker Inlet, and Prince Rupert (rate: $6,000 per person). On July 25, the same itinerary is offered in reverse, as David B returns to Washington after her short Alaska season.

Pacific Catalyst Expeditions (www.pacificcatalyst.com): The wooden, 75-foot, 11-passenger Pacific Catalyst was built in 1932 as a research vessel for the University of Washington, and her maiden voyage was up the Inside Passage and across the Gulf of Alaska. Today she's a wonderful bit of history, offering trips that eschew port visits entirely, focusing instead on natural areas, with days spent hiking and sea kayaking. For 2010, the vessel will offer 6-night cruises in Washington's San Juan Islands in April and September, sailing round-trip from Friday Harbor and visiting James Island Marine Park, Cypress Island, Sucia Island, Patos Island, Matia Island, and Stuart Island. Rates start at $1,600. Like David B (above), Pacific Catalyst also offers a pair of 10-night cruises in Canada's Inside Passage, bracketing her Alaska season. The northbound sailing departs Friday Harbor for Ketchikan on April 26, while the southbound cruise sails Ketchikan-Friday Harbor on August 22. Rates for both cruises start at $3,500 per person.

StarSail Cruises (www.starsailcruises.com): Not a cruise line at all, StarSail is instead a one-stop shop selling cruises aboard several schooners, yachts, and classic motor vessels that operate in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, including Bluewater Adventures' Island Odyssey and Island Roamer and Northwest Navigation's David B. Other vessels not discussed elsewhere in this article include the 1924-built, 24-passenger schooner Zodiac (reputedly the largest working schooner on the West Coast), the 1907-built, 6-passenger schooner Martha, and the 8-passenger Mycia, built in the style of a Grand Banks-style fishing schooner and launched in 1997. All offer bunk accommodations in shared space, with a few private cabins available aboard Zodiac and one aboard Mycia. Vessels sail itineraries of 2 to 11 nights throughout the region during the summer months.

Westwind Tugboat Adventures (www.tugboatcruise.com): Here's a really unusual one: a cruise line that sails on two classic tugboats and has a serious jones for fishing. Built in 1941, the wooden tugs Parry and Union Jack have been converted for passenger sailing, carrying 12 and 8 guests (respectively) in comfortable two-berth cabins. Interiors are suitably woody, with a feel that makes you expect a grizzled captain in a pea coat to come walking through the door at any moment, pipe in hand. Cruises on the vessels concentrate on different portions of the Canadian Inside Passage and the Great Bear Rainforest, and combine sea kayaking, fishing, whale watching, forest hikes, clam digging, and beach barbecues. For 2010, 5- and 6-night cruises will sail between late May and early October, with rates starting at $4,400 and including a regional flight from Vancouver airport to whatever homeport the vessels are using for that week's cruises.

And to Recap from Previous Installments in This Series . . .

Follow these links to explore the previous installments in this series on small-ship options around the cruise world: