“You have to disconnect, there is no choice,” said Lucila. “That was one of my favorite things about this adventure cruise.”
Lucila Lancaster, her husband Girish Nair, and their two children Isabel (Izzy) 21, a senior at John Hopkins University studying neuroscience, and Sam, a 6’1” water polo playing 16-year-old, were planning their yearly family vacation. They took a poll at their home in Seattle and decided on an adventure vs. a beach escape. “We like hiking, moving around, seeing and photographing animals in the wild,” said Lucila.
A cruise through Alaska’s Inside Passage on the M. V. Westward fit their individual schedules and their desire for a vacation that would combine adventure and education.
The Westward is an 8-passenger, 3-crew historic wooden yacht, just 86 feet long, which allows it to enter coves and bays too shallow for larger ships to safely navigate. AdventureSmith Explorations, an eco-adventure tour company promoting responsible and sustainable travel, is one of the leading Alaska adventure tour companies.
The small Westward ship cruises through Alaska’s Inside Passage, able to pilot into seldom explored, secluded bays, channels, and islets for kayaking and whale watching. The adventures also include onshore hiking to gorgeous settings such as Baranof Hot Springs, Eva Lake, and Baird Glacier. The itinerary also includes cruising to the Le Conte glacier, as well as opportunities for responsible viewing of grizzly bears, sea lions, bald eagles, and other wildlife.
“This was our first small cruise,” said Girish. “Bill Bailey is an exceptional captain, navigating us through some really tough coves with the older boat which is not as responsive as a more modern boat. The owner-operated Westward is quite distinctive, felt very personal and family-oriented.”
“I like the stories behind the boat,” said Sam, “like how many hands it’s gone through, famous people and celebrities who’ve sailed it, and how old it is. It’s coming up on its 100th year anniversary. And the size…it’s not too big, not too small. I feel at home here. It’s a good place to bond over everything you do because there is usually someone around.”
The friendly Nair family exudes an exciting element of multiculturalism which they happily shared with the passengers and crew. Lucila was born in Sao Paola, Brazil; Girish is from Jamshedpur, India; Izzy was born in Houston; and Sam was adopted as a newborn and is of American Native and Iberian heritage.
“The kids have a variety in culture, food, religion, philosophy, and ideals so they kind of meld and pick their own paths,” said Girish. “It’s made them more appreciative. When you travel with young adults, you can rediscover each other. When we’re at home we all have certain roles, but here we don’t have to play a role. Seeing Sam and Izzy interact with the other adults is gratifying.”
“Embracing life from different perspectives makes for a well-rounded vacation,” said Lucila. “But my favorite part is that we’re all together doing the same thing, and that we’re disconnected from the world because internet access is seldom available in these remote parts of Alaska.”
Hannah Hindley is a human encyclopedia. That was the unanimous consensus.
Hannah is the Westward’s naturalist, zoologist, and botanist. She impressed everyone with her extensive knowledge of interdependent organisms that thrive in Alaska, from plants, moss, lichen, berries and trees, to nurse frogs, banana slugs, and limpets, to grizzlies, whales, otters, porpoises, and bald eagles.
Whether hiking up to the many lakes, bushwhacking through thick forest, kayaking in the bays and inlets, or trekking to glaciers, Alaska’s symbiotic chain of life assaults your senses in vibrant Technicolor everywhere you look, as well as smell, touch, hear, and even taste – with the variety of wild berries that Hannah identified and plucked for us to sample.
“I’m always looking for unique things to do where they learn a little bit and also get to relax and enjoy our time together,” said Girish.
This was Sam’s third visit to Alaska, the previous two being school trips. Sam is a budding photographer and takes classes to continue to hone his interest. He was inseparable from his camera throughout the journey, particularly shooting the abundant wildlife and landscapes that varied from mountains, islets, and glaciers.
Lucila and Girish have made it a point to expose the children to different cultures and different food. “I didn’t want my kids growing up with just mac n’ cheese and fries,” laughs Lucila. “They are very open to trying new food on vacation.”
And there was certainly a variety of international cuisine on the boat, all prepared in the small galley by Chef Tracie Triolo, a former protégé of Wolfgang Puck. Izzy’s favorites were the lamb curry, the ceviche, and all the deserts; Sam’s favorite was the sushi because it was unexpected, so fresh, and varied. In addition to the lamb, other entrees included local silver salmon, elk Picadillo, and salt fish cakes with mango salsa (see photo above).
“I really liked all of the hikes, especially the second one where we saw the bears,” said Izzy. “There’s something magical about seeing an animal, like a bear, wild and free. When we saw the bears, I wasn’t scared because the creek was between us, but my adrenaline was pumping because I was in awe of their beauty. It was cool to see how they have their own social dynamics in their natural environment.”
Kayaking, bushwhacking hikes, soaking in the natural hot springs, and trekking to glaciers stepping precariously on and over round slippery rocks instead of a path were favorite activities of the whole family.
As for Sam, he enjoyed the hike to Eva Lake, and also when they saw the mother and baby grizzlies at the “fish ladder,” an opening in the creek where fish jump upstream to spawn, creating a personal buffet line for the bears.
Perhaps the most memorable moment on the trip was chancing upon a large group of Humpback whales. “Idling the boat in the middle of the Frederick Sound with 360 degrees of ocean around you, and literally a whale at every hour o’clock was amazing,” said Girish. “Seeing them play in their natural habitat is one of those extraordinary experiences that I don’t think most people will ever get.”
“This trip is not for everybody,” said Girish. “It’s not for people with kids younger than 8 or 10, or for people who need to know what they’re doing every 30 minutes of their day. Unfortunately it’s not for anyone with physical a challenge. It’s an adventure cruise, not a luxury cruise. The crew sits with everyone for meals. There is no distinction.
Throw eight to twelve people together from different walks of life – pilot, travel writers, naturalist, nurse, engineer, young adults – and everyone is having a great time. Everyone is far more tolerant here than they might be in their individual lives because of the close environment.
“We came in with a family of four, and we came out having 11 new great friends.”
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of AdventureSmith Explorations during her stay in Alaska, but as always, the opinions, reviews and experiences are her own.