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American Safari's Safari Endeavour : Doing What Small Ships Are Supposed to Do

We have a rarity today: A guest post from one of my longtime colleagues in the marine-writing trade. Due to [cough-cough, hmm, hrrmm], I can't use his real name here, so let's just call him "Deep Draught." Here goes . . .

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Occasionally, good things do come from bad. In 2010, we were saddened by the demise of Cruise West, a family owned, American-flagged small-ship cruise line. Blame overeager expansion on their part, plus the baggage of operating a clapped-out hodgepodge fleet, but the psychic payoff was the same, calling into question yet again the viability of independent American cruise lines.

Enter American Safari Cruises. Although the company has been cruising in Alaska since 1997, it has sailed below most cruisers' radars, operating a fleet that was (and partially still is) more yacht than ship. And then there was the old "If you have to ask about the price, you probably can't afford it" thing. Still, they've always been solidly run, taking a financially conservative business approach that put them in a good position to capitalize on the market hole that Cruise West's demise opened.

Soon after CW closed its doors, American Safari bought a choice pick of its assets, including three ships (the former Spirit of '98, Spirit of Endeavour, and Spirit of Discovery), the line's website (which became a billboard for American Safari), and the line's customer mailing list. Dramatically announcing itself as a major player in Alaska, American Safari and sister-brand InnerSea Discoveries quickly became the most significant small-ship operation in the state, with plans to have no fewer than seven ships there for 2013.

This past summer, Safari Endeavour (the former Cruise Wester Spirit of Endeavour) began sailing for American Safari after a winter-long refit, and I joined a mid-summer sailing to see the changes. This stylish ship with its slender bow and raked funnel was a standout in the Cruise West fleet, and the results of American Safari’s extensive refit were obvious.

blog post photo

Safari Endeavour (photo: Anerican Safari Cruises)

Capacity was slashed from 120 to 88, via changes that included the merging of several formerly too-close-for-comfort cabins into four expansive suites with private balconies. Soft furnishings were redone and massage rooms and hot tubs were added. A watersports platform was built to carry a fleet of kayaks and paddleboards — the latter a rare and unexpected idea in Alaska, but it works: They were a major hit on my sailing. A "serve yourself" wine bar was added and drinks became complimentary. Cuisine, meanwhile — including an indulgent feast of Dungeness Crab bought fresh from local fisherman — was upgraded to American Safari's standards, creative and delicious.

Like most every other small-ship line worth its salt, Cruise West kept its itineraries flexible to account for the unscheduled nature of nature: If a pod of orca whales popped up around the ship, for instance, they'd sit still rather than rushing to make their next stop. American Safari does the same, but with one crucial difference: Whereas the Cruise West vessel was probably heading from whale-watching to a standard-issue call at one of Alaska's tourist ports, American Safari espouses a more adventurous and active vibe, substituting anchorages in cozy coves where passengers can take out a kayak or go for a hike in bushy old-growth forest.

Endeavor's sports options did not disappoint during my sailing. One day, passengers got a first-hand look at a glacier’s anatomy on a trek that began just beyond a moraine and finished on undulating ice waves. Another afternoon, we kayaked hard for over three hours, huddling our kayaks close together as two humpback whales approached within a few hundred feet, their massive expulsions of breath breaking the otherwise still Alaskan afternoon.

One day, caught up in the natural joy of a brilliantly blue day in Glacier Bay, we jumped into the water from the stern and learned the true meaning of "cold." Invigorated to the core, we hauled ourselves quickly back aboard and raced to the hot tub, where an amused waiter poured us hot chocolate spiked generously with Bailey's. Admiring a sparkling glacier and a weathered mountain looming nearby, we thought life couldn’t get much better.

Cruise West may be missed, but as we raised our mugs and toasted the new Safari Endeavour, we were happy to see that some things do get better with age — and change.

Click here[1] for more on American Safari's 2013 Alaska program.



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