YV&C Recommended Yacht Charter Links
Charter yachts go where cruise ships can't - and at prices that just might surprise
By: Kim Kavin
Apr. 14, 2004 12:00 AM
It sounds too good to be true, but the nature of the Alaskan cruising season makes it feasible to charter a private yacht and plan your own itinerary.
My own mother was among the dozen or so people who looked at me knowingly and said: "I've done Alaska. You'll love it!"
Indeed, all these folks (most in their 40s and 50s) had been to the same areas I was about to see for the first time on my trip south to Sitka aboard the motoryacht Kayana. They'd traveled aboard the many cruise ships that call the destination home each summer. "We had a terrific time!" they'd say with made-for-TV-commercial grins. "We saw it all!"
Iceberg Crashing ! An iceberg breaks at an edge, separating from a glacier.
I'm sure they each had a memorable trip, but after cruising for a week with Kayana's crew, I knew I had everybody else beat. And so - with the pleasure that grown children experience only a few times in their lives, and with the rattle of a toddler detailing the world's wonders - I laid out the case for my been-there, done-that mom.
"So, you saw it all, eh? Did you kayak up to a bear scooping its breakfast from a river? Did you get to wade in that river, up to your ankles in spawning salmon? Did you have a captain willing to change course and follow a pod of breaching humpbacks all afternoon? Did you get to watch a glacier calve without another boat in sight? And oh yeah, did you touch an iceberg with your bare fingertips, then hack off a chunk of ice to use in your cocktails that afternoon?"
Her silence was poetry.
"Well," she said after regrouping. "Not all of us get to charter private yachts."
And that was when I realized the true beauty of yacht charter in Alaska. Not only does exploring with just a dozen friends dwarf any experience you might have aboard a cruise ship with hundreds of passengers, but the current marketplace makes yacht charter a comparative value that's simply unattainable in other parts of the world.
A quick bit of comparison and explanation shows why. Crystal Cruise Lines, a high-end company, offers Alaskan cruises that run round-trip from San Francisco. You're on the boat for twelve days, but only five of those are actually in Alaska, plus two spent cruising the Inside Passage. So, let's call it seven days in Alaska, which is comparable to a week's stay aboard a yacht that you board in Juneau and disembark in Sitka.
Of course there are bargain deals aboard Crystal Cruise Lines, and all cruise ships, but if you want a more exclusive experience, it's top dollar. The penthouse aboard Crystal Harmony in August is a whopping $19,000 per person (give or take a thousand), but a similar level of luxury can be had in penthouse cabins on the same deck, according to Cruise Professionals Inc. Those cabins run about $9,500 per person - not at all outrageous for a high-end, 12-day vacation.
Now, consider Kayana and her sister ship Katania, both part of the CEO Expeditions fleet. Kayana, at 121 feet long, carries ten guests comfortably, while Katania, at 100 feet long, holds six. Other differences that set these yachts apart from cruise ships is that they have crews and chefs who cater exclusively to the handful of friends and family aboard for the week, and they allow the guests to create an itinerary that can change along the way, depending on how things are going at any given stop.
The price? About $7,000 per person, which for a couple is a good $5,000 less than the cruise ship trip. And that includes the extra charges for fuel, food, and other expenses typically associated with private yacht charter.
It sounds too good to be true, but it is. The reason lies in the nature of the Alaskan cruising season. It is so short - typically, late May through early September - that most charter yachts don't make the area their home port. Owners tend to keep their yachts in much warmer climes, then visit Alaska for a few months and accept charter business when they aren't aboard themselves. Many of these yachts are among the most expensive in the world, and charter is often less of a business than it is a secondary concern for the owner. There's no need to make pricing generally competitive, or even to have a crew that hails from the area.
By contrast, CEO Expeditions is one of a handful of companies with small, but well-maintained charter fleets that stay on the West Coast year-round, moving them up to Alaska early and keeping them there after the boys of summer have gone. It's in these companies' best interest to offer a better experience than their competitors (more local knowledge among their crew members, and a much more intimate experience than the luxury cruise ships) and to do so at a rate that will attract business.
American Safari Cruises is another reputable company that applies this philosophy to offer private yacht charter at competitive prices. Its fleet includes the 112-foot Safari Escape, which carries 12 guests. The yacht offers nine-day cruises from Prince Rupert to Juneau starting at $3,995 per person, including meals, most premium drinks, and other costs associated with private yacht charter. Even during the peak weeks in summer, the rate starts at just $5,195 per person.
Still not convinced? Check out Alaska Yacht Charters. It's an operation run by longtime husband-and-wife charter team Geoff and Debbie Wilson. They're adding the 90-foot Alaskan Story to their company's 95-foot Alaskan Song for summer 2004. Each boat carries eight guests comfortably at a per-person rate of about $3,250. Again, that includes food, fuel, and most premium drinks.
Granted, these rates are not the lowest you will find if you want to see Alaska by sea, and some of these boats need to be chartered in their entirety, instead of by the cabin. Yet if you're in the market for a personally tailored experience and want to get away from the crowds, joining a group of your closest friends on a private yacht charter may be more of an option than you realized.
Even my mother agrees. And that's really saying something.
Those Beautiful Blues
At least that's what I believed, based on the decades' worth of research I've done making lemonade and, well, drinks a little stronger than that sweet summer stuff. It startled me the first time I saw an iceberg, just south of Juneau, Alaska. The thing wasn't see-through at all. It was bluer than a turquoise crayon, and appeared to be just as opaque.
Captain Russ White, my host aboard the motoryacht Kayana, said most visitors have the same stunned reaction. He explained that icebergs are chunks that calve from glaciers, and as such have been under enormous pressure for extremely long periods of time. The pressure squeezes all the air out as it compacts the ice, making the iceberg so flawless that it absorbs everything in the color spectrum except blue light. That, it emits back to you.
Hence, the beautiful blue glow. -K.K.
Your Life Jacket on Land
In Alaska, your life jacket on land is a set of bear bells. There are schools of thought that argue otherwise, but the yacht crew members I cruised and hiked with insist on them.
Bear bells are like sleigh bells that you wear around your ankles, or attach to a hiking stick or backpack. The theory is, bears in the wild will attack you only if they feel threatened. One of the best ways to make an animal feel threatened is to startle it. The bells, which can be heard long before you can be seen, eliminate the possibility of you rounding a corner and coming face-to-teeth with an unsuspecting bear whose nervous system just clicked into overdrive.
If the critics are right, these "dinner bells" do nothing more than advertise your presence to hungry giants in the wild. But the local yacht crews swear by them, and they're still around to explain the reasons why. That's good enough for me. -K.K.
The Struggle with Salmon
It's not always easy, especially in the case of spawning salmon. You can often get your camera lens to within a foot of their faces, but they're constantly moving, as is the water they're swimming in, not to mention the sun beating down from above.
To bring home the best pictures, remember two things: shutter speed and volume. There's no better place to play with your camera's shutter speed setting than in a stream of spawning salmon. Focus your lens on the fins jutting out of the water, and hold still while the camera does the rest. Try it with several settings. If you slow the shutter speed down enough, you'll come away with a very cool photo that resembles an Impressionist painting.
For sharper shots, volume is the key. Set your camera on auto focus (or on motion focus, if you have that feature). Then shoot away. The pros average about a half-dozen spectacular photos for every roll of film they shoot. It's the law of averages, and it can work for you, too. -K.K.
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