Most of the boat is asleep when we pass through Ballard Locks in Seattle shortly before midnight. Blotchy, heavy clouds are stacked like anvils above a purple horizon. Stars wink here and there, a promise of a clearer night. Salmon still run freely between the fresh water of Lake Washington and the salt water of Puget Sound, through a fish ladder integrated within the locks.
Two workers from the Army Corps of Engineers man the locks this evening; they wave and throw lead lines to our crew working the deck. Capt. Tate Grant sticks his head out on the bridge wing to monitor our 120-foot-long, 234-ton vessel as it is pulled closer to the dock, fenders given the lightest of kisses. We drop 20 feet over 20 minutes to match the water level outside the locks. Then they open, and we are released.
So began my first cruise — a weeklong stint on the 22-passenger Safari Quest as it made its way around the moody, mercurial Pacific Northwest islands off the coast of British Columbia last fall. Seattle fell away as we entered the inky dark of Puget Sound, our wake slicing away at 45-degree angles from the hull as we picked up speed.
On the top deck, I found myself alone, the murky clouds above parting further to reveal a patchwork spray of stars. That first night, a hurricane from Hawaii sent high winds and 4- to 6-foot waves our way, delaying our departure and making the seas roll on our passage through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria. The crew would be up all night to bring us to Vancouver Island by morning.
If a typical cruise ship is a floating city, this was a floating small town, owned and run by Seattle-based Un-Cruise Adventures, which specializes in small-boat exploration to places larger cruises can’t go. The company’s biggest vessel carries just 88 passengers.
The Safari Quest seemed like the right kind of boat for me, because I wanted the main attraction to be outside, not on board. For my mom and her three sisters — two of them retirees and the other two not far behind — big, traditional cruises are a great way to get around. They love the nonstop entertainment, the traveling without the hassle of travel, the towers of food. Me? I fear splashy spectacles. I worry about claustrophobic, sedentary boat life with thousands of others. I think of death by all-you-can-eat buffet.
There is truth in these expectations, even on a cruise so diminutive. Almost every traveling resident in my floating small town was upward of 60 and retired. The food was spectacular and abundant. There was an open bar. The real surprise was that boat life could be as active as I wanted it to be, despite the range of ages and abilities on board.
The size of this vessel — just 29 feet wide, with four levels from top to below decks — means you can’t help but be immersed in the people and workings of the boat that’s taking you places.
There were travel agents and garrulous longtime girlfriends Caroline and Kristen, meeting up on the boat from Jackson, Wyo., and Bend, Ore. Duane the Texan was a big fan of the Safari Quest; he went to Alaska on the same boat with three of the same crew, and they welcomed him back as a friend. Duane was accompanied by his sister, Jean, and her husband, Michael, who were also from Texas — the coast, near Galveston. Jean and Michael have been on every cruise under the sun. She always refuses to dress up. “Who wants to do black tie every night?” she asked, in a Texas drawl.
Then there was Joan, who actually hailed from the same tiny Massachusetts town that my husband grew up in. She enjoyed our little yacht — just 19 passengers on this departure — because it suited her and her husband’s different travel styles. “Doug likes the outdoors and the hiking, but I like the Four Seasons,” she said on the second-floor stern deck, her feet up, as we gazed out over the glassy waters that surrounded us. “I like to sit on the boat and be taken care of. They let me do that here.”
It sure didn’t hurt that the views from the boat were varied and excellent. From Vancouver Island, we headed up into the tiny inlets along the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia; when the tide rushes out through particularly slim channels on this part of the coast, white-water rapids and whirlpools form.
At Skookumchuck Narrows we jumped in a couple of skiffs to get a closer look at the region’s rich intertidal life. While speeding up to track a bald eagle, one of our boats nicked the edge of a whirlpool and nearly lost a passenger overboard. A sea lion frolicked in the current, its big brown head like a bear’s, laughing at us.
Though it was late in the season, there were still tangles of bull kelp in the water. We gathered up a long, whip-shaped frond to sample this varietal of seaweed (crunchy and herbaceous, and not as salty as I’d imagined it to be). Pam Navis, our expedition leader, sliced the bulb at one end of the frond to release the carbon monoxide within, then played the sawed-off tube like a mini-trumpet. What came out sounded something like the call of a dying moose.
At the edge of another rocky island not far from the haul-out, fat purple sea stars — a constellation of them — sprawled along the intertidal zone, gorging themselves on tiny mussels. We held the hand-size stars in our palms and watched their guts work to spit out the shells. Down in the clear, dark water, I spotted a little moon jellyfish, its milky white outlines pulsing like an accordion over the violet stars and crescent shells below.
At lunchtime in Jervis Inlet, a humpback whale surfaced lazily. Later that day, after we rode the slack tide through the Malibu Rapids — a narrow, shallow channel safely accessible only to even a small boat like ours every six to eight hours — we dropped anchor at Princess Louisa Inlet. It’s one of the most glorious spots in this part of British Columbia, and a place where we could stand-up paddleboard, kayak and hike. The water there was so calm and clear that we could spot the blood-orange frills of a lion’s mane jellyfish pulsing under the surface, and a seal’s wake from several hundred yards out.
At sunset in Princess Louisa, the crew built a bonfire in a wood pavilion onshore, at the foot of Chatterbox Falls.
I spent the next two days stand-up paddleboarding the waters there and in the Harmony Islands, 26 miles south of Princess Louisa as the crow flies. There’s a quiet magic to paddling around an endless expanse of mirrored water for hours, with just a seal or two tailing you and the occasional barking sea lion for company.
But the most electrifying experience of all was made possible one evening only once the sun had set.
In complete darkness, I joined a couple of crew members at the back of the boat. We jumped, whooping, into the 45-degree water. I did it for one reason: I had always wanted to make phosphorescent snow angels. Clouds of glowing bioluminescence bloomed around us as we treaded water — a kind of aquatic light show for observers on deck. When I finally climbed out of the water and vigorously rubbed my arms, sparks flew. Glancing up, I saw the starry froth of the Milky Way, that night a mirror for the glitter of the undersea world.
Later, as we cruised back down the Strait of Georgia toward the San Juan Islands and Seattle, we came across two humpback whales, a mother and her calf, swimming and spouting along. We paused to watch them as they rolled and played, diving down to show us their distinctive tail patterns, as unique to them as our fingerprints are to us. Then the mother leapt into the air, breaching just to the right of our bow. This was my type of spectacle, and my type of crowd.
Un-Cruise Adventures destinations include Alaska, Central America, the Galápagos and Hawaii; the seven-day Pacific Northwest yachting itinerary starts at $3,695 a person.