In partnership with Maple Leaf Adventures
Over two million tourists visit the Inside Passage every year, but that’s just the problem—they come as tourists. On giant cruise boats that glimmer over the sparkling sea, guests who come to witness the area’s stunning natural beauty miss out on the most noteworthy experiences. Roving in groups too large to be admitted to some islands, they cruise past much of what makes Alaska “the last frontier.”
A trip on an expedition boat like Maple Leaf Adventures, a more intimate alternative to large cruise ships, is an entirely transformative, unique, and memorable experience. Adventurers will forever remember rare moments with a small expedition, like watching a mama grizzly and her cub catching slippery pink Pack Creek salmon, or foraging Thomas Bay’s forests for sweet huckleberries to turn into pancake syrup onboard. Here are the most magical things to see and do in this stunning area of the Pacific Northwest.
Sail the 400 Islands in the Salish Sea
Just off of Vancouver, British Columbia, hundreds of green and gold islands spread through a calm inland sea ringed by snow-capped peaks. Navigating nimbly through them can feel like you’re at the outermost reaches of the world, Prince Caspian sailing to the edge of Narnia, the sea shining with the sun’s brilliance. Known for balmy weather, the Salish Sea is home to skilled artisans and culinary experts. When you’re this far off the beaten track, each island feels unique, rare, and full of rare discoveries. You can island hop for spring wildflowers, seabird colonies, quiet beaches, warm-water swimming holes, and spectacular vistas. Orcas cruise the water beside you as your Maple Leaf Adventures boat glides along.
Salute the Rare White Spirit Bear
While their guests doze at night, Alaska-bound cruise ships glide past Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, including 25,000 square miles of fjords and wildlife. This mystical land, often overlooked in pursuit of more touristy sites, is home to populations of whales, wolves, eagles, sea otters and dolphins, as well as the rare white spirit bear. But smaller, locally-based expedition companies like Maple Leaf Adventures, with diminutive 12 or 24-passenger boats, stop at smaller destinations like Great Bear. The subject of a new IMAX feature, this rainforest is an emerging destination for exhilarating wildlife safaris, as well as indigenous cultural experiences. From kayaking and fishing along the coast to hiking through old-growth forests, this behemoth of nature is not to be missed.
Forage the Forest of Thomas Bay
Anchor your small boat at Thomas Bay, just north of Petersburg, Alaska, and climb ashore with a team of naturalists. Summer in the rainforest means berries at your side as you pad along the forest trails with your guides. Pick pocketsful of the native Alaskan huckleberries and salmonberries for your onboard Maple Leaf Adventures chef to whip up plentiful pancake syrup, sweet pies and muffins, and tartly delicious sauce for local fish. Learn about the fauna around you, including brown and black bears, wolves, moose, squirrels, and rabbits. Wade into the estuary to pluck wild sea beans, also known as sea asparagus, from the brackish water, and crunch on them as you head back to the boat.
Stand in Awe of the Slow Majesty of Humpback Whales
Cruise into Fredrick Sound, where the abundant krill and herring turn it into a gourmet kitchen for happy humpback whales, who swim with calves in tow, teaching them to feed. The humpbacks spout and surface to show their elegant, mermaid-like tail flukes, providing a chance to identify them individually by their markings. Humpback whales, more than other types of whales, are known for their tendency to breach, or exit the water partially or totally, so you’re sure to enjoy a flashy show of raises and flips. The whales’ triumphant resurgence in the sound and at the nearby Great Bear Rainforest is a conservation victory you’ll want to witness in person.
Visit a Special Haven for a Unique Grizzly Bear
Lucky guests of expedition cruise company Maple Leaf Adventures are able to gain access to Pack Creek on Alaska’s Admiralty Island, an exclusive haven for brown bears that only admits 12 viewers per day. At Pack Creek, guests may see a unique subspecies of brown bears more closely related to polar bears than other Alaskan grizzlies. Watch playful baby bears tussling on the beach, adult bears teaching their young to catch salmon at the estuary in the protected creek, and hungry bears digging in the mud for clams. Unlike other areas of Alaska, where bears might flee from a human presence, grizzlies at Pack Creek mostly ignore humans and go on about their lives as we watch in wonder, learning about the daily habits of these intelligent and subtle animals, each of which is unique.
Take a Soak in the Hot Springs
Take time to hike a quarter-mile through the lush verdant forest and waterfalls of Baranof Island until you reach Warm Springs Bay, where you’ll want to take a long, relaxing soak. The natural hot springs at Warm Springs vary in temperature between lukewarm and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Trip down to Sitka with your fellow Maple Leaf Adventures passengers to the Goddard Hot Springs, where two modern cedar bathhouses make saunaing and soaking comfortable and easy year-round. Stroll along the boardwalk and gaze upon the picturesque coves and channels just north of the hot springs.
Marvel at the Booming Glaciers
Head to Endicott Arm on small local ships like Maple Leaf Adventures in order to avoid the large cruise ships and find yourself ensconced in the icy blue beauty of the glacial world. At the head of the fjord is a tidewater glacier, a valley glacier that flows all the way to the ocean. As you disembark from your small coastal ship into small tenders, you’ll get the chance to witness the huge scale of calving glaciers, a natural phenomenon in which pieces of glaciers break off with a booming or cracking sound. Feeling tiny in contrast with an epic, ancient piece of the natural world is at the very heart of the Inside Passage experience.