North! To Alaska!

It's clear from the start that
a trip through the Inside
Passage aboard the Universe
Explorer is not your everyday
cruise experience

Text and photos by Robert W. Bone

Passengers aboard the SS Universe Explorer get awesome views of Alaska's majesty, including Mount Fairweather.
AT SEA, GULF OF ALASKA --- Captain Donal Ryan was seated at the cruise director's desk when the telephone rang.

"Hello -- Wing Chong Chinese Restaurant!" answered Ryan, glancing at me with a twinkle in his eye. "What you want? No, Meredith is delivering take-out. You call back later. Good-bye!

"I have absolutely no idea who that was," he smiles. "Now, where were we?"

Ryan, 41, is an Irishman, a bachelor, and master of the Universe -- the Universe Explorer, that is -- a ship that doubles as a floating classroom for "Semester at Sea" undergraduates during the academic year and as an educational Alaskan cruise for all ages during the summer months. The nearly half-century-old vessel is operated by World Explorer Cruises.

Two people paddle a canoe through the peaceful town of Wrangel.

In an enterprise that usually means tuxedos, butlers, and lavish showrooms, Ryan and other crew members seem to pride themselves as much on their informality and good cheer as they do on delivering serious lectures in Alaskana. The captain's own brand of fun was put to the test when a young blonde woman dressed in crisp whites, showed up at the door.

"Well now, I wondered who answered that phone!" she said. "I'm just looking for my boss lady!"

The caller turned out to be Cathy Myrick, who was not only the assistant to the cruise director, but also the daughter of World Explorer's vice president, Dennis Myrick. The ensuing laughter appeared genuine.

To most passengers, the cruise director is merely a cheerful hostess and entertainer. Indeed, Meredith Miller (Cathy's "boss lady") is seldom sitting by the phone. She seems always to be on stage, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. If you ask Miller how she can perpetually be in such bubbly good humor, she will reply:

"Life's too short to be cranky," she laughed. Then a pause. "I think it drove my ex-husband nuts!" More laughter.

Miller was a dancer until arthritis invaded her knees. She believes she is one of only three African-American cruise directors on the high seas. She oversees a staff of 47, including Cathy Myrick.

The Universe Explorer is quite a different kind of cruise ship, although veteran cruisers often think she looks familiar. They may be right, since she has had nine different names during her long lifetime.

It is generally acknowledged that her passengers have more opportunities to learn about Alaska than on dozens of other cruises that ply the Inside Passage. The non-traditional voyage lasts two weeks, instead of one, and usually visits around 11 ports, also a large number.

Not that the ship doesn't have some of the same frou-frou that is often made fun of on cruises -- costume parties, bingo games, and demonstrations of essential talents like napkin folding. Nevertheless, it forgoes the big Broadway show numbers, but still provides interesting musical entertainment, some of it slightly more high brow than on other cruises.

In any case, when the Universe Explorer noses up to an Alaskan tidewater glacier, passengers can find out just about everything there is to know about that wall of ice. The same goes for wildlife -- whales, bears, seals, and sea otters, as well large numbers of bird species -- that may be observed along the way.

One disappointment: The ship's ancient public address system cannot be heard in the staterooms, only on the decks, in contrast to other ships which pipe important announcements in via one of the cabin TV channels.

"From cruise to cruise, the passengers' interests are different, and we are constantly changing our programs," cruise director Miller said. "Last cruise we had a large number of bird-watchers on board, so we changed things around to help them more. On our first cruise this season, we had a guest lecturer in astronomy, and he set up a calling queue for folks interested in waking up to see the Northern Lights."

History is a popular subject, both on board and in the 40 ship-sponsored shore excursions. If you have the desire and the stamina, the ship will even help you hike part of the famous Gold Rush "Trail of '98" at Skagway.

My wife and I chose an expensive but ultimately thrilling bicycle excursion, riding from the top of the White Pass in adjacent British Columbia down, down, down for 18 miles into Skagway. The soft whirr of rubber tires rolling on the pavement was only interrupted by the sounds of nearby birds and scores of waterfalls that poured down beside the road. The backdrop to all of this was some majestic snow-capped mountain scenery.

For Captain Ryan, the SS Universe Explorer is not all fun and games, and he is not so much the ever-present glad-hander passengers are accustomed to seeing on more palatial vessels.

"I asked for this ship because I like its personality," Ryan explained. "I worked once for one of those big, new ships. Didn't like it. Too impersonal," he declared. "And with all that high technology, if something breaks down, they've got to bring in a technical expert in from Outer Mongolia or somewhere to fix it.

"Here we just take a bigger hammer and keep hittin' it till it works right!" he said.

"In the years when they built ships like this, they were made with a great deal of reserve in them. Newer ships are built to more narrow parameters, and they're not as flexible,"

Ryan likes the intricacies of navigating the Inside Passage and the Gulf of Alaska, which demand genuine talent traversing the tricky currents between the islands and peninsulas.

"During the Semester at Sea, we were leaving the Yangtze River when a sudden fog rolled in, and there were no anchorages available. We had to make our way between hundreds of other craft, some with no radios, using only our radar and navigation skills, constantly taking care of hundreds of minor problems which, if left untended, could have become major problems," Ryan said.

Meredith Miller said her own major problem has to do with the airlines -- lost luggage.

"But we eventually manage to get the passengers and their suitcases together. Meanwhile we try to find things to help them out. That's why I always keep new tooth brushes and other emergency supplies in my office!" She laughed again.