Exploring Alaska's Outer Edge aboard L'Austral
It is often said that "the third time is a charm," yet I never anticipated just how charmed my third trip to Alaska would be. Similar to the compact but diverse continent of Europe or wild and cosmopolitan Australia, it takes more than a single trip to understand the largest and least densely populated of the United States. The last frontier is a bountiful land of iconic wildlife, native culture, treeless tundra and ancient forests, 100,000 glittering glaciers, and even World War II history—Alaska is truly a jewel of the Far North!
On my most recent adventure, I explored islands of the Bering Sea, the rugged Aleutians, and pristine Katmai National Park aboard the sleek French expedition ship L'Austral. Having already experienced "classic" Alaska by small yacht in Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage as well as having visited the interior in search of Denali and the northern lights, I feel as if I have finally begun to grasp the majesty that is Alaska.
After embarking in Nome, we called on the settlements of Provideniya in northeastern Siberia and Savoonga, Alaska for fascinating cultural experiences. Though visitors to these areas are rare, the Siberian Yupik people in both communities welcomed us with unique song, dance, and even athletic showmanship. A throat singing performance in Provideniya was especially memorable, and it was intriguing to witness the passing of traditions from generation to generation—ever evolving as times change. These felt like small-town performances and not the least bit contrived, and even the modest selection of high-quality handicrafts sold afterward was a treat to behold. It was deeply thought-provoking to glimpse into a different world through the eyes of the local children and hosts.
As we bid farewell to our kind hosts in Savoonga, we headed south to the Aleutian Island chain for a brush with World War II history in picturesque Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island. Now one of the most productive fisheries in the world, it was first inhabited by the Aleut people before the Russians established a fur trading post in the late 1700s. The US naval base constructed in 1940 became the site of the Battle of Dutch Harbor in 1942, and was a key location in the Battle of the Aleutian Islands. Visits to the Aleutian World War II National Historic Area and the Museum of the Aleutians provided powerful insight into the history in this remote region, and viewing the exquisite onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral by the bay was icing on the gâteau.
Filled to the brim with cultural experiences, we sailed on to even more remote regions. Our days were full with wildlife and striking sub-Arctic tundra as we had twice-daily excursions via Zodiac. Humpback whales, sea otters, puffins, leaping salmon, and throngs of seabirds surrounded us! Sanak and Chankliut—islands none of us had ever heard of—became our playground for days of hiking and photo opportunities, and one night we were awoken with an invitation to witness the elusive northern lights. Wildlife viewing opportunities just kept getting better as we explored the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island, including Katmai National Park. The world's largest protected population of coastal brown bears revealed over 20 grizzlies to us, and we were thrilled to watch a mother with her three cubs lazily awaken and begin stalking salmon in the rich waters. Yet the most extraordinary wildlife encounter was yet to come, after a lovely morning at Holgate Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, as we were surrounded by more orcas than I've ever seen in one place in my life... multiple pods of breaching, rolling, spy-hopping, gorgeous orcas. Although we lost count because they were spread out and the most I captured in one photo frame was 9, our naturalists estimated there were at least 18 (and up to 30) in the area!
Lest you think it was all culture and wildlife—which was undeniably wonderful—sailing aboard L'Austral was a gift in and of itself. One of the most modern and green small ships in the expedition world, she has a refined yacht-like ambiance that is a pleasure to experience. With smart Italian design, well-appointed cabins (most with balconies), a French sommelier, fine dining and photo-worthy desserts, and a marvelous Sothys spa that was perennially busy, it's easy to be charmed. Operated by a French company that is emerging in the English-speaking market, L'Austral's bilingual program is crafted with a sophisticated international clientele in mind. Even without speaking a word of French beyond “bonjour,” any worldly English-speaking traveler can lift their champagne glass to toast this fabulous trip. Separate Zodiac cruises were offered for English-speaking guests, the expedition team conducted a wide range of lectures in single language groups, and very occasionally the recaps were given by staff who effortlessly switched between English and French. Plus, with a multitude of onboard diversions as well as places to relax and socialize, life was très bon indeed!
Exploring the wilds of Alaska's outer edge was an unforgettable experience, and I'll forever be grateful to have seen a different side of this magnificent wilderness. Somewhere along the way, I discovered that L'Austral is well-positioned at the intersection of luxury small-ship travel and endless wonder in off-the-beaten path places... and in the words of one of my favorite shipmates, "I would have happily spent the rest of my life aboard L'Austral"!
Photos © Laure Patricot and © Shelley Fry