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Small craft gets you close to the real Alaska

(ran HT, CI editions)

If your idea of an Alaskan cruise is sailing on a big luxury liner with 2,000 other passengers, a casino, first-run movies, an Olympic-size pool, dance lessons, formal dinners, and standing in line to get into souvenir shops ashore, stop reading now. This is about a different kind of cruise.

My husband and I traveled to Alaska in early June not to party but to see its wonders up close. So we signed on for a five-day voyage on the 65-foot diesel yacht Discovery, which sails in and out of hidden bays, coves, and deep fjords in Prince William Sound where bigger ships don't fit.

From the rail of our small boat, we watched glaciers dropping turquoise chunks of ice into the sea only a few hundred yards away and pods of orca whales spouting right off the bow. We sneaked up on sea otters doing the backstroke with babies face up on their furry chests and scores of sea lions basking on rocks in the sun.

Birds _ bald eagles, black oyster catchers, arctic terns, blacklegged kittiwakes, cormorants, horned and tufted puffins, marbled murrelets _ circled around us or sat unconcerned on perpendicular cliffs.

A classic working yacht converted from a Presbyterian missionary boat that once took religious services (completed with piano) to isolated coastal villages, the Discovery accommodates a maximum of 12 passengers in six cabins plus a crew of four.

Small-vessel tours are the newest option in Alaska cruises, but our refurbished steel-hulled diesel-powered yacht that bills its voyages as "intimate natural history cruises" is the smallest of them all.

Its upper deck is a roomy lounge and dining area with big windows, a full galley, and the pilot house, plus a walk-around outside deck. The cabins below are just big enough with a small closet and two berths, upper and lower (when one occupant gets out of bed, the other must stay put or leave).

Two "heads" complete with hot showers are located across the corridor. It is like traveling in your own private yacht, perfect for a pair of mature travelers who hate crowds and dressing up.

We were picked up in Anchorage along with the other passengers and driven to the village of Portage on the Kenai Peninsula. There, our van _ with us aboard _ was rolled onto a railroad flatcar which took us through pitch-black tunnels through the Chugach Mountains to Whittier, an isolated fishing village inaccessible by road.

The U.S. Army blasted out the tunnels as a supply route to this ice-free port in the early days of World War II when an invasion of Alaska by Japan seemed imminent. The tiny community of boats and ramshackle houses is still dominated by a looming six-story building built to house the troops.

After boarding Discovery, we met the crew, settled into our cabins and set about getting acquainted with our fellow travelers, a diverse group of mostly older professionals from what Alaskans call "the lower 48."

We traveled by day and spent the nights anchored in quiet coves, passing only an occasional fishing boat and, near Valdez, a tanker. The temperature was in the 60s most of the time but, as instructed, we had packed warm clothes too and needed them on deck and in the chill of the glaciers.

Inflatable skiffs got us ashore for hikes on glacial icefields and the rocky shoreline. The more courageous among us climbed into kayaks to paddle among the sea otters.

We basked on the deck in the sun (which shone every day and far into the night as well) watching glaciers shedding chunks of ancient ice into the sea, poked into tiny inlets chasing whales, and studied our bird books so we could identify the thousands of winged creatures swirling by.

And we ate! No sooner did we get finished with lunch in the lounge or on deck when we started asking "What's for dinner?" Breakfasts ranged from eggs benedict to blueberry pancakes; dinners included fresh-baked sockeye salmon, halibut stuffed with crab in cheese sauce, and steak, plus appetizers, salads, vegetables and sinful desserts. In between there were oysters fresh from the icy waters, picked up at an oyster farm situated in an isolated cove.

Lying at anchor at the foot of a glacier at night, the mountains looming above, the sun shining brightly, it wasn't easy to go below to bed.

The voyage ended with an overnight stay in Cordova, another tiny fishing village. Before returning by air to Anchorage we visited the Cooper River Delta, a broad mosaic of braided streams, marshes, and tidal flats, looking for moose, bears, mountain goats, trumpeter swans, and wolves.

The Discovery makes voyages from late May through mid-September. The six-day, five-night trip costs $1,940 per person; a three day, two-night Sampler Voyage is priced at $975. For information, call (800) 324-7602.

_ Joan Rattner Heilman is a writer based in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

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