Sue Bryant cruises along the West Coast from San Diego to Vancouver, taking in incredible marine wildlife, whale watching and witnessing a different side of America
It’s a sunny day off the coast of Oregon and four Pacific white-sided dolphins are suddenly riding our bow wave, jumping out of the water, showing off.
A great cheer goes up on deck six, where a group of us have been on watch for marine life all afternoon, cameras at the ready. I am snapping away excitedly when people start yelling “Incoming!” Suddenly, what’s known as a super-pod – dozens and dozens of dolphins, all different species, is surrounding the ship, leaping, diving and tail-slapping. Some of my fellow passengers are actually wiping away tears of joy.
We see more than 550 whales, dolphins and porpoises on this 11-night voyage through the Pacific Northwest on Silversea’s 144-passenger Silver Explorer. I know this because, kicking off a new partnership with Silversea, there’s a team on board from Orca, one of the UK’s leading marine mammal conservation charities, conducting a survey. Anna and Lucy are on deck with their binoculars from dawn ’til dusk, logging every sighting in a computer and teaching enthusiasts how to spot and identify whales and dolphins. For many, it is one of the highlights of the trip.
The voyage takes us from San Diego to Vancouver, but not via a conventional route. Apart from San Francisco, Silver Explorer only calls at small, out-of-the-way ports, venturing inland along the Columbia River, which forms the border between Oregon and Washington State and around the forested San Juan islands, near Seattle.
This different face of the West Coast is the reason a lot of the American and Canadian passengers have booked the voyage and an equally good reason for Brits to try it out. Just as compelling is Silversea’s all-inclusive offering on its expedition cruises; everything is covered, from tips to drinks (including some fabulous Californian and Washington State wines) to tours.
The off-the-beaten-track experience begins on day one as we anchor off the Channel Islands, a rocky archipelago some 32km off the California coast, a great spot for camping, hiking and bird-watching. We hike along the top of the windswept cliffs of Santa Cruz island, the hillsides ablaze with the yellow of wild mustard, not
a soul in sight.
Monterey the following day is buzzing with excitement as Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon are in town, filming season two of Big Little Lies. There’s no shortage of celeb-spotting here; I join a tour to Big Sur and Carmel – a staggeringly beautiful stretch of coastline, all pounding surf and long, empty beaches – and the guide points out mansions of the rich and famous, including that of Clint Eastwood, Carmel’s former mayor.
Even in San Francisco, Silversea adds an expedition-style twist to the tours; as well as time in the city, we drive to Muir Woods to hike through primeval forest. Here, giant redwoods tower more than 180m, lime-green ferns drooping over rushing streams on the forest floor. Later in the evening, back on deck with Lucy and Anna from Orca, there are more cheers as a humpback whale breaches right underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
After a day at sea, we are at the mouth of the Columbia River, the scenery completely different now: cargo ships laden with logs, dense pine forests, tiny coastal towns and the constant backdrop of the volcanic, snow-covered Cascades mountains. The most famous of these, Mount St Helens, is both intriguing and spine-chilling to visit.
The world watched as the volcano exploded in May 1980, blowing off its whole top and side, causing untold devastation and killing 57.
The guides tell stories of the fateful day, which panned out like a disaster movie as the few who refused to leave their homes and lodges were pulverised by the blast, and millions of trees toppled like toothpicks in the shock wave. Their stumps are still visible, 38 years later, although the forest is growing back.
From Port Angeles, the gateway to the wild and beautiful Olympic Peninsula (which Twilight fans will recognise as the setting for the teen vampire hit), I opt for another hike, again, through towering, old-growth forest, the trees festooned with lichen, the Sol Duc River rushing over mossy boulders and eventually cascading 15m over a cliff into a narrow canyon. Stunning scenery – but the American obsession with health and safety overwhelms the day as an annoying guide insists we shuffle along as a group of 36, stopping every few minutes for a headcount – hardly the stuff of expeditions. I asked Kit van Wagner, leader of Explorer’s expedition team, if this is normal. “It’s different working in the United States because we have to be very conscientious of permits and regulations,” she explains. “Here, we have to work more with local operators, whereas somewhere like Antarctica, our team is in charge.”
One of the nicest things is being able to experience a different side to America to what you’d normally see
I’d say this Pacific Northwest itinerary could be sold to anybody with a moderate level of fitness. Some expeditions, van Wagner says, are tougher, although activities are always geared to a variety of abilities. Having said that, expedition passengers are getting younger. “On a typical voyage, people would be anywhere from mid-40s to 60s and 70s,” she says. “But in 20 years in this business, I have seen it change to a younger demographic – people who are still working as well as retirees.”
How would you sell a soft adventure expedition like this? A group of agents travelling on board is impressed. “One of the nicest things is being able to experience a different side to America to what you’d normally see,” says Sharon Williams, travel specialist at ITC. Julia Whittington, her colleague, comments: “The wildlife spotting with the Orca girls is fantastic. Having people in the know to help you see things is amazing.”
Damien Newell from Travel Counsellors adds: “I have clients who want more from a holiday than just relaxing – they want activities and extraordinary places – places you couldn’t do any other way except by ship. I am amazed that there’s such a massive age range on board here and yet everybody manages to get off the ship and do everything they want to. There’s no problem with accessibility.”
None of us could fault Silver Explorer; it underwent a full refit in 2017 and although petite, really is a Silversea ship in microcosm, complete with butlers and all-inclusive service, with the added bonus of a seriously impressive expedition team and the new Orca experience into the bargain. Dress code is completely casual – by day, at least, it’s walking boots and the smart Silversea Expedition rucksacks given to everybody.
Our adventure ends in the beautiful San Juan islands, a low-lying, forested archipelago scattered across the Pacific halfway between Seattle and Vancouver. I join a kayaking tour, inquisitive seals escorting us as we paddle out of the marina, while a bald eagle swoops down to fish right in front of the kayaks.
Later that day, Silver Explorer anchors off Friday Harbor, a gorgeous little town buzzing with art galleries, quirky shops, organic cafés and backpackers spilling off the ferry from Seattle.
There will be two Orca voyages on Silversea ships next year, both on the flagship Silver Muse, from Tokyo to Seward (16 days, departing May 12) and Seward to Vancouver (10 days, departing May 27), from £4,400
Friday Harbor is deservedly edging onto the cruise map, as Un-Cruise Adventures and American Cruise Lines call here, too. But the Pacific Northwest is still relatively unexplored by cruise ships, even small ones, despite the dozens of vessels that summer just a bit further north, in Alaska. But with its rugged scenery, rich marine life and pretty little boho towns, what’s not to love?