By Emily Grund
In 2004, Mike Jones of Winter Springs, Florida went on an Alaskan cruise through Alaska Yacht Charters.
When asked about his experience on The Discovery with Captain Ben Swanson he answered hurriedly “I’m a busy man, but I have enough time to tell you he’s a worthless captain.” Without skipping a beat, he continued, “So much so that I went on a second trip and might go again this summer.”
Swanson recommended speaking with Jones because he was a repeat customer, a common occurrence with the business, he said. So, what is it that keeps customers coming back year after year?
“Ben brings you places nobody else has been before that’s for damn sure,” Jones exclaimed.
Captain Ben Swanson and his father Captain John Swanson have been running Alaska Yacht Charters since 1981. They specialize in small, customizable cruises from May 10 through September 15 that get customers up close and personal with Alaska’s extraordinary wildlife and nature.
With a crew of only four people, and enough room to comfortably fit ten passengers, Swanson says an experience on The Discovery gives you a true taste of all that Alaska has to offer.
“There are other boats from other companies you can take that just go to go fishing, boats that you can take that just go to see whales. Our biggest thing is that if you come to me I’ll show you a little bit of everything.”
From eagles, to bears, to whales, and sea lions, Swanson guarantees up close sightings from the boat or on land. “Our goal is to do the cruise off the beaten path a little bit. I know all the other small tour operators in the area, and everybody charters differently, but some never get off the boat to go hiking or kayaking. I think getting off to explore is the fun part.”
Alaska Yacht Charters itineraries do not compare to the large cruise ships, especially since groups can customize their itineraries if they like. Swanson suggests first-time customers let him show them the ropes based on his and his father’s extensive experience, then if they come back again and know what they liked he’ll let them take the reins.
“Over the years we’ve been able to perfect our cruises. The years of knowledge have allowed us to find out where the wildlife moves because every week it’s different, so we know exactly where to find the wildlife the week you’re on the boat.”
“If it’s your first time and you create your own itinerary, you may see the wildlife or you may not; that’s where our experience really pays off for the customer. Someone who comes back and says ‘I just want to see whales this week,’ we’ll do that. Just leave it up to me or my father the first time, and then you can pick.”
Another luxury The Discovery provides that large cruises cannot is fresh fish that guests and the crew catch right off the boat for dinner. Guests need to purchase fishing licenses to do so, but even if they chose not to fish, the crew always will.
“About half of our dinners are seafood. We’ve got it all, crab, shrimp, halibut, salmon. You won’t get fish that fresh anywhere.” And if there’s enough room at the dinner table, Swanson will join guests to share stories and talk about the day, which he says is one of his favorite parts about running these cruises.
“A common question the guests ask at dinner is, do you ever get bored doing this? The answer is no. I get to meet different guests and see it through their eyes, no trip is exactly the same. It’s just neat how much it changes week to week.”
Swanson says he does not have one favorite experience, but rather “memorable experiences that collide together.” Getting to know his guests, some he says who have returned for multiple cruises, keep him on his toes while unique encounters with wildlife always keep him, his crew, and his guests guessing for what’s to come next.
“There are advantages to coming on a cruise at every time of the season. May through mid June, is typically beautiful through the spring and early summer. There is still snow on the mountains which is a pretty sight. Watching snow fall from 5,000-6,000 foot mountains all the way down to the water is really impressive.”
And although Swanson says it’s a little more crowded with other boats in August he explains, “August is the best for wildlife, fish come in the river so bears are feeding on them, fishing is better and whaling is better because they’re feeding on shrimp spawn.”
“Pictures don’t do it justice. One time I remember, Mike Jones was with me. We went to Endicott Arm where there are glaciers and fjords, and on a boat of this size seeing 7000 foot granite cliffs that disappear into the water is really something.
“And there’s a little nook called Fords Terror, you have to catch the tide just right, it’s not charted so I had to chart it myself, and I make sure the guests realize how special it is and how crucial the timing is to get in.
“You can’t video it or take a picture of it that captures what it’s truly like. Most of the times I get to take guests in there they cry. It’s pretty neat, and something that people will never forget. We’re the only boat of this size that goes in there.” With over 100 waterfalls, bear sightings, and stunning fjords, Swanson said he anchors the boat for the night so everyone can enjoy this rare occurrence.
While searching for Alaska cruises online, it is difficult to find The Discovery. Upon finding the website, you would find a no frills, very basic website. Don’t let the simplicity of it fool you, however. The website says “We see the fancy web sites and brochures from both the Alaska Large and Small Cruise Ships promising whales, bears, glaciers and more.”
“It’s just simply not a true representation of what you’ll see on those trips. In all the years we’ve offered these trips I’ve never tried to overstate the experience we try to provide our passengers. I just simply tell the truth.”
Swanson expressed sadness for all the people who choose large cruises over ones like The Discovery. “These cruises with unlimited funds for advertising, take hundreds of thousands of people through Alaska, but I feel bad for people that go on those because they never see the real Alaska. They see the tourist shops, then cruise to the next port and they just don’t see it.”
So how do people find Alaska Yacht Charters?
“Because we’ve been the longest small cruise company running in Alaska, referrals, word of mouth and repeat business definitely helps,” Swanson says. “If someone calls up a forest or fish and game service, even state agencies, instead of calling a travel agent, they’d point you in our direction. Some people specifically want to go Pack Creek, a limited-entry bear conservatory, and there are only two boats in all of Alaska that can bring people in the way that we do.”
A guest from 2001, Jack Nixon of Newton Square, Pennsylvania says he promotes Swanson’s business whenever he can. “I give out Ben’s brochure whenever I go on other tours.” Previously a corporate pilot, Nixon said “I’ve traveled all around the world and saw a lot of neat places, and Red Bluff Cove is one of the neatest places I have ever been to. It’s in the top ten places I want to go back to.”
“Our trip was fantastic; everyone got along very well together. I think that the program far exceeds anything that I could imagine in terms of boat service. We were able to see a lot of things you couldn’t see from a large ship; Ben even lets you in the wheel house to drive the boat. Unlike larger cruises, we didn’t go on shopping trips, instead we saw fjords, and explored small islands, and villages.”
Jones, who said he is also not a fan of big cruise ships, went on a trip in 2007 after his successful trip in 2004. “We got so lucky; we went with three couples we didn’t know and something just happened that was fortunate; we were instantly a good group together.
“We had a great time, we danced, we read, we relaxed. We went swimming off the boat, which nobody had done before. We liked our trip so much, we took our group and rented out the boat together. Even though we’ve been twice now, if we go this May, we’ll do the same tour, but it’s always different.” To promote The Discovery, Jones said he has sent over thirty e-mails with his pictures attached, and has already convinced a few more people to go.
Both Jones and Nixon built strong friendships with their group and with Swanson. Jones said he had him stay with his family in Florida for a week, and Nixon said one time he helped Swanson fix the motor on the yacht. “We have stayed in touch since and we’ve gotten along very well,” Nixon said. This personal touch demonstrates the commitment the crew has to making their guests feel at home.
Although the overall cost of the trip can get pricey at $3,995 per person (not including airfare, fishing licenses, or gear), it is evident this experience is an invaluable opportunity based on customer reactions and the fact that many of the summer 2010 tours are already sold out.
Jones said he knows right now isn’t the best time to be spending money on a cruise for most people, but if someone is looking for something good, The Discovery is the way to go.
“I wouldn’t waste my time talking to you if I didn’t think it was worth it” Jones said returning to his hurried voice. “It saddens me to see these big cruise liners carting people around, while we had porpoises come right up to our boat. Ben’s boat is personal, we weren’t cattle on a cattle car. It was worth every dime.”
More cruise information:
Alaska Yacht Charters offer three routes to choose from that last eight days and seven nights. The website disclaims “All our Alaska Cruises are highly opportunistic. Rather than a set schedule we’ve always tried to allow for Nature to take its course. We try whenever possible to implement our passenger’s desires and wishes. We endeavor to provide a vacation experience that will last a lifetime.”
Seattle to Ketchikan, Alaska offers the longest journey through several coastal villages, cruising eight hours per day past The Great Bear Rainforest offering views of mountains, waterfalls, fjords, and extensive wildlife.
Ketchikan to Juneau offers an exclusive look at the protected Anan Creek Bear Observatory, visits to unique Alaska Frontier Towns, and exploration within Tracy’s Arm known for it’s tidewater glaciers and fjords. Sea lions, whales, and more can be seen on this trip.
Juneau to Juneau brings guests along the hundred mile long Admiralty National Monument, visits the highly protected, limited entry, Pack Creek Bear Observatory, explores natural hot springs, and scouts out the abundance of wildlife to be found in the area.
All the routes allow for plenty of time to kayak, fish, hike, and explore the surrounding areas.
For more information, check out the Alaska Yacht Charters website.
Emily Grund is a former Editorial Assistant at GoNOMAD in our South Deerfield office. She currently resides in New Jersey where she is a writer.