Small-ship cruise, Alaska: How to get to the most adventurous places on Earth in comfort

Our ship's Wi-Fi has fallen silent, technology overpowered by the powerful landscape. Ranks of mountain peaks stab the horizon. Humped islands sport ragged spruce-tree haircuts. Sea lions slump on the rocks, barking warnings at the improbability of our sleek passing ship. It seems ludicrous that I'm tucking into almond croissants and strong coffee on Le Soléal's deck in the tepid Alaskan sunshine.

This is the pleasure of a small-ship expedition cruise,  that we're cradled in comfort as we sail through magnificent landscapes and anchor off fjord-punctured Chichagof Island, named for a Russian Arctic explorer in the days when only Russians were hardy enough to come here. I hear waiters clanking dishes even as I clamber into a Zodiac. "Bald eagles," says our expedition leader laconically, pointing tree-wards as we skip across the bay.

Elfin Cove is as out-of-the-way as it can be, a hamlet hunkered down in a wrinkled bay on an indented island off a convoluted coastline. Even our modest Ponant ship, which carries only 264 passengers, can't dock here, hunkered in a bay behind small protective islands and surrounded by Tongass National Forest.

We disembark onto a floating wooden dock. Elevated boardwalks lurch between wooden buildings. Only a dozen people live here year-round. The population swells to 40 in summer, plus visitors mostly from Juneau, drawn by Elfin Cove's reputation for salmon fishing.

Elfin Cove started with fishing and fox farming in the 1920s. It has been a self-reliant community ever since: locals need to know how to build houses, fix boats, outwit nature. Rough-hewn homes are decorated with moose antlers and American flags, adjacent sheds crammed with outboard motors and tools.

A Mad Max-like collection of rusting machinery squats in high grass. I like this messiness of old bottles, wood shavings, tangled fishing nets and beached boats. They're signs of an active community eking an existence, not here pandering to cruise ships.

But Elfin Cove is beautiful. Raspberries grow wild beside the pathways and the boardwalks end in root-tangled trails. Bald eagles sit on treetops like totems. In Japan, there'd be a Shinto shrine or a tori gate to celebrate this grand nature and whispering forest.

Here, life is measured with nature's rhythm; the salmon spawning and blushing appearance of berries. Locals grow herbs in flowerpots while the summer weather lasts. Yet like all remote communities, there's little other sense of urgency. The general store is closed for lunch despite our arrival, and the post office remains shut in the face of post-card scribbling passengers.

The local museum is open though, and Elfin Cove resident Mary Jo Lord-Wild ready to chat about its old butter churners and washing machines. She arrived in 1972 ("when we still used oil or wood for stoves and only had cold running water"), met her husband here, raised three children here.


"We used a World War Two field telephone to communicate within the town, and had to queue to use the store's radio to call beyond. We got our first landline in the mid-1980s, and a one-room school."

Elfin Cove now has cell phones and satellite TV, but Mary Jo admits it still feels like she's living on the edge of the Earth, especially in winter when the few residents survive on tinned goods. There are no more children here and the school has closed. "I don't know what the future holds, but it has been a good life for me. Though my kids don't live here any more, they bring the grandkids back for holidays. "I hope you enjoy this remote, contemplative place. Everyone wants to be real busy these days. It's good for people to see a little bit of Alaska that's grounded. You can live very simply here."

Mary Jo directs me down the boardwalk to her friend Shirley, who has just made spruce-tip jelly, lovely with the aroma of the Alaskan forest. 

Patti in the gift shop sells jewellery made from fish bones ("I'm wearing halibut today"). Another friendly resident,  Debbie, is in her garden snipping herbs. Red-breasted hummingbirds flit, making me smile.




Air Canada flies from Sydney and Brisbane to Vancouver with onward connections to Anchorage. Phone 1300 655 767, see


Like all expedition companies, Ponant varies cruises annually. Next year it has one Alaskan itinerary, a 14-night Nome to Vancouver voyage on Le Bore´al departing September 13, 2017 that visits the far north coast and Inside Passage. Prices from $10,964 a person twin share. Expect new itineraries in 2018. Phone 1300 737 178, see 

The writer travelled as a guest of Ponant.