Witnessing glaciers calving into crystal blue waters, humpback whales fluking their magnificent tails and clouds weaving cottony billows around the tips of waterfront spruce forests are all in a day's work for the average Alaskan cruise-goer.
Like the humpback whales each summer, many tourists journey the Pacific to the natural wonderland that is Alaska. For observant travelers visiting the land of the Frozen Chosen under the auspices of Kosherica Cruises, this season will be no different with the company offering three sailings between June and August.
Kosherica founder Yehuda Schifman, who conceived of the cruise line while vacationing in Costa Rica with his family, has grown the company well beyond its first glatt kosher sailings in 1996. He pioneered the concept of cantors performing at sea, and now offers many opportunities to simultaneously cruise the world and enjoy glatt kosher dining, daily minyanim, shiurim and other fixtures of the rhythm of communal Jewish life. Before 2006 comes to a close, Kosherica will also visit the Baltic; Greece, Italy and Croatia; South America, and Australia and New Zealand.
On a seven-night Alaskan sailing, the Celebrity Mercury logged 2,420 nautical miles round-trip from Seattle. The ship traveled the picture-postcard Inland Passage before dropping anchor in Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan.
Spotting whales surfacing, spouting and fluking are frequent on-deck past times. So is exploring the magnificent terrain in ports of call.
Our first day anchored brought us to Juneau. Heavy rain and winds dashed my scheduled helicopter ride to the Mendenhall Glacier. Instead, I headed to the Gastineau Salmon Hatchery, a private nonprofit that helps repopulate the dying native salmon population using natural methods; now 40 percent of all fished salmon in Alaska stems from such hatcheries. In its small indoor aquarium, I held a cold-water purple starfish and other local sea creatures, especially marveling over a beautiful green-and-white sea urchin and its many harmless tentacles gently waving in response to the slightest touch.
After more sightseeing in town and a local brew at the Hangar on the Wharf, a converted Alaska Airlines hangar, I raced back to the ship for dinner -- cauliflower soup and halibut in a lemon sauce, with a chocolate cream pie for dessert.
The next day in Skagway, an area known for its outdoor adventure tours and sightseeing, I went into town to explore. Touring on foot and other forms of exercise are a must because like all cruises, Kosherica's are filled with food. Make that glatt kosher, cholov Yisroel, pas Yisroel food, prepared by five-star chefs under Maritime Glatt Kosher supervision. Three square meals consist of buffet breakfasts and lunches and five-course, white-tablecloth dinners nightly. For those in need of still more nourishment, there is an afternoon tea and midnight buffet. Low-salt, diabetic, lactose-intolerant and vegetarian diets are easily accommodated. Even kids menu favorites like curly fries and hot dogs are available to passengers of all ages.
I was back from my Skagway adventure later in the day for a concert with Mordechai Ben David, who performed "Mashiach" with his usual gusto. Unique to a Jewish cruise, each day offered performances with headliners, such as singer Ben David, as well as minyanim, daf yomi and lectures with luminaries such as Rabbi Isaac Wasserman, dean of Denver's Yeshiva Toras Chaim.
After setting sail from Skagway, the ship ventured into Glacier Bay, where we enjoyed amazing seaboard views. Our final destination: the astounding Hubbard Glacier.
During "sea days" guests, who have free reign of the ship, choose from myriad hourly activities, from 7 a.m. to midnight, that fill the daily printed bulletins delivered to staterooms. Offerings range from on-board shopping, spa treatments and gambling to ballroom dance classes, fitness classes, basketball and other sports. An added bonus: Israeli folk dancing with Dassie Schuster, an experienced New York instructor who teaches women-only sessions.
Among 300 Kosherica passengers were 100 singles from JSinglesCruise.com, which Schifman's daughter, Helit Edelstein, coordinates in conjunction with Kosherica sailings each year. The combination makes it easy for families and singles to travel together. JSingles group activities include SpeedDating, games and even a workshop with a life coach, who also offers dating advice via telephone pre-cruise. The formula seems to be working. JSingles has celebrated three marriages and one engagement since its inauguration in August 2004.
At our final anchoring in Ketchikan, I climbed aboard a Coast Guard-certified and inspected amphibian that doubles as a bus and boat. During a city tour, we took in the wild salmon spawning on Ketchikan Creek.
Next, we headed into the waters of the local marina, as seaplanes flew overhead. And true to the nearby creek's name, which means "thundering wings of an eagle stream," we caught the spectacular sight of a bald eagle nesting and her mate winging by.
For more information, reservations and the full 2006 itinerary, visit Kosherica.com or call (305) 695-2700 or (877) 724-5567. For singles, visit JSinglesCruise.com, or call (917) 952-4033 or (323) 640-7230.
A number of airlines, including British Airways, SAS, LOT, and Aeroflot offer through flights from Los Angeles to Vilnius for about $1,400-$1,800 round trip. Savvy and patient travelers can halve this by flying to Frankfurt or London and then using the European discount carrier Ryanair (www.ryanair.com), which offers cheap flights to Riga, Latvia and Kaunas, Lithuania.
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