Birthday cakes. That's what Bill Bailey calls the leviathan cruise ships that ply the Inside Passage―decks piled on decks, lights ablaze. Compare them to Captain Bill's 75-year-old Catalyst and you could call his boat a buoyant cupcake. At 74 feet long, with a 9-foot draft, she can explore remote inlets and coves beyond the reach of bigger boats. Instead of discos, casinos, and midnight buffets, his boat offers cozy common areas, six snug, comfortable cabins, and delightful meals whipped up by chef Erica Fickeisen.
Erica knows all about birthday cakes (the real kind), having completed the baking and pastry program at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She has also cooked on a fishing boat in the Bering Sea and at a South Pole research station. "I love being in a self-contained situation where you have to be creative with whatever you have," she says. "I get all these ingredients and a captive audience, and can make new things as well as old favorites." Passengers are always welcome in the galley, where they linger to chat over coffee and see what's cooking. While the breakfast nook and gleaming stainless steel appliances would look at home in a landlocked kitchen, the same can't be said of the stout door latches, hold-bars on open shelves, and counters with raised rims to contain spills during rough seas.
Actually, in these sheltered waters, the day's biggest wave may come from a breaching humpback. On its Alaska voyages, the Catalyst steams serenely past a stunning backdrop of snowy peaks, virgin forest, and glacial fjords. At anchor, she becomes the mother ship for kayak excursions and naturalist-guided shore walks that provide closer looks at wildlife―from sea stars and anemones to seals and bears. The pristine air magnifies color and detail, making a dwarf dogwood seem as cinematic as the brilliant high-latitude sunsets.
Somehow this vessel's intimate size complements the grandeur of the setting. A relaxed, familial mood prevails. (A rubber chicken hanging by the spice rack may be the galley's most telling fixture.) Such a go-with-the-flow attitude extends to Erica's varied menus, which reflect passenger preferences, her own inspiration, and what's on hand―a major factor, as these wild shores harbor no stores (though she has been known to trade cookies for fish from passing trawlers). Erica has a repertoire of crowd-pleasers, such as halibut tacos with mango salsa, five-spice-rubbed pork tenderloin, stuffed grape leaves, and a berry pavlova that's lick-your-plate good. The heady aroma of baking―from bagels to brownies―regularly wafts down corridors and up into the wheelhouse.
One of the Catalyst's most popular dinners is also one of the simplest: a beach barbecue that incorporates juicy salmon burgers with lemon-dill sour cream, fresh-baked buns, fried onion rings, and a cucumber salad. "People love to sit around a bonfire," Erica observes. To accompany the dancing flames, she serves a winning version of that old campground treat, s'mores, combining chocolate-dipped graham cracker shortbread with espresso-flavored marshmallows. This twist on a classic menu captures the flavor of an Alaskan cookout. Close your eyes and you may even hear the distant splash of a whale.
Pacific Catalyst II, Friday Harbor, Washington; 800/378-1708 or pacificcatalyst.com.