Have Armchair, Will Travel

Travel writers are a diverse lot. The great ones—Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene—sought out the seedy outposts of colonialism, frequenting hotel bars peopled by jaded, witty expatriates. Others, such as Bruce Chatwin, who tramped through Patagonia and Afghanistan with only a rucksack, preferred roughing it. hi A Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings, Jonathan Raban (author of the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Bad Land) has added a new twist to the genre: the armchair traveler who takes his armchair with him.

That armchair is aboard the Penelope, a 30-foot ketch of which Raban is a competent helmsman. She is stocked with good food, wine, and books (natural history, ethnography, nautical subjects) by the yard. The author's journey takes him up the wild Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska, a region replete with landmarks named Deception Pass, Desolation Sound, Cape Caution, and Blind Channel—places subject to quickly changing weather and dangerous tides and inhabited by rough merchant seamen, crusty fishermen, the indigenous Indians, and the often-despised summer tourists on large cruise ships. In fair weather, the area is one of placid waters, spectacular mountain scenery, and abundant wildlife. In foul, it is a cold, Dantesque maritime hell.

Jonathan Raban's tour guide is George Vancouver —Captain Van as he was known to his near-mutinous...

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