Thirty years ago, my husband Greg and I spent the first few years of our marriage living in Seattle, but after we left, we never went back. The expression "You can't go home again," taken from the title of the famous Thomas Wolfe novel, has always resonated with me. I've moved around a lot in my life, and I've avoided returning to the places I've left because doing so leaves me with a sense of melancholy. 

Yet here I am on the first evening of a fall cruise of the Puget Sound, standing on the prow of the 93-passenger American Spirit with the wind whipping through my hair and memories returning as if through a Seattle mist.   

In the mid-1980s, Greg and I often took weekend trips to ports that we will visit on this cruise. Back then, the pristine beauty and scope of all that was around us nearly overwhelmed me, and the sheer beauty of the Pacific Northwest still brings me to my knees. Now, however, it also fills me with a sense of peace. My surroundings feel familiar, and going back evokes not a sense of loss, but a new perspective. 

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We are sailing on one of American Cruise Lines' (ACL's) small-ship itineraries. There are more than 35, including this eight-day Puget Sound cruise, the Alaska Inside Passage and an assortment of Mississippi River, New England and Southeast cruises. The company's ships, some of them riverboats, are all small, with 185 guests maximum. ACL caters to cruisers whose age averages 70 — a dozen years north of my own, though Greg and I easily strike up conversations with our accomplished, well-traveled shipmates. The line touts a nightly top-shelf happy hour and includes Wi-Fi, regional cuisine in an open-seating dining room, and knowledgeable, compelling local historians. The American Spirit has a small library space on board; a sprawling upper deck for sunning, with a few pieces of exercise equipment; and a larger lounge, casually furnished. But if a casino, spa or super-gym is among your desires, ACL's fleet isn't for you.

The American Spirit circles the upper section of the Puget Sound, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. Its southern meandering tentacles reach such Washington port cities as Olympia and Tacoma. But 100 miles to the north, where the sound is fed by the Strait of Juan de Fuca and traversed by the international border of Canada, its waterways widen and are dotted with islands big and small. The first night, we make it to Anacortes, the location of the dock for the Washington State Ferries, which transport people and their vehicles to the San Juan Islands. We sleep soundly in our comfortable stateroom, generous in size at more than 250 square feet.

The following evening, we sail a little more than 20 miles west, to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, and in the morning we wander the main street of the charming town, settled in the 1850s. After being briefed by Amy Traxler, a natural storyteller and our cruise's marine-mammal specialist, we board a San Juan Excursions boat for an afternoon whale-watching trip, on which we spot three different pods of local orcas. It's addictive, scanning the horizon for those telltale dorsal fins, and we return, glowing, to the American Spirit just in time for a postcard-perfect sunset.