Maxine Sheppard takes her first cruise around Alaska with Celebrity Cruises and enjoys a wealth of exhilarating new experiences – plus some unforgettable wildlife spotting opportunities
The long, low groan comes from deep within the belly of the earth – an unsettling rumble which grows into a thunderous boom. Seconds later, giant sections of ice break free and slide into the ocean, followed by a rushing waterfall of snow. Alaska’s Hubbard Glacier is calving and it’s a truly awesome sight.
I’m standing on Celebrity Millennium’s helipad, trying to get my head around the staggering scale of what lies before me. This natural phenomenon, the largest tidewater glacier in North America, is six miles wide at its terminal face and high as a 40-storey building. It’s the first stop on our seven-night Southern Glacier cruise which left Seward the previous evening for the Inside Passage and Vancouver, a journey of around 1,300 miles.
The week’s itinerary suits me well. As someone who always likes to be on the move, I’m attracted by the chance to experience Alaska over four consecutive port days, but also by the full day at sea either end, which gives me ample time to make the most of everything Celebrity has to offer.
As a first time cruiser I’ll admit to having a few pre-conceived ideas about the cruising experience, but by the time I’ve emptied my suitcase I’ve already shaken some of them off. How nice it is, I think, to hang my clothes in a wardrobe and stay put for a little while. I can’t remember the last time I unpacked while travelling. And my well-designed stateroom is at least twice the size I was expecting, with a balcony, king-size bed, large walk-in shower and gorgeous- smelling toiletries. But with all the bars, restaurants and entertainment on board, I don’t intend to spend very much time here.
It’s hard to top the glacier, but the next stop promises whales. Alaskan state capital Juneau enjoys just 40 days of sunshine per year and today is not one of them. Yet despite the sideways drizzle, I couldn’t be more excited to be on a no-frills research vessel in nearby Auke Bay. This is one of the world’s greatest whale-watching destinations and the favoured feeding ground of humpbacks who travel north from Hawaii every summer.
Instead of a more comfortable catamaran trip, I’ve opted for the research vessel for its low-to-the- water vantage point and small group size. But first we must do some work. The ‘research’ part of the outing involves monitoring the waters for invasive species; in this case the unwanted European Green Crab. We motor into the bay as our guide Aleta lowers a herring- baited crab pot into the inky depths, retrieving it a few minutes later. Thankfully it’s empty, save for some spiky sea urchins and a starfish that appears to be stuck. “I hope no-one’s squeamish as I’m going to have to cut its leg off,” she says, matter-of-factly. “But don’t worry, it’ll grow back.” I can only assume the poor thing must have heard her, as it promptly unfurled itself and was dropped back into the sea.
We chug further into open water and within moments the whales appear. A few of us crowd onto the boat’s open bow, while others peer through the panoramic windows. But the truth is it makes no difference where we stand as they are everywhere – dozens of humpbacks blowing tall clouds of mist into the air, arching their backs before enchanting us with their fluke-up dives. We oooh and aaah and click cameras, while Aleta explains how whale flukes (tails) are unique, like a human fingerprint. Photos of last season’s flukes are on board, and remarkably we’re able to match several images to the snaps we’ve just taken. After a 3,000 mile journey, it’s incredible to think they return to the same tiny Alaskan bay, year after year.
Back on Millennium, I sink into one of Café al Bacio’s wingback chairs and warm up with a velvety hot chocolate. There are so many discreet little lounging areas on board but this is my favourite. I love the European coffee-house buzz, delicate pastries and gurgling espresso machines. It’s the ideal place to read up on the following day’s destination, but there’s still plenty of time to continue my onboard explorations before we get there, starting with the Canyon Ranch SpaClub and fitness centre.
Now, I don’t know why but I half expected the ship’s gym to resemble those you sometimes find in mid-range chain hotels; a bit of an afterthought with a few ancient treadmills and a skipping rope. I couldn’t have been more wrong – it’s one of the plushest spaces I’ve ever seen, with state-of-the-art machines lined up before full-height windows overlooking the ocean. Not your average workout then, and the place was teeming with super-fit people too, young and old. Another of my long-held cruise notions shattered. I vow to return, but right now I’m here for an enticing special offer – a hot stone pedicure, soothingly administered by my therapist Cydonie who restores some glossy-toed glory to my tired post-flight feet.
Feeling recharged, I head to the Metropolitan restaurant; Millennium’s two-level main dining room. It’s a magnificent space at the rear of the ship, with a statement staircase and calendar-worthy views. The menu features traditional favourites, plus a contemporary selection of daily specials, but the decision tonight is easy. I order the Wild Alaska salmon sockeye fillet and it is divine. When in Rome, after all. Other dining options are equally tempting, including the buffet at the Oceanview Café which far surpasses my expectations. But the winner has to be the fun and slightly bonkers Qsine where the Moscow Mules are accompanied by sushi lollipops and delicious ‘disco’ shrimp served in a flashing neon bowl.
We dock at Skagway at dawn, a small frontier town at the tip of America’s deepest fjord. I’ve opted for a drive along the Klondike Highway into Canada, returning by rail. It’s a genuinely epic trip. Named after the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, the highway rises up through the remote White Pass, as our guide Lenny tells how the discovery of gold in Yukon’s Klondike region led to tens of thousands of prospectors attempting the treacherous journey by foot. Looking out at the plunging ravine known as Dead Horse Gulch, it’s impossible to imagine the hardship they endured. Many gave up, and only 4,000 found gold. But the stampede led to the construction of the spectacular White Pass & Yukon Route railroad; a mindblowing feat of engineering which provides us with views of waterfalls, gorges and heart-stopping sheer drops on our return.
After a day exploring Icy Strait’s rainforest, our final port of call is the town of Ketchikan, a centre of native Tlingit culture. I’m torn between a trip to Misty Fjords National Monument or an afternoon of bear spotting, but I eventually decide that bears must come first. We take off in a floatplane and 30 minutes later we’re greeted by our tracker Amanda in the tiny outpost of Neets Bay. Population: nine.
She leads us along a shoreline trail, pointing out dens and fresh bear scat, and in less than five minutes we spot our first bear. I’m stunned. I was expecting to see a few dark shadows lurking in the trees at best, but this magnificent black bear is just 30 feet away, munching his way through a still-flapping salmon. We stay for an hour, admiring him and three others on the opposite shore before the most beautiful twilight flight back to the ship. It’s one of the best wildlife viewing experiences I’ve ever had, and undoubtedly the highlight of my trip.
As we continue towards Vancouver, a pod of orcas dips in and out of view in the distance, and I realise it’s the contrast between the glamour of the ship and the rough and ready Alaskan wilderness that makes this Celebrity experience such a success. I met an older couple from Vancouver who do this voyage every year, and they never set foot on land. They simply love the onboard comfort and the scenery of the Inside Passage.
But I also met families with teenagers for whom this was the adventure of a lifetime. For them, the ship was an extra bonus: an absorbing and stylish way of getting from A to B. In fact there appeared to be very few ‘typical passengers’ on board, which was the final lesson learned. And that will be the lasting impression I’ll take away – you just can’t generalise about cruising, especially in a place like Alaska.
￼GETTING THERE: A nine-night Alaska Southern Glacier fly/cruise on Celebrity Millennium departing 1 September 2017 Vancouver roundtrip calling at Inside Passage, Icy Strait Point, Hubbard Glacier, Juneau, Ketchikan costs from £1,079pp based on two people sharing. For more information go to celebritycruises.co.uk.