An Alaska cruise is the chance to discover some of the most breathtaking and unspoiled scenery on the planet. Liz Jarvis is amazed
Helicopter blades are whirring as we soar over the precipices of mountains covered in blankets of deep white snow. As we near the summit of the glacier and start the rapid descent, my heart lurches into my stomach, and for a few seconds I become vaguely religious; and then we’ve landed safely and suddenly we’re surrounded by around 100 barking huskies, all desperate to take us for a run.
Later we have the chance to drive their sleds across powdery snow against the backdrop of the peaks of the Mendenhall Glacier and an azure blue sky, the dogs barking the whole way round; and this isn’t even the highlight of my week in Alaska.
My Alaska adventure began in Vancouver, Canada, which is surely one of the most world’s most enticing cities, with acres of green space and a breathtaking location; I spend a few hours watching little seaplanes taking off and landing, and thinking that I could quite happily live here.
But it’s Alaska I’m here to see; and from the moment we sail away from Vancouver on Star Princess into the setting sun and under the splendid Lions Gate Bridge, I know I’m going to love this cruise.
Of course, what I’m really hoping for is a glimpse of bears, or whales, and preferably both; but I hadn’t been prepared for the scenery to be quite so jaw-droppingly beautiful.
Forests and beaches, waterfalls, mountains and, of course, glaciers, and everything is just so BIG. Everyone keeps telling us we’re extremely lucky with the weather – even though May is actually considered to be summer (although sometimes the temperature drops as low as 8°C); and while it’s occasionally almost too cold and windy to go out on deck, it is always staggeringly picturesque.
We have quite a few sunny days, and as we near the glaciers the contrast of the water with the sky and the snow capped mountains is incredible. Sailing on Star Princess, made famous by TV programme The Cruise, is quite an experience in itself. My balcony stateroom gives me fantastic views of the ever-changing scenery, but I also spend a lot of time on deck; the ship has two big swimming pools but these stay empty, as most guests are wrapped up against the elements. Dining options include Princess Cruises’ favourites Sabatini’s and the Crown Grill; there’s also a decent spa. What makes this cruise ship really special is Captain Michele Tuvo, whose cheery announcements – all punctuated by his catchphrase ‘bye bye’ – are a pleasure to listen to. The other guests are probably one of the most diverse mix I’ve encountered on a cruise so far – families, young couples, professionals, retired people, mostly British and American, some Taiwanese, but all keen to discover the wilderness of the last frontier. What I love about the itinerary is that it really immerses you in Alaska and you get a real sense of what it has to offer; it’s easy going, but the optional excursions mean that there’s the chance to explore the outstanding natural beauty of everywhere we visit and go for high-octane thrills if you choose to.
So my first excursion, in Ketchikan, involves an exhilarating rib ride during which we all get thoroughly soaked, followed by a gentle hike through the rainforest, where we marvel at plants including skunk cabbage and bear’s bread, and giant sitka spruce and hemlocks. There’s no sign of bears, just the occasional squirrel, but we do see a lot of bald eagles and it’s a joy to watch them gliding above us.
Early morning in Juneau and I take a stroll into town wrapped up against the bitter cold; but by afternoon it’s so warm you don’t really need a jacket, not even for that unforgettable helicopter tour over Mendenhall Glacier and the husky ride. In fact, even though it’s covered in snow the sun on the mountain is so warm our musher wears a sleeveless top. She also invites us to take it in turns driving the sled, with mixed results (at one point our sled tips over and I end up face down in several inches of snow, much to everyone else’s delight and the bemusement of the huskies, who just want to get going).
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the itinerary is Skagway; its less than magical-sounding moniker really doesn’t convey how gorgeous it is, a charming little gold rush town with, like so much of Alaska, an astonishing mountain backdrop. Here my highlights include seeing the White Pass and Yukon Route train, which dates back to the 19th century, in all its vintage bright green and canary yellow glory, and a slightly tricky hike through the eerie pine forest to see the glittering Dewey Lake.
The big hitter of this cruise, though, is our day in Glacier Bay, which is scenic cruising and then some. At times, it seems as if most of the 3,000 passengers on board Star Princess are lining the top decks to gaze at the splendour around us. (One man in the stateroom below mine regularly sings opera to the glaciers, and given the beauty of the scenery, this feels right.)
As we near the mighty John Hopkins Glacier, everyone falls into a reverential silence, permeated only by the occasional click of smartphones and cameras as we all strive to capture the astonishing turquoise-tinged ice and impossibly clear jade-green water. It is utterly spectacular.
Occasionally, there’s the crashing noise of the glacier ‘calving’ – chunks of icebergs breaking off and falling into the sea – which is greeted by appreciative ‘wows’, ‘oohs’ and ‘oh mys’. But for most of our day in Glacier Bay, the only sounds are the dulcet tones of the guide from the National Parks service providing commentary on what we’re seeing, as well as mind-blowing facts about the glaciers. I’m impressed that she gives us an uncompromising insight into the environmental challenges facing Alaska, and on our day here the use of plastic is banned; all the guests adapt without complaint.
As for wildlife, well, it’s May, so it’s possible that most of it is still hibernating, or hiding. We do catch a glimpse of some little white mountain goats, which everyone gets very excited about – binoculars are a must for this cruise; and someone claims to have spotted otters in the water, but all I can really see is floating logs.
No matter. The majesty of the Alaskan landscape has more than made up for it. This is, without question, one of the most spellbinding and precious places in the world, and exploring it like this feels like an incredible privilege.
Where to stay
Fairmont Waterfront, Vancouver
With its brilliant location right by the port (it’s so close you can walk there), this stunning luxury hotel offers contemporary accommodation with glorious views of Burrard Inlet, Stanley Park and the coastal mountains beyond. Rooms are stylish and elegant, furnished in soothing shades of cream, caramel and brown, and include rain spa showers and personalised Le Labo toiletries. There’s a rooftop pool, the perfect place to relax before embarking on your cruise, a herb garden, and the ARC restaurant offers sensational artisan cuisine, including an excellent buffet breakfast, complete with organic honey made by the hotel’s own bees. Rooms from $499 CAD per night (fairmont.com/waterfront-vancouver).
A seven night cruise sailing on Royal Princess from Vancouver to Whittier on May 11 2019 starts from £2219pp (based on two guests sharing an inside stateroom). Price includes accommodation, return flights from London, one night’s hotel accommodation in Vancouver, transfers, all main meals and entertainment. Ports of call include Ketchikan; Juneau; Skagway; Glacier Bay National Park (scenic cruising) and College Fjord (scenic cruising). To book or for more information call 0344 338 8663 or visit princess.com.