Alaska: Where the Good Life Meets the Wild Life
by Ian Keown
Veteran cruisers who have circumnavigated the atolls of Polynesia and slithered on the ice of Antarctica often scoff at Southeastern Alaska (“the waters are too calm,” “you’re never out of sight of land,” and so on) but one family on a graduation cruise revels in the mix of whales, huskies and Gold Rush relics with piano bars, fine dining and Bulgari china
Some corners of this globe seem to have been carved out expressly for cruising. Southeast Alaska is one of them, a land of fjord-pierced, glacier-gouged, peak-encircled landscapes. Most of the people who live there depend on ferryboats and floatplanes to reach the outside world and bring in supplies (when Wal-Mart opened a store in Ketchikan, the stock sold out the first day and it took a week to restock) so just about the only way, short of adventure kayaking, for vacationers to explore is by cruise ship.
The Keown family (myself, my wife Susan and my daughter Shanna) is far from being novice cruisers but we were excited about the opportunity to explore what was for us a new corner of the globe, impressed by the sheer variety of diversions – and the opportunity to introduce Shanna to the culture of the native Tlingits and relics of Gold Rush days. The trip was originally planned as a reward for Shanna, who had recently graduated cum laude from an exacting college; but with cruise values being so appealing these days my wife Susan and I decided to go along too, making it a sort of family-graduation gift in return for four years of late-night calls for editing aid and morale boosting. We settled on an Inside Passage” cruise with Holland America, a manageable seven days round trip from Vancouver north top Glacier Bay National Park aboard the 1,900-passenger Zuiderdam.
At times, the Inland Passage weaves through channels so narrow you wonder how a ship this size — 936 feet stem to stern, 106 feet at its widest point — can maneuver between all those rocks and islets without scraping the gleaming black paint off its hull, past lighthouses and higgledy-piggledy fishing harbors, past freighters and the ubiquitous float planes landing and taking off in every direction. It seems almost like being on a train rolling slowly and smoothly through the countryside, and at times we felt like voyeurs rather than voyagers, snooping into other folks’ down-to-earth, hardscrabble lives with their unkempt yards and utilitarian architecture. But beyond these sea-girt smallholdings and townships, beyond these endless miles of mountains flanked with Western hemlock and Sitka spruce lie millions of acres of raw nature (Tsongas National Forest, the largest in the U.S., alone covers 17 million acres), and by the time we reach the virtually un-peopled vastness of Glacier Bay with no fewer than tidewater glaciers, 3.3 million acres and the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Captain Werner Zimmer parked Zuiderdam a quarter of a mile offshore from Lamplugh Glacier for several hours one sunny morning so that we could lounge on deck chairs, transfixed by the 10,000-year-old majesty of the St.Elia Mountains, while a National Parks ranger brought us up to speed on isostatic rebound and other geological minutiae.
Every hour, every bend brings us dramatic, primordial panoramas. Among the plusses of a modern cruise ship like Zuiderdam are the multiple opportunities for enjoying the passing panoramas from so many vantage points, even indoors. No peeking through portholes here. The floor-to-ceiling, forward-facing windows of the ship’s gym let guests survey the entire seascape of islets, lighthouses, marinas and fishing boats, and Susan and Shanna spotted whales from their treadmills while your reporter was exercising in a more traditional manner, pacing Zuiderdam’s capacious promenade deck (Holland America, bless ‘em, with a long heritage of transoceanic voyages, still believes in proper promenades that go all the way round their ships). From our dining table, we could keep track of lonesome bears scrounging for lunch along rock-strewn shores while we dined off almond-crusted salmon served on Bulgari china. Sitting on our private balcony we were surprised one day by a pair of puffins serenely hitching a ride on a mini ice floe the size of a breakfast tray, their own version of a cruise ship. And during a “Walk for the Cure” (nine times around the promenade deck) Susan and Shanna caught sight of frolicking orcas.
Ah, yes – the whales. “There are five times as many whales in these parts than there were when I first came here 25 years ago,” our knowledgeable captain tells us one evening over cocktails. He is trying to reassure a group of nature-loving passengers that even with all the seagoing traffic and cruise ships the whales are seemingly unperturbed. “It would be very hard to come into contact with a whale, they tend to keep their distance.”
The literature that appears on our beds each evening is sprinkled with place names like Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau that conjure up chilly visions of Yukon and Klondike, of boisterous bars and grizzled prospectors. Sure enough, when we go ashore there’s plenty of gold but we quickly discover it’s not in them thar hills but in them thar fancy boo-teeks (even the Skagway Starbucks has a jewelry store in one corner), alongside diamonds and Tanzanite, designer watches and fancy jewelry. The merchandise bears an uncanny likeness to what you find at cruise ports throughout the Caribbean and, sure enough, many of these boutiques shutter up in October and ship their stock back to St.Croix or St.Maarten).
Beyond the boutiques and the reconstituted saloons and bordellos (known in these parts as “houses of negotiable affection”, we were informed by sassy costumed guides with whiplash, wisecracking delivery a la Palin), Holland America passengers are almost overwhelmed by more than one hundred sightseeing options. Browse and you’ll find everything from reenactments of Gold Rush days to rides on a historic railroad, from museums of Tlingit totem poles to mountain gold mines to flight-seeing trips on helicopters or float planes. Susan and Shanna loved their mornings paddling a canoe around an eagle preserve and riding mountain bikes through a rain forest; our afternoon visit to a musher’s camp brought us snout-to-snout with 16 yapping, yelping, biting-at-the-bit huskies — a memorable encounter even although the “sleds” turned out to be modified golf carts on a dirt path (but this was, after all, August and the locals were as impatient as the huskies with the 60-degree heat wave).
These shore excursions, more varied than usual, sparked scores of breathless conversations when our fellow passengers returned to the embracing bonhomie of Zuiderdam. I often hear people say: ”I wouldn’t want to be on a ship with so many passengers” (just over 2,100 on this voyage, since many other parents were doubling up with their children, some of them also celebrating graduations of one sort or another) but a ship as grand as Zuiderdam has plenty of quiet corners — in fact, it’s passenger/deck space ratio is better than most. True, you might have to wait for an hour to sign up for tours if you don’t book in advance and, true too, things can become scrum-like negotiating a food-laden tray in the Lido Restaurant at breakfast; but if you book your tours in advance by computer there’s no need to stand in line or if you head for the main dining room rather than the self-service Lido, you practically have your pick of the tables. In the evening, three dining rooms and occasional buffets around the pool spread the passengers around. We were often struck by the fact that whenever we wanted a quiet corner to cozy up for am after-dinner chat with new friends, we could always settle into the under-utilized Explorers Lounge or the Ocean Bar and enjoy the music of a string quartet or jazz trio.
Those veteran world cruisers probably get one thing right: the seas along these cruising grounds are too calm and therefore perfect for first-timers and families; give me the bucking North Atlantic any time but 2,017 nautical miles later we decided that our graduation cruise was one of our most intriguing, most scenic, most varied and most convivial vacations ever, a perfect blend of the good life and the wildlife in America’s accessible northern wilderness.
Holland America (877-932-4259) features no fewer than 76 seven-night Inland Passage and Glacier Bay cruises in 2011, fares beginning at $799 per person double occupancy, from May 2 through September 22.
Ian Keown is currently a contributing writer for Caribbean Travel & Life over the past 30-odd years his byline has appeared in Travel & Leisure (8 as a contributing editor), Gourmet (5 as contributing editor), Diversion (5 as contributing columnist), Departures, ForbesFYI, San Francisco Examiner, Worth and Opera.
His guidebooks include his own series of lovers’ guides: Guide to France for Loving Couples, Very Special Places: A Lover’s Guide to America, European Hideaways and Caribbean Hideaways (which the Miami Herald called “the bible.”. He is the recipient of the first Marcia Vickery Award for Travel Writing and the first Anguilla 40 Award for in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions to Anguilla Tourism.