Sheltered gently within the Alexander Archipelago’s thousand-plus islands, Alaska’s Inside Passage is a cloistered haven of extreme beauty, punctuated by steep mountainous terrain, ice-blue glaciers and slick dorsal fins rising from its frigid waters, slipping silently away in their timeless, arching journey.
Traversing 500 miles along Alaska’s southeastern coastline from Ketchikan to Skagway, the Inside Passage canals and fjords are ripe with wildlife from May to September, and it was the promise of whale sightings that brought us to her glacier-carved waterways.
With a June sail date on the stately Zaandam, departing from Vancouver northbound to Seward, our relatively modest luggage belied the season’s unpredictable weather. The climate fluctuates from the mid 30sF to the mid 70s in spring and summer, with the distinct possibility of drizzly days, requiring a layered approach under lightweight rain suits. The only other gear deemed essential was a good camera, preferably with a zoom lens, and high-quality binoculars.
Shortly after we crossed the threshold, the ship’s musical theme became evident, highlighted by a Baroque-style Dutch pipe organ in the main atrium, which served as a whimsical counterpoint to the song of the sea that would surround us once we reached the Inside Passage.
Signed memorabilia from legendary musicians served as contemporary art, an amusing departure from the gracious refinement characteristic of the HAL fleet, further emphasizing Zaandam’s overtures toward youthful cruisers. Gone are the days when an Alaska itinerary meant a week with hundreds of grandparents; this was serious family territory, even if enthusiastic over-40s had to explain their delight at seeing Mick Jagger’s signature to bemused offspring asking: “Mick who?”
Travelling with our 15-year-old son, we quickly realized Zaandam’s classic European style harmonised beautifully with an easy-going approach to the younger set. The Loft and Oasis provided relaxed, semi-supervised hangouts where Ben made several new friends, affording us the luxury of hours on deck without a hint of the dramatic exhaling and eye-rolling unique to bored teenagers. Equally well-attended, Club HAL catered to younger guests.
INSIDE PASSAGE STOP No 1
Misty Fjords National Monument is among Ketchikan’s most popular destinations, drawing thousands of visitors to its 3,570sq miles of remote wilderness each year. But our focus was on discovering why Ketchikan is the ‘salmon capital of the world,’ with a half-day fishing tour on the M/V Experience One with Captain Johny Gilson as our guide.
The 16-passenger craft was docked just a few steps from Zaandam, a convenient perk that avoided a shuttle transfer and maximised our time spent trolling for the Big One. We were joined by three men and their sons who regularly made the trip for ‘bonding time,’ and we exchanged fish(y) stories as we filled in the paperwork for our licenses.
By 7.30am we were en route to a sheltered cove near a hatchery and, by 8am, our lines were in the water. Five minutes later we had our first strike! Simon had never fished before so he took the first hit and, as the pole bent toward the water, it was clear this would be a prodigious piscine. He reeled and pulled, and finally brought his catch close enough for Captain Gilson to net it. Weighing 40lbs, it was massive to our eyes, but our companions indulgently said: “That’s a King salmon. They grow to 80lbs or more.”
We were still delighted and, while they chuckled at our excitement, a second pole arched over and it was Ben’s turn. That boy landed his catch like a pro! Holding it up for a triumphant photo, his competitive nature took hold as he realised Simon’s fish was bigger. But Captain Gilson came to the rescue: “Your Coho weighs 25lbs, that’s one of the biggest for that species.” Thus began a verbal competition that rages to this day, with both anglers feeling they had gotten the best of Ketchikan’s waters.
A gentle rain began to fall as we made our way to Totem Bight Historical Park for a glimpse into the Tlingit and Haida cultures, as represented by a recreated community house and 15 hand-carved replicas and restorations of Totem poles found in the area. Eagles and the heavy scent of cedar filled the air and, in spite of Alaska’s infamous ‘liquid sunshine,’ it was a serene excursion into Ketchikan folklore, aided by a trip to the South-East Alaska Discover Center, which added further fascinating insight into local history.
Other highlight excursions from Ketchikan: Misty Fjords by Floatplane, Tongass National Forest, bear watching, rainforest zipline adventures, Saxman Native Village, sea kayaking.
But an Alaskan cruise is primarily about the extravagant spectacle of mountain and maritime and, for large parts of the voyage, children were as captivated by the naturalistic elements as they were by their onboard amenities.
Vancouver slipped away as we sailed north-west and were swallowed up by low pine tree laden hills sheltering Queen Charlotte Straight, a calm interlude before angling north at Hecate Straight, where Zaandam’s graceful adagio took a decidedly staccato turn in open water.
Heading for the Greenhouse Spa, we weaved down the corridor like drunken cadets. We had booked a couple’s massage to ease away the world and start our Alaskan adventure without any unnecessary muscular baggage. I was relieved to lie down with the distraction of warm oil and firm hands until we passed what turned out to be the only portion of the trip that wasn’t mirror-smooth. Simon took it in his stride, old sea dog that he is, and Ben later said he found the rougher waters ‘exhilarating.’
Zaandam’s intimate dimensions afforded cosy camaraderie, making it easy to compare notes with other cruisers on the wildlife each of us had seen, where the best viewing locations were, and what time of day was most likely to reward us with whale activity (dawn was the undisputed winner).
This comfortable sense of companionship extended on deck, where excited shouts of “There’s one!” rang out at regular intervals. Spectators gathered round whoever was pointing out to sea, and it was as if we were eagerly opening the same gift when great clouds of whale-breath rose from the water’s surface, followed by dorsal fins, flukes and with luck, a full breech, which was met with enthusiastic cheers.
We knew we were sailing into the Land of the Midnight Sun, but it didn’t occur to us our new-found energy was as much a matter of daylight lasting until 11.45pm as it was the fresh air and liberal doses of Omega 3, compliments of the buffet’s ever-present fresh salmon. Late into the night we were still under the impression it was early evening, and we awoke to 4.30am sunlight under the bottom of cabin curtains that needed to be two inches longer to do their job properly!
INSIDE PASSAGE STOP No 2
With a population of 30,000-plus, Juneau holds the distinction of being the only State Capital with no roads into or out of town. Its economy is based on government jobs, but the biggest tourism draw is Mendenhall Glacier and the best way to see this vast natural wonder is by helicopter.
Our flight with TEMSCO Helicopters, Inc included a dogsled ride with Alaska Icefield Expeditions, high atop the Juneau ice field, but heavy weather stepped in, making the full trip too hazardous. Our glacier walk was still a ‘go,’ with a 30-minute flight past forested mountainsides, calved icebergs on Mendenhall Lake and ice spires like enormous inverse icicles.
As we rose into the air there was almost no feeling of movement, just a peaceful, soporific glide until we lightly touched down. We quickly appreciated the clunky crampons we were required to wear over our boots. The glacier’s surface was rough and pitted but our attention was soon pulled toward searing-blue pools of meltwater, glistening streams and great swaths of cobalt-blue rivers just below the surface.
Ice walls the size of 40-storey buildings appeared much smaller as all perspective was lost in the vastness of the 12-mile-wide glacial valley. Our guide encouraged exploration, assuring us it was safe to sample the water (a fact later disputed), so we laid down on the ice and stuck our faces in the stream, drinking in its pure, frigid goodness.
Too soon, we were up in the air again and, after a short shuttle ride back into town, we picked up the Juneau City Trolley for a 40-minute narrated city tour. Passing by the Governor’s Mansion, State Capital building and the infamous Red Dog Saloon, descriptions of Juneau’s colourful history as a gold-digging town and its current status as the seat of government made for wry comments about the link between present and past. But when we crossed the Douglas Island Bridge for a panoramic view of the town, the appeal of secluded living dawned on us and Alaska truly took hold of our hearts.
Other highlight excursions from Juneau are: Mt Roberts Tramway, whale watching, dog sledding, glacier flight-seeing, gold panning.
Other passengers felt the benefit of 19 hours of sunlight and rarely were the decks empty. The most rewarding wildlife viewing came at sunrise and, by 5am, dedicated photographers were already lined up along the railing, the soft whirring of cameras blending with the misty whooshes as life exhaled around them.
Each morning we were regaled with stories of bubble-feeding humpbacks, pods of Orca hunting down their breakfast and sea otters floating lazily on their backs. Jealous at having missed a single encounter, we initially raised our eyebrows in disbelief, but the power of a digital camera is hard to argue with!
HAL’s family-friendly ‘As You Wish’ dining made it easy to return to the ship at leisure, knowing the pleasures of the Rotterdam Dining Room and the ever-smiling Indonesian servers, virtuosos of sophisticated service, were waiting. But their skills did not end there. Mid-way through the cruise we were treated to an Indonesian Crew Show in the Mondriaan Lounge, an enthusiastic chorus of song and dance, with pockets of good natured (if unintentional) comedic dissonance.
They were even funnier as they argued about the pronunciation of Klepon, a sweet green rice ball rolled in coconut for High Tea, but there was no argument about the dramatic poolside dessert party, one of the rare times The Loft cleared out and parents had a glimpse of their teens for an evening. The undoubted culinary highlight, though, was dinner at the alternative Pinnacle Grill, a stunning gourmet’s delight of juicy steaks, rack of lamb, salmon, crab and cedar-planked scampi.
INSIDE PASSAGE STOP No 3
Forget sissified California and one-trick-pony Tombstone; Skagway is the real Wild West, whose gold-rush past didn’t involve balmy days panning for nuggets in sparkly, babbling brooks. This is real he-man territory where, from 1896-1900, prospectors arriving by the boatload for the merciless 500-mile journey into Canada’s Yukon, stricken with Klondike fever.
Today, Skagway revels in her former gun fighting, harloting, swindling ways, making a visit to the Red Onion Saloon almost compulsory. Walking up Broadway toward the saloon, you’ll suspect you’ve seen it all. Take the Brothel Tour and you’ll know you’ve seen it all!
As we strolled toward the pick-up point for our coach tour with Skagway Street Cars, ‘fancy ladies’ in corsets and feather boas leaned out of upper floor windows shouting encouragement to passing trade, much to the delight of Ben. Our modestly costumed streetcar driver took a hilariously discreet approach to the subject as we passed infamous landmarks, delicately insinuating about their history so as to keep the tour family-friendly. When asked what Skagway does for fun now, without missing a beat she said: “Turkey bowling.” And she meant it.
Later that afternoon we followed the prospector’s trail aboard the White Pass Railway. Winding up the mountainside, our guide pointed out equipment used to build the railway, abandoned and rusting in the foliage, with great boulders covering the graves of the men and horses crushed beneath.
We passed icy streams, crossed inconceivably tall trestles leading into dark tunnels and, as we rose higher, spotted mountain goats appearing no larger than fluffy white dots on the craggy hillsides. On foot, the trail must have been as treacherous as anything those rough men would ever encounter. By heated train, it was a journey of indescribable beauty.
Other highlight excursions from Skagway are: Chilkoot Trail, river floats, helicopter flight-seeing, historic walking tours, Haines eagle preserve, rock climbing and rapelling.
Having sampled Alaska’s industry, natural wonders and history, the remainder of our cruise was dedicated to her dazzling bounty. As Zaandam first entered iceberg-dotted Glacier Bay and then College Fjord. We were joined by a naturalist with an impressive pair of binoculars, who provided descriptive commentary on the flora and fauna, saying, “Look at the third iceberg to the left. See that thing that looks like a fat cigar? That’s a harbour seal.”
He pointed out falling snow that heralded glacial calving, followed by the crack of thunder as the ice calved away in great chunks, and detailed each fjord’s complex ecosystem. As we headed to open water, a lone whale sang its haunting a capella as it trolled the fjord, and the cadence of a sea lion colony faded behind us.
Life swam around us as we slid into Seward, a sea symphony that, even now, calls us back. Alaska has not yet performed her encore; she simply serenaded us with the best she has to offer, and we know we will heed her siren song again.
SPEED: 23 knots
PASSENGER DECKS: 10
ITINERARIES: In 2009, the 7-Day Glacier Bay Discovery Cruise between Vancouver and Seward will be operated by Veendam and Statendam. Zaandam cruises to Hawaii from San Diego, and then has a summer season with 7-day Alaska cruises (to Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Glacier Bay and Victoria Island) from Seattle.
MORE INFO: in the UK, call 0845 351 0557; in the US 1877 932 4259; or look up www.hollandamerica.com.