If you are a Baby Boomer chances are you’ll remember the hit song from 1960 “North to Alaska” featuring Johnny Horton. When Robyn and I decided to take an Alaskan cruise that’s the first thing that sprang to mind and stayed with me throughout our journey.
After weeks of settling on our itinerary, we were off. First stop after a 14-hour flight was Vancouver. Thanks to crossing the International Date Line we arrived before we departed!!! We were here for a week prior to joining the Royal Caribbean ship Radiance of the Seas.
Vancouver in June, the start of the Canadian summer, is an amazing place. We were so glad we stayed for a week to soak up the sights of this beautiful city.
Day 1 had us using the hop on/off bus to see the best sights of Vancouver, over the next 5 days we visited many of these places again. Here is a city of many contrasts from palatial homes to high rises that are climbing up into the sky from all parts of this city. They are served by a superb transport system.
No trip to Vancouver would be complete without visiting Whistler, an enormous ski field [we saw our first bear from a chair lift], Butchart Gardens on Victoria Island [enough to take your breath away with the beautiful settings] and a tandem bike ride around the waterfront to Stanley Park, home to a host of totem poles.
Finally, the day dawned of our cruise. Great excitement as we have booked a number of excursions.
The Radiance of the Seas is a magnificent liner with something for everyone. So many bars, restaurants, lounges and a host of recreational areas. We found over the 7-day cruise the program catered for everyone’s tastes and the chance of being bored or unable to do anything, zero.
Departure was smooth with the sight of Vancouver rapidly disappearing into the back ground. We were amazed at the number of small float planes coming and going as we cruised up the harbour on our way to the first destination – Ketchikan located on an island off the coast of Alaska. Dinner that night was superb and we even got to see a great show in the ship’s theatre.
The ship docked at 7.00 AM and shortly after we were off on our first cultural tour to hear about the history of this wonderful town. The local natives are Tinglit Indians who have a fascinating culture that is still embraced by descendants. We were told the rain forest on the island is 2nd in size to the largest one in the Amazon. Around 5.00 PM the ship left port. The scenery as it drifted past was amazing. Tree covered landscape with high hills and snow covered mountains in the background. The landscape just goes on and on. Tall granite peaks with beautiful forests of beech and cedar spread from the base of the peaks all the way to the shoreline.
The next port of call was Icy Strait Point. Again, we were introduced to more cultural history of the area by Thomas, a Tinglit Indian – a very colourful character. The trip involved 2 hours driving through mountain terrain in ATV’s before ending at the longest zip line in the world – a test of character. It takes 90 seconds for the total trip which drops 1,330 feet during the descent. It’s not for the fainthearted. Very fast with a sudden stop at the bottom. Robyn was first with our guide 2nd [for the first time – he was not happy!]. I was a distant 3rd. A pure adrenalin rush NOT to be missed.
After departing our ship set sail for the next port – Juneau, the capital of Alaska. We did the usual touristy things here which included a steep ride up the mountain in a cable car which treated us to some superb sights of the area. Again we were exposed to the wonderful culture of this great State that understandably uses the maxim “The Last Frontier”. Additionally, there are so many shops here to help empty your wallet/purse with all manner of things available.
Later down on the wharf, I had my first taste of a King Crab leg at the Crab Shack. It was over 45 cm long and I would thoroughly recommend it. Normally I don’t like to fight my food [the shell is very thick] but the taste was out of this world. Do not pass up an opportunity to try this delicacy and if possible wash it down with an Alaskan White Ale. Back to the ship for a 5.00 PM departure and another superb 12 hours of shipboard life before arriving at our next destination – Skagway.
Now here is a town with so much pioneering history. The unbelievable scenery also and a host of cafes, shops and pub/bars. Our first activity was a helicopter ride to the middle of the Maude Glacier – an enormous river of ice that combines 2 glaciers on its run to the sea. We were able to wander round and even sample the glacial water – beautiful, pure and cold. We got to view holes in the glacier where rivers of melting ice plummeted into and observed lines of rocks that were marching across the glacial slope. As the sun warms just one side of the rock it allows it to constantly roll eastward. With the icy wind, it was very cold and were grateful for the garments provided that enabled us a comfortable viewing of the glacier. The helicopter ride up and back afforded us an unbelievable viewing of so much beautiful scenery that seemed to march away as far as the eye could see. No sign of habitation – just nature at its purest.
Back at Skagway we were introduced throughout the town at many sites to the local legend – Jefferson Randolph ‘Soapy’ Smith. He was Alaska’s equivalent of Ned Kelly and for 2 years ruled the town with fear, until his untimely demise courtesy of a bullet in 1898. The history of this area mirrors the Gold Rush in Central Otago 30 years before which so much memorabilia that looked familiar. What a wonderful town with so much character. All too soon time to depart and we were on our way passing by all manner of dwellings on the foreshore adding, even more, character to what we had already seen. Dinner that night focused on local lobster – a memorable meal.
From here on we were cruising but the last sight to be seen was in my mind the highlight of the 7 days – a close encounter with the Hubbard Glacier.
The Hubbard Glacier is considered to be one of the biggest in the world at 76 miles long and 7 miles wide. It flows down from its peak into the sea where it is constantly calving [large to gigantic slithers of ice] from ice cliffs 100 metres high that fall into the surrounding water. The calving while we were there, was constant with rumbling as the ice crashed into the water sending mini tsunamis across the water. Our ship drew to within 400 metres of the ice cliffs and circled for over an hour allowing all on board to capture the scenes on camera and video. Words cannot do this scene justice – it has to be seen and experienced to appreciate the awesome power of nature in this setting.
Eventually, our ship set off for our eventual destination – the Port of Seward. In many ways a sad moment as we have been enthralled with all that this State of the USA offers. The scenery has been amazing and the history we have been exposed to evocative. Each slice of Alaska we have been exposed to has me thinking “I want to come back and see more of this…..” but of course that won’t be possible as there is so much more to see and do in other parts of the World. Cruising up the coast of Alaska though has been one of the most memorable experiences I have had.
Our ship docked at Seward at 6.00am and we were eventually ferried onto a scenic train to take us to Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. The four-hour train trip presented more beautiful scenery winding through gorges overseen by snow-capped Mountains and lakes. The carriage steward doubled as the tour guide and kept us entertained throughout the journey.
On arriving at Anchorage we were whisked away to our hotel and after settling in went out to explore this beautiful town. It reminded me of Christchurch with its low buildings and a grid pattern of streets that are numbered in one direction and use letters the other e.g. corner of 4th Avenue and B Street. A fascinating place that is steeped in history. Included along one street are murals depicting Alaska’s history from Indian settlement through to modern times. A fascinating reference to our own Captain James Cook who had quite an influence on many of the names given to local lakes and sounds. A broad array of shops and museums to keep one occupied for days.
Unfortunately, we only had 24 hours before the next exciting part of our North American journey, a drive down the west coast of the USA to Monterey.
It’s fair to say the cruise and sights seen will be unforgettable and will remain with me as a travel highlight. Anyone who has a bucket list must put this experience on it – near the top.
By Alex Sharp