The view from on board Discovery Princess as the cruise ship leaves Skagway, Alaska. Photos / Nicola Lamb
Alaska is vast and not all that easy to navigate, which is why a cruise ship offers one of the best ways to experience the country’s top sights, writes Nicola Lamb.
Alaska is a strikingly grand area to visit.
From the snowy mountains and clear lakes around Skagway, to a glacier and icebergs at Juneau, and the American state’s forest parks, Alaska is a widescreen, physically vast destination.
And beyond the visual size and scale is a palpable untamed remoteness. Human settlements remain small intrusions on the land, long years after the legendary Klondike gold rush.
It remains a hard place to inhabit. It’s the rare place where people really co-exist with nature. There’s a feeling of frontier freedom about it that’s unaffected by the passing parade of visitors and the resident locals with a love of the great outdoors.
That sense is all around when you go there – the challenge for the hardy souls living there and getting around.
Alaska attracts a lot of seasonal workers for its tourism industry and one, a coach driver at Skagway, explained the process of getting somewhere else when there’s a lone road link.
People can fly and take ferries but it’s a time-consuming business. Not great in a health emergency or to catch up with people elsewhere.
That’s why, for visitors, it’s a perfect place to navigate primarily by cruise ship.
Not only do a ship and smaller watercraft show off both the big picture views and the exquisite close-ups, it’s the best way to travel the vast distances while allowing an overall sense of the region to seep in.
Port excursions at different stops enable tourists to learn about the area’s adventurous history, try to spot some wildlife, and get to know what life is like now in this unique terrain that includes sites just over the border in Canada.
A week-long voyage on the Discovery Princess in May focused on the famed Inside Passage, journeying from the city of Seattle to the smaller centres of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Victoria on Vancouver Island before returning to the starting port.
It’s the ideal introduction, and it’s not hard to imagine travelling further north on a subsequent trip.
The area is best known for the gold rush beginning in 1896-97 on the Yukon Route, the setting for Jack London’s classic The Call of the Wild, which drew desperate people during an economic depression on dangerous quests to make fortunes.
Modern-day passengers see the same area in comfort with a variety of excursions. We ease into the trip with a welcome aboard the first night and then a day’s sailing.
It’s a chance to wander about the ship; discover its dining areas, bars, pools, casino, theatre, activities and events which include show productions, film screenings, specialty talks and musical performances.
There’s a semicircle glass walkway through which you can look down on a lower deck and the sea below. Higher up there’s a gym and track for walking and running, tubs with a scenic view and a mini-golf course.
The hub for the onboard community is the Piazza, with its swirling staircases and glittering Burano glass causing light to dance on the patterned floor below.
The first day gets off in superb style in the stateroom cabin with a balcony champagne breakfast, which includes fruit, pastries, and salmon. Served by a suited and bow-tied waiter, it’s enough to make you feel like royalty for a day.
People have different reasons for wanting to take a cruise, apart from seeing a part of the world for the first time. It also allows people to unpack once, not have to worry about getting from A to B, relax and have fun.
The Discovery Princess passengers are mid-range in age and there’s a good-natured, inclusive atmosphere. There are about 5000 passengers and crew on board.
It’s handy to know there’s free laundromat use, water bottle filling stations, a 24-hour cafe with complimentary food and the high-tech medallion ID seems to speed and smooth onboard transactions, as well as getting on and off the ship.
Aside from the treatment rooms, the spa features the Enclave – a relaxing retreat with saunas, pool, warm lounging areas and showers.
The dining experience ranges from an international food court to a French bistro, a pizzeria, restaurants named for places on the journey at which diners could taste local crab and halibut, and the particularly fine Crown grill.
Passengers in suites get invited to a “360” experience – a mix of fine food and wine, fused with a screen, music and lighting production, that’s somewhat similar to immersive art exhibitions. The experience may, in future, be opened up to more guests not in suites for a fee.
The first sense that we’re gliding into somewhere different comes as the ship approaches Ketchikan in still, deep water with surrounding dense vegetation and brown hills. There’s frost on the lifeboat/tender outside the window.
On land, we get a fun taste of the culture with the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, a competition that showcases real woodchopping, axe-throwing and other skills in the winning raucous style Americans do better than anybody. That’s followed by a waterside lunch of local sweet-tasting crabs.
Waking up the next morning brings an amazing sight: small blocks of ice floating by the cabin balcony. It’s colder, and the trip on a catamaran that docks against the ship calls for puffer jackets and beanies. We are headed to Endicott Arm fjord and Dawes Glacier near Juneau, an unforgettable experience.
It’s nothing like looking at a glacier on land. Here, the boat weaves its way between bobbing icebergs to get to a massive ice wall and snow-laden hills.
Some icebergs are like gems glinting in the light. Some look new, freshly dripping, others seem old and grey. Up close when the boat is quiet you can hear the clink of melting ice. A section of the glacier breaks off while we are there – visually underlining the stakes of climate change.
On the return trip, we see a whale and a colony of sea lions.
We do more whale-spotting on a fast luxury vessel from the Juneau marina. At one point there are four nearby including a mother and calf.
Although no bears are seen on the trip we hear tales of them and their ability to open rubbish bins and car doors in search of food.
Skagway is a dramatic gateway to stunning scenery and the story of a stampede for gold.
We take the rail route born in those times through the White Pass, one of the outstanding train journeys in the world. As the train heads into snow-capped mountains with a summit marking the border, we pass rivers, bridges and old power poles that are remnants of the past.
Prospectors who faced 965km of trails were required to carry a load of supplies enough to survive a year. Names along the route such as the Tormented Valley and Dead Horse Gulch speak to how difficult it was.
Later, after we cross into British Columbia by bus, we see a goods-laden sled at a Yukon museum and huskies training. The return journey passes through the village of Carcross and beside beautiful lakes.
The sail away from Skagway is one of the great cruising experiences, viewed from high on the ship in the bright sun.
The last stop is in Canada at Victoria on Vancouver Island, where a walking tour brings us back to more populated urban normality, before the bustle of Seattle.
It’s been an unforgettable voyage into the past and present of an icy frontier.
Know before you go: Princess Cruises
- Princess Cruises offers a number of cruises to Alaska from Vancouver in Canada, and Seattle, San Francisco, and Anchorage in the United States.
- The Alaskan summer season traditionally runs from April to September.
- Cruisetours are Princess-operated land tours and can be added as an additional land option which venture deeper into the Alaska wilderness either pre- or post-cruise. Cruisetours range from 10-17 days in length depending on guest budget and time and can only be added to the 7-day Voyage of the Glaciers cruise itinerary. These voyages operate one way from Vancouver to Anchorage or in reverse. Cruisetours include a cruise, train and a stay at one of five Princess wilderness lodges.
For more details, see princess.com