Wild frontier: uncovering Alaska by cruise

A cruise through Alaska with Holland America Line offers adventure tours to discover the region’s natural attractions and wildlife.

Alaska is wide open for adventure so it’s with that in mind that we set sail north from Vancouver in search of bears, whales, bald eagles and glaciers.

American’s 49th and largest state, proclaimed in 1959 by President Eisenhower, was bought from the Russians in 1847 at the bargain price of $7 million. A bargain because gold was discovered in bucket-loads, creating the gold rush of 1897.

As Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam, a medium-sized ship with just over 2,000 passengers and 900 crew, heads towards the capital of Juneau, we see three humpback whales in the distance, renewing our hope that there’ll be more along the way.

Juneau is a city in the midst of mountain glaciers and is reachable only by sea or air. Like all three port stops that we make, it has umpteen tours (about 50) to choose from. Fly fishing – no. Historic gold panning adventure – not this time. Kayaking on the lake – too hard. Glacier helicopter trip – now you’re talking. And a whale-watching trip – yes definitely. No way was I going to miss this opportunity as I’d been on three such trips before — in Antarctica, Hawaii and Queensland — and had not seen even so much as a whale blow.

Wild frontier: uncovering Alaska by cruise
Viewing humpback whales over the ship

The morning arrives of our four-hour whale watching tour where, during the season from May to October, they guarantee we’ll see whales. And we do! The vessels by law can’t go closer than 100 metres from these fabulous creatures but of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t come closer to us and our ship.

Loud shouts are heard as the first whale is seen blowing in the distance and before long three magnificent humpbacks are gliding alongside, still about 100 or so metres away showing off with their unmistakable tail flutes. Minutes later, the second group, although further away, put on quite a performance. The captain slows down giving us time to take photographs, but more importantly, leaving us to watch the antics of these enormous but graceful sea creatures.

Ready for an ongoing busy touring day, it was time for our glacial helicopter adventure but not before putting on ice walking boots over the top of our shoes making it somewhat awkward to walk to the launch pads. Five helicopters take flight, one after the other, minutes later landing on the ice at Mendenhall Glacier. We all gawkily follow the leader in our ‘moon’ boots for an explanation of glaciers with their ice spires, deep blue crevasses and meltwater pools during the 20 minutes spent at the glacier landing site. The snowfall of the ice fields perpetually creates new ice which takes 200 years to travel from the Juneau Icefield to Mendenhall Lake. It’s quite an experience and one that I highly recommend.

Wild frontier: uncovering Alaska by cruise
Landing on the ice at Mendenhall Glacier

On the return journey we manage to see the much publicised bald eagles, mostly posing on street side power poles, with a couple gliding across the fir trees.

Time to head back to the ship for dinner with plenty of choices. The Lido restaurant works somewhat like a buffet while the main dining room offers an à la carte option and spreads over two decks aft. There are also specialty restaurants such as the Pinnacle Grill, known for its steak where I greedily ordered an 18-ounce rib-eye steak; and Tamarind for Asian fusion cuisine, serving dishes from laksa to sashimi.

Like many large passenger ships, the Nieuw Amsterdam has good quality entertainment and shows are introduced stylishly by the cruise director Rebekah Law. Late into the night, the BB King’s Blues Club has exemplary musicians and singers as good as any I’ve heard. With lots of bars, a wonderful observation deck, two swimming pools, a casino and many places for a quiet read, the ship has all you need and more.

Wild frontier: uncovering Alaska by cruise
Dining onboard Nieuw Amsterdam

Skagway is dead calm as we sidle into the next port of call and once again there are a multitude of tours to choose from. Having heard about the train journey, I decided to go with the ‘guests favourite’ – ‘White Pass Railway and Yukon Expedition’ which ends up being a full day of exploring.

Riding in a restored or replica vintage rail car through tunnels, remote valleys past Dead Horse Gulch while hearing all about the Klondike Gold Rush, takes you back in time. This narrow-gauge railroad is an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark sharing the honour with the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. At Carcross, a somewhat rustic settlement, we cuddle Alaskan puppies that are being bred as sled dogs. We observe how they’re trained for racing and although it’s not through snow, a ride on a wheeled sled through a lush rainforest gives you the gist of a summer training loop at the Wildlife Museum and dog musher’s village. We finish the day with a stroll through Skagway itself, a very attractive town with masses of colourful wooden buildings.

Wild frontier: uncovering Alaska by cruise
Creek Street Ketchikan Alaska

Heading next to Glacier Bay, dedicated as a National Monument in 1925, it lives up to its promise for the cameras to come out big time, particularly at the famous Margerie Glacier, one of seven in the area. At one stage the passengers race to one side to see a baby brown bear swimming in the middle of the lake – apparently a rare sight. I hope the little critter made it as it had a long swim to shore ahead of it. I didn’t get a photo but others did and it was still being talked about late into the night.

Tidewater glaciers are great rivers of ice that flow to the sea. To allow passengers to take in the scenery in a leisurely way, the ship lingers for an hour or so, giving the glacier the chance to do one of its famous calves where a large chunk of ice cracks away from itself from the edge of the glacier and plunges noisily into the sea. We saw three such events.

But the tours aren’t over yet. In Ketchikan, an invitation to join the Saxman Native Village Dance performance and Totem Park promises to show us a peek into the Native Tlingit culture. The live dance performance occurs amid one of the largest gatherings of totems in the world and in addition, you can watch totem carving in their specially prepared shed.

Three completely different tours on Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam explains the region, shows off its wildlife and confirms that if you get the chance, you should head ‘North to Alaska’. 


Air Canada flies daily direct to Vancouver with non-stop flights from Sydney and Brisbane; and four times a week from Melbourne, also non-stop. aircanada.com

The seven-night Alaska Inside Passage cruise with Holland America Line has multiple Vancouver departure dates from May through September every year – hollandamerica.com

This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, spring 2019, issue 112

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