A cruise aboard MS Volendam July 2017 – Vancouver to Alaska
Rather than dip one toe into the cruising world and sail to a closer-to-home destination, I have chosen to make my first cruise experience with Holland America Line a metaphorical plunge into the cold waters of one of the world’s last frontiers – Alaska. As I embark my cruise in Vancouver the magic and excitement builds, and almost as soon as we leave this attractive west coast city MS Volendam begins to ply the waters of the scenic Canadian Inside Passage – a narrow and steep-sided water channel flowing between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island. Looking out from the ship’s deck I spot a monumental splash in the distance – binoculars already in hand, I investigate and realise the cause of the water disturbance was a humpback whale breaching, as once again it throws its entire 40-tonne body out of the water! This perfect start is enhanced by a beautiful sunset as we sail north into the night.
Tracy Arm Fjord
After a full day’s sailing (and reaching Alaskan waters) I get ready for my first experience of its awesome natural treasures, transferring to a smaller vessel for an extra excursion into Tracy Arm Fjord and the twin Sawyer Glaciers. A thick fog looms, but as we get further along the narrow fjord it begins to lift and the scenery comes to life. On deck, wrapped in many layers of insulation, we are told to look for ‘golf balls’ and ‘black blobs’ on the steep sides of the fjord. It turns out that from a distance a bald eagle (the majestic national bird of the USA) sat in a tree waiting to swoop, looks exactly like a golf ball and similarly a black blob on the shoreline could be a black bear searching for its breakfast. Amazingly, both are spotted in quick succession, causing much excitement and camera clicking, before we go back to gawping at the blue icebergs that float by. We reach the face of South Sawyer Glacier, an icefield that has swept its way down from the mountains, and here the boat slowly makes a 180-degree turn while we listen to the creak and crack of the centuries-old ice resisting the pressure to calve, and watch the harbour seals hauled out on the resulting icebergs.
After sailing back to the main ship and re-boarding, we dock in Alaska’s capital, Juneau – a destination that Alaskans will wittily tell you, is only reachable by air, sea or birth canal! Joking aside, it is instantly clear and admirable how proud they are of their land and the remoteness that comes with it, and are hugely enthusiastic to share their zest for life with you. From Juneau there are many options to explore more of Alaska’s wilderness and I’ve chosen to take a whale-watching excursion. On the road transfer to the excursion’s departure point, we pass at least 20-30 bald eagles resting on street lights (the salmon run is starting and they are waiting in greedy anticipation) – far more exciting than the pigeons and gulls that frequent the street lights at home. The excursion departs and within five minutes we spot a humpback blow, followed by a tail fluke…“can it be this simple to find them?”…I think to myself. The hour and a half that follows proves that to be true today, as we see whale after whale diving, fluking and even partaking in a bit of tail throwing.
I awake as MS Volendam glides along the narrow channel into Skagway, a former gold rush town of the late 19th century following the discovery of gold in the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon. Skagway itself is enjoyable to explore, however I have chosen to spend my day travelling by coach to Carcross in Canada’s Yukon (passport required!) to board the White Pass & Yukon Route train back to Skagway. Construction on the railroad began in 1898, to assist the gold prospectors as an alternative to the dangerous Chilkoot Trail. As we depart Carcross a tasty lunch is served and as we are in the end carriage, the outer platform provides a perfect view of the track along which we have travelled. “Please ensure you allow others to share the platform” says the conductor, but it turns out that only two of us are mad enough to spend most of the five-hour journey (with a stop at Bennett), taking hundreds of pictures of the beautiful and historic scenery, through bright sunshine and drizzling rain whilst trying not to be bounced onto the track. After a fascinating trip taking in Bennett Lake, historic tunnels, bridges and steep ravines, I arrive back in Skagway.
Glacier Bay National Park
From engineering wonders to breathtaking natural beauty – I set my alarm early as MS Volendam sails into Glacier Bay National Park, for a day of scenic exploring from the deck of the ship. A park ranger and onboard naturalists are on hand, providing a fascinating insight into this UNESCO-protected area, with the highest number of actively calving tidewater glaciers in the world. As we sail towards the mile-wide Margerie Glacier, its size is astounding, but nothing prepares me for the bangs, cracks and groans that emanate from its depths. Every few minutes a huge chunk of ice falls into the water below, creating a sound akin to a thunderclap, followed by a collective reaction of wonder and astonishment from me and my fellow cruise passengers – similar to a firework display. As the ship turns and sails out of the bay the excitement doesn’t end, as this part of Alaska is known for its abundance of marine mammals and birds. In the right season, you may spot a breaching humpback whale; killer whales (orca) as they porpoise at high speed; adorable sea otters lazily floating on their backs, enormous stellar sea lions or their smaller harbour seal relatives; or soaring in the air you may view a bald eagle and many other seabirds – I manage to tick many of these off my list, adding many more files to my camera’s memory card (already bursting at the seams).
Arriving at my final stop in Alaska – its southernmost city of Ketchikan – I am sad to be nearing the end of my adventure, but excited to explore and also join my eagerly anticipated excursion to Herring Cove. As the ship docks alongside three others, the sky is criss-crossed by seaplanes and helicopters – the best way to get around in this part of the world. Stepping off the coach at Herring Cove, we are told there is only a small chance of seeing black bears because the rain has hampered viewing for the last few weeks. About five minutes into our journey along the boardwalk, silence washes over us and we all turn into statues as we realise that a black bear sow and her cub are ambling along the river’s edge, and a male bear is on the other side of the bridge! Excited is an understatement and my camera goes into overdrive. Alongside the wonderful bears, I spot adult and juvenile bald eagles, a lovely belted kingfisher and a tiny American red squirrel munching on a pine cone – definite highlights of my journey. Returning to Ketchikan I explore the city itself, including characterful Creek Street with its wooden buildings built out over the creek that were once frequented by the darker parts of society, but now filled with interesting gift shops and photo opportunities.
As the ship departs Ketchikan, we sail south to Vancouver in the middle of a three-ship convoy – a sight to witness. We return through the Canadian Inside Passage once more, spotting more whales and eagles and I enjoy my dinner in the restaurant whilst watching through the window, a playful pod of white-sided dolphins leaping in and out of the water in the wake of the ship. In the evening as we pass the Canadian city of Campbell River, the locals come out in their speedboats to greet us, shouting and waving – all as the sun sets beautifully over the horizon. I awake in Vancouver the following morning, disembarking from my perfect adventure with memories to last a lifetime.
As a destination overflowing with natural spectacles, Alaska steals your breath away at every opportunity. Sailing to this special destination on board a luxurious Holland America Line cruise ship, enhances your experience all the more as you sail right into the heart of the State’s southern ports, some inaccessible by road. As 2017 has been Holland America Line’s 70th year of Alaskan exploration, it is clear that they really are experts in ensuring your once-in-a-lifetime visit ticks all the boxes.