Should you find yourself off the coast of Alaska, watch the seagulls. When they stop circling and dive towards the sea, you have barely a second to focus your camera before the whales break the surface, scooping up thousands of gallons of water in their mouths. Their huge tongues dramatically slap upwards, capturing their meal of fish as the gulls dive in to get a taste, too.
To go whale-watching – one of the highlights of a trip to The Last Frontier state – we take a boat from the capital, Juneau, a settlement of only 32,000 people with no road links to the outside world. We arrive here on a Holland America Line ship, following in the footsteps of hunters, explorers and gold miners, only instead of a trusty horse and a bundle of food, we have pools, a spa and a selection of top-class restaurants to sustain us on the Nieuw Amsterdam.
During our 2,000-mile voyage, we see bears, eagles, seals and otters. We sail close to creaking glaciers, edge past icebergs and explore verdant fjords. Alaska’s wilderness begins soon after you leave Canada’s bustling west coast city of Vancouver and sail north. Within hours, skyscrapers and highways are replaced by mist-shrouded mountains and vast swathes of forest. Quite incredibly, this US state has the same population as Leeds spread over an area seven times the size of the UK. On our seven-day cruise we see only a tiny fraction of it.
They say if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. Grey, scudding clouds can suddenly be replaced by deep blue skies.
White, snowy peaks are reflected in turquoise glacial waters, rimmed by a thick, green band of trees. Often, the sea is so still, it’s like a mirror. Before boarding our ship, we’ve already seen some of the splendour of the Canadian west. Having flown to Calgary, we stay in Banff, where we see spectacular Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. We take a cable car up Sulphur Mountain, ride in a horse-drawn wagon on a cowboy cookout and journey in a 30-tonne monster vehicle to stand on the Columbia Icefield. During our 250-mile road journey, we sail in a boat across the serene Maligne Lake to Spirit Island and get to take a whitewater raft ride down a swirling river. Finally, we arrive at Jasper and board the Rocky Mountaineer for a two-day trip via Kamloops, sitting in luxury in the observation deck of the GoldLeaf carriage and heading downstairs to the dining car for meals. The train snakes for 560 miles beside rivers, through tunnels and across bridges before rattling into Vancouver.
We board our ship and, after a day sailing along the Inside Passage, leave by catamaran for a tour of Tracy Arm Fjord, bobbing beside cobalt-blue icebergs and tumbling waterfalls before arriving at Sawyer Glacier. In Skagway – the most northerly town of our voyage – we board the White Pass Railway, a historic train that climbs nearly 3,000ft in 20 miles around precipitous bends following the route of the Yukon gold rush just over 100 years ago. Standing on a creaking footplate at the end of a carriage, you can still see where the prospectors guided their mules in search of untold riches, only for many men and horses to die in the attempt. It’s a sobering thought in this incredible backdrop of the hardship these early explorers endured.
During our journey, we meet the Tlingit native people who have lived here for 11,000 years, only to see invading Russians sell their land to the Americans for two cents an acre. They still practise many of their ancient crafts. I ask one woman the significance of the beautifully patterned pouch round her neck. ‘It’s my iPhone holder,’ she answers. While it may have one foot in the 21st century, Alaska is still otherworldly. By combining a cruise with a land journey across western Canada, you can enjoy wildlife, scenery and experiences to leave everyone else green, white
and turquoise with envy.
Article originally published in Metro, January 2017