Travel: Cold comfort in Alaska

By Mike Yardley

Few places nourish the soul quite like Alaska.

Looming as a biggie on my bucket-list for quite some time, the most northerly of American states is a foray into nature's unbridled power, and dramatic landscapes.

The staggering glaciers of Alaska provide a formidable sense of majesty. If you're looking for a soft-adventure encounter with Alaska, there is no better way to savour the sights than from the charmed comforts of a cruise ship.

Seattle and Vancouver are the major staging posts, and I experienced Holland America's seven-day cruise up the Inside Passage.

This is the classic touring route for newcomers to Alaska, serving up a cocktail of pristine wilderness and wildlife, historic coastal communities, indigenous culture and ample time with nature.

Holland America, one of the world's oldest cruise lines, has been plying the Alaskan waters for decades. I joined the MS Volendam, a beautifully designed and appointed mid-sized ship, for the week-long cruise, which operates between May and September. First port of call was the gritty, but lively, Juneau.

The compact shopping centre is home to an outstanding historic pub, the Red Dog Saloon. For more than a century, the saloon has been at the nerve centre of Juneau's social life. It still has a sawdust-covered floor, with great local ale and live folk music. The top drawer in Juneau is the Mendenhall Glacier, which spills out into the salmon-spawning mecca, Mendenhall Lake. It also has a spectacular visitor centre, complete with viewing decks, interactive exhibits and passionate wildlife experts.

A full-day stop in Skagway will give you time to explore the sights, including the cheerfully painted wooden buildings on Broadway St, the colourful watering holes and the panoramic views on the White Pass & Yukon railway excursion.

The third port of call is Ketchikan, home to the local American Indian tribe, Tlingits. This stunning fishing village is liberally adorned with Tlingit totem poles. A top attraction is a totter through the gold-rush era trading hub of Creek St, a tumble of colourful wooden buildings clustered around the creek, now populated by a hotbed of local artisans.

But the prize draw of the Inside Passage cruise is to immerse yourself in the ice and snow-encrusted glory of Glacier Bay National Park. Monstrous glaciers dip their tongues into the polar waters, within metres of the ship's stern. There's nothing quite like the sound of cracking ice and "calving", as the face of the glacier breaks apart.

Wildlife abounds in Glacier Bay, with whales, dolphins, puffins and bears giving your camera a workout. Welcome to Planet Earth unplugged.

- Hamilton News

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