Alaska, the largest state in the American Union, is extraordinary and extraordinarily hard to visit.

The naturalist John Muir wrote that you should never go to Alaska as a young man because you'll never be satisfied with any other place as long as you live.

Alaska, the largest state in the American Union, is extraordinary and extraordinarily hard to visit.

It is a part of the US, but lies sandwiched uncomfortably between Russia and Canada (in landmass, as any pub quiz enthusiast will tell you, these are the two biggest countries in the world).

Tracy Arm, a fjord in Alaska near Juneau, is another popular spot for cruise travellers. Photo / 123RF
Tracy Arm, a fjord in Alaska near Juneau, is another popular spot for cruise travellers. Photo / 123RF

Following America's purchase of Alaska from the Russians in 1867 for $7.2million (about the price these days of a modest house in London's Kensington) for a short while American hopes flourished that British Columbia might opt to throw its lot in with the US so that Alaska would become part of a contiguous United States.

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British Columbia, however, thanks to the decision to build the transcontinental railway through the Rockies, was happy to become part of the Canadian confederation, leaving Alaska suspended in geographical limbo.

This isolation is compounded by the heavily broken fjord coast of the American North West.

Juneau, Alaska's state capital, is 750 miles from Vancouver as the ship sails but more than twice that distance by road and car ferry.

The cruise ship is therefore the perfect way to discover Alaska on a seven-night voyage (the time it takes to sail from Vancouver to Seward, the port that serves Anchorage).

At Hubbard Glacier, tourists have the opportunity to see huge blocks of ice crumbling away. Photo / 123RF
At Hubbard Glacier, tourists have the opportunity to see huge blocks of ice crumbling away. Photo / 123RF

While sun-seeking cruises to the Caribbean or the Mediterranean can be seen as relatively low-brow jollies, anyone setting off for Alaska has the look of a keen naturalist.

Cruise companies respond to this market by offering smaller vessels, pointing out that these ships have to conform to the strict environmental standards (much of the area they pass through has National Park status).

One of the foremost operators is the Holland America Line, which is keen to emphasise its roots in Alaska go back nearly 70 years.

It claims that decades of experience have enabled it to refine its itineraries to ensure the best balance of must-see destinations and hidden treasures, as well as scenic cruising among the region's grandest glaciers and best spots for wildlife viewing.

All Holland America cruises include visits to Tracy Arm, Hubbard Glacier or Glacier Bay.

The company says its elegant mid-size cruise ships were designed not to tower over the scenery, but to bring you closer to Alaska's natural wonders: "from calving glaciers to breaching humpback whales".

No wonder an Alaskan cruise is on many people's bucket list.