Cruising the Big Country


An Alaskan cruise is a chance to discover some of the most breathtaking and unspoiled scenery on this planet, writes Liz Jarvis.

Cruising the Big Country


An Alaskan cruise is a chance to discover some of the most breathtaking and unspoiled scenery on this planet, writes Liz Jarvis.

Helicopter blades whir as we soar over the precipices of mountains blanketed in deep, white snow.

As we near the summit of the glacier and start the rapid descent, my heart lurches into my stomach, and for a few seconds I become vaguely religious; then we’ve landed safely and suddenly we’re surrounded by about 100 barking huskies, all desperate to take us for a run.


Later, we drive their sleds across powdery snow against the backdrop of the Mendenhall Glacier and an azure sky, the dogs barking the whole way; and this isn’t even the highlight of my week in Alaska.


My Alaskan adventure began in Vancouver, Canada, which is surely one of the most world’s most enticing cities, with acres of green space and a bustling harbourside downtown where I spend a few hours watching little seaplanes taking off and landing, and thinking I could quite happily live there.


But it’s Alaska I’m here to see; and from the moment we sail away from Vancouver on Star Princess under the splendid Lions Gate Bridge into the setting sun, I know I’m going to love this cruise.


What I was really hoping for is a glimpse of bears or whales – preferably both! – but I hadn’t been prepared for the scenery to be quite so jaw-droppingly beautiful.


Forests, beaches, waterfalls, mountains and, of course, glaciers, and everything is just so BIG. Everyone keeps telling us we’re extremely lucky with the weather. Although sometimes the temperature drops as low as 8°C and it’s occasionally almost too cold and windy to go out on deck, we have quite a few sunny days. As we near the glaciers, the contrast of the blue water and sky with the snow-capped mountains is incredible.

Fact File

CRUISE LINE: Princess

VESSEL: Star Princess

STAR RATING: 3+

PASSENGER CAPACITY: 2,602

TOTAL CREW: 1,200

PASSENGER DECKS: 17

ENTERED SERVICE: 2002

TONNAGE: 108,977

FACILITIES

11 restaurants including five specialty venues; onboard activities include Discovery at Sea program for kids, art auctions, music venues, pools and shops.

BOOKINGS

The Verdict

HIGHS

The scenery: forests, beaches, waterfalls, mountains and, of course, glaciers.

LOWS

No bears! Maybe they were all hibernating. But the excursions were still great.

BEST SUITED FOR

Anyone who wants a taste of the ice, including culture-vulture couples, retirees and families with kids.

Sailing on Star Princess, made famous by UK TV program The Cruise, is an experience in itself. My balcony stateroom has fantastic views of the ever-changing scenery, but I also spend a lot of time on deck; the ship has two big swimming pools but these stay empty, as most guests are wrapped up against the elements. Dining options include Princess Cruises’ favourites Sabatini’s and the Crown Grill; there’s also a decent spa.


What makes this cruise ship really special is Captain Michele Tuvo, whose cheery announcements – all punctuated by his catchphrase “bye bye” – are a pleasure to listen to. The other guests are probably one of the most diverse mix I’ve encountered on a cruise so far – families, young couples, professionals, retirees, and mostly British and American, some Taiwanese, but all keen to discover the wilderness of the last frontier.


What I love about the itinerary is that it really immerses you in Alaska and you get a real sense of what the region has to offer; it’s easygoing, but the optional excursions are opportunities to explore the outstanding natural beauty of everywhere you visit and have some high-octane thrills.


My first excursion, in Ketchikan, is an exhilarating RIB ride during which we all get thoroughly soaked, followed by a gentle hike through the forest, where we marvel at plants including skunk cabbage and bear’s bread, and giant sitka spruce and hemlocks. There’s no sign of bears, just the occasional squirrel, but we do see a lot of bald eagles and it’s a joy to watch them gliding above us.

Early morning in Juneau I take a stroll into town wrapped up against the bitter cold; but by afternoon it’s so warm you don’t really need a jacket, not even for that unforgettable helicopter tour over Mendenhall Glacier and the husky ride. In fact, even in the snow, the sun on the mountain is so warm our musher wears a sleeveless top. She also invites us to take turns driving the sled, with mixed results: at one point our sled tips over and I end up face down in several inches of snow, much to everyone else’s delight and the bemusement of the huskies, who just want to get going.


Perhaps the biggest surprise of the itinerary is Skagway. Its less-than-magical-sounding moniker doesn’t convey how gorgeous it is, a charming little gold rush town with, like much of Alaska, an astonishing mountain backdrop. Here my highlights include seeing the White Pass and Yukon Route train, which dates back to the 19th century, in all its vintage bright green and canary yellow glory, and a slightly tricky hike through the eerie pine forest to glittering Dewey Lake.


The big hitter of this cruise, though, is our day in Glacier Bay, which is scenic cruising and then some. At times, it seems as if most of the 3,000 passengers on board are lining the top decks to gaze at the splendour around us. (One man in the stateroom below mine regularly sings opera to the glaciers, and given the beauty of the scenery, this feels right.)

Early morning in Juneau I take a stroll into town wrapped up against the bitter cold; but by afternoon it’s so warm you don’t really need a jacket, not even for that unforgettable helicopter tour over Mendenhall Glacier and the husky ride. In fact, even in the snow, the sun on the mountain is so warm our musher wears a sleeveless top. She also invites us to take turns driving the sled, with mixed results: at one point our sled tips over and I end up face down in several inches of snow, much to everyone else’s delight and the bemusement of the huskies, who just want to get going.


Perhaps the biggest surprise of the itinerary is Skagway. Its less-than-magical-sounding moniker doesn’t convey how gorgeous it is, a charming little gold rush town with, like much of Alaska, an astonishing mountain backdrop. Here my highlights include seeing the White Pass and Yukon Route train, which dates back to the 19th century, in all its vintage bright green and canary yellow glory, and a slightly tricky hike through the eerie pine forest to glittering Dewey Lake.


The big hitter of this cruise, though, is our day in Glacier Bay, which is scenic cruising and then some. At times, it seems as if most of the 3,000 passengers on board are lining the top decks to gaze at the splendour around us. (One man in the stateroom below mine regularly sings opera to the glaciers, and given the beauty of the scenery, this feels right.)

As we near the mighty Johns Hopkins Glacier, everyone falls into a reverential silence, permeated only by the occasional click of smartphones and cameras as we all strive to capture the astonishing turquoise-tinged ice and impossibly clear jade water. It is utterly spectacular.


Occasionally, there’s the crashing noise of the glacier calving – chunks of icebergs breaking off and falling into the sea – which is greeted by appreciative “oohs”.


But for most of our day in Glacier Bay, the only sounds are the dulcet tones of the guide from the National Park Service providing commentary on what we’re seeing. I’m impressed that she gives us an uncompromising insight into the environmental challenges facing Alaska, and on our day here the use of plastic is banned; and all the guests adapt without complaint.


As for wildlife, well, it’s May, so it’s possible that most of it is still hibernating, or hiding. We do catch a glimpse of some little white mountain goats, which everyone gets very excited about – binoculars are a must for this cruise – and someone claims to have spotted otters in the water, but all I can see is floating logs.


No matter. The majesty of the Alaskan landscape has more than made up for it. This is, without question, one of the most spellbinding and precious places in the world, and exploring it like this is an incredible privilege.


Liz Jarvis is the editor of Cruise International.

As we near the mighty Johns Hopkins Glacier, everyone falls into a reverential silence, permeated only by the occasional click of smartphones and cameras as we all strive to capture the astonishing turquoise-tinged ice and impossibly clear jade water. It is utterly spectacular.


Occasionally, there’s the crashing noise of the glacier ‘calving’ – chunks of icebergs breaking off and falling into the sea – which is greeted by appreciative “oohs”.


But for most of our day in Glacier Bay, the only sounds are the dulcet tones of the guide from the National Park Service providing commentary on what we’re seeing. I’m impressed that she gives us an uncompromising insight into the environmental challenges facing Alaska, and on our day here the use of plastic is banned; and all the guests adapt without complaint.


As for wildlife, well, it’s May, so it’s possible that most of it is still hibernating, or hiding. We do catch a glimpse of some little white mountain goats, which everyone gets very excited about – binoculars are a must for this cruise – and someone claims to have spotted otters in the water, but all I can see is floating logs.


No matter. The majesty of the Alaskan landscape has more than made up for it. This is, without question, one of the most spellbinding and precious places in the world, and exploring it like this is an incredible privilege.


Liz Jarvis is the editor of Cruise International.