On her first luxury cruise – to Alaska – Jennifer Byrne discovers that you can’t do everything but you can love everything you do.
We’re flying high, threading between the peaks on a glorious Alaskan morning, blue sky above and a vast sheet of snow below. I can scarcely make out the dog camp at first but as we drop down, I see dozens – no, hundreds – of magnificent huskies, standing by their kennels, barking at our helicopter as it lands in the middle of the Mendenhall Glacier. I’m going dog sledding.
A man wearing a full coyote pelt on his head welcomes us to summer camp, where huskies come to escape the heat of the nearby capital, Juneau. The mushers live beside them in tents on the glacier (few comforts, no bathrooms) and train their dogs for the toughest race on earth, the legendary Iditarod. Our musher, Matthew, came here years ago as a “pooper scooper” and now, with 53 dogs of his own, has run the race twice.
“Who wants to stand at the back of the sled?” he asks and in a second I’m there. “Lean in on the corners, go with the dogs, hang on tiiigght…” Matthew yanks out the snow brake and 10 strong dogs joyously leap forward so fast that it takes your breath away. The wind whips, flakes fly and, yes, the sled rocks on the turns. He’s right about leaning in and when those big-hearted huskies hit their stride, it’s as though they could run forever. Until Matthew spots a crevasse.
“Haw, haw,” he calls to the dogs – mush-speak for turn left. Then we’re off again, tracing wide circles through this high, glittering world.
This always promised to be one of the great adventures: a 14-day voyage – with sledding an optional (and exceptional) extra – along the length of the famous Inside Passage, from snowy Glacier Bay down to the pulsing green of the primeval Tongass National Forest then along the coast of British Columbia, winding up in Vancouver.
I should say, straight up, I’ve never been on a luxury cruise before. Expedition craft and icebreakers, yes, but nothing as glamorous as the six-star Seabourn Sojourn with its high-quality restaurants, roomy suites and a passenger/staff ratio close on one-to-one. I count 38 coathangers in my cabin; my feeble “cruise wardrobe” fills less than half of them. In fact, crossing the vast Gulf of Alaska during the early days, it’s like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole into a world where everyone but me knows what to expect.
Two of the 450 passengers, a Perth-based Australian mining magnate and his wife, are on their 18th cruise. Another couple, Murray and Lorraine from Sydney, have travelled four times on this ship. But that’s nothing, they say – some have taken dozens of voyages on it. And you can tell because as they glide smoothly between the dining room and the pool deck in their elegant clothes, this cruise newbie is running in increasingly confused circles.
In the first few days at sea, my ill-conceived strategy is to take a ticket on every ride. So on high rotation, I sample the celebrity cocktails (best offering: Orwellian Negroni) in the Observation Bar with its 270-degree views and its own piano player. I take a yoga class and undergo crystal sound healing at the beautiful spa on Deck 9. I go to a lecture about glaciology, drink at the Block Party in my corridor, take a tour of the galleys with executive chef Claudio Notarbartolo, attend a three-card poker lesson at the casino (alongside a Las Vegas couple who’ve never bet in their lives), join a trivia quiz team, check out the shuffleboard deck and... let’s leave it there but, believe me, there’s more. After three days of frantic activity I am, perversely, suffering extreme FOMO because Seabourn offers so many activities that there’s always, always more to choose from.
Just when I’m seriously doubting my fitness for cruising – how can I keep this up? – we reach the Inian Islands at the northern entrance to the Inside Passage and it’s time for my first off-ship exploration: around the isles by kayak. It sounds challenging but these are still waters, kind even to beginners. And this is where the wild things are.
Bald eagles with fish in their talons fly between tall trees, feeding their young in giant, stick-strewn nests. We get close enough to a feeding humpback to hear it blow and smell its fishy breath, while all around seals and sea otters stick up their snouts, sending silver rings across the water. During those few silent hours of paddling, the magic of Alaska takes over.
The 49th state – The Last Frontier – has always lured the brave and the hardy. They came first for the fur then in mad crowds for the gold and oil. Now, like me, we come in ships and sometimes in such numbers that the small pioneer towns have more tourists than locals strolling the streets. It’s a bit off-putting initially but the ships have been coming here since the late 1800s.
“The Alaskan trip has taken its place among the world’s wonders,” boasted the Pacific Steamship Company in its 1905 travel brochure. Early adventurers returned raving about emerald waters and sublime scenery, bears that fished in rivers and exotic totem poles towering over Alaska Native villages.
It’s a fascinating, event-packed story, which I get a better sense of in Juneau the next day, when I visit the spanking-new State Museum (sounds boring; isn’t), where exhibits range from the daily life of Alaska Native communities to a vintage version of the Klondike game – Gold thieves! Move back three spaces! – invented by Parker Brothers during the height of the rush. It’s off the main street (where I’m surprised to detect the smell of marijuana, on sale but only to North Americans) and a bit of a hike. But of the many museums on offer, this is the one to see.
Our next shore stop is Haines, where Alaska’s first – and for 20 years, only – army garrison was charged with quelling the worst excesses of these very gold-hunters. It’s now an almost impossibly charming waterfront town on which the Northern Exposure television series could have been modelled, with 2400 humans, 1600 registered dogs, 2000 hammers (exhibited in the world’s first hammer museum) and zero traffic lights. And like each small pioneer town we visit over the following five days, Haines fills in its piece of the Alaskan story.
The rickety wooden brothels in Ketchikan’s red-light district speak to its raunchy past, while nothing could be more contemporary than the list of bullets for sale – Glow Tip, Varmageddon, Speer Varmint – pinned on the community bulletin board outside Wrangell’s main supermarket. This was Sarah Palin territory and when I ask a local to explain the rattlesnake flag flying on the waterfront, he says, “Message to Washington. It means tread on me and we’ll strike.”
We visit the villages and tribal houses of the original owners, the Tlingit people, while the onion domes in the former capital, Sitka, remind us that Alaska was the territory of the Russians until 1867, when they sold the entire state to the Americans for US$7.2 million. That’s $2 an acre, derided at the time as an outrageously high price for this frozen lump of land.
Back on deck, it’s Caviar on Ice day, the roe served with vodka by Seabourn staff wearing furry hats – including Australian hotel director Jason Gelineau, who was inspired to go to sea after he spent his childhood glued to The Love Boat.
Another day, it’s bombe Alaska. Yet another, Bellinis and torch songs. I rattle my coathangers and only just make the dress code for formal nights – the excellence of the Thomas Keller steaks are totally worth it. But I do draw the line at the scarf-tying seminar.
And that’s the thing about this high-level cruising, I realise as I go along: you start and finish in the same place but each person chooses their own trip in between. For the energetic, it’s jet boats, stream fishing or even a bicycle tour of a glacial fjord. Others prefer the gentle view from the hot tubs while gliding past hemlock forests and shining blue icebergs.
It’s clear, though, that everyone loves bears. As we cross into Canadian waters, there’s a small stampede to board the catamaran heading for the country’s only grizzly bear sanctuary, off Chatham Sound, where we’re rewarded with a thrilling close-up of a honey-coloured grizzly mama and her three furry cubs. We watch her lead them down to the water’s edge, where they eat, squabble, roll on their backs and nibble sedge grass. Natural-born bears.
As it turns out, I’m a natural-born cruiser. On the last evening, farewells made, I retreat to my private verandah to savour the warm air and soft golden light as the ship’s faint wake ripples towards the shore. I pack my suitcase for the first time in weeks and start planning my return.