Bigger than the next three largest US states – Texas, California and Montana – combined, Alaska challenges the American consciousness like an unscratchable itch. It’s so massive, so underpopulated, and so untamed, there’s no wonder it attracts everyone from free spirits and survivalists to hardened criminals, hoping to disappear into the snow and under the radar. It also attracts cruise ships, sailing the Inside Passage alongside crystal-blue glaciers, snowcapped mountains, deep fjords, icebergs, whales, and soaring bald eagles. Before we board the Coral Princess, a floating palace of luxe, lets head inland to see the wild for ourselves. It is early September, and the hard sun of summer has lost its shine, but the fall foliage is exploding, as if angels tie-dyed the tundra in honour of a Rastafarian princess.
We trace the Kenai Peninsular, looking for beluga whales at Beluga Point, before making our way along the fjord to the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge. Guy, my well-named guide, downloads information about the area, the wildlife, the culture, the abundant natural wonders. He speaks earnestly and could say anything, because, well, he looks a lot like John Cusack. The scenery is balm for the dry, cracked heel of the soul. We stop at a couple roadside attractions – a visitor centre where we learn about the US Congressmen who vanished without a trace while flying to Juneau; a Conservation Centre where we stare at huge stuffed grizzly bears, elk, caribou, black bears and a couple lynx. With 50,000 grizzlies and even more black bears, bears are a subject of fascination. Just about every local I meet tells me what to do should I encounter one. Be big! Be small! Run! Don’t Run! One would think a bear is sits in wait behind every tree waiting to pounce with a bear hug.
We’re not on the cruise yet, but the service that has made Princess such a successful luxury travel brand is on full display at their lodge. Outstanding food, friendly and efficient service, great company. This evening’s accommodation is the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, one of five inland lodges Princess owns and operates in Alaska. You can leave a wake-up call if North America’s tallest mountain emerges from the cloud, or should the northern lights explode in the night sky. Mount McKinley, known in the native tongue as Denali – The High One – is the only 6000m+ peak in North America, and one of the Seven Summits that challenges all serious mountain climbers. Alaskans proudly point out that McKinley is taller than Everest, if you account for its elevation from sea level.
Denali National Park is the grand attraction for inland Bucket listers, and the adjacent town, Denali, opens only during the summer season. During winter, the one traffic light turns off, the Subway and shops close down, and the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge (Alaska’s largest hotel), shutters up for the freeze. Denali is a launch pad for a national park that covers a staggering 24,585 square km, accessed by only one road. To get a sense of the size, we hop aboard a helicopter for a view from above. Fireweed and foliage erupts with the reds, oranges and yellows of autumn. The taiga, a Russian word to describe the boreal forest that forms the largest biome on Earth, is a palette of colour. The firs, pines and spruce of the taiga only grow several weeks a year, appearing stunted compared to their more temperate cousins. The helicopter glides over purple glaciers, grazing Dall sheep, stark gray mountains, and untamed valleys too remote for human encounters. The fall colours only pop for a couple weeks at the end of summer, an advantage of visiting at the tail end of the season, even as the days and nights become significantly cooler. With little fanfare, the Denali Express that shepherds passengers from the Princess Lodge to their awaiting cruise ship in Whittier has to be among world’s most beautiful short train journeys. Customized cars with panoramic windows, full bar, dining service and affable interpretors roll amongst taiga, rivers, mountains and fjords. It’s a practical means to get passengers from point A to point B, but a worthy journey to make just in itself. Especially when the sun’s rays crack the clouds, beaming a yellow yolk over the luminescence of fall.
Readers might be surprised that I enjoy modern cruiseships. I like that I can travel without moving, that I can actually relax without a million things to do, just like (The shock! The horror!) a real life vacation. Admittedly I view the manicured onshore experiences with a sense of bemusement, but I appreciate the romance of holing up in a stateroom with my wife. It’s fun dressing up for formal nights, and wine can flow far the presence of car keys. Sure, the excess can be overwhelming. The split-level world of passengers indulging in over-abundance served by hard working crew from developing countries is a stark contrast. It is an industry that synchs up the needs of its guests (I want to be treated like kings) with the wants of its crew (I want to make enough money in six months that I can go home and buy a house). The late, great David Foster Wallace wrote about it better than I ever could in a brilliant essay called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Like all travel, the success of cruising is as much about the people you’re experiencing it with as the ship itself. I’ve been on several cruises, met wonderful people, and had a wonderful time. Worth noting that David Foster Wallace went cruising by himself, spent much of his time alone in his room, and made little effort to connect with anyone around him.
Over the course of the week, my wife and I make fast friends with other couples, and together we dine with the gusto of huns. Andre, the ship’s knowledgeable South African sommelier, pairs each dish with wine that tastes better after his able descriptions. Another South African, Vaughn, takes such delight and enthusiasm in his service it permeates the food. These, and other crew veterans, leave no doubt that they love what they do, year after year, or else they simply wouldn’t be doing it.
On the bridge, we meet the captain, a portly Italian who swings the biggest anchor on board. Below, everything is maximized for space efficiency, but the bridge is spacious, almost minimalist. There is a control panel in the centre, and two identical mini-panels on either side for port docking. Buttons and monitors and gauges and knobs and computers – it looks like something out of Star Trek. It must have inspired the USS Enterprise, as it did the Love Boat, based on a Princess Cruise ship in the Caribbean. The Coral creeps up to the Hubbard Glacier onto Glacier Bay, where massive glaciers tower over the sea, ice calving, creaking and cracking into the waters below. Compressed snow squeezes out the oxygen in the water, giving glacier ice its mint blue tint. We grab our robes, cheese and wine, sit on the balcony, and enjoy the chill in style.
As with all cruise itineraries, there’s a variety of on-shore experiences on our journey south to Vancouver. In Skagway, we take a short ferry to the town of Haines, where a South Carolina implant named Ronnie leads us on Kawasaki Mule convoy up a mountainside. In Juneau, we’re greeted with a magnificent blue-sky day. The locals in the Alaskan capital, accessible only by boat and air, tell us they haven’t seen the sun in weeks. Poor weather kills our on-shore zodiac ride in Ketchikan, or was it a huge night out, culminating in a room party, a late night dip in the private Sanctuary pool area, and a real “holy crap, ain’t life great” moment starboard at Guy’s favourite Deck 8 hangout.
Over thirteen days we’ve seen outrageous natural beauty, undertaken some unforgettable adventures, all the while being wined and dined like only a cruise ship passenger can. Travellers became colleagues and colleagues became friends. As every cruise veteran will tell you: there are big ships, and there are small ships, but the one that truly counts, are friendships.