“Remember…wildlife is just that,” warned the guide as we pulled out of the Juneau harbor, aboard a small marine exploration and research vessel, fingers tightly crossed in hopes of seeing a whale or two. “Alaska is wild and unpredictable. We don’t know what we’ll see or where.”
Her words were still hanging in the air when we saw the first humpback whale blow. A watery explosion shot skyward, an enormous back broke the surface and then…a magnificent whale tail rose for one breathtaking moment. We gasped and held our collective breath, spell-bound.
Then…another blow, and another, as a pod of circling humpbacks spouted, raised their tails and performed a watery ballet.
“They’re making a bubble net,” shouted our guide. “This is incredible!”
Humpback whales hunt in a pack, she explained, surrounding their prey and blowing under water. Caught in a bubbly maelstrom, the trapped fish float to the surface where the whales feast.
Then - because Alaska never fails to take you a step beyond your wildest expectations - black dorsal fins appeared. Not one or two, but a dozen. Stunning and sleek, the orcas dipped and rose, killer whales on the prowl. As the seabirds wheeled and shrieked above us, the orcas asserted their dominance of the ocean.
To be immersed in nature is a rare privilege – but it was a daily occurrence on our Alaskan cruise itinerary. In fact, the toughest challenge for guests was choosing shore excursions. With dozens of options that ranged from salmon fishing to flight-seeing, selecting tours for the days in Ketchican, Juneau and Skagway was tough – but there were no bad choices. When you’re in the land of gold rushes, whales, seals, sea otters and glaciers, every adventure is epic.
In Ketchikan, a day of kayaking began with a wisecracking coach driver: “Be glad you’re not going snorkeling,” he laughed. “We call those folks orca bait!”
Glad, therefore, to be zipping into rain suits and not SCUBA gear, we clambered into a flotilla of brightly colored kayaks. Though the wind blew and a bit of Alaska’s famous ‘liquid sunshine’ fell, we paddled happily among the rugged islands, found tenacious starfish clinging to the rocks, watched bald eagles soaring overhead in search of salmon and felt cue ball-like floating bulbs of bull kelp knock against our kayaks. The only sound was the soft splashing of our paddles and it seemed we had truly left civilization behind.
In Alaska, the history of people is as important as natural history, as we discovered on our visit to Skagway, a town rich in the lore of the gold rush. There, we met the street-wise Essie X. (Get the joke? Say it out loud…) Dressed in saloon-girl red and black, she sashayed us back in time to a day when prospectors with pokes full of gold nuggets blew into town, looking for girls. The price of romance? A dollar a dance, or five dollars for fifteen minutes of heaven in the cramped rooms above the bar in the Red Onion saloon.
Alaska had us captivated from our first moment we boarded our ship, but the images etched on our minds forever are of our day in Glacier Bay. As we sailed into the heart of ice, the mist lifted, the sun broke through the clouds and we were surrounded by walls of white. Soon a thunderous crack ripped across the silence of the bay and a massive chunk of ice as tall as a skyscraper tore itself from a glacial wall thousands of years in the making and crashed into the shimmering waters. Spray shot forty feet in the air as the newly calved ice chunk hit, to the accompaniment of a frenzy of clicking camera shutters.
When the excited gasping on deck ended, we stood together, transfixed by the power of the ice. Though we spent several more hours gliding softly through Glacier Bay, no one ever tired of the scenery or of the eerie growling of the ice, as it readied itself for more splits.
Life off the ship was enthralling, but what we experienced onboard wasn’t half bad either! Ours was a gracious mid-sized ship – spacious but not so huge that we were in danger of feeling lost in either the decks or the crowd.
You’d have to work hard to avoid having fun onboard. From bingo, to yoga, Pilates, spin classes, flower arranging, trivia contests, card games, and lectures on a range of subjects by local and imported experts, something is always happening.
Plus elsewhere in the copy, a sentence on the other main brands that cruise to Alaska and the points of departure (Vancouver and Seattle): Royal Caribbean, Princess, NCL and Celebrity.
Each adventurous Alaskan day left us high on adrenaline so we’d wind down watching the on-board shows. Ranging from full-on musical revues with a northern spin to magicians and comedians, the shows seemed to fit our schedule no matter when we dined. Afterward, we danced to the ship’s band, watched the action in the casino or played friendly games of ‘name that tune’ in the piano bar. Whether we were looking for a quiet drink before or after dinner, an elegant lounge with live classical music, a comfy stool and a friendly bartender to watch the game, or some late-night party time, our ship had what we were looking for.
From whale’s tails to skyscrapers of ice to a first-class sailing hotel, it’s impossible to distill all the magic of an Alaskan adventure but shipboard lecturer and plaid-shirted, axe-toting lumberjack champion Rob Scheer did a pretty good job: “Alaska,” he said “isn’t the kind of girl who’s going to meet you on the porch. You have to go right out and get to know her.
Though your cruise tour organizers will take care of most of the adventurous details, bringing the right clothing is up to you. Because it’s a rain forest, Alaska can be wet so pack your rain jacket and pants, in addition to warm layers of quick-drying clothing and solid walking shoes with good soles. Spring and early summer are the best times for a visit, when there’s the possibility of sunny afternoons on deck.