Like a half submerged hippo about to eat a tortoise, a drifting ice floe caught my eye. Strange I know, but I was in a part of the world where your imagination goes into overdrive. The inner passage on the southwestern coast of Alaska is Nature at her most breathtaking – vast unpopulated spaces, massive glaciers and soaring mountains.
I was there because I’ve grown tired of having to lug suitcases from expensive hotel to equally expensive B&Bs, battling traffic in expensive hired cars, enduring the claustrophobia of crowded tourist sites and paying R12 to use a public toilet to filter out a R45 Coca-Cola through my kidneys.
So I opted for a cruise. It’s the in thing and I can see why. Quite simply, it offers the best value for money international holiday experience possible.
Holland America Lines has been in operation for 136 years now and have cruising down to a fine art. From the time my wife and I arrived at the Ocean Terminal in Vancouver on the Canadian British Columbian coast, we didn’t have to think about what to do and where to go. We were pampered and entertained for eight solid days.
Our journey up the historic inner passage took us northward from Vancouver towards Tracy Arm Fjord where, in millpond conditions, I watched that ice floe hippo drift past as I finished my multi-course lunch all snug and warm and edging towards the soporific. The Volendam and its 1200 passengers and 600 crew sailed between towering mountains, rounded a bend and there ahead was the gigantic Sawyer Glacier – creaking, groaning and “calving” house-sized chunks of ice which sent sonic boom sounds echoing through the crags as they hit the water.
After two days at sea the Volendam docked in Juneau, the capital of Alaska with a population of 30 000 and unreachable by land. There was a choice of shore excursions in Juneau – coach trips to the Mildenhall Glacier, floatplane flights to the interior, helicopter trips to four different glaciers where shod in special glacier boots you can hike ice fields, climb ice walls or just stand on one of these massive rivers of ice with your mouth open and your eyes popping at the sheer majesty of it all.
And the great thing about cruising is that after going ashore and touring for a day, you come back to something familiar. Not some new hotel where you get up in the middle of the night and walk into a cupboard instead of the bathroom.
Holland America Lines’ ships are so well designed that despite being one of 1000 passengers, I never once felt I was in a crowd. We never had trouble getting seats in restaurants nor finding comfy leather armchairs next to a window to sit in after lunch with our feet up enjoying a good book and coffee. We’d nod off now and then only to wake up to a new vista. Cruising is one of the most relaxing holiday experiences I’ve ever had.
And if there were rowdy kids on board I didn’t see or hear them. They had their own space – as did those who wanted movie theatres, live shows every night, a gym, heated swimming pools and almost every other luxury imaginable.
Small wonder Holland America Lines has the highest rate of repeat customers in the global cruise industry.
Service levels are extraordinary. In a nutshell it left a service cynic like me with my expectations exceeded and then some.
Wherever there is a cruise destination in the world, one will find one of the Rotterdam-registered Holland America ships.
My favourite Alaskan port was next – Skagway – with wide streets, wooden sidewalks and 100-year-old buildings in pristine condition. It’s the little town you may have seen in movies about the Klondike Gold Rush. It was from Skagway in 1898 that 100 000 people battled the elements, mountain passes and treacherous terrain to reach the Klondike goldfields 120 km away. Only 35 000 actually reached their destination and only 100 people actually made money from the meagre gold deposits.
From Skagway you can take the White Pass narrow gauge historic railway up towards the Canadian border and the Klondike through narrow cuttings carved away by hand by 2000 labourers who built that 120 km railway line in only 22 months.
A full day of cruising through the Glacier Bay National Park followed Skagway. We cruised right up to the face of the Marjerie Glacier – 25 storeys high and a mile wide – and returned through narrow and island dotted seas, where white sided pacific dolphin played among the bow waves of the ship and majestic Northern Right whales and Orca blew great spouts on the surface of the waters. American Bald Eagles circled overhead and arctic and sooty terns skimmed the waves.
Ketchikan is the centre of the salmon industry. This town gets about 4 000mm of rain a year and has a book on sale called Our 12 Days of Summer, but in its rivers you can actually catch an 8kg salmon by hand.
If you like relaxed holidays and enjoy nature and a sense of history, then a voyage up the inner passage of Alaska should be top of your bucket list.
That is if you don’t mind gaining some weight. The food, all prepared with fresh produce, is quite outstanding on board the Volendam.
Having travelled the world regularly for the past 50 years, I am now a confirmed cruise junkie.
Vancouver is a long way from South Africa. It’s 27 hours of flying at best. But, believe me, its worth it. We flew British Airways via Heathrow and were treated to some magnificent views of snow-covered mountains, icebergs and glaciers as we flew over Greenland.