Touring Alaska In A State Of Awe With Holland America Line
“Awesome!” is North America’s default exclamation, and just three days after arriving in Alaska I had already lost count of how many times I’d heard it in response to an everyday remark or request.
One morning, however, the expression was well deserved. One brown, the other blond, weighing around 363 kilograms apiece and standing upright some 2.4 metres tall, the grizzlies in Denali National Park sparred ferociously — or so we thought.
Our guide shook his head. “They’re playing. Nothing serious.”
Just a bit of fun amid the berry-laden bushes by the river, far below our lookout point. By the end of the day grizzlies were something else I had lost count of.
We spent eight hours exploring Denali and our grizzly sightings topped 20; we also ticked off one shy moose, a pair of coyotes, five velvet-antlered caribou, several groups of sure-footed, curly-horned Dall sheep attached to precipitous peaks, and a scattering of Arctic ground squirrels. All in a park half the size of Switzerland.
It is also home to North America’s highest peak, snow-clad Mount McKinley, or, as locals have it, Denali — “the great one” — currently soaring to 6,195 metres but gaining about three centimetres every 25 years due to the creep of the Pacific plate on the ocean floor.
When visible through the clouds that often conceal its wind-lashed summit, its dominance reduces the surrounding peaks — which are spectacular in their own right — to a semblance of moderate Lakeland fells. We were fortunate: the clouds did clear and the grandeur of the great one took our breath away.
Alaska’s flowers were breathtaking, too. Whether wild or cultivated, they bloom with an abundance and vigour that defy their northern latitude, thanks to a short but intensive growing season lasting three months, with 18-21 hours of sunlight a day.
Travelling Through This Great Land
We had travelled to Denali from Anchorage on the McKinley Explorer luxury train, enjoying breakfast and lunch on board as we soaked up the scenery.
Two days later we were back on board, eating dinner as we headed for Fairbanks. The following morning we hit the road and established the rhythm for all except one of the next six days: up early; bags (tagged for that night’s hotel) outside the door an hour before departure; breakfasted and ready to board the coach 45 minutes later.
First came a quick tour of Fairbanks itself, and a look at the impressive Alaska pipeline, which conveys oil 1,287 kilometres across the state.
Next stop was the Eldorado mine, where we panned for gold. Ahead lay rough roads and the Top of the World Highway, so called because it winds across ridges and mountains, providing magnificent views.
There were also tales and trails of the Gold Rush, another unforgettable train ride, a rendezvous with the ship on which we would cruise in style to Vancouver, and more wilderness adventures.
How do you travel? Holland America Line Catering To Families And Solo Cruisers
What's different about HAL? Unique Elements Of A Holland America Line Cruise
Already, outside Denali, I had been to the homestead of husky-sledding champion Jeff King, four-times winner of the 1,688-kilometre Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Here I heard the great musher tell how this gruelling event is run, and won — and got to cuddle his latest litter of furball future runners.
Two days out of Fairbanks we reached Dawson City, heart of the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush. It stands at the confluence of two rivers, the Yukon and the Klondike, and we sailed on both — by high-speed catamaran on the Yukon and then by float-boat with an oarsman-guide along the Klondike, where we spotted bald eagles.
A few days later, on an excursion from Skagway, we would see many more along the Chilkat River, home to one of the largest concentrations of America’s emblematic bird. First, though, we had to get to Skagway – and we did so by the most spectacular rail journey of all.
The narrowgauge White Pass & Yukon Route climbs to almost 914 metres, before clattering south around snaking turns, through tunnels, over trestles and past gorges and waterfalls to sea-level Skagway — where our cruise tour would also change pace.
After a stroll around town we clocked up one last hotel night before boarding Holland America Line’s MS Volendam. Cue luxury staterooms, restaurants, bars and theatres, a pool and hot tubs. I packed away my frontier gear, unpacked my cruise-wear and rang the spa to book a massage and facial.
The following day we reached Glacier Bay, where turquoise-tinted walls of ice front stunning mountain views. On subsequent days I strolled through the Tongass National Forest and cruised the scenic Inside Passage, watching for orcas (killer whales). And finally, we arrived in Vancouver.
Our fellow passengers included some who had been on board the ship since she sailed from the west-coast city. Others who started there had left as we got on, in Skagway — to do, in reverse, the incredible journey we had completed, and then fly home from Anchorage.
We felt that our trip was in the right order — finishing pampered, at a leisurely pace, giving time to reminisce… Remember the grizzlies? And weren’t the flowers wonderful? How many moose did we see? Alaska was indeed awesome.
Set sail on a dream holiday with Cruiseabout
This article was written by Pat Richardson from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.