On a voyage through glaciers and bear-inhabited islands, Mike MacEacheran joins Princess Cruises onboard Royal Princess’s inaugural season sailing around Alaska
There are only two destinations when travelling in the south-east region of Alaska: north and south. To the north are the colossal ice floes of the Hubbard Glacier, mighty Chugach National Forest and buzzing Anchorage, with its mini-Manhattan grid of banks and souvenir shops. Southbound, where we are heading, is a world of coastal rainforests, legendary mountain ranges, bear-populated islands and finger-like inlets. These are places where roads can’t reach and planes seldom come. Which is why I’ve decided to come by ship.
I’m midway through a seven-day itinerary sailing on Royal Princess, which is nearing the end of its inaugural season on the Pacific west coast.
Right now we’re sailing 65 miles into Glacier Bay national park. Ahead is the outrageously good-looking Margerie Glacier, all frozen expressions and Ice Age drama that’s alternately haunting and dumbfounding. Seen underneath a cloudless sky, it takes several lungfuls to fathom Margerie’s sheer size: one mile at its widest point, it stands at a skyscraper-like 110 metres and stretches for 21 miles into the Fairweather Range, the highest coastal mountains on earth.
It’s more dazzling than anything I’d been expecting. I also didn’t realise there are laws that exist when visiting Alaska’s tidewater glaciers. Standing agog, hanging over the railings, is compulsory. So is squealing, toddler-like, every time a monstrous river of ice slides past on the port or starboard side. There are “oohs” and “ahhs” aplenty when an orca breaches and a humpback whale appears, spouting an arc of glacial water skyward.
Rangers tell me that besides the park being “a natural laboratory” comprising 3.3 million acres of mountains, glaciers and waterways, the National Park Service is gearing up for the preserve’s 40th birthday this year.
While your average client might assume they’re not rich enough to afford a life-affirming cruise to see the bejeweled waters and diamond-like bergs of Glacier Bay in its anniversary year, it’s an experience now more affordable than ever, with Royal Princess’s itinerary costing only slightly more than a week’s all-inclusive in Spain.
On paper, the cruise seems an ambitious idea: a 3,600-guest capacity ship with around 1,000 staff and 17 restaurants, cafes and bars, comedy theatre, musicals and new-to-cruise planetarium nights, a casino, spa, gym, basketball court and swimming pools sailing smoothly through one of the world’s most untouched, pristine environments. Clients can play roulette while witnessing a tidewater glacier calve a shard of ice as big as the Titanic. Or drink a frozen margarita from a fizzing hot tub while savouring remote wilderness millions of years in the making.
Alaska’s main ports of call — Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan — are cut off too, scattered at the deep end of glacially carved inlets, and none of them is connected by road to any other. Yet despite this, tourism is hardly in its infancy here.
All three ports of call on our itinerary are able to accommodate scores of cruise ships during the heavily regulated May to September season. The daily rhythm is of anchor drops at dawn, before the towns swarm with wide-eyed new arrivals.
Last year, Alaska’s south-east coastline gobbled up one million cruise passengers. And little wonder: this is one of the world’s most astonishing shorelines. Several other cruise operators also offer a variety of similarly paced itineraries, but Princess is the standout for its 50-year history in Alaskan waters.
The touchstone of our trip is affordable luxury and only-at-sea experiences. One night we are entertained by a Comedy Central stand-up act, the next by a mini-orchestra performing opera and pop to revelatory Disney-approved choreography.
So far, it’s been a bittersweet experience.
South-east Alaska is a magical, otherworldly realm — a dream destination away from the drudgery of everyday life, with little to no sign of humanity beyond the buffet. Yet the sheer, humbling scale of the coast leaves me with a transient feeling that I’d rather stay a day or two longer than keep cruising south. Nonetheless, the next destination is always a revelation and the scenic days of cruising contain the seeds for the onshore adventures that lie ahead.
When to go: Alaska’s cruise season runs from May to September. Suggest clients travel early or late in the season for more competitive fares and quieter cruises.
Staying connected: Chargeable Wi-Fi is available in all staterooms and public areas. As clients will be at sea for long periods, their mobile phone provider must have a roaming agreement with a maritime communications partner to make calls and send and receive texts.
Electricity: Remind clients to bring an A or B type power adapter to use with the US sockets onboard.
What to pack: A waterproof jacket and sturdy walking boots. Royal Princess also hosts two black tie nights throughout each seven-night itinerary.
As we roll south, each day brims with top-class excursions. First, a gold rush-era roller coaster train ride from Skagway into the Yukon in neighbouring Canada, rattling over timber bridges and past lime-green lakes and mountains scarred by winter.
Next, a steamed king crab feast, all gangly legs and cracked claws, overlooking Juneau’s buzzing seaplane dock. Then there’s a bucket-list flight to Admiralty Island, to discover the spiritual home of brown bears amid the virginal beaches and impenetrable forests of the ABC islands.
After a morning spent watching a glossy-black mother bear feast on spawning salmon, courtesy of a seaplane flight to far-flung Neets Bay outside Ketchikan, we’re left feeling breathless and shaken.
“Don’t worry, they’re no threat,” whispers our guide Joshua. “Just make subtle movements and speak quietly.”
There really is nothing to disturb them, I think. Only our slow-paced shuffle back through the forest to the waiting seaplane. Onboard Royal Princess once again, we cruise south, beginning our assault on the near-mythic Inside Passage, the crowded network of shipping routes and splintered islands that form natural stepping stones between south-east Alaska, Vancouver Island and our final port of call, Vancouver in British Colombia.
To sail through it, locked between mountains and ocean, takes time, and it’s a journey requiring your clients to reset their clocks and sense of scale. Standing on deck on the penultimate evening, oblivious to the bartenders and blackjack winners below, is to feel like a pioneer as far away as you can possibly be.
Right now, I’m sailing into a world of mountains yet to be conquered and forests still never explored. This is south-east Alaska as it always has been. And for a few short moments, I have the strongest sense that it all belongs to me.
Book it: A seven-night Voyage of the Glaciers cruise in south-east Alaska costs from £599pp based on two sharing an inside stateroom cruise-only, including accommodation, main meals and entertainment.
For more information visit travelalaska.com
Smarter: Suggest upgrading to a stateroom with a balcony for ocean views, from £1,159pp. A good set of binoculars is also essential.
Better: Recommend booking an excursion the day before in Anchorage, otherwise your clients’ options are limited while waiting for their cruise to depart.
Fairer: Royal Princess’s captain and crew enforce a leave-notrace policy while onboard and on excursions. For example, all onboard water is either bunkered (purchased from port communities or recycled onboard.