Simon and Susan are away this week (somewhere in the wilds of Michigan, we think; we know there are lakes there, so hopefully they are still getting their cruise on), hence we have been asked to take over the weekly blog with something suitable (amidst various caveats about sticking to the topic, not wandering off on long digressions, etc).
So we thought we should tell you about one of our favourite cruise destinations, and why you should be thinking about heading there this summer.
It’s extensive, it’s wild and it’s unfailingly spectacular, and Alaska possesses enough charm and adventure to keep you coming back year after year. We’ve been multiple times and are definitely ready for another taste of The Last Frontier (‘last’, you should notice, not ‘final;’ this isn’t Star Trek) – [Official warning: digressions not permitted – Ed.]
In simple terms, Alaska is big. Make that Big. Even BIG. It’s huge, colossal, vast – the kind of wide-ranging landscape that just yearns for a camera with a ‘panorama’ setting, and lots of flashcards. America’s 49th state is as large as Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. Combined. If one end of Alaska was in Moscow, the other would be in Dublin. Yes, THAT big.
It is also largely empty, at least of any man-made distractions. The biggest city in the state (Anchorage) holds fewer than 300,000 residents. The next largest (capital Juneau) boasts just 33,000. From Utqiagvik in the north to Ketchikan in the south-east is 1,330 miles, and you will encounter next to nothing en route. Unless you like huge slabs of raw, unfiltered scenery along the way.
Cruises, of course, can only scratch the surface of this magnificent realm, but they do have the advantage of revealing Alaska’s other headline attraction – its marine wildlife. If you think the land is spectacular (and it is, in widescreen technicolour), the sea offers even more extravagant possibilities, from killer whales and the humpback variety, to sea otters, dolphins, porpoises, sea-lions and seals.
Having pooh-poohed the non-natural side of the region, we can, actually, testify to the fact that Alaska does, in fact, have some cute – and highly original – cities and towns that are well worth exploring. True, it can be difficult when there are four or five ships in port, but places like Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway and Haines cater surprisingly well for the ocean-going masses, and you’ll be hard pushed not to get a good view of each of them on a typical cruise.
And it is all backed by the ultimate backdrop of Last Frontier splendour – socking great mountains that underline the essential resplendent, breathtaking nature of Alaska.
The best thing, though, about this viscerally exciting destination is that you CAN explore a decent chunk of Alaska on a cruise, and there are a dazzling variety of ways to do so, from some of the largest ships (the likes of Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess, Royal Caribbean and Carnival) to some of the smallest (UnCruise Adventures, National Geographic and American Cruise Lines).
All of the main ultra-deluxe lines visit here (including Regent, Crystal, Silversea, Seabourn, Ponant and Windstar) and you will also find a decent smattering of the medium-sized operators, such as Azamara, Oceania, Holland America and Hapag-Lloyd. In fact, there are fully 20 cruise lines that visit at some stage of the season (May to September), so you can be pretty sure there is a ship for YOU amongst that multiplicity of maritime magnificence.
Being the faux snobs that we are, our tendency is distinctly towards the likes of UnCruise, Windstar, Silversea and Crystal, but having also travelled with each of Norwegian, Holland America and Princess, we can attest to the general brilliance of the experience.
Budget obviously plays a major part in any cruise decision (even we have to watch the pennies at certain times of the year, notably when the in-laws visit and drink a year’s supply of port in the space of a few days [Stay on topic – Ed.]), but there are other factors to be born in mind here.
The bigger ships tend to stick largely to the main ports of call – Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway and Glacier Bay – while their smaller brethren can venture further afield, nosing into some of Alaska’s back-waters and lesser-visited corners, including the likes of Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka and Misty Fjord.
The big-ship companies also have to adhere firmly to their schedule, ensuring there is little time for idling if your vessel happens upon a major wildlife experience, like humpback whales bubble-net feeding or killer whales on the prowl. But travel with UnCruise, National Geographic or Windstar and they will make time for these unforgettable David Attenborough moments, ensuring you return with the kind of ‘Wow!’ encounter that will live with you forever.
No-one can guarantee wildlife in all its majesty, of course, but the chances are you WILL see whales, porpoises and suchlike whether you are on a ship large or small. Simply spend enough time on deck and the awesome nature of Alaska will present itself in larger-than-life fashion.
The region’s cruise ‘season’ has never been longer, as a handful of lines even offer voyages in April and October (albeit, the weather can start to become more unpredictable outside the main period), so, as long as you remember to pack some sturdy underwear of the thermal variety, you can avoid the peak periods of June, July and August if you so desire.
One other factor to consider for your peak Alaskan enjoyment is the salmon, and we’re not talking tins of John West here. This is the world’s greatest salmon-fishing area, and either casting a line for the five main varieties (King, Sockeye, Coho, Pink and Chum) or just witnessing the epic ‘Salmon Run’ along the many rivers and streams are two of the great natural attractions, hence, if this appeals to you, you’ll want to know the essential time to visit in south-east Alaska is from June to early August, when the numbers approach mind-boggling proportions.
Finally, there is a lot more to Alaska than you will see on any cruise. MUCH more. Remember that whole ‘big’ thing we detailed at the start? Denali National Park in the south-central area covers fully six MILLION acres and features caribou, bears, wolves, moose and foxes, as well as the unforgettable stunning peak of Denali, the highest mountain in North America at 20,156ft, and boasting a bigger vertical rise (from its base to summit) than even Mount Everest.
Denali can be enjoyed from the town of Talkeetna, which should certainly be on your list of places to visit either pre or post-cruise. Both Princess and Holland America feature a wonderful array of options for travelling beyond your ship’s gangway, and these are definitely worth seeking out.
But whatever you do, please ensure Alaska is firmly on your list of essential places to see, whether it’s this summer, next year or further down the line. You will thank us for the recommendation. Big-time.