“We have a sighting at 2 o’clock,” the young captain announces to a boat-full of hawkeyed travellers watching every wave with intent, hoping to find a humpback whale in the vast Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Juneau, the first stop on our week-long cruise with Holland America Line celebrating 150 years of sailing around the globe.
We spent the first day at sea traversing along the archipelagos of British Columbia, passing the island of Haida Gwaii, and making our way through to Alaska’s capital city, accessible only by boat or plane, with no road connections to the rest of the state or North America. Snowcapped mountains on either side are cut through by the scenic Gastineau Channel, popular for boating, fishing, and wildlife watching.
Binoculars, camera lenses the size of arms, and phones all capture the first spout that goes several feet in the air — the moment followed by excitement, amazement, and a desire to see more antics from the gentle mammal. More than 600 humpbacks migrate from the warm waters of Hawaii and Mexico to Alaska’s inside passage during the feeding season between May and September.
Our captain sees a familiar face in the crowd: “That’s Flame. He comes here every year and has become somewhat of a celebrity,” as he points at a juvenile humpback performing one low fluke dive after another. Whales can be recognised by the serrations, and black and white patterns on the underside of the tail flukes, each unique to the other. A little further along, we spot a mother with her calf showcasing its upper back and dorsal fin but, before long, they disappear under the shiny waves beneath clear blue skies.
On shore, despite being the second-largest capital in the US by area, downtown Juneau is small but charming, featuring a mix of modern and historic buildings filled with shops, restaurants, and art galleries. The city’s rich native Alaskan heritage is displayed at the Sealaska Heritage Institute, showcasing traditional art, dance, and storytelling.
Twelve miles from the centre, Mendenhall Glacier is Juneau’s prime attraction and one of the most accessible glaciers in the country. The river of ice, a shade of magnificent blue, creates a sculptural formation remarkable in scale and size, stretching about 13.6 miles. Clearly marked trials of varying distances take visitors to the park’s other attractions, like a gushing waterfall and a lake.
Despite its imposing presence, there is growing concern among geologists about how long Mendelhall may exist in its current state. Alaska’s glaciers are in steep decline and are among the fastest melting on Earth due to warmer temperatures and decreasing snow on glaciers in the winter. Of the more than 100,000 glaciers here, 95 per cent are currently thinning, stagnating, or retreating and, more importantly, the rate at which they are thinning is increasing, according to the National Park Service.
On board the cruise, experts and park rangers explain the topography of Alaska and the wildlife that exists through in-depth conversations, presentations, and talks, including the impact of climate change on the region known for its volcanoes and glaciers.
We travel along the Inside Passage overnight to arrive at our next stop, the Port of Skagway. Former captain William Moore stumbled upon this land in 1887 and named it Skagway, after the Tlingit Indian name ‘Skagua’, which means ‘the place where the north wind blows.’ The small town, with only a population of 10,000, grew in popularity during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. Gold seekers, cattle, horses, and food arrived at the port, increasing inhabitants significantly. Today, you can see traces of the 33-mile-long Chilkoot Trail and ride the 40-mile White Pass Trail, both used to search the headwaters of the Yukon River.
We chose to head into Haines to see the Davidson Glacier, a journey that involves taking a speedboat, followed by a bus ride, a short trek through the forest, and a canoe along the river. The day trip is exhausting, but the landscape and wildlife are unparalleled, crossing fjords with tall waterfalls, sea lions appearing at unexpected turns, and eagles perched on branches of pine trees. The glacier at the end is the icing on the cake, the big reveal in the most majestic setting. Depending on the water levels in the river, you can get up close to the blue ice that shines under Alaska’s rare sunny days.
Unlike Juneau, Skagway’s colourful buildings are spread across several streets, covering eateries, souvenir shops, jewellery stores, art galleries, a brothel, and a brewery. Skagway Brewing Company opened its doors to thirsty gold-rushers in 1897. Today, it’s home to hand-crafted beer best enjoyed in its beer garden or from the comforts of the cozy indoor pub.
The day after is spent at sea marvelling at the scale and magnitude of Glacier Bay, cruising past Johns Hopkins Glacier, before coming face to face with Margerie, a 21-mile tidewater glacier considered the most impressive site within the national park, only accessible through an organised tour or cruise ships. The decks are a hub of activity, lined by keen observers and wonderstruck travellers speaking to knowledgeable park rangers about everything from the height of the iceberg to how long it takes to form.
On-board days are perfect for exploring the endless possibilities within the ship, from painting lessons to talks with experts on Alaska’s unique wildlife and culture. The day is packed full of things to learn and see and, when there isn’t, there are a couple of swimming pools, table-tennis tables, wine-tasting sessions, and gaming zones to keep you entertained.
Evenings are when the ship lights up with the casual crowd all dressed up for dinner at HAL’s several specialty restaurants mastering French, Japanese, and Italian cuisine, each with the ambience to match. There are also a couple of free options, including a pizza and hotdog station and an all-you-can eat buffet serving Mexican tacos, salads, meat, and an impressive display of desserts.
There is plenty of post-dinner entertainment to keep you moving, from live jazz and blues at BB King’s to a sing-along at Billboard Onboard. The ship’s auditorium, called World Stage, plays host to several creatively choreographed performances, shows, and talks.
Our final stop is Ketchikan, the salmon capital of the world. A massive sign announcing itself as the famous fishing spot is the first thing you’ll notice as you dock off the bustling centre of town surrounded by wooden structures and boats. Creek Street, a small township of multi-coloured shops on stilts, is one of Ketchikan’s key attractions, taking visitors back many years to what was once a red-light district. Bawdy houses tucked in intimate lanes have been transformed into cosy outlets flogging souvenirs and carved wood handicrafts by native tribes.
Our offshore activity to Totem Bight State Historical Park gives us an insight into the cultural beliefs of North America’s indigenous tribes: the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. Huge totem poles carved from red cedar trees, painted in bright shades of red, yellow, and green, stand tall across the park, depicting animals and plants symbolic of clans or family. The park is also home to a replica of a traditional chieftain’s house, a large wooden structure with a small, low oval door that leads to a square-shaped room with a fire pit in the middle.
Away from culture, visitors can also join the seasoned fishermen for a salmon-catching excursion, or canoe the tranquil waters surrounded by snowcapped mountains. When in Ketchikan, indulge in the freshest seafood at The Alaska Fish House. Located right next to the largest fishing fleet, this restaurant and pub serves crab, fish, corn cakes, and the best salmon chowder in town.
Canada’s seaport city is particularly glorious in the summer and well worth a stopover before or after your cruise. Start the day with a cycle ride or walk inside Stanley Park, British Columbia’s largest public park spanning 405 hectares, surrounded by Burrard Inlet and English Bay. If a more manicured green space is what you desire, then it doesn’t get better than VanDusen Botanical Garden, where flora from around the world is laid out like a beautifully intricate carpet in varying colours and textures.
Another favourite with the locals, particularly in the evenings and weekends, is Granville Island. Despite its name, it’s not actually an island but a peninsula situated across False Creek from downtown Vancouver. It’s known for its unique blend of arts, culture, shopping, dining, and entertainment options. Tuck into some fresh lobster rolls, sample a range of delicious delicacies at the Public Market, and end your day with a pint (or a few) at Granville Island Brewing. Its graffiti-clad walls, plastered in vibrant colours, showcase work by local artists, and the open spaces are often occupied by buskers playing upbeat tunes.
Vancouver is surrounded by lush green mountains and getting there takes no more than 20 minutes. Escape to Capilano Suspension Bridge, a family-friendly park immersed in nature. You’ll learn about the history of the area before wobbling your way through a very long (and shaky) bridge that leads to a rainforest canopy. Several walkways guide you through the tall spruce trees providing much-needed shade and cool on a scorching day.
Ten minutes away, Grouse Mountain is an adrenaline-fuelled experience of a different kind. A gondola takes you to the top of the mountain (or you can hike), looking down at remarkable views of Vancouver. On top, grizzly bears, eagles, and a lumberjack show await or you can take a ski lift to go even higher. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, these locations are what makes British Columbia so special: nature, wildlife, and tranquility.
If you’re looking for a stylish place to rest your feet at the end of the day, look no further than the DOUGLAS. Tucked away from the noisy part of downtown, this slick property, located next to JW Marriot, provides privacy, comfort, a great nightclub, and a casino all in one location. Rooms are spacious, contemporary in design, and come with large windows flooding the space with light.
A full schedule of Holland America Line’s seven-day Alaska Inside Passage cruise can be found here. Inside staterooms start at £1,279 per person, based on double occupancy including Have It All Early Booking Bonus (inclusive of one shore excursion per guest (up to $100), one specialty dining, an elite beverage package, wifi premium package, and included crew appreciation gratuity); hollandamerica.com