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Alaska, the Last Frontier

November 21, 2012
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Celebrity Millennium at Hubbard Glacier – Alaska

Alaska is a superb destination. Here you’ll find summertime snow-capped mountains, majestic fjords,big glaciers calving with sounds of thunder, soaring eagles, bears fishing for salmon and Killer Whales. There are also endless rainforests that make nonsense of the misinformation peddled by eco-zealots.

You can visit rustic towns with pioneer heritage and drink in bars with sawdust floors, have outdoor barbecues where the grills will be picked clean by grateful bears soon after you leave, fly over glaciers in floatplanes or just take a tour us around the local totem poles. It’s a great holiday for a couple, a family or a group of friends.
There was a time when there was just one way to do it – you went to Vancouver, got on a ship which went up the Inside Passage to Glacier Bay and back in a week. That’s still a pretty good plan, but now you can also go one way from or to Vancouver or a port in Alaska. Ships also depart from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and within Alaska itself.
My preference is for a cruise that begins or ends in Vancouver simply because it is such an attractive city and gateway. Be aware too that cruises including San Francisco and LA mean you are going to be at sea for several days with nothing to look at.
Best time to go? The season is April to September, with August best for reliable weather.
Many of the world’s best cruise ships will be in Alaska every summer and the range, and cost, is wide. Consider that smaller ships do get you closer to nature, but if you’re unlucky with the weather there is a lot to be said for covered decks on larger vessels, a choice of restaurants, nightlife and breakfast in bed.

BEST SHORE EXCURSIONS

White Pass and Yukon Route narrow-gauge railway — Built in 1900 to link Skagway with the Klondike goldfields, is a great day out to capture the history and insanity of the gold rush days.
Taku Glacier Lodge – From Juneau take a Beaver floatplane, as solid as a London taxi, over glaciers and have a salmon bake. You might see the bear that cleans the grill and romps with the lodge dog.
Sporting options – If you’re on a big ship and want to escape for a few hours rent a mountain-bike or take a kayak and go looking for wildlife. A morning’s salmon-fishing can be pricey but enjoyable if you have a good captain.

EXTENDING A CRUISE IN ALASKA

Princess Cruises and Holland America are the big players in the Alaska cruise market, and as a result of their long experience there have built up a formidable, and impressive network of their own hotels, railcars and buses.
Trains cross Denali National Park, roughly halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, the most visited wilderness area, and if the weather is good you have the opportunity of making a flight around Mt McKinley, an impressive 20,320 ft. The park teems with wildlife including 37 species of mammal.
From Seward you can take a bus to the Kenai Princess Lodge and explore the peninsula with its glaciers, whales and bears.
One of the best experiences at this end is the Yukon and Dawson City. Over the border in Canada, Dawson City was a going concern during the stampede and escaped becoming a ghost town. Kids of all ages will love this gold rush town with boardwalks, dirt streets and Klondike Kate’s stirring shows.

EXTENDING A CRUISE FROM VANCOUVER

Nobody comes back from an Alaska cruise without saying that Vancouver was a big part of the experience. While not blessed with the architecture it deserves, it has a stunning location between snow-capped mountains and a beautiful bay, and its harbour rivals Sydney or Hong Kong. The climate is mild, for just as the UK is kept temperate by the Gulf Stream, the Japanese current warms Western Canada.
What to do — Best places to stay in Vancouver are the Four Seasons and Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Don’t miss Stanley Park (going around it is a must, by foot, bike or roller-blades), shop on Robson Street and eat at Bishop’s in trendy Kitsilano.
Vancouver Island — Discover the superb network and value of BC Ferries as you take a car ferry to Victoria, an epic mini-cruise. Enjoy the Butchart Gardens and stay at the Fairmont Empress Hotel, a true gem. Go whale-watching, play golf, spend as long as you like exploring Vancouver Island. You won’t want to leave.
Whistler – A fabulous year-round resort, you can ski the glaciers in the summer but most visitors will be content with four world-class golf courses, rambling on slopes with Alpine flowers (and bears) and a vibrant village with jolly pubs and good restaurants.
Railroad to the Rockies – Take the Rocky Mountaineer train one way through the majestic Rockies to Calgary or Jasper, or vice-versa. It’s a two-day trip so you can see the dramatic passes and peaks in daylight. Many people fly into Vancouver and home from Calgary, or the other way around, and you can also rent a car or motorhome and make the delightful drive across British Columbia.

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