Passage to Alaska

If there’s one cruise that truly combines all the crucial criteria of great sailing  – being amazing scenery, fascinating ports of call and memorable land content  – it would have to be a cruise of the Inside Passage along the northwest coast of the North American continent.

alaska glacier bay_mapThe coastline between Vancouver in British Columbia and Seward, the port for Anchorage in Alaska, is one of the most scenic sectors of our beautiful planet. Unsurprisingly, many who travel to Alaska choose to arrive or depart via this route.

Given the coastal roll out of densely forested islands, the visits to remote communities such as Skagway and Ketchikan and the awesome passage into Glacier Bay, I rank my Inside Passage cruise among the most satisfying and interesting cruise itineraries I’ve done.

But I do have a caveat. Make such a voyage either at the start or toward the end of the cruise season.

Spare me the thought of several large cruise ships docked side by side anywhere at the same time, which is what happens at the height of the sailing season. At such times a remote, tiny port of call like little Skagway struggles to bear the brunt of two or three large cruise ships discharging thousands of passengers into town.

One of these ships alone carries enough passengers to double Skagway’s resident summer population. Days of such chronic cruise overload severely impact any chance of enjoying your all-to-brief experience of this jolly Alaskan coastal town tucked away at the far end of the Chilkoot Inlet.

Skagway was spawned as a result of the great Yukon goldrush of the late 19th century. It was from here that fortune seekers made their arduous way over Chilkoot Pass into the Klondike.I followed this trail the easy way, by taking the White Pass & Yukon Route, a precipitous adventure along an amazingly engineered narrow gauge rail track that winds up the mountains to the Canadian border.

At one point in the past, this track ran all the way to Whitehorse and by riding the rails I got a real sense of the inspired endeavour and sheer grit that lay behind gold-rush fever. I also kept alert to any wildlife in the surrounding forest and deep ravines. My vigilance was rewarded by the sighting of a young bear in Dead Horse Gulch.

Broadway is Skagway’s main street and is kept polished and trim for tourists. The trinket, souvenir and clothing shops doing brisk trade between May and September. The museum has lots of information on the settlement’s history along with images of those early days.

The flavour of pioneer times permeates the Red Onion Saloon. It was once a brothel and is still the town’s epicentre of entertainment with musicians off the cruise ships often exchanging riffs with local players at afternoon jazz sessions. Such gigs are best enjoyed with a halibut burger in one hand and an Alaskan amber beer in the other.

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Spanish silver

I’m thinking about ancient treasures while driving the Silver Route between the Spanish cities of Salamanca and Seville, a route used historically to transport riches plundered from the New World by Spanish conquistadors. The riches I seek along this route are those of a transitory type, like finding excellent tapas bars and sipping flavoursome Spanish tempranillo.

The road carves through the western region of Extremadura, a name derived from the word extremo, meaning “extreme”. Historically, this relative wild section of Spain was the birthplace of famous conquistadors such as Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Pedro de Alvarado and Núñez de Balboa. I expected frontier flavours and I’m not disappointed.

Passing through Las Hurdes, a range of ridges and valleys straddling the province’s north, the way south drops into Extremadura proper and links the towns of Plasencia, Cáceres, Merida and Zafra. I pass olive groves with rows of old gnarled trees enclosed within ancient dry-stone walls. Pigs snuffle in the grass. Holm oaks cast deep shadows on fertile pastures that in spring and summer are carpeted in a lush purple bloom. Roadside stalls sell a bounty of gourmet grazing; hams, sausages, pimentos, preserves, olive oils and cheeses.

Every so often the immense silhouette of a black bull appears on the horizon. These iconic metal sculptures celebrate the thriving local business of breeding huge, suitably testy animals destined for “a glorious and noble death” in Spain’s bullrings. 

Main square outside old Caceres

Main plaza, Cáceres

Within this walled city, overlooked by watch towers and squeezed between high stone walls, a maze of narrow lanes, steep steps and dark alleys create a matrix that links the Old Town’s numerous tiny plazas. Each small square is dominated either by a church or palatial medieval home, a monastery or convent. A 14th Century palace within these ancient walls is my hotel for the night. The Parador Cáceres belongs to a network of historic accommodation spread throughout Spain. 

The nearby Casa de Carvajal houses the provincial tourism office. I study a large, detailed model of the walled city in order to get my bearings. The small Renaissance-style garden within the house has a gnarled old fig tree which I’m told is 1000 years old.

Across the street, in a side chapel of the Church of Santa Maria, is the Cristo Negro, a daunting religious effigy with the macabre reputation of killing those who dare look directly at it, or touch it. Rather than risk my life, I opt to simply ramble through the narrow streets as the soft radiance of a late afternoon sun warms the flagstones. It casts a luminous glow on high stone walls, the reflected sunlight sparkles in mullioned windows. I can’t imagine a better light in which to enjoy my unique surroundings.

 Click here to find out about Spain’s paradors

Akaroa, ooh la la!

The tricolore over Akaroa

The tricolore over Akaroa

It’s been busier than usual in once tranquil Akaroa. This pretty waterside village, a jewel of the Banks Peninsula on New Zealand’s South Island, found itself abruptly redefined as a major international cruise destination following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Damage to the city and its port of Lyttelton forced tourism to focus on alternative destinations within the Canterbury region. Akaroa being only 75 kilometres south was soon bracing itself to cope with massive influx of visitors.

In the following months this tiny settlement managed to cope with the visit of 81 cruise ships carrying nearly 132,000 passengers, most of them keen to take shore tours and sample local delights. A further 86 cruise ships carrying 143,925 passengers visited Akaroa during the following 2012/13 cruise season.

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French accents

This ongoing tourism tsunami has put great pressure on a local population of about 600. Most Akaroans I meet either rub their hands with glee at this boost to business or wring them in worry over the impact the tourist crunch is having on their tranquil lifestyle.

Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism chief Tim Hunter says so many cruise ships visiting Akaroa does pose distinct challenges but says there have been significant economic benefits. And Craig Harris, chairman of Cruise New Zealand, says cruise lines would have bypassed the region altogether if Akaroa hadn’t stepped up to cope with suddenly becoming the main port of call for visiting ships.

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The local church

Most visitors are fascinated by Akaroa’s flavours and accents, unique in New Zealand. It’s where a French whaler, Captain Langlois, made land in the early 19th Century and where a French colony was to be founded. That never happened yet, to this day, Akaroa wears its French heritage with pride.

The most obvious signs are street names such as Rue Balguerie, Rue Jolie, Rue Lavaud and Rue Viard. There’s a bistro on the main street and other restaurants with French names. Akaroa’s French Fest is an annual bash sponsored by a prestigious Champagne house during which the tricolore is seen flapping in the breeze. The celebrations climax with a period costume ball in the village theatre.

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Akaroa cottage garden

Akaroa is tiny so easy to explore on foot, but be prepared to tackle steep slopes once you leave the main street. The Langlois-Eteveneaux cottage dating from the 1840s is now part of the local museum and around the village there are other enchanting colonial cottages with splendid gardens.

Out on the chilly waters of Akaroa harbour I willingly hop overboard in a wet suit to swim with rare Hector’s dolphins. These cute, playful, curious creatures, endemic to the South Island, are among the smallest of dolphins. They circle me then dart away, only to return for another look. By the time I get back to shore I’m ravenous and ready for my lesson at the Akaroa Cooking School.

# On World Oceans Day, June 8, part of Akaroa Harbour will become a marine reserve, recognising the environment as the “new frontier for conservation”.  The 475-hectare reserve covers the south east corner of Akaroa Harbour and includes the area surrounding the spectacular Dan Rogers Bluff.

Zimbabwe snapshot

Bulawayo 1I’m sitting in the shade, taking a break from the heat. It’s Saturday morning and I’m simply watching the world go by on the dusty pavements of Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe.

The streets are as busy as they’re ever likely to be. Shop doors are flung wide open but customers are scarce. The only real business taking place is in the food market. Times are tough and Saturday morning in town is more a social event than a consumer affair. 

A man comes sauntering along the street carrying a small blue sports bag. He’s wearing a tattered jacket over a frayed shirt with threadbare trousers and battered shoes. This is practically uniform for most men in this poverty ridden town. The big difference about this particular fellow is that he has a gleaming SLR camera with zoom lens draped around his neck, its silver metal body sparkling in the sun.

I’m surprised to see it and I note it’s a film camera, thinking it can’t be easy getting 35mm film processed in Zimbabwe. And boldly showing off such a camera seems ostentatious given the impoverished surroundings. Regrettably, that’s why I’ve chosen not to bring mine into town today.

IMG_0409The man stops near me, gently puts his sports bag down and takes up position outside the Jairos Jiri charity shop. He gazes up, down and across the street. I can’t resist. I have to ask.

We make our greetings. He says his name is Enoch and I pop my question about his camera and film. Enoch laughs out loud, clapping hands with glee. “Ha! That’s just to attract attention … and it works!”

He trusts one hand into his jacket pocket and, with a flourish, produces a compact digital point-and-shoot and says triumphantly,  “I’m a one-stop instant photo shop!”

Bulawayo 3His PR savvy and positive attitude soon pays dividends. The shiny, expensive-looking camera around his neck catches the eye of two jaunty young dudes dressed in their Saturday best. They stop and greet us both, shaking hands in the rhythmic African way. Enoch soon has them posing and photos are quickly taken.

Rummaging in his sports bag Enoch then pulls out a compact photo printer. It’s no bigger than a paperback book and is attached by two slender wires to a battery in the bag.

He slots in the photo card from his compact camera, presses buttons and the printer starts to whirr. The four of us stand transfixed while the tiny machine does its magic, the paper popping in and out three times, each time changing colour. More people gather round.

Finally the machine spits out a pretty slick colour photo of the two guys in their pork pie hats, smiles beaming, thumbs up. People peer curiously over our shoulders. There’s much laughter, money is exchanged and another customer strikes a pose. Enoch’s portable photo booth is an instant hit! Informality and ingenuity are winners on the streets of Bulawayo.