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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