TRAVEL: North to Alaska aboard the Volendam

MPMC Travel Alaska
MPMC Travel Alaska

Around ten years ago I was seduced by a promotional video of an Alaskan Inside Passage cruise and I’ve been bursting to take this trip ever since, writes Professor Ian Cooper.

So as my celebratory 60th birthday adventure through the Canadian Rockies ended in Vancouver, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to add on the extra seven day round trip cruise to Alaska aboard Holland America Line’s MS Volendam.

MPMC Travel Alaska

MPMC Travel Alaska

Though I hadn’t travelled with Holland America Line before, it didn’t take me long to relax and appreciate some of the excellent customer service and food on this 61,000 tonne ship which can cary around 1,400 passengers.

For people who don’t want a mega ship with thousands of passengers, but who want to feel they are on the seas in something substantial, Holland America Line with a fleet of mid-sized ships is definitely worth a serious look.

We had a cabin with a spacious verandah – definitely worth it on an Alaskan cruise, which is all about the fresh air and scenery – plenty of storage space, a nice bathroom and a huge very comfortable double bed.

This cruise was different from many I had been on and more significantly was the fact that it wasn’t just about the multiple entertainment and culinary temptations aboard or the big city sightseeing of daily ports. It was much more about the overall ‘emotional feel’ as we encountered some of the most magnificent and miraculous scenic wonders on the planet in their unique and natural remoteness.

After a relaxing day at sea, our first stop was Juneau, the state capital of Alaska and a visit to see the ice face of the 12 mile long Mendenhall Glacier. In fact we were lucky enough to have a tour from ‘park ranger’ Laurie, who told us a little about the wildlife, ecology and geology of the area.

If you ever do this cruise, a trip to this glacier is an absolute ‘must see’. Let me put it this way… if I was drawing up a global league table of incredible scenery, the Mendenhall Glacier would be in the top half of the premier division.

Back in Juneau, we managed a quick wander around the many souvenir shops, before boarding a special small boat for an evening of whale watching. Along with the other 30 or so passengers, the onboard experts took us out into the ocean, looking for the best places to get a sighting of the giant humpbacks.

Typically the first sign is the sudden bursting spray of water blown by the whale, followed by its curved huge black back as it surfaces and then dives below. If you are really fortunate – and we were – you also get a glimpse of the huge beasts iconic tail wave as it disappears deep below the surface.

Our next stop was Skagway, gateway to the Klondike and the ‘goldrush’ days. As you step off the ship, you literally have the opportunity to ride the Whitepass and Yukon Railroad. This is a 20-mile long old fashioned narrow gauge train ride, which climbs 3,000 feet as it winds its way past huge granite walls, waterfalls, glacial rivers, plunging gorges, rickety bridges and seemingly impossible cliff hanging curves.

Perhaps foolishly, I braved the metal platform between the carriages as we went past some of the high points. Not easy to both cling onto for your life with one hand and try to take pictures at the same time with the other.

Back in Skagway, I discovered that this tiny community town of just 600 people was possibly the most supportive and helpful I have encountered anywhere.

When a member of our party fell quite badly and injured herself, at least six people with long gray hair and a beard, coloured check-shirts, most of whom were called Bob or Chris, all suddenly appeared boasting of their first aid expertise and qualifications all offering help and assistance.

Chris number one even took us in his truck to the medical centre and then came back, two hours later to return us to the cruise ship. For this Skagway definitely wins my ‘friendliest town’ award.

It was then onto the part of the cruise that gave me as a writer the biggest challenge… trying to find words to describe Glacier Bay!

Superlatives such as breathtaking, awesome, magnificent, just don’t do justice to the sights and sounds of a very gentle and slow sail through an ocean of ice debris, towards the bluish iridescent ice face, just yards away. Watching huge pieces of ice sheer off into the ocean, with an echoing crack was simply mesmerizing.

When I was researching this trip, I came across a celebrated naturalist called John Muir who wrote a book called ‘Travels in Alaska’. He described his trip to Glacier Bay in 1879 as: “Inconceivable that nature could have anything finer to show us.” Mr Muir clearly knew what he was talking about!

Our final port destination was Ketchikan. We hadn’t booked anything in advance for this day, so our first stop was the very helpful information centre, strategically positioned in the area where you leave the ship. Here we signed up for the Saxman Village tour, home to the world’s largest collection of standing native American Totem Poles.

Now I have a confession to make… my expectations weren’t very high. I had managed to get to the age of 60 without seeing or thinking too much about Totem Poles. I was totally wrong however, Totem Pole art is just amazing, the carvings brilliant and it was absolutely fascinating hearing about the funny and sad messages the Totem Poles communicated.

Ketchikan, also proved to be the place to stock up on last minute souvenirs. Everyone on the cruise had been given a book of discount vouchers and huge numbers of people could be seen swapping vouchers, doing deals in shops for those incredibly valuable and attractive ‘Inside Passage’ Mugs!

If magnificent scenery is your thing and you truly want to experience the best of what ‘Mother Nature’ can offer then a cruise through the Alaskan Inside Passage is an experience not to be missed and Holland America Cruise Line know how to get you there in style and comfort.

Travel Facts

Professor Ian Cooper travelled with Holland America Line which operate several Alaskan cruise options. For more details see http://www.hollandamerica.com/cruise-destinations/alaska-cruise