It took a while to call up adjectives to describe the various emotions I experienced during my first visit to Alaska.
“Enchanting,” “magical,” “unbelievable,” “overwhelming,” and “awe-inspiring,” were some of descriptive words that coursed through my brain as I sat down to write this narrative of a remarkable travel adventure. I think I finally settled on “mystical.”
Yes, Alaska had been on my “places to visit” list for years. I’d heard friends wax poetic about their Alaskan travel experiences, recounting their impressions as they came face-to-face with pristine wilderness for the first time. Only in retrospect, once I myself had my spirit lifted by images of surreal landscapes and unending forests and tundra, could I understand their reaction to being as close to untouched nature as many of us urban dwellers will ever get.
My epiphany came one evening on the deck of the Safari Adventure, operated by Un-Cruise Adventures, one of the premier boutique adventure cruise lines conducting small ship cruises through Alaska’s Inside Passage. It was late evening and some 80 passengers, crew and a National Park ranger (assigned to our ship to help share the wonders and history of the bay and answer our endless questions), stood in awe as we soaked in the glory of Glacier Bay National Park’s Margerie Glacier, shimmering blue in the midnight sun.
That “mystical” evening, NPS Ranger Amy Brobeck definitely struck a chord in my soul when she stood on the bow and quoted a text from renowned naturalist John Muir. Her words rang out clearly as passengers from all walks of life and countries around the world quietly listened: “Wilderness is not only a haven for native plants and animals but it is also a refuge from society. It is a place to go to hear the wind and little else, see the stars and the galaxies, smell the pine trees, feel the cold water, and touch the sky and the ground at the same time ….”
Our discovery began in Juneau, hub for all Alaska cruise ship departures, big or small. Blessed by glorious late May weather, my husband Tony and I spent several pre-cruise days in this charming town, which is also the capital of Alaska.
We started out with a bang. The day of our arrival, we walked a few blocks from our hotel to the historic Juneau waterfront and boarded a Wing’s Airways float plane to experience a five-glacier discovery tour. We took off gently from the water under azure blue skies and soared over the Tongass National Forest (the largest national forest in the United States) and five majestic glaciers that make up the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Icefield.
I was privileged to see nature in all its wonder like a bird in the sky. I gazed down on magnificent glaciers, fjords, snow-capped mountains, vernal lakes, and an expanse of wilderness as far as the eye could see. As an added delight, our visit to the remote Taku Glacier Lodge included not only a freshly-caught salmon feast, grilled to perfection, but our very first bear sighting in the Alaskan wilderness.
Our next stop, on land this time, was the Mendenhall Glacier, one of the world’s few “urban” and “drive up” glaciers. Located less than a half hour drive from Juneau, this world wonder can be easily admired from the expansive visitor center observation deck. We wanted to get a closer look and decided to set off on the relatively easy (but very picturesque) Nugget Creek Trail, which led us past pristine forest glens, cascading waterfalls, and breathtaking glacier views.
A ride on the Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway is another “must do” on a visit to Juneau. Cable cars rise 1,800 feet from the cruise ship dock in downtown to the mountain peak, which offers expansive views of Juneau and the Gastineau Channel. Not content to stop here, we hiked up a glorious sub-alpine meadow path, resplendent with spring flowers, and enjoyed a 360-degree view on Juneau and the channel below.
After our vigorous hike, we enjoyed a fresh seafood dinner on the terrace of the tramway’s Timberline Bar & Grill, munching on crab tacos as we gazed out on miles and miles of old forest and kept our eyes out for bald eagles gliding from tree to tree. We also spent some time meandering through the unique Raven Eagle Gift Shop, which is not your typical tourist gift store, but more of an educational museum experience. Many of the exquisite artifacts for sale are produced by Native local artisans and are one-of-a-kind objects made from indigenous artifacts.
Juneau is a picturesque town and we enjoyed leisurely walks through the quaint historic neighborhoods cascading up the mountainside; savored memorable seafood dinners in the local dining establishments; enjoyed an eclectic shopping experience in the diverse stores lining Franklin Street, the main thoroughfare; and even learned much about the colorful history of the region, and its indigenous people, in the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.
If you have the time to rent a car to drive “Out the Road,” (a colloquial term to describe the 45-mile highway that leads past some of Juneau’s backcountry until it dead ends at Echo Cove), you will be rewarded with more breath-taking scenery. The highway winds past coves and majestic mountain vistas. Interesting stops en route include the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery, the Jensen-Olsen Arboretum, and the Shrine of St. Therese. The Eagle Beach State Recreation area is located at the end of the road and offers a perfect spot for beach combing, hiking, bird-watching and viewing the whales, sea lions and other marine wildlife easily visible from the shore.
Before we knew it, we were ready to board our adventure cruise ship, Safari Endeavor, and join fellow passengers from around the world in our exploration of the Alaskan wilderness. We sipped champagne and nibbled on succulent fresh shrimp and crab hors d’oeuvres as we made our way through the Gastineau Strait, in the glow of a magnificent Alaskan sunset.
Each day that followed offered one memorable travel experience after another. The first day we sailed nearly 60 miles up-bay to the Margerie tidewater glacier, a highlight of our cruise through Glacier Bay National Park, as described in my opening remarks.
Traveling on a boutique adventure passenger cruise has more benefits than may meet the eye. The relatively small size of the ship allows entry into fjords and inlets not accessible by larger cruise ships. An added bonus is the ability to enjoy off-ship excursions daily, which include kayaking, skiff boat tours, and bushwhacking experiences–not to speak of top-notch wining and dining and spectacular scenery right outside your cabin door.
And we certainly made use of these wonderful on-ship adventure offerings! Tony and I kayaked through glacier ice floes; marveled at breeching whales from a skiff boat; hiked through the rain forest at Glacier Bay National Park’s Bartlett Cove; bushwhacked with a guide through pristine Alaskan landscapes to learn about the unique flora and fauna only found in this part of the world; gently glided through breathtaking fjords on a SUP, and photographed majestic bald eagles as they soared in the skies above.
While I love adventure, I also love my creature comforts at the end of an activity-packed day. After peeling off our boots and waterproof pants, it was definitely a joy to return to our comfortable cabin and await the call to Happy Hour. This was the time to meet up with our fellow passengers and share tales of our daily exploits. We then convened in the dining room (no assigned seating so we sat with different passengers at each meal) to enjoy a multi-course menu that focused on locally-sourced ingredients. Fine wines accompanied each meal and our on-board pastry chef made certain that each sumptuous repast ended with a heavenly dessert.
True to its name, a boutique adventure cruise is a combination of the excitement of actively communing with nature, while being pampered afterwards with five-star service and amenities. Our cruise even included a luxurious, one-hour massage—sheer bliss for our aching muscles after kayaking for hours around ice floes.
One of our last stops was a visit to Dawe’s Glacier, in Alaska’s rugged Endicott Arm. As we enjoyed our dinner of fresh-caught Alaskan halibut, we gazed out the ship’s expansive picture windows (which are, incidentally, washed every day to ensure an un-marred vista from all the common areas) to marvel at cliff-walled fjords, azure blue inlets, and scenery widely acclaimed as one of the most beautiful in Alaska.
The next morning, while we sipped our cappuccinos on the upper deck, we heard a rumbling roar and watched a huge section of the Dawe’s glacier fall into the ocean right before our eyes. It took me a moment or two to realize we had actually witnessed a calving, something I had read about, but never thought we would experience.
Chalk “calving” off my bucket list!
That night, as our ship sailed back to Juneau, we celebrated our festive farewell dinner. Champagne glasses were raised in a salute to a remarkable journey. There was a communal camaraderie in the dining room, fueled no doubt by our collective experience in together discovering the still untouched wilderness of Alaska.
I’ll never forget standing on the deck outside our berth that night, hand-in-hand with Tony. The heavenly sky in this wilderness defies description. Without any external lights to mar its glory, the night sky above was a jet black globe peppered with glowing stars and constellations of an amazing clarity, rimmed by the majestic Alaskan mountains that provided a perfect frame for that memorable scene.
Now that I think about it, “mystical” is, without doubt, the right word to describe this extraordinary adventure.
IF YOU GO
Check out Un-Cruise Adventures (www.un-cruise.com) for information on boutique adventure cruises through various regions of Alaska, as well as other destinations around the world.
Learn more about Juneau’s attractions at the Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.traveljuneau.com) the official resource for comprehensive visitor information on the city and surrounding area.
For the flight of a lifetime over Alaska’s magnificent glaciers, coupled with a succulent fresh salmon bake, contact Taku Glacier Lodge & Flightseeing (www.wingsairways.com)
Goldbelt Mt. Roberts Tram information can be researched at www.mountrobertstramway.com
Juneau Restaurant Pick: Though it is a bit off the beaten track (just a few blocks uphill from Juneau’s restaurant row), SALT (www.saltalaska.com) offers creative and unique Alaskan cuisine in a chic modern setting.