When the ice thaws
Lure of the land ... bear-watching in Denali National Park. Photo: Getty Images
Joanna Hall finds a land bursting with beauty and adventure on a cruise tour of Alaska's epic landscapes.
Hundreds of ships ply the waters of the Inside Passage during the northern summer, taking cruise passengers between Canada's east coast and the Alaska Panhandle, a landscape dominated by towering peaks, deep fiords and remote islands.
Many travellers sail north from Vancouver or from Seattle in the US to Alaska. However, on our third visit to the region, we decide to combine a five-day land tour venturing into Alaska's Denali National Park with a seven-day cruise south from Anchorage/Whittier to Vancouver. We discover that what you see from the water is only half of Alaska's beauty. Here are 10 ways to take in what the region has to offer.
Looking down on Mount McKinley.
Wilderness lodge stays
Our land journey begins in Anchorage, which is a prime spot from which to travel to wilderness lodges in the north, east and west. We're on a Princess Cruises 12-day Connoisseur cruise-tour, so from Anchorage we will travel by coach between lodges. It's a seamless experience without any fuss. Each day spent exploring epic landscapes starts early, but at night all we have to do is put our bags outside our door and turn up at the coach each morning. The lodges have distinct personalities and range in size from boutique to imposing. What they all offer, however, is a comfortable stay in the heart of a wilderness area close to major natural sites.
Hiking Kenai's trails
A Princess vessel.
Our first lodge stay is at Cooper Landing on the Kenai Peninsula, where vaulted-wooden ceilings, a fireplace and deep chairs make for a relaxing stay. We opt to venture out, however, and take a gentle hike from the lodge to the Kenai River, abundant with spawning salmon. We navigate one of the 18-hectare property's trails. It is here we first realise we are truly in the wilderness, and take the prominent bear warning signs seriously. So keep your eyes open, make plenty of noise as you walk and, if you see a bear, don't run.
Denali by air
With forest at its lowest elevations, tundra further up and glaciers, rock and snow at its highest points, Denali National Park, in the central area of the Alaska Range, can be explored in multiple ways. We take to the air in a small plane to circumnavigate Mount McKinley's snowcapped- peak and see surrounding valleys and glaciers.
Denali by land
An overnight stay in a wilderness lodge at Denali means we're well rested and ready to venture deep into the national park by road. A vast subarctic wilderness ablaze with intense colours in spring, and, especially, autumn, the national park is home to more than 650 species of flowering plants, and wildlife including moose, bears and wolverines. It's a peaceful place to visit and even on a road tour the silence is awesome.
Denali by train
Boarding the Denali Express from Denali to Whittier signifies the end of our land tour, but the nine-hour southbound ride is not short of highlights. We pass Hurricane Gulch, famous for its lofty arch bridge crossing the Hurricane Creek, and see the quaint town of Talkeetna. Train carriages have glass roofs for sightseeing and you don't have to move from your seat to enjoy the views. If you fancy stretching your legs, however, there are open-air viewing platforms, a casual club-car serving snacks and drinks, and a dining salon that offers Alaskan specialties.
Tongass by air
Our first cruise port of call aboard the Coral Princess is the gold rush-era outpost of Skagway. A "must-do" shore excursion can combine three ways to take in the landscape: a scenic flight along the Sawtooth Mountains in the Tongass National Forest, an eight-kilometre Tongass guided hike, and a ride back to town on the White Pass train. Tongass is a subalpine valley that has an alluring combination of flora and fauna, with stunning photo opportunities at almost every turn and, on foot, the chance to see bears and bald eagles.
Cruise passengers can travel by float plane to Neets Bay, about 65 kilometres from Ketchikan, and once there, can take a short guided hike, learning about bear habits and habitats on the way, as well as the life cycle of the Alaskan salmon, which is a favourite meal of bears. Bears aren't the only attraction, however; eagles, Sitka black-tailed deer, mink, martens and seals can also be spotted.
Juneau, the Alaskan capital, is on the itinerary of most cruise ships, and is one of the best places to go dog sledding. We begin our port day with a breathtaking helicopter flight over lush rainforest and glacier-carved peaks, setting down at a
dog-sled camp on the 3000-year-old Mendenhall Glacier. Alaskan huskies are hitched to a sled and all you have to do is climb aboard for an exhilarating ride through ice and snow.
Climbing Mount Roberts
Although much of Alaska is best enjoyed on a tour, there is plenty cruise passengers can do independently. The Mount Roberts Tramway runs from downtown Juneau, close to where most cruise ships dock. From the top of the ride, the summit is reached from one of several hiking trails.
Eagles and salmon
Ketchikan is an ideal port for seeing the sights at your own pace. Start with a meander along Creek Street's famous wooden boardwalk, then head to the Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Centre. It features a key salmon hatchery program as well as housing raptors and other rescued birds.
If you have time, the Saxman Native Village, south of Ketchikan, offers a glimpse into traditional Tlingit culture.
Joanna Hall travelled as a guest of Princess Cruises.
PLENTY OF PLACES TO DROP ANCHOR
If you're planning an overnight stay in Alaska before or after a cruise, Anchorage has plentiful accommodation and restaurants. Seafood is a menu favourite, however the city's dining scene is diverse.
Specialities at Sacks Cafe, 328 G Street, include Alaska rockfish, crab and scallop dishes. Sacks also has an extensive menu of sandwiches for lunch. Open daily for lunch and dinner Thursdays to Sundays. See sackscafe.com.
Orso, 737 W. 5th Avenue, is open daily for lunch and serves salads, pasta dishes and seafood. See orsoalaska.com.
Snow City Cafe, 1034 W. 4th Avenue, serves a range of vegan and gluten-free dishes and is open daily. See snowcitycafe.com.
The Anchorage Museum is showcasing Alaska's aviation history and its pioneers. The museum's Muse restaurant is open for lunch Tuesdays to Sundays; the museum is open daily in summer from 9am to 6pm. See anchoragemuseum.org.
Air Canada has a fare to Vancouver for about $1780 low-season return from Sydney, including tax. Melbourne passengers fly to Sydney to connect. See aircanada.com.
Princess Cruises' Connoisseur Cruisetour options include a 12-day journey combining a seven-night cruise with a five-day land journey to Denali National Park, Mount McKinley and other parts of Alaska. The cruise component costs from $3,296.44 a person, twin share, for an August 2, 2013, departure from Anchorage (Whittier) See princess.com.
Holland America Line has cruise tours ranging from five to 20 days, including a cruise of Alaska's Inside Passage or a seven-day Glacier Discovery cruise. Longer tours feature rail travel on the McKinley Explorer. See hollandamerica.com.
Scenic Tours combines land and rail travel in Canada with a cruise from Vancouver to Alaska, land touring in Alaska and stays at Princess-owned Alaska Wilderness Lodges. See scenictours.com.au.
APT combines land and rail journeys in Canada with cruises to Alaska. Travel through the Yukon also available. See aptouring.com.au.