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Perfect way to bask in Alaska; Richard Ashdown forgets the Caribbean and takes a luxury cruise to the spectacularly frozen north.

If you think cruising is just an expensive way of sunbathing in the Caribbean, then look north for a holiday with a difference. A cruise to Alaska is a trip to the end of the earth, with a chance to see some of the most majestic scenery and wildlifein t he world.

Norwegian Cruise Line runs two ships off the north-western American state between May and September. They sail the Inside Passage, a waterway flanked by the Alaskan mainland and thousands of islands and fjords. The ship stops in four towns and the Glacie r Bay National Park, the mind-blowing highlight of the trip.

Our vessel was the Norwegian Wind, newly refurbished for the tourist season.

The trip begins with a night at the luxury Landmark Hotel in Vancouver. Its rotating 42nd floor restaurant offers fantastic views of the port city, full of hi-tech hi-rises which stand in contrast to the backdrop of snowcapped mountains and the lushfore sts of British Columbia.

The next morning is your own to explore before transferring to the ship. Accommodation ranges from simple cabins to suites with bedrooms, living rooms and balconies. Whatever you choose, the real splendour lies in the public areas of the ship. The Wind b oasts 11 bars, seven restaurants, a casino, gymnasium, swimming pools and a shopping arcade.

The restaurants are excellent. You are assigned one dining room for your seven-course evening meal, where you can choose between an early or late sitting. After that, you will have the same table and same people serving you for the whole cruise.

After a meal of sushi and smoked salmon, I retired to the casino for a quick hand of blackjack. It's a sure-fire way to burn a hole in your pocket but it's a friendly enough place. The staff are predominantly English but be warned, that doesn't earnyou any extra luck at the gaming tables.

I woke early on our first morning at sea, tempted by the harsh blue light of the Alaskan wilderness creeping around the curtains. The Inside Passage lies in the Tongass National Forest area of Alaska. One of only a few rainforests in the northern hemisph ere, it's home to all manner of wildlife, from grizzly bears to grey wolves. In the water, humpback whales feed all summer alongside killer whales and dolphins.

Like most passengers, I spent the day on deck, eager for a glimpse of wildlife. By the evening, I'd racked up two dolphins and a bald eagle. Not exactly a tour de force of Alaskan nature, but there would be plenty more opportunities.

The next day we docked in Juneau, population 30,000. This old gold rush town is the only state capital in the USA accessible only by air or sea. Its best asset is the Mendenhall Glacier, a slow-moving river of ice viewable on one of the many excursions w hich can all be booked in advance on the ship. We opted for a helicopter tour. At 220 dollars, it's the most expensive way of seeing it but you get what you pay for.

After a quick flight, we landed on the glacier for a very careful walk around. Standing on thousands of tonnes of ice moving at two feet a day, surrounded by holes and cracks that run the depth of the glacier, is a humbling and unforgettable experience.

The two and a half hour tour also takes in the Juneau Ice Field, 1500 square miles of snow and ice that feeds all the region's glaciers. Back on the ground, there was plenty of time to explore Juneau's excellent art and jewellery shops before the Wind se t sail for our next port of call.

In 1898, Skagway was a staging post for nearly 20,000 gold prospectors hoping to strike it rich in Canada and the Klondike. The town's museum paints a harrowing picture of their quest for fortune. From Skagway, prospectors had to transport 1200lbs of pro visions across the perilous White Pass if they weren't to starve or die from exposure. Many didn't make it. Our day in town was less dangerous.

I booked a 15-mile mountain bike tour down the State Highway that winds its way into Skagway from Canada. On the other side of the valley, the rickety old White Pass railway makes a similar trip for the less athletic tourist.

In the afternoon, we sailed for Haines, two hours away by ship or 300 miles by road. It marks the start of the Chilkoot trail, which 100 years ago was an easier but longer route to the Klondike. There are similar excursions to Skagway on offer but it's a lso a great place to eat if you want a relaxed evening.

An early night is recommended if you want to make the most of your time in Glacier Bay, 3.3 million acres of the most stunning scenery imaginable. The ship sails into the reserve at 6am and stays there all day.

Glaciers roll straight into the water from all sides. Occasionally, thousands of tonnes of ice break off with a noise like thunder. It's the only thing that disturbs the serenity of the scene. Mountains climbing 5000 ft into the air are mirrored on the w ater's surface. Because of climactic changes, the glaciers are retreating.

Two hundred years ago, the bay didn't exist. Consequently, the area is a microcosm of evolution in action. Nature reclaimed the environment as the ice melted. Mile by mile of rock gave way to algae, then moss, weed and eventually the hemlock spruce fores t that dominates South East Alaska.

Then a great day turned into a perfect one. Two humpback whales in mid-feed surfaced to expel water, sending plumes of spray high into the air.

Their sheer size was easy to comprehend as a lone fisherman in a rowing boat hurriedly vacated the area. He may have had a better view but I felt a lot safer.

A cruise to Alaska is a holiday of contrasts, pitting the sheer luxury of the ship against the unforgiving landscape. Both aspects will remain unforgettable.

TRAVEL FACTS

Richard Ashdown cruised Alaska for nine nights with Norwegian Cruise Line.

Prices start from pounds 2,055 per person for an outside cabin and include all meals and entertainment aboard ship, on board tips, return transatlantic flights, pre overnight and post day room hotel accommodation and all transfers.

Contact Norwegian Cruise Line on 0800 181 560.
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Author:Ashdown, Richard
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 18, 1998
Words:1074
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