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THE MAG: HOLIDAYS - A frosty reception; CRUISING TO ALASKA'S HUBBARD GLACIER.

Byline: BOB HAYWOOD

OUR American cousins have an irritating habit of calling everything 'awesome'. They can be referring to something as mundane as a big juicy burger with all the trimmings -or a better than average golf shot to the 10th green.

But when I first caught sight of the Hubbard Glacier, there was only one word to describe it ... awesome. Before we came anywhere near it, everybody on board the magnificent cruise ship Radiance of the Seas had been talking about this wonder of nature, from the captain to the cabin boy.

I was fearful that it was being over-hyped. But nothing, absolutely nothing, prepares you for the Hubbard Glacier.

It is 72 miles long, six miles wide and 250 foot high. And it stuns every one of your senses.

We were due to arrive at the glacier at noon -everything runs with clockwork precision on a cruise ship -but my wife and I popped up on to one of the open decks at 10am for a general look round.

By then, we were into Yukutat Bay with soaring green-clad and snow-topped mountains all around.

There, far in the distance, was a white blob which grew ever larger as we steamed towards it.

My wife and I became transfixed, even though it was only a few degrees above freezing and we were dressed for the comfort of the closed decks below.

But this was no time for worrying about feeling cold -or for words.

As ice floes meandered past the bow, we eventually stopped beneath the towering glacier which is, in fact, not white at all but ice blue.

The Radiance of the Seas is a huge vessel the height of a 20-storey block of flats but it was dwarfed. As we gazed -yes, in awe -huge pieces of ice continually broke off the glacier.

Experts call the phenomenon calving and the noise of the crashing pillars echoed around the bay, as though we were in the middle of a thunderstorm.

The Hubbard Glacier wasn't just the high point of a wonderful trip to Alaska. It was a life-enhancing experience.

To coincide with my retirement from full-time work, my wife and I had decided to splash out on our first cruise together.

From the outset, we really pushed the boat out by booking a hotel and parking deal at Heathrow Airport through Holiday Extras, which set us up nicely for an early-morning scheduled Air Canada flight to Vancouver.

The cruise embarkation point is a nice bonus because Vancouver is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and there's enough time in the nine-day holiday to look around the city, too.

If you're a bit apprehensive about going on a cruise -my wife and I are awful sailors -an Alaskan cruise is tailor-made for you. The ship is hardly ever out of sight of land as it sails along the coast and through a network of stunning fjords, known as the Inside Passage.

There are stops at Alaska's capital of Juneau, Ketchikan, world-renowned for its salmon, and Skagway, a beautifully preserved frontier town and stepping-off point more than 100 years ago for the Klondike gold rush.

Another memorable day on our Alaskan odyssey was a journey from Skagway on the White Pass & Yukon Railway, which climbs through breathtaking country, across precipitous cantilever bridges and through tunnels blasted from the rock.

The narrow-gauge train once took goldseekers in search of their fortune. Now it's for tourists.

For the more adventurous, shore excursions include whitewater rafting, dogsledding and helicopter rides over this great wilderness.

In my ignorance, I thought we would be looking out on frozen tundra all the time. But in this southerly part of Alaska -the largest state in the USA -the scenery is a cross between that of Norway, New Zealand and Switzerland.

And, in the summer, when the cruise ships operate, the temperatures are mainly in the 60s.

The Radiance of the Seas is a wonderful ship. Our cabin (sorry, stateroom) had not only a porthole but a generous-sized balcony and was fitted out to the very highest standards.

At its heart, the ship has a soaring glass atrium, overlooked by balconies on each deck and served by glass-sided lifts. There is every conceivable facility -a theatre, cinema, gym, casino, shops, children's club, even a climbing wall.

It's not so much a floating hotel as a floating town.

Cruise food is legendary -and the Radiance of the Seas keeps the legend alive.

It is possible to eat almost non-stop from 6am until midnight and the average weight gain per passenger is half a stone.

The food is of exceptional quality, bearing in mind there are 2,500 passengers -mostly Americans -and served in elegant surroundings.

In advance, I was slightly apprehensive about the cost of on-board drinks prices

CAPTION(S):

OAR-INSPIRING... watersports are available during a cruise to Alaska
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Oct 26, 2003
Words:813
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