To many, Alaska is that snowy wilderness where igloo-dwelling Eskimos hunt Beluga whales, Bigfoot makes special appearances and penguins dance to a merry tune. Truth be told, when I was packing my bags for a seven-day Alaskan cruise, I secretly wished to see at least one, if not all of the above.
But all those thoughts went out to sea at the first sight of our 16-storey-high, 1,000-foot-long luxury liner. This was no ship, this was a floating city: casino, designer boutiques, a 1,500-seat theatre, swimming pools, Jacuzzis, spas, gyms, gourmet restaurants, a dozen cocktail bars and a real grass lawn on the deck!
Sure it rocked a little as it left Vancouver. But the on-board entertainment of Vegas-style musicals, magic shows, and stand-up comedy, was a good distraction from any motion sickness. And of course, there were adventures at every stop. From Ketchikan...
Our first Alaskan port was a rainy, sleepy town with no indicators of it being the ‘Salmon Capital of the World’. Salmon season hadn’t taken off yet. But the beautiful carved and painted totem poles that dotted the landscape didn’t need a season to be appreciated. Hand-carved replicas crammed shop windows, right next to deerskin leg-warmers, moose-leather caps and some quirky fur thongs.
Pick up totem souvenirs in Ketchikan .
But the most breathtaking sight was en route the Totem Heritage Center: our bus driver hit the brakes on seeing a pair of deer, perfectly still, in the middle of the road. Their large eyes stared back, completely at home in the quiet rain and in no hurry to get anywhere.
Via Tracy Arm Fjord...
An hour later, we were flying low over the misty Fjords in a seaplane, taking in cedar forests, snow-capped peaks, waterfalls bouncing off granite cliffs, and rivers snaking along deep valleys. Little white dots of grazing mountain goats became visible as the plane dipped and landed on a placid lake.
Back on the cruise, my first sight the next day was an iceberg floating by the cabin balcony. We hadn’t crashed! We were merely passing the iceberg country of Tracy Arm Fjord. You could spot shiny black seals, sea lions, albatrosses and seagulls sunbathing on the bergs.
The capital of Alaska is small, but a beehive of shore activities. The star attraction is the Mendenhall Glacier, offering hiking, rafting, fishing and the absolutely unmissable dog-sled rides. You can watch humpback whales, sight a nesting bald eagle high up on a mountain top, or spot a grizzly lounging along the water’s edge.
A good way to wind up is to toast to new friends over generous pours of ale at the Alaska Brewing Company. Or, like me, digging into a hearty crab cakes and hot Alaskan Toddy at Taku Glacier Lodge.
Skagway means ‘windy place’ and the wind sure played a vital role in its chequered history, spreading the word of gold discovery far and wide, bringing in the Klondike Gold Rush era of the 19th century. Prospectors, miners and opportunists set up supply stores and inns overnight. Risqué saloons were centres of gunfights. Colourful restored clapboard houses, ‘Wild West’ style shop signs and the 1920s-era Skagway streetcars recreate much of that ‘olde worlde charm’ here.
Perhaps the most exciting stop is the Red Onion Saloon, an 1890s brothel that is now a theme restaurant and bar. Pretty, good-humoured ‘Madams’ in sexy costumes take your order. A tongue-in-cheek brothel tour reveals antique pieces of clothing, coins, hairclips and letters found under floorboards and behind wallpaper cracks of the boudoirs.
The Yukon and White Pass Train ride is a guided scenic trip.
If hiking is not your thing, take the Yukon and White Pass Train ride and trundle across shaky mountain bridges, along steep miner’s trails and around sharp cliffs, with a lively commentary. For meat-lovers, this is paradise. Rare game like elk, caribou and reindeer are served at a couple of small BBQ shacks.
Goodbyes are tough, and leaving the shores of Alaska is the toughest, even with a grand dinner of native Alaskan dishes like stewed Alaskan king crab, poached sockeye salmon, rock lobster and sea scallops. My Alaskan dream just came true. But as I disembark, a wicked thought creeps into my head: If a dream comes true, do you stop dreaming it?
With Alaska, you won’t be able to stop.
From HT Brunch, August 16
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