Published on June 23rd, 2014 | by Martin Aston0
In 2006, for Radio Times’s Travel section, I spent a week on the Regent Seven Seas Mariner cruise ship, sailing from Anchorage down the Alaskan coast, ending up at Vancouver in British Columbia.
After returning from his first visit to Alaska in 1899, geographer Henry Gannett cautioned, “If you are old, go by all means, but if you are young, stay away….it is not well to dull one’s capacity for such enjoyment by seeing the finest first.”
He did have a point. But not even Henry had the opportunity to change his everyday circumstances – to fall out of bed and open the curtains wide, and to stare out into pristine wilderness, with forested mountains to one side, a towering glacier to the other and a deep, wide ocean in between. So what if it’s raining today? This is epic – and we’re on the move too.
Such is an average day on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner as it traverses Alaska’s south-east coast. Between May and September, the Mariner sails between the state’s main town Anchorage and Vancouver in Canada (you can embark at either end), docking at various destinations along its way. There is something extraordinary about a trip where the views consistently change, yet there’s no argument over transport arrangements. I’ve also never experienced a holiday where I actively wanted to meet fellow holidaymakers – how else to engage with a retired NASA scientist over dinner or the jewel-encrusted namesake of syndicated American newspaper column Cruising With Lorraine over breakfast?
Lorraine sums up cruising with the practised one-liner “it’s like the whole world is saying ‘yes’.” Certainly the great outdoors is saying ‘yes’ from the moment you leave Anchorage (a place that, sadly, only says, “I’m not pretty or interesting”) for the port at Whittier 60km away. Take the bus provided but stump up the extra cost of the Grandview Train and you’ll get a shoreline trip and your first glacier – though with hundreds around, I guess it could wait. You’ll be sailing up to the giant Hubbard glacier, which calves off icebergs into the sea, but nothing beats soaring over a glacier or landing on one. My week’s highlight was the seaplane ride over the icefields from state capital Juneau, which affords incredible views before a slap-up meal of grilled wild salmon at the Taku Wilderness Lodge opposite Taku Glacier. If you’re incredibly lucky, as we were, you could encounter a black bear, to add to your ‘wildlife spotted’ list of bald eagles, killer whales and delirious American passengers anticipating their next meal. With the only Cordon Bleu-recognised restaurant on the waters plus three more eateries (all excellent), the Mariner copes admirably with all-comers.
The next day, I take the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad from the deep-water port of Skagway and follow the old goldrush trail right up the side of the mountain. There’s more sights and activities ahead at steep-hilled Ketchikan and the old Russian port of Sitka ahead of the final day, cruising the ‘Inside Passage’ (titter ye not, Frankie Howerd fans) between impossibly lush Vancouver Island and the Canadian coastline.
In such beatific circumstances every day, it seemed ungracious not to give the Mariner’s evening entertainment a go too, from miniature Broadway-style revues to a spot of casino or nightclub action. It’s not exactly what Henry Gannett was thinking mind when he recommended Alaska but if he’d had the option of a cruise, you can feel sure he would have jumped at it.