Tim Jepson, The Daily Telegraph, June 24, 2013
If you were a gold prospector in 1897, seduced by tales of the apparently limitless riches of the Klondike, deep in the heart of the Yukon, there were two ways you could reach the promised land. Neither was easy – one requiring a trek across the icy wastes of northern Canada, the other a sea passage from San Francisco to Alaska, a climb over the mountains and a 500-mile river journey. Over a million people attempted the odyssey, the largest single mass migration in the 19th century.
More than a hundred years later almost the same number visit Alaska by sea every year, with the important difference that their boats are cruise ships and their goals are not gold but the glaciers, mountains, wildlife and the spectacular seascapes of America’s largest state and its 40,000 miles of coastline.
Alaska is the world’s second-most popular cruise destination after the Caribbean, with good reason. There are some destinations where ships are an intrusion, or not really necessary for the business of sightseeing. Not so in Alaska, most of which is inaccessible, even to the most determined visitor, but ideally suited to being observed from the sea.
The beauty of starting a cruise in San Francisco, of course, is that it allows time in one of America’s great cities. I spent a day or so riding the streetcars, visiting Alcatraz, eating superb food and visiting museums before boarding Princess Cruises’ Sea Princess at the same wharves used by those prospectors over a century ago.
Fog swirled and a stiff breeze blew as we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge – as stirring a start to a cruise as you could wish for – and Force 6 winds and a 15ft swell got up in the night, producing, as the captain euphemistically put it, “movement”.
Next day was spent at sea, shadowing the Oregon coast and getting to know the boat and some of my 1,950 – mainly American – fellow passengers. I found the ship big enough, but not too big, always with a corner for peace and quiet, food that was varied and – in the case of the Grill restaurant, where I had the best steak I’ve ever tasted – often exceptional.
You can cut to the scenic chase on an Alaskan cruise more quickly by embarking from Seattle or Vancouver, but I loved my days at sea: by rights they should be dull – nothing to see and nowhere to go – but freed from the pressure of feeling I had to be somewhere, or doing something, I relaxed, enjoying the meditative calm of the sea, the slowly changing horizons and the ship’s steady, graceful progress.
Scenic drama, though, was not long in arriving. Next day we entered the Inside Passage, the spectacular maritime maze of islands, inlets, fjords, coves and bays that stretches for a thousand miles off Canada and Alaska’s mountainous coast. This set the tone for the next few days, with scenery so beautiful that I didn’t want to snooze, read or go below decks for fear of missing something.
Creek Street in Ketchikan
Our first landfall was Ketchikan, Alaska, 1,313 miles north of San Francisco, half a dozen streets filled with near-identical souvenir shops edged with cloud-topped mountains, mist-wreathed forest and tree-covered islands – less a town than a pine-scented clearing in the wilderness.
You won’t have been here more than an hour, promised my guidebook, before it rains, and sure enough, down it came – annual rainfall here is 25 feet, or around an inch a day. Braving the deluge, I pottered around the port. It was disappointing, frankly, but then Alaskan cruises subvert the normal order of most cruises, being more about the sea than the land experience.
Even so, the tiny place had its charms. Moments beyond the souvenir stores, for example, lay Creek Street, full of attractive wooden buildings strung alongside a fast-flowing river. Beneath the river’s rain-dappled surface was a seething current of silvery-grey, a vast, dense tide of salmon pausing in their passage to spawn deep in the Alaskan wilderness. Next morning, after more scenic cruising, the ship docked at Juneau, Alaska’s state capital, a revelation if your notion of American state capitals is malls, freeways and skyscrapers, because Juneau appeared to be little more than a jetty, a crab shack and a handful of wooden buildings. The “city” has just one road, which runs for 35 miles before ending in the wilderness – it’s known locally as “The Road”. It also has a bridge, of which it is inordinately proud. This is known as “The Bridge”.
A morning’s guided hike gave me a hint – but what a hint – of Alaska’s glorious interior. Alaskan towns wear their rainfall statistics like badges of honour. “We have more than 90 inches a year,” boasted our guide, “more in a good year.” You’d be impressed if you hadn’t already visited Ketchikan. So there was rain, of course, but not enough to spoil the walk or the views of the immense Medenhall Glacier. If the hike was my highlight on land, Tracy Arm, a day later, was another highlight, among many, at sea. Alaska has more than 100,000 glaciers and several of the grandest featured on the Sea Princess’s stately progress down this majestic fjord, which brought the biggest turnout on deck since the Golden Gate Bridge, despite the chilly 5.30am start.
An Alaskan brown bear and catch
The full day at Icy Strait Point, by contrast, was a disappointment. A restored salmon cannery and Tlingit “village”, it’s a perfunctory place, with perfunctory tours and perfunctory guides that have been here too long. It features on many companies’ itineraries and probably shouldn’t, so be sure to take a small-boat excursion to get off site.
I took a wildlife tour and was glad I did. Chichagof Island, on which the cannery is located, supports one of the world’s largest concentrations of coastal brown bears, North America’s largest carnivorous land mammal (1,500lbs and counting). They consume up to 22,000 calories a day, more or less what you might consume at the Sea Princess’s lunch buffet. Most of these calories come in the shape of salmon, which are so plentiful the bears often eat only the brains and roe, the most fattening and nutritious parts of the fish.
We saw some of these huge creatures prowling the forest’s coastal fringes, along with whales at breathtakingly close quarters, a bonus, because we’d seen many orcas and humpbacks in the distance from the ship en route.
We would see plenty more as we turned for home. The route south was the same we’d taken north, no hardship give the scenery en route, with the difference that the ship docked in Canada, at Victoria, on Vancouver Island. This quaint little city was well worth the stop, with enough time to explore the pretty Inner Harbour, wander the old streets and see the historical displays of the outstanding Royal British Columbia Museum.
Then it was back to the open sea and an almost welcome relief from the mountains and glaciers, because Alaska is a series of scenic hammer-blows that can leave you dazed with landscape fatigue. It didn’t hurt to have a day of empty, sea-filled horizons to relax further and reflect on a cruise that had delivered on all fronts, from ship to scenery.
Coming into San Francisco Bay, against the backdrop of a perfect August dawn, it said something for what I had seen in the preceding few days that even one of the world’s greatest cities now appeared a small and diminished affair.
Alaska, be warned, can spoil you for the world’s other wonders.
- Tim Jepson travelled with Virgin Holidays Cruises (0844 417 4930; virginholidayscruises.com ), which offers departures with Princess Cruises (0843 373 0333; princess.com ) on its 10-night Inside Passage cruise from San Francisco to Alaska from £1,731 per person (£2,242 in a balcony cabin). The price includes flights from Heathrow and a pre-cruise overnight stay in San Francisco. The next departures are July 18, August 7 and September 6.
Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com ) flies daily to San Francisco from £388 return.
WHEN TO GO
Alaskan cruises from San Francisco operate from June to early September, though Virgin Holidays Cruises (0844 417 4930; virginholidayscruises.co.uk ). The company also offers shorter seven-day cruises from Seattle or Vancouver. Princess Cruises (0843 373 0333; princess.com ) operates a more northerly seven-day Voyage of the Glaciers Alaskan cruise from Vancouver, as far as Whittier, 65 miles south-east of Anchorage, that takes in more of the Alaskan coast.
Outbound flying time to San Francisco is 11 hours and 5 minutes; the city is in the Pacific Time Zone, eight hours behind the UK.
WHERE TO STAY
Virgin Holidays Cruises can book selected accommodation in San Francisco. It’s worth spending more than one night in the city, but if you are only staying the one night included in cruise packages, request hotels on Fisherman’s Wharf, which are within walking distance of the cruise terminal (but much less convenient for downtown).
Holiday Inn Fisherman’s Wharf ££
This 585-room hotel, over five floors and two blocks back from the waterfront, is convenient for Pier 39 and the key Fisherman’s Wharf sights and excursions. Tired in places, the rooms are clean and the service is personable; the cable-car turnaround for access to Union Square and the city centre is two blocks away; much the same goes for the nearby Holiday Inn Express, except that it is half the size (001 415 771 9000; holidayinn.com ; doubles from £186 July-September or book with Virgin Holiday Cruises).
Suites at Fisherman’s Wharf ££
Consider these spacious, self-catering suites for a longer stay, but be warned that you’re eight minutes’ walk from the Wharf (15 minutes from Pier 39) and on a street junction: many street-facing rooms, while enjoying views of the Bay, are noisy, which may bother those who do not relish the sounds of the city, notably the clanking of the trams below. Nice terrace with views for evening drinks (771 0200; shellhospitality.com ; doubles from £140).
The Inn at Union Square ££
There are grander hotels in San Francisco, but this is a good, fairly priced find if you want to be near Union Square and the heart of the city. It’s small and intimate – you could easily miss the entrance – and comfortable, well run and welcoming (397 3510; unionsquare.com ; doubles from £180).
THE INSIDE TRACK
Alaskan weather can be poor and unpredictable, even in the main summer cruising months of June, July and August, so take suitable clothing and be prepared for some the possibility of some excursions – especially floatplane and helicopter sightseeing trips – to be called off.
Juneau (15-hour stopover) is the key stop for shore excursions, so book early: hike options here are not demanding and offer one of the best ways on the cruise to get a taste of the Alaskan backcountry.
Consider your options at Icy Strait Point: there is not enough to do for an hour, never mind the day (12-hour stopover). Unless you wish to remain on ship, it’s essential to book an excursion that takes you away from the “village”, either wildlife watching by boat or by coach into the hinterland.
Make time in Victoria (six-hour stopover) to visit the outstanding Royal British Columbia Museum (royalbcmuseum.bc.ca). Take a taxi to save time: it’s 35 minutes’ walk downtown from the terminal.
Princess Cruises’ website has details on shore excursions. Lonely Planet’s Alaska has good background information on the state, but is sketchy on the cruise ports. The Rough Guide to Vancouver (Penguin) offers coverage of Victoria. Official sites for the key cities are sanfrancisco.travel, tourismvancouver.com and victoria.com .