by: Manya Singh
From Anchorage, we travelled by coach along Turnagain Arm to Whittier, through a three mile, one-lane tunnel. Whittier is so small, all the population lives in one huge block of flats at the foot of a steep range of mountains.
We boarded our cruise ship, Spirit of Columbia, at the Whittier dock. The ship is small, with only 40 passengers.
The trip was pure magic – days of sailing quietly around Prince William Sound surrounded by the most spectacular scenery you could imagine. Because of the long daylight hours we found ourselves remaining up on deck until midnight, which still looked like afternoon.
After wending a careful way through the ice floes, we parked right beside Harvard Glacier and listened to the thunderous roar as crevasses opened and huge chunks of ice fell off the glacier face. The swell from the fallen ice raised our ship as it passed beneath us.
Seals and their pups rested on the many ice floes, humpback whales cruised through the bays, and Dall's porpoise played alongside the ship. Families of sea lions hauled out on the rocky shores, roaring their disapproval of us. My favourites were the vast numbers of sea otters – gorgeous creatures nonchalantly lying on their backs and grooming themselves as they floated past.
We visited Cordova, an isolated fishing village up Orca Inlet. It looks like an old frontier town. The population is mainly Inuit (Eyak people). The Heritage Centre delivers a lot of information about their lives and history as well as a singing and dancing performance by the native people.
We arrived at Chenega Glacier, one of the largest in the Sound. What a mighty sight! The glacier face is 150 ft. high, huge cliffs of crevassed ice. We spent hours there watching the giant chunks of ice thundering down and into the black sea.
The scenery on the whole trip was the most spectacular I have ever seen: the purity of the air and the clear clean colours of the snow, the forests, the sky, the deep, cold dark sea which faithfully mirrored each mountain and valley. Traveling in a very small ship made it a more intimate experience. We were very close to the water and could approach the land (to see bears) or the glaciers more closely than if we were in a large ship. Luckily, we had perfect weather, there were no clouds or wind the whole time.
The next best thing we did was to visit Denali National Park. This was a comfortable eight-hour train trip from Anchorage. One day we did the Tundra Wilderness Tour (eight hours into the park). There is only one road into the six-million acre park and no private cars are allowed in. They are trying to preserve the land and the animals from human interaction. Consequently, what you see is land untouched by human endeavour. The scenery is unbelievable: huge dry glacial valleys, range after range of mighty snow-covered mountains, the Polychrome Range in a rainbow of colours from yellow to red to brown and striped with snow. Plenty of Caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears and their cubs, grey wolves, snowshoe hares, ground squirrels and even moose. We saw the lot at close quarters.
In the distance we could see Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. The road did not approach too closely to the great mountain so we booked a flight in a tiny eight-seater Piper Navajo for a close-up view. Again, we were lucky with the weather, a perfect cloudless day with no wind. We could see climbers approaching the summit. I used more than two rolls of film during the flight of nearly two hours. The pilot (a young girl) was so delighted with the fine weather she kept us out much longer than normal.
Mt. McKinley's native name is Denali, which means the Great One. We felt in awe as we flew around the sides and over the top of the mighty one. Mt. Mckinley is over 20,000 feet high - we were as insignificant as a fly speck. As the little plane was not pressurized we had to wear oxygen masks.
The beauty of the mountain was stunning and to see the giant glaciers - some three miles wide, the incredible blue of ice pools, and the vast panorama of jagged snow peaks, ahh, I think I became intoxicated with it all - or maybe it was a lack of oxygen!
A few questions:
LWS: How long were you there in total and what time of the year?
We went in May and part of June, we were away for 5 weeks. The trip included time in Canada and then Alaska. I am convinced that this is the best time to go, because its before the high tourist season, therefore a little cheaper and not so crowded. Also there is more snow.
LWS: Did you book your whole trip as one package with one company or in separate segments?
We booked the boat cruise and the Denali train trip through Adventure Destinations in Australia. The rest of the trip, which was mostly in Canada, we made up as we went along.
LWS: How long were you on the boat?
We chose Cruise West’s Glacier Wonderland Cruise, a 5-day/4-night package.
LWS: What were accommodations like on the boat? Food?
The cabins, although small, were adequate and comfortable. We had two bunks in an L-shaped position, a wardrobe, a washbasin, and space under the bunks for cases. Plenty of shelves, a small bathroom consisting of a shower and toilet, a large picture window and best of all, two pairs of binoculars to be used on the ship. The cabin was lovely and warm and opened onto the open deck, so you could stand at the open door, first thing in the morning and see the beautiful views.
The food was wonderful, excellent meals, in fact, too much of a good thing. We Australians had to ask the chef to tone it down a little, so instead of the three-course lunches every day, some days we just had the tomato sandwiches we had asked for. The chef did not mind at all. The whole crew were the friendliest and most cheerful bunch of young ones, nothing was too much trouble.
LWS: Was everything included on the cruise/train? What did you have to pay extra for?
On the ship, the only extra costs were any souvenirs you bought and any alcoholic drinks at the bar. On the train we were surprised to find that we had to pay for meals.
LWS: Any advice or tips to offer other travelers?
I would definitely stay longer in Anchorage, it's the most fascinating place. We were only there one day before the cruise and one day after. It deserves longer, there is so much to do and see. There are even daily flights up to Barrow, or Nome. Another thing I would do is take the train up to Fairbanks, it is further on than Denali. The beauty of this State is breathtaking and well worth the journey.
Manya Singh traveled on the Spirit of the Columbia with
West a company that specializes in casual, small ship cruising.