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Great Outdoors

Marry a lumberjack but avoid the bear poop – my summer cruising Alaska

Alaska cruises drum up wildlife by the bucketload, stonking scenery and excellent plaid shirt models, as Sailawaze was more than happy to discover.

Words by Harriet Mallinson

Crack. Pizza. Q-Tip. No, not items humans like to insert into orifices but the nicknames of certain humpback whales off the coast of Juneau in southeast Alaska.

That said, it’s orifices I’m most interested in as I stand on the bow of my small whale-watching boat, beady-eyed for the beasts’ blowholes and any spouts of water indicating their presence.

Aaaaand gotcha! I squeal like a party girl securing the Uber to go Out Out and ram my binoculars to my eyeballs. Ahead the whales’ black backs crest above the ocean followed by their huge V-shaped tails flicking upwards…the classic giveaway we’re dancing with humpbacks.

No getting too intimate, though – these iconic tails are the strongest muscle in the world and can terminate a killer whale with just one thwack. I don’t fancy my chances with Alaska’s bald eagles either – the talons! The swooping! – and don’t get me started on the country’s countless bears – I’ve seen the size of their excrement alone.

Luckily, if you stick with the pros you’ll spot all the fauna you could hope for while staying safe. I’m cruising Alaska with Holland America Line (HAL) which not only has wildlife experts onboard but also a plethora of shore excursions to choose from so your critter cravings are truly sated.

Harbor seals become a firm favorite of mine after they’re dubbed “Awkward on land” by HAL’s wildlife whizz Frederick during a nature lecture – “Same,” I think – and the animals in the flesh do not disappoint when I take a Zodiac excursion from Ketchikan.

“It’s very much a wilderness here,” our guide enthuses as we zoom past George Inlet’s tree-encrusted islets under a vast expanse of blue sky – the picture postcard of North America’s great outdoors.

We near a rocky mass studded with these famously ungainly seals, some huddled together like strategy-devising footballers, others lolling solo in the sun. Their large doleful, dark eyes stare as we interrupt the peace while a few decide to make a break for it, heaving and flopping their cumbersome bodies down into the water only for a series of sleek, bewhiskered heads to appear a moment later like glistening cherries plopped in for a rinse.

Theirs isn’t the only flesh I struggle to peel myself away from during my Alaska adventure, however. Later that day I book myself a last-minute spot at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show and spend a very happy hour indeed ogling rippling biceps as the athletic men hurl axes at targets. Pert denim-clad behinds quiver as they chop tree trunks and muscular chests under low-cut (plaid, duh) shirts gleam as the lumberjacks run across bobbing logs and shimmy up wooden poles.

Obviously it’s outrageously silly – no grown woman should be shouting “Yo ho” at four sweaty men before midday, not to mention the presenter’s jokes in between the impressive feats of masculinity are pretty painful and it’s horribly touristy (don’t miss the Lumberjack Calendar and related plaid merchandise) – but lumberjack Tom, if you read this, I’m available for marriage.

Should you require the security of a HAL shore experience, get savvy with your planning. Book in whale-watching and helicopter trips well before your departure date (these spots fill up quickly) and if you want bears try to get an early morning excursion to improve your chances of spotting the majestic mammals. And remember, always read the fine print so as not to miss vital information regarding weight restrictions, timings, and food inclusions.

Of course there’s plenty of wildlife to spy from the ship itself. The biggest lesson I learn here is to get up early and head out on deck for the best opportunities – your own stateroom will do if you have a balcony. Just be sure to pack binoculars and warm clothing (yes, even in summer)… and be patient!

This certainly applies to the wildlife mecca of Glacier Bay National Park. Expert Frederick recommends arming yourself with strong coffee and keeping watch on deck from 6am to 3.30pm, if you’ve got the staying power. You don’t have to just rely on your own sight, though, a park ranger comes onboard to talk about all the animals and scenery over loudspeaker so there’s no excuse for missing the attractions.

And boy are they spectacular. The highlight here is Margerie Glacier [above], a gargantuan icy fortress riven with bright slushy-blue hues and deep fissures like archers’ slits in a medieval castle. The sheer size of the thing is emphasized by a handful of kayakers in the distance, a scattering of colorful Skittles utterly dwarfed by nature’s magical marvel.

Occasionally a cracking boom emanates from the frozen wall, enough to strike terror into the heart of any skier but from the safety of our ship we ooh and aah as large chunks of ice calve and splash into the chilly waters below.

A good spot onboard HAL’s Eurodam to admire Mother Earth’s wonders while staying warm is the Crow’s Nest which is absolutely nothing like the cramped wooden baskets from ships of yore and every bit a comfortable lounge boasting games, cozy leather chairs and a fully-stocked bar.

Accommodation on the ship is lovely too – I stay in a Verandah cabin which comes with a mirror above the bed big enough to keep amorous couples entertained into the wee hours and ample storage, plus conditioner and body lotion in the bathroom (not always a given!).

Hungry? Do try the clothesline candied bacon starter in Pinnacle Grill which is artfully (or rather, comically) presented like three tiny, tasty piggies hanging from hooks in a slaughterhouse between superfluous sprigs of fragrant rosemary. Get the (non-gimmicky) Key Lime Pie for dessert if you have space.

Afterward, immerse yourself in the line’s cornucopia of live music, from dueling pianos in Billboard Onboard and hip-hop singers in BB King’s to dance shows in the main, tech-rich theatre, before sleep beckons.

Heading to bed, I spy the low full moon glowing above the spruces. It’s a burnished Quality Street toffee penny shining a theatrical spotlight on the darkened sea, a campfire beyond the rocks, before it matures into a dazzling sailor’s beacon, guiding our bark through the night.

And as the whales sing in the depths of the ocean, I think – Lumberjack Tom, this mirror is going to waste.

Set Sail

Alaska Explorer with Holland America Line

Duration: 7 nights

Where: Seattle, Washington, US | Juneau, Alaska, US | Glacier Bay | Icy Strait Point, Alaska, US | Sitka, Alaska, US | Ketchikan, Alaska, US | Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Ship: Eurodam

Price: From $599 pp

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Book Cruise
Published 09.01.23