Cruising Alaska

Just how much fun can two women get up to on a seven-day Alaskan cruise? Kaye takes on the challenge.

Crusing does not appeal to my husband, David. So when an invitation arrives to cruise the shores of Alaska onboard MS Oosterdam, he quickly declines. I ask him one more time, and receive a second knockback. So I immediately invite my longtime friend Peta along for the adventure. Pet takes about 10 seconds to say yes, so it’s a date. We meet in Seattle for a day and night of bonding before hitting the high seas to Juneau.

Weather permitting, our voyage takes us to the twin glaciers at Tracy Arm, then we head up to Alaska’s capital of Juneau, the former Russian town of Sitka, historic Ketchikan and Victoria in British Columbia before docking back in Seattle.

Along the way we have been promised sightings of wildlife including eagles, whales and maybe even a bear or two, either from the ship or on one of the many different shore excursions.

The party begins as we sail out of Puget Sound, on a perfect sunny Sunday. A friendly steward ensures we are sipping a Pinot Grigio as we watch Seattle recede, looking like a blue and white Lego-land replica of the perfect city.

Settling into our stateroom is great fun. It’s just like first day at college as we divide up the wardrobe and cupboards and discuss the range of activities we’re about to enjoy. There are simply too many options, so it’s time for some tough decisions. A winetasting late afternoon wins the first gong. Next we sign up for four sessions of bootcamp so our bikini bodies can be revealed (as if!) followed by some pampering in the Greenhouse Spa; hairdressing for Peta, a massage for me.

Shipboard life is what you make it. If your desire is to veg out and lie by the pool, then that’s fine. But Alaskan seas can be unpredictable and skies are often stormy, so indoor activities are an important part of the mix. That said, we have certainly lucked it in as day after day of high temperatures and brilliant sunshine greet us offering crystal clear views of extraordinary landscapes and wildlife.

Our days settle into a mix of ‘work’ and play, with super strenuous boot camp workouts in the morning, after which we promptly head to the Explorations Café where we recline in deep leather sofas, lattes in hand, a choice of the latest bestsellers in the bookshelves nearby. Pre-dinner drinks are also ‘mandatory’ and even more enjoyable in the company of the mysterious white-suited violinist who seems to be performing just for us.

Our first wine appreciation course is such a success that, before I know it, Peta has signed us up for another! It means skipping one of our bootcamp sessions but it’s worth our trainer Angie’s disappointment to spend more time in the company of the ship’s sommelier Zoltan, resplendent in a dinner suit, his heavy gold sommelier’s chain draped like a medieval trophy across his chest. Zoltan combines knowledge and charm with a great sense of humour while imparting years of knowledge about wine production and selection.

There are many excellent dining options on board, but the standout experience is Le Cirque dinner in the Pinnacle Grill. Here the menu and crockery replicate the favourites from the acclaimed chef Sirio Maccioni’s New York institution, first established in 1974. Staff on board have been trained in Le Cirque techniques which means the service of the chateaubriand becomes a high art performance. But even this performance is outshone by nature as we view dozens of humpbacked whales, breaching in unison either side of the ship, the silhouettes of their tails etched black in front of a fiery red sunset.

So little time and so much to learn. There are cooking classes, digital photography lessons, tips and training with the onboard ‘techspert’ and table setting with party planner, Ashleigh. Not to mention the highlight of a demonstration by our favourite captain, Arjen C. van der Loo, cooking his famous Dutch Apple Pancakes.

Each day we are feeling more relaxed, and so, faced with the choice of yet another class or a decadent afternoon, we plump for the latter, settling on the sofa in our stateroom, to watch a George Clooney movie – accompanied by a bottle of chardonnay and a cheese platter – simply because we can.

For all the fun and indulgence on board, there is another side to Alaskan life we hadn’t anticipated. This is a harsh and unforgiving country where people cling to a precarious existence, quite literally. Their houses cling to the side of impossible mountains. Men and women cling to sanity despite the punishing climate with 361 rainy or snow-filled days each year. People cling to the land, with the only way in or out by air or sea. They also cling to a tenuous income evidenced by the sign ‘this shop is owned by an Alaskan family’ displayed prominently in nearly every souvenir shop. It’s all too easy to miss this hardship when you’re merely daytrippers who have lucked upon the sunniest five days in a row, enjoying the colour, the bright light, and laughter.

Alaska is also about the big things: dramatic landscapes layered with spectacular mountain ranges, age-old glaciers and endless skies. We experience the power of nature as we approach the twin glaciers at Tracy Arm when chattering passengers crowded on the promenade deck are silenced by the grandeur of the snow-covered mountains and the first sighting of a glacier.

But ultimately it’s the small things onboard that create our memories. The ‘origami’ animal towels on our beds each night, their eyes following you around the cabin, the Filipino crewmembers singing to surprised guests and the follow-up phone call to check that your breakfast was enjoyable.

Our cosy stateroom has become our home and affords a calm contrast to the wild world outside, experienced first hand when we head out on the verandah and contemplate the night sky above and churning seas below.

Peta is the sister I never had. And it’s heartwarming to know we still have as much fun together as we did 30 years ago. Our time in Alaska has meant travel in buses, dinghies, boats and the massive floating community onboard the ms Oosterdam. We’ve seen the moon sail over massive mountains, whales breach, eagles circle and glaciers break up into thousands of chunks of ice. We’ve soared in a floatplane over mountain lakes, fjords and jewel-blue waters. We’ve worshipped ancient saints in Sitka, followed the ‘married man’s trail’ to the cathouses of Ketchikan, watched salmon spawning in Juneau and we’re still laughing as we sail back to Seattle. Cruising has given us the opportunity to relax and reconnect. But it’s also taken us into the unknown Alaskan landscape, an adventure neither of us will forget.

So next time a cruise invitation arrives and David stifles a yawn and declines, I won’t argue. Cruising is what you make it – and Peta and I have made it a girls-own adventure. Just don’t tell my husband.

Kaye Fallick travelled as a guest of Holland America Lines

Written by Kaye Fallick