Alarmed, the seal slid from the iceberg into the water as we approached, turning to urge her pup to follow her. The shadow of our ship’s bow crept across the thick icy slush, towards the small harbour seal, reluctant to enter the frigid sea, lingering on the berg. The mother swirled in agitated circles, the shadow loomed closer, and still closer – “Hot chocolate?” asked the barman, appearing with a tray. “Mulled wine?”
Everyone turned with a pleased murmur and the moment of drama passed, the pup slipping unseen into the water and powering away to safety. Though we were in one of the planet’s most inhospitable places, an elemental landscape composed of rock, ice and ocean where whales breached, bears roamed the shore and seals gave birth on ice floes calved from immense glaciers, we were in our own little bubble of civilised comfort.
On Silversea’s Silver Shadow, we luxuriated in butler-serviced suites, gourmet meals, professional entertainment, original Picasso and Dali artworks on the walls and steaming spa pools on the deck. It was the perfect combination: every desire met against a background of rawest nature. Sailing from the small port of Seward in Alaska down through the Inside Passage to Vancouver brought seven days of spectacular mountain peaks, endless pine forest, rocky islets, magnificent glaciers and small, isolated towns of colourful buildings with even more colourful histories.
And there were animals, so many animals. Most of them, it seemed at first, were dead. The foyer at the Hotel Seward was a vivid introduction to the local huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ lifestyle, its walls bristling with mounted heads including a moose with antlers over two metres wide and the front half of a golden grizzly bear. The floor space crowded with a fully-grown musk ox, wolverine and several deer.
“People give them to us to display,” the receptionist said mildly as I gaped, not realising it was to become a theme. Fortunately, the excellent Alaska SeaLife Center, housed in a modern building funded by Exxon’s settlement after the 1989 oil spill – was full of living creatures, from tiny shrimp to a vast Steller sea lion called Woody, all 450 kilograms of him. Best of all, there were puffins, “northern hemisphere penguins,” according to Andrea at my behind-the-scenes encounter. Polite and dainty, they made the feeding session a delight, taking the fish and krill from my fingers without squabbling. But it was Clingy, the little rhinoceros auklet, who stole the show, nibbling at my shoelace.
Sailing on the Silver Shadow that night, the focus swapped to mountains, snow and sea outside and a pillow menu, cocktails and white-uniformed staff inside. It was both bizarre and fun to sit on our private balcony with a nightcap at 10pm in broad daylight, the sun still well above the horizon; though at bedtime, we were glad of the suite’s thick curtains.
The Silver Shadow is smaller than most cruise ships, with a maximum of just 382 passengers, and so was able to approach the huge Hubbard Glacier the next day. Gliding slowly across Disenchantment Bay through broken ice that clinked against the sides, we were diverted by the seals until the ship stopped and we gazed in wonderment at the wall of ice ahead. It was still a couple of kilometres away, but our perceptions were distorted simply because the scale is so huge: the snout of the glacier is around 11 kilometres wide and 40 storeys high. Even from that distance I could hear the growling and creaking of the ice, an eerie and unsettling sound in that empty landscape.
In the shops at Sitka the next day it was back to the animal theme: reindeer hides for US$250 ($272), a wolf skin complete with snarling head US$400 ($435). But balance was restored when a catamaran took us from this busy fishing port into the inlet on a wildlife quest. Within minutes we had found a pair of humpback whales resting, then diving, and the captain was delighted to see that well-known local loner Domino had at last found a friend. There was no doubt though that the high point for everyone else was finding a raft of female sea otters floating in a bed of kelp, their pups riding safe and dry on their chests. Further along the pewter waters, under the classic volcanic cone of Mount Edgecumbe, there was another cluster of otters, males this time and bolder, lifting their heads to eye us as they too floated on their backs, their bare paws out of the water for warmth.
As the salmon run was yet to start there were no bears to be seen, but we fixed that with a visit to a rehabilitation centre just outside town where five rescued black bears lived, happily it seemed, inside huge concrete tanks. At each port we had a wide choice of excursions, ranging from taking a helicopter flight onto a glacier for a spin in a dog-sled to watching a lumberjack show. For me, the best part came after sailing through the night, when we were met next morning by a local boat for a trip along Tracy Arm fjord to the two Sawyer Glaciers.
The mighty Hubbard had been impressive, but these were utterly beautiful. Passing more seals lolling on icebergs, we crept close enough to appreciate the fabulous deep sapphire blue of the ice against the milky turquoise of the sea. Pieces calved off in apparent slow motion, the “white thunder” echoing off the bare cliffs in the deep silence of the valley. “We could surf a small tsunami,” assured Alex, the knowledgeable onboard naturalist. “But if a really big chunk broke off, we’d high-tail it right out of here.” That wasn’t the only danger. “Have you heard about shooters?” he asked. “They’re pieces that break off underneath and suddenly erupt from the water. Not good if you’re kayaking in the wrong place.”
We were astonished at the variety of icebergs: some white and sculpted into bizarre shapes, some an unearthly blue, others transparent. Alex netted a small one of these for us to inspect. We stroked its smooth surface and looked at the air bubbles trapped inside. “Could be 500 years old, that air, could be 10,000,” he said, slinging it carelessly back over the side.
There were two black bears on the way back, one of them cinnamon-coloured, busily scraping mussels off the rocks below the high-tide mark. We saw waterfalls both frozen and flowing, round bare domes poking through the spruce and hemlock trees, perfect reflections of snowy peaks in the still water. It was almost a disappointment to return to civilisation at Juneau, even though it’s hardly a metropolis.
The state capital Juneau is inaccessible by road and, despite the cruise ships in the harbour and throngs of tourists along the streets, it still has a frontier feel. At the foot of a mountain riddled with gold-mining tunnels, it’s seen some action in its time, which continues at the Red Dog Saloon with its batwing doors, sawdust floor, bartender in braces and a stuffed bear among many other animals on its walls. But their beer is good, especially the Alaskan White Ale.
The next day brought 30,000 horses – or their memory, at least. The White Pass and Yukon Railroad from Skagway to Yukon follows the trail of the “stampeders” full of gold lust who in 1897 toiled 800 unforgiving kilometres through the mountains to the Klondike goldfields. A half-day trip from the ship took us by steam train along a spectacular piece of hands-on engineering; the railway that replaced the steep and muddy track where so many horses fell, exhausted, that it became known as Dead Horse Trail. Though their story was sad, the bridges and tunnels and dizzying drops made this an unforgettable excursion.
At pretty, colourful Ketchikan there was excitement of a different sort: eight ziplines through the treetops, the longest 260 metres of squealing fun, 40 metres above the ground. “There are more black bears on this island than people,” someone commented as we stood at eye-level with an eagle’s nest, looking down to where bears sometimes grazed in a meadow. There were none to be seen, but back in town there was a stuffed one rearing in the furrier’s, where a woman dithered over which thick beaver pelt to buy for her new pair of moccasins. Stroking the soft furs hanging from the rails – mink, fox, rabbit, wolf, lynx – I could see the attraction, though personally I’d rather the animals were still inside them.
One more night’s sail brought us, reluctantly, to Vancouver. The Silver Shadow slipped under the Lions Gate Bridge as I lay in my soft bed for the last time, breathing in the lavender scent of my silken pillow. It had been a wonderful cruise, as much due to the ship itself, and its friendly crew, as for the dazzling scenery and storybook history of the places we visited.
I would do it all again in a moment.