Why awesome Alaska is America's last frontier

by Andrea.McVeigh

On a cruise of Alaska's Inside Passage, you'll find a land full of awe-inspiring scenery, fascinating native culture, historic Gold Rush-era towns and the occasional brown bear


It all began with the hunt for a moose burger. Having heard that such culinary options existed, and being intrigued - and having been a big fan of the 1990s TV show Northern Exposure - I'd always wanted to go on a cruise around Alaska, America's 'last frontier'. It wasn't that I wanted to tuck into a bap containing a previously free-roaming antlered animal, exactly (I don't even eat red meat) but, as with Glasgow's infamous deep-fried Mars bars, I was curious to see if they really existed.
If you want to get away from it all, there's no need to join the Foreign Legion: just head for Alaska, America's 49th state. With its glacier-filled waters, breathtaking scenery, wide open spaces, lush forests, native culture, historic towns and the occasional brown bear, it's a haven for wildlife-loving outdoors types. 
Discovering that Holland America Line (HAL) offered a seven-night voyage of the Inside Passage, one of the most scenic sea-lanes in the world, sealed the deal. With all that land to traverse, one of the easiest ways to get around is by cruise liner, especially since most of southeast Alaska is accessible only by boat or plane. 
After flying to Vancouver and staying overnight in the luxurious Fairmont Waterfront hotel, just across the street from the cruise ship terminal, we set sail on a sunny September day. Holland America Line's MS Ryndam offered all the comforts you'd enjoy in a luxury hotel, and more, with numerous dining options, trendy bars and a nightclub, and several different cabin types, from the luxurious, super-sized, Penthouse Verandah Suite, to the deluxe or regular Verandah suites, each featuring a large balcony. 
After flexing your muscles in the onboard gym, you can exercise your credit card in the numerous onboard shops, which sell everything from formal evening wear to jewellery and postcards, or treat yourself to a pampering beauty treatment in the Greenhouse Spa & Salon. For younger passengers, there's Club Hal and the teen-only Loft and Oasis sundeck to enjoy.
And while there were no moose burgers on offer, the ship had no shortage of onboard eateries, from the upmarket Pinnacle Grill and the Rotterdam Dining Room, with its daily five-course dinner menu and impeccably-liveried waiters, to the more casual Lido buffet restaurant, along with a café, a grill and a daily poolside buffet.
Sailing close to glaciers and steep mountain walls, you can get up close and personal with Alaska's impressive geography, its towering mountain ranges, rugged landscapes and deep fjords. The ports of call included Alaska's state capital Juneau, located against a backdrop of forested hills. The locals are proud of their Gold Rush-era heritage, a lot of which has been carefully preserved, so don't pass on the opportunity to call into a traditional saloon for a spot of lunch and a shot of Bourbon.
In the old days, circa 1880, most saloons would have allowed hard-working prospectors the chance to cash in their day's takings for a dalliance with an equally hard-working girl in the upstairs rooms, and in the small, but perfectly preserved former Gold Rush town of Skagway, the Red Onion Saloon offers a $5 tour of the bar's upper floors, which have been turned into a brothel museum. Located on the northern tip of the Inside Passage, the town is bursting with history and tales of prospectors, con-men and good time gals.
After sampling the hospitality of a local saloon, nothing clears the head like waking up the morning after and looking out of your cabin window to discover that you're sailing past icebergs, the icy Alaskan waters crashing against the ship's bow. That's exactly what you'll be treated to in the appropriately-named Glacier Bay National Park.
Wrapped in blankets and supping hot toddies, passengers soon gathered on the Promenade Deck to see and hear huge chunks of ice breaking away from glaciers and floating past the ship, as they tried to catch glimpses of seals, mountain goats, eagles and bears. Because of environmental concerns, few cruise lines are allowed in the bay, but Holland-America Line is one of them. 
With more than 250 land excursions on offer from HAL, it was hard to pick which ones we wanted to go on - do we choose a salmon bake, a helicopter flight or try our hand at dog-sledding on a glacier? Figuring that the best way to see the land was to take to the road, we signed up for a Harley Davidson tour of Ketchikan, Alaska's fourth largest city, and home to art galleries, lumberjack shows and the outdoor Totem Bight State Historical Park, just a short distance out of town.
After our exhilarating tour we joined the rest of the tourists and explored Ketchikan's historic Creek Street area, with its buildings on stilts and boardwalks over the river, from where you can watch as salmon swim by.
When it comes to shopping, Alaska is, surprisingly perhaps, an Aladdin's Cave for bargain-hunters. All the major ports have souvenir shops galore, selling everything from totem souvenirs to T-shirts. But as for that moose burger? We never did find one. Which, handily, just gives us an excuse to go back there again some day and continue the hunt.  



With many years of experience in journalism under her belt and a well-stamped passport in her back pocket, writer, broadcaster and DJ, Andrea McVeigh, thinks that any time spent at home is time wasted when there's a whole wide world of fun, culture and adventure to discover. Whether it's climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, sipping cocktails in West Hollywood, eating fried silk worms in Korea, or giving visitors the low-down on her home city of Belfast, Andrea has been there, done that and bought the tourist T-shirt (not to mention the key-ring, bumper sticker and souvenir pen).