An Extraordinary Adventure on a Holland America Cruise to Alaska
In Alaska’s Stephens Passage, a 35-ton humpback whale named Flame leaps from the frigid water, exhaling a geyser of breath through her blowhole that almost seems to reach the snow-capped mountains, then submerges with a wave of her powerful fluke. Her calf Bang observes mom’s acrobatics so he can perform this dramatic maneuver called breaching himself someday. The delighted crowd at the catamaran railing scans the waves through binoculars, hoping for an encore performance.
Whale watching is a favorite shore excursion among MS Noordam cruise ship passengers on the first leg of Holland America’s 14-day Alaska Land and Sea Cruisetour that combines a cruise through Alaska’s scenic Inside Passage with a train ride into the interior and up to three nights in Denali National Park. Stops include Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Seward, and more.
Chani Daly Welle, the onboard naturalist, recognizes Flame and many other whales by their fluke, or tail, which can be up to 15 feet wide.
“They have a distinct underside to their fluke,” Welle explains. “Sometimes there’s scarring or barnacles or parasites that create a recognizable pattern that distinguishes them from other whales. It’s like a fingerprint for each whale.”
During the summer, one of the largest concentrations of humpback whales in the world feeds in the Inside Passage, a channel that stretches 500 miles along the Pacific Ocean, crossing the fjords and islands along Alaska’s southeast coast. These marine mammals have big appetites and consume more than a ton of krill and small fish per day. Lucky whale watchers may observe a feeding behavior called bubble netting, where whales team up and herd their prey with a net of bubbles, then swim through with jaws open wide.
Thrilling experiences like this make Alaska a bucket list destination for thousands of Americans. The largest state in the country, Alaska is known as the last frontier because vast tracts of land remain unexplored. Its mystery and icy natural beauty attract travelers hungry for an extraordinary adventure instead of a predictable vacation.
Many remote areas are accessible only by boat or small aircraft, but Holland America gets you where you want to go.
Take a float plane to the Tongass National Forest where hungry black bears dive into rushing streams to catch salmon, drive sled dogs over Mendenhall Glacier or venture to Saxman Native Village where Tlingit craftsmen carve totem poles. It’s important to book shore excursions early because the most popular ones sell out fast.
Mother Nature is moody in Alaska, so despite all your planning, there’s a slight chance your shore excursion could be canceled due to weather. If it happens, look at it as a chance to enjoy the amenities aboard the 1,972-passenger ship. Challenge a friend to a game of pickleball or indulge in an elegant afternoon tea. Some “me” time in the luxurious Greenhouse Spa will dissolve any lingering disappointment. Alaska is known for its rugged lifestyle, but onboard the ship, every comfort awaits.
On most ocean cruises, sea days mean the view from the deck is nothing but waves in every direction. Not so on an Alaskan cruise. Cruising through a portion of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve transports passengers to an ethereal world where walls of electric blue ice reach toward the mist-shrouded mountains. Keep an eye out for sea otters frolicking on rafts of floating sea ice.
When the cruise ends in Whittier, those continuing with the land portion of the tour are transported to Anchorage where they hop aboard the McKinley Explorer for an epic train journey to Denali National Park and Preserve. The two-level, glass-domed train offers sweeping 360-degree views of the wilderness, increasing the chances of spotting moose munching on lush summer grass and majestic bald eagles fishing in waterways.
Upon arrival, guests check into the McKinley Chalet Resort and rest up for tomorrow’s bus tour which goes 43 miles into the park. The Tundra Wilderness Tour is a narrated, six-hour excursion into this pristine wilderness that is about the size of New Jersey. Camera-ready visitors hope for a clear shot of North America’s tallest mountain – 20,310-foot Denali- that is notoriously enveloped in clouds. A naturalist on the bus explains the complexities of this dynamic ecosystem that is home to the “Big Five” wildlife species: grizzly and black bears, wolves, caribou, moose and Dall sheep.
Fun fact. Some of the park rangers have four legs and are covered in fur. Human park rangers depend on their canine counterparts, Alaskan huskies when they’re on patrol because these work dogs have what it takes to pull sleds laden with heavy equipment when it’s minus 40 degrees. Unlike motorized snowmobiles, they’re never hard to start in the cold.
To learn more about Alaskan huskies, take the Dog Gone It tour at Wolf’s Den Kennel just outside the park. A handler with an armful of velvety-soft, wiggly puppies passes them around to the crowd. The cuteness factor is off the charts, and a chorus of “Ahs” echoes around this vast kennel that is home to 60 Alaskan huskies owned by retired musher Mike Santos and his wife Caitlin. These adorable puppies are destined to be great athletes, and some of them will run in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an annual 1,000-mile dash across Alaska from Anchorage to Nome. Visitors may not realize it, but as they cuddle and play with the pups, they are participating in their training by socializing them.
After the busy summer tourist season, the dogs have little contact with humans outside the Santos family, and it’s essential that they get comfortable with strangers and all the unfamiliar sounds and smells they bring with them.
“At the Iditarod, they are going to interact with spectators and fans,” Santos said. “Think about a dog that grows up in the bush and is sent to Anchorage (Alaska’s biggest city) for the start of the Iditarod when it’s four years old. You’ve got other dogs, loud noises, and somebody on the loudspeaker blaring the national anthem. It would be traumatic.”
Caitlin leads the way to the fully-grown sled dogs, which can be heard before they are seen. Alaskan huskies are vocal creatures, and they seem to howl and bark just for the fun of it. A dog named Ice Cream perches atop her doghouse, leading the cacophonous chorus.
These aren’t the big, fluffy dogs seen in Hollywood films. The lean, medium-sized dogs vary greatly in appearance and be almost any color or pattern. What they have in common is the instinct to run and work as a team. The moment they spot a harness, they are ready to jump in it and pull that sled. See the dogs in action on a (snowless) training run.
This Holland America land and sea journey hits some of the most exciting places in Alaska, but they are just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended). The 49th state is more than twice the size of Texas, so even if you had two lifetimes to get through your bucket list, it would be hard to see it all. That doesn’t stop some from trying. Many return to Alaska’s glorious vistas year after year.
Follow Tracey Teo on Instagram @gobigorgohome2.