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Northern Exposure

Three Alaskan cities give cruise passengers the best
of The Great Land's wildlife and diverse culture.

"There she blows!" shouts an awe-struck whale watcher as a 40-ton humpback whale breaks the frigid surface of Stephens Passage near Juneau, Alaska. The whale exhales a geyser that almost seems to reach the snow-capped mountains and submerges with a dramatic wave of its powerful fluke. On a whale watching tour, it's inevitable someone is going to repeat this famous line from Moby Dick. It gets a laugh from the camera-toting crowd huddled at the catamaran railing, including the onboard naturalist who has probably heard it 1,000 times.

It's the first sighting of the day, and the sense of excitement is palpable.

Best of Juneau is a favorite shore excursion among Holland America cruise ship passengers sailing on the ms Noordam for a seven-day Alaskan Inside Passage adventure. The cruise sails round-trip from Vancouver, Canada, with ports of call in the Alaskan cities of Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan, and showcases a pristine land of fjords, glaciers, freshwater lakes, and temperate rain forests. Sailing dates start up in April 2017.

Observing wildlife – humpback whales, sea otters, bears, bald eagles, moose, and more – is the main attraction of any Alaskan cruise, and Holland America offers a wide variety of shore excursions that get passengers to the remote animal habitats they long to explore.

Humpback whales are so abundant in Stephens Passage, sightings are guaranteed. They spend the summer feeding on the channel's endless buffet of krill and small fish. Between meals, they have a gig entertaining cruise ship passengers, or so it would seem.

It's not uncommon to see one of the behemoths launch its massive body out of the water, perform an acrobatic twist, and return underwater with a thunderous splash, a behavior called breaching. Scientists can only speculate as to why whales do it, but whatever the reason, it's certainly riveting.

Best of Juneau also includes a visit to Mendenhall Glacier, a 13-mile-long natural wonder that is inside Tongass National Forest. The glacier glows blue under the intense Alaskan sun, and is flanked by frosty mountains dotted with verdant patches uncovered by melting snow.

It looks as though churning water was quite literally frozen in time as it moved toward Mendenhall Lake, but, of course, that's not the case. Since the mid-1700s, the glacier has been retreating, revealing a newborn land that now flourishes with numerous species of flora and fauna. As visitors take in the scene, a large chunk of ice breaks free and torpedoes into the lake, a phenomenon called "calving."

Brown (grizzly) and black bears gather at the creek to feast on salmon because they will need copious stores of fat to get through the long, harsh winter.

Want to try a little Alaskan salmon yourself? Well, you are in luck. This shore excursion includes a lunch of fresh Alaskan salmon at Orca Point Lodge.

Fly Like an Eagle

At Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, birdwatchers floating along the Chilkat River in a large inflatable raft follow their guide's gaze to a bald eagle perched high in a cottonwood tree. The raptor holds his distinctive, snow-white head high and aloof, as though fully aware of his magnificence. Suddenly, he spreads his wings wide, soars gracefully over the river's calm surface, and disappears into the forest.

The preserve, home to the largest concentration of bald eagles in the world, can be visited while on the Haines Eagle Preserve Float Adventure and Lynn Fjord Cruise tour, an excursion offered while in Skagway.

One reason Chilkat is such a favorable environment for these majestic birds is the abundance of food. Salmon runs begin in summer and continue throughout early winter. The fish die after spawning, and the eagles feed on the carcasses.

As the raft makes its way to another prime vantage point, a woman spots something moving on the shore. On closer inspection, the group can make out a mother moose and her calf grazing peacefully along the riverbank. This may be a bald eagle preserve, but an array of wildlife makes its home here, and you never know what you will see or when.

Ports rich with cultural activities

Holland America also offers shore excursions that focus on Alaskan history and culture. While in Skagway, see The Dangerous Days of '98, the region's longest running show, a vaudeville-style production that recounts the tale of Soapy Smith, a notorious 19th-century con man who scammed much of the hardscrabble frontier town during the Klondike Gold Rush.

Saxman Native Village and Totem Pole Park in Ketchikan shines a light on the multi-faceted culture of the Tlingit (pronounced Klingit) people, Alaska Natives who have been in the region for thousands of years. The totem poles are replicas of originals left behind in small villages as modern Tlingit moved to more populous areas. They illustrate legends and tell stories of the tribe's triumphs and struggles.

Thousands flock to Alaska every summer, but most of the state is still a vast, remote wilderness so its moniker, The Last Frontier, is still fitting. The largest state in the union makes the bucket list of travelers around the globe.

This isn't a place where you must seek out natural beauty; it's in every cloud and every tree, and there's something almost spiritual about being in its midst.

Tracey Teo is a contributor from Evansville, Ind.

September/October 2016 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

Your AAA Travel agent can help you plan a cruise tour of Alaska. View a list of offices to serve you. Join AAA and some of our travel vendor partners on Oct. 8 in Metairie for the AAA Travel MarketPlace.

Look for the web bonus story about Vancouver.

 

In Title: Mendenhall Glacier is among Juneau's top attractions. The 13-mile-long glacier is inside a national forest. Wesley K.H. Teo

 

 


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