TRAVEL: A whale of a time in wild Alaska

MBCH Cruising in the Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. See PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska.
MBCH Cruising in the Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. See PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska.
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Renowned for producing Sarah Palin and a spate of wildlife documentaries, the American state of Alaska is much more exciting close up, as Jonathan Grun discovered.

The grizzly bears appeared when we were least expecting them.

MBCH A Bull Moose in Denali National Park, Alaska. See PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska.

MBCH A Bull Moose in Denali National Park, Alaska. See PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska.

One moment we were drifting down a gorgeous blue-green river of glacier meltwater and enjoying the warm sunshine, the next one of our companions shouted: “Bears!”

And there they were: a mother grizzly and her two cubs bustling along the riverbank.

Grizzlies are killing machines - they can rip you to pieces, they can run faster than a man and they can climb trees. There is no hiding place.

But we were separated by a stretch of water - although they can also swim - and this beautiful but deadly animal was not interested in us. Casting maternal glances over her shoulder, she led her adorably cuddly offspring in search of a meal of salmon.

MBCH An adult grizzly bear with her two cubs, Alaska. See PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska.

MBCH An adult grizzly bear with her two cubs, Alaska. See PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska.

It was a magical moment on a holiday that was like stepping into a David Attenborough wildlife documentary.

As we drifted down the Kenai river, bald eagles kept their beady eyes on us and thousands of spawning salmon swam beneath us in the chilly, translucent waters.

A holiday to Alaska really is the journey of a lifetime, especially if you combine a land tour with a cruise.

We spent the first week of our Princess tour travelling through the vastness of Alaska’s interior, with every day bringing a new memory to last a lifetime.

MBCH A humpback whale breaching, Alaska. See PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska.

MBCH A humpback whale breaching, Alaska. See PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska.

Then we spent another week on board the Coral Princess cruise liner, exploring the stunning coast with its teeming wildlife, and watching the glaciers tumble into the sea.

We flew to Anchorage to join our escorted tour party on a day of almost supernatural clarity. Our guide pointed out Mount McKinley, at 20,000ft the tallest peak in north America - it was a staggering 280 miles away.

You learn to treasure such days in Alaska - in the short summers the weather can sometimes be warm and welcoming but then the next day the rain may lash down.

In some places it rains almost all the time but that adds to the wild, unspoilt beauty of the state. Having said that, this is one summer holiday that needs a full range of clothes.

MBCH Huge pieces of ice tumbling into frozen water in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. See PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska.

MBCH Huge pieces of ice tumbling into frozen water in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. See PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Alaska.

Princess operate a number of lodges in Alaska and we spent our first few days at the smallest property, on the beautiful Kenai peninsular. You stay in delightful wooden cabins - each with its own wood-burning stove.

The lodge comes to life for the Alaskan summer and is then mothballed for the long, dark winter, leaving the countryside to the tough, independent-minded local residents who make do in harsh conditions that British people can only wonder about.

The sun had given way to grey skies and mist when we travelled from Kenai to the port of Seward for a day-long cruise around the Kenai Fjords National Park.

In a few short hours our breath was taken away by the wildlife: humpback whales emerging out of the mist to dive in front of our boat, their fishy breath hanging in the air; lolling seals; angry sealions arguing with each other, even mating sea otters. And puffins so full of fish that they could not get airborne.

And then the air temperature suddenly plunged and out of the mist loomed the Aialik Glacier.

No photograph or high-definition television picture can truly represent the majestic beauty of a tidewater glacier as it flows into the sea. The Aialik Glacier towers higher than St Paul’s Cathedral and on days when the weather is overcast a trick of the light turns it blue. Really blue - breathtakingly blue.

Ships and icebergs do not mix - ask the captain of the Titanic - but ours was expertly piloted to the very edge of the floating ice at the foot of the glacier, so that that towering wall was about a quarter of a mile away.

The captain cut the engine and for some minutes we simply watched - and listened. Listened to the cracks and booms as pieces of ice the size of a house broke away and tumbled into the sea. It was awesome.

Next stop on the tour was the Mt McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, named after the towering mountain. It can be an elusive peak - often shrouded in cloud and some travellers may never see it during their stay.

Princess provide an interesting selection of excursions on their land tour and we set off in search of gold with local hunter and gold panner Nick Smoljan.

He regaled us with tales of shooting moose and delivering babies - he is also the local paramedic - as our van bumped along an unmade road and through a river before finally arriving at a beach where he reckoned we would find gold.

He was right - sifting buckets of mud and grit and then panning the residue revealed tiny flakes of gold. To whoops of child-like glee they were picked up with tweezers and delicately placed in little bottles to take home - souvenirs with a difference.

Then came the real wonder - as we drove back through the tundra, the sun burned off the clouds and there was Mt McKinley in all its glory, reflected in a lake in the wilderness. A memory to last a lifetime.

Next stop was the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, which is right on the boundary of the national park that is home to Mt McKinley. We had travelled north and the summer was rapidly ebbing away to be replaced by a stunning display of autumn colours - reds, purples, oranges and yellows as far as they eye can see.

It was here that we flew in a helicopter over the glowing autumn landscape to land on a glacier. The flight was thrilling and all the things you learned in school geography lessons about mountains and glaciers suddenly made sense.

Another day we clambered onto a school bus and a National Park guide drove us through the park on the lookout for wildlife. Suddenly, there was a a huge moose - in the mating season they are as dangerous as bears, so we watched from a respectful distance.

Then it was time to head for our ship and we boarded Princess’s special train which trundled all day through beautiful countryside to the port of Whittier where the Coral Princess was waiting.

It carries just over 2,000 passengers in some style and has the sort of jump-to-it service that Americans demand, but there’s plenty to keep you amused.

The main restaurant offers quite exceptional service and for a supplement you can also treat yourself to the on-board speciality Italian restaurant and the steakhouse, where steaks almost as big as the state of Alaska groan on your plate.

And if you really feel like pushing the boat out you can eat at the chef’s table - a fantastic gastronomic dining experience that proves that cuisine on cruise liners is about quality rather than just quantity.

But although life on board is comfortable, this holiday is all about the destinations.

And for a marvellous week, the Coral Princess made its way down the coast of Alaska towards its final stop at Vancouver.

For many people the highlight of the voyage will be the visit to the Glacier Bay National Park, where glaciers crash into the sea, waterfalls cascade down rugged mountains and bears roam the deserted shores.

The day we went, the weather closed in and the bay seemed like a film set for a saga set at the end of the world. Anywhere else it would have been one of those days on holiday that you write off as awful - here it added to the air of terrible beauty, nature in all its ferocity.

Then there were the whales. One of our ports of call was Juneau, Alaska’s capital that can only be reached by air or sea. On board a little tour boat, we headed off in search of whales. The crew obviously love their job and go the extra mile for their customers.

We headed past several humpbacks spouting in the autumn sunshine but didn’t stop because one of nature’s most amazing spectacles was taking place a little further on.

There were 10 humpback whales hunting together using bubble net fishing - circling a shoal of fish and creating a “net” of bubbles to trap them.

When the moment is right the huge whales rush to the surface, scooping thousands of tiny fish into their gaping jaws. We had seen it on television, now we were seeing it for real. Even the crew and our naturalist guide just stood and watched in silence as the drama played out in front of us.

Yes, Alaska is an amazing place and it is little wonder that so many people now dream of paying it at least one visit.

Key facts - Alaska cruising

:: Best for: Watching whales, wildlife and wilderness.

:: Time to go: The all-too-short Alaskan summer.

:: Don’t miss: Barbecued fresh salmon - simple but delicious.

:: Need to know: It is a long journey to get there, but well worth it.

:: Don’t forget: Binoculars - for watching those whales.

Key facts

Jonathan Grun was a guest of Princess Cruises which offers 13-night package from August 21, 2012 from £1,947, including a six-day land tour (Anchorage, Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge) followed by seven nights on board Coral Princess via Anchorage, scenic cruising in Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay, Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan, before disembarking in Vancouver.

Fare per person based on two adults sharing inside stateroom, and includes flights ex-London (ex-Manchester also available), accommodation, all main on-board meals and on-board entertainment.

Princess Cruises reservations: 0843 373 0333 and www.princess.com