Any traveler visiting Alaska probably has a similar itinerary: observe the wildlife in its natural habitat, hear the crack of a calving glacier, and fly high over the Arctic Circle in an 8-seater plane. With 3 million lakes, an estimated 100,000 glaciers (covering 5 percent of the state), and 3.2 acres of State Park lands, the “Great Land” state is an explorer’s paradise. And what better way to cover this tranquil territory than a 7-day luxury adventure cruise through the Inside Passageway followed by five days stomping around on shore?
Onboard The Yacht
The benefits of booking with a small cruise ship are obvious to me the moment I step on board the Safari Endeavor (InnerSea Discoveries; www.innerseadiscoveries.com; 888.862.8881). Crew members welcome me around every corner as I am ushered to my elegant and spacious stateroom. A quick tour of the 86-guest yacht uncovers two bubbling hot tubs, a toasty dry sauna, a gourmet dining hall, a full bar complete with smiling bartender, fitness equipment, a yoga class schedule, and a massage room with a complimentary massage sign-up sheet.
Glacier Bay National Park
Most of the land within the Glacier Bay National Park, a 3.3-million-acre UNESCO World Heritage Site, is mountainous and covered in dense rain forest, all without roads or trails. The forest is well-preserved and perfect for an early morning hike.
Before venturing out, we are prepped with the “Hey Bear” safety speech from the naturalists onboard. “The most important thing is not to startle the animals,” says Matthew Szymanowicz, the expedition leader. “Remember, we are invading their home and we need to respect their space.” I make sure to take mental notes as the main safety tips are rattled off: keep talking so the animals know you are there, keep your distance, and always explore in a group of three or more.
Wandering through the forest minutes later, I am absorbed by the vibrant neon green moss creeping across the forest floor and the massive spruce and hemlock trees towering overhead. The air is crisp and the only noise for miles is the melody of our voices. The silence of the forest is enchanting, but I make sure I’m still gabbing so we don’t have any surprise bear encounters.
On that note, it’s not uncommon for a bear or moose to choose the same hiking path as you, so knowing how to react is key. Contrary to popular belief, moose are the ones to be afraid of since they can be quite aggressive if they feel threatened, while bears prefer to mind their own business. On the off chance that a bear does attack, then running is not your best option. Bears can run up to approximately 40 mph and the fastest man alive, Usain Bolt, has only been clocked at roughly 24 mph Instead, stand tall and try to appear larger than the bear. On the other hand, you should run from moose, but quickly dash behind a tree. Since they have horrible eyesight, they will quickly lose track of you.
Glacier Bay National Park is also home to stunning icy fjords and incredible glaciers. Lucky for us, one of the major benefits of being on a small ship is the ability to travel alongside these sensational natural wonders. And, even better, guests get to take dingy boats to shore and traipse up to the glaciers. The massive block of ice is surprisingly colorful with a range of beautiful blue hues, and the quiet rush of the water falling from the ice is peaceful.
The next morning I awake to an announcement from the bridge about a bear blob up ahead. Scrambling out of bed, I layer up and head out to the bow for a glimpse. Blissfully unaware of the camera clicks, the brown bear peacefully searches for his breakfast in the small stream. This is what we were all waiting for and we crave a closer look.
Later that morning as I climb into my kayak, I am hoping the bear is still around. We paddle up slowly to see he has only traveled around the bend to a nearby grassy area. Sitting still on the glassy water, we spy on the bear from only a few feet away —which is close enough to hear his grumbles and the sound of his teeth gathering the grass.
Travel is all about experiences. That’s why I decided it was time to join the famed Polar Bear Plunge club. Sure, I have my reservations but you only live once! I watch as fellow cruisers take their turns. There were swan dives, cannon balls, and even a belly flop. Then it’s my turn. As my toes hang over the deck I think, “There better be space in the hot tub,” and I hurl myself into the water. The cold water rushes over my skin as my head sinks below the surface. I pop right back out to the sound of cheers. The water is almost too chilly for the pain receptors in my skin to acknowledge, and pretty soon I feel delightfully warm.
On the last day, we cruise into Tracy Arm, which houses two 30-mile-long fjords covered in ice. We hop into our dingy, which is headed straight for Sawyer Glacier. The boat navigates through the ice bobbing in the water. Some of the pieces are 2-stories tall while others are only the size of a basketball. I notice the temperature steadily dropping as we approach the massive glacier.
Mere yards from the spectacular river of ice, harbor seals enjoy a dip. Curious about us, they slide onto the ice for a better look and almost appear to be posing for the cameras.
As I take in the blissful surroundings, I am grateful for my experience. And then the trusted bartender uncovers a crate of hot apple cider. Ahhh. Just a normal afternoon in the midst of a glacier.
Back On Land
After a quick flight to Fairbanks, it is time to cross the Arctic Circle with the Northern Alaska Tour Company (www.northernalaska.com; 800.474.1986). I jump into my seat on the 8-seater plane ready for the adventure ahead. As we make our way, the pilot points out the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the wildlife below while offering historical facts about the area. We land and drive over to Wiseman, population 13, for a quick tour of life simply lived.
The next morning we board the Alaska Railroad (www.alaskarailroad.com; 907.265.2494) for a trip down to the Denali National Park which has 6 million acres of wildland and is home to Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak. The 89-foot-double-deck dome passenger cars provide the perfect perch to gaze on the world passing by. Halfway through the trip and in a sleepy fog, I notice a moose grazing feet from the track, and I know this is only the beginning.
Shortly after entering the Denali National Park, I am rerouted to the Fly Denali (www.flydenali.com; 907.733.7768), a flightseeing tour group that gives customer a very unique experience. I strap on my seatbelt and slip on my headphones to hear the pilot chatter with flight control. As we rise above the clouds, off in the distance is the snow-covered peak of Mt. McKinley. With a summit of 20,320 feet, the peak is often obscured from view on land, so this chance to see it from the top with a crystal clear view is something special. I am in awe of the majestic mountain as we fly through the cliffs to our landing spot on a glacier. I climb out of the tiny plane with an uncontrollable smile plastered on my face. Flying to the tip of a mountain and then playing in the snow on a glacier is at the top of my favorite experiences.
I chose to spend my last day on the Tundra Wilderness Tour (www.denaliparkresorts.com; 800.276.7234), a 6-hour bus trek that ventures 54 miles into the Denali National Park. I heard the bus was the best way to see the wildlife in their own habitat and after the day was done, I would agree. The final tally came to: 1 porcupine, 2 moose, 14 caribou, 8 grizzlies, 5 Dall sheep, 2 chipmunks and 1 lynx.
Where to Stay:
Westmark Fairbanks Hotel and Conference Center
McKinley Chalet Resort
What to Take:
Fleecewear with Stretch Legging $28 Cuddl Duds www.cuddlduds.com
SPF 30+ UVA/UVB Lip Balm $8.50 each Supergoop! www.supergoop.com
Robinson Jacket $229 Spiewak www.karmaloop.com
1964 Premium CVS Boot $140 Sorel www.misskl.com
Beats Studio Over-Ear Headphones $350 Beats by Dre www.karmaloop.com
Carlton Titanium Collection Premier Travelware in Aventura www.carltontravelgoods.com
29” (7.5 lbs): $159.99
25” (6.6. lbs): $134.99
21.5” (5.0 lbs): $104.99
Chipahko™ Felt Boot $200 Sorel www.sorel.com
Chillstop $128 Lululemon www.shop.lululemon.com
Lucky Scarf $124 Mangrove www.mangrove.com
Travel Well Aromatherapy Trio $75 21 Drops www.21drops.com
Everett Downfill Hooded Vest $176 Spiewak www.misskl.com
Men’s Chillstop Gloves $38 Lululemon www.shop.lululemon.com