Northbound Odyssey: A Dual Voyage to the Alaskan Wilderness
Antarctic Prelude: A Symphony of Ice, Sea, and Sun
The year was 2011. I stood on the deck of a Holland America cruise ship, charting a course along the Antarctic's Danco Coast. The New Year's sun shone with an intense brightness, transforming the monochrome world around me into a vista of black, white, and sparkling blue. A world untouched by the hand of man. Glaciers gleamed in the distance, their icy tongues licking the sea, while icebergs, refracting a spectrum of blues, floated past. Some were barren and inhospitably cold; others, just as frigid, carried unexpected passengers - clusters of freeloading penguins sunbathing without a care for the ship, or the whales sporadically surfacing to draw breath. These giants would bid me a farewell with a splash of water, sinking back into the inky blue depths a split second before I could capture them on camera.
During those long polar days, I was caught in a tug of war between two desires. On the one hand, there was an insatiable yearning to capture the extraordinary world around me through the lens of my camera. It was an alien landscape where the ordinary did not exist, and the most extraordinary was that which was impossible to seize - the feeling of a world that humanity had only just grazed, without having had the chance to ruin.
On the other hand, I was tempted to retreat into the warmth of the ship for a generous serving of mulled wine.
Caught between these two options, each bearing its weight in this life-altering decision, I chose to take another stroll around the ship's deck. For a while, I put my camera aside and visited the ship's photographer, a lady stationed at the ship's bow. From early morning till late evening, she danced around her tripod, trying to chronicle our journey for posterity.
She was there as always, doing her tripod dance, seemingly keeping warm and defying transformation into an ice sculpture. Somewhat disappointed by this (what a shot that would have made!), and after startling a few Snowy sheathbills that strutted around the deck like pigeons bathed in white paint, I struck up a conversation with an American couple in their fifties. They, too, had recently grappled with the same dilemma I had and opted for the mulled wine, making them particularly chatty.
Our conversation turned to their previous cruise to Alaska, comparing and contrasting the sights there with those here, finding mirror images and divergences alike. Until that moment, I hadn't given much thought to Alaska as a travel destination, but the seeds of the idea found fertile ground amidst the desolate beauty around me and lay dormant, waiting for their time to sprout.
Fast forward eleven years, and those seeds, nourished by an unexpected period of free time, have finally germinated. And so, I pen these lines aboard a Virgin Atlantic flight, bound for Seattle, the gateway to the to the Alaskan wilderness.
Bridging Borders: Seattle to Vancouver Enroute Alaska
Seattle welcomed me with a gossamer veil of white clouds, through which the contours of mountains played hide and seek on the horizon. Contrary to my expectations, the passport control was an expedited affair, a pleasant surprise in the long journey.
My ship to Alaska was poised to set sail from Vancouver the next day.
Initially, my plan had been to soak in the remaining day in Seattle and venture towards Vancouver the following morning. However, as I delved into researching the various means to travel to Canada, all the exotic options - like a seaplane or an extended sea journey - were cast aside. The single most reasonable option was to reacquaint myself with the Amtrak experience.
To me, Amtrak had always been synonymous with a past journey across California to Yosemite National Park. That trip had been a success, albeit with an oddly eclectic crowd on board the train (who in America doesn't own a car?).
Additionally, it brought back deferred dreams of traversing America by train, from Chicago to San Francisco.
Unexpectedly, here, Amtrak had morphed from the comfortable train, once threading the two 'sister cities', into a 3.5-hour bus journey. The unpredictability of the border crossing time, combined with the infrequency of trips - merely thrice a day - nudged me to journey into Canada on the day of my arrival, all in a bid to save a few nerve cells from the stress of potentially missing my ship's departure.
Vancouver's Waterfront: Seaplanes, Seagulls, and Alaskan Dreams
The morning broke early, somewhere around 5 o'clock... with the familiar cawing of seagulls, reminiscent of the ones near the Thames, just a stone's throw away from my London apartment. The customary rustling of trees, captive within London's concrete wilderness, combined with the welcoming words of a poster peering through the window: "Welcome to British…” seemed to create a mirage of familiarity.
But hold on! Thames? London? British? Where exactly was I?
After finally shaking off the remnants of sleep and deciphering the continuation of the poster that read, "Welcome to British Columbia," I noticed the distinct lack of the Cockney accent in the cacophony of the local seagulls. The realization dawned - I was miles away from London.
Deciding that combatting jet lag would be more palatable in the comforting embrace of a local café, with a steaming cup of cappuccino and a stack of pancakes dripping in rich, sweet maple syrup, I ventured into the heart of the city.
My exploration led me to the waterfront after just a few blocks from my downtown hotel. There, the cityscape was punctuated with a flurry of activity on the bay - a flock of seaplanes, their propellers buzzing with energy, mirrored the vivacious spirit of their smaller avian counterparts, the seagulls. Amidst their energetic hum, the city of Vancouver was coming to life, embracing its maritime roots and showcasing a unique blend of urban life harmoniously coexisting with its surrounding natural beauty.
Seated on a bench along the vibrant promenade, my thoughts unfurled and began to weave a tapestry of contemplation.
Unbeknownst to the bustling world around me, I found myself grappling with the intricacies of a seemingly simple choice - the selection of a suitable Alaskan cruise.
In evaluating the maritime pathways to Alaska, it became evident that all cruises embarking on this journey fell into two distinct categories.
Firstly, there were circular cruises, which conveniently embarked and disembarked from the same point, be it Vancouver or Seattle. These week-long voyages, however, had a drawback. Due to their tight schedule, they often overlooked several captivating ports and straits.
The second category comprised one-way cruises. These voyages either ascended towards Alaska, depositing their passengers there, or made their way down from Alaska. While these cruises covered a greater number of intriguing locations en route, they also presented the logistical conundrum of arranging a return journey from a remote port like Anchorage or the lengthy ordeal of reaching a city with an airport from the port of arrival.
Engrossed in these musings, a sudden insight struck me. Why not partake in both experiences?
That was it. I would embark on two back-to-back cruises on the same ship. The first would head northwards, while the second would retrace the route back to Vancouver. While some ports would see a repeat visit, I planned to diversify the journey by alternating between different types of activities at each port during the onward and return legs of the journey.