If words were delectable, life for me would have been a gourmet feast. Yes, I ate the words and went on a wonderful cruise up Alaska’s Inside Passage. The food was delectable, the service unbeatable, and the ship a floating resort.
Every night a gourmet feast on The Radiance of the Seas, a floating 13-story resort.
Looking down at the main lobby bar from the 7th floor of the ship.
If you want to see Alaska’s Inside Passage, which has no roads and no rail lines from one stop to the next, you’re going to have to go by water; unless you have your own float plane, you need to take the Alaska ferry or a cruise. If you’re young and adventurous, you can take a sleeping bag and sleep on the deck of the ferry. Then when it drops you off in Skagway or Haines, you’re on your own.
Take the cruise.
The Radiance of the Seas docked at Icy Strait’s Tlingit community Hoonah.
Why see the Inside Passage in particular? Because Alaska’s southeastern “panhandle” is different from the other FIVE Alaskas. Yes, Alaska is big enough to have six huge sections that are all unlike each other.
The other five are the Gulf Coast (south central), including Anchorage, the Kenai peninsula and Seward, and Prince William Sound; the south western Peninsula and Aleutian Chain, which reaches out some 1,500 miles toward Asia and is the boundary between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea; the Bering Sea coast, which is a relatively harsh, sparsely populated, cold and windy flatland; the Great Interior, the vast land (almost 170,000 square miles) between the Brooks Range on the north – the entrance to the Arctic – and the Alaska Range to the south, including Denali, Fairbanks, the Yukon River, and tundra, lots of tundra; and finally, the Arctic, from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean, before going to which, I suggest you read John McFee’s Coming into the Country and bone up on your courage.
In all six sections, there’s only one rule: In Alaska, Nature rules. Period. Break that rule at your own peril. Alaska is a land of extremes that range from incomparable beauty to dangerous hostility. It is all light and all dark -- because of the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth on its axis.
In the summer, Alaska looks the Sun in the eye; in winter, the land can be as dark as blindness. Our ship, Radiance of the Seas, cruised us to Seward just in time to get to Anchorage for the nearly 24-hour daylight of the summer solstice. Alaskans will tell you that by the end of the summer, they are very tired.
Susitna, “The Sleeping Lady,” as seen from an Anchorage hotel, about 2 a.m.
As is true for all of Alaska, the Inside Passage is a gourmet feast for the senses -- in high def. It must be the closeness to the sun or clearness of the atmosphere, but the light that bears down on Alaska, clarifying the colors as if sent through a prism, might burn like a laser were it not for the clouds and rain. On a clear day, each color is saturated, it seems to its limit.
On cloudy rainy days, of which there are many along the Inside Passage, the blue-green backdrop seems to enhance the colors of the small communities built along the coast. Mountain ranges don’t allow these communities any depth, and the streets of some are built on pilings over the water.
Above: Juneau (top) and Ketchikan, where the coast road is built on pilings over the water.
Not only is the Inside Passage different from the other Alaskas, the views along the passage change, gradually transforming from a softness at the southern end, including Ketchikan, to a majestic, rugged beauty at the northern end, including Yukatat, Hubbard Glacier, Prince William Sound, and Seward.
Hubbard Glacier in Disenchantment Bay.
I remembered James A. Michener’s description of the birth and death of glaciers in his 1988 novel Alaska. I tracked it down:
If the valley down which the glacier came ended at the shoreline, the towering face of ice would come right to the edge of the ocean, where in due time, fragments of the glacier, sometimes as big as cathedrals, sometimes bigger, would break away with resounding cracks that would reverberate through the air for many miles as the resulting iceberg crashed into the ocean, where it would ride as an independent entity for months and even decades. Then it became a thing of majestic beauty, with sunlight glistening on its towering spires, with waves playing about its feet, and with birds saluting it as they sped by.
Hubbard Glacier, closer.
Different cruise lines may choose different port stops along the Passage. Most will include Ketchikan at the southern end.
Ketchikan’s hillside community.
Other possible stops include one on Prince of Wales Island, then the communities of Wrangel, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, Skagway, Hoonah on Icy Strait, Gustavas, and Seward. Most will cruise near a powerful glacier. Once the ship exits through Icy Strait, it leaves the relative safety of the fjords and is in the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska, where the temperature can drop from around 65 degrees Fahrenheit in June/July to 5 or 10 degrees less (or more, depending on whether the sun is out or behind clouds). Alongside a glacier, it is cold, really cold.
All the beauty belies that lying in wait underneath is a dangerous harshness. The few people who live along the Passage know not to break Nature’s rules; they learn to live with the beauty, the land, the waters and wildlife, as well as with awareness of the dangers.
Hoonah, a fish packing community, is home for native Tlingits, who know how to live with Alaska’s harshness.
See more photos of the Radiance of the Seas and of the Inside Passage here.