There is a reason why virtually every major cruise operator in the world has a presence in Alaska. Its rugged terrain, vast wilderness and rich frontier history mean that it taps into something deep inside modern travellers. They feel the spirit of adventure and the hardship that those early settlers would have endured on the Klondike Goldrush, and want a part of it, often as a way of escaping their office-based nine to five. And, given that travelling by ship is the only way to see Alaska – most of the settlements are not connected by road – its popularity has continued to soar.
Holland America Line has been running an Alaska land product since before it was even part of the United States, and its cruise offering isn’t much younger. Any travel agents confused by their extensive offering in the region can break it down into three parts: 1) Alaska cruise only 2) cruise + land stay in Denali national park 3) cruise + Denali + the Yukon, a region where you will find what experts call the real frontier experience.
It all depends on how adventurous you are feeling and how immersive you want your time in Alaska to be.
The company’s Alaska expert, Bill Fletcher, doesn’t just talk the talk. He built his own cabin in Alaska because of the connection he feels to the region. We sat down with him during his recent visit to the UK to learn more about the last frontier and the company’s exciting new Base Camp accommodation, which gives unrivalled access to Denali, one of the United States most beautiful national parks.
Cruise Adviser: Why does Alaska make such a good cruise destination?
Bill Fletcher: I might be a little biased but in my opinion Alaska is geographically the best cruise destination in the world. The inside passage in particular gives you access to glaciers and wildlife that is unrivalled. You cruise out of Vancouver and Seattle, which are beautiful cities in their own right, and head north to a place where civilisation is fewer and farther between. You really are cruising into the wild, and following in the footsteps of every traveller before the age of jet travel. There are no roads connecting any of the ports and each one has its own stories, from the early settlers to the Klondike gold rush.
CA: Alaska is the number one cruise destination for first time passengers. Why?
BF: The reason for that is because a lot of people want to explore it. They research the state, and discover that the only way to do it is either fly over it, which misses the point entirely, or take a cruise. Holland America has been doing it for the longest, our land tour operation goes back to 1947, before it was even a state. Our first ship was purpose built for Alaska, and that’s the reason why we still operate mid-sized ships today. It harks back to that heritage.
CA: What Alaska products do you have at Holland America?
BF: Essentially we have three different options available to our guests. They can either do a cruise only tour of Alaska, or a cruise with a tour of Denali national park, or for the real explorers, a cruise with a tour of Denali national park as well as a tour of the Yukon. We have five different programmes that include all three, eight that include the cruise and Denali and then we have several different cruise itineraries.
This year we will break the one million passenger mark for the first time since 2008.
CA: What do Holland America do that’s different from other operators?
BF: Plenty! One of most interesting things we do is give guests the chance to explore Alaska in far more detail. So, on our typical seven-day itinerary, on day three, in Skagway which is as far north as you can cruise on the inside passage – we let guests disembark. Only 15% of them do it but these people get off and start the journey over the mountains and along the river to Dawson City by rail. They overnight in Whitehorse and motorcoach along the river while telling the story of the goldrush. They then fly over to Fairbanks and do the Denali portion. There is less cruise on this tour and it is far more immersive.
CA: Tell me more about your programme in Denali.
BF: Holland America has exclusivity over a three-night programme in Denali. Other lines might offer two nights at the park entrance, we have three nights inside our very own Base Camp, which is a fantastic new facility built and owned by us. During my time with the company we have had 18 hotel partners over the years but we’ve never had our own one at Denali until now. We purchased 60 acres of riverside property right by the park gates, neighbouring Princess’s lodge. It’s an incredible place and lends itself well to our tours, including the really immersive Tundra Wilderness Tour for six to eight hours. In my thirty plus years I have never been on this tour and not seen at least grizzly bear, moose or caribou. This tour goes right into the heart of the animals’ habitats.
CA: Why take the extra trip to the Yukon?
BF: This year we will break the one million passenger mark for the first time since 2008. Maybe a third of them combine this with a land tour – and most of them will be to Denali. Now, Denali is now to be missed, you go there because you are inspired by the wilderness it represents. But, when you go there, you’re looking at wilderness but you don’t really feel like you are in it. You are with hundreds and hundreds of people standing on the side of the road, looking at the same wildlife and the same mountain. It’s not to be missed, but if you really want to have that vast and unpeopled experience, the Yukon is the best place to find that. It was there that witnessed the last, and largest big goldrush. The history is crazy and also the most documented because it came about the same time as the dawn of photography. Once you discover it you feel like you are part of a unique club.
CA: How able bodied do you need to be to take these trips?
BF: You can do the entire journey with very modest mobility. In every place there are excursions that can take you from the mild to the wild. You can do the mountain climbing, the zip wiring, river rafting and all of that, or none of it. You can just enjoy the scenery, the fine dining and the story that goes with it all. It is for people of all mobility groups and age groups, probably with the exception of the Yukon, which might be totally suitable for young children.
CA: If you had to give a travel agent one reason why they should take an Alaska cruise, what would it be?
BF: If it was a cruise we were talking about then I would centre it around Glacier Bay. That is best cruise destination in the world to see glaciers, bar none. The wildlife is phenomenal – the whales are very reliable, sea puffins and bald eagles too. To be able to combine that with Denali and the Yukon is absolutely incredible.
Bill Fletcher is the director of sales and marketing at Holland America
* Photo by Gregory Smith