Royal Caribbean Radiance of the Seas cruise ship at the Hubbard Glacier ()Royal Caribbean Radiance of the Seas cruise ship at the Hubbard Glacier () © Copyright

Cruising Alaska is a revelation

"Has anyone ever been on a cruise?” That’s how the office conversation started. The answer? No. In truth, our team – a bunch of twenty-somethings – had no idea what cruising is all about. Is it any good?

To find out, we hit up Royal Caribbean Cruises to get a taste of the cruise life, and they hooked us up with a CruiseTour of Alaska. Cool. Let’s cut to the chase, there’s a whole lot to talk about here so this is going to go fast.

First off, a CruiseTour differs slightly from a regular cruise, because the first five days take place on land. All travel is done by train/coach and you stay in a different hotel each night. Fear not though travel snobs, the coaches are pretty plush, they have air-con and toilets and are perfect for napping. 

Mountains reflected in lake in Alaska ()

 

You won’t want to do too much sleeping on the road though, because the views in Alaska are spectacular. Not spectacular, better than that.  It’s impossible to describe state’s beauty in words – which is a problem because that’s sort of my job. If a picture paints a thousand words Alaska is a library. I truly do not believe that anywhere else can be this scenic. It’s like travelling through a postcard collection. Mountains, rainforests, Glaciers – Alaska has every one of nature’s party tricks in its locker.

If adventure is more your jam, you’re in luck – there is a bewildering number of activities and excursions to sample. On our first evening in Denali we booked up an ATV wilderness tour. A minibus picked us up from our hotel, and we were given some fetching, bright yellow, waterproof over clothes (there’s a good chance you’ll get wet or muddy – though we didn’t).

Denali ATV wilderness tour in Alaska ()

 

We hopped on the ATVs (there are sided-by-side two-seaters if you prefer) and fired them up. They’re pretty beasty looking, and rather rapid, too. 

You control the mighty 700cc engine with a small thumb trigger. That’s a lot of juice to control with your thumb, and at first, it seems like you need the physical prowess of a ninja to drive smoothly. But we got over the jerky start and soon enough you’re bounding up the tree-lined, rocky trails.

Taking on big bumps and rocky ground is pretty jokes. Riding the ATVs alone is raucous fun. But there’s more. We emerged from a tree-lined trail into a big flat clearing. We parked up, jumped off, and took in the incredible 360-degree view. We stopped at a few points on the trail, where you can appreciate the stunning landscapes of the Alaska Range, Otton Lake and Healy Valley.

All this high-octane fun takes place around the incredible Denali National park, so there’s a good chance of spotting some wildlife. And we’re talking proper wildlife. Speaking of which…

Waterfall in Skagway  ()

 

On our next day we ventured into the Denali National Park. Denali itself is enormous. It’s 6,000,000 acres of wild land – that’s about 15 times the size of London. To keep it unspoiled, there are no cars allowed, but you can get in on a bearproof bus. Yeah you heard, bearproof!

Good job too, because about 15 minutes into the park an enormous bear casually strolled out in front of the bus, gave us a quick glance, then lumbered off into the trees. A bear, an actual real bear in the wild. What a crazy thing to see. 

Further in there were Caribou roaming around – we even saw a mother with her children. Moose, Dall Sheep, we even saw several Bald Eagles, and all in their natural habitat. Like a bit of Attenborough? This is about as close as you can get to living it. And don’t worry if you don’t know a brown bear from a grizzly, the bus drivers are mic’ed up and they know their stuff. Wildlife sightings aren't exclusive to Denali either, the whole of Alaska is just teeming with amazing creatures, we even saw humpback whales!

Humpback whale surfacing to eat in Alaska ()

 

If you’re into the nature and scenery thing, the Wilderness express is great shout. It’s essentially a big double-decker train with a glass dome roof. So you can enjoy more of those phenomenal views from a big comfy, leather chair. There’s even a bar, and downstairs there’s a dining room. I’d recommend the reindeer chilli and a French dip roll. It was ace. The service stops at Anchorage, Talkeetna, Denali National Park and Fairbanks, so it’s a pretty special way to travel useful distances.

Peak of mount Denali seen from K2 aviation flight ()

 

One of Alaska’s biggest attractions – both figuratively and literally – is Mount Denali (formerly Mount McKinley). It’s the tallest mountain in North America and stands at a whopping 6,190m above sea level. For reference, The Shard in London is 310m high – so think 20 of those.

To get a closer look, we took a summit tour with K2 aviation. You hop in a small 10-man(ish) plane and tear off the runway towards the summit. It’s quite casual, which makes it feel super surreal. If the weather permits (it didn’t for us) you can even land on the glacier and get out for stroll. We had to make do with staring out of the plane window, which is actually incredible. Punching through the ceiling of cloud to see the peak of Denali is almost dreamlike. But it’s not just the peak that looks incredible, the surrounding glaciers are stunning, and so huge that you lose all sense of distance/scale/meaning. Within the glaciers you can see eerily blue pools of glacier water (the colour of windscreen wash). 

Glacier around Mount Denali with blue glacier water ()

 

After our action-packed land tour, it was time to actually get on the ship. We embarked at Seward. The process was not dissimilar to boarding a plane at an airport, only significantly quicker. Then we saw the ship. Good grief it was huge. We were ravelling on the Radiance of the Seas, which I’m told is one of their smaller ships(!). I’m going to assume they’re lying because this thing is massive.

Mini golf on the Radiance of the Seas cruise ship ()

 

There are at least eight restaurants, a couple of swimming pools, a few hot tubs, a spa, a gym, mini golf, a climbing wall, a theatre, a cinema, a casino, a couple of bars, a climbing wall, a sports court, a games arcade and more. It can hold almost 2500 guests and 900 crew – keep in mind that some of the towns we docked in had no more than 700 residents and you begin to see how mad that is. Even the main dining room holds 1,242 people. Imagine that many people sitting down for dinner! It’s staggering just how many waiting staff there are, and the craziest thing is, it works! The food was excellent, our orders were always correct and the staff even remembered our names. The service was phenomenal! I can’t even begin to imagine the size of the kitchen, or the fridge for that matter!

Sunset in Alaska from a Royal Caribbean Cruise ship Radiance of the Seas ()

 

Oh and there’s 24-hour room service, and your room attendant seems to make up your room about five times per day. You are exceptionally well looked after.

If you wanted to, you could quite easily whittle away your time relaxing on the ship, admiring the views and enjoying the bewildering array of facilities.

But if you want to get out and explore, each day the ship docks at a new location, and each stop is unique. Aside from exploring the towns, there’s also another mighty list of excursions. These can be cheap and simple – such as the great lumberjack show in which you can also try your hand at axe throwing. That was great fun.

Helicopter landing on Norris Glacier in Juneau Alaska ()

 

But then there are more grand excursions. And this one was straight up bonkers. When we arrived in Juneau – Alaska’s Capital – we took a helicopter to Norris Glacier. The glacier is only accessible by chopper, so there were four copters flying in formation, each holding six people. The flight itself was epic. The pilots take a scenic route to show off some more of those crazy views. It’s pretty telling that my buddy Josh filled up his camera three times during the trip. There were snow-capped mountains, valleys, waterfalls, huge expanses of weirdly textured ice and snow punctuated with bizarre blue glacier water. It doesn’t quite feel real – the sort of thing you see as a screensaver, but not in real life.

When we landed on the glacier, there was snow as far we could see in all directions with various mountains as the backdrop. The whiteness was practically blinding. Considering all the ice and snow, it was surprisingly warm too, at least 15ºC.

Dog sledding with Alaskan huskies on Norris Glacier in Juneau Alaska ()

 

In the middle of this white expanse was a musher's camp with around 100 Alaskan huskies – each with their own little dog house – and some tents in which the musher’s stayed.

Here, they train the dogs for various sled races including the infamous Iditarod – an unimaginably difficult 1000-mile race. I was slightly uneasy about the whole ‘training dogs to run’ thing, but having seen them, I don’t believe anyone enjoys anything as much as these dogs love to run. As soon the mushers begin attaching dogs to the sled, they all go nuts. Jumping up and down in anticipation. They have to anchor the sled to a pole in the ground otherwise the dogs would set off immediately – they literally cannot wait to run.

Petting Alaskan Huskies at a musher's camp on Norris Glacier ()

 

We jump on the sled and the dogs shoot off at a surprising pace. The snow was a bit too fresh, and the weather a bit too warm, so the dogs were running at half pace, but still, they shifted. When we stopped for a break, the huskies – with their little booties to protect their paws from the ice – would chew mouthfuls of snow to keep themselves cool.

It was impressive how well the dogs were looked after and the camp was kept immaculate. They even use helicopters to take the dog poo away from the glacier. It’s a slick operation, and it’s frankly a ludicrous thing to be able to go and experience.

Alsaka’s biggest strength is that the landscape is so incredibly varied, that it’s able to offer a seemingly endless list of ‘once-in-lifetime’ activities. It’s a jack of all trades and master of surprisingly many.

Grizzly falls ziplining in Skagway Alaska ()

 

Shortly after, we were Ziplining through an Alaskan rainforest in Skagway – a starkly different, but amazing experience. Grizzly falls has 11 ziplines, one measuring 750ft. Through the impressive greenery you’ll find little creeks and mini waterfalls. It’s glacier water too, so you have a glug if you like. Jumping out of an enormous tree feels pretty unnatural, but you soon get into it, and the staff will teach you tricks if you’re so inclined.

Back on the ship, there was another extraordinary sight to be seen – the Hubbard Glacier. After some expert manoeuvring from the captain we were presented with the mammoth ice structure. It’s a whopping six miles wide where it meets the ocean and over 400 feet tall. It’s eerily quiet around the giant glacier, but the silence is regularly broken by the ominous thunder-like rumble of the ice. Every now and then, there’s an almighty crack as a huge slab of ice carves off the glacier and falls into the sea – by huge, I mean the size of a four-storey building.

Hubbard Glacier in Alaska from Radiance of the Seas cruise ship ()

 

It’s a testament to Alaska that I’ve only space to mention a fraction of what we got up to. There really is so much to see and do, and a cruise is a fantastic way to do it – the only way to do it in fact. Being able to eat your bodyweight in delicious food, and relax in a spa while you travel to your next destination is the dream. It’s travel without the hassle. And it gives you more time to enjoy those OMG moments that Alaska continually produces.

Is cruising any good? Yeah, just a bit. It’s bloody brilliant.

How to do it

We did a 10-night cruise and tour with Royal Caribbean Cruises which included a three-night land tour beginning at Fairbanks and ending at Seward, where we departed on a seven-night cruise that finished in Vancouver.   

Cruise-only price from: £1219 pp

Fly Cruise price from: £2929 pp

Excursions vary. 

Visit RoyalCaribbean.co.uk to find out more.

Photos: Josh Pool // Matt Lizzimore

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