Feature: My Silver rush in Alaska
Darryl, the Prince Harry lookalike, shouted Hang On, but before his words had even reach my ears the dogs had pulled away at the sledding equivalent of G-Force. Nothing could have preparedme for the exhilaration that the next 60 minutes would bring.
My wife and I had already had a breathtaking helicopter flight from Juneau across the Alaskan mountain tops to the Meldenhall Glacier. And as we stepped back onto ice-covered terra firma, we could little more than the noise of the whirring helicopterblades and the excited howling of 300 Alaskan huskies, a dozen of which were being harnessed up to give us the ride of our lives.
We had been told in advance that our next ride, although almost a hour-long, would seem like just ten minutes. He was right, but even if it had been just the ten minutes, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. As lifetime experiences go, this must be about as good as it gets.
I took up the anchorman brake position in our ‘four-man bob’ with Lis safely tucked up in a warm blanket in the front sled where our ‘cuddly’ Huskies were straining at the bit. And when Darryl eventually set them loose, I had to quickly learn the art of braking with one foot and balancing with the other on the sled’s runner to prevent it crashing into the sled in front. Fearful and fun, all in one go.
With an eerie silence now surrounding us, we settled into a heavenly trance. In fact we had been locked in some kind of trance ever since arriving in Vancouver to board our ‘sea-sled’ bound for Alaska - the Silver Shadow.
We had opted for a hopefully stress-free night at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel just in case Heathrow’s notorious Terminal Five let us down leaving us with a last-minute search for something to wear, but all went surprisingly smoothly and BA landed us, and our baggage, with everything in tact.
The Fairmont was ideal, just a short stroll from the Canada Place cruise terminal, but on your return the Fairmont Vancouver a couple of hundred yards up the hill gets you away from the general hubub of the next wave waiting to get on.
When cruise lines put their ships into the north Pacific in 1990 as a safe have during the first Gulf War, the marvels of Alaskan cruising were discovered, and in the 20 years since, its popularity has grown at a startling rate. Now tens of thousands flock by ship to the 49th and most northerly of America’s 50 states each year, which explains why ours was not the only ship at Canada Place when it was our time to board.
In fact Silver Shadow shaped up like a salmon fishing trawler, comparatively speaking, against the three other new breed of megaliners that towered over the harbour. But, as they say, size isn’t everything, and our 28,000-ton vessel - one of five luxurious floating boutique hotels in the Silversea fleet - stood up to its reputation of offering one of the best cruise experiences to be had.
We toasted our departure fromVancouver harbour on our suite’s private balcony, champagne in hand and our suitcases stowed away. And when our steward asked if there was anything in particular - and I mean anything - we would like in our complimentary mini-bar, I just knew we were on the right ship for my 60th birthday celebration.
The suite, with king size bed, flat screen TV, lounge area, walk-in wardrobe and bathroom, complete with his and her basins, was as good as any 5-star hotel room. And if you chose not step foot outside it, there was the option of 24-hour in-room dining from the full restaurant menu.
But there was little likelihood of that. The Restaurant, as it was simply named, was too good to miss. Every night was like eating at Le Gavroche, and we learned later that the alternatives - the Italian- styled Terraza and the gastronomique Champagne - were every bit as memorable.
Fortunately, the gymnasium offered all the gizmos necessary to keep the expanding waistline in check, although my dinner suit was beginning to strain at the seams by the time of the third and final formal dining occasion on the ninth night. And all the while we were threading our way through the breathtaking straits that make up the Inside Passage of America’s most northerly state.
First port of call was Sitka - and another of those lifetime must-dos - whale spotting. Our afternoon excursion explored waters populated by seals and and sea lions, took us close to shore to see nesting bald eagles, and finally a plume of spray alerted us to the presence of humpback whales feeding close to land. We got the show we wanted, one whale arching his back before raising his giant tail majestically and plunging to the depths to feed.
Then our fast-craft hurtled off in pursuit of two gray whales, but they played hard to get and, with time running out, reluctantly we had to return to town, where the rain had started to fall steadily. Alska gets its fair share of rain and it thrashed down so hard the day we were in Ketchikan - it gets 162 inches on average a year - that our hoped-for search for brown bears was washed out. We felt as grizzly as the beasts themselves.
But most of the time the weather behaved itself. We meandered around the beautiful village of Haines in sunshine and could see why a film crew encamped there for a year to use it as the backdrop to the 1991 tear-jerking movie White Fang about an abused dog-wolf.
After the morning browsing, a 45-minute coach ride took us up-country where we togged up in waterproofs for an eagle preserve and wildlife river adventure. Once on our dinghy, having already exchanged glances with a bald-headed eagle prowling the riverbed for dead salmon, we glided downstream across the shallow riverbed, piloted by Tony, a thirtysomething teacher who had jacked in big city life to share his knowlege of all things Alaskan with those wanting to learn.
He did all the work ... we just sat and marvelled at the scenery. Which just about sums up the whole Silversea experience of Alaska.
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