Ever shifting, ever-evolving, Alaska is a story of change, a narrative that is written in its glaciers, ridgelines, valleys, fjords, ice fields, and rainforests.
For many, the story begins in southeast Alaska, site of such storied natural landmarks as the Inside Passage, Glacier Bay, Tongass National Forest and Misty Fjords, and the traditional homeland of the Tlingit Native peoples. Alaska’s original settlers, they have been here since time began and love to share the story of this vast land with the cheechako (that is, anyone new to the forty-ninth state).
Wu kei ha kei keiyay teeni. “It is good to have you come.”
Exploring the Last Frontier is first on many people’s bucket list. A recent Holland America cruise aboard the ms Noordam brought some 1,900 adventurers – including lots of grandparents, their adult children and their young offspring – to southeast Alaska to call on the capital city of Juneau, reachable only by air and water; Skagway, where many a Klondike Gold Rush Stampeder gave up the dream; and Ketchikan, where the world’s largest collection of totem poles records the history of a people, their traditions, legends – even spiritual stories.
LIFE IN TLINGIT COUNTRY
Among the dozens of shore excursions offered in Juneau – everything from flightseeing, salmon bakes and ziplining through the rain forest to gold panning, wildlife watching and river floats – the Mount Roberts Tramway whooshes visitors 1,800 feet up the mountain for hiking, dining on local seafood, watching artisans at their craft, photographing spectacular vistas of the city, islands, alpine meadows and the Inside Passage, and meeting the delightful Katherine Hope, cultural guardian and theater host.
Hope introduces the movie, “Seeing Daylight,” an award-winning film about Tlingit history and culture that plays throughout the day in the Chilkat Theater atop the mountain. Before the 18-minute movie begins, she shares snippets about her Tlingit heritage (she is of the Raven Humpback Salmon clan from Yakutat, Alaska) and gives a lesson in speaking Tlingit to everyone in the theater.
“Tlingits love and respect all cultures,” says Hope, “and we welcome you. Gunalcheesh (thank you).”
At the Beaver Clan House at Saxman Native Village – a shore excursion operated by Cape Fox Tours in Ketchikan – guests are greeted by a Tlingit elder, followed by song and dance by Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Native peoples in full regalia. With the drum keeping a steady beat, they dance before a backdrop of their clan symbol, the beaver, which stands on either side of a beaver screen. This screen, an intricate carving with a clever opening, would traditionally be in front of a clan house and identify those living in the house.
Among the songs performed are the chief’s welcome song and the bird dance, which honors the Eagles and the Ravens, the two main moiety (last names) of the Tlingit people. This shore tour also includes a totem hand-carving demo and a discussion of the village totem poles.
LIFE ON THE NOORDAM
Traveling through Tlingit country aboard the Noordam lets passengers pursue their individual interests ashore, from dozens of excursions to wandering about independently, while relishing the comforts of a luxury liner known for its superb art collection, varied entertainment, excellent service and fine dining – from the Pacific Northwest-inspired cuisine of the Pinnacle Grill to small-plate tastes of Italy in Canaletto to “An Evening at Le Cirque.”
The best place for taking in the glorious ever-changing views – particularly important on any Alaska itinerary that includes Glacier Bay – is front and center in the Crow’s Nest on Deck 10. Hidden away next door is the Oak Room; if you crave solitude, this is your refuge. Head one deck down for another sanctuary, this one, the Greenhouse Spa. (Note: On the day passengers board, the spa gives away several vouchers for complimentary services, including massage, facial and acupuncture. It is worth attending.)
ADVENTURE GUIDE TO DON’T-MISS MOMENTS
♦ Join Alaska Travel Adventures and several dozen avid wildlife lovers on a whale watching expedition in Juneau’s Auke Bay. With large viewing windows and viewing deck, the jet boat allows everyone to see everything. The onboard naturalist is a crack whale spotter, but everyone gets caught up in scanning the water and calling out “one o’clock!” or “eight o’clock!” (never “over here”) and oohing and ahing over each sighting. You may also spot bald eagles, bears, sea lions, porpoises and other wildlife.
♦ Grab binoculars and your camera and head topside for the Glacier Bay leg of the cruise. The Noordam glides back in time to the Little Ice Age, traversing a frozen wilderness, home to mountain goats, bears, moose and other wildlife and cloaked here and there by forests. If weather is fine, treat yourself to one of the private viewing cabanas on Deck 11 and enjoy breakfast, lunch and champagne while you lounge and drink in the stunning and ever-changing landscape.
♦ Enjoy dinner at New York’s legendary French restaurant, Le Cirque. Holland America’s Pinnacle Grill, a gorgeous, intimate dining space in its own right, transforms into the James Beard award-winning restaurant, right down to the orange-rimmed china with monkey motif on linen-draped tables, for one special evening of peerless gastronomy. Dine on distinctive Le Cirque dishes, including Lobster Salad “Le Cirque,” Chateaubriand and chocolate souffle.
♦ Attend one of cellar master and grape and wine historian Csaba Toth’s wine or champagne tastings. Going well beyond swirl-sniff-sip-spit, Toth takes a historian’s approach to wine appreciation, always weaving in intriguing tidbits about the grape at hand and noting, “The sommelier’s job is to be the most exciting person in the dining room. Never rushing, always sprinkling affirmation.” Excitement defines Toth tasting themes, such as “Cognac and Cigars Under the Stars” and “Chocolate Diamonds meet Dom Perignon.”
♦ Head to the Vista Lounge on Deck 2 for one (or more) of the Location Guide’s in-depth discussions: Alaska’s geographical features; the Gold Rush years; the explorers and scientists who mapped the area. On Glacier Bay day, don’t miss a chance to talk with a Huna Cultural Interpreter or Glacier Bay Park Rangers.
Visit www.HollandAmerica.com for more information about the ms Noordam and its Alaska itineraries or the line’s 14 other ships. Holland America offers one- to 110-day itineraries that visit all seven continents, including voyages to Antarctica, South America, Australia/New Zealand and Asia, the Caribbean, Alaska, Mexico, Canada/New England, Europe and the Panama Canal. The new 2,650-passenger ms Koningsdam joined the line in spring 2016.