Get up close and personal with the majesty of ice and the wonders of nature on an Alaskan cruise
THERE was an eerie crackling sound then a boom of thunder shattered the silence.
We spun around to see a waterfall of ice tumbling into the sea from the face of Alaska's Hubbard Glacier. Click here now for amazing offers to Alaska!
Looming over our cruise ship was a six-mile wide, 350ft high wall of brilliant turquoise ice.
Splintered by huge crevasses, it looked like a giant meringue that had fallen down a lift shaft.
We seemed close enough to reach out and touch it but the lag between the ice shearing off the glacier and the sound reaching us meant we were still some distance from the monster.
Our skipper on the Radiance Of The Seas told us it was the closest he'd ever got the ship to the Hubbard.
I kept thinking if a really big slab of ice crashed into the water the wave would roll the ship on its side like a toy boat in a bathtub.
We had woken shortly after sunrise to watch our Royal Caribbean liner slip into the cold waters of Yakutat Bay. And as the ship nosed through the ice floes and slush there were ominous clangs and clunks as lumps banged against the hull. Want incredible deals to Alaska? Click here now...
Seal pups watched us from floating chunks of ice - known as "bergy bits" - as we inched our way forward into Disenchantment Bay.
The Hubbard is the largest idewater (or sea) glacier in the United States. But what makes it a classier glacier is that it is advancing rather than retreating.
This is why it puts on showstopping spectaculars as it "calves" into the sea - its face pushed forwards by the 76-mile river of flowing ice behind it.
It was the highlight of our cruise - but our captain, Bjorn Broch ohansen, gave us many other unforgettable moments.
Our journey began in the stunning city of Vancouver in Canada.
It was my first cruise and there was a real buzz of excitement as the vast ship pulled away from the sail-like roofs of Canada Place.
A band played on the Radiance's pool deck as we set sail. Hundreds of passengers lined the rails, cocktails in hand, waved off by the crowds on the dock. Soon we were slipping between the sparkling skyscrapers of downtown Vancouver and the snowy peaks of the Coastal Range mountains.
We were heading for the Inside Passage (no laughing at the back) and Alaska, the "Last Frontier" - a land seven times the size of the UK, with a population of just 690,000.
Our first port of call was Ketchikan, known as the Salmon Capital of the World.
Set on the edge of the Tongass National Forest - the second largest rainforest in the world - it's a pretty fishing town of pastel clapboard houses.
We took a trip inland to explore Harriet Hunt Lake in canoes and at a little camp on the lake's shore we got to taste fantastic clam chowder as well as the legendary local salmon.
Smoked and served on huge "skunk cabbage" leaves in meaty chunks, it was addictive stuff.
On the walk through the woods we were told about the local Native American tribe, the Tlingits pronounced Klingits). And back in Ketchikan, after checking out some funky little shops on Creek Street, we took the unicular railway and saw some of the totem poles carved by the tribe.
The following morning we woke to one of Captain Bjorn's cheery daily bulletins.
"Good morning sunshine, " he boomed, before reassuring us sailing conditions would be "easy peasy".
Another day's bulletin ended with a recording of whale song ("and here's a message from one of my humpback friends").
And at Icy Strait Point we got a close-up encounter with these awesome beasts.
After spotting telltale white plumes in the distance, the boat set off in pursuit and we were soon in the midst of a big pod of humpbacks - their dorsal fins breaking the water and their huge, black backs rolling out of the sea before sliding back below the surface.
A young calf "breached" several times, launching itself high out of the water and rounding off the best whale-watching trip of my life.
Day five was spent in Juneau, the only American state capital that can't be accessed by road and a place where more people have pilot's icences for seaplanes than driving licences. After a white-water rafting trip down the river that flows from the spectacular Mendenhall Glacier, we called in at Juneau's famous Red Dog Saloon.
This bustling, cosy pub comes complete with sawdust on the floor, stuffed bears and moose heads on the walls and an old-timer in a tengallon hat playing piano.
The following morning we disembarked in Skagway and took the spectacular White Pass and Yukon Railway, zigzagging across dizzying mountain ravines and past the 5,000ft Bridal Veil Falls towards gold rush territory.
Another jaw-dropping train ride from the port of Seward across the mountains to Anchorage gave us a close-up view of huge moose.
At a restaurant at the airport I made the mistake of asking if they had any fruit juice. The Native American waitress chuckled and said: "No, this is Alaska."
The rugged charm of the Last Frontier certainly makes a lasting impression. Fact File STUART sailed on Royal Caribbean International's Radiance Of The Seas. Prices start from £1,895pp based on an inside stateroom and include return flights from Heathrow to Vancouver on September 2, 2011, pre-cruise hotel in Vancouver, transfers and a seven-night cruise from Vancouver calling at Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway before returning to Seward, Alaska. The price also includes meals on board and all relevant cruise taxes/fees. For more information or to book call 0844 493 2061, see royalcaribbean.co.uk or talk to your travel agent. The Radiance has everything from a covered solarium with tropical garden and adults-only pool to a fitness centre and health spa. Other activities include a sports court, miniature golf course and a 30ft climbing wall. There's also a casino, several bars and live entertainment - including full Broadway musicals. For kids there are supervised activities at Adventure Ocean, a games arcade and, at Adventure Beach, a kids' pool complete with water slides, above. There's a teen disco in the evenings. The choice of dining is staggering, from a huge array of food at the self-service Windjammer Restaurant in the daytime to fine dining at Chops Grille and the Portofino Restaurant in the evening.