Alaska's spectacular scenery and dazzling wildlife are best sampled on a cruise, discovers ANNA PUKAS
IN A world made small by jet travel there are few places that still feel untamed. Alaska, however, retains its frontier feel. Here, nature is in charge.
Most of the state is inaccessible by road. You have to fly (Alaskans are as likely to hold a pilot's licence as a driving licence) or sail in.
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Much of the wildlife, including bears, wolves and moose, is dangerous and the climate of long subzero winters and short wet summers is harsh. Seven times the size of Britain but with a population of 690,000, which is about the same as Liverpool, Alaska has loads of room in which to get lost.
However, let's not get carried away - I'm no female Ray Mears. I went to Alaska on a cruise ship. Staying in a balcony cabin on Royal Caribbean's 2,500-passenger Radiance of the Seas is a great way to travel to one of the most spectacular places on Earth.
We sailed from Vancouver on a sunny afternoon with azure skies above us, a cocktail in hand and crowds waving us off from the dock (yes, people really do that) amid much excitement about what lay ahead. Our first day was spent at sea with the forested coast of British Columbia to our right and the Queen Charlotte Islands to our left, sailing up the Inside Passage (thank you, we've heard all the jokes) and getting to know our home for the next week.
Our first Alaskan port of call was Ketchikan, the self-styled salmon capital of the world.
Situated on the edge of the Tongass rainforest, second in size only to the Amazon rainforest, the town started life as a fish-canning factory in 1886. Fishing, for sport if not for survival, is still a way of life.
We took a short bus ride inland and hopped into canoes to explore the glorious stillness of Lake Harriet Hunt with its fringe of Sitka spruce trees and chattering blue jays.
Back in town we strolled along Creek Street which was full of brothels in Gold Rush days but now houses nothing racier than souvenir shops.
Our next stop was the aptly named Icy Strait Point, a lonely promontory in a narrow channel that ices up at the first snowfall. It is also bear and whale country. Unfortunately, the former wouldn't come out to play during our bear-watching walk but the whales more than made up for it.
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A 20-minute boat ride took us to Point Adolphus where a pod of 30 humpback whales seemed only too pleased to put on a show for a boatload of "oohing" and "aahing" tourists.
They arched their vast, glistening backs, slapped the water with their tail flukes and one youngster thrilled us with his vertical leaps (known as breaching) while sea lions swam around the boat. It was magical.
The sun came out as we slid into sea kayaks for an exhilarating late-afternoon paddle from Icy Strait Point to the village of Hoonah where the population, mostly Tlingit native Americans, numbers 850 - with sometimes, it seemed, almost as many bald eagles. Cruise tourism is vitally important to these communities.
Juneau is the pocket-sized capital of Alaska and the only US state capital you can't drive to. Like most Alaskan towns it owes its existence to the discovery of gold in the 1880s and is home to numerous jewellery shops.
Juneau's real treasures lie a few miles outside town though.
Don't bother with an organised tour. Get the town bus from the dock (fare, $7) to the visitor centre and take the 15-minute walk to the foot of the waterfall at the spectacular 13 mile-long Mendenhall Glacier.
I had my first experience of white-water rafting on the Mendenhall River, which made me feel like Meryl Streep in the film The River Wild.
In the afternoon we met some top athletes: Alaskan huskies, serious racing dogs which compete in the 1,150-mile Iditarod sled race.
Pulling tourists on wheeled sleds is considered good off-season training for them.
That evening we called in for a beer at the Red Dog Saloon.
It had sawdust on the floor, stuffed bear and moose heads on the walls and entertainment provided by an old-timer with a good line in witty insults, who looked as if he could well have been around in the Gold Rush.
We docked next day at Skagway, a tiny town of raised timber pavements where the streets peter out into spruce forest. It is home to the Sarah Palin Store, dedicated to the former governor of Alaska, where you can have your photograph taken next to a life-size cutout of her. At the cash desk your money is taken by a Palin lookalike.
Skagway is the departure point for the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad which snakes through breathtaking ravines and gorges. However they saved the best 'til last. On day seven our skipper guided the ship through the ice floes of Russell Fjord to the face of the Hubbard Glacier.
So vast is this 76 mile-long ice leviathan it seemed we could reach out and touch its sheer blue cliffs. Yet we were probably half-a-mile away.
When bits break off a glacier it is called calving but the local term of "white thunder" is more poetic and accurate.
The sound of it is mesmerising.
We left the Hubbard to sail on to the port of Seward and a final spectacular journey, by train this time, to Anchorage airport.
It was sad saying goodbye to Alaska and to the Radiance, that elegant vessel which had attended to our every comfort with her friendly crew. The restaurants are first class (I loved the steaks in the Chops Grille) and the entertainment diverting enough to fill the days at sea.
Together Alaska and the Radiance gave me one of my best holidays ever. Active yet relaxing and restful but invigorating, it was the perfect combination.
Royal Caribbean International (0844 493 2061/www.royalcaribbean.co.uk) offers a seven-night Alaska Northbound Cruise on Radiance of the Seas from £1,895pp (two sharing), full board.
Includes flights from London Heathrow to Vancouver and return from Anchorage, a pre-cruise hotel in Vancouver and transfers. Departs Vancouver, September 2, 2011.
Travel Alaska: www.travelalaska.com