COOL VIEW: The beginning of the awe-inspiring Margerie glacier at the foot of the south slope of Mount Root
Marvel at magnificent glaciers and creatures on a voyage to America's largest state, says LYNN HOUGHTON
AS THE helicopter effortlessly climbed over Skagway harbour our pilot Jason indicated ahead.
"See that sliver of road going into the cloud bank?" he asked.
"That's the South Klondike highway and the only road access from the north-east coast of Alaska to Canada's interior or to the rest of the state." Getting our full attention, he added: "Oh and we may hit turbulence here."
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I was glad of the warning as the chopper suddenly dipped by several feet. I had never been in a helicopter before and it was truly exhilarating.
The Heli-Hike & White Pass Rail Adventure was the highlight of the second port of call on my Alaska cruise.
Skagway was the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush and in its mid-1800s heyday attracted thousands of miners. The tiny outpost town and our moored cruise ship vanished quickly into the distance as the chopper banked and manoeuvred up into the Tongass National Forest. We were deftly dropped on to a helipad next to a narrow-gauge railway line for the start of a hiking expedition.
Our intrepid guide Leia led the way into the forest, acting as our personal Sherpa by carrying water bottles and waterproof gear. The trail and scenery were magnificent with views of spectacular mountain peaks and cascading waterfalls below.
A shadow on the path turned out to be my first eagle sighting of the trip, the great bird circling and diving far above our heads.
Our adventure had begun in the coastal city of Vancouver, Canada. From our pre-cruise room in the Pan Pacific Hotel on the waterfront, my husband and I watched as day broke and MS Zuiderdam sailed into the harbour. This elegant ship was to be our home for the next seven nights.
She looked dazzling in the sun. Spanning 11 passenger decks she holds around 2,300 passengers and we couldn't wait to board her and have a look around.
With many beautiful works of art, classic paintings and statues twinned with modern décor, first impressions were mesmerising.
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We settled into our deluxe ocean-view cabin with its spacious balcony, ample-sized bathroom and plenty of storage space. Having already clocked the spa (with its own private swimming pool) I made a mental note to have a massage treatment later on.
We left Vancouver escorted by Dall's porpoises frolicking around the bow of the ship.
Arriving in Alaska's capital Juneau we were surprised to learn it is totally cut off from the rest of North America by huge glaciers and ice floes. It is accessible only by plane or boat and is as famous for the nearby immense Mendenhall Glacier as for its isolation.
Several of us took a whale-watching excursion on nearby Auke Bay and were treated to a thrilling fluke (when a whale breaches the water's surface and shows off its tail) as a playful humpback obliged.
The next day we travelled to the most northerly point of our trip at Glacier Bay. Forest rangers joined our vessel to brief us about the area's unique ecology but it was seeing the 25-storey-high glacier dubbed Margerie that made everyone gasp.
As massive chunks of ice plunged into the water, the sound reverberated around the ship like a booming cannon.
Ketchikan, our last port of call, supplied us with a truly wonderful wildlife experience as we had a chance to see bald eagles up close. We glided into Knudson Cove in a two-man kayak and up to the islands to see these magnificent birds.
As we approached the tide pools off Eagle Island, we saw a mother with her chick fishing for supper. As she took flight, her immense 6ft wingspan took my breath away.
Back on board there are activities to suit every taste from bingo, digital photography lessons and West End-style shows to an excellent gym.
Children are well catered for: Club HAL was a huge hit with younger cruisers and the trendy Loft kept the 13 to 17-year-olds entertained.
A celebrity cook-off (the "celebs" being the ship's officers and captain) took place on our final day at sea.
With passengers as judges, the celebs had 30 minutes to whip up a tasty lamb dish and a dessert.
Sadly they needed more time and to explore this glorious place in full, so did we.
Canadian Affair (0207 616 9999/www.canadianaffair.com) offers a seven-night Holland America Inside Passage Alaskan cruise from £1,309pp (two sharing), full board. Includes return flights from Gatwick and one-night pre-cruise hotel stay. Departs Vancouver, September 3, 2011.
Heli-Hike & White Pass Rail Adventure, £246pp; Whales & Glaciers Adventure, £113pp.
Kayaking to Eagle Island, £58pp.