PAUL GOGARTY witnesses first hand the spectacular scenery and wildlife of the US state's Kenai Peninsula
A STORM was brewing and Captain Roy was intent on outrunning it.
The only problem was, he couldn't stop himself cutting back the throttle every time he spotted something he thought we simply had to see; a brace of humpback whales, a pod of synchronised porpoises arching gracefully through the water, harbour seals snoozing on outcrops and a group of Arctic puffin which Roy assured us could fly "much better under water than above it".
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We were in Alaska, heading for the 700,000-acre Kenai Fjords National Park from the town of Seward.
The national park is one of the highlights of the Kenai Peninsula, which measures 150 miles by 115 and is known, with good reason, as "Alaska's playground".
It's a mosaic of bottomless fjords, vast glaciers and rugged mountains some of which are accessible by car and train but most of which can only be reached by boat.
Over the next seven days we would explore the peninsula using all three modes of transport, plus canoes, kayaks and on foot.
Our first base in this pristine wilderness was Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge. Having beached us as close as possible, Roy ferried our bags to shore before heading back to Seward with the lodge's departing guests. Guide Mereth was soon leading us on a 15-minute walk to our cabins and providing us with our "bear aware" talk.
"We don't issue keys to your rooms so if you meet a bear on the boardwalk, you can pop into the closest cabin." Mereth paused for effect, before adding: "Don't worry, we haven't had an incident since we opened."
We saw our first black bear that afternoon while nine of us were paddling a large canoe across the lagoon beneath the vast, blue-tinged, compacted ice of the adjacent Pedersen Glacier.
The 300lb specimen was strolling the shore, happily grazing tidal grasses until it noticed us paddling in its direction.
Smartly, it turned on its heels and disappeared into the forest: our canoe had clearly won in the scary stakes.
Over the next 36 hours we kayaked the bay, hiked to the foot of the glacier, attended nature walks and then at night sat transfixed as primary schoolchildren as our knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides provided fascinating wildlife talks on migration patterns and winter hibernation.
Having explored the eastern flank of the Kenai Peninsula, it was time to head west along the Sterling Highway to Homer.
From the mining town's five-mile-long spit, water taxis ferry hikers out to the crystal-clear bays, cascading waterfalls and snowy mountain peaks of the Kachemak Bay State Park.
They're left to explore along myriad walking trails before being picked up again at arranged times.
A water taxi is also the only way to reach Tutka Bay Wilderness Lodge.
Despite having only six cabin suites for guests, Tutka somehow manages to squeeze in a masseuse, a hot tub on a vast deck that doubles up as a helipad and a kitchen with one of the finest culinary reputations in Alaska.
Following a late breakfast of reindeer sausage and omelette, we paddled out in kayaks through the Herring Islands, six forested outcrops, one of which had an estate agent's board.
The small island was being sold for £300,000 by a brother and sister who were bequeathed it by their father who had won it in a poker game.
A walk in the enchanted forest followed before I returned to the lodge for a massage and a wallow in the hot tub.
This set the tone for our two days at Tutka, during which we relaxed and explored the state park at leisure, spotting bald eagles and otters swimming on their backs as if sunbathing.
We also got the opportunity to join a small group on an excursion in the lodge's motor launch to Rusty Cove, 40 minutes away. Here, we hiked upwards through rainforest past disconcertingly large, fresh mounds of bear scat (droppings).
Gaps in the forest revealed dazzling views of the bay below. America does everything on the grand scale but reserves its truly epic landscapes for Alaska.
After about an hour of tramping through the riotous vegetation, we emerged on to flat alpine scrub that led us to the Grewingk Glacier. The glacier seemed to whisper to us as huge slabs calved off and floated by. We stood fixed to the spot, in awe of nature at work.
BACK in Tutka, it was our final evening. After a dinner of fresh halibut with pasta primavera, I caught sight of another black bear, about a year old, making off from the deck to the scrub.
By the time I got a little closer it had skedaddled so instead I wandered down to the beach where a campfire had been lit and marshmallows were being cooked beneath a rainbow.
Three French children were skimming stones across the glassy water, a Spanish couple returning late were stacking canoes and an extended family of New Yorkers were planning the next day's adventures.
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The Kenai is not just a playground for Alaska's lucky residents but for the whole world.
Bridge and Wickers (020 7386 4610/bridgeandwickers.co.uk) offers seven nights in the Kenai Peninsula from £2,060pp (two sharing).
Price includes return UK flights with Continental Airlines, three nights in Anchorage (room only) four nights in the Kenai Peninsula (full board), airport transfers, coach transfers to Seward and the Resurrection Bay cruise.
For departures May 20 to September 30. Travel Alaska: 01483 500006/travel-alaska.co.uk