"It's so damned grand- I was over-impressed by it." So said painter, Karl E Fortress. He was, of course, speaking of Alaska- The Great Land- bought from those pesky Russians by the US in March,1867. Because the land is so damned grand and wildly over-impressive, I'm relieved to be on a small ship for my first cruise from Alaska to Vancouver, BC. Several summers spent in BC have accustomed me to the sight of the monster ships that sound their horn around Vancouver tea-time as they sail under the Lions Gate bridge and turn north towards Alaska. They look for all the world like a West Van condo that has suddenly taken a foolish notion to go to sea. I like to look at them but I wouldn't want to be on one.
So when the chance came to sail on Cruise West's Spirit of Oceanus out of Anchorage and down to Vancouver, I couldn't resist. I found that Fortress quote, by the way, in the excellent Anchorage Museum. Oh I know, locals always tell you that their museum is excellent but this time it's true. The Anchorage Museum is a perfect primer for what we'll see on the ship. After a few days, I come to think of it as the ship of stories. Each day another of Alaska's big stories is told to us - the story of Russia and Alaska, the story of gold and Alaska, of the native tribes and Alaska, the story of Alaska's earth, air, endless ice and water in the form of her icebergs and glaciers. The Anchorage Museum sets a lot of these themes out in straightforward easy-to-follow dioramas that even the most jet-lagged visitor can understand.
Cruise West ships hold under 200 passengers. There's no night club, no cabarets, no midnight buffets and certainly no bingo. So what is there? Well the excellent staterooms and fine dining aside, the ships come complete with a crew of young marine biologists who are passionate about what is all around the ship. And on some days, on our cruise, that included humpback whales 'bubble net' feeding and a bear swimming across a strait to a distant island of pine forests. Even the most jaded city dweller finds themselves 'oohing and aahing' when the whales surface. And on a small ship they surface very close.
There's even a professor of anthropology onboard who can tell you tales of the native tribes that have inhabited this great land for centuries. I'll be honest and say I yawned when I saw the words 'marine biologist' and 'anthropologist'. I wasn't sure quite what I wanted from Alaska but I was pretty sure that it wasn't anything either of those guys could provide. I was wrong. I usually am. More about the Great Land's stories tomorrow. In the meantime, can you believe the colour of that iceberg?