Brent Dixon’s bear advice is ringing in my ears as I join our guide Mary-Jo for a nature hike through the Tongass National Park. “Always travel in a group and don’t be the slowest,” he told a packed theatre on Celebrity Solstice. I am with eight others, so that’s one tick, and looking around I reckon I’ll outrun most of them - phew!
I’m joking, of course, and so was Brent, a scientist and wildlife expert who was lecturing on a Celebrity Solstice cruise I did this summer in Alaska. Well, it was partly a joke. His very important point was that while we might all be hoping to see bears on this cruise, they are wild animals, can be dangerous and we would be invading their territory, so respect and caution were paramount. The message certainly got through to a few of us. Chatting to a couple at dinner that evening, we decided that rather than seeing the real thing on the Tongass hike the following day, we’d be happy with some bear poo and scratches on the trees.
So it smiles all round when Mary-Jo spotted a little offering on the path in front of us. “That’s a bear,” she said, pointing with her stick, which she carried to wave menacingly in case we encountered one. The tour, one of three excursions in Alaska that adventurer and broadcaster Ben Fogle has endorsed as Great Adventures for Celebrity Cruises, provided an excellent choice. May-Jo was a walking encyclopaedia when it came to the forest, showing us skunk cabbage (bears make a bee-line for its yellow flowers when they come out of hibernation as they act as a laxative), various berries and lycopodium, a type of lichen that you can ignite when it’s thrown in the air. Goodness knows how anyone ever discovered that, but it is still used for special effects by magicians and filmmakers.
Tongass National Park, part of the largest temperate rainforest in the world, is just outside Ketchikan, which was our first stop on the cruise. We had set sail from an unexpectedly sunny Seattle, enjoyed blue skies and Brent Nixon’s shows about bears and whales during a day at sea (he was engaging, entertaining and educational, which was quite a feat!) Still to come was the state capital of Juneau and Skagway, a small town that owes its existence to the Alaska gold rush and still survives on tales from those wild days.
“You should have been here last week. It was too hot for me,” our driver told us as we left Ketchikan and headed out to the Tongass forest to meet Mary-Jo. Given the grey skies and a rain-o-meter in Ketchikan celebrating the towns 12.5 feet of precipitation a year, I suspect he was joking.
That evening, I joined a handful of passengers on deck watching for whales as we cruised through Snow Passage, an area popular with cetaceans (tally: three humpbacks and one unknown) and was up with the larks next morning for a scenic cruise along the Endicott Arm (another name for a fjord) to the Dawes Glacier, a massive piece of ice some half a mile wide, 175 feet above the waterline and 500 feet below.
If you have never booked a stateroom with a balcony, this is the cruise to start. The liquid sunshine was falling heavily as we sailed along Endicott Arm but, I not only stayed dry while enjoying the scenery from my own private viewing space but was able to listen to Brent’s live commentary from the bridge over the TV. I was in an Aqua Class Stateroom, but there are plenty of categories to choose from on Celebrity Solstice.
Once we reached Dawes Glacier, the captain turned Celebrity Solstice 360 degrees so everyone got a view. And that was all before breakfast! By lunchtime, we were docking in Juneau and an hour later I was off on my next Ben Fogle Grand Adventure, this time a boat trip in Auke Bay in search of whales. The town is the only US state capital that cannot be reached by road, it has the world’s smallest Costco and is home to almost as many eagles as people (about 30,000). It is also a whale-watchers’ paradise with some 1,500 cetaceans known to frequent its waters and even recorded in a book along with pictures of their flukes, which are apparently as individual as our fingerprints. So when I snapped a picture of a whale diving, our guide Becca was able to tell me it was Flame and she had first been seen in these waters in 2007. After a quick detour to see a noisy colony of sea lions, we headed back to dry land for a walk through the rainforest to view the spectacular Mendenhall Glacier. It’s one of 38 glaciers that flows off the huge Juneau icefield, which is about the size of Sussex.
Earlier this year I asked Ben how he had picked his Grand Adventures and he said he wanted to offer experiences that people would always remember. If mine are anything to go by, he has certainly achieved that.