Cruising the Alaskan Inside Passage: Where the Call of the Wild meets the Lap of Luxury

Seeing the remote wilderness of Alaska was once reserved only for pilots and adventurers; today, cruise ships take passengers by the thousand to enjoy these spectacular parts. Martin Fone went on the archetypal Alaska cruise: a seven-day journey up the Alaskan Inside Passage.

Alaska characterises itself as the last frontier and with good reason. The scenery is stark, with lowering mountains, glaciers and deep valleys. Some of the settlements, including Juneau, the state capital, are so enclosed by an impenetrable, mountainous barrier that they are only accessible by sea or air. The few roads they have only serve that community and are the archetypal roads to nowhere.

Seeing the place for yourself, therefore, is not easy. So, what better way for a self-confessed cruise virgin to break their duck than to sail the Alaska inside passage? After all, if you are going to cruise, you may as well go to a part of the world you can only see from a ship.

Thus it was that my wife and I found ourselves climbing aboard Holland America Line’s MS Nieuw Amsterdam in Vancouver, and enjoying an unforgettable week of wonderful scenery and astonishing sights we saw as we cruised along the Alaskan coastline, up as far as Skagway.

Bought by the Americans in 1867 from the Russians for two cents an acre — $7.2m in total — the Russians probably thought they were taking the US to the cleaners. The subsequent discovery of gold, oil and other minerals has turned out to make the greatest bargain in history, with Alaska’s mineral industry alone with about $3 billion a year.

Yet tourism now brings in even more than that — and reminiscing over the highlights of the trip, it’s not hard to see why. We saw the flukes of humpback whales in Auke Bay as they prepared to descend deep into the water. There was a rail trip up the formidable White Pass to Fraser in British Columbia, up which the so-called stampeders travelled, lured by the promise of a better life and a share of the riches from the Klondike gold rush (there is, surely, a Brexit metaphor hidden in there).

The White Pass to Skagway, Alaska. (Photo by Moment Editorial/Getty Images)

We spotted a brown bear swimming in the waters of Glacier Bay; heard the thunderous roar of ice falling from the glaciers, awe inspiring and disturbing at the same time; marveled at the enormous vertical granite cliffs in the Misty Fjords National Park, with cedars hanging precariously from their side, and listened to the bugler who boats out from Alert Bay to serenade cruise ships with his particular off-key take on popular tunes.  

Cliff-walled fjords slicing into the mountainous mainland are on tap in Alaska. (Photo by Sergi Reboredo/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

It didn’t hurt that we were blessed with glorious weather — even Ketchikan, the fourth rainiest place in the world, only presented us with light drizzle — but regardless of the conditions, this is a spectacular part of the world to visit. If, with apologies to Jack London, you are tempted to answer the call of the wild, this is the way to do it. And it has to be said, there is something reassuring about experiencing the true wilderness cocooned in the luxury of a cruise ship.

For those travelling from Britain (about 4% of the passengers) it is a long way to go for seven days, but it’s easy to add something else before or after the cruise. Most Brits we met had done that, and were looking forward to tours across the Rockies or extended visits to Vancouver. And then there is the price: Alaska might have been sold for pennies, but this is a costly trip. The memories, though, are priceless.

Breaching Humpback Whale flukes in the sunset at Misty Fjords National Monument, Inside Passage, Alaska. (Photo by Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Life on board

We boarded the MS Nieuw Amsterdam, at Vancouver. In service since July 2010, it is slightly smaller than the more recent additions to the Holland America Line (HAL) fleet, and its public areas on deck 2 did not seem quite as roomy and light. A pre-cruise concern of mine was whether we would be living cheek by jowl with the other 2,260 passengers and face endless queues. In reality, though, once we had all settled into our circadian cruising rhythm, there was more than ample space for us all.

A Nieuw Amsterdam verandah suite.

An advantage of a slightly smaller ship and particularly one propelled by Azipods (thrusters which rotate at 360 degrees) is that it is much more maneuverable than some of the larger cruise ships. This means that it can access ports that others cannot and navigate smaller, more scenic channels, a great selling point for HAL – especially in an area such as Alaska.

Was I going to be stuck on a party ship, boasting night clubs, karaoke bars and Vegas-style shows, with nowhere to hide? Not on the Nieuw Amsterdam. Whilst you could let your hair down at the BB King Blues Bar and there were shows on the Main Stage, a dance group and an illusionist which didn’t really float my boat, HAL has set out its stall to attract a more discerning clientele, one looking to appreciate great music, to be pushed outside of their comfort zone and one keen to understand more the area they are travelling through.

The Hydro Pool at Greenhouse Spa on MS Nieuw Amsterdam

There was an extensive range of activities available on board. Of particular note was a varied programme of talks about Alaska, its nature and its indigenous culture. An evening highlight was a BBC Earth documentary, complete with live music, showcasing the diversity of the animal life in the state, in truth a little too schmaltzy for my taste, but it went down well.

For the music lovers, the quintet at the Lincoln Center stage was not to be missed, their show giving a classic twist to rock standards truly first class. For the food and drink lovers, there were opportunities to sample different beers, wines, and whiskies, to try your hand at cooking and to visit the impressively well-organised galleys, the scale and complexity of which was simply mind-boggling. 

MS Nieuw Amsterdam (Photo: Holland America Line) The ‘Lincoln Center’ on board.

You might assume from this that HAL are looking to attract the more mature crowd but not a bit of it. Whilst 29% of the passengers on board were aged over 66, the largest age group was that between 51 and 65 and what was particularly surprising to me was the large number of multi-generational family groups. Around 13% of the passengers were under 21.

Food and drink

A cruise would not be a cruise without the opportunity to eat yourself silly at a buffet. In the Lido Market it was interesting to see Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge theory in practice, the absence of trays forcing the guests to think carefully what they wanted and how much they were going to pile on to their plates. As well as food waste, HAL is on a mission to eliminate the use of plastic within the next year. 

Beyond the buffet, the ship catered for foodies with a number of themed restaurants, offering a high-end dining experience to guests prepared to pay a supplement. My favourite was the Pinnacle Grill where my filet mignon was cooked to perfection and Rudi’s Sel de Mer menu provided a range of wonderful seafood options.

The Tamarind drew upon the culinary traditions of Southeast Asia, China and Japan and the Canaletto offered Italian cuisine. There was plenty of choice to suit every palate and the sommelier provided an excellent selection of whites and reds to complement the themes and flavours of each restaurant.

The sheer scale of what it takes to feed upwards of 3,000 people, including crew, was hard to digest. The average weekly consumption inventory includes over 5,000 pounds each of meat, poultry, fresh vegetables and potatoes, 1,875 pounds of fish, 2,575 pounds of seafood, 25,010 eggs and last, but not least, those all important 300 gallons of ice cream. Fascinatingly, the Executive Chef varies the provision order based upon the breakdown of the passengers by nationality, a case of positive stereotyping, if there ever was one.

Holland America Line’s seven-day cruise Alaskan Inside Passage cruise starts from £809 per person, not including flights to the starting point in Vancouver. See more details at