Cruise Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska: Glaciers, gold, bears and beads

Boom! My Tennessean neighbours aboard the Star Princess can't help themselves. Each time a frozen spire snaps from the blue face of Margerie Glacier with a gunfire crack, they add sound effects to the show unfolding in slow-mo before our eyes.

Who can blame them? It's exciting to be moored smack-bang in front of the glacier – a spiky slab of groaning, glittering ice that is descending into the West Arm of Alaska's Glacier Bay at a rate of up to two metres a day. Ice chunks bob around us and, when a new chunk splashes down to join them, the ripples reach all the way to the ship. While our portside staterooms face the spectacle, we step out onto our balconies to soak it up – along with the running commentary coming from every direction.

This experience is the pinnacle of cruising World Heritage-listed Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a highlight along Princess's seven-day Voyage of the Glaciers cruise from downtown Vancouver to Whittier, near Anchorage. I've always wanted to nose around this almost mythical wild coastline of the largest state in the union, sparsely dotted with towns and cities forged from hardscrabble beginnings. My first problem, however, is how to choose from the dozens of shore excursions offered over my three ports of call. I eventually whittle a short-list populated with all the Alaskan cliches: lumberjacks, huskies and bears.

Ketchikan is where I am expecting the axe-wielding muscle men. These lumberjack athletes in plaid shirts are drawn from the competitive world of timbersports. They showcase springboard-chopping, buck-sawing, speed-climbing and log-rolling skills at the cheesy Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. In an outdoor arena, we cheer our allocated teams. One family is unusually prepared – crocheted beards hang from their ears.

The show conveniently takes place on the site of a former spruce mill a block from where cruise ships dock. Shore excursions run like well-oiled machines, a sign of the maturity and popularity of Alaskan cruising. Anchorage, served by the ports of Seward and Whittier, this year reported a 20 percent hike in cruise capacity.

My next Ketchikan excursion is to George Inlet Lodge, a waterfront crab shack 24 kilometres away. The lodge is a former cannery bunkhouse towed on a log raft over the Inside Passage to this former mine site. Here, our hostess from the Lower 48 (as I'll discover, it can be hard to meet a real Alaskan) encourages us to eat all the crab we can manage in one sitting. The steamed crab, once levered from the shells, is dunked into pots of melted butter.

After returning to the docks, I check the time – if I hurry, I can squeeze in a squiz around Creek Street. This former red-light district is filled with old-timey former bordellos and boardwalks elevated on stilts. I snap pictures, admire a few hand-carved totem poles, note the difficulty of accessing free Wi-Fi (stores provide Wi-Fi only upon purchase) and almost run to the ship because I don't want to miss what's coming next.

From the state capital of Juneau, accessible only by water or air, I'm catching a float plane to Admiralty Island's Pack Creek Bear Sanctuary. The island's brown bears became habituated to human presence thanks to Allen Hasselborg, a bear hunter turned hermit who lived alone on the island until shortly before his death in 1956. Hasselborg's intriguing life story is told in John R. Howe's biography, Bear Man of Admiralty Island.

Princess offers this excursion only from early May to early June, when bears amble down to a lush estuary to snack on grass. We follow guide Peter Robertson along a rocky shore fringed with towering western hemlock and sitka spruce draped with Spanish moss to a spot overlooking a mountain-backed meadow. Sure enough, two juvenile bears are frolicking in front of us. They turn, clock our presence, and carry on with their play. At one point, they both stand on their hind legs like meerkats to survey their surrounds. Perhaps they detected the hulking adult bear, with paws like shovels, that lumbers from the rainforest a little later.

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If we think that's exciting, iti s because we don't know what is coming next. As we prepare to reboard our plane, another bear ambles along the thin lip of sand towards us. Robertson hurries us along and the adrenalin surges – you've no idea how fast a bear can move until one is headed your way. The bear, however, detours through the trees, popping out at a safe distance on the other side.

For a more sedate wildlife encounter, track down the stunning bronze statue of a breaching humpback whale unveiled in Juneau this year. Stroll along the foreshore of Gastineau Channel towards the Juneau-Douglas bridge to reach the statue surrounded by an infinity fountain that produces atmospheric water effects. Along the way, read about Gold Creek – a powerful stream constrained after several disastrous city floodings – and see the manmade Seawalk Island that protects the shoreline from the infamous wind and storms that barrel down the funnel of the narrow channel.

Speaking of weather, it's about to thwart my plan to see huskies in Skagway. Although the sun is shining as we slide into the dock, bad weather higher up the mountains has cancelled our dog-sled camp visit. Never mind – there is still a thrill in store courtesy of a helicopter ride to Meade Glacier. The choppers fly in formation as a safety precaution and I feel like an extra in Top Gun. We're dropped onto the glacier where we crunch over the rough ice, slurp from the streams and stare into the ice-blue abyss of sinkholes known as moulins (mills).

Skagway is the smallest of our ports – its permanent population barely scrapes 1000 – but boy does it hum with four cruise ships in town. With extra time on my hands, I tootle around the gold-rush-era buildings preserved as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and pop into park headquarters for guidance. Rangers point me to a short walk to nearby Smugglers Cove. Along the way, I run into two seasonal workers who have tied a shirt into a bag so they can fill it with lime-green spruce tips. For every pound of foliage, they earn $US5 from the Skagway Brewing Company at the far end of Broadway.

I have somewhere else to be before settling down with a spruce-flavoured brew. I nabbed the last spot in a free tour of Jeff Smiths Parlor Museum – a building connected to a notorious outlaw before it became a home-spun museum of oddities. Ranger Katie Muszkiewicz leads an interactive tour that includes probing the very idea of what a museum can and should be.

By now, most passengers have returned to their ships and Skagway is almost deserted. This is when I like it best, when it's almost a ghost town. Many jewellery stores tempt customers inside with free charms and I collect several tiny trains to hang around my neck (vintage railway trips to the White Pass Summit are a popular excursion). I pop into a store selling ulus – a traditional curved knife – and joke about my lack of cooking skills with the salesman.

By the time I arrive at the pub, that salesman is at the bar with his wife – Tom and Ellen holler at me to come on over. They've driven up from the Lower 48 to work the season. We chew the fat about life in Alaska. It's not what any of us expected.

TRIP NOTES

Katrina Lobley was a guest of Princess Cruises.

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CRUISE

Princess Cruises' Alaska itineraries run from May to September. In 2019, its 50th year of cruising the region, its Alaskan fleet will be joined by the 3600-passenger Royal Princess, the largest Princess ship to cruise the region. When packing, add binoculars to help spot Alaskan wildlife such as dolphins, sea otters and mountain goats. See www.princess.com 

FLY

Air Canada flies to Vancouver from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Since 2016, Canada requires Australian passport holders to apply for an electronic Travel Authorisation before travel (canada.ca). The United States similarly requires an ESTA (www.esta.cbp.dhs.gov). See aircanada.com

FIVE WAYS ALASKA IS BROUGHT ABOARD

Princess's multi-faceted North to Alaska program can be experienced aboard its ships in various ways.

BOOT-SCOOTIN' SAILAWAY

As the ship glides out of Vancouver, ladies in corsets and ostrich feathers and men in plaid shirts and braces encourage passengers to follow their boot-scootin' routine. With Achy Breaky Heart blaring out over the loudspeakers, it might feel more Tennessee than Alaska.

HARMONICA CLASSES

Peruse the activities calendar to see if harmonica classes with one of the ship's musicians are on offer. Forty passengers are issued with a harmonica and, over two classes, learn to play simple tunes such as Happy Birthday and Oh My Darling Clementine.

ENTERTAINMENT

Catch an Alaskan entertainer such as Steve Hites. His rollicking tunes and colourful storytelling highlight Alaska's rough-and-tumble history, from its time as a Russian territory to when gold fever struck.

FOOD AND DRINKS

In Glacier Bay National Park, buy a hand-warming drink such as the Molten Glacier (hot chocolate laced with Irish Cream and dark creme de cacao) from a trolley doing the rounds on the open deck. In the main dining rooms, look for signature Alaskan dishes such as hazelnut-crusted salmon with maple syrup glaze, and pan-fried rockfish fillets. At Prego Pizzeria, try specials such as the Lumberjack Pizza topped with Canadian bacon and smoked gouda.

SLED DOGS

In Juneau the first female Iditarod champion, musher Libby Riddles, might board for a presentation with one of her sled dogs. In Skagway, sled-dog puppies can be cuddled in the ship's piazza, with ship photographers capturing the snuggly moment.

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