Glacier Guy says it's not just the bluest, it's the cleanest and best-tasting water in the world. He insists I try it. So here I am, lying on my belly, on a glacier, in Alaska, face in the water, drinking from a chilled rivulet. And Glacier Guy (aka our tour guide, Ben) is right. It's like sipping invigoration.
This shore excursion off the ms Eurodam, docked today in Juneau, the first port on this Alaskan cruise, begins with a helicopter flight over spectacular and serene wilderness, above savage rock formations and across deep crevasses.
We land on Mendenhall Glacier and Ben – who spends 12 hours a day on the frozen river during the Alaska cruise season – runs through a few facts and figures. He tells us the ice looks blue because blue light waves cannot penetrate the ice and bounce back to our eyes. He explains how glaciers are formed, their unstoppable, destructive paths and that this glacier moves between 8 and 46 centimetres a day, which is comparatively speedy in glacier world. Up close, the glacier is a dirty, jagged ice sheet and Ben picks up a pile of icy mud, crushed down from the original granite into a spongy compound by thousands of years of unimaginable pressure. He impresses the other guests by giving me a glacier silt facial and I immediately regret splashing him with glacier water. The particles are so fine it takes twenty minutes to scrub it off. Mendenhall Glacier is an immersive, other-worldly outing and all around us we hear it grinding as it moves and fractures beneath us. If you visit just one Alaskan glacier this year, make it Mendenhall.
Other shore excursion options in Juneau include dog sledding, whale watching, rainforest treks, gold panning, kayaking, sea plane flyovers, salmon fishing and salmon bakes. Many passengers also pass through the swinging doors of the famous gold rush-era Red Dog Saloon with its dark, dingy vibe and sawdust floors. "Gents check your side-arms. Ladies welcome." Everyone returns to the ship raving about their day and dinner conversations are dominated by never-done–anything-like–that-before recollections.
Holland America Line's ms Eurodam had a major refit in 2015 and is in great nick. With a 2100 guest capacity, this is a mid-sized ship – smaller than the enormous floating cities but still with all the amenities you want on a top-end cruise. It feels just right. A Goldilocks ship. Wide decks, especially at the stern, prove very useful on this cruise of endlessly parading panoramas. The swimming pools are still in use, board shorts and bikinis in the foreground, snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Eurodam's best features include the Greenhouse Spa & Salon, which comes with ocean views and whales breaching in the distance during my treatment, the excellent Club HAL for kids aged three to 17 and the foodie lectures and workshops (salmon, of course) run along the lines of the popular TV-show, America's Test Kitchen. The entertainment options are headlined by the uber-cool, eight-piece BB King All Star Band, the coolest thing since the glacier. Tight and funky, the men in suits are a class act – especially the horn section – and an ideal way to jazz up a nightcap.
Eurodam is especially impressive at dinner time. A five-course a-la-carte dinner in the elegant Dining Room is included in the fare but the specialty restaurants – many created by celeb chef Rudi Sodamin – are a sumptuous delight. These attract a premium of $US15-$49pp, which, for what you get, is a bargain. Pinnacles Grill showcases beef, salmon and wines from America's Pacific Northwest. Three of us join forces and tackle the 36oz Presidents Cut steak, which comes with sauces and sides rather than the more appropriate health warning. We don't finish it. Tamarind bills itself as Pan-Asian-fusion and is as good an Asian restaurant as you'll find anywhere. Caviar, sushi and sashimi appetisers are followed by Chinese mains, which arrive in a hotplate so hot it ignites a menu on the table. Canaletto is a tasty, casual Italian ristorante offering entrees, small plates and pastas. Try the garlic shrimp-infused ravioli and leave room for their fabulous cannolis and gelato.
But if you dine at just one specialty restaurant, make it Rudi's Sel De Mer pop-up seafood brasserie. Taking the place of Pinnacles for one night on each cruise, Rudi's is all about lavish table settings and show-off tucker. Rudi's Seafood Tower appetiser is a surpassing signature dish and the catch of the day was swimming in icy waters that morning.
This itinerary is a round trip out of Seattle with Alaskan port calls in Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan and also Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. The Alaska cruise season runs for just five months and these towns are filled with tourists from the many ships that dock daily. Nevertheless, each town has its own charms and the shore excursions are many and varied. If you like eating and talking about crabs and salmon, you'll be fine. Especially in Ketchikan, the "salmon capital of the world". If you've ever talked barramundi with a Northern Territorian, you get the idea.
Captain John Scott says he first came to Alaska in 1986. This Kiwi, who lives in Portsmouth, England, loves this part of world. And he's seen most of it.
"My favourite Alaskan port is Sitka," he says. "It has a very pretty approach through the surrounding islands. We often pass through pods of up to 60-80 whales and have to slow down to avoid disrupting them. This is a good ship for such manoeuvres. I love the way this baby handles."
The most spectacular day of the cruise is spent on the ship exploring Glacier Bay. Eurodam enters the bay at 7am and low clouds wrap around the surrounding hills like a grey scarf pulled down against the cold. We sail on placid, emerald water dotted with small ice floes. We pass vegetated snow-strewn rocky promontories, some devastated by glaciers that have carved their way down to the sea. Park ranger and traditional owner commentaries tell of the geological, native and settler history of this brutal wilderness. As recently as 1750 this whole area was covered in hundreds of metres of ice.
The bay ends at Margerie Glacier, a huge expanse of white pouring into the sea at a rate of just centimetres per day. Guttural cracking sounds announce chunks that come away and splash into the bay. Effusive adjectives and cameras get a major workout. Captain Scott performs a 180-degree turn here over two full hours before heading back out of the bay. And passengers' fancies lightly turn to thoughts of cocktails and dinner.
Five more Alaskan adventures
Dog Sledding Adventure by Helicopter (Juneau)
It doesn't get more Alaskan than this. An awe-inspiring flight over the Juneau icefield lands on Norris Glacier, where a dog sledding base is manned by veterans of the legendary Iditarod Race. After learning the sledding lingo, including the critical commands Hike! Gee! and Haw!, your team of huskies zips through the fresh mountain air across the snow-covered glacier. If you can't resist cute puppies, opt for the Sled Dog Discovery & Musher's Camp tour instead.
This peaceful little island at the foot of Mount Edgecumbe has a fascinating history that belies its size. The tour guide walks you through the oldest collection of Inuit artefacts in Alaska, colonial Russian buildings – built between the invasion in 1804 and the US possession in 1867 - and the World War II Catalina Aircraft Base on Japonski Island. The tour concludes with a colourful performance of regional Russian dance.
Ketchikan Salmon Fishing
Every Ketchikanian has a secret fishing spot where the salmon 'jump into the boat'. This excursion takes small groups on four hour trips to salmon grounds in the waters of Clover Passage. As much fun as the fishing, chatting with the skipper and first mate about their beloved fish species makes this outing a hoot.
Orca Whale Watching (Victoria, Canada)
Departing from Fisherman's Wharf, these tours run day and night and head out of the inner harbour into open water aboard a high-speed catamaran. We see seals, sea lions, porpoises, countless sea birds, as well as humpback and killer whales.
Best of Seattle with Airport Transfer
Following the cruise – and if your flight departs after 3:30pm – this tour explores the stylish and sophisticated capital of Washington state. You'll see Pioneer Square, views of the skyline and Elliott Bay from the top of the Space Needle, browse (and snack) at the eclectic, open-air Pike Place Market and still get to the airport in time for your flight.
Virgin Australia (in conjunction with Delta Air Lines) flies from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Seattle via Los Angeles daily. virginaustralia.com
ms Eurodam and other Holland American Line ships cruise Alaska from late-April to mid-September. Fares for this Seven-Day Alaska Explorer cruise (beginning and ending in Seattle) start at $1376 per person for an ocean-view cabin. hollandamerica.com
Mal Chenu was a guest of Holland America and Port of Seattle.