Ben Hall discovers Alaska's grand wilderness at sea level and from on high.
As the light aircraft clears the next mountain peak, the pilot banks right and we drop several hundred metres towards another glacier. We glide along close enough to see the cracks in the ice. It look as though a giant rake has been dragged along its length.
Glacier Bay National Park, as the name suggests, is the place to see Alaska's impressive glaciers. Each one seems bigger and grander than the last, or perhaps that's part of an illusion made possible by a pilot keen to manoeuvre as close to the elements as possible.
The flightseeing tour of Glacier Bay covers only a fraction of its 13,000 square kilometres, but it provides a classic Alaskan experience - flying between jagged, snow-capped mountains bisected by massive glaciers, which drop straight into azure-coloured lagoons and bays dappled with ice floes.
On one sweep into a canyon, a moose is scared by the noise of the four-seater aircraft and bolts away to safety.
There's no road into Glacier Bay National Park; it can only be reached by air or sea, so the earlier arrival into the area on board the cruise ship the Sea Princess is an added bonus.
The ship docked in the remote port of Haines, at the far northern end of the Inside Passage, which then allowed for the flight over Glacier Bay along with an exploration of one of Alaska's most fascinating towns.
The local Tlingit people called the area Dtehshuh, which broadly means "the end of the trail" and the 2000 or so inhabitants here seem to revel in their isolation, disturbed only by the occasional cruise ship that makes it this far along the Inside Passage.
Haines is a pretty town with the Chilkoot Inlet and mountain ranges its spectacular backdrop. Over lunch in a bar it's obvious everyone seems to know everyone else. We ask one local what sort of wildlife is active at this time of year and he says moose. The bears and eagles are quieter because the salmon isn't running, he says. He also tells us, straight-faced and with genuine fear in his eyes, that he's seen Bigfoot while hunting and warns us to be careful out there.
We're on the lookout for animals but don't have time to search for Sasquatch, so we check out Steve Kroschel's Wildlife Centre just outside town. Kroschel has run this place for two decades and is a filmmaker who specialises in wildlife, alongside Mario Benassi. These two are real showmen who introduce each of their exotic and common native Alaskan animals one by one. It's a rare chance to see bears, lynx kittens, caribou, wolves, moose, fox, reindeer, snowy owls and a wolverine up close.
This 10-day round-trip cruise sails from San Francisco, which makes it easier and cheaper for Australians to board, as there are no pricey internal flights to add to the cost of a Sydney to San Francisco flight. (Los Angeles and Seattle are also becoming more frequent round-trip destinations for Alaska.)
Our first stop was Ketchikan, the southernmost point for most cruise ships in Alaska. It's a town which sprawls along the coast of Revillagigedo Island for several kilometres and has the distinctively shaped Deer Mountain to its south.
Ketchikan prides itself on being the salmon capital of the world, while nearby Misty Fjords is the place to witness another view of Alaska's unspoiled wilderness. Within five minutes of leaving on a cruise of Misty Fjords, two orca whales appear and follow us for part of the journey, as if to confirm this is definitely wildlife country.
At the Totem Heritage Centre, dozens of original Tlingit poles have been have salvaged and restored, while Ketchikan is also home to one of Alaska's finest Tlingit carvers, Israel Shotridge. He's been an important figure in preserving the heritage of the local people in this part of the world and his current project involves creating a 12-metre totem pole for the Ketchikan community.
"Making a living as a professional native artist is challenging in itself but it's not enough to create masterpieces for the sake of aesthetics," Shotridge says.
"I want to share my cultural knowledge with people as well as with tribal members."
The Alaskan capital of Juneau is the other main destination on our itinerary. It's a small, picturesque city perched on the Gastineau Channel, where towering mountain peaks cascade into the sea. It's an "action" town where you can go glacier walking, flightseeing, dog sledding, kayaking and salmon fishing.
The tram up Mt Roberts provides great views across the city, mountains and the Inside Passage. Mendenhall Glacier, with its blue ice, is Juneau's main attraction and a short drive away.
Our last full day in Alaska before returning to San Francisco is spent back in Haines as our ship has a busted engine part and a replacement won't arrive until the following day. That's not really a problem for passengers, however, as we head to the Fogcutter, a local watering hole, and settle in for an evening of stories, trying to work out which are real and which are Alaskan tall tales.
The writer was a guest of Princess Cruises.
The Alaskan cruise season runs from May to September. Princess Cruises has departures from San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver and Whittier (Anchorage). Fares for a seven-night voyage from Vancouver to Whittier, departing May 15, are priced from $1099 a person, twin share. The cruise stops at Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. Phone 132 488, see princess.com.
WHERE TO STAY
For pre- and post-cruise stopovers, the Hotel Nikko San Francisco is an elegant four-star hotel conveniently located in Union Square on Mason Street. See hotelnikkosf.com.