Skagway Alaska cruise: Ponant's northern star

Sometimes in Alaska I feel as if I'm sailing to the ends of the earth. My expedition ship Le Soleal nudges into the very northern end of the Inside Passage, the sheltered sailing route that weaves between the isolated islands of the Alaskan coastline.

It enters Taiya Inlet, its final finger, sailing up an ever-narrowing glacial valley. Skagway is squeezed in between ocean's end and ring of foreboding, bear-haunted hills. Beyond lie mountains and a million miles of empty Canada.

Yet despite its isolation, Skagway is by far the busiest port on my Ponant cruise, which mostly avoids big-ship ports for more intimate Alaskan towns and remote bays. Every big cruise ship calls in here, and for good reason: Skagway is easily explored, has a lively history and – unlike rain-drenched Ketchikan and Juneau – is often sunny. Up to five ships a day disgorge 8000 visitors into the diminutive town. Coaches line the waterfront, hustlers spruik tours, sightseeing helicopters whine.

After a week in the wilderness, there's something comforting about this buzz of human endeavour. Besides, there's much to like about Skagway, starting with the short shuffle that takes me from Le Soleal into the town centre. I walk across railway  tracks where an historic train is just departing for Whitehorse in puffs of steam and groaning pistons, and find myself at the bottom of Broadway, the town's main street. 

Skagway erupted in 1897, when some 40,000 gold-rushers scrambled through the port on their way to the "howling wilderness" of the Canadian Yukon via the Chilkoot Trail, the shortest route to the Klondike goldfields. Two years later it was practically abandoned.

Broadway remains lined by wooden sidewalks, Wild West bars and wooden shopfronts straight out of an old-time cowboy movie. The buildings' cheerful, anachronistic colours – did Victorian miners really favour hot pink? – and wandering Davy Crockett lookalikes add to the theatrical feeling. Still, the historical recreation has been done sensitively, with ATMs hidden away and no hint of fast-food outlets.

Embedded in the town centre are some genuine historical buildings run by the National Park Service. Rangers take you on a 45-minute walking tour and talk to an early brothel and saloon and Skagway's first cabin. It was built in 1887 by the perceptive William Moore, who predicted the gold finds and importance of the valley's access, bought 65 hectares, opened a sawmill and married a local Tlingit woman.

It paid off, because beside the cabin stands Moore House, a substantial residence crammed with all the trappings of Victorian propriety: a piano, gilt-framed portraits, prim dolls.

Skagway's visitor centre is housed in a building whose facade is stapled with 8800 pieces of driftwood and looks like something built by the Three Little Pigs. A museum is stuffed with historical detritus from corsets to washing tubs and cash registers. Most of the other buildings are now shops.

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Some sell the usual fudge and stuffed bears, but many are upmarket and have interesting buys such as musk-ox sweaters and quality ceramics. Kirmse's has good regional crafts, paintings and Russian nesting dolls, and Gathering of Spirits has impressive jewellery and sculptures made from hardwood, antler and walrus ivory.

Take a shore-excursion tour and you'll be regaled with gold-rush stories. The golden dome of the former Golden North Hotel presides over Broadway, reputedly an aid to drunken miners attempting to find their way back from saloon to lodging.

At the Red Onion Saloon, brothel madams in historical garb will show you around and point out the payment chutes through which the girls dropped their earnings straight into the manager's till at the bar.

Beyond town, the cemetery is serried with pioneer graves, including that of Soapy Smith, a notorious confidence man shot dead in 1898, but still very much alive in the imagination of tour guides.

By four o'clock the big ships have sailed away, but the lovely Le Soleal lingers on. The town becomes a quieter place as late-afternoon clouds, tinged with pink, billow above the historical facades.

By evening we're sailing away down a narrow fiord of tumbling waterfalls, above which a chain of snowy mountains looms.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

travelalaska.com and skagway.com

GETTING THERE

Air Canada flies from Sydney and Brisbane (15.5 hours) to Vancouver with onward connections to Anchorage (3.5 hours). Phone 1300 655 767, see aircanada.com

CRUISING THERE

Like all expedition companies, Ponant varies its cruises annually. Next September it has a 14-night Nome to Vancouver voyage on Le Boreal that visits Alaska's far north coast and sails the Inside Passage. Prices from $10,964 a person twin share. Expect new itineraries in 2018. Phone 1300 737 178, see ponant.com

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Ponant.