Before boarding a week-long Alaska cruise, I do something that becomes a theme. In Vancouver, I wander over to Gastown's famous Steam Clock. As I approach, the not-so-historic clock (built in 1977 to mark the neighbourhood's revitalisation), toots and shoots steam into the air to mark the quarter-hour. It's so delightful that I trail past again after exploring the area to catch a repeat of the chimes – a joy-inducing diversion that costs nothing.
What starts as a happy accident becomes a more determined mission as my Princess cruise ship noses out of Canadian waters bound for Alaska's famed Inside Passage. Our first stop is the island city of Ketchikan, where I've committed to two excursions, leaving me with a mere hour at the end of the day for further exploration.
I could re-board the ship and put my feet up but I trot over to what was early Alaska's most notorious red-light district. Creek Street's candy-coloured buildings on stilts were once dance halls, speakeasies and sporting houses that attracted salmon and halibut fishermen looking to let off steam. They would swagger across the footbridge to reach the bawdy parlours that also served bootlegged booze; if there was a police raid, a discreet hillside path known as the Married Man's Trail provided a quick escape route. The brothels were outlawed and shuttered in 1954; today, you can stroll the boardwalks connecting the photogenic buildings and snap their reflections in the creek.
Our next port of call is the Alaskan state capital of Juneau – a city that, like Ketchikan, is perched at the edge of such rugged wilderness that it can only be reached by water or air.
Founded after the 1880 discovery of gold, the city fronts a pinch-point in the scenic Gastineau Channel. The narrow fjord and steep mountainsides help wreak havoc in Juneau when they not only funnel but accelerate gales known as Taku Winds, which can reach hurricane force. Thankfully, it's not one of those days as I head towards the outskirts, passing stands selling halibut and chips, king crab legs and Filipino pork stew.
The Juneau Seawalk showcases the restoration of the foreshore, which underwent less-than-beautiful 20th-century industrial development. It's now a peaceful place to potter around and learn more about life in a city overlooked by free-ranging mountain goats. A jetty incorporates artistic railings that highlight flora such as milkwort, goosetongue and silverweed. Information panels recall the difficult relationship the city has had with Gold Creek, an historic waterway now channelled to prevent further disastrous flooding, a taming that's meant the loss of seaside meadows and a forest, along with the barring of migrating salmon.
Tides here vary by up to 7½ metres, creating complex boating conditions for locals (as roads are few and far between, there's one vessel for every three residents). The tide is out during my stroll – the sand is pocked with footprints from a beachcomber – but my gaze is drawn back to the shore, where a humpback whale appears to leap from an infinity pool. The striking full-size bronze statue, unveiled in 2018, includes misting effects that make for dramatic photographs.
Keep an eye out for the real thing as you cruise the Inside Passage, also home to dolphins, seals and sea otters. Our final port of call, Skagway, is the smallest of our stops but it's my favourite. Bad weather on a nearby mountain has cancelled a planned trip to a sled-dog camp, giving me ample time to explore the quirky gold-rush town. At the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park headquarters, I sign up for the last spot on a free tour of Jeff. Smiths Parlor Museum – a home-spun collection of oddities that invites participants to reconsider what a museum should be.
I also need to stretch my legs. The ranger recommends hiking to the evocatively named Smuggler's Cove. Heading into the shaded forest, I encounter seasonal workers filling a plaid shirt with lime-green spruce tips; they tell me Skagway Brewing Company pays for the tips to flavour one of its brews. I make a note to try the beer after cruising along the city's wooden boardwalks. Jewellery stores tempt customers inside by offering free charms and, by the time I make it to the pub, I've got a collection of little trains (a popular tour is riding a scenic train to White Pass).
After our cruise ends at tiny Whittier, I transfer to Anchorage. The sprawling city of 300,000 residents is packed with art deco gems, such as the handsome 1942 Alaska Railroad Depot, part of a self-guided tour using maps provided by the tourist office.
And although I don't see wildlife roaming the streets, it's a pleasure encountering the playful taxidermy display of grizzly bears, caribou, wolves, Arctic foxes and more at the Alaska Public Lands Information Centre. The centre (free admission) is housed within another art deco gem: the 1939 Federal Building that was Anchorage's first concrete edifice, constructed 20 years before Alaska joined the US as a state.