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Into the Wild: Alaska | The Times Luxx



The Times Luxx | 5 September 2009

Into the wild

Jen and Doug among the blue icebergs of Southeast Alaska. Photo: Laura Ivill

Jen and Doug among the blue icebergs of Southeast Alaska. Photo: Laura Ivill

There is another kind of high-quality travel beyond hotels and swanky resorts. Laura Ivill sailed through Alaska's fjords, and found whales and bears, glaciers and forests – and the luxury of unique experiences far from the madding crowd

From my cabin I hear a rumble overhead as the ship’s Zodiacs are launched from the top deck, down over the side – four small, fast commando-style boats to take 28 guests, five naturalists and a handful of crew whipping across the fjord towards the sheer face of a glacier. We’re in Tracy Arm, an inlet in Southeast Alaska, and no sooner are we seated than we are skimming through the icy water, glorious blue sky above us, blue ocean all around and, up ahead, a floating display of the most magnificent icebergs, all startlingly… blue.

As we approach the imposing “snout” of Sawyer glacier we hear a great crack and a thunderous roar as tons of ice sheer off and plunge into the ocean. “White thunder” they call it. We call it spectacular.

Doug Gualtieri, our naturalist guide with Lindblad Expeditions, is explaining why the icebergs are this amazing colour (so much snow is so densely compressed that it reflects the blue part of the spectrum), when suddenly a harbour seal pokes its glossy, speckled head out of the water just ahead of us and fixes me with a whiskery gaze. This is our first full day in the wilds of Southeast Alaska and I’m marvelling how close we are to the action.

Patterson glacier, near Petersburg, Alaska, from the air. Photo: Laura Ivill

Patterson glacier, near Petersburg, Alaska, from the air. Photo: Laura Ivill

Lindblad Expeditions has been taking travellers into remote areas for 30 years. “Luxury mean different things to different people,” says president Sven-Olof Lindblad, whose father led adventure travel expeditions in the Fifties. “Our version of luxury is feeling the breath of a grey whale on your hand; it’s watching your child swim with sea lions; it’s kayaking next to cathedral-sized icebergs; it’s getting away from noise, from crowds. And it means doing these things in absolute comfort.”

Five years ago the company hooked up with partner National Geographic, a collaboration that is all about shared values - getting you into the heart of the natural world, with experts taking you beyond the surface view, and leaving as little trace as possible.

This is echoed at Conservation International which has a bespoke travel programme called CI-Sojourns for its directors, donors and “special clients”. Harrison Ford and Intel founder Gordon Moore have travelled with them, and marine biologist Rodd Mast, who runs the programme, has guided as many as half these trips. “I have more people that want to do it than I can handle,” he says, “and I don’t even do any marketing. It’s all word of mouth. People want not just more excitement and adventure, they want to be moved – it’s about wonder and marvel and awe, and these are things that happen to you when you’re face-to-face with an elephant or a wildebeest stampede.”

Aboard our ship, the Sea Lion, the atmosphere is informal, warm and relaxed, with attention to detail at every turn - hot toddies as you step back on board after a Zodiac cruise, chocolates on your pillow – but the empahsis on what you’ve come for – exploration up close and in depth. No expense is spared in equipping the ships: along with the Zodiacs and kayaks an HD underwater camera captures the proliferation of life on the ocean bed, and bow cams and hydrophones reveal the sights and sounds beneath the waves.

“Lindblad makes the riches of the destination both accessible and pleasurable,” says Ronnie Brooks, a director at the Wilder Foundation in Minnesota. “There is an abundance of time – to learn and explore with people who are experienced, knowledgeable and attentive.” It’s not fancy, as one guest said, but you can surround your voyage in treats, arriving fresh from a spa massage at Heathrow and a full night’s sleep in an airline bed and indulging in super-fine bedding and a bathroom Jacuzzi at your Seattle hotel.

Lindblad Expeditions covers the globe, from the Arctic to French Polynesia and beyond. In Baja California - “Mexico’s Galapagos” - guests are thrilled by their intimate encounters with grey whales. “Baja is awesome,” says Sue Jameson, a teaching consultant from North Carolina. “The grey whales come down to have their calves, you’re out in the Zodiac and they come to you. On a small ship you’ll see the absolute best of what’s here.”

Steppes Discovery is another of the few companies to hold a permit to explore here. Elizabeth Scott, a counsellor and sleep specialist, from North London, travelled aboard the small ship Searcher. “We had two naturalists on board who ensured we were not just captivated by what we saw, but came away with a deeper understanding,” she says. “I do believe that we forget at our peril that we are part of nature, not the master of it, and this trip helped me reconnect with that.”

Julian Matthews set up Discovery Initiatives in 1997 with the express aim of using responsible nature tourism to fund conservation. “Responsible travel is what our clients want – genuine experiences away from the masses, authentic interactions, real insight and top-class expertise. They also want to know they are supporting rather than destroying the very things they have been to see. Today, some of the most luxurious small lodge accommodation in the world is also winning all the environmental awards. Complete turn around. Small is now beautiful.”

Matthews is also chairman of the campaign Travel Operators for Tigers in India. “There is no doubt that the tiger is close to the brink of extinction in India, yet it is infinitely more valuable alive than dead,” he says. “Wildlife tourism turns poachers into gamekeepers, tourists into supporters and politicians into advocates for preservation.”

It is a lifetime’s understanding and appreciation of the natural world that ensures the best guides tread incredibly lightly, and show you how to do likewise. In the far, far west of Canada lie the Broken Islands group, a now uninhabited low-lying archipeligo in the Pacific, accessible by kayak from Vancouver Island, and where you can camp overnight. Those who come here are after something remarkable and unspoilt, yet with all the ease that comes with a North American destination.

Kevin Bradshaw has been a guide with Majestic Ocean Kayaking (offered through Responsible Traveland Canada specialist Great Excursions) for the past seven seasons and he not only studies the sea life but is a world expert on the First Nations people who used to live here. He spends his summers on water that is emerald green, landing on beaches of soft white sand, covered in giant oyster shells the size of your feet. “It’s great coming to an island as though no-one has been here before,” he says. “The guides pride themselves on leaving no trace.”

Going one step further and working alongside experts in the field is possible with Earthwatch International. It can be real back-to-basics stuff, but that’s the charm – it will immerse you in a whole different world like nothing else. The charity was set up in 1971 and has a high reputation for client care and for making sure the research you do really counts. It funds around 120 scientific research projects in key conservation areas and you join scientists and researchers in monitoring habitats and collecting data that will be used to influence the bigger picture – global conservation strategy and policy.

Last year, Anna Lise Wing took a six-month sabbatical from her job as international head of business development with US bank Northern Trust in London. “My job was very challenging,” she says. “I was feeling I was on a treadmill. I wanted to experience something different.” She had only ever stayed in comfortable hotels and had never camped when she signed up to do four Earthwatch trips back-to-back, including studying Mongolian wildlife. “It was a big leap for me, but the experience was something extraordinary. I felt in awe of these scientists who have such passion, who commit themselves to something worthwhile.”

Back on the Sea Lion, we enter Glacier Bay National Park – vast wooded mountains, rock, snow, ice, ocean and sky. I skip lunch to be alone on the bow looking out over the many fragments of sea ice to Margerie glacier beyond. It is stunningly beautiful; remote, pristine and peaceful. I hear the thump and clang of brash on the hull, and the snap, crackle and pop of ice melting all around.

In the past week I have seen great humpback whale surfacing alongside our ship and diving for food. I have walked in old-growth forests with giant hemlock trunks scored by bear claws, and watched in hushed excitement and brown bears and black bears forage for food. People from the fishing communities have talked to us about life in Alaskan towns and villages which have no roads and no schools, about a true wilderness and living in harmony with it.

But it is the exploration from every angle, the storytelling of how Southeast Alaska has evolved, and how it continues to change that has surprised and delighted me. I came for the wildlife, but it’s the fullness of the bigger picture I take away. I am reminded of what Florence Nightingale, a contemporary of the great naturalist Charles Darwin, once said: “Life is a splendid gift. There is nothing small in it.” I’m sure anyone travelling with naturalist guides would agree.

Exploring Alaska’s Coastal Wilderness with Lindblad Expeditions costs from £3,395 per person for eight days/seven nights, based on two sharing, including all meals, excursions and transfers within Alaska. British Airways Club World flies Heathrow to Seattle from £3,598 return. Alaska Airlines flies from Seattle to Southeast Alaska. Carbon offsetting at The W Seattle’s 750sq ft Wow Suites cost around £600. The hotel is big on energy and water conservation and recycling.

Read Online in The Times Luxx edition eight