Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 26, 2021
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Going overboard

Discover a cruise to Alaska that features glaciers, gold dust and more time off the ship than on

If the 1980s saw the boom of cruise ship as destination, the 21st century is seeing a shift right off the ship. Little wonder: the voracious cruise industry needs repeat passengers. The way to get them back on ship turns out to be getting them off-ship -- to overland adventures of discovery and adventure.

In Alaska and the Yukon, nobody is better equipped to do this than Holland America Line. The Seattle-based cruise line has been transporting tourists to Alaska since 1947. More recently, it's invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the North, forging a bold, interconnecting infrastructure of transportation options, accommodations, restaurants and excursions.

The line's 11-day cruise-journey through Alaska and the Yukon unfurls this way: three-day cruise from Vancouver to Skagway; White Pass and Yukon Railway to Whitehorse; coach to Dawson City, Yukon; coach to Fairbanks, Alaska; and luxe tourist train to Denali National Park and Anchorage. En route are excursions from dog-sledding on a glacier to helicopter flights over the peaks of Denali National Park. These can be pricey, but they are also the highlights of the journey.

Cruise lines are looking hard at winning repeat cruisers on-board, too: Holland America initiatives include spa services, food and sophisticated lounges. This time out, the ship is the Zaandam, a modest vessel in every way. Its Explorations Café ranks instantly as the ship's most handsome public space with leather armchairs and sofas, banks of computers (US$0.95 per minute for Internet), hardbound books from mystery to history and sublimely, an espresso bar offering superlative Italian coffee.

The Zaandam's on-board Greenhouse Spa emerges ahead of many on-land counterparts. A spa is really only as good as the gift of touch demonstrated by its therapists. Certainly masseuse Joanne Talosa wielded every finger, palm and elbow as precision instruments and married this with genuine human warmth. Guests like me are left pirouetting back to their cabins.

Food remains a challenge aboard the Zaandam. The kitchens excel in juicy bricks of beef, especially at the price-supplemented Pinnacle Grill, which specializes in Sterling Silver steaks -- the top 10 percent of beef produced in the US -- seared at 760ºC. Still, the old bugaboo of overcooking rears its head elsewhere aboard ship. This can be dealt with: if it isn't right, send it back.

The Zaandam's old-fashioned asset, unheard-of on the new breed of megaship, is the Promenade Deck. Whether jogging or walking to work off an orgy at the table or curling up in a blanket with a book, the timeless joy provided by this area of the ship seems the very soul of cruising.

Lightheaded Excursions
The first port-of-call was the Alaskan capital of Juneau. Excursions included glacier flying and dog-sledding, which are recommended, and salmon fishing, which is not. Even if you land a tyee (a salmon in excess of 13.5 kilograms), no fish, even processed and packaged, can be shipped to the "foreign county" of Canada.

Like amphibians crawling out of the sea on some evolutionary agenda, passengers turned to land at Skagway, an area which has never seen a tourist it didn't adore. The princely excursion here was a Temsco helicopter flight among glaciers and snow-capped peaks. The "Pilot's Choice" flight was an adventure of IMAX proportions, a journey to a world carved by Nature at her harshest, a habitat designed for mountain goats and Big Foots. We had landings on two different glaciers. Ultimately, we stood on the roof of the world among wild flowers and lichens that thrive in the blink of the alpine summer. Interestingly, passengers weighing over 113 kilograms are charged extra for such a venture.

We escaped Skagway aboard the White Pass and Yukon Railway, which, aside from being built in 1898 to transport provisions over the Coast Mountains, is one of the most scenic railway rides in the world. "Precarious" was the word that jumped out at me as the train rounded mountain bends on bridges that looked as if they were made of Popsicle sticks. The view was Himalayan in proportion, the landscape staggering. It's amazing to think the Gold Rush prospectors actually staggered through it.

The magnificent scenery continues as the train reaches the end of the line in Fraser, BC, and passengers are transferred to a coach for the trip to Whitehorse in the Canadian Yukon. In Whitehorse, we first encountered Westmark Hotels, the Holland America-owned chain that stretches across the North from Juneau to Dawson City and back to Anchorage. They have clean, comfortable rooms and food that's fine -- as long as you like steak.

Rush to the Gold
From Whitehorse, we travelled by coach -- yes, we were coach potatoes -- to Dawson City, heart of the Klondike Gold Rush. No theme park, Dawson City is the real thing, a frontier town whose atmosphere is thicker than gold dust and whose graveyard spins tales of crushed dreams and unlucky men. You can find the humble cabins of Jack London and Robert Service here, as well as the house in which Pierre Berton was born. You'll recognized the Canadians on your trip: they'll be the ones not asking "Pierre who?"

One excursion was a tour by Holland America jeep through the Klondike Gold Fields where George Carmack first hollered "gold!" in 1896. Intriguingly, it's still a gold field: last year, it yielded 1134 kilograms, worth about $20 million. In fact, contemporary prospectors can still buy a working claim for $100,000.

None of this resembles the treacherous terrain familiar in movies from Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush to The Far Country, in which Jimmy Stewart gunned down the notorious Soapy Smith. It is a gentle, rolling land of willows and aspens, the "scratchings" of gold miners long faded. The land's scars testify to devastating forest fires, yet there is an upside, even here. After the fires, morels jump out of the ground and local pickers sell them for $10 a kilogram -- enough to launch a Mushroom Rush if the world knew about it.

There was also a coach tour available to Tombstone Territorial Park, which opened in 2003. The Dempster Highway, pride of the Yukon, transported us into a realm of tundra and muskeg. Wildlife abounds there: mountains and bear, moose, caribou, ptarmigans, golden eagles, wolves and porcupines, the latter prized by Native Peoples for livers that taste of berries. Tombstone Mountain, a dark, jagged wedge of stone penetrating a Kodachrome sky, made me think of Tolkien's Mordor. The park is at its finest in early September, when the carpet of lichens turns a brilliant, autumnal red.

Transport from Dawson to Chicken, Alaska, and on to Fairbanks, was by coach. Outside Fairbanks stands Dredge #8, a working mining operation owned by -- you guessed it -- Holland America. It's a slickly run affair with tour guides filling in as hosts and interacting with idiot-savant characters on DVD screens. The visit included a prospector's beef stew lunch and a try at gold-panning that left would-be prospectors with a small quantity -- about $12 worth -- of real gold.

Divine Denali
In Fairbanks, we jumped at the chance to fly to Fort Yukon, located in the Arctic Circle, an exciting light-aircraft flight over mountains and tundra. Our destination was a modern Native Peoples settlement. Local guide Eda Carroll, a vital, articulate young woman, introduced us to a community "in which people live, that's all" -- and in which hunting and fishing sustain a way of life. Eighty percent of the population has been unemployed since the collapse of the fur market in the 1980s. Forest-fighting is the only way to make real money and dog-racing is the sport that sees men through the Arctic winter in which temperatures drop to a blood-shattering -65ºC degrees.

We travelled on to Alaska's magnificent Denali National Park and then to Anchorage aboard the McKinley Explorer, the Holland America-owned, double-decker luxe train in the mode of British Columbia's Rocky Mountaineer. The upper deck has a scenic dome with impeccably clean windows. Attendants are a hugely entertaining lot, but there are relentless consumer moments. One passenger observed: "This is like the Shopping Channel, only you can't turn it off."

First, however, we went to Denali. If you treasure literal peak experiences and can afford it -- none of these excursions are inexpensive -- sign up for the helicopter flight to Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain on this continent.

The McKinley flight is all jaw-dropping wonder as you whirl over valleys sculpted by hands of ice, glacial lakes the same turquoise hues as the Caribbean, meadows newly green for summer and jagged peaks jabbing at a brooding, indecisive sky. Such a flight kick-starts your sense of wonder. And, after all, that is why you're there in the first place.

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