Not for me, this city on the sea

SO, THERE I was, sitting down to breakfast in the Lido Restaurant of the signature class MS Nieuw Amsterdam cruise liner, while the 10-million acre Tongass rainforest slipped by outside. 

Banks of western hemlock - a kind of pine - red cedar and sitka spruce covered countless islands and stretched along the mainland rising up steep, blue hillsides into snowy mountains. Somewhere in those vast, roadless forests there were wolves, brown and black bears, bald eagles, ravens and deer. There were also people; the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian First Nations, whose creation stories feature a raven as clever and as mischievous as Loki from the Norse legends.

In the restaurant, passengers queued for scrambled eggs and bacon and baked beans, spooned out by smiling waiters. There were nearly 3,000 people on the ship - 850 crew (mostly Indonesians front of house, and Filipinos in the kitchens) and 2,100 mostly elderly, mostly white passengers. In one week, they would get through more than 23,000 eggs, 11,830 lbs of meat and meat products, 137,000 lbs of vegetables and 300 gallons of ice cream.

Had any one of the passengers been dropped down on any one of those islands, they could not have survived for long. The temperate rainforest is both beautiful and impenetrable; walking more than a few metres from the shoreline would have been too great an effort, and pointless anyway since there is nothing out there but more trees and rocks. 

On one tiny island, there is a lone wolf that swam there from the mainland. On another, there are an estimated 5,000 black bears. It is wild, a wide and unforgiving wilderness - not the place for elderly white people with little knowledge of bushcraft.

And yet here we all were, eating sausages and sipping orange juice and watching this wild place slip by like so much wallpaper

After a few days, the incongruity of the two experiences - the five-star city-on-the-sea with its cocktail bars, music lounge and casino, and the beautiful brutality of the landscape - began to grate, like something heavy being dragged along the seabed.

By nature, I am more of a traveller than a tourist and what I want mostly is engagement. Taking the rattling and swaying White Pass & Yukon narrow gauge railway to Lake Bennett in the Yukon was marvellous; watching bears at Neet’s Bay, tremendous (if a little organised). But idly spotting the flukes of humpback whales from the verandah of our five-star stateroom left me cold in both the literal and figurative senses of the world. Nature cannot be revealed ‘red in tooth and claw’ while you are sipping sauvignon blanc.

This, I understand, is not the fault of the cruise company Holland America Line. Had the Nieuw Amsterdam been a five-star hotel anchored to the ground in, say, Vancouver, I could have found little fault with it. Indeed, I became so curious about the logistics of feeding 3,000 people a day that I sought out the liner’s assistant food and beverage manager, who generously gave me a guided tour of the huge kitchens and showed me just how my food could arrive in the Manhattan Restaurant freshly cooked and warm just as quickly as if I had been in a Michelin-starred restaurant. The food was excellent too.

It was just that the experience was, well, a little too five-star-safe for my taste. To be honest, it was more fun, being pitched around in huge seas on the tiny RMS St Helena (76 passengers max), or unexpectedly having to cross Morocco, Spain and France overland and without organised transport when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted and grounded the aircraft of the Northern Hemisphere. I like a bit of adventure, me.

Still, this was an epic trip. We spent a few days in Vancouver before the cruise, and a week in Whistler after it, and we saw orcas, killer whales, sea otters, black bears, bald eagles, porcupines, harbour seals, turkey vultures and spawning salmon. At Nairn Falls near Whistler, a tiny squirrel ran across my friend Andrew’s lap in search of crumbs. 

In Pemberton, I bought wine from a First Nation shopkeeper who whistled like a trim-phone throughout our conversation. In Whistler, where nobody whistled, a guy I assumed to be the owner of a rock and gem shop engaged me in animated conversation about rocks. He turned out to be just another customer - they’re very friendly, Canadians. In Ketchikan, a slim young woman of about 30 flew us down the misty fjords in a tiny float plane, with other float planes criss-crossing the sky beneath us.

And everywhere the landscape was startling - vast on a North American scale with plunging waterfalls, deep canyons, mirrored lakes and huge shoulders of granite heaving up into the atmosphere. It was so beautiful that, for once, words really do fail me. It was beautiful. That's all I've got.

Ketchikan in Alaska - which has a resident population of 14,000 - was expecting 11,000 visitors from three cruise liners the day after we dropped in there. Some people might think that horrific; our bus driver thought it tremendous, because that’s what Ketchikan’s economy is now built on. Truth, as usual, is relative to where you happen to be standing.

Would I go back? Like a shot - only next time I’d like to do it the hard way. The Alaska Marine Highway looks interesting, and float planes are fun - and wouldn’t it be grand to stay on shore with the locals, eating what they eat and learning about their lives? 

I can understand the attraction of cruising, especially if you are less fit or alone. But I think this will be my last - until my dotage at least. For now, it's not for me.