Warming Up To the Frozen North

A sail to Alaska combines modern elegance with untouched natural beauty

PASSENGERS were welcomed aboard Holland America's luxurious liner M.S. Noordam as she cooled her 42-ton brass propellers in Juneau, Alaska's, icy glacial waters. This was a five-day Juneau-Vancouver cruise through the spectacular Inside Passage.

I slipped aboard rather surreptitiously to avoid having my picture taken with a man in a chicken suit greeting guests. That's something you have to watch on any cruise - you're never more than an f-stop away from the ship's photographer, ever-eager to immortalize your every awkward move as you're tangled up in your life jacket during the lifeboat drill, or have just taken a mouthful of peas at dinner. I never did figure out the significance of the chicken. (Or could it have been a ptarmigan, Alaska's state bird, having a bad feather day?)

The first challenge on a ship of this size - she weighs a hefty 34,000 tons, stretches 704 feet, and carries more than 1,200 passengers - is finding your stateroom. The second challenge is finding it again. So are the third and fourth.

Port/starboard, fore/aft, up/down, all get somewhat turned around when you're bobbing around below deck. Thankfully, Noordam has a cheerful crew who not only know where your cabin is, they also have an uncanny ability to remember your name after hearing it but once. Should you continue to get lost on your way from barber shop to sauna to dining room to movie theater - and you will - one of the staff of 559 Dutch officers and Indonesian and Philippine staff is always an elbow's-length away.

Getting lost at least gives you an opportunity to discover the ship's treasure trove of nautical art that fills the corridors and public rooms: Glass cases hold ancient silver pieces, Imari vases, 17th-century Dutch weapons, oil paintings, and rare nautical instruments, even European tapestries, old globes and charts, and two exquisite ship models carved from whale bone.

The quality of the appointments, service, meals, and attention to detail is obvious throughout the ship. Holland America's five luxury liners remain among the top cruise ships plying the seven seas. No surprise: They've been refining these cruises for half a century.

There's hardly time to see it all and still shop in the chi-chi boutique, sign up for dance lessons, work up a sweat in the gym, and stitch together your outfit for the costume ball.

Ribbons, feathers, and sequins flew as some guests took the dress competition so seriously they spent hours designing and sewing costumes. (If only I'd followed that man in the chicken outfit!)

Meals on the Noordam are endless and sumptuous. There are more goodies than at Zabar's. Breakfast, however is something of a free-for-all; it's cafeteria-style and lines are long but the wait is worth it.

But eat quickly. It's almost lunch time, and you've got to find the dining room. Everyone groans and complains about the quantity of food. But not the quality. ``Too much food,'' they moan, ``and would you please pass the fish croquettes?''

Sensible passengers jog off their extra baggage on the Promenade Deck between meals (five times around is a mile), play volleyball, tennis, or drive golf balls off the stern.

At four o'clock it's time to break for High Tea in the Explorers Lounge while a string quartet plays Vivaldi.

Evenings are filled with more music, ballroom dancing, night club acts, and, best of all, a show featuring the Indonesian staff performing traditional dances and songs in costume. You may want to avoid the aptly named ``Mint Casino,'' where you can lose that much with a rattle of the dice.

Lots of lounges to choose from

There are 23 lounges and public rooms on board - some small, dark, and intimate, others throbbing with lights and disco.

Afterward, it's back to your stateroom - with a little help from the staff.

Each cabin is air-conditioned, has large dressers and wardrobe space, a shower or bath, telephone, and an amazing toilet that doesn't just flush, it implodes.

There are several interesting ports of call along the way. In tiny Sitka, a former Russian fur-trading capital, stores like the New Archangel Trading Co., a two-story souvenir emporium, capitalize on the Russian connection. But your brief time here is best spent exploring the restored, wooden, Russian-built St. Michael's Cathedral with its Byzantine domes and collection of religious icons.

Another picturesque stop is the town of Ketchikan, billed as the ``Salmon Capital of the World.'' An active fishing port and Totem Bight state park are worth the stop.

The show untouched by man

While these ports of call are rich in art and history, the drawing card of this cruise is the show untouched by man. From the time the mighty Noordam weighs anchor, the scenery unfolds in magnificent, ever-changing panoramas. Long thin islands, evergreen with spruce and pine, rise from dark blue waters. Nature lovers (and everyone is, on this trip) patrol the decks with binoculars, searching for bald eagles that build their giant nests high in the branches of dead trees. White Dall sheep can be spotted skipping up the sheer cliffs of snow-capped mountains. A brown bear sow with a cub or two can occasionally be seen foraging for berries. And the sight of a breaching humpback whale or pod of killer whales can empty an entire dinning room of hungry passengers as they shout their approval to the clicks of hundreds of cameras. Who cares if the vichyssoise gets warm or the lamb chops cool? This is what they came to see!

Certainly the highlight of the cruise was the day spent slowly cruising the wondrous waters of Glacier Bay, where 16 active glaciers meet the tidal waters.

The gigantic Noordam, dwarfed by the cliffs of blue ice, moved closer as the glaciers ``calved'' - dropped great icebergs into the sea with a thunderous roar. Harbor seals could be seen chilling out on newly-freed hunks of ice. They will give birth on the bergs in late spring.

All the while, naturalist Robin Moffett answered our questions while pointing out the abundant puffins, black-legged kittywakes, and flocks of gulls diving into the water to dine on whatever fish, krill, or shrimp the crashing tons of ice churned up from the depths.

One woman from Arizona was so taken by the sight she was close to tears: ``It's so moving and humbling, coming face to face with our own ice age.'' A corrections officer from Alabama summed it up this way as we cruised out of the bay: ``You know, I've never even seen ice or snow, but this is even more exciting than meeting three of my Moose Lodge brothers in Juneau.''

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