TRAVEL: Alaska's old gold boom towns are teeming with history
JUNEAU, Skagway, Ketchikan. Just three exhilarating ports of call on our cruise on board Nieuw Amsterdam through Alaska's Inside Passage.
Our ship docked right in the heart of town, simple to disembark quickly and explore on foot.
Each town transported us back to an era when men wrestled bears (in our frenzied imagination) and crowded into raunchy saloons and bawdy brothels to spend money earned from gold found on the crowded fields.
The raw beauty of these towns with their rainforest mountainsides, serene waterways and beautiful lakes played backdrop to an undiscovered world to us, something straight out of a boy's adventure book.
In Juneau we stepped into the past through the swinging doors of the Red Dog Saloon, where sawdust on the floor, moose heads on the walls and the raspy voice of the old-timer on the piano brought to vivid life the heyday of the town's glorious mining era.
Then the Mt Roberts Tramway whisked us up 550 metres to the namesake mountain where we had a raven's-eye view of Alaska's capital and in a small theatre watched an informative movie of the indigenous Tlingits. Outside we saw our first (and last) bald eagle. She had been injured and rescued and now sat in a spacious cage/house with a broken wing and a haughty demeanour. And why not? The bald eagle's wingspan can reach up to 230 centimetres.
In Skagway, the boom town gateway to the Klondike goldfields in its halcyon days, it wasn't difficult to imagine the town packed with 20,000 feverish gold seekers. The historic buildings have been protected and now most of them are home to jewellery stores of glittering temptation. And salmon. Salmon is king everywhere in Alaska; stores sell it in multiple forms: fresh, dried, in jars and cans, made into dips and spreads.
In Ketchikan, a place that sprung to life in 1887 when a salmon cannery was built at the mouth of Ketchikan Creek, we strolled the Creek Street Historic District.
This, Alaska's once most notorious red-light district (1902 to 1954), is now a meandering boardwalk on stilts above Ketchikan Creek. The old houses of ill-repute are now home to polite gift shops, although Dolly's House, where the infamous Madam Dolly lived and worked from 1919 to 1970, is now a museum. (Atip is asked for if you stand outside for a photo. We didn't.)
Back on board Nieuw Amsterdam after each port visit, it was straight to the pool where the retractable roof meant it was like being in the tropics rather than Alaska.
There was so much each day on board and, fortunately, the couple of sea days on this seven-day cruise provided time for art auctions, informative talks, high teas, wine tastings and in the evenings extravagant smorgasbords at the Lido Market, or multi-course dinners in one of three specialty restaurants.
On one dizzy evening, world-renowned master mixologist Dale DeGroff (from New York) shared his expertise and creations during a mixology class. Under his skilled hand, he gave new meaning and flavour to whiskey.
All in all, it was a marvellous seven days.