Step aboard a cruise and you’ll be transported to some of the most incredible places on earth with scenery that is, quite literally, breathtaking. Gary Buchanan picks five of the best
Glaciers of Alaska Alaska
In terms of geography, Alaska may be America’s ‘Last Frontier’ but when it comes to natural beauty it is first without equal.
Millions of years ago, shifting glaciers carved out a dramatic formation of islands in southeast Alaska. Known as the Inside Passage, this 1,600-kilometre maze of channels encompasses over a thousand islands as well as countless coves and bays, and is home to humpback whales, basking seals, grizzly bears, bald eagles and the indigenous Tlingit tribe. Cruising Alaskan waters dates back to 1902 when Canadian steamships brought curious sightseers to explore the interior of what later became America’s 49th state.
Secreted within this vast expanse of ocean, ancient snowfields, fjords, pine forests and mountains with as much attitude as the Alps are more than 5,000 glaciers. Impossible to visit by any other means of transport, a cruise to this serene wilderness is one of the world’s most scenic and dramatic voyages. The Columbia Glacier is a 90-metre-high wall of ice almost five kilometres across; there are 16 tidewater glaciers that penetrate the two arms of Glacier Bay, while College Fjord has no fewer than 26 walls of impacted snow. Cruise ships nudge into these ice-filled utopias where the slushy water is strewn with small, vivid-blue icebergs and chunks of brash ice.
Cruise itineraries also offer the chance to see the Juneau Icefield, which straddles the boundary between Alaska and Canada, from the air. Floatplanes soar above imposing ice-floes and azure-blue meltwater pools of the Norris and Taku glaciers before reaching the Mendenhall glacier. Rarely is a flight and cruise so serendipitous.
Rainforests of the Amazon The Amazon
The Amazon is astonishing. A fifth of all fresh water on earth is in the Amazon Basin which drains an area the size of Europe. This natural phenomenon contains at least a third of the world’s remaining rainforest. Such a rich biodiversity boasts an array of plants and animals so vast scientists are only now beginning to grasp its scale.
Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest, is over 3,666km from the Atlantic Ocean. Until recently the only way to explore the remote Upper Amazon was by small, primitive riverboats; now this sequestered corner of the globe can be discovered in luxury.
Lying 125km downstream from the confluence of the Ucayali and Marañón rivers – the headwaters of the Solimões River (as the ‘mother’ Amazon is known) – Iquitos was a centre of the rubber boom in the early 20th century. Peruvian Amazon odysseys begin at the Belén waterfront where the colour of the water is café au lait, but to locals this is the avatar of the ‘good Amazon’.
Options to explore the Brazilian Amazon include cruises that begin or end in Manaus, capital of Amazonas, a pocket of urbanity in the jungle. These cruises visit Alter do Chao, a fishing village on stilts amid the lush vegetation of the turquoise Lago Verde; Santarém, site of a former Jesuit mission; and the Indian village of Parantins on Tupinambarana Island, set in the mid-Amazon’s largest archipelago.
Few places fire the imagination more than the Amazon jungle. Images of dense rainforest, indigenous tribes and exotic creatures unfold. Excursions through furos – backwater channels – reveal a luxuriant tableau. Scarlet macaws are illuminated by shards of sunlight; grey-and-white Bolivian squirrel monkeys scamper among strangler figs; blue and yellow macaws fly overhead and red howler monkeys live up to their name; a crimson-crested woodpecker raps out a rhythm on an acacia tree; blue morpho butterflies, as big as thrushes, speckle the shadowy swamp like gossamer sapphire-encrusted fabric. It is a spell-binding encounter.
Islands of French Polynesia French Polynesia
French Polynesia is the siren of the South Pacific. Born of coral and fire, this romantic cluster of islands is caressed by an exotic mist. They are not just spectacular, they are breathtaking. And to pile rapture on top of ecstasy, the Tahitian Islands are very French in outlook and have the joie de vivre to prove it.
Early European explorers couldn’t believe their eyes, for they had sailed into a veritable Garden of Eden. These islands are the Elysium of everyone’s dreams: palm trees wave calmly in the trade winds; seas sparkle a shade of blue rarely seen in northern latitudes. The captain of the infamous HMS Bounty declared Tahiti as the ‘finest island in the world’, and when the French artist Paul Gauguin arrived here in 1891 he said: ‘The landscape, with its violent, pure colours, dazzled and blinded me.’ Tahiti and the Society Islands are best explored by ship. How appropriate, then, that visitors can cruise aboard an ineffable vessel bearing the name Paul Gauguin.
It’s no surprise that the Bali Hai scenes from South Pacific were filmed in Moorea, which lies just off the western coastline of Papeete – the capital of Tahiti. Shaped like a butterfly, it’s a diorama of jagged green mountains rimmed by white sand beaches. The captain drops anchor in Cook’s Bay where the most recent version of Mutiny on the Bounty was filmed. Nearby at Opunohu, the turquoise lagoon is framed by hibiscus, chenille and seductively swaying palm trees.
Bora Bora: even the name evokes the essence of these captivating islands with heady scents of jasmine, the snow-white tiare Tahiti flower, and the promise of paradise found. The volcanic peaks are edged by a silvery rim of beach encircled by coral atolls and cerulean seas. Passengers can enjoy the sensuous island lifestyle paddling, snorkelling or drifting in a glass-bottomed boat while looking at the angelfish, triggerfish, surgeon-fish and endless corals. French Polynesia may be a long way off but when it comes to tropical cruising in this über-chic archipelago, even superlatives are inadequate.
Treasures of China China
The people who live along its banks call it Chang Jiang, (Long River), the 5,720km-long Yangtze rises in the Tibetan Plateau and disgorges into the Yellow Sea at Shanghai. It is very much a working river with a constant procession of commercial boats and sampans.
A trip that takes in the Yangtze will start at Chongqing, the largest city in inland China. As a 1,300km river odyssey gets underway, the scenery takes centre stage. Ahead lie the legendary Three Gorges – precipitous cliffs created by the Yangtze forcing its way through a spectacular barrier of limestone ridges; and the awesome Three Gorges Dam, the largest in the world.
An exploration of the 32km-long Lesser Three Gorges on smaller tourist boats reveals remarkable canyons at their ethereal best. Passengers glide through Dragon Gate Gorge, the first and most dramatic, only nine metres wide in parts, before traversing Misty Gorge and Emerald Gorge where the stillness is shattered by chattering monkeys and a cacophony of birdsong. The river cruise will then continue its passage through the majestic 45km-long Wu Gorge (Witches Gorge), past the impossibly pretty Twelve Peaks, to the 66km-long Xiling Gorge with its craggy rock formations. If life is about collecting experiences, this is undoubtedly a jewel in the crown of cruising’s scenic almanac.
Tours of the enigmatic land that is China promise a blend of ancient wonders with a bewitching cruise along the mighty Yangtze. A few days in Beijing are a perfect precursor to this adventure that for once merits the cliché ‘journey of a lifetime’. On tours, visits are made to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and Great Wall, which stretches dragon-like to the horizon; while in Xi’an there’s the chance to see the silent legions of Terracotta Warriors where the infantry stand over two metres tall, each with a different expression. There’s also a stay in the mind-boggling city of Shanghai where these tours conclude or commence.
The best of Patagonia Patagonia
With its commanding position on the Rio de la Plata, the Argentinian capital, Buenos Aires, is renowned as the ‘Paris of South America’. This city’s sensuous charms are to be found in abundance in the colourful San Telmo and La Boca districts. Boasting the Casa Rosado, the Cabildo and Metropolitan Cathedral, the heart of Argentina’s largest city is Plaza de Armas, a perfect overture for a voyage around the southernmost tip of the American continent.
Cape Horn was first rounded in 1616 and is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Pacific Ocean. It’s a sheer 425m-high rocky promontory known as the ‘End of the Earth’. There’s a lighthouse, a small chapel and a steel memorial to the many souls who have perished in these often tempestuous seas. Once a penal colony, Ushuaia is a settlement of ramshackle white and red houses that lies in the shadow of the jagged peaks of the Tierra del Fuego National Park and is the gateway to the Beagle Channel. When he reached the channel in January 1833, Darwin wrote in his field notebook: ‘Many glaciers beryl blue most beautiful contrasted with snow.’
In Patagonia, the South American continent falls away in a dazzling explosion of islands, glaciers, icebergs and mountains. This natural collage offers anyone who ventures this far south an unrivalled experience of the purity of nature. Go via sea and you follow in the footsteps of Ferdinand Magellan and Sir Francis Drake through pristine wilderness at the southernmost part of the Earth.
Continuing north along the Pacific coastline, your captain will navigate the Chilean Fjords, often considered even more spectacular than those in Norway. The towering rocks that rise from the glassy waters slowly pulse in a continually subtle shift of light and shade, while high above storm petrels and albatross follow in the ship’s wake. With the Andes standing sentinel-like with serried ranks of snow-capped majesty swooping down to the coast, Patagonia is an unblemished, desolate and surreal cruising paradise.
This article was published on 1st October 2012 so certain details may not be up to date.