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By Sally MacMillan

Sailing out of Canada’s spectacular port city of Vancouver on a crisp spring evening, toasting the occasion with a glass of perfectly chilled Champagne, sets the tone for a leisurely seven-night cruise to Seward, Alaska.

We’re onboard the recently refurbished Regent Seven Seas Mariner, an exceptionally spacious and luxurious ship for only 700 passengers – and, of course, the 445 crew members offering an uncompromising level of service.

A day’s scenic cruising through the Inside Passage allows time to explore the ship, take in an entertaining lecture by anthropologist Terry Breen about the history, culture and wildlife of the vast 49th state, then meet the captain and officers for cocktails in the evening.

Seven Seas Mariner is elegant, inside and out. Over the course of the cruise, we sample just about every restaurant, cafe, lounge and bar; I didn’t manage to squeeze in a massage or facial, but the Canyon Ranch Spa is a beautiful, calm space and offers an extensive spa menu.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises (RSSC) has invested US$125 million on ‘Explorer-ising’ its fleet of sister ships – Seven Seas Mariner, Voyager and Navigator – since launching its uber-luxury flagship Seven Seas Explorer in 2016, and Mariner looks and feels magnificent.

While the entire ship received a facelift, its restaurants were stripped to the steel and completely rebuilt – the main dining room, Compass Rose, is decked with crystal chandeliers and chic marble walls; Prime 7, the ship’s specialty steakhouse, features dramatic lighting and a rich cream-and-blue colour palette; and Chartreuse, the French restaurant that made its debut on Seven Seas Explorer, replaces Signatures. The standard of wining, dining and service in all venues is exemplary, although being something of a Francophile, Chartreuse is my favourite.

Mariner’s luxe all-suite accommodations range from two extraordinary 260-square-metre master suites through 13 categories of beautifully appointed sanctuaries.

All suites have private balconies, 24-hour room service, a minibar that’s replenished daily and free WiFi; guests staying in Concierge Suites and above have a free night’s pre-cruise accommodation and those in Penthouse Suites and above have a personal butler.

Our deluxe veranda suite on Deck 8 is gorgeous, decorated in stylish, restful shades of blue – and it’s always lovely to be greeted with a bottle of Champagne and a bowl of fresh fruit when you embark.

At our first port of call, Ketchikan, a few hardy sun-lovers bask by the newly minted mosaic-tiled pool, even though we are surrounded by rugged snow-streaked mountains.

RSSC offers an impressive range of complimentary shore excursions at every port (plus optional ones for an extra cost if you want to elevate your onshore experience).

In Alaska, the focus is on adventurous activities such as fishing, flightseeing, wildlife-spotting, dog-sledding, canoeing and hiking as well as cultural tours encompassing ancient Native Indian culture and more recent history.

Ketchikan, like two other ports we visit – Juneau and Skagway – is a former gold-rush town. It’s also known as the salmon capital of the world, so fishing expeditions are popular; floatplane and boat trips to nearby Misty Fjords, part of the massive Tongass National Forest, are among other exciting excursions on offer.

The Totem Heritage Center is a short walk beyond Ketchikan’s busy waterfront boardwalks and well worth a visit. It houses one of the world’s largest collections of original, 19th-century totem poles along with contemporary Northwest Coast art and traditional artefacts made by Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people.

Alaska’s intriguing capital, Juneau, has a smaller population than Anchorage and can only be reached by sea or air, but its citizens have long resisted attempts to move the capital elsewhere.

The Russians famously sold Alaska to America in 1867 for US$7.2 million, or about two cents an acre. Evidence of both cultures abounds, from the Russian Orthodox St Michael’s Cathedral to Totem Park, a battleground where Tlingits fought the Russian fur hunters in 1804.

Seven Seas Mariner offers 24 signature excursions: the helicopter glacier trek, which drops guests on the mighty Mendenhall Glacier for a two-hour guided walk on the ice, is a thoroughly exhilarating experience. Even more popular is dog-sledding on the glacier, which also involves a scenic helicopter flight (make sure you sign up well in advance).

Then there are brewery tours, canoeing on Mendenhall Lake, salmon bakes and gold-panning adventures. Whale-watching in the evening is another unusual option – Mariner stays in port until 11pm when it’s still light in midsummer Alaska. Local operators guarantee whale sightings and give guests a US$100 refund if the humpbacks don’t come out to play.

The historic White Pass Scenic Railroad is Skagway’s main attraction. Built between 1898 and 1900, the railway winds its way from sea level to about 915 metres at the summit.

Immaculately maintained trains haul vintage and reproduction carriages along 32 kilometres of vertiginous mountain passes and gorges, through tunnels and past what was once the world’s tallest cantilever bridge.

It’s a thrilling journey, and humbling to learn how thousands of desperate gold prospectors in the 1890s made their way on foot along the hazardous Chilkoot Trail.

Our final landing is at Sitka, a picturesque port that only allows a limited number of smaller cruise ships to dock there. Sitka’s history is a rich and bloody entanglement of thousands of years of Tlingit ownership and a century of Russian colonisation.

The Russians famously sold Alaska to America in 1867 for US$7.2 million, or about two cents an acre. Evidence of both cultures abounds, from the Russian Orthodox St Michael’s Cathedral to Totem Park, a battleground where Tlingits fought the Russian fur hunters in 1804.

Our guide takes our small group in and out of misty bays, where silence drips from ancient spruce and hemlock trees and reflections hardly waver on the still water. It’s magical, but sadly we don’t spot any bears.

Over the past few days we have seen bald eagles, ravens, porpoises, sea lions and dozens of Dall sheep, but I’m still hankering for a bear-sighting.

While we are sailing close to the magnificent Hubbard Glacier the next day, I’m advised by Dagmar, Mariner’s destinations services manager, that the best time for bear-spotting is late July, when the salmon are running – which gives me the perfect excuse for booking a return voyage on Mariner to one of the world’s most awe-inspiring wilderness areas.

 

The Details

Regent Seven Seas Cruises is offering an array of seven-day Alaska sailings aboard the newly renovated Seven Seas Mariner between Vancouver and Seward from June to September 2019.

Fares start from $6480 per person (twin share), based on a Deluxe Veranda Suite. For more information and fares on all Regent Seven Seas Cruises, call 1300 455 200 or visit rssc.com.