Cruise passengers in the Inside Passage will see striking ice formations. Picture: Supplied

It may be frosty but the Inside Passage will never leave you cold. A cruise through the maze of scattered islands that stretches up the Pacific Coast from Washington to south-east Alaska is a journey through dramatic glacial scenery, largely untouched wilderness, wildlife that is true to its name and absorbing indigenous and gold- rush history.

Add the bonus of being based in a comfortable cabin with a host of dining and entertainment options as well as lectures and presentations by experts in the history, geography and wildlife of the region, and it's clear why the Inside Passage voyage is one of the blockbusters of world cruising.

Princess, Carnival, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Regent Seven Seas, Silversea, Celebrity and Norwegian Cruise Lines all sail this itinerary using small to medium-sized ships, ideal for sightseeing and with a higher ratio of outside and balcony cabins.

With so much to see, an outside cabin - a room with a view - is crucial. It matters not whether you're port or starboard. The ship turns around to head back south, so if you looked out to sea or islands on the way up, you'll get the coast on the way back.

Cruises run between May and September. Most are seven nights long from Vancouver but a few leave from Seattle and a handful from San Francisco.

Then as the ship weaves north between the islands and along the coast of Washington State and then British Columbia, the scenery is ever-changing, from tall fir forests skirted by rocky beaches to snow-capped mountains and, further north, arctic tundra and huge white glaciers that slide slowly into the ocean. Those with their eyes peeled will see eagles, sea birds, bears, seals and moose and there are often wildlife spotters up on deck.

Sightseeing stops vary between cruises. One voyage may concentrate on the fiords at Tracy Arm, home to brown and black bears, dolphins and whales and where some glaciers are blue and others as big as three-storey buildings.

But other itineraries may skip Tracy Arm and instead spend time during the middle of the voyage, much farther to the north, at Hubbard Glacier, which spills an incredible 120km from its source at Mt Logan in the Yukon. This feast for the senses promises the sight of seals sunbathing on glaciers and the gunfire crack of "white thunder" as giant chunks of ice slide off the groaning mass and into the sea.

Perched between mountains and deep sea, Alaska's State capital Juneau is often the first port of call. The Tlingit people used it as fishing grounds before gold was found nearby in the 1880s. Red Dog Saloon, with its swinging doors, sawdust-covered floors and gunfighter Wyatt Earp's pistol, recalls the gold-rush era. Visitors can also take whale-watching tours, head out to nearby Mendenhall Glacier or get a cable car directly from the docks up to Mt Roberts.

Further north, Skagway was once described as "little better than a hell on earth" by the mounted police who struggled to control the lawless town after it was overrun with prospectors during the 1896 Klondike gold rush. The 172km White Pass and Yukon Route railroad was built from Skagway to the goldfields to the north. The gold rush ended soon and suddenly but the train still runs for the 900,000 tourists, mostly from cruise ships, who visit Skagway - population 900 - every year.

Glacier Bay was once a solid ice mass but has melted and divided into a water body with more than 50 distinct glaciers. Most ships spend a full day cruising the area, which is home to hundreds of bird species, grizzly bears, moose, deer, mountain goats, wolves, otters, dolphins and humpback whales.

Unless heading to Hubbard Glacier, the majority of itineraries turn south at Glacier Bay or Skagway, switching the view for passengers.

Some stop at the intriguing town of Sitka, in the passage to the west of Juneau. Before Russia famously sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, Sitka was called New Archangel. And there are still reminders of its Russian past: the Bishop's House, built from spruce by Finnish carpenters in 1842, has many icons, while St Michael's Cathedral is still the head of the Orthodox diocese of Alaska and holds paintings and church treasures from the mid-17th century.

Known as "the Salmon Capital of the World", Ketchikan is usually the last port of call and, along with harbour-front seafood restaurants, cruises can visit the largest collection of totem poles in Alaska and find out more about the Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian nations in the town's museums. Ketchikan is surrounded by the country's biggest national forest, so a good hiking trail is never far away.

While the seven-night round-trip cruise is the classic, there are week-long voyages south from Seward to Vancouver and four-night, one-way options from Skagway to Glacier Bay and Ketchikan.

There's also the option of adding a land-based tour to the beginning or the end of the voyage, to visit places such as Anchorage, Fairbanks, Denali National Park, luxury ski and wilderness resorts.

The West Australian

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