Northern highlights beckon
The luxurious Rocky Mountaineer is one of the world's great train journeys.

Thanks to a strong Australian dollar, local travellers are now heading off to Alaska and Canada with more ambitious plans than ever.

In past years many Australians booked a cruise to scenic Alaska's Inside Passage, then ticked this vast US State off their travel wish list, but no more.

Related: SUN OR SNOW - CANADA'S STILL THE SPOT
INSIDE PASSAGE
ALL ABOARD THE ROCKY ROAD

Travellers from Down Under have finally realised Alaska is one of the world's last great wilderness frontiers that should not be missed for its soaring mountain peaks, glistening glaciers and a huge array of wildlife that is readily seen by land and sea.

Instead of taking a round-trip on one of the many cruise ships, both large and small, that sail the winding ribbon of Alaska's Inside Passage, Australians are finally intent on roaming further afield.

These days they often opt for a one-way cruise from Juneau (Alaska's capital city on the Inside Passage), or from Vancouver in Canada, or Seattle or San Francisco (in the United States), and sail even further west to disembark at Whittier and head overland to Anchorage, Alaska's largest city where more than half the State's 700,000 population live.

They then experience the rich Alaskan native culture in craft, traditional music, dancing and story-telling at the new Morris Thompson Cultural Centre before heading further afield.

Adventure options are plentiful including stays in wilderness lodges in Denali National Park to sight wildlife from caribou to bears to moose and dall sheep as eagles soar above. A drive north to Fairbanks, a frontier town that started with a gold rush, is where the aurora borealis (the northern lights) paints the sky glowing colours from September and into the dark winter nights.

Travellers who opt for no more than a cruise can take excursions at ports of call to experience typical adventures from dog sledding to flights over vast glaciers as well as bear and salmon sightings. While exploring these small towns, cruise passengers meet friendly locals who often arrived in Alaska to find work in the summer tourist season, fell in love with the people and environment, and stayed on.

Some will point out that single women have a great social life in these parts as men outnumber them significantly. But as one woman observes in light-hearted fashion: "The odds are really good but the goods can be really odd."

Residents also talk of the changing rhythm of life through the year. In winter the icy weather encourages cocooning with family, overseas travel or restocking souvenir shops.

But when the spring thaw arrives it is time to make boats and planes shipshape to take tourists into pristine wilderness.

In the summer season from May to September, thousands of cruise passengers invade the small towns, and locals start ticking off the days until the last ship sails south and peace falls until next summer's invasion.

Invariably, Australians also take in the attractions of near neighbour Canada where similar wildlife and soaring scenery mixes with sophisticated city life.

Cosmopolitan Vancouver on the west coast quickly convinces visitors it deserves the title of "the world's most liveable city" with stylish restaurants, eclectic galleries and lively shopping precincts.

Victoria on Vancouver Island has a classic English feel about it. Picture: Veronica Matheson
Those with time to spare take the ferry across to Vancouver Island for the "oh-so-English" city of Victoria, which is a refined beauty that needs no primping or preening to look its best.

As the capital of British Columbia, it sits on the southern tip of the island with elegant buildings that reflect the grandeur of its days as headquarters of the mighty Hudson Bay Trading Company.

Visitors wander through the stately public areas of the landmark Fairmont Empress Hotel or enjoy decadent afternoon tea, complete with cucumber sandwiches, in the swish dining room.

Out of town is the celebrated Butchart Gardens which began as a way to beautify a worked-out quarry and is now a National Historic Site of Canada. The 20ha includes a sunken garden, Japanese garden, Italian garden and a rose garden that is another English beauty.

Back on the mainland, a ride through the soaring Rockies on the luxurious Rocky Mountaineer is high on travel wish lists as one of the world's great train journeys.

From here travellers may head further east for vast prairies where cattle and cowboys roam and Calgary, which comes alive in July with its hootin' tootin' stampede where cowboys from across the world compete in a wild rodeo and dazzle with their buckles, boots and broad-brimmed hats.

Further east is lively Toronto with its world-class Broadway shows and galleries. French-speaking Quebec City and cosmopolitan Montreal are also in travellers' sights, as is a trip south to the border with the United States where the mighty Niagara Falls thunders.

Dog sledding adventures are increasingly popular with visitors to Alaska. Picture: Veronica Matheson

ALASKAN HIGHS

Park bears: During the July to September salmon runs, giant brown bears gather around Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park, south of Anchorage, where visitors discreetly observe their behaviour.

Mush: Huskies earn their keep in the snow and tourists can visit their mountain camps for exhilarating sledding adventures.

Road trip: Legendary roads cross Alaska, some only open in fine weather, including those forged by workers on the Alaskan pipeline and by the American military.

Soak in hot springs: There may be a chill in the air but Chena Hot Springs, out of Fairbanks, is great relaxation.

Rail riding: White Pass Railway from Skagway to the summit is often pulled by a vintage steam engine, and follows the route to the Klondike gold rush.

Cold comfort: The highlight of any cruise on the Inside Passage is sailing up a narrow arm of water into the path of a glacier shedding icebergs.

Flights: to Alaska with Qantas/American Airlines/Alaskan Airways; or Virgin Australia/United Airlines; or Air New Zealand/Air Canada.

For more, go to www.travelalaska.com.


CANADIAN HIGHS

Visit a wilderness lodge: Located by raging rivers, coastal waters and in national parks, for fishing, hiking, kayaking, rafting and wildlife.

Rocky Mountaineer: This luxury train is one of the world's classic rail journeys with glass top viewing carriages that bring the scenery inside.

Calgary's stampede: Billed as "the greatest outdoor show on earth", it lives up to its Wild West reputation.

Go French: Visit the cities in Canada's east for a fresh focus on all things French.

Niagara Falls: In summer the snow melts fast and Niagara's falls rush down at breakneck speed, with a boat ride below guaranteed to soak.

Flights: to Canada through Qantas, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand, with partner airlines in North America.

For more, see www.canada.travel.

The West Australian

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