Category Archives: Alaska

Alaska Travelogue Part 10 – Inside Passage

Sailing the Inside Passage

Our last day at sea was a beautiful one – clear skies, calm waters and plenty of time spent in the thalassa pool and sauna with Cristal and John.  Days don’t get much better.

I love sea days on a cruise.  You can sleep in late, and your only to-do is finding the ideal chaise by the pool (in the shade of course, this fair-skinned girl doesn’t do sun!) to catch up on your reading.  The last day of a southbound Alaska cruise is spent sailing through the Inside Passage,  a gorgeous blade of glassy water that glides past rolling hills dotted with beautiful farms and homesteads.

The Inside Passage

Farms and homesteads on the Inside Passage

Whenever I spy someplace as idyllic as this I always imagine what it would be like to live there:  where do these people go to church?  is it a close-knit community?  where do they shop? do they ever lose their sense of awe over the stunning landscape that surrounds them? do all your problems evaporate when you live someplace as beautiful as this?  Oh, I know our problems will never evaporate this side of heaven, but I am sure that kind of scenery makes almost anything a little easier to bear!

After getting ourselves all packed up, we spent the afternoon on the top deck, taking full advantage of the bright, sunny (yet refreshingly cool) day, the 2-for-1 happy hour specials, and one last all-you-can-eat sushi buffet.  After 9 days of being bundled up against Alaska’s cold, basking in the relative warmth of southern British Columbia felt soooo good!

Best seat in the house? check.  Drinks?  Double check!  Time to load up on the sushi!

Best seat in the house? Check. Drinks? Double check! Time to load up on the sushi!

John dutifully took countless photos of Cristal and me, and in every bloody one the stiff breeze is blowing one uncooperative chunk of hair across her face or mine.  Well, we tried!

The best of the lot!

The best of the lot

We then made our way down to the thalassa pool, which is a large, warm pool with lots of water jets and these metal bench-like areas where you can recline underwater.  This thing is not a hot tub.  It is the size of a swimming pool but you are meant to just float or recline in it.  Very relaxing.  There is nothing like soaking in a warm pool with two of your favorite people, watching amazing scenery silently slip by as the sun sets.  I have no idea where the other passengers were, but we were virtually alone.  Holla! as John would say.

I am the only one of our little group who enjoys the sauna, so I headed off for a quick bake.  I love the feeling of being enveloped by warmth, not to mention that wonderful woodsy smell that saunas always have.  The sauna on board was quite nice, with a large picture window so you could still enjoy the views, and I had the whole thing to myself.  Seriously, where WAS everybody?  As I was savoring the soothing, dry heat, and taking in the breathtaking view, I had one of “those moments”.  You know, one of those moments when you are overwhelmed with the realization that you are truly blessed and you tell God you have no idea what you did to deserve it (nothing, He’s just nice like that!) but you are very, very grateful that in His gracious kindness He has blessed you with this wonderful moment.  I’m not sure who was happier in that moment – me as I delighted in my private sauna while the beauty of British Columbia slipped by or my Heavenly Father, because I remembered to thank Him for it.

One last northern sunset

One last northern sunset

Speaking of heaven, Cristal and I had a very interesting experience on our last nite at sea.  John was feeling under the weather so he conked out early while Cristal and I bundled up on our balcony to enjoy the spectacularly starry sky.  Within a short time I saw a shooting star.  I asked Cristal if she saw it too and she said no.   A few moments later we were both startled by what looked like a huge comet blazing by in an unbelievably long arc of fire and sparks.  It looked so close it almost made me duck!  I was speechless, but Cristal perfectly deadpanned, “I saw that one”.

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Alaska Travelogue Part 9 – Ketchikan

Ketchikan

If Icy Strait was a bit of a letdown, Ketchikan more than made up for it.  As I’ve mentioned before, the weather wasn’t exactly balmy blue skies every day, but we were especially prepared for bad weather in Ketchikan, which receives rain approximately 350 days a year.  I booked a kayak outing with Southeast Sea Kayaks for the three of us, so before our trip John and I bought appropriate coats and hats to get through 3 hours of kayaking in the rain without too much misery.  Since the kayaking would be followed by a flightseeing tour to Misty Fjords National Monument I hoped the weather at least wouldn’t be a repeat of the blinding fog we saw in Skagway.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when we got up that morning – it was the most beautiful, sunny day, without one single, solitary hint of rain to come!

A beautiful day in downtown Ketchikan

We had a leisurely breakfast, enjoyed some time on our verandah and did a bit of shopping before we had to meet up for our tour.  The prices in Ketchikan seemed a bit higher than Icy Strait, but there were several native art galleries that we all enjoyed strolling through.  With our requisite t-shirts purchased we headed over to the giant rain gauge (I mentioned they get a lot of rain, right?) at the dock to meet our guide Brandon.  There were supposed to be 6 of us going, but one couple didn’t show so it was just the 3 of us and a nice, single lady named Jerrilee.

Brandon walked us over to their big boat in the harbor where he and a fun Aussie named Rob kitted us out for our trip (heavy, water and cold-proof pants and jackets and life vests) and then we headed over to a smaller boat for the short trip out to Orcas Cove.  Southeast does 2 kayaking tours – a shorter, less expensive one in the harbor at Ketchikan, where you apparently dodge a lot of watercraft and sea planes (or so I read in many reviews), or the longer, slightly more expensive tour on which just 6 of you will be whisked by boat to Orcas Cove where you will paddle around the islands in complete solitude.  Guess which one you should opt for.  On our way out to Orcas Cove we saw, wait for it – some Orcas.  Bonus!  I love me some Orcas!!!

A pod of Orcas

A pod of Orcas in the harbor

We tied up to yet another boat in a secluded cove where our kayaks and an older gentleman, Greg, were waiting for us.  Can I just say Brandon, Rob and Greg have the best jobs ever – Brandon paddles around with tourists all day, Rob gets to pilot them to and from Orcas Cove (he does construction work in town during the off season) and Greg hangs out on the boat sunning himself till it is time to serve the most fabulous smoked salmon lunch to hungry kayakers (okay, he probably does more than that).  I need that job!  As Rob and Brandon started explaining how we would be getting in the kayaks a brief moment of panic set in.  They went on and on about how to free yourself from the kayak if it tipped over.  It looked very complicated because in order to keep you dry while you paddle, you shimmy into this rubber tube thing that is attached to both you and the kayak.  I imagined myself drowning in 2 feet of water, but in actuality the thing is ridiculously easy to undo.  Only Brandon got his own kayak; the rest of us were put in 2 person kayaks – John with me and Cristal with Jerrilee.  We practiced paddling about in this quiet cove and then set off on our adventure.

The best seat in the house

Not a bad shot for holding the camera up over my head! Here is John and I, Brandon on the left and Cristal and Jerrilee on the right.

The weather was just glorious – bright, sunny and perfectly calm waters.  I don’t know much about kayaks, but one other thing I was nervous about was being utterly exhausted from a couple hours of paddling.  Cristal and I had done some kayaking up in the mountains of North Carolina and it was so HARD and my arms killed me for days afterwards.  Granted, I am more fit now (thank you Zumba, yoga and muscle class!!!) but still.  Apparently the kayaks Southeast uses are pretty high class, because they practically propelled themselves.  At no point did I ever even feel like we were struggling – we just zipped along!  Brandon took us all over to see eagles, an eagle nest, the most beautiful hidden coves and even some petroglyphs.

One of the eagles we paddled by.

An eagle nest. Eagles use the same nests year after year, and just keep building them up. Brandon said this one was about 4 years old.

Brandon pointing out some petroglyphs.

After a few hours we paddled back to the boat where Greg had lunch waiting.  Southeast Sea Kayaks has a bit of a “side-business” with their own special-recipe smoked salmon.  Now, I love smoked fish and eat it often, but this stuff was off-the-charts delicious.  I hit the buffet 3 times and my southern manners were the only thing preventing me from snatching it off other people’s plates.  Which reminds me, I believe you can mail order the stuff from them – have to get on that.

As we finished the last of lunch Mr. Dave Rocke of Family Air Tours taxied in to pick John, Cristal and I up for our flightseeing tour.

Here comes Dave!

Here comes Dave!

John was not so up for this as he is not keen on little planes but I convinced him that people love this type of activity, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, he didn’t have to go but I was, etc., etc., so he agreed to go.  Of course Dave put John right up front next to him (probably the same force of nature that propels dogs and cats to the person who least wants to interact with them) and Cristal and I tucked in to the back.  Um, this activity is not for the large or claustrophobic person.  I hoped that John wasn’t noticing that this plane looked like it was built to drop bombs on the Kaiser (and I tried not to think about it too much myself!) and off we went.  After a few minutes John confirmed he was okay and we all enjoyed a fabulous flight.

Happy fliers!

Happy fliers!

Dave took us out to Misty Fjords and circled around a few mountains looking for mountain goats, which we eventually found.  Then he put us down in Big Goat Lake and let us out near a cool ice cave.  After a quick stretch we piled back in to head off in search of some bears.  Dave flew low over a long stretch of river, and tho we could see thousands of spawning salmon in the river, alas we saw no bears.  Sorry John.  Guess we’ll have to go back again…

Looking for mountain goats

One of many lakes in Misty Fjords

At Big Goat Lake

The ice cave – I was only brave enough to go in a little way.

We got back to Ketchikan with just enough time to walk up to Creek Street, which is a boardwalked section of town in the hills that used to be the red-light district during the gold rush era.  It is now chock-a-block with pricey shops, but still worth the time to stroll around.

Creek Street

Creek Street

On our way back to the ship I snapped a pic of a very cool statue by Dave Rubin called “the Rock”.  It is located on the cruiseship pier in the harbor and it depicts all the people who made Ketchikan what it is – native peoples, gold miners, bush pilots, fishermen and the women who ran the shops, taverns and “other” businesses.

The Rock, by Dave Rubin

Such a fabulous day, and worth every penny.  Even if it had been raining it would have been a neat day, but the whole thing just felt like one spectacular gift from God with a great big bow on top!

Alaska Travelogue Part 8 – Icy Strait

Icy Strait

Our day in Icy Strait was the one wee hiccup of not-as-fabulous on our little tour of Alaska.  That is not to say we had a bad time, but we could have had a better, cheaper time.  Icy Strait is a “made up” port walking distance from the town of Hoonah.  It is run by members of the Tlingit tribe, and it is so small that you must tender in to this port.  Supposedly they are working on another government grant to upgrade the docking facilities.  According to the locals, the port is likely to remain very small however, because the natives simply don’t want that much business.  Okay!

John and Cristal, tendering in to Icy Strait

I think if you take one of the cruiseship tours you will depart directly from Icy Strait.  If you book a private tour, as we did, your tour guide will pick you up outside the gates.  We love whale watching and we definitely wanted to do that in Alaska.  We chose Icy Strait as the point to do that because of all the good reviews I read about several of the local tour providers.  Juneau is another supposedly good “whale watching port”, but we had other plans there.

I have to say, this was the lamest whale watching trip we have ever been on.  First, the tour takes 6 people, but the boat only has seats for 4; 5 if one of you wants to sit sideways on a ledge.  So John and I stood for 3.5 hours.  There might have been someplace to sit outside on the tiny back of the boat, but you were told not to sit there because you would be doused with waterspray.  Second, the tour was from 12 – 3:30 but food was supposed to be served, so we didn’t eat lunch.  I wasn’t expecting a 3 course meal, but “smoked salmon” was mentioned, so I was at least expecting some crackers, cheese, you know, stuff that goes with smoked salmon.  The food served consisted of one snack bag of chips and all the instant coffee or soda you want.  There is nothing I want more when I am freezing than an ice cold soda!  I hit the Starbucks Vias hard.

These minor annoyances, however, pale in comparison to the lameness of the whale watching itself.  We were taken on a lovely, quick trip out to Point Adolphus to view the whales.  This area is supposed to be the Times Square for whales, as the currents concentrate the herring and other things the whales eat.  Indeed, there were mobs of whales.  Mobs of whales which remained tiny specks off in the distance.  Okay, I have been whale watching many times – in the US, Canada and Mexico.  Most of the trips I have taken were on small zodiacs, which weren’t much smaller than the boat we were on.  I should also say I am very keen on animal welfare and would never, ever want to be involved in anything that remotely smacked of harassing or in any way endangering an animal.  The prior trips I had been on got very close to the whales – not charging up on them, but 50-100 yards and then stopping.  The whales aren’t threatened and they often stay in the area or come right up to the boat (on one trip I could have reached right out and touched some Orcas that swam up to us).  A cruise ship officer later told us that in Alaska there is a law that if you see a whale within 500 yards you must stop – even the cruise ships must navigate around them.  Thus, the reason we never got close to the whales.  All my pictures are super-telephoto shots of wee blobs.  LAME!!!  The people with us had never seen whales before so they thought it was the bomb.  John and I just stood there thinking “why won’t this woman get us any closer!?”  Had we known beforehand about that regulation, I doubt I would have coughed up the cash to go whale watching.  My sister Cristal did not join us on this tour (thankfully for her wallet) but went for a walk on the shore instead.  She said a whale came up about 25 yards from her.  She saw more for free than we paid $300 to see.  The look on John’s face here says it all.

I paid $300 bucks for this?!

To be fair, two cool things did happen on our tour.  One, we saw several groups of whales who were clearly not moving.  Our guide said they were sleeping.  Huh.  Did not know whales just floated on the surface in broad daylight and slept.  I guess I never thought about their sleep habits!  Two, we heard the whales talking to each other.  Not on some submerged mic – right out in the open!  It sounded like the world’s worst beer hall band having an oompah-off.  I was really surprised at how loud they were, considering they were far, faaaaaaaar away from us.

Here it is, people. The big “money shot”.  Keep in mind this is taken with the max 20x zoom.

Before we went whale watching we tooled around the tiny “port” that is Icy Strait.  There are several large, barn-like buildings housing shops, a few places to eat and some short walking trails through the woods.  There is a cute little photo op set up on the shore at which everyone lines up to get their picture snapped.  Once again, the line does not apply to old people.  They cut right to the front and take FOREVER to figure out how to take the shot.  Sigh.

I crocheted my dippy hat myself!

The shops had a lot of nice things at decent prices.  I am not much for shopping on vacation, but the one thing I wanted to come home with was some piece of native art depicting an Orca.  I LOVE the art of the native peoples in this region, not only the design work and symbolism, but also the color palate of reds, blues and black.  I found a little print that is just perfect in my living room, and I saw a similar print (same artist, same size and frame, different motif) later in Ketchikan for $5 more.  So, if you see something you like in Icy Strait – go for it.

You can totally see that is an orca, right?

My recommendation if Icy Strait is on your cruise itinerary is to hit the shops and short trails thru the woods, take the mile or so walk along the shore to the small town of Hoonah, maybe have lunch in town, and then chill out the rest of the day in the hot tub or sauna back onboard.  Save the whale watching for Victoria Island (awesome!!!) or another trip.

Alaska Travelogue Part 7 – Skagway

Skagway

Skagway is an adorable old gold rush town, so if you are not in the mood to go off adventuring about, there is plenty of shopping and history to enjoy in town.  I, however, am not a big fan of spending my vacation time shopping (sadly, I will never be one of those people who brings back thoughtful souvenirs for all my friends) so I booked us on an all-day adventure through Chilkoot Charters.  I chose the Yukon Bus and Rail Excursion which is a combo mini-bus/train trip up to Carcross in the Yukon Territory in Canada.  You have the option to do the rail portion first and take the train to Fraser or do the mini-bus portion first and take the train back from Fraser.  The lady at Chilkoot told me that most people choose the train-first option, but the views are better on the return trip, so I chose the mini-bus-first option.

Our day began with just the 3 of us in a mini-bus with our delightful guide, James.  James is an Irish ex-pat who spends his summers working as a guide for Chilkoot, and the rest of the year teaching US citizenship classes in Arizona.  That, my friends, is how you do it!  James told us a little bit about the history of Skagway as we headed out of town onto the Klondike Hwy towards our first stop at Fraser.

As we got out of town and began to gain some elevation we were unexpectedly socked in with a thick fog.  At one point James stopped to show us a waterfall that was literally on the side of the road, but it was completely obscured by the fog.  I took some snaps just because the density of the fog was hilarious!  We could tell James really wanted us to have a great tour because he was freaking out about the weather and kept telling us in his lovely Irish brogue that surely the fog would be liftin’ soon.  We drove along for several minutes, each of us thinking “oh man, we better not have 8 hours of this!” when James suddenly pulled over in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere.  He had something special he wanted to show us – hundreds of little inukshuks (inuksuits) dotting the landscape on the side of the road.

Hundreds of inukshuks on the side of the Klondike Hwy

Hundreds of inukshuks on the side of the Klondike Hwy

Inukshuks are figures that the native peoples make by piling up natural stones in various shapes.  They can be used for navigational aids, as memorials or place markers.  You may remember that the mascot for the Vancouver Winter Olympics was an inukshuk in the shape of a man.  The Klondike Hwy is the only way by land out of Skagway, and everyone takes that route to do their main shopping.  So for whatever reason, the locals and tourists alike have turned flat areas where ancient glaciers have conveniently deposited thousands of suitable rocks into “inukshuk villages”.  James invited us to add our own inukshuks to the landscape, which we happily and quickly did as the cold, damp wind was making the mini-bus awfully inviting.

It's hard to build a decent inukshuk when your teeth are chattering from the cold!

It’s hard to build a decent inukshuk when your teeth are chattering from the cold!

At this point I resigned myself to a day of icy winds and dense fog, but the weather steadily improved the farther we got from Skagway.  Supposedly Skagway (the proper name is Skaguay but the federal govt misspelled it early in the town’s history, and we all know how the federal government is about fixing their mistakes) is Tlingit for “windy place with white caps on the water”.  It is definitely windy there, and in the Yukon too, for that matter!  Our next stop was the train depot in Fraser, British Columbia which is the entry point into Canada from Alaska.  Here we picked up 11 other people who chose the “train-first” option and headed off for the Yukon Territory.  Since we were such a small group we were able to make lots of quick stops for photos and stretching our legs.

Just outside of Fraser

Yukon Territory on Klondike Hwy

Emerald Lake – that wind made picture taking a challenge!

Our lunch stop was scheduled at something called the Caribou Crossing Trading Post.   As we pulled into the parking lot I could see this place was giving off some ticky-tacky tourist trap realness.  Oh well – we gotta eat, right?  Lunch was surprisingly good and the three of us shared cans of all 4 different local beers they had, which was fun.  The highlight of lunch, especially for my sugar-toothed sweetie John, was the homemade cider donuts.  Big heaps of them!  John ate four (!), while Cristal and I ate a more lady-like one – and then stuffed her purse with more of them to eat later.  We ain’t no dummies!

We learned a little lesson tho as we made our way to one of the trading post’s other attractions, namely the petting zoo:  do not stuff your purse with donuts and then go to a petting zoo.  The horses ain’t no dummies either!

Yes, those are delicious donuts in my purse!

Yes, those are delicious donuts in my purse!

The trading post also boasts sled dogs and a sled dog cart ride (which we did not do) and an AMAZING taxidermy museum with an incredible collection of Canadian animals – mooses, bears, seals, muskoxen, sheep, you name it.  They supposedly have the world’s largest taxidermied polar bear (I believe it) and I had no idea how huge a moose is – I just had to get a snap of John next to one for scale.  That ticky-tacky tourist trap was fun!

I had no idea a moose was that big.  I think John needs to reconsider his life goal of meeting one in the wild!

I had no idea a moose was that big. I think John needs to reconsider his life goal of meeting one in the wild!

We next headed up to Carcross which is a bit of a non-starter, but at least by now the weather was sunny and bright, which made the drive all the more gorgeous.  It felt very odd trolling thru this tiny, Inuit community in our touristmobile.  Not a soul was in sight, and James explained that the locals aren’t too fond of being ogled by tourists.  No wonder!  There really is nothing to do in Carcross except root through a general store (got my obligatory Crunchie bar – can’t go to Canada without buying at least one!).  I did however jog up Main Street to get a snap of the local coffeehouse.  Has to be the most beautiful coffeehouse in the world; I absolutely love the native art of this region.

The most beautiful coffee house in the world

The most beautiful coffee house in the world

From Carcross we headed back to Fraser where the three of us would be offloaded for the train trip back to Skagway.  Along the way James showed his Irish roots by reciting for us a lengthy poem he wrote in honor of his aged father’s birthday (a total tear-jerker) and then he shared a very sweet “life lesson” story about a dear friend who passed away and left him a special gift.  I really do think there is something about all that space and beauty that puts people in a frame of mind to ponder life’s ponderables.

Their motto is apropos. And yes, my crazy sister is wearing flip-flops in the Yukon, but in her defense she broke her toe right before our trip. Not fun!

As we bade James farewell and boarded the White Pass & Yukon Route train, he whispered to us to “sit on the right!” for the best views.  Uh yeah, it’s the best view because in places this narrow gauge rail line is impossibly perched on the side of steep cliffs!  I’m sure it’s all incredibly safe, but if you have issues with heights, you will not dig this part of the tour.  I thought it was very cool that the train occasionally stopped at specific places to pick up hikers.  What a great way to get out into the wilderness for a good hike!  The story of this historic rail line is fascinating and I encourage you to spend a few minutes at their website.  Here are a few sights from the train portion:

Emerging from a very narrow tunnel – onto a rickety trestle bridge!

The beautiful tundra in British Columbia

As we pulled into Skagway the hostess explained that a customs officer would be boarding the train and we would all have to cough up our passports.  Also – no talking!!!  Yikes!  We all sat in silence, holding our passports over our heads while a uniformed hulk with a gun strapped to his hip scrutinized each one.  It reminded me of the scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where Indy throws the bad guy off the blimp saying “no ticket” and all the other passengers start frantically waving their tickets at him.  It was a far cry from the petite Canadian lady in Fraser who merely poked her head into the mini-bus and sent us on our way.  This guy took his job seriously, for which I guess we should all be grateful.

We spent the rest of our time in Skagway poking around the shops and looking at the historical displays.  Skagway is definitely one of the places I’d like to return to as the area was gorgeous, the people were friendly and it looked like a good place to base camp for a few days while doing some hiking and sightseeing.

Downtown Skagway. The shop in the center is faced with thousands of pieces of driftwood.

I leave you with another recipe for a yummy drink I discovered on our trip, the Ice Pick:

  • Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka (I use the sugar-free version sweetened with Truvia)
  • Freshly brewed iced tea
  • Lemonade

Fill a highball glass with ice.  Pour in one shot of the sweet tea vodka.  Top with equal parts iced tea and lemonade; stir.  I plan to serve these at my summer suppers on the porch!

Alaska Travelogue Part 6 – Juneau

Juneau

Juneau was our first really “iffy” day weather-wise.  I woke up to what I thought was the sound ofseveral someones chainsawing lumber and wondered where on earth we had docked.  I knew Juneau is a very small town despite being Alaska’s state capital, but really, clear cutting by the dock?  I padded out to the lanai (I’m going with that term both because I love the Golden Girls and this thing was sooooo much more than a balcony) to discover that the chainsawing noise was actually the sound of a steady stream of seaplanes taking off and landing in the harbor.

A sea plane landing off our stern

A sea plane landing off our stern

Juneau

Juneau

Our plans for the day were fairly ambitious:  take the bus out to Mendenhall Glacier and hike around there for a few hours, and spend the rest of our time walking around Juneau to visit the state capitol and the State Museum.  One of our “bucket list” items is to visit the capitol buildings in all 50 states.  If you are a history, decorative arts or architecture buff, visiting capitol buildings is a treat and you sometimes meet some real characters!  We have made a lovely discovery in visiting state capitols, which is that most capitol buildings have a fabulous and typically free state museum nearby.  These state museums are real gems and not to be missed if you have the opportunity to spend an hour or an afternoon inside.  As you can see the weather presented us with a dilemma about when to go out to Mendenhall.  I did not want to go hiking in the rain, so after a quick check of a few weather sites on our trusty iPhone we decided to book it out to the glacier in the morning, hopefully before the predicted rain hit.

You have to take some type of shuttle out to Mendenhall Glacier, and there are several to choose from at the cruise dock.  I believe all of them are $16 round trip.  You can buy a round trip ticket and choose to go out and back on the same shuttle service (usually leave every 30 minutes) or you can buy one-way tickets and just go out and back on whichever shuttle is leaving when you arrive at the shuttle stops.  I was told when it is very crowded that the best option is to book one-way tix so you have the maximum flexibility for your return (if your shuttle company’s bus fills up, you will have to wait 30 mins for the next one, as opposed to just getting on whichever bus has space and buying a ticket as you board).  There were no crowds at this time of year so we just got round-trippers on the Blue Glacier Express.  One note:  I read in several places online that it is possible to WALK from the cruise pier out to Mendenhall.  Uh, it is like a 20+ minute direct bus ride on a freeway!  So no, you cannot walk it.  Also, if you visit Mendenhall as part of a formal tour please realize the 45 minutes or so they give you to walk around will not really be enough time to explore the area, the glacier and Nugget Falls – unless you book it the whole way.  It is worth the $16 to go out on a direct shuttle and take your time.  And if you can, go in the morning before all the tour buses descend with their hundreds of tourists.

The hiking at Mendenhall is lovely and easy-peasy – wide, flat trails.  The trails off by the creek near the visitor center were closed due to the fact it was spawning season and there were lots of bears about.  There were a few observation decks open where you could see the salmon, but the real attraction is hiking out to the glacier and Nugget Falls right next to it.  We spent a few hours hiking about and taking pictures, and thankfully the rain held off.  Our decision to go in the morning was also wise because when we got to the glacier we were practically alone, but as we headed back there were hoards of people streaming down the trail.  I read that the visitor’s center at Mendenhall has some great exhibits, but we skipped it as we needed to get back to town for a quick lunch before heading out to explore Juneau.  Here are a few sights from Mendenhall:

Nugget Creek

Close-up view of Mendenhall Glacier from across Lake Mendenhall

Nugget Falls and Mendenhall Glacier, taken on a wide sandbar at the base of the falls.

Nugget Falls – the little “ants” at the base of the falls give you a perspective for how massive this waterfall is.

Alaska’s State Capitol

After lunch the rain started so we had a bit of a soggy walk about town.  Juneau really is quite small, and despite the fact that it is hilly in the middle it is easy to get around.  I wouldn’t buy a pass on a trolley tour unless walking a few mildly steep hills or taking the various long staircases that cut from one level to the next are out of the question.  The state capitol building is a bit of a let-down as it is just a boxy old federal building that the US Govt gave the state of Alaska after it joined the Union.  We zipped around the lobby area, took some requisite snaps and headed over to the Alaska State Museum.  The museum was great – lots of well done exhibits on native peoples, the gold rush, Russian influence, art, animals, earthquakes, etc.  Well worth the $5 entrance fee, and we could have spent a lot more time there if our legs weren’t so walked-out!

At this point I’m going to address the fact that I’m not talking much about the cruise itself.  That’s because for me the cruise was a bit of a non-issue.  The ship was lovely, our room was great, the food was MUCH better than the last time we sailed on the Millennium, the service was excellent all the way around – even the shows were entertaining and well done.  It’s just that it was such a “weird” cruise.  We’ve cruised a lot and this was one odd duck of a cruise.  First, you are in port way longer each day than you would be in the Caribbean or Mexico, so we were off the ship most of the time.  Second, it was so cold there was no usual “hanging by the pool sipping a tropical drink” time.  Nor was there any music going (live or otherwise that I recall) except in the lounges.  As a plus, there was also no constant patter of “Coco loco!  Get your coco loco!  Love connection!  Make a love connection!” from the bar waiters.  Third, the average age of the cruisers on our ship was about 102.  That meant that if you showed up to an activity, you were the only ones there (drag!) and the shows were half-full at best, because memaw and papaw go to bed by 8 (also a drag – I felt bad for the performers who were killing it up there to a smattering of applause!).  I’m glad we did the cruise because an Alaska Cruise is something everyone should do if they can and it is a great introduction to this magnificent state, but our subsequent trips to Alaska (there will be some for sure!!!) will not be by cruise ship.

Next stop, a delightful day out of Skagway…

Alaska Travelogue Part 5 – Hubbard Glacier

Sea Day – Hubbard Glacier

We were awakened way too early on our first full day at sea by the sounds of drawers and cupboards banging open and closed.  Our cabin on the back of the ship was experiencing the full effects of those 12-15 foot seas we were promised the night before.  Wow.  Was it ever.  Up, down, back, forth, right, left, and the occasional boom-bang-shudder thing that made it feel like the ship was tearing apart.  What was that shuddering?!  I would have to wait till lunch to find that out…  John usually avails himself of every opportunity to get sea sick, and I was really worried about him.  I, on the other hand, do not get motion-sick.  In rough seas you don’t want to be on the extreme ends of a ship (that’s where the most movement is) so Cristal and I deposited a queasy John in a library in the middle of the ship and we set out to explore.  We strolled through the (ironically timed) cooking demos in the main lobby and headed to the theater at the back of the ship for a nature talk.  The talk was interesting and all, but ugh, the 360 degree range of motion was starting to get to me.

We headed out to do a little shopping which was more in the center of the ship.  Woof.  Starting to not feel so good, and really scared for John.  The onboard “naturalist” for our voyage was actually an OB-GYN with a passion for nature, so he offered everyone a few sea-sickness tips.  Staying hydrated and looking out at the waves were tips I’d heard before, but he also said it helps your stomach settle if you eat something.  We were supposed to be viewing Hubbard Glacier that afternoon so I was really hoping to get us all feeling good by then.  We headed off to find John and get some lunch.  I was relieved to find him still reading in the library (tho pretty nauseas) and not curled up in a ball in our cabin.

At lunch I was seated next to a nice, older couple from Massachusetts.  I actually ended up running into this couple almost every day on our trip and it was fun to catch up with them each time.  That is one of the reasons I like to eat in the dining room for breakfast and lunch – you get to meet lots of people and get some good tips of what to do or just swap some stories!  The gentleman was retired from the Coast Guard and gave me the skinny on the weather and that unnerving shuddering that was going on in our room.  He is the one who told me we were experiencing 12-15 foot waves (not the 8-10 predicted the nite before) and that the shuddering was a result of the ship’s aft rising so far out of the water that the screws are exposed.  So yeah, it was bad.  John wisely chose to order some greasy, cheesy pork sandwich for lunch of which he ate not one bite.  I couldn’t get him to eat any of my bland turkey pasta either.  So much for settling his stomach with food.

As we sat picking at our lunches and watching these huge waves roll by, the Cruise Director came on the PA to announce that we would soon be making the turn into Yakutat Bay on our way to Hubbard Glacier.  He said that the currents are particularly rough in this area and that we would be experiencing a greater amount of motion on the ship.  You could hear the entire dining room groan!  I thought, “if this gets any worse, the ship is going to literally roll over!”  However, yet again God blessed and Alaska surprised.  The minute we crossed into Yakutat Bay the seas flattened out completely.  We were in a dead calm!  Within minutes I felt perfectly fine and finished my lunch.  John took a bit longer to recover, but he was back on his feed (um, the ice cream and cookie buffet) within an hour.

Cristal enjoying the views of Yakutat Bay

We all headed back to our rooms to bundle up, grab our cameras and head up to the Cosmos Lounge to watch the approach to the Hubbard Glacier.  It was a wise decision to go up there an hour early because it was FREEZING outside and the lounges were quickly packed out to standing room only.  I didn’t think I’d be particularly impressed with Hubbard Glacier as we had been on that 26 Glacier cruise a few days before, but I was excited for Cristal to see her first glacier.  As we arrived at the glacier we headed outside to get some snaps.  Oh my gosh!  Hubbard Glacier was on a scale we had not experienced on our previous tour!  It is awe-inspiringly expansive, and thanks to an overcast sky, it glowed the most beautiful shades of crystal clear blue.  It took a little work to find a spot to get some good snaps that wasn’t overcrowded with fellow photographers and also afforded a little protection from freezing wind and mist.

The eastern side of Hubbard Glacier, with the entrance to Russell Fjord on the right.  The misty, snow covered mountains in the background really added to the otherworldly feel of the place.

The center of Hubbard Glacier – in the very center you can see a chunk of ice calving off.

Another shot of ice calving off Hubbard Glacier into Russell Fjord. We loved how the ice at the extreme right of Hubbard looked like a blue glass parapet!

After a flurry of picture taking and glacier gawking I started to observe my fellow passengers.

All hands on deck for the show!

All hands on deck for the show!

Although the decks were crowded with thousands of people, it was eerily silent.  People spoke in hushed tones while the constant beeps and clicks of countless digital cameras were dwarfed by the ominous booms and creaks of a mountain of frozen water returning to the sea.  The occasional calving of a large block of ice into Disenchantment Bay was always met with an appreciative cheer, but the silence soon returned.  It was refreshing to see that even in an overstimulated world where people can’t drive without simultaneously talking on the phone, watching a dvd and listening for that bossy GPS lady to tell them where to turn,  people could still be awed into silence by God’s creation.

When the ship started to rotate away from the glacier and head back to the Gulf of Alaska we bolted down to our room to enjoy the show from our ridiculously large balcony.  I finally captured on video a significant chunk of ice calving, but I wish I had practiced more on our new camera before we left for Alaska.  I took lots of “pans” of the glacier, but they are mostly blurry because I moved the camera too fast.  I also discovered that wow, you can really hear it on the video when you zoom in and out.  Lame!  Other than that, I was extremely happy with the picture quality and ease of use of our new Canon Powershot SX260.

The happy couple

This was a formal nite, so after getting semi-gussied up we headed to one of the bars before the show.  I was really surprised at the quality of drinks on board.  We always like to try the “cocktail of the day” just to try something new, but they are usually made with call liquors and lots of cheap mixers.  Not so on Celebrity.  The daily cocktail was made with pretty decent liquors and fancy mix-ins.  I fell in love with 3 of these cocktails and made a beeline to the ABC store when we got home to grab my new favorite rum (Malibu Black) and new favorite flavored vodka (Firefly Sweet Tea – I chose the one sweetened with Truvia) so I could replicate them.  The daily newsletter listed the ingredients for each drink, but not the amounts, so I definitely had a bit of a science project on my hands.  Not a problem for an avid tinkerer in the kitchen like me!

The first drink of the day I was wowed with was the Blue Sea.  It contained vodka (supposed to be made with Hendricks Gin, but as we hate gin we asked for it to be made with vodka), St Germaine (the most ethereal liquor ever created!!!!!), lemon juice and a dash of Blue Curacao for color, and it was served in an adorable Manhattan glass.  I loves me some cocktail glasses!  The flavor was not unlike my own famous cocktail creation – the E-tini.  I shall have to post about the E-tini at some point, but for now I will leave you with my take on the Blue Sea:

  • 1 part vodka of choice (I use Absolut Limon)
  • ½ part St Germaine
  • ½ part lemon juice
  • splash of Blue Curacao

Shake with ice and strain into a martini or manhattan glass.

Alaska Travelogue Part 4 – On to Seward

On to Seward to board the Cruise

Our main objective for the day was to get ourselves from Anchorage down to Seward to board the cruise.  You have two options for transportation – the bus or the train.  The bus ride is approximately a 3 hour ride and is less expensive, while the train takes a little over 5.  It seems like a no-brainer to take the bus, and you should if you want to take any kind of day tour out of Seward.  However, since I heard the train was more scenic and a ‘comfier’ ride we opted for the train.  You can either take the 6:45 am public train and have a whole day to spend in Seward, or have a leisurely morning in Anchorage and take the 1 pm train chartered by the cruiseline.  If you choose the cruise train you book that directly with your cruise line.  Shotgun starts aren’t my favorite so we took the cruise train and spent the morning walking along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail which is just minutes from the airport.  Despite some cold, persistent rain we enjoyed our jaunt, especially the educational displays along the trail commemorating the effects of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake and Tsunami.

My man on the train

Before we could board the train we had to deal with one bit of foolery courtesy of Celebrity Cruise Lines.  The cruise train leaves from the airport.  As far as Celebrity is concerned there are 2 and only 2 ways to get to the train: one, walk directly from your incoming flight down to the boarding area or two, if you are already in Anchorage you must board Celebrity’s shuttle bus at the downtown Marriott to get bused to the airport.  Our travel agent tried to explain that we were going to be returning a rental car to the airport that morning and we would just walk what, a hundred yards? to where you get your tix to board the train.  Oh no.  Not having it.  They insisted we drop our car off, get a taxi to the Marriott and board their shuttle bus.  Sooooooo our agent just changed our records with Celebrity to show we were coming in on some random flight that morning and we just dropped the car off and got on the train.  Sheesh.

Cristal and I on the train

Cristal and I on the train

The train ride is wonderful.  You sit at tables in glass-domed cars, and each car has a “host”who serves food, mixes cocktails and generally narrates the journey.

My watch confirmed that the trip did indeed take more than 5 hours, but it flew by.  The scenery is at times surreal, as in “this is the middle of wildest, most remote wilderness I have ever seen – why is there a train track here!?”

Here are few sights from the train ride, which was like an ever-changing, 5 hour, “Best of Alaska” moving slideshow!

train view 5

view from the train

view from the train

looking straight down from the trestle bridge

more glaciers!

See what I mean? Why is there a train in the midst of this wild place?!

Seward is however, not so scenic, and the train unceremoniously dumps you on a very industrial looking dock.  With our fancy upgrade to Concierge Class we breezed right through boarding and the three of us were soon having a champagne toast in the main lobby.  We had Cristal’s luggage delivered to our room so we headed there to freshen up before the lifeboat drill.  We were floored by our room – probably the biggest room we will ever have on a cruise.  And the verandah was as big as our screen porch back home.  It just really tickled us, because the whole thing had been a free upgrade on a Verandah Room Guarantee.  For the details on how we got this gem of a room check my first post in this series.

Room 7212 – le fabulous!

The lifeboat drill was our first introduction to the fact that this cruise was going to be VERY different from the 10 or so other cruises we have been on.  Almost everyone aboard was old enough to not just be our parents, but our memaws and pepaws!  And apparently when you are that old, lines do NOT apply to you.  You just walk right up to the front thankyouverymuch because you are alone in the universe.  How can the same people who drive me nuts on the road with their below-the-speed limit driving be in such a ding dang hurry at a buffet?  I cannot wait till I can use senility as an excuse to not have to wait for a cocktail or stand on line!!!

Anyway, after our little safety drill, while we’re all packed like sardines in the Rendezvous Lounge, Cruise Director Rich comes on the PA and nonchalantly announces that a lil’ ol weather front will be hitting us around midnite – sooooooo we might see some high winds and 8 foot seas.  Hmmmm.  Let me translate that for you:  that is Cruise Director speak for we will experience 12 hours of 50 mph winds and 12-15 foot seas.  It’s about to get real y’all!

Alaska Travelogue Part 3 – Whittier

Day 2 – Whittier

Our second day in Anchorage started cold, grey and rainy.  Hmmmm.  I was hoping this wasn’t going to be a foretaste of the rest of the trip.  After a rather unremarkable breakfast at the B&B we headed off for our 26 Glacier Cruise out of Whittier.  I had decided not to bring our Garmin so I printed myself a point-to-point set of directions off Google Maps.  It’s a pretty cool feature – you type in a list of the places you will be going, in the order in which you will be visiting them (don’t forget to get yourself back to the hotel at the end of the day!), and it will print out a set of turn by turn directions.  Anchorage is extremely easy to get around in, and once you get out of the cities your choices of roads are few and far between so I never felt like we were in danger of being lost.

The hour and a half drive to Whittier on AK1 was beautiful despite the on-again off-again rain.  I couldn’t stop snapping pictures out the window!  The entire trip was an ever-changing array of mountains, glaciers, marshy meadows, lakes, waterfalls and a low-tide seashore.

My sweet hubby John is such a good sport.  He always does all the driving on vacation, allowing me to enjoy views like this lowland marsh.

My sweet hubby John is such a good sport. He always does all the driving on vacation, allowing me to enjoy views like this lowland marsh.

One thing I learned about the beaches in this part of Alaska was to stay off them in low tide.  The “sand” is really glacial silt, and at low tide what looks like walkable beach is really a quicksand-like death trap.  Several locals warned us of the danger by relating sad tales of animals and people alike who get stuck in this quicksand and drown when the tide comes back in.  Aside from the sheer beauty of the landscape another thing that impressed me on our drive was that there was a campground, day use facility or simply a trailhead parking lot every few miles.  Alaskans are very serious about enjoying their beautiful state, and all that oil money is being put to good use!

Seriously, the views on this stretch of AK1 were amazing!

Seriously, the views on this stretch of AK1 were amazing!

The only road into Whittier passes thru the 2.5 mile-long Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, which is open to auto traffic only once an hour in each direction.  We left Anchorage in plenty of time to make the 10:30 tunnel opening, and in fact would have been there for the 9:30 opening.  Not wanting to spend thatmuch time in Whittier, we decided to backtrack a bit and hit one of the numerous hiking spots we passed on the way.  We pulled into a small camping and hiking area on the Portage Glacier Road which had several easy trails for viewing Portage Glacier and even a special area for viewing spawning Salmon in Portage Creek.

You can see a bit of Portage Glacier directly above me.

On the bridge over Portage Creek

This is my kind of hiking – minus the bear threat.

We were completely alone on the trails and when we came upon some “evidence,” shall we say, that a bear was also out on the trail that morning we starting singing and whistling as we walked.  Bears are most dangerous when you surprise them, and black bears in particular will give you a wide berth if they can hear you coming.  But the fact that we were alone in the middle of nowhere with a bear really started to freak us out so we hot-footed it back.  In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to watch that “When Bears Attack!” show about all the people who’ve recently been mauled by bears in Alaska!

A few spawning Salmon in Portage Creek – they were literally in inches of water and looking quite worn out from their long journey.

Anyway, before heading back out for Whittier we spent some time at the salmon viewing area watching the fish and reading the informative displays about the different varieties of salmon and their life cycle.

The tunnel to Whittier was originally built during WWII to service what was then a strategic military base.  Until recently it only serviced rail traffic, but it was opened to vehicle traffic in 2000.  I was imagining a multilane tunnel, or at least a tunnel with the railroad tracks on one side and the road on another.  Once again Alaska surprised me.  This tunnel is juuuuuuuust big enough for a train to squeak through, and the auto traffic drives over the train tracks.  It is NOT for the claustrophobic!

The entrance to the tunnel – that black rectangle in the middle shows how wide the tunnel actually is!

We had about a 15 minute wait for the tunnel to open and it was fun to see everyone pour out of their cars and start snapping pictures of the glacier-covered mountains around us.  I wonder how long you have to live in Alaska before you stop wanting to take pictures of everything.  One gentleman spotted a bear high up on one of the mountains and was letting everyone use his binoculars to see it.  I snapped some pix of what he said was the bear and frankly, I think I got pictures of a big black rock.

We absolutely made the right decision not to spend much time in Whittier, because the hour we did have to kill was spent wandering about the oddest “why is this town here?” town ever!  I get why the US Army established a base there in WWII, but I don’t get why this town still exists today.  There are around 800 year round residents, almost all of whom live in one high-rise building.  I can’t decide if that would be a really fun, social environment or a nightmare.

This is Whittier – the large building on the right is where everyone lives. The large building on the left is where everyone used to live before the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake/Tsunami destroyed the building. No idea why it wasn’t torn down in 1964.

At last it was time to board our little cruise, which was a high-speed, 5 hour jaunt around Prince William Sound to view some 26 different glaciers (weather permitting).  I read many glowing reviews of this tour, but a few nay-sayers complained that their day was “ruined” by poor weather limiting the scope of the tour.  The rain had stopped, but it was cold and cloudy, so I wondered what that would mean for our trip that day.

The map for the 26 Glacier Cruise

The 26 Glacier Cruise goes out on a large catamaran that seats some 300 people.  We were assigned to a window table with a fun couple from Memphis.  I was really glad we liked them, because 5 hours is a long time to spend at a table with weirdos!  The entire trip is narrated by a Forest Service ranger, and tho I can’t remember our guy’s name, he was a sweet older man who peppered his nature talk with personal stories and life lessons.  I’ve never been on a tour where the guide did that, but it happened several times in Alaska.  Must be something about Alaska that gives a person room and time to think about what is most important in life.

Our guide assured us that even tho it was cloudy, we should not despair because it was the perfect weather for viewing glaciers.  I took that remark with some suspicion, but it turns out to be true.  Glacial ice is so compressed that all the air has been squeezed out, leaving nothing but pure water which appears blue.

Bright sunlight makes the surface ice (non glacial) and snow reflect all the colors in the spectrum, so the whole glacier appears snow-white.  A cloudy day allows the deep blue of the glacial ice to shine through and the glaciers glow the most beautiful shades of blue.

Close-up of Surprise Glacier showing the blue glacial ice

Close-up of Surprise Glacier showing the blue glacial ice

As if that wasn’t blessing enough, visibility on the sound was near-perfect that day.  We were therefore able to not only visit every scheduled point on the tour, but also approach several of the glaciers much closer than they are normally able to.  The highlight was a lengthy stop at Surprise Glacier, where in the frigid stillness we could hear the ominous pops, groans and booms the ice makes as it inches toward the water (sounded a lot like mortar fire!).  We were even blessed to see a few chunks calve off into the sound.  Our guide kept remarking on what a rare day it was!

College Fjord – the smaller glaciers on the left are named after women’s colleges; the large glacier is Harvard Glacier.

L-R Cascade, Barry and Coxe Glaciers

Surprise Glacier

Sea Lions and Sea Otters lounging on calved ice at Surprise Glacier

It was indeed a rare and wonderful day – we enjoyed the gorgeous drive to and from Whittier, stretched our legs on a lovely hike near Portage glacier, saw our first spawning salmon, viewed a fascinating variety of glaciers, watched adorable sea lions and sea otters bob by on their icy rafts, enjoyed meeting some interesting people and capped the day off by picking up my sister Cristal at the airport.

One last “fun” Alaska fact.  They are nuts with the liquor laws.  Cristal wanted to buy a bottle of wine so we popped into a supermarket.  The wine was sold in a separate “room” in the store, and when Cristal went up to pay for the wine the guy wanted to see all of our ID’s (Cristal’s, my husband John’s and mine).  Huh?  I hadn’t brought my wallet with me and the dude almost refused to sell her the wine because I couldn’t produce ID.  Mind you, I am 45.  It’s a state law that everyone with you has to show ID if you are purchasing alcohol – even if you’re a pack of memaws scootin’ up to the counter in your Hoverounds.  I just found that really a bit much.

Alaska Travelogue Part 2 – Anchorage

Day 1 – Anchorage

We set off at 4:30 am with the largest amount of luggage we have ever taken on a trip. I hate traveling “heavy” and to my horror cold weather clothes, raingear and fancy dinner wear for the cruise were bulging from the only 4 suitcases we own.  And yes, we ended up wearing or using everything we brought! Thankfully John is a frequent business traveler so we could check bags for free. His mileage status also got us upgraded to first class, so our trip started off on a very happy note. We gave up our usual aisle seats to take in what I hoped would be hour upon hour of gorgeous views of the Midwest and the Canadian Rockies, but alas what I got was hour upon hour of dense cloud cover. However, once we approached Alaska the clouds gave way and we got our first glimpse of snow-covered, ice carved mountains that seemed to go on forever.

Our first glimpse of Alaska

Our first glimpse of Alaska

I was immediately impressed with the sheer enormity of it all. Alaska’s mountains are nothing like North Carolina’s timeworn, densely wooded Blue Ridge Mountains, whose gently rolling, misty peaks invite you to take a leisurely walk or a scenic drive, or simply to sit and rock a spell. No, these mountains looked wild and fierce, like they just exploded into existence only a short while ago.  There is nothing leisurely or gentle about them at all. Our flight path also took us over Prince William Sound where we would be cruising the next day, and from my travel planning I recognized College Fjord. It was fascinating to see it from the air beforehand – our first little bit of flightseeing!

Right from the get-go Alaska turned out to be nothing like what I expected, but so, so much better. I was surprised at what an attractive airport Anchorage has. It is full of beautiful artwork and there are taxidermied animals all over the place! Ordinarily that whole “hunting animals for sport alone” thing gets on my nerves, but it is what it is. The innkeeper where we stayed told us the airport had recently been completely redone and it shows. If you ever find yourself there, don’t bolt out the doors for your rental car or your cruise transfer – take a few minutes to stroll around and enjoy the exhibits.

Life Tip: If You Ask for What You Want Nicely, You Just Might Get Something Even Better! – When we originally booked the trip it was just going to be John and I. About 2 weeks before the trip my sister Cristal decided she was going to go for it and join us on the cruise and Vancouver portions of our trip. I know! I thought I was hardcore spontaneous for booking this trip only a month in advance! Anyway, Miss Cristal will join our adventure late on Day 2, so stay tuned for her arrival. The travel agent told me renting cars in Alaska was expensive, so I just had her reserve a compact car. We wouldn’t be in it much and I am tight with a buck. But now with Cristal and a mountain of luggage coming along I knew I had to upgrade to something much bigger. A few days before our trip I was surprised to find that a search on Travelocity showed every size car from compact to full-size was the same price – and that the prices had come down so much that a full-size car was now less than the compact I had originally reserved. Again, it always pays to keep checking prices, especially when you can cancel an existing resi for free. When we arrived at Enterprise to pick up our full-size car, we asked the agent if she had any  that would hold 3 people and a lot of luggage. She looked at her inventory, handed us a set of keys, smiled and said “it’s a surprise; I think you’ll like it.” We walked outside to find a Nissan Pathfinder waiting for us – another sweet, free upgrade! This trip is ON A ROLL!

A Clean, Comfortable and Convenient B&B – The travel agent also warned me that hotels in Anchorage are very expensive and we should expect to pay over $200/nite for anything better than a “flea trap”. We always stay in bed & breakfasts (B&Bs) when possible, so I checked out a few options online and after reading lots of reviews settled on Jewel Lake B&B. The prices I found for Anchorage B&B’s were generally lower than those for “decent” hotels, which is one of the many reasons we prefer B&Bs when we travel. Jewel Lake is less than 10 minutes from the airport, is on a main thoroughfare in Anchorage and minutes away from stores, restaurants and the Seward Highway (AK1), the main road out of Anchorage. Another plus is that this B&B allows you to cook your own lunch or dinner in the downstairs kitchen. We didn’t take advantage of that feature, but it would be a great way to save $ on meals. It is true – eating in restaurants in Anchorage is markedly more expensive than in the Lower 48. We paid $30 for the two of us to each have a ½ sandwich and a (tiny) cup of soup lunch combo with iced tea at Doriolas, a decent little café (which I found on TripAdvisor, natch). Jewel Lake is not the fanciest B&B we’ve stayed in, but it was clean, comfy, convenient, well-priced and there was plenty of variety at breakfast.

John and our sweet ride at the B&B – ready to head out for some hiking

We’re Continuing a Trend: The Best Hike of My Life, But Not What I Expected – after lunch we set off to hike up 3,500 ft. Flattop Mountain, Anchorage’s most popular day hike, and according to Wikipedia the most climbed mountain in Alaska. All the reviews (yes, they review hiking trails on TripAdvisor) I read said “easy hike except for the last few hundred yards”.  First, I was expecting to be hiking in a spruce forest (I guess I thought the mountains would be like the Canadian Rockies I’ve visited in British Columbia and Alberta). Second, I was expecting an easy hike except for the last few hundred yards! I will say that if you are extremely fit and quite fond of your Stair Master, this 3 mile hike will be right in your wheelhouse. If you hit the gym a few times a week like John and I do, this will be a challenging but quite doable hike (tho both of us were sore for a couple days). Couch potatoes need not apply. Seriously, you and your Hoverround will not make it out of the parking lot.

When we pulled into the Glen Alps parking lot where the trail is accessed, we saw a mountain waaaaaaaay in the distance which had, well, a flat top. We both thought, “there is no way that is the mountain we will be hiking up.” Sho ‘nuff it was. The trail starts off with a staircase, and there will be many, many more of them to come. We huffed and puffed our way through the first stage on the trail (the easiest!), and I was amazed to find myself not in a dense forest, but in a gorgeous tundrascape, with views for miles and miles in all directions. Reaching the end of the first stage rewarded us with beautiful views of Anchorage and the surrounding mountains and valleys.

View of Anchorage from the end of the first stage

View of Anchorage from the end of the first stage

This was our first taste of a land of great scale and great contrasts. Towering, jagged mountains stood shoulder to shoulder as far as we could see to the north, south and east, and the Pacific Ocean spread out to the western horizon, but we were surrounded by a kind of subarctic pixieland of miniature spruce trees, hearty grasses and groundcovers, berries, mosses, lichens and delicate, colorful alpine wildflowers. I loved it!

A small grassy area with Arnicas, Campanulas, Aenemonies and Yarrow

Bearberry (red foliage) and Crowberry

Cow Parsnips

We decided to press on to the next stage of the trail, which grew more and more difficult, but the scenery was so beautiful and it was a perfect, sunny day. The trail is very well maintained but often steep and rocky, and I was encouraged that we weren’t the only ones stopping every few hundred yards to catch our breath. At each stage we read signs which bore increasingly stern warnings about the terrain ahead (the last one pretty much said “I’d turn back if I were you”), but we kept pressing ahead. I’m going to say it right here – all that Zumba and Muscle Class really paid off, but don’t tell John I said that, because he dragged me kicking and screaming to the Y.

A rare flat section on the second stage

We did not make it to the very tippy top because the last hundred yards involved scrambling straight up some very steep, jagged rocks. I knew I could get up there, but I was afraid of slipping and falling on the way down. Not wanting to start our vacation off with a broken ankle or worse, we perched ourselves about 2/3 of the way up the last section and enjoyed the views. The climb down from where we perched ourselves confirmed that we had wisely gone as far as our mountaineering skills would safely take us. The descent is actually what got me sore for a few days – it was so steep in places it just killed my shins.

Another view of Anchorage from the much easier way down

Dinner with a Show! – Our original plan was to grab something at the market to cook in the B&B kitchen, but neither of us was tired so we decided to go out. In the mood for sushi, a quick look on Yelp pointed us to Yamaya in downtown Anchorage. Once again we were confronted with the unexpected. This place is tiny, and the teensiest bit shall we say rugged? on the outside (get used to it, that is pretty much how Alaska rolls), but we ventured in. The whole place is about the size of my living room and it was packed out with Japanese people, all speaking Japanese, who ALL turned to stare at the two crackers who just stepped thru the curtain. When everyone literally stops eating and turns to stare at you, that is your cue to kindly get to steppin’. Just as I was about to grab John’s arm and yank him back outside a friendly guy at the microscopic sushi bar beckoned us to take the last two seats in the place. Mr. Bob is a 30 year Anchorage resident and a long-time Yamaya regular, and he was our delightful dinner companion for the evening.

Yamaya is run by an older Japanese couple and their granddaughter. Grampa-san is the only cook, and he makes each diner their food one item at a time (be prepared for a leisurely affair). The kitchen is open to say the least, so you can see the whole show. Gramma-san is one no-foolery-tolerated memaw, and she will take your order and tell you what is what in no uncertain terms. If the tables are full and she doesn’t want any more customers, she will tell you to step somewhere else for dinner. If you are eating and ordering too fast for Grampa-san to keep up, she will tell you to slow yourself down. All of this is done without leaving her perch behind the sushi bar. She’d be a lot more threatening if she were over 4 feet tall or weighed more than 75 lbs., but trust me, TONE is everything! If Bob had not been there giving her as good as he got, I would have been a little freaked out by this family theater.

The menu was chock full of things we’d never heard of before, so we followed Bob’s recommendations and had some absolutely wonderful sushi and rice dishes, and Grampa-san was also gracious enough to stir fry me up something I was craving but which was not on the menu. We did pass on one of Bob’s recommendations, and deftly sidestepped his generous offer to let us sample his. He was drinking a house special sake, some regional Japanese treat I guess, which consisted of pouring your bottle of sake into a tin cup and steeping a, wait for it, charred fish head in it. I was all for trying it (for real) until I got a whiff of it. It smelled as good as it sounds! All in all, dinner with our new friend Bob at Yamaya’s was the perfect ending to our perfect first day in Alaska, which was a foretaste of what we would experience every day in Alaska: gorgeous scenery, fabulous seafood and super-friendly locals who are passionate about their home state and love to share it with others.

Alaska Travelogue Part 1 – Planning the Trip

No Time Like the Present – We had been trying for years to organize a trip to Alaska with our families and it just wasn’t working out.  So in accordance with our new “do it now” life philosophy (I think that is the philosophy you adopt after your older family members and some of your way-too-young friends and coworkers start passing away) at the end of July I booked our trip for late August.

I checked online for cruise and air fares and discovered a key fact about flying from the east coast to AK for a cruise.  If you choose a northbound itinerary you will likely fly into Vancouver and back from Anchorage or Fairbanks (depending on whether or not you choose to add on a land tour).  Flying to Vancouver is no big deal, but flying back from Anchorage presents one problem:  all the flights back to the east coast are overnight flights.  If you can sleep on a plane, go for it.  I cannot, and I avoid red-eyes like the plague.  I knew a southbound itinerary was going to have to be our choice.  Actually this works out great when coming from the east coast.  You gain 4 hours in the time change, so you can take an early morning flight and arrive in Anchorage by lunch time.  Since it stays light so late during Alaskan summers, you will have plenty of time that first day to get out and start your adventuring.

I found an excellent rate on a south-bound itinerary with Celebrity so I headed off to a travel agent to book the cruise and our flights.  Normally I book everything online myself but for some reason I felt I wanted the expert input of a travel agent who was supposed to be knowledgeable about Alaska.  Not sure I will be making that “mistake” again.  Unfortunately our travel agent was either not very knowledgeable or she was less than honest with me when I asked what the weather was like in Alaska in August and Sept.  I know that it frequently rains in AK, but there are times when you are more likely to see sunny days, and I wanted to make sure we weren’t setting ourselves up for soggy disappointment.  Our agent assured me Aug/Sept was a “dry season,” when in fact August and September are the rainiest months up there.  My bad for not checking that out on my own before booking.  I started panicking a week before our trip when the weather forecast showed rain or heavy rain for every day of our trip.  As it turned out, the Lord blessed us with a few gorgeous days, a few cloudy days and only a couple days of light rain.  And even those cloudy, drizzly days turned out to be a blessing.  But more on that later….

Getting the Best Price – It is a misconception that you must book a cruise far in advance to get good rates or the best cabins.  In fact it can be quite the opposite.  I guess if you are traveling in a group or you want a very specific cabin type or location you should book in advance.  If, like me, you are not too particular about your cabin and can be flexible with your travel dates, you can get some sweet deals booking last minute or simply choosing a “guarantee” room.  With a guarantee room you book the “category”  of cabin you want (e.g. balcony, oceanview, etc.) but do not select your specific cabin.  Because you allow the cruiseline the flexibility of choosing your room, guarantee rooms are offered at a significant discount.  If your category of cabin sells out, you will be upgraded, at no extra cost, to the next available category.  You will never be downgraded, so worst case scenario you get the least desirable room in the category you booked.  If this type of rate is available when I book, I go for it because every time we have had a guarantee room we have been upgraded to a nicer cabin.

Another way to save on a cruise is to frequently check for sales.  Cruise lines have monthly sales goals for each of their ships.  If they don’t meet those goals they offer temporary price cuts.  It’s wise to check every week or two even after you have booked your cruise.  If there is a price drop more than 30 or 60 days out you can request the new, lower rate without paying a change fee.  Less than 30 or 60 days out you may have to pay a change fee, but the new rate or a better yet cheaper cabin might be worth it.

On this particular cruise we booked a guarantee veranda room on the Celebrity Millennium (veranda is Celebrity-speak for the lowest category of balcony stateroom).  At the time we booked our agent told me there weren’t even any rooms in that category available, so we were virtually guaranteed an upgrade.  And wow, we got an upgrade!

Not too shabby!  Snapped this pic on our way out for our whale-watching tour.  Too bad my sister Cristal wasn’t out there waving!

We were assigned to cabin 7212 which is a handicapped accessible, Concierge class veranda room in the middle of the back of the ship.  This room was HUGE, with a veranda that is bigger than most cruise ship staterooms and a bathroom about the size of your average guest bath at home.  The Concierge perks included priority embarkation and disembarkation, nicer robes and toiletries in your room, fresh fruit and hors d’ouevres delivered daily, and a surprisingly nice bottle of champagne waiting for us when we boarded the ship.

What Are We Going to Do Each Day?  Once I had booked the trip I set about finding activities for each day.  Here is where CruiseCritic.com and Tripadvisor.com are your best friends.  CruiseCritic is an extremely helpful resource for all things cruising – thousands of user and expert ship and port reviews, message boards where you can ask questions or just troll for info and links to everything else.  Trip Advisor is another great resource for finding the best restaurants, tour operators, activities and lodging all over the world.  I always read the reviews on either site before I book any cruise, hotel or dinner resi when traveling.  Yelp is also a helpful resource for finding good restaurants.

How you book your activities is a personal decision.  The cruiselines make it convenient to browse and book your excursions through them, and they offer a number of pre and post cruise tour packages.  Another benefit that some people appreciate about booking their tours through the cruiseline is that they guarantee to get you back to the ship on time or pay to get you to the next port.  However, all that convenience and security does come at a cost:  the excursions are more expensive than the exact same tours (or better) booked on your own, and you will almost always be in a very large group.  My personal preference is to book all our activities on my own with reputable private tour companies or adventure about on our own.  The reputable tour operators are well versed in getting their cruise ship customers back on time and will guarantee to do so.  By booking our own activities we save lots of money and end up on private or nearly private tours that go to places the big ship tours don’t.  It really is a matter of what you are comfortable with, what type of experience you want, and how much time you can put into planning.

Our trip itinerary was as follows:  Day 1:  fly to Anchorage, hike Flattop Mtn and dine at a VERY authentic mama-san and papa-san Japanese restaurant; Day 2:  gorgeous drive from Anchorage to Whittier, hiking near Portage glacier, “world famous” 26 Glacier Cruise out of Whittier; Day 3:  5 hour train ride to Seward to board our ship; Day 4:  stomach clutching fun on the high seas (literally) and finally some calm waters for cruising the Hubbard Glacier; Day 5:  Juneau – hike out to Mendenhall glacier then tour the State Museum; Day 6:  Skagway – minibus and train tour to/from the Yukon; Day 7:  Icy Strait Point/Hoonah – whale watching and shopping; Day 8:  Ketchikan – private kayaking and flightseeing; Day 9: sea day cruising the Inside Passage; Day 10:  Vancouver – biking Stanley Park and sampling the international cuisine; Day 11:  fly home.  I plan on posting entries for each stop on our tour with pictures, our experiences and hopefully some helpful tips and links.  Stay tuned!

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