London Diary – San Francisco and Bay Area for My Niece’s graduation!

May 11- 18. I absolutely loved the time in San Francisco and bay area with my sister and family.

Here are some highlights in random order.
California blue is stunning. But while the sun is shining, it can still be chilly in San Francisco. In the meantime, it is 10 degrees warmer in Napa and Sonoma. One day I was shivering in the chilly wind of San Francisco, the next day I was getting sunburn in Berkeley.
Attending my niece Tina’s graduation from UC Berkeley, both university and department commencement, couldn’t be more proud and happy for her and her parents.
Finding stunning views of SF from Marina Headland in Marion County and of Golden Gate Bridge from Land’s End.
Being treated to lots yummies, giant crabs at Crab House at Pier 39, French at Gaspar Brasserie and Morocan at Michelin starred Mourad in SF downtown, Chinese in Richmond and Spanish at La Marcha Tapas Bar in Berkerley.
Having a lovely day in Napa and Sonoma Valley, delightful lunch at Bouchon Bakery in Yontville, tour and wine tasting at beautifully dreamy Castello di Amorosa.
The holiday would have been lacking without that trip to the awesome SF premium outlet in Livermore .

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My heart and I will go on!

Feb 1, 2017

Life does go on, and personally, our adventure in London continues. The past weekend was filled with interesting activities. But pretending that all is the same is completely futile.

All is not the same, my whole being is twanged with indignation and worries. If the US election result had been unfathomable and devastating, it became nightmarish and disheartening when it finally sank in that Trump did not do it alone, there are many who actually share and endorse Trump’s values. It was a painful disillusion.

The Trump camp is indeed a basket of deplorable, they are hell-bent on hate, division and getting their ways. Even before Trump took office, House Republicans attempted to gut Office of Congressional Ethics Oversight, stripping its independence and reducing its power.

Putting Trump in the White House is tantamount to putting powerful weapons in the hands of a thug cum lunatic. And indeed, since inauguration, it all went hellishly downhill fast.

Trump and his goons, now in power, are carrying on like dictators. They abuse power, employ heavy handed and abusive tactics towards those who voice dissent, play propaganda game, engineering “alternative fact” and bullying and threatening media and press to go along with their lies.

First week in office, more than a dozen executive orders were issued, repealing Obama care, building wall on Mexican border, banning citizens of 7 Muslim countries from entering USA, suspending refugee program, reversing course and allowing Keystone and Dakota pipelines to go ahead.

Trump and his cohort’s atrocities go on and on.

USA, once a beacon of hope and power engine for human rights and western values and ideals, is being dragged, kicking, into reversing its trajectory. This is a tragedy unfolding, “Democracy Has Gone Hellishly Wrong!”

How do you deal with something that is so wrong in so many ways and so many levels? Women’s March on London on Jan 21st was a cathartic first step. I have to go on and do my bit in making the world a little better!

Saturday was a beautiful day and cherry blossoms was starting out on this one tree in the neighborhood. Perfect way to start Chinese New Year of Rooster! It was also the weekend the France Show was on. An annual event at Olympia, the France Show showcased all things French, a little bit of fashion, lots food and wine tasting, travel and language learning opportunities, lovely French music, and an exciting Can Can dance. Amazingly, 50% of the exhibit was French real estate. At the end of the day, a delicious dinner at Golden Dragon of China Town!

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Sunday was reserved for Winter Wander with Walk London. Not the best day for walk, sprinkling most of the way, but luckily it did not start pouring until we had just finished the walk. This walk from Gunnersbury Station in Chiswick to Richmond was mostly along the river Thames, with a detour through High Street of Brentford and another to Syon Park. The first 2/3 of the path was not too impressive. It was prettier between Syon Park and Richmond. I can see though it’d be much better in spring and summer.

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Amazing Alaska! (3) – Cruise From Whittier to Vancouver

I was impressed by what I had seen so far and eager to find out what the cruise would entail. Cruise itinerary included cruising Hubbard Glacier and Glacier National Bay, port days at Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan and a couple other sea days. Experience from the cruise was expectedly different from that of the land tour. In terms of the scenery, I personally think that the land tour gives opportunities to grander and richer views. Cruising however is the only way to see attractions like Hubbard Glacier and Glacier National Bay. At the end both complement each other and I would not leave out one or the other.

I prefer in general traveling on land and independently vs. traveling by sea or with a group on some set itinerary. But I do see the exceptions for destinations like Hawaii or Alaska. And I think this cruise did make me like cruising a tad more, thanks to Alaska’s alluring water ways, itinerary and Princess’ quality service.

Food was better than the previous cruises, Carnival and Norwegian. We did anytime dining at Bordeaux dining room instead of the set time dining at Provence. We took all dinners at Bordeaux, except once, but did breakfast, lunch and snacking at the buffet, which was open at practically all hours that I needed it, and I loved get my hands on the abundant array of fresh fruits available there. My son skipped the dining room quite a few times because ‘it takes too much time’. On Father’s day, lobsters were served at the dining rooms and 6 out of 9 people at our table had lobsters. The ship’s attention to detail was commendable. My husband was treated to birthday special twice, the day before and on his birthday, the first one being a nice mistake. Each time he had Happy Birthday sung to him at the dining room and an individual sized birthday cake. British flavors like daily afternoon tea at Bordeaux, which I enjoyed and took whenever I could, and Pub Style lunch at Bayou Café and Steakhouse were available. British movies were featured on one of the channels and multiple staff members had British accent. It makes you wonder Princess’ British tie. The Love Boat was showed everyday on another one of the channels and what do you know, Princess is the Love Boat.

Entertainment was good enough and kept us busy. We saw the movie Argo, played Bingo, went to art auction, magic show, comedy plus music show, dance show and classic concert, etc. And there were of course the formal portrait nights. My son liked the Teen Club where he went to play games with and socialized with other teens. There is always shopping around on board and on shore. On port days, you can’t help but notice the plethora of jewelry shops near the pier. Skagway is a small town but half of the shops are jewelry shops. Same goes for Juneau and Ketchikan. I for one like to check out the sparklers, too. Apparently, Ammolite, new to me, is in vogue, especially among Asian visitors, I was quite drawn to it myself. Ammolite is made of fossilized shells of Ammonites that are usually over million years old. This fascinating natural stones has a thin layer of intense colors, red orange, green, blue and purple, which can turn out in patterns of endless possibility. I learnt that the color blue is rarer that the others therefore the more of it, more valuable is the piece. This stone is mined in South America only.

The other fun thing was meeting people from different places of US and the world. We met parents of teens whom Ben met at the teen club. We met a man from Australia who commented that Alaska’s scenery was more spectacular than those of Australia. We met people who had done the cruise years before and could tell some glaciers had retreated substantially. An elderly couple made quite an impression on me. Chuck and Nancy from Arizona were 92 and 88. They might be moving about slowly but sure were sprightly in spirits. We sat at the same table for tea, had an interesting chat and saw them dancing later that night. They love cruising and would take a total of 6 cruises this year. Even so, they had to settle for second place, as passengers with most Princess Cruise days, losing out to a couple from San Francisco.

Whittier: From our balcony 1

Whittier: From our balcony 1


Whittier: From our balcony 2

Whittier: From our balcony 2


Whittier: Reflection of the enchanting view

Whittier: Reflection of the enchanting view


At Atrium of the ship

At Atrium of the ship

Hubbard Glacier

Hubbard Glacier is 7 miles wide, 76 miles long and 600 feet tall at its terminal, where 350 feet is above the waterline. There were high anticipations. Unfortunately, the weather that day was dismal and visibility was pretty bad.

Hubbard Glacier

Hubbard Glacier

Glacier Bay National Park

Luckily weather turned out wonderful the next day and we had the pleasure of seeing Glacier Bay at its best. Grand Pacific Glacier, located at the far end of the bay, is one of the largest tidal water glaciers in Glacier Bay. It is 2 miles wide at its terminal, but is completely blackened and not exactly a looker. Smaller with a 1 mile terminus and rising right next to Grand Pacific, Margerie is much taller, prettier and most spectacular glacier in the bay area. It was the most active we had seen as well. While we gaped with fascination and cheer, it thundered and broke off again and again, at times creating spectacular avalanche of snow fall. With a ¾ mile terminus, Lamplugh is the next largest one in the neighborhood.

A ranger of Glacier Bay was flown to the ship to give talks and set up station on board for people to come by and ask questions. The ship’s daily bulletin included map and introduction of the bay and made announcements through the day pointing out point of interests. We entered Glacier Bay at about 8/9AM, left around 5/6PM and there was never a dull moment. Absolutely delightful day!

Glacier National Bay: Megerie Glacier to the left and Grand Pacific to the right

Glacier National Bay: Megerie Glacier to the left and Grand Pacific to the right

Glacier National Bay: Megerie Glacier

Glacier National Bay: Megerie Glacier


Glacier National Bay: Megerie Glacier breaking off

Glacier National Bay: Megerie Glacier breaking off


Glacier National Bay: Megerie Glacier

Glacier National Bay: Megerie Glacier


Glacier National Bay: Soaring seagull

Glacier National Bay: Soaring seagull


Glacier National Bay

Glacier National Bay


Glacier National Bay: Lamplugh Glacier

Glacier National Bay: Lamplugh Glacier

Skagway

There are so many activities available at each of the ports, it is impossible to do it all and can be daunting to decide but eventually you pick and choose what works for you based on interest, schedule, budget and vigor.

At Skagway, we were to visit the musher camp and try out summer time dog sled. Along with a dozen others, we were chauffeured away from the pier. It took only a few minute to go through Skagway downtown. The rest of the ride was on dirt road through pleasant, natural area. About 30 minutes later, we were driving through some thick woods. When we came out of it several minutes later the view suddenly opened up to a verdant valley with a river running through it. There at the foot of one densely wooded mountain was the camp office. But we were not at our final destination yet. The camp for the dogs was higher up and we had to switch to a special vehicle for the journey. It was in the low 80s and unusually high for Alaska. Luckily, the higher we climbed the cooler it became. Along the way I noticed that the ground, apart from the dirt road, was covered with green moss. As soon as we turned around a curve, I became aware of dogs’ barking. There they were, multiple teams of sled dogs harnessed to the summer time sleds, barking, arching, clearly restless and eager to set off and run on. It was hard to not be affected by that excitable energy. There were six of us on the sled and the ride was about 15 minutes including a break. As much as the dogs love running, they apparently get out of breath pretty easily in warm days. While the dogs taking a rest, our sled driver introduced the team of the 16 dogs that pulled our sled and took photos for us since we had to stay on the sled. A short few minutes later, the dogs seemed to be ready again.

On the way down to the office, the road appeared steeper than I had realized. At about midway, there was a look out with delightful view of the valley, and our ship. For the last bit of the road, there was a babbling brook with cascade of waterfalls running to the left. Back at the camp base, we were given an interesting talk on mushing, dogs, sled racing and Iditarod by a trainee musher, a young woman from New York City. There with her were some retired equipments, sleds, supersized and heavily padded gloves and boots and a dog on leash, mute but hardly staying still, pacing back and forth where it could. Before leaving the camp, we were invited to visit with two families of puppies. The puppies were so adorable, and meek, that only a few in the group willingly passed the opportunity to hold and pet them.

On route back to the ship we opted to hop off the van at Skagway downtown and catch a city bus to get back to the pier later. Although small, Skagway downtown is picturesque with charming mountain views and has a peaceful ambience. I like glass works and one shop, Art Glass Alaska, caught my attention. The artist, a friendly elderly man, was assembling tiny round pieces of glasses of Alaskan wild flowers and Native Indian emblems into a flat disc, which I was told would be burned into a small plate later. And there I got myself a perfect souvenir. I picked one that was the last piece in the shop with that special sign for whales. The artist told me his is the only one doing that type of work. He was right. Wanting to pick up another piece, maybe the small bowl to go with the plate, I started to look for it the other places I went but have not come into one again.

Skagway: River valley at the musher camp

Skagway: River valley at the musher camp


Skagway: Our team on the ride

Skagway: Our team on the ride


Skagway: Ben petting the little puppie

Skagway: Ben petting the little puppie


Skagway: Downtown

Skagway: Downtown


Skagway: Return to the mammoth of our ship

Skagway: Return to the mammoth of our ship

Juneau

For Juneau, I had planned to visit Mendenhall Glacier but instead of booking an excursion ahead of time, decided to just catch one of the many buses when we got there. It turned out pretty easy to do. Many tour companies set up booths right on the piers. There are also many shops and restaurants around. Besides the city buses, many tour companies run exactly the same route for the same price of $8 each way. We went with a tour company whose driver would offer some narratives as well. The driver pointed out some point of interests as we drove through such as Governor’s Mansion along with an anecdote or two. Capital of and second largest city in Alaska, there were the traffic, hustle and bustle to give it away and the day we were there, there were five ships docked up at the pier, taking up all berths there were.

With what I could see from the ride to and from Mendenhall, the city itself did not strike me as extraordinary. Mendenhall Glacier Park is on the other hand delightful. There is a look out pavilion near the bus stop and the visitor center. To get closer to the glacier and right up to the bottom of the waterfall, there is a hiking trail that takes about 40 minutes round trip. We took it up. It was the second day that it was in the low 80s. Warmed by the bright sun and led by the the path charmingly adorned on both sides by lush green and clusters of Blue Bonnet among others, the walk was more invigorating than anything else. On the return, we ran into a wedding party, bride in a traditional white gown, groom in tuxedo and a small straggling group also dressed up, making their way down to the waterfall. It is a perfectly gorgeous setting for a wedding. I admired them for their choice and determination to carry it out. It wasn’t exactly a breeze hiking all dressed up on that day. But, if not everyone, the bride and groom certainly seemed unfazed. I stopped to offer my congratulations and best wishes for them.

Skagway to Juneau: A water fall

Skagway to Juneau: A water fall


Skagway to Juneau: Movie night at an enchanting outdoor theater

Skagway to Juneau: Movie night at an enchanting outdoor theater

Skagway to Juneau: A perfect crescent (from our balcony at 10PM)

Skagway to Juneau: A perfect crescent (from our balcony at 10PM)

Juneau: From my balcony in the morning

Juneau: From my balcony in the morning

Juneau: Near the pier

Juneau: Near the pier

Juneau: Blue bonnets on the hiking trail to Mendenhall Glacier

Juneau: Blue bonnets on the hiking trail to Mendenhall Glacier

Juneau: Mendenhall Glacier and the water fall side by side

Juneau: Mendenhall Glacier and the water fall side by side

Juneau: Near Mendenhall Glacier

Juneau: Near Mendenhall Glacier

Ketchikan

By now, it was our third port of call. Each is somewhat different from the others. Port at Skagway is 15 minutes by foot to town, at Juneau it is much closer to the hubbub and at Ketchikan it seems to be right in the center of the bustle. The area immediate to our ship on Berth 3 is very pretty with rows of colorful houses spread out to the hillside and board walk and a small boat harbor between the road and the ship.

It was a shorter port day and significantly cooler. As planned, we visited Bight Totem State Park on our own by taking the city bus. It was the least expensive excursion we ever did, $6 bus fare for three of us round trip and $0 admission to the park. Totem Heritage Center, another Totem Museum in Ketchikan, has the largest collection of authentic Totem poles, which I would have visited in addition to Bight Totem State Park if I had the time. Bight Totem State Park is way up north and you get the bus no more frequent than every 30 minutes. But if you put together its locale, Totem pole collection and the clan house, Bight Totem State Park is probably a best representation of many Indian villages built in the early 19th century. It is a vivid history lesson; kudos to the preservation effort that keeps it all alive.

Ketchikan: Harbor and town at port

Ketchikan: Harbor and town at port


Ketchikan: Bight Totem State Park – Clan House’s front

Ketchikan: Bight Totem State Park – Clan House’s front


Ketchikan: Bight Totem State Park – One of the Totem poles

Ketchikan: Bight Totem State Park – One of the Totem poles


Ketchikan: Bight Totem State Park – A group of Totem poles

Ketchikan: Bight Totem State Park – A group of Totem poles


Last night on the cruise

Last night on the cruise

Vancouver

Last day on ship was passed in leisure but still went by quickly. The next morning we found the buffet place most crowded we had seen it since on board and people shared tables. After breakfast, it was time to bid farewell to the ship and say hello to Vancouver.

We stayed in Vancouver for 2 nights at Delta Suite. It is a convenient downtown location; one block to the Lookout Tower and easy distance to many other points of interest. Negligence in my planning had put a stop to my desire to see Victoria. It needs a whole day’s time devoted to it. The upshot was that we had a little more time in Vancouver. Vancouver has the advantage of two worlds, fantastic mountainous scenery of a coastal town and urban scene of a metropolis. You’ll find it is quite easy to walk around the downtown area and buses are frequent and easy to get to places. You do need coins for the bus fare. As we learnt on the first ride; we did not have coins and the bus driver gave us a free ride. We did pay for the rest of the rides. Population is expectedly diversified in large cities, Vancouver is apparently even more so. We had to exchange our US dollars into Canadian dollars twice. First time we went to a RBC office a block from our hotel and second time, a small office a few doors from the one we had gone to the previous day and it turned out we got 6 more Canadian dollars from the second place.

The highlights of our short stay in Vancouver would be China Town, Canada Place, Gastown, Granville Public Market, Lookout Tower, Stanley Park and Aquarium at Stanley Park. Whenever in China town, I look for a place that serves authentic, comforting food which usually turns our quite economic as well. And I found that at Kam Got Yuen and New Town Bakery. Granville Public Market offers different types of goodies; we tried Salmon Candies which was basically syrupy smoked salmon but very deliciously done. It was loads of fun checking out various other stalls and tasting a few more things. Aquarium at Stanley Park is impressive. It has much more to offer than its modest building suggests. Lookout Tower gives great panoramic views of the city. Views from Stanley Park are very good. Many go there to bike or walk or take a horse drawn trolley ride. Among others at the park are a collection of Totem Poles and a light house.

Two weeks’ time spent and gone, this trip was coming to an end. Alaska is most definitely one of a kind special destination and I’ll always savor the memory of this wonderful experience.

Vancouver: Our ship berthed right by Canada Place

Vancouver: Our ship berthed right by Canada Place


Vancouver: China Town

Vancouver: China Town


Vancouver: Lookout Tower

Vancouver: Lookout Tower


Vancouver: View from Lookout Tower 1

Vancouver: View from Lookout Tower 1


Vancouver: View from Lookout Tower 2

Vancouver: View from Lookout Tower 2


Vancouver Aquarium: Dolphin

Vancouver Aquarium: Dolphin


Vancouver Aquarium: Penguins

Vancouver Aquarium: Penguins


Vancouver Aquarium: Seal

Vancouver Aquarium: Seal


Vancouver Aquarium: Breathtaking marine creatures

Vancouver Aquarium: Breathtaking marine creatures


Vancouver Aquarium: Big red bird

Vancouver Aquarium: Big red bird


Vancouver Granville Market: An array of Salmon food

Vancouver Granville Market: An array of Salmon food


Vancouver Granville Market: Eccle’s cake

Vancouver Granville Market: Eccle’s cake

Amazing Alaska! (2) – Land Tour from Fairbanks to Whittier

Our land tour includes one night at Faribanks Princess Lodge, coach ride the next morning to Denali Princess Lodge, two nights’ stay at Denali Princess Lodge, scenic ride by Princess Denali Express Rail on the 4th day from Denali to Talkeetna, transfer by coach from Talkeetna to McKinley Princess Lodge, one night at McKinley Princess Lodge and transfer by coach to Whittier.

We flew to Dallas first, from there to Anchorage and then Fairbanks. For most of the flight between Dallas and Anchorage, the earth below was flat and plain. Entering the last hour or so however, (somewhere over Idaho or Wyoming or Washington?), the landscape became more and more interesting, mountainous terrain rolled on, tiny ribbons of rivers/roads glistened and serpentine through here and there. Snow capped peaks and ranges came in and out of sight. These captivating views gave hint of Alaska scenery and I couldn’t help but wonder how everything would intensify there. Eventually we were flying over a dramatically beautiful coast. The shoreline, flanked by snow covered mountains, seemed to go on without an end until we veered off and started descending. Just like that, Alaska welcomed us with a grand first impression.

On route to Anchorage from Dallas (I believe we were near Washington at this point)

On route to Anchorage from Dallas (I believe we were near Washington at this point)

On route to Anchorage from Dallas (Before descending to Anchorage airport)

On route to Anchorage from Dallas (Before descending to Anchorage airport)

The coach ride from Fairbanks to Denali was about 2 hours and 45 minutes on Parks Highway. Nenana River, one of Alaska’s great rivers, links Fairbanks and Denali and runs parallel to the highway. First half of the journey, we traversed a part of Alaska’s interior that is relatively flat but lushly wooded. Green with gently rolling hills, majority of the trees along the way were slender, black or white birches and spruces. According to our driver cum tour guide, who was a college student from Nevada and came to Alaska only for the summer, those trees stay skinny because of low precipitation and long, cold winter. We went through forests, drove past river valleys and former mining sites. Minto Flats State Game refuge is also on the route. Second half of the way, vegetation appeared smaller and less frequent. Gradually, we drew closer and closer to big mountains. Until Denali, there were very few buildings along the way and of those we saw were sheds, cabins and tiny houses. A few times I noticed several mail boxes right by the road side but could not see anything else around but woods. They were probably for people who live in small sheds/cabins in the woods further off the road.

The road trip included a stop at Nenana Village, a tiny hamlet located at the juncture o f Tanana River and Nenana River, with less than 400 population and mostly small one storey buildings. Largest building in the village is probably its Cultural Center, which has an interesting collection of local artifacts and a gift shop that features some impressive handicrafts including exquisite bead works.

Nenana Village: Bridge

Nenana Village: Bridge


Nenana Village: The tripod

Nenana Village: The tripod

Princess Denali Lodge is a large complex situated right by the bank of Nenana River. There are other lodges and hotels nearby and right across the road is a strip of wooden houses that function as shops, restaurants and tour offices, including a gas station. Touristy but surrounded by spectacular mountains, it is a picturesque little village and a good base for visitors of Denali Park. Princess Denali Lodge includes several hotel buildings, multiple restaurants and many shops that together make a self contained little village on its own. There we stayed for two nights.

Denali Princess Lodge: Base Camp Grille by Nenana

Denali Princess Lodge: Base Camp Grille by Nenana


Denali Princess Lodge: Moose statue by the camp side of main building

Denali Princess Lodge: Moose statue by the camp side of main building

Glacier Landing

I booked a flight seeing tour for the afternoon of our first day at Denali. There are other sites available but I booked it through Princess’ website for convenience since the itineraries and prices are comparable. The hour long tour on a small airplane provides an opportunity to fly over Denali Park, around McKinley and to land on a glacier.

It was a cloudy day and I wondered if the flying tour was going to take place or how it would turn out. But we were picked up as scheduled and transferred to the take off site 30 minutes away from the lodge. There were 9 of us on board the airplane, including the pilot, who was from South Carolina and was there only for the summer.

We took off and as the airplane went further and higher, it seemed that we were out of the clouds and it was sunny and clear. The higher we climbed, the more snow there was and more spectacular the views. Eventually we reached an altitude of 12,000 feet, about half of McKinley’s height. The bird’s eye view of the park was incredible, putting viewers in perspective with the vastness of the land and its wondrous peaks and glaciers in myriad of shapes and sizes.

McKinley on that day however was shrouded in clouds and not visible to us. Having been forewarned about the 1/3 probability of seeing McKinley, I sort of accepted it at stride. There was enough excitement to keep me from feeling the disappointment. After circling around its north and south peaks a couple of times, we moved on to proceed with the glacier landing.

I guess no matter how much you read about it, it is hard to imagine what glacier landing is going to be like. The glacier we landed on, Roof Glacier, turned out to be a tremendous, seemingly flat and snow covered field that is surrounded by snow covered mountains, as if a sweeping, snowy valley. With the special boots provided by the tour company, which you pull on over your own shoes, we stepped out of the airplane. The air fresh and view magnificent, it was exhilarating! After a few gingerly steps, I explored around and clicked away on my camera. Every step I took I could feel the snow crunched under my feet and since it was slippery I couldn’t move as fast as I liked to. I figured that it was easier to follow the trails blazed out by the airplane, but only by a little bit. I got carried away and was trudging on, away from the plane, with a mind to check out the spot in the sun that did not seem too far ahead, till I got hollered back by our pilot. It was much further than it looked and somewhere way out there on all that glaring whiteness, there was a steep slope that my eyes could not discern. It was so far and deep it completely shielded another airplane coming in until it flew over the edge toward us. That is the visual illusion I noticed again and again while in Alaska. Alaska’s landscape seems to play a trick on the eyes and it is difficult for the naked eyes to discern the vastness of a tract or the distance of a path. And here the expanse of the snow seems to further that effect. While we were on the glacier, three other airplanes came to join us and all four convened one next to each other. It was quite an awe to realize the glacier can easily take a few more of those airplanes, if the size of it is the only measure. It got colder and colder after a while and while it was difficult to leave the glacier already, it was a relief to get back into the warm airplane.

On a different note, we noticed a wooden booth kind of structure on one of the lower peaks around the glacier, someone called it an outhouse. Quite a peculiar place for it to be whatever it is. It clearly is not functional being where it is. Why is it there and what for? It remains a mystery.

While my husband can get the thrill of his life out of this kind of flying, I get sick from helicopter and small airplane and my son is mildly nervous with height. Fortunately it wasn’t too bad on the way up. What helped was probably to take breaks from taking photo and from looking down or sideways every now and then to allow myself to rest by looking straight ahead for a few minutes. The return flight was more difficult to both my son and I, especially during descend. But we both survived. Glad we braved it; it was worthy.

Flight seeing tour over Denali: Two glaciers converging

Flight seeing tour over Denali: Two glaciers converging


Flight seeing tour over Denali: My wide angle not wide enough to capture the fourth airplane on the glacier

Flight seeing tour over Denali: My wide angle not wide enough to capture the fourth airplane on the glacier


Flight seeing tour over Denali: We landed on Roof Glacier

Flight seeing tour over Denali: We landed on Roof Glacier


Flight seeing tour over Denali: Breathtaking works carved out by nature

Flight seeing tour over Denali: Breathtaking works carved out by nature


Flight seeing tour over Denali: Heart shaped ice

Flight seeing tour over Denali: Heart shaped ice

Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour

The second day at Denali was slated for a day long tour in Denali National Park. The park offers multiple choices for visitors, camping or day tour. For same day visit, you can visit on your own by using the park buses or visit with a group. My goal was to maximize the chances of animal sighting and seeing McKinley, besides the general scenery. I decided on Tundra Wilderness Tour, one of the group tours. Tundra Wilderness Tour travels about 61 miles of the park road, the only road in the park, in 8 to 9 hours’ time. To me the other two tours available either does not travel far enough to have enough opportunity for animal and McKinley sighting or travel too far and possibly not allowing enough stop time.

The day started as a rainy and overcast one, and remained that way for the rest of the day. Wondering how the day was going to unfold under that condition, I boarded the big bus with my family, joining a bus full of tour mates, about 30 of us. Our bus driver cum tour guide was very good. She was originally from California, stayed and became full time Alaskan resident, and had been doing the tour for more than 10 years. Her expertise and enthusiasm for Alaska brightened the day.

Unexpectedly, a few minutes into the park, our driver stopped the bus and pulled over. It turned out we were having the first animal sighting of the day, a Moose feeding on some bushes not too far from the road. That got everyone on their toes, observing or snapping photos. It stirred up great expectations and the park did not disappoint us that day.

Between the driver and some experienced, eagle eyed tour mates equipped with excellent binoculars, wild animals were spotted often throughout the day. Anyone who spied anything would yell out the discovery and our driver would stop to pull over. There were a few false calls but the majorities were successful. We saw Grizzlies, Moose, Caribous, Dall sheeps, ducks, a swan, an eagle, a squirrel, a porcupine and a Willow Ptarmigan. Each encounter was a story by itself. The large animals we saw were usually some distance from the road, except that once.

Thirty minutes after the Moose sighting, we came to a sweeping valley and there on a dry stretch of the river bed, a grizzly mother bear and her cub were feeding on some scraggles of bushes. At about the second hour of the journey, we spotted a couple of grizzlies, one dark brown and the other light brown, on a field some distance to the left of the road, and they appeared as bundles of blurs without binoculars or tele lens. Under our curious stare, they stayed busy at feeding, with their heads down digging at some food. All the sudden, they started running. Our driver commented that they must have been startled by something from which they were escaping. Moments later, someone spotted them running through the low bushes and running towards our direction. I saw them in and out of the bushes then in a fleeting moment, they reached the road and were probably several hundred feet away from the bus. They were very fast and I was agog to see them that close up. Along with a few others, we must have let out some exclamations and elicited a reminder from our driver to keep as quiet as possible. For the rest of the time, the entire bus sort of collectively held our breath and our eyes glued on the bears. The bears however seemed oblivious to the bus. They stopped running once on the road, strolled ahead away from us on the road; in a moment paused, turned to look around and continued on; then out of the blue, picked up speed and started running again. At that point, they were turning around the bend of the road and we lost sight of them till the bus turned around the bend and we spotted them one more time amidst the low bushes on the hill to the right of the bus. The excitement continued for a little while and there was discussion on what might have started them off like that. There was however not conclusion to that.

After the exciting encounter, it was only apposite that our driver deluged on us information about bears of Alaska, including how to differentiate between brown bears and grizzlies and how best to react if, for some reasons, you run into one of them.

Animals come out to feed when it is cool and stay in the shade when it is hot. The weather on that day, although glum, did not affect the animal sighting after all. And glum it may be, the rain and clouds could not shroud the beauty of the park. Rocks, rivers, permafrost, fauna and floras, that had been obscure from the air, were now vividly alive with its details, colors and idiosyncrasies.

Splendid scenery coupled with wild animals in unspoiled natural setting, the park did more than inspiring me; it was an awakening for me the city slicker. The day passed fast and when it was time to leave the park, I realized we again missed McKinley. And yet it did not dim my gratification. A visit to Alaska is not complete without a visit to Denali National Park or similar experience. Denali National Park and its like are after all part of Alaska’s great success and attraction.

Denali National Park: A female moose

Denali National Park: A female moose


Denali National Park: Park view 1

Denali National Park: Park view 1


Denali National Park: Momma bear and cub

Denali National Park: Momma bear and cub


Denali National Park: Park view 2

Denali National Park: Park view 2


Denali National Park: A couple of grizzlies

Denali National Park: A couple of grizzlies


Denali National Park: A squirrel

Denali National Park: A squirrel


Denali National Park: A group of Dall sheeps

Denali National Park: A group of Dall sheeps


Denali National Park: A Willow Ptarmigan (Alaska’s state bird)

Denali National Park: A Willow Ptarmigan (Alaska’s state bird)


Denali National Park: Five of the group of 10 Caribous

Denali National Park: Five of the group of 10 Caribous


Denali National Park: Park view 3

Denali National Park: Park view 3


Denali National Park: A swan

Denali National Park: A swan

A Glorious Day on the Rail!

(Denali to Talkeetna and McKinley Princess Lodge via railroad)

The next morning we woke up to a gorgeous day, the sun was high and bright and the sky, a crisp blue. Best weather since we had been in Alaska and that was the day we took the Princess Denali Express Rail to Talkeetna, where we were subsequently transferred by coach to our final destination, McKinley Princess Lodge.

Fitted to maximized viewing capacity, Princess Denali Express Rail is a double decked passenger train with glass dome surmounted on its upper deck, i.e. the picture window. Each train has a tour guide and an attendant serving beverage and drinks. Our guide was a retiree who had visited Alaska some years ago before retirement, fell in love and decided to move here after she and her husband had both retired. Our attendant was a female college student what was there just for the summer. The lower deck has a dining area, where we had a nice lunch, and an outside observation area.

The five hour ride traversed one of the most stunning scenic routes I’ve seen. The railroad meandered its way between magnificent mountains, which were sometimes green with vegetation and sometimes white with snow. It chugged along rivers, which were sometimes broad, sometimes narrow, sometimes full and sometimes low. Every turn a delightful vista emerged and there was never a dull scene. If we had missed McKinley before, we were more than compensated on this day. We made it to the 30% of visitors who get to see the Great One, McKinley. We saw McKinley not once, or twice, or trice, but many more time, multiple times during the train ride, then at Talkeetna, on the bus traveling to McKinley Princess Lodge from Talkeetna and finally at McKinley Princess Lodge. It was a triumph!

Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 1

Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 1


Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 2

Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 2


Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 3

Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 3


Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 4

Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 4


Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 5 (McKinley)

Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 5 (McKinley)


Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 6 (McKinley)

Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 6 (McKinley)

Talkeetna

The train pulled into Talkeetna train station at about 5:30pm. Most of the passengers opted to go straight to McKinley Princess Lodge, so did my son Ben. My husband, I and a dozen others decided to check out Talkeetna. Among other things, our tour guide on the train had talked about and recommended Talkeetna as the model for Cecily of Northern Exposure and base camp for many who attempt to climb McKinley. Talkeetna is a tiny town with a population around 800. We walked about in the downtown area, Main Street from the train station to the edge of Susitna River, in 30 minutes or so. Fairview Inn, probably the largest building in the downtown area, is located right at the center of it. As a place where President Warren Harding had lunch before he passed away, it is now a historic Alaskan landmark. The exterior of the building itself is actually plain in comparison to the other wood log buildings around. There are some interesting shops to browse through. We stopped at Road House for water and picked up more than planned, some baked goods and bottled Alaskan syrup. It was in general quiet with small groups of visitors walking around. The most crowded place seemed to be West Rib Pub and Grill.

The big surprise came at the edge of Susitna River. The tide was low and we were able to advance far enough to be treated to a spectacular view of 3 of the peaks of Alaska Range, McKinley, Hunter and Foraker. Tide was low but a creek was on the way and we crossed over a tree log astride it, with the assistance of a lovely young woman. Her family ran a little gift shop, a simple outdoor booth by the creek. She was standing in the creek with her high boots on and a long tree branch as her support while her kids, two boys and an older girl, played in the shallower section of the creek. She found a way to offer needed assistance and a little tip money. And it turned out she and her family moved there from Monroe, North Carolina 3 years ago. We had practically been neighbors in NC. I asked how it’s been. She said the winters were hard. But it sounded like they were staying anyway.

Talkeetna: A store

Talkeetna: A store


Talkeetna: Susitna River and 3 great peaks of Alaska Range, Foraker, Hunter and McKinley

Talkeetna: Susitna River and 3 great peaks of Alaska Range, Foraker, Hunter and McKinley


Talkeetna: My husband crossing the creek with assistance from two lovely ladies

Talkeetna: My husband crossing the creek with assistance from two lovely ladies

McKinley Princess Lodge is located at Trapper Creek about an hour’s drive from Talkeetna. The lodge complex seemed to be a secluded compound with no other development around. It was the closest we had been to McKinley. At the Terrace restaurant we dined by a marvelous view of McKinley, Hunter and Foraker, the trio we had seen from Susitna River at Talkeetna. At 10pm, the moon was already half raised but the sun was still high up. I thought about waiting for the sunset but sleepiness got the best of me.

Anchorage, Seward Highway and Whittier

The next morning, we left McKinley Princess Lodge and started last leg of the land tour, a coach ride to Whittier where we would board Coral Princess. The road between McKinley and Anchorage was quite ordinary, wooded and flat. Environ started to change once in Anchorage, where we had a 2 hour stop, lunched, shopped and walked around near the visitor center. There were people around but not crowded and with no skyscrapers but low rise buildings, it was calm and pleasant. You can see bay of water to the west and from some streets, you can see Alaska’s Hallmark tableau, cityscape backed by snow covered mountains in the distance.

Anchorage: Visitor center

Anchorage: Visitor center


Anchorage: A gift shop

Anchorage: A gift shop

After lunch, we headed out of Anchorage and the scenery graduated into a beautiful coastal view. We were traveling on the scenic Seaward Highway. The road is set on low land that snakes along a narrow channel of water that separates the road from stately mountains, at times by only few hundred feet. Portage Glacier is on the way not long before Whittier and it is very close to a roadside look out. Shortly after, we stopped to wait for our turn to go through Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, a tunnel for both trains and cars. Once we emerged from the dark tunnel into the light, there was, our mammoth cruise ship, towering over the pier at a picturesque bay surrounded by snowy mountains. At that our land tour ended and the cruise leg of our journey was to begin.

Seaward Highway

Seaward Highway

Seaward Highway: Portage Glacier

Seaward Highway: Portage Glacier

Amazing Alaska! (1) – Overview

I don’t remember when I was bitten by the travel bug but it was probably at that same time that I was struck by the idea of traveling to at least one new place every year. Since then, I’ve had many fun travel experiences, some of them positively blew me away, and the big trip of the year is always something to look forward to. While the idea is to travel to destinations far away and experience cultures different from home, I find myself drawn and go to Europe more than anywhere else. But as it turned out, Alaska is the chosen destination for 2013 and school was no sooner out than my family was journey bound.

Alaska is amazing and here is to share with you my experience in this and subsequent two posts with photos.

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Most visitors to Alaska see it by way of cruising and that applied to almost everyone I knew who had visited Alaska. But once I started reading about Alaska, I realized a cruise itinerary alone would not be satisfactory to me; it does not provide enough land time or opportunity to explore one of those great natural areas that Alaska is so successful in preserving, like Denali National Park. As I looked into options for traveling independently, I however soon came into the impression that although it was doable, traveling in Alaska independently was not going to be as convenient as it would be in other destinations that I had traveled. I decided at the end to go with the land tour and cruise package with Princess Cruise. It worked out quite well. With the land tour we saw much more than we would have with the cruise only option. For the land tour, I chose the itinerary that allowed me more time around Denali for that was what I was most interested in but there are other options available allowing more time at Fairbanks or at McKinley Lodge, etc. Our land tour package essential takes care of lodging and transportation but not excursions. And it is through the excursions, you can tailor your experience to some degree.

With 20/20 hindsight, I now believe visiting Alaska independently is not as painstaking as I had concluded before, and if I go back, that is how I am going to do it. But the land tour package remains an easier option and I would recommend it for first time visitors. By its nature, Alaska is the 4th least populous and least densely populated of the 50 states with most of its three quarter million residents living in the Anchorage metropolitan area. Riding by coach from Fairbanks to Denali on George Parks Highway, traffic was light, few buildings came into sight, apart from those at the tiny village named Nenana that we stopped for a short visit, and I don’t recall seeing any gas station or rest area along the way. On top of that, our Verizon phones were either roaming or on extended network the entire time we were in Alaska. Wi-Fi connection at the lodges/hotels was sporadic till we arrived at Vancouver. The cruise ship did provide internet access, albeit expensive and slower.

I picked the south bound itinerary vs. the north bound because it does the land tour first and I like the relaxing on the cruise ship after the land tour, plus there are nuances associated with the options, traveling by coach or by rail for some certain part of the journey, etc. Our land tour started with one night in Fairbanks, continued on with two nights at Princess Denali Lodge that is a few minutes from Denali National Park, one night at Princess McKinley Lodge about an hour from Talkeetna and ended with a coach ride from Princess McKinley Lodge to Whittier, where our ship, Corral Princess, awaited. During the land tour, we visited Denali National Park and Talkeetna, had a lunch break in Anchorage while on route to Whittier and traveled through Alaska from Fairbanks to Whittier by bus and train. Cruising Hubbard Glacier, Glacier National Bay and visiting Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan, the journey from Whittier to Vancouver on board Coral Princess provided further opportunities and ways to appreciate what Alaska has to offer.

And what Alaska has to offer has left an indelible impression on me. Like none others that I had seen before, Alaska is a majestic land of distinctive characters. Snow capped mountain and ranges, including North America’s highest peak, McKinley, frequently grace this vast northern frontier throughout its interior and coastal areas alike. A rich number of glaciers punctuate the scenery as they have been since the ice age and at times they can be seen twinkling icy blue and setting off in uncanny action, thundering, breaking off or calving.

Against this backdrop of wondrous landscape, human stories unfold. You learn stories of the indigenous people, from their migration to Alaska tens of thousands of years ago to how their lives altered by the migration of Europeans hundreds of years ago. You are bound to come into stories of the gold rush era, which turned out not quite romantic adventures or overnight riches but rather times and times over arduous expeditions under what are considered by today’s standards grueling conditions. You hear stories of people who have moved to Alaska and remained. Most of the people you meet though will be seasonal, essentially summer time workers and vacationers.

Most fascinating to me was the opportunity to come in touch with the vast wilderness and to observe wild animals roam freely the way nature intends it to be. Landing on Roof Glacier, I couldn’t help but be moved by the magnificent surrounding that was at once pure, peaceful, powerful and precarious. Touring Denali National Park, I couldn’t help but feel this exciting sensation that I was as close to Mother Nature as I had ever been my whole life and tingled inside me was a desire to deepen that visceral feel, to embrace Mother Nature with abandon!

George and Joy Adamson of Born Free came to mind. Alas, I don’t have it in me to abandon civilization all together, nor have I the ability that true Alaskans possess to cope with the long dark winter days with only a few hours of sun to go by. But I contemplate a week or two’s camping in the depth of the wilderness, provided there is a way to emerge triumphantly at the end.

Until then, I’ll savor my memory of Alaska.

A few tips on practical things. Packing for Alaska can be tricky since the temperature there fluctuates within a big range of lows and highs, with average swinging from the 40s to the 70s. But layering did do the trick. I packed jeans, light weight tops, a couple of sweater/cardigans, a robust REI waterproof windbreaker type jacket. I had the jacket with me most of the days, added the sweater/cardigan for a couple of days (at Hubbard Glacier and Ketchikan). When in Skagway and Juneau, we had low 80s for two days in a row and that was record heat wave for Alaska.

A good mosquito repellant is necessary. Remember to take it with you on excursions, etc. Mosquitoes are huge in Alaska, a few times larger than I am used to seeing in the southeast. Although slower, they come in swarms. We ran into them quite a few times, first at Fairbanks airport lining up to get into our bus to go to Princess’ lodge, next was at a small airport 30 minute from Princess Denali Lodge waiting for our flight seeing tour. The most we ran into was at a musher camp high up in a wooded mountain in Skagway. I had packed but lost my repellant right at the start of my vacation to TSA at Charlotte airport. Luckily I found a replacement at Princess Denali Lodge, a repellant with Deet as one of the ingredients, which was recommended as a must have ingredient by someone we met at Faribanks Princess Lodge. It proved to be effective at the musher camp where the swarms of mosquitoes dispersed the instance I sprayed some on.

Alaska is one of those destinations where cruise and a cabin with balcony can be most advantageous. It is worth investing in a good camera and it can be an easy to use point and click. One that works reasonably fast, for part of the time there, you’d be taking pictures in a moving bus/train/airplane, and one that works reasonably well in cloudy days for clouds and sunshine can alternate quite unpredictably from day to day. In addition, a good pair of binoculars, especially for animal sighting. If you are lucky, you get an encounter close enough but the odd is that you’d be looking from some distance.
More posts on Alaska coming soon.

Heavenly Hawaii (Part 4): Kona of Big Island and Kauai

Kona, Big Island

Wednesday, our ship moored near Kailua Pier, Big Island. Unlike previous ports, the boat had to stay offshore and guests were transported to Kona by tenders. We did not book any excursion for the day but visited lovely Kona town by ourselves.

Once at the pier, we found various free shuttles available to take people to shopping and attractions further away but we opted for strolling through water front Alii Drive east to the pier. It was a relaxing and pleasant visit.

Ocean front houses with fantastic view west to the pier-as seen from the boat

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Heavenly Hawaii (Part 3): Maui

Maui

Maui was the second port of call and we took a day-long tour, Road to Hanna. It is to me the most beautiful scenic route. I especially loved the first half when twisting and narrow road climbing up the mountain sides took us through dense, profusely rich forests, revealing along the way a successive of spectacular vistas. I was so moved by the immense beauty surrounding me that I turned to my husband with moist in my eyes and forbearing to quiver, muttered “I’ve now tasted paradise.” Can you imagine the way it was long time ago when there was not a single mosquito?!

It is also one of the most dangerous scenic routes of the world. During first hour of second half of the tour, our bus jolted us violently over unpaved road and over this stretch we reached the peak of the road atop a sea cliff thousands of feet above the water with only a tiny margin between us and the edge.

So it turned out, we were among a dozen of couples celebrating anniversaries. The winner was the couple in front of us with 50 years of marriage. Our driver cum tour guide, who was a California native and had been divorced twice and quote, “looking for wife number three”, unquote, asked what was the trick for long married life? A male voice behind us uttered unhesitatingly “Yes, dear”, which brought out agreeing laughter. Nonetheless, our driver sounded learned and knowledgeable about Hawaiian history and provided much interesting info to us during the ride.

Maui viewed from the boat

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