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

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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.