Category: Cruises

Alaska – Homeward Bound

Alaska – Homeward Bound

After a too-brief week in our luxury suite, it was time to head home, southward through the Inside Passage. As usual, the weather varied between sunny and foggy. Big islands, little islands, mountains – beautiful scenery, and very little civilization, other than some occasional timberless areas that have been recently logged. And we did see a whale (very briefly!) We celebrated our final evening on the back deck with a bottle of champagne.

Some reflections on the cruise: This really has been a fun trip. We’re a bit conflicted about the cruise line: on the plus side, it’s been run very efficiently, we had a fabulous suite at a sweet price and excellent service on board. On the down side, the cruise industry in Alaska is somewhere between oligopoly and monopoly, with Carnival Cruises owning themselves as well as Holland America, Princess and who knows who else. They also own many of the major shops (“we have all the diamonds and tanzanite we need, thanks”). The merchandizing on board is _endless_ with lectures on “the best tours in X” (tours are among the top 3 revenue sources for cruise ships), “the best shopping in port X” (where Carnival owns the shops), the special drink of the day (liquor sales are also in the top 3 revenue sources). And of course, shopping on board and the never-ending art sales… How many diamonds does one couple need? (hint: the ones in our wedding rings are more than sufficient).

Upgrading to a suite (the largest on the ship other than the Owner’s Suite) brought our cost up beyond what we’re normally willing to pay for cruising – but is really only the equivalent cost to a low-end inside cramped (no windows/portal) cabin at normal prices. And we got a ton of perqs – special Concierge and lounge services, free laundry and dry cleaning (which can cost a fortune), a wrap-around deck/veranda of about 33’ / 10m in length, at the stern of the ship and around the port side). We got invited to multiple parties (free drinks…) with the Captain on down, a complementary bottle of wine… the list seemed endless. Did we mention the Jacuzzi tub?

Our advice for taking an Alaska cruise:

  • Find a way to escape the shopping streets. Some of the towns are worth exploring a bit. But a lot of the best experiences are outside of the towns, in the great outdoors
  • Ship excursions are generally high quality, but are very expensive and involve three or four dozen fellow passengers (ie big crowds)
  • To book non-ship excursions, check out tripadvisor.com for highly rated local vendors. Book as far in advance as you can – most of them were sold out by the time we contacted them two weeks ahead of our cruise
  • Another option is to use third-party shore excursion companies like portcompass.comViator.com or Shoreexcursionsgroup.com. Plus, you can always find local vendors on the dock peddling a range of last-minute tours.
  • If you’re ever going to splurge on a balcony, Alaska would be the time to do it – because so much of the beauty is just cruising through the inside passage and  along the coast.
  • There are some great last-minute bargains, starting about six weeks out. We purchased at about three weeks out. Most of the bargains seemed to be out of Vancouver rather than Seattle. Factor in the additional flight costs if you book at the last minute. I use the 90 day ticker at www.vacationstogo.com  to search for the deals – they have the best cruise search engine in my opinion. You can make the actual booking elsewhere if you want.

Enjoy some pictures from the inside passage below, and stay tuned for our next adventure!

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Alaska – Deadliest Ketch-ikan

Alaska – Deadliest Ketch-ikan


Ketchikan Alaska is “revered” for its near-constant rain. So, we weren’t surprised when we arrived around 10am to find complete overcast and a sky that portended precipitation.  It was indeed raining, but not so much that British Columbian residents would really think it required, say, an umbrella.  We (well Scott) had a singular mission to get some “quality internet time” (we are  too cheap to pay for it onboard). Kathy insisted that we first tour  the excellent Southeast Alaska Discovery museum run by the National Park Service, and take a walk down Creek Street, formerly the bordello row, now shops (nominally interesting).  Scott became increasingly anxious, like an addict in bad need of a fix. After a circuitous and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to find WiFi at the local library, we finally found it for the price of a cappuccino at a coffee shop near the ship. But it wasn’t particularly reliable or fast (the capp’ was good though…). After about 45 minutes of fighting with it (and accomplishing little)  Scott was thoroughly disgusted. Anyway, it was time to leave for our afternoon excursion.

The Deadliest Catch and the Wettest Day:  Our last tour is apparently *the* most popular tour in Alaska. It’s called the Bering Sea Fisherman’s Tour   and is, you guessed it, given by… ex-Bering Sea fishermen. It featured a retrofitted version of the Aleutian Ballad, a crab fishing boat featured in Season II of the hit TV show “Deadliest Catch”. A  For those of you that follow the show, the Aleutian Ballad caught a 60 foot “rogue wave” that flipped the boat on its side (it eventually righted itself). Apparently this episode is THE most requested out of all the seasons and episodes of Deadly Catch. Check out the clip on Youtube .  First exercise was to pull in long line of hooks, baited and left out on a previous tour. Various fish landed on board, and we set off to feed them to some fabulous bald eagles on the nearby Native American island. And then rain started. And escalated. Rapidly.  Suddenly it’s coming down in sheets and about 25 degrees from vertical. Kathy finds a less-intense spot in the covered lower level, while Scott, in either a foolish, overly-optimistic, or resigned-to-his-fate move, hunkered down and hoped for a break. It didn’t come. Jacket plus pants and shoes completely soaked, then crew came by with oversized rain jackets, but too late. Scott sloshed when he walked. The eagle show was drowned out.Turns out eagles don’t like flying in driving sideways rain – who knew? We moved on to stories presented by real fishermen who were on some of the “Deadliest Catch” boats including the converted one we were on.  We saw demonstrations including line fishing, catching spot prawns, seine netting salmon, and snow crab & king-crab catching. The show finished with a 30lb octopus that had been caught earlier trying to munch on the crab catch; they hold onto it for a couple of days before releasing it. The pictures will guide you to the content of the show, but won’t do justice to the “feel like you’re part of it” experience of the tour. Despite the torrent, we really did quite enjoy the tour, our last on this cruise. As we sailed out of Ketchikan, the sun came out, it warmed up, and we enjoyed a sunset cocktail on our deck. Right alongside was a coast guard zodiac, with a mounted automatic weapon, perhaps guarding us from errant Somalian pirates….

Enjoy some more shots of Ketchikan and the Alaskan Ballad below…

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Alaska: Glacier National Park

Alaska: Glacier National Park


The highlight for any cruise to Alaska is a chance to see glaciers that run all the way down to the sea, hopefully ones that are calving off huge icebergs. Our day at Glacier National Park began engulfed in fog – an ominous start to a day that was all about vista viewing.  “The party’s over”, we thought. Previous cruisers, tour operators and crew all commented what unusually good weather we had had earlier in the week. We figured that luck had run out. That was around 7am; by 8 it had all cleared, the sky blazed blue, and and we crossed into Glacier National park. Kathy had pictured it as continuous glaciation, but in fact the glaciers only showed themselves at the end of the various inlets off the main channel. At one point, the glaciers had filled the main channel as well, after the “Little Ice Age” in the 1600/1700s. They began their retreat in the late 1800s, and haven’t stopped. Our first stop was “Tarr Inlet”, which had two glaciers – one nice & blue, the other dirty gray. Turns out the steeper they are, the bluer they are — glaciers on mild slopes move slower, having more opportunity to pick up grunge along the way, and melt in place, concentrating the gunk. After plenty of time and a rotation of the ship so that everybody could get their photos and vocalize their delight, we headed back down Tarr Inlet, hung a right, and went back up John Hopkins Inlet. Similar story there. We’ve seen glaciers in Chile, Antarctica (twice) but the notion of seeing them in North America just seems strange – especially living in a climate (Arizona, anyway) that seldom gets temperatures below freezing.  It’s very hard to tell the scale of the glaciers – there is nothing really to compare them to. But, you can get some idea from the size of this local fisherman’s ship compared to the glacier.

All in all a lazy day, especially for Kathy, who in various states of cold-weather dress, flitted in and out of our cabin onto our deck a hundred times or so, to view whatever minor glacier or stunning scene we happened to be sailing by – and never left tour suite until dinner time.

Enjoy some more of the scenery in the slide show below:

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Alaska: Yukon Calling

Alaska: Yukon Calling

“Trail of ’98” leading to the gold fields

Our next port, the unattractively-named town of Skagway gained it’s fame as the jumping-off point for the big Yukon/Klondike gold rush of 1898. The gold itself was found in Dawson City, many hundreds of miles away. We headed off to see explore the sights along the first 100 miles or so of the trail. Unlike the hardships of those early miners, we set out in warm, sunny weather on a comfortable bus, headed up the Klondike Highway towards Whitehorse  and Dawson City. The first 30 miles or so were in Alaska, then another 20 miles or so in British Columbia, then we crossed into the Yukon for the rest of the journey. The scenery was jaw-dropping for most of the drive – virtually no trees, huge glacier-rounded mountains, endless streams and lakes and rivers, incredible rock formations, huge vistas. And basically no houses or people, other than fellow tourists.

Aptly-named Emerald Lake

They fed us lunch at the specially-created tour-bus central “village” of Caribou Crossing. The food was decent, but the stop was otherwise unremarkable – except for the sled dogs and arctic wildlife taxidermy. They train the dogs during them summer by having them pull tourists around in wheeled carts! The dogs are ecstatic if they are pulled out to participate in mushing the tourists around, jumping on their hind quarters with joy. During the winter, they run the Iditarod. And of course they have puppies to play with!

Anxiously waiting their turn to pull

The taxidermy museum was small, but contained all the arctic animals you expect, some you don’t (mastodon), and some you may not have heard of (musk ox).

Happy Musk Ox family

Our driver was also our guide: a delightful young fellow named Ryan Roberts, probably in his late 20s. Eager, enthusiastic, actually interesting, he was well-versed in the local sites, knew when and where to make stop, was able to take good photos using Scott’s fancy camera really a lot more enjoyable than we’ve grown accustomed to getting from bus tours. Bravo! We did have one near calamity: after we came down from a high elevation (lot of engine braking), we came to a mandatory stop about 3’ before an active railroad crossing (it’s the law) and the bus “went into alarm” (uncontrollable beeping from the driver’s console) – we were “dead in the water”.

Hot hot hot! 28C/80F in the Yukon!

Our guide/driver deduced that the engine had overheated and that we simply had to wait a while. Fortunately, the bus wasn’t ON the tracks, because the local train whistled by a few minutes later.  Our delightful driver passed the time by reciting some geographically-appropriate poetry to the assembled masses – The Cremation of Sam McGee, which begins as below, and goes on for another dozen or so verses:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Eventually, the bus restarted, and we dashed off to catch that local train for the rest of the ride into Skagway. Originally built at the turn of the century for mining, it now functions mostly as tourist transport – another set of awesome vistas, not to mention amazing engineering to get the tracks up and down those steep mountains.

 

We did a quick walk around Skagway – year-round population about 1200.  As usual, there were FOUR different cruise ships in this town.  We saw the obligatory two streets of false-fronted stores hawking the usual diamonds, tanzanite, and tchotkes. I’m sure real people live here – but we didn’t have time to escape the tourist traps to find them. 

Skagway – cruise shopper’s paradise

 

A dining disappointment: We’d signed up for a $90/PP “Masters Dining” dinner at the ship’s best restaurant, and came back from our tour to find that it’d been cancelled due to lack of diners. We were sad to hear this, but it means we can spend the $200 on a nice restaurant dinner in Vancouver and still be able to have our pre-dinner drinks (the dinner came with wine-pairings, so we had planned to skip the usual late afternoon cocktails for a change). We continue to be unimpressed with the ship’s food.

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Alaska: Tracy Arm & Sawyer Glacier

Alaska: Tracy Arm & Sawyer Glacier

Our first port of call was Juneau, but we got off a couple hours earlier, picked up by a touring boat near Tracy Arm. This glacier-formed channel aka fjord is stunning (as has been much of our trip) and were one looking to disabuse any notion of the world having been created 7000 years ago in its present form, Tracy Arm is a fantastic laboratory – three different tectonic plates come together in the area. We journeyed 30 miles to the end of the Fjord to see the Sawyer & South Sawyer glaciers.

The tour was on a catamaran operated by Allen Marine and featured a delightful crew including the amazing Sheri, a Colorado native who, like all other staff on the boat except for the Ketchikan native captain, were interesting souls who one way or another found themselves in Alaska. Sheri told many stories and shared some private anecdotes about her upbringing; Scott shared his brother Mark’s own sojourn to Alaska and his subsequent journey in life.

Glacier, ready to break off into bergs
Shards from the collapse

The key attraction of this tour was glacier viewing, which was a new experience for nearly everyone onboard.  We’ve been to Antarctica twice and have seen more than our share of glaciers, up close and personal, even walking on one or two. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to be amazed by the size and the animation of the things. We were close enough to watch it “calve”, dropping large hunks of itself into the water – large enough to cause waves that shook our boat.

While the glaciers and icebergs were awesome, the snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, and twisted rocks were just as scenic on the way in & out.

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Who knew? Beaches & sunbathing in Alaska!

We were blessed with a sparkling warm, sunny day for our cruise, quite unusual in these parts. I have to admit we were quite surprised to see sunbathers at the beach during our cruise back to Juneau.

Juneau is a small town (unless you consider Douglas, across the strait, which is even smaller). It is almost literally carved into a mountainside, accessible only by boat or seaplane (there were plenty of each in the channel).

That’s right, no road into the state capital! Once a frontier town during the gold rush, Juneau has been transformed into Tourist Central – as if Disney had come in and turned it into The Alaska Kingdom. There were four huge cruise ships docked while we were there, overwhelming the little town. After the tour and a brief rest, Scott ventured out to “do the town”. After the initial mile walk from where our ship was docked, the first sight was a dilapidated closed cannery building – a suitable symbol for the un-rejuvenated parts of Juneau.

The rest? A couple of streets choc-a-block with tourists and tacky shops. We’re sure there’s a real town out there somewhere, with earnest people who manage to eke out a living during the half year when there are no tourists and the temperatures hover around. But you won’t find them on the 1st two streets of downtown Juneau.

Next Up

Sargent Preston of the Yukon! We dock in Skagway and head by coach into Yukon Territory, Canada and back by train.

Alaska – Northbound on the Inside Passage

Alaska – Northbound on the Inside Passage

Our version of looking for wild life on a cruise

“In a fog, but this one not alcohol induced”.

One of the nice things about  cruising is that you can order room service, any time, at no cost. So we always have coffee, juice and croissants delivered to our room first thing in the morning. After an early-ish turn-in last night, Scott got up early enough to greet our morning breakfast tray dressed in more than just boxer-briefs. Delivery a few minutes earlier than the requested range, the coffee was a welcome start to the day.

The morning weather was foreboding – suggesting a day of socked-in fog. Fortunately conditions quickly improved, and we realized that when we were close-in between parcels of land the fog “lifted”; only when we were in more open conditions did it descend on us again. Scott checked out a port lecture (“can’t recommend it too highly”), Kathy flitted between cabin and veranda to watch the waters and shore for wildlife signs (saw a couple of whales, couple of boats).

Watching for wildlife, reading a history of Alaska. Bliss!

We were able to keep track our our progress with a neat little iPad tool called MapsWithMe. It uses the the iPads GPS for location, and stores the maps we need locally (since there is no cell phone service in the wilderness).

Keeping track of our track

In the afternoon we got a bit of Room Service food – always wondered what a “Thai vegetarian wrap” was: we’re still wondering because, while it was reasonably tasty, it bore little resemblance to the description. The smoked salmon was, well, smoked salmon – always appreciated, attractively presented, and hard to screw up. Could have benefited from a few more capers.

 

Noshing on our balcony

Our inaugural dinner at the “Vista Dining room”, which isn’t especially descriptive unless the “view” was supposed to be the 1917 other passengers. The restaurant occupies the aft portion of two decks; our table is a “deuce” (table for 2 in restaurant parlance) – number 90. The waitstaff is largely Indonesian, the Wine Stewards tend to be Filipino – whether this is a Muslim/Christian split or just that Filipinos are more likely to have western training in alcohol than their Indonesian counterparts? We’ve noticed this split on other ships too. Anyway they’re all pleasant and eager to please.

Dressed for formal dinner; note the dense fog behind us

Naturally, having spent so much time on MV Discovery, whose food we characterized as “resistible”, we found ourselves comparing the two ships’ products. The Holland American kitchen is serving more than three times the number of passengers and is probably less budget-constrained. Yet, we found the food comparable or perhaps slightly in favor of Discovery. Scott found the proteins (last night’s steak, tonight’s salmon) largely tasteless and under-seasoned; Kathy’s duck tonight proffered little of its proposed charms: “maple lacquered”: rather a somewhat rubbery, overcooked and under-flavored entrée. They did well on the onion soups, however, and brought a respectable tiramisu to share – both portion size (not overwhelming) and texture/flavor. A bottle of Pinot Grigio from California seemed a huge bargain at thirty bucks, after BC’s liquor prices.

Scott is quickly copping an attitude about the food on board, based on only two meals. Whether that’s a fair characterization remains to be seen.

Tomorrow brings a catamaran tour of “Tracy Arm”, an easterly-inlet too small for our ship to ply. At the end of it is a glacier which, weather-allowing, should offer a stunning view

Alaska Cruise – All Aboard!

Alaska Cruise – All Aboard!

Our Sweet Suite

This was our first time cruising out of Vancouver. We’ve cruised INTO Vancouver before – in 2002, the first time we saw the city (and fell in love with it instantly). Vancouver is a high-volume cruise port, with thousands of people leaving for Alaska every day of the week. The port is located downtown, which made it convenient for us to drop off the luggage, then drive the car home and walk back. There were 1000+ pax waiting for security and US customs – but only took about 40 minutes for both. Kathy’s passport got a “pregnant pause” from the Customs guy; like he was waiting for some expression of nervousness on her part or mine.

Having a suite comes with a variety of perqs, one of which was accelerated check-in. While 100 people waited in line for 5 or 6 check-in agents, we were whisked into a special line – no wait at all. The perqs continued thru the week.

Our room was huge by cruise cabin standards, with a wrap-around balcony and dual-sink “head” with both a shower and Jacuzzi tub. There’s more closet space than our stuff requires (which given the technology we travel with, says something) and the usual fawning Cabin Attendants – two of them, both from Indonesia. One of the suite (sweet?) perqs is that we get access to a private lounge, with a welcome champagne and dawn-to-dusk food – as if we needed more food.

So we got on board by about 1:10 in the afternoon, found the aforementioned lounge and had a glass of the aforementioned champagne. Then we headed off to lunch on the “Lido” deck. It’s the typical smorgasbord of cuisines; we settled on the Asian restaurant. I had simple seafood curry on white rice; kathy went for something with chicken it wasn’t brilliant, but it wasn’t unpleasant. And that sort of summed up the food for the entire trip.

We toured all the decks, checking out the various restaurants, bars, casino… the usual stuff on cruise ships. The Zuiderdam is modern and well appointed; neither drab nor tacky. I think they’ve struck a nice balance for their market.

Exhausted from the seeming miles of walking and hundreds of stairs, we settled onto our immense balcony at 5pm, as the ship blew its horn and sailed sedately out of Coal Harbor, under Lion’s Gate Bridge, and into the Inside Passage. W e took innumerable shots of Vancouver, North Vancouver and the north coast (and a few “selfies”), while quaffing wine we’d brought on board, and pinching in disbelief at ending up in such a great cabin.

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Ah, the social obligations of being in a suite: we were invited to a meeting with the Captain, Hotel Manager and host of other staff, along with, yes, more drinks and hors d’oeuvres. The staff were actually quite interesting to chat with – the cruise director was from Zimbabwe, which we’ve visited. The Food & Beverage manager’s previous job was running F&B for the world’s largest private yacht, owned by Paul Allen. Fellow suite passengers, not quite as interesting

We’d pre-booked the premium ($25/pax) “Pinnacle” restaurant for dinner. Caesar salad/surf & turf (fillet mignon and lobster tail) for Kathy, a raw seafood medley and porterhouse for me. All well-executed but not brilliant. Kathy managed to score us a free carafe of wine with dinner, officially just for new reservations that night but she charmed it out of ‘em.

We weren’t the last couple out of the restaurant – there was one other guy but we left late enough (and had had enough to drink in the course of the day) to pretty much end our Saturday adventure.

Alaska Ho!

Alaska Ho!

Cruise route

We’re not going on an Alaskan cruise just because it’s to the only US state Kathy hasn’t visited. We’re not going just because it’s dirt cheap. Nor just that the port from which it embarks is a 5 minute drive.

It’s all those things, probably some more we’re not even aware of.

Every day of the week, from May to September, two or three cruise ships leave for Alaska from Vancouver, and we’ve managed to live here eight summers without taking even one of them. On a lark, Kathy checked out some of the fares, and found deals as low as $250/person for a seven day cruise. We decided to upgrade to a balcony – with all the spectacular views along the way, it seemed like a worthy investment. We’re on the Holland America Zuiderdam.

Our balcony

We hadn’t cruised since our 2010 trip to Southeast Asia & Africa, and we were chomping at the bit to get going. A week before the cruise left, we got an email offering a chance to upgrade to a top-of-the-line suite for a very reasonable incremental cost. We jumped at the chance – it had a wraparound balcony that was about as big as our condo here!

Compared with past cruises such as our 2006 104-day cruise,  this is just a “walk in the park” – 7 days Vancouver to Vancouver, just 3 days actually outside Canada. We way over-packed for a week at sea – we’re used to three month cruises…but, we didn’t have to fly our luggage to the port – we drove it the mile or so to the port, dropped it off, took the car back home, and walked back to the port. Easy peasy.

Interested in our other cruises? Here are all our cruises. We use the site www.vacationstogo.com to look for good deals on cruises – it is the most flexible to search.