Saturday, May 28, 2011

Alaska - Day 11 - The Long Way Home 5/28/2011

We were "all at sea," yesterday, all day. No pictures, no port, no excursions, nothing new, beyond eating, reading, sleeping and people watching. Sorry. [This is included solely for the sake of completeness.]

Today we spent a lot of time waiting in lines in Vancouver, either queuing up to get on the bus to the airport or passing through security checks. I (Chuck) wanted to be sure I did not get the same intense physical search as on the way up, so I took the stabilizing boot off my left foot and put it in my carry-on bag. It worked. Nevertheless, the checks were far more thorough on the return--presumably because another country--Canada--was involved. I was surprised on each end of the trip to find a note in my luggage indicating that my bag had been checked. Claire was spared that indignity.

Vancouver from the Diamond Princess

The highlight of our time in Vancouver was the narrated bus ride through downtown and out to the airport--about 45 minutes. The bus driver-guide was excellent--informative and humorous. At one point, he had an "equipment malfunction" while we slowed down enough [for some of our fellow tourists] to be able to take pictures of buildings and objects left over from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

The city is lovely and the weather was fine. We had originally discussed staying over, but decided to do that, perhaps, another time. We were sorry to hear that it is one of the most expensive cities in North America. It has a very large Asian community and it may be that enough of them are wealthy expatriates driving up living and housing prices with their purchasing power. According to Sacha Peter, a financial analyst, "...geography, immigration, culture, historical performance, and interest rates are all contributing to a very high degree of real estate price inflation..."

The route to Sacramento on US Airways took us from Vancouver to Phoenix and from there to Sacramento. There were delays, of course, including a problem with our land shuttle, and we did not arrive home until almost midnight. I guess we should have paid more attention to our travel agent's actions. And, we resented the $25 per bag that we each had to pay for our check-in luggage. But, we arrived home safe and sound and ready to continue plans for a month-long driving trip through parts of the American Southwest in September.

Claire was justifiably proud of actually losing a pound on the cruise! This was due to always taking the stairs, walking for an hour each morning, and eating (almost) exclusively off the spa menu. I actually gained 5 pounds; in my defense, let me say that I was unable to walk as far or as fast, due to my foot injury; further, I was unwilling to sacrifice my principles and change my diet to anything other than what I damned well pleased to eat--this was a cruise, after all! Happily, I have lost the 5 pounds again, thanks to no particular regimen and a robust metabolism.

I must comment upon the excellent service we received in almost every instance. We received no towel animals this trip, but our room was always shipshape and our steward was very friendly and responsive. Early on, Claire was uncomfortable on her side of the mattress; but, she had read in a forum about the mattress toppers; we requested one and it was in place the next time we entered the room. We actually thought they should probably replace the mattresses throughout the ship.

The food was quite good and the variety offered was pleasing. It was possible to get any combination on the menu and substitutions were allowed. For example, I frequently asked for two desserts--a main offering and a side dish. We only ate a full meal at the buffet once; we prefer table service for our meals. Although there were two formal dress nights, there was lax enforcement; so our concern over this was not well-founded. I managed to pass with either a shirt with a collar or my black Smartwool long-sleeved shirt with a sports coat. Smart casual standards were in force the rest of the time--I never figured out what that meant; but, I did wear a pair of slacks rather than my customary jeans for all our dinners. On our last night on board the dessert was Baked Alaska! Delicious.

We made a conscious decision to have no alcohol on this trip; we don't need it and don't really miss it. Just as important: there is an automatic surcharge on each already expensive drink. We know of a couple who went on a 10 day Alaskan Cruise, taking along their own case of wine, and still had a bar bill of $800!

There was a first run movie available each night; but, you had to brave the weather to enjoy them. Free blankets, popcorn and soft drinks are provided. We stood and watched a few minutes of Toy Story 3 one night.

There are several outdoor swimming pools and hot tubs. We were tempted to try the hot tubs--we even ordered bathrobes; but, we ultimately declined to face the brisk weather.

One of our favorite activities was walking around and people-watching. We were a little surprised at the ages of the passengers--we were among the younger and trimmer voyagers! There were few younger couples and almost no children.

The daily newsletter, The Princess Patter, was helpful in orienting us to the current activities--entertainment, dress code, activities and generally helpful information.

The tips are conveniently calculated for you at $11.50 per day per person. You are not forced to pay; but, this is a customary and expected expense. I am sure the staff would be hard-pressed to survive without this benefit.

See ya later...

I'm living in L.A. but my heart's in Vancouver. ~ Nicholas Lea
[Apparently, many actors and musicians either work here, wish they did, or wish they didn't.]

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Alaska - Day 9 - Ketchikan 5/26/2011

Sunset From the Ship On the Way to Ketchikan

Actually, we got 3 sunsets--each more lovely than the preceding--as the ship moved south and the sunshow varied magnificently, while we viewed the declining orb through different levels of undulating mountains in the Inland Passage.

Ketchikan is the fourth largest city in Alaska and a popular port of call for cruise ships sailing the Inside Passage. It is also the rainiest city in the US, with over 162 inches each year!

Typical Ketchikan Weather

Ketchikan is located on Revillagigedo Island, and fishing, timber, and mining were once the most prevalent occupations. Today, tourism is just about the only thing going on. There are numerous trinket and diamond shops. Many of the buildings still have a turn-of-the-century look, and there are shore excursions; we passed on these.

A River Runs Through It

Creek Street is Ketchikan's historic shopping and entertainment area, and its stilted houses are very picturesque. Like most Inside Passage communities, Ketchikan is not accessible via car, and even its "international" airport is only accessible via a small ferry.

Old Town on Stilts

Central Park

It's a bridge to the future of the people of Ketchikan. ~ Lisa Murkowski, Republican Senator from Alaska
[Dubbed the "Bridge to Nowhere," the bridge in Alaska would have connected the town of Ketchikan (est. population 7,400) with its airport on the Island of Gravina (population 50) at a cost to federal taxpayers of $320 million, by way of three separate earmarks in a highway bill in 2005. It was never built.]

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Alaska - Day 8 - Juneau 5/25/2011

Tram From Below

At this point in the cruise, we are in the mode of a city a day--If this is Wednesday, this must be Juneau. We actually liked the capitol of Alaska, though we could not see Russia from here, either. However, old Russian enclaves, such as Sitka, are not too far away. It was Russia from whom we purchased Alaska in 1867 for $7.2 million. It was popularly known as Seward's folly or ice box; he was Lincoln's Secretary of State. Juneau (population of about 31,262) is the only state capital is the US with no road access. It can only be reached by air or sea.

Close-Up of Gondola

View From the Tram

We found that all the tours touted on board the Princess were equally available--and cheaper--on the dock, within a 5 minute walk from the ship. We wanted to try the $44 (each) combo ticket for the Tram and a trip to the Mendenhall Glacier. The tram climbed 3,100 feet to the top of Mount Roberts in about 4.5 minutes. On the way up, we learned that there were some 300 miles of mining tunnels inside the mountain and that one of the chambers is large enough to hold the Super Dome!

Atop Mount Roberts

Claire wanted to hike a bit, despite the snow; she did slip and fall, but otherwise enjoyed herself immensely. But, she did have to clean off the pants, later, for our second formal night dinner. I was still nursing a pulled tendon, so I settled for indoor entertainment--an historical slide show of the area and a family musical entertainment with a nature slide show. These were all included in the ticket price. There was a beautiful carved Indigenous-themed chess set available, but I could not find a price listed. There was an injured, captive bald eagle named Lady Baltimore in a wooden structure; she was awesome; she probably had a 6 foot wingspan.

Totem Tree in Juneau

Start of the Trail

Trail Atop Mount Roberts

Anonymous Intrepid Hiker on Mount Roberts

Self-Portrait by The Artist

Lady Baltimore

Mendenhall Glacier

The bus tour driver was a retired school teacher who came to Alaska in the 1960's for two years and never returned to the Outside--that's us in the Lower 48 as they used to say, possibly before Hawaii was admitted as a state. He knew many facts and all the important people in the area. The 25 mile drive to Mendenhall Glacier took about 45 minutes. Unfortunately, we were only allowed 45 minutes to visit, so we did not have time to hike to Nugget Falls, which was impressive, but was itself a 45 minute round trip walk. We did take in an 11 minute nature slide show, price included. The lake beneath the glacier had a number of kayaks and multi-person canoes plying the water.


The Lake by the Mendenhall Glacier

The Lake Again

Nugget Falls

Atypical Day Aboard the Diamond Princess

Here in Juneau, at least, March does come in like a lion. But then it pretty much stays like a lion all the way through June, with maybe one or two days when it’s slightly less than a lion… like a cheetah, or something. Or an African hunting dog. Yeah. Round these parts, March comes in like a lion and goes out like an African hunting dog. ~ Geoff Kirsch

[Click below on 'Older Posts' if you are unable to see them here.]

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Alaska - Day 7 - Skagway 5/24/2011

Coming Into Skagway

It was only a 10 minute walk into the town of Skagway from the ship. The town was definitely "period," the buildings all looked to be in a style that was 100 years old. In spite of this, it was difficult for us to find the "charm" of the place. The stores were almost exclusively trinket shops, mostly selling the same imported trinkets as the place two doors down.

The Skagway Harbor

Nevertheless, we did actually use the coupon books provided by Princess for two T-shirts for the grandkids and another one for Claire.

Telling the Story of Soapy Smith

We signed up for a walking tour with a Ranger at the Tourist Information Center. He attempted to provide interest by telling the story of town boss "Soapy" Smith in reverse chronological order. We could tell he had prepared in some way, as he had a typed script in his hand and he occasionally referred to it. But, at the first stop, he told part of the tale but he forgot to mention why he took us there--this was the spot where Soapy was actually shot and killed.

Original Log Cabin

In short, we were underwhelmed by the place. But, in fairness, this is largely due to the fact that we have no interest in shopping and did not find the "culture" particularly appealing--not their fault. (Perhaps it brought back memories of Virginia City, Nevada. We drove there a couple of years ago, finding a virtual ghost town with nothing going on. We thought we'd try the camel races, but were too early; to wait, we drove to the cemetery, where they wanted to charge admission. We immediately decided to "blow this pop stand.")

Movies Under the Frozen Sky on Board the Diamond Princess--BYOB (Blanket)

I remember with shame (growing up) the attitude that so many groups had, looking down on the Natives, and some of us kids tried to change that. It wasn’t right. I’m glad we are all one people again ~ Barbara Kalen, oldest white person born in Skagway, who then sang a short love song and received a standing ovation

Monday, May 23, 2011

Alaska - Day 6 - Glacier Bay Cruise 5/23/2011


This is the day of the Glacier Bay cruise and our opportunity to see several glaciers. The highlight was 250 foot high Margerie Glacier, at the far end of the bay, in Tarr Inlet. We got to see the glacier calve—twice! This is the process of the end of the glacier breaking off into the water; though we had seen this in documentaries, it was thrilling to hear the loud cracking sounds and the splash as the ice cracked as it moved and protruded over the water and the glacier could no longer hold the weight.

Dynamic Duo Aboard Ship

On the way into the bay, we stopped to pick up several Rangers who held televised (and in-person) classes on the natural wonders of the area. We were also able to view other glaciers on the way in and out of the bay, specifically, Lamplugh and Reid.

Margerie Glacier

Today, at dinner, we succeeded in switching from Anytime Dining—in any of 4 dining rooms—to the Traditional Plan. As you enter the restaurant, they always offer you anti-bacterial hand gel—they tried very hard to keep us healthy—and cheerfully ask, “Happy to Share?” We, equally cheerfully, always responded, “Table for two, please.” Normally, they accepted this with good grace; but, one breakfast, we were convinced they were punishing us for our exclusiveness—they took a very long time to take and then to deliver our orders, they did not refill our coffee, and my order came much later. We prefer eating alone, since we know we enjoy the company and it requires much less work than trying to make conversation with strangers.

In the Inland Passage, you always have a view of something from your balcony.

We didn’t like the seating arrangements for two in the Anytime Dining rooms: They were very close together; so, even when you sat across a small table from your partner, the people at the tables on either side of you were as much a part of your conversation as your traveling companion. The new arrangement allowed us to eat at a scheduled time and location—the International dining room. The price we paid was that we now ate at a table for eight with several other couples.

Cruising Glacier Bay

The couple from Southern California was very nice and we enjoyed chatting with them. We had very different tastes, however; whatever shows we liked, they did not; and vice-versa. We took in at least one show each night, either in the main theater or in the Explorers Lounge.

The first show was Do You Wanna Dance and was simply a music and dance extravaganza. My only complaint was that they cut some of the numbers short, just as I was beginning to enjoy them. The next night was I Got The Music and was also quite enjoyable. Perhaps my favorite was Piano Man, which featured numbers from the songbooks of Elton John, Billy Joel and Liberace.

We saw comedian Steve Moris one night; he managed to have me laughing on multiple occasions. Another night, we experienced the comedy and magic of Timm Metivier; some of his tricks were so (intentionally) lame, they were laugh out loud funny; others were genuinely puzzling. The final comedy variety act was by Alfred & Seymour, two hilarious high-energy black men that extemporaneously insulted almost everyone, especially themselves. I think some cruisers would have left but were afraid they would be picked on and, so, remained seated.

Still Cruising

One couple was from Canada. They had boarded as part of a repositioning of the Diamond Princess and had boarded in Shanghai and crossed the Pacific prior to meeting us in Whittier. She was pleasant and interesting; but, he was not much interested in conversation. They were already bored with the entertainment, since the performers had already begun to repeat shows. He was even bored with us, falling asleep over dinner one night.

We are not alone: A sister Princess ship

The third couple was absent more than present, probably a blessing for all of us. The first night the wife was ill and never appeared, while the husband—from Eastern Europe—was fairly confrontational in his interrogations; for some reason, he did not seem to like my answers to his questions. The one evening when the wife did show up, she looked ill, seemed distracted, and spoke not a word. Do you wonder why we kept to ourselves?

Close-Up of Margerie Glacier

Leaving Marjorie Glacier

There are many outsiders that actively try to halt every natural resource development project in Alaska. Many of these same people have never even been to Alaska, yet they claim to know what's best for us. ~ Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Senator [This may be code for drill, baby, drill. Resources were ruthlessly plundered in Alaska for a good many years with no practical oversight at all.]

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Alaska - Day 5 - Hubbard Glacier, Almost 5/22/2011

First Sighting of the Diamond Princess

As of yesterday afternoon we were safely aboard our ship, the Diamond Princess; today we were supposed to cruise the Hubbard Glacier. Due to dangerous ice flows and fog, we were diverted back to the main channel of the Inland Passage. We were not unduly upset about this since we were planning to see other glaciers along our route.

On the positive side, this was a lazy day. We slept in til 7am, had a leisurely breakfast, walked around deck 7 for an hour, showered and then read in the Conservatory until it was time for lunch. We did not care for that location a lot—there were too many activities, people and too much noise. But, the lounge chairs were comfortable and it was inside. The weather has actually been milder than anticipated; but, you wouldn’t want to read in it. Breaking for lunch, we read and rested until tea time. We each managed to get about 4 books read during the entire cruise.

Looking Outward

Afternoon tea at 3:30pm, with the white glove service, became a welcome daily break for us, with an array of tiny sandwiches, cakes, and scones with clotted cream and jam. There was always pleasant music in the background—string quartet, guitar or piano.

Afternoon Tea

Today was one of our two formal nights and during a champagne break in the late afternoon we were treated to the sight of women wearing various styles of formal wear—including Chinese, (Asian) Indian and Japanese traditional garb.

Decisions, Decisions. Drinks are an important part of the between-meal cruise experience. They had almost everything you could want in a beverage, including hot chocolate and Irish Coffee.

This was one of the places people told me to go, it was one the big trips that you should see: Alaska. ~ Jeff Goldblum

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Alaska - Day 4 - By Rail to Whittier 5/21/2011

Our Touring Train from Denali to Whittier

All Aboard

Riding the train parallel to the George Parks Highway, on our way to Whittier and our ship, the Diamond Princess, our driver-guide informed us that the town of Talkeetna was the model for the TV series, Northern Exposure. However, bad weather forced the filming to be relocated to the State of Washington. He also pointed out the tiny village of Sharman, population 2, with its City Hall. Their daughter had lived with them; but, she finally moved out of town, down the forest a few hundred yards.

Alaskan Village

We rode through the town of Willow, once a contender for the site of the relocation of the State Capitol. Alaskans thought Juneau perhaps too remote and inaccessible to be the seat of government. But, due to political wrangling among the prospective sites—which included Anchorage and Fairbanks, or locations nearby—and the excessive costs of moving the government—the idea was finally abandoned. This upset several land speculators who had banked on another outcome entirely. In theory, there are no billboards here; local ordinances decree that no signs shall be taller than the roof of the building; but, we saw a number of violations from our Dome Car vantage point.

Caribou, From the Train

Looking Ahead

In Wasilla, Sarah Palin’s home town, you are required to own a gun; if you haven’t bought one, local officials issue one until you do. Watersports are very popular, even in winter. During the dark months, locals play golf on the frozen lake with glow-in-the-dark golf balls.

Hurricane Gorge. Seen from the bridge that took several lives in its construction.

On the outskirts of Anchorage, there are 6 neighbors alongside the highway who are all pilots; they all agreed to remove their backyard fences for open access and to use this space as the runway for their small planes. I cannot imagine this happening in Davis; here, you need a permit just to install a bolt-on ceiling fan.

Cook inlet, near Anchorage, has the second highest bore tide in the U.S. This is a steep, foaming wall of water formed by a flood tide pouring through a restricted inlet. Alaskans ride kayaks or surfboards along the waves, which are typically 1-2 feet high; but, they can reach 10 feet.

Comic relief was provided by the passenger in a small, red Toyota pickup running parallel to us on one of the 3 state highways. He mooned us for several hundred yards before we finally lost sight of him. Or, perhaps I am being sexist; it may have been a female, I suppose--hard to say.

The River that Followed Us

Breakfast: $30, coffee, oatmeal, reindeer sausage and eggs. Lunch: $31, tea, burger, eggs Benedict. Dinner: $40, Hawaiian pork, Moroccan vegetables.

Really, I didn't like Alaska. It rained, almost every day, at least 300 days out of the year. ~ John C. Hawkes

Friday, May 20, 2011

Alaska - Day 3 - McKinley to Denali 5/20/2011

Clear View from the Motor Coach on the Way to Denali

On the Way to Denali

More of The Drive to Denali

Today we drove from McKinley Princess Lodge to Denali Princess Lodge, a bus trip of 2.5 hours. Along the way we saw a beaver lodge in the middle of a stream. We also saw the largest “igloo” in the world. Built as a hotel with pie shaped rooms and no fire escape, it was never used; and, it will probably never be torn down due to the use of asbestos in its construction and the expense in complying with environmental laws in removing it. What a pity it cannot be used.

World's Largest Igloo

Along the road were power lines that stand idle. They are only for emergency use by either Anchorage or Fairbanks in case of emergency—devastating earthquake, for example. They were constructed after an emergency left one of the towns without power a number of years ago.

Some of the roads here were originally built for the Military in WWII; many airfields were constructed at the same time and for the same reason. Afterwards, they were mostly turned over to the civilian government. I seem to recall that military preparedness was a major motivation behind the construction of the Interstate highway system in the Lower 48. You probably didn’t know, but 2 islands in Alaska were invaded by the Japanese during the Second World War.

Inside Denali Princess Lodge

Due to harsh weather and the need to travel under severe conditions in Winter, remote cabins are left unlocked—to allow life-saving access by those who would otherwise be stranded, vulnerable to the elements. By the way, we were unprepared for the relatively mild weather we encountered during our trip—we overpacked and, often, overdressed.

The Sleeping Rooms at Denali Princess Lodge

We were surprised by the number of e-books we encountered among the tourists up here. Maybe they are really catching on. Lots of iPads, too: gives you an e-book and a computer in one package.

In Denali National Park

We went on a 5 hour nature drive, with many stops for pictures and to see wildlife. Denali National Park is the 3rd largest in the US. It was originally designated to protect Dall sheep. Having a range of elevations, there is a variety of vegetation zones. From lowest to highest, there is low brush bog, bottomland spruce-poplar forest, upland spruce-hardwood forest, moist tundra, and finally the highest of elevations, alpine tundra. By the way, the US was the first country to have a National Park system—thanks first to U.S. Grant (Yellowstone), then to Teddy Roosevelt, with a little help from John Muir and other naturalists.

Driving Along in Denali Park

Ptarmigan, the Alaska State Bird, with its warm, furry feet

We saw several ptarmigan, the state bird, along the way. Actually, we were also told that the Alaskan mosquito was the state bird. John McPhee, in his wonderful book Coming Into The Country, describes how someone in his party slapped his leg, once, and killed dozens of them. We also saw Dall sheep, moose, porcupine, seagulls and sled dogs—these were being led along the road on leashes by volunteers.


Although we saw no bear, we were told the park has a population of 300 and that the grizzly bear is actually the brown bear—I had always believed them to be quite different. You should know that they can outrun you and they also can climb! They are not true hibernators in winter: they give birth and nurse their young. However, in preparation for this period they are voracious eaters, consuming 250,000 berries a day. One bear had, among other things, remains of 400 arctic ground squirrels in its stomach. And these tiny squirrels go from 80 beats down to 1 beat per minute as they transition to winter preparedness. Wood frogs are true hibernators; their internal fluids turn to gel and they cease to appear alive; by the way, these are the only amphibians in Denali, other than planes.

Denali Park Ranger in Old-Time Ranger Uniform

The Original Denali Park Superintendent's Office

At the end of our journey down the park road, Carol, an Athabaskan, told stories of her people, her relatives and the area. This native group is related to the Navaho in the Lower 48. I was surprised to read this, recently, reading James Michener’s novel, Alaska, in preparation for the cruise. I was astonished to learn there are 6 Native groups throughout Alaska and upper Canada: Aleut, Athabaskan, Eskimo, Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian. Other than English, 20 languages are spoken; but, 15 are virtually extinct.

Carol, The Athabaskan Storyteller

Breakfast $26: skillet omelet, oatmeal, fruit. Lunch $31: portabella mushroom burger, prime rib. Dinner: $11.95 ice cream and shared sandwich.

Our driver recited a portion of the the famous Robert Service poem, The Spell of the Yukon, during a stop near the end of the trip. It was quite compelling.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land — oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back — and I will.
~ Robert Service, The Spell of the Yukon