Alaska Adventure: driving 700 miles

The Drive from Anchorage to Whitehorse, Yukon (700 miles/
1,100 KM)

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Once you get off a cruise ship in Seward, Alaska, you need to shake off the remnants of relaxation and being pampered… It is a rude awakening to having to make your own decisions again. The first one: how to get anywhere from here?

Hopefully, you’ve planned ahead.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen we planned this trip, the cruise itinerary listed Anchorage as the last port of call. But it doesn’t get anywhere near this city. Seward is a good 2 hours on a bus from Anchorage. It can also be reached by train. Being the thrifty, budget travellers that we are, I spent time searching for the most economical way to get from the port of Seward to the Anchorage airport where we would pick up a rental car. It turned out to be Alaska Cruise Transfer (https://alaskacruisetransfer.com) The one way ride was $50 per person, considerably cheaper than the transport offered by the cruise line or other companies. The bus was very comfortable, we had a good driver and the best part was the informative, and humorous, commentary audio track. It gave us stories of the area’s history, colourful characters, politics, events, wildlife and more.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Kenai Peninsula is absolutely gorgeous and you could easily spend a whole holiday here, exploring, hiking, fishing and seeing beautiful scenery. The highlight for me was learning about Turnagain Arm – a wide arm of the Gulf of Alaska reaching inland from Cook Inlet. The arm got its name from British explorer James Cook, who was forced to “turn again” when the waterway didn’t hold the fabled Northwest Passage during his 1778 voyage.

The bore tide here, a wave of water that rushes down the arm, can top six feet tall and is an unusual, awe-inspiring sight. Formed by the area’s huge tidal range and focused in the narrow channel of Turnagain Arm, the bore tide tops speeds of 20 mph. We heard stories of near drownings because the bottom here is quick sand and when the water comes in at that speed, it is very dangerous.

You can see the tidal bore coming in here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VY-qekro1dI

The best thing was seeing many Beluga whales who hang out in this Arm. Beluga Point, a rocky outpost jutting into the waters of Turnagain Arm, is just south of Anchorage along the Seward Highway. Belugas are often seen from mid-July through August when salmon are running in Cook Inlet where their numbers have hovered between 300 to 375 whales since 2000. Belugas use sonar to find their way and catch fish in the silty waters of the inlet. Beluga whales are relatively small, often measuring less than 16 feet. Younger whales look blue-gray in color and then turn white by age five or six. Belugas are the only all-white whale and have no dorsal fin.

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We reached the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, and were dropped off at the airport where we picked up a rental car. What can you expect when driving across the vast expanse of Alaska? The highway was flanked with many, many signs warning us of moose and cariboo. But for all of the 700 miles (1,100 KM) from Anchorage to Whitehorse, the only wildlife we saw was a handful of chipmunks and a few ravens.

There is still very much a ‘last frontier’ feeling here. Towns have few services and buildings still have the gold rush type fronts. There are about as many saloons as there are churches. The main streets are often paved but side streets are full of potholes. Our rental car was not allowed on dirt roads so we had to change our plan of driving the Top of the World highway to Dawson City, Yukon. Gas prices are the same as down south but gas stations are far and few between.

The most beautiful view was overlooking the Matanuska Glacier, lower than the highway, as it creeps out of a southern valley on blue icy toes. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We spent the night in Tok, Alaska. There are several motels and RV Parks with cabins along both the Alaska Highway and the Richardson Highway (it is interesting to note that highways in Alaska are referred to by name in addition to the number). It costs at least 100.- for a room. The place most recommended for meals is Fast Eddy’s. We had fun sitting in this bustling truck-stop atmosphere and watching big burly hunters, truck drivers with long bears and pony tails, and an odd mix of tourists from all over the world. The great food was reasonably priced: https://www.fasteddysrestaurant.com

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe highway got noticeably worse once we crossed the border into Canada. But we were very lucky with blue skies and sunshine that set the golden trees ablaze. Early September is definitely one of the most gorgeous times to see this area as aspen and other deciduous trees turn bright yellow, orange and red, dotting the evergreen hills like a fluffy quilt, framed here and there with the first white powder on mountain tops. Especially the drive along Kluane Lake is gorgeous. It inspired me to write a poem:

Fall’s soldiers
In their golden uniforms
Stand guard
Between summer and winter,
Marching south
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the return trip from Yukon back to Anchorage, we were lucky enough to see a large flock of snow white Dall sheep in the Kluane Range. Then two curious coyotes walked across the road and peeked at us from the brown grass. The sun was out part of the time, turning the hillside brilliantly yellow for most of the way. In fact, it was so gorgeous that we kept on driving. Instead of spending the night half way, in Tok again, we drove all 12 hours back to Palmer. We saw a large moose up close and even saw our very first caribou.

Hunting season is now in full swing. I’d hate to hike or camp in the bush. We see huge numbers to trucks parked along the road where hunters have taken off into the bush. At a remote outpost, we stopped at the log cabin country store to buy native crafts, when a truck drove with the large rack of a moose in the back. I could see an enormous cooler and bulging garbage bags of meat. So I walked over and had an interesting conversation:

Me: “Hi! How are you? Nice moose! Can I take a picture?”

Guy: “sure.”

Me: “Wow. It’s huge. Bet that will be all your meat for the winter, eh?”

Guy: “yup. you canadian?”

Me: “Yeah! How’d you guess?”

Guy: ‘eh.

Me: “Ah. I said eh! I guess so. So how much did it weigh, like how much meat did you get? Like 500 pounds?”

Guy: “more.”

I guess by then he had really warmed up to me because he added “maybe double. gonna use it all, bones, sinew, organs”.

Me: “Wow, that’s great. Well thanks a lot. Have a good winter.”

Guy: ” ‘kay.”

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We were still just in time but wouldn’t to go a week later: the US/Canadian Border closes on September 15 on the Top of the World Highway; many hotels and lodges shut down as of September 15 and the first snow was sprinkled on the surrounding mountain tops.

A tool that helps with planning is the downloadable app: http://www.thealaskaapp.com

In our next blog we will take you around Whitehorse, Yukon.

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Madre Mia! Driving in Granada

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Compéta

Don’t ever think that you’re a pretty suave traveler, because you’ll immediately get punished. I felt that we were doing pretty good – having driven all over Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels, New York; all over Costa Rica, found our way in old Jerusalem, survived Bangkok and Shanghai.

But then we visited Granada.

Our previous AirBnB was in a tiny little village on the coast. The address had a name and a number so we felt confident. But once we found the highway exit to the village, we hit dirt roads and potholes. Each corner led to another narrow dirt road without a name. We tried them all and ended up in so many backyards. After three turns into the same driveway, a Spanish woman in an apron came to talk to us. She used her hands a lot and between that and her rapid Spanish, we figured out that she had NO idea where this ouse might be.

A German couple in the next house came outside. They spoke no English but between German, Spanish and gestures we understood that they, too, had NO idea where we had to go. After a long debate, the man pointed up one road and up, up, up. We left to give it another try. They called after us, in German, “If that doesn’t work, come back and we will have a room for you to stay!” Such kindness.

img_2472The road up, up and up was the right one. It was the same width as our car without any barriers between us and the valley floor below. There were several houses at the top but none with numbers. In despair, I emailed the AirBnB and with seconds, the door opened and it was our hostess!

After driving through many Spanish cities, we decided that we had enough of traffic, narrow streets and none-existing addresses. Seville was OK because we stayed on the outskirts with our car and walked into the old city. La Linea/Gibraltar was OK but a bit unnerving, especially since they don’t seem to have street addresses and we could not find our B&B for the life of us.

So when Granada was next, we decided NOT to try and drive into any old parts of the city. Muchas gracias. We would stay OUT of the old city. We’d be smart and stay away from AirBnB’s that mentioned the words ‘central’, ‘close to’, or ‘old’. In fact, we decided to book a modern looking hotel that offered free parking. That way we would just walk into the old city.

Great.

Good move.

We booked it online, entered the address (an actual street name and number!) into our GPS and left the coast for Grenada.

First we decided to swing by the cute town of Compéta. That turned out to be a twisting, winding 30 KMs from the coast up into steep coastal hills. The road hairpinned left and right, along steep slopes, with not much of a guard rail. But we made it and it was worth the drive. Gorgeous, quaint town – eyeblinding white buildings. Beautiful.

The way down was windy-ER, steepER, twisty-ER!

img_2536But then we drove a big highway and sailed, unsuspecting, into Granada.

Our GPS kicked in and we meekly followed its instructions, left here, right there. UNTIL… it sent us closer and closer into the city center.

“Can’t be right…” I thought fleetingly.

Kees was driving and started grinding his teeth as the streets got narrower.

“Is this right?” he asked as the GPS wanted to send us across a main road and up a very narrow looking one. “I think so….” I hesitated. In that instant we both decided that the wider road looked more attractive and, ignoring the GPS, Kees turned right instead of going straight.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

We found ourselves driving down a lovely wide street. The problem was that the lanes were only for “Taxi” or “Bus”.

We tried to look like a taxi or a bus but it didn’t seem to work. People looked at us funny.

We drove several blocks hoping the lanes would change their minds. They didn’t.

At some point, waiting for a light to change, a big guy on a motorbike knocked on our window. Kees rolled it down. “‘Ola!” the guy grinned, “I ‘elp you, yes?”

“OK, yes please…” We were ready for some help here because we were now right in the city center driving in wrong lanes and our GPS kept yelling at us to turn left, no right, no recalculating!

The guy said ‘follow me’ and we happily did but then realized that he didn’t know where we were supposed to go. He guided us up a street that ended in a plaza with no way out. We parked, I hopped out and showed him our iPad with the hotel’s address. He glanced at it and said, “OK, I take you there. Follow me!” (I think, because he did not speak English).

We managed to turn the car around and followed this big guy on his motorbike.

img_2560He zigged here, zagged there, left, right, left. The roads got narrower and narrower.

We went up steep hills, around crazy sharp corners.

“He doesn’t really know where we’re supposed to go, does he?” I asked Kees who was concentrating hard on not losing this one big motorbike rider in a city centre full of motorbikes.

We stopped again. I explained, in Spanish, the hotel name, the street name, the closest main street.

“Mia madre!” he exclaimed. “Si! I know. Follow me.”

And back he jumped on his bike, racing this way and that.

The streets became alleys. The hillside steeper.

A sign said ‘historic old city’…

At one point he jumped off his bike to help guide Kees between two walls with literally one centimeter on either side of the car. We had to fold in the side mirrors or we wouldn’t fit. I felt like we were driving into a trap that we’d never get out.

“What if he’s taking us some place totally different?” I asked Kees.

He nodded, gripping the steering wheel tighter, trying to think of alternatives.

“Let’s just forget about this,” I said after an hour, “We’ll cancel the hotel, skip Granada, go somewhere else.”

Kees nodded but kept following the motorbike rider who finally stopped again.

He made Kees park and follow him on foot, down some stairs. I stayed with the car with visions of Kees being lured somewhere… What if he never came back?

But eventually they both came back, shaking their heads. We drove on and started to recognizes corners, walls with which we had earlier close encounters…

The GPS was no longer yelling at us. In fact, a few times it said “Park your car and walk to the address.” Then she lapsed into silence all together.

We stopped again, after about an hour and a half of this, and discussed the situation, in Spanish, with some parked taxi drivers who all sadly shook their heads and mimed parking your car and walking down steep stairs…

“No way!” I said, “the hotel advertised with parking. It’s not in the city…”

They shook their heads more sadly and agreed that “parking must be elsewhere. This hotel you can only reach on foot….”

We found a parking spot, which seemed to be a sprayed-painted-over bus stop. “Ees OK,” our motorbike friend insisted as we left the car and now followed him on foot down staircase and through alleys where even Granada drivers don’t seem to venture.

After more wandering, more asking, more head shaking, we found it.img_2509

In an alley that reminds us of Jerusalem, we found one house door with one tiny tile above it ‘Casa Bombo’ – by god, the name of the hotel we booked!
We were shaking by now. Didn’t even know where we left our car so we dragged our motorbike friend inside and made him tell the hotel guy, who was very understanding. Obviously we were not the first shaken guests who had wandered for hours. He poured us water, made us do some deep breathing exercises and ignored our wish to cancel the reservation.
We said goodbye to our motorbike friend. We still weren’t sure why he helped us for two hours. Was he a Spaniard proud of his city? Did he want money? He never said so but we did give him some.

Then the hotel guy piled us into a tiny little van that was totally scraped and scratched, busted and dented, and drove us – like a bat out of hell – up stairs and around bends through alleys that no sane driver would ever drive. ‘Lo and behold he found our car.

We transferred our luggage and hope to find the car back in the same spot in 2 days but we have no idea where. He took us back, showed us a gorgeous room with breathtaking views of the Alhambra, fed us beer and sangria and said “Everything’s OK.”

I actually saw a car driving up stairs here! Next time, I’m NOT booking a hotel in an old city center.

I hope.img_2554