Just Cruising’ Along – to Alaska

P8300253.JPGWe wanted a short get-away at the end of a busy summer. We run Between The Covers, Booklovers’ B & B and knew that we would not have much time off all summer, so we planned a short trip, relatively close to home.

Having left Whitehorse, Yukon where our children went through elementary school, 27 years ago, we decided that this was the year to go back and see the Yukon again. I have made two short trips back there, but Kees has not been back since we moved south.

Initially we thought we’d just drive the Alaska Highway. We both love driving. But driving it both ways is too boring. Besides, it is not incredibly scenic. I used to love traveling on the Alaska State Ferry. But I nearly had a heart attack when I checked fares on the Alaska State Ferry website and saw that is would cost over US $2000.-. That is one way. On the ferry. Without a cabin.

P8300248.JPGThen I remembered the many tantalizing emails about Alaska cruises and checked these. Orbitz, my favourite travel bookings website, offered a one way cruise from Vancouver to Anchorage. Price per person was about 650.- When all was said and done, including extra fees, taxes, gratuities, etc. we paid on the dot the exact amount as the ferry would have been. But a cruise, of course, includes all you can eat for 7 days….

We got out a map and ended up booking the cruise on Norwegian Cruise Lines, via Orbitz. Then we booked a rental car in Anchorage and a flight back using our Alaska Airlines points.

When we boarded the ship in Vancouver, we weren’t sure what to expect. I’m not terribly crazy about cruises since I do not need a casino, I don’t like crowds and I don’t need to be entertained. But I did really want a few days of NOTHING. I couldn’t wait to sleep in and get my meals served. P9020292.JPG

The boarding process was fast and efficient. The paperwork we had received was confusing. I checked in online, printed off luggage tags and selected dinner times. The papers told us, over and over, in bold underlined print that we had to check-in between 2 and 2:30, a time slot we selected from half hour slots offered all day. At some point I realized that the papers also stated that the ship departed at 2 PM. I finally phoned and was told to be on board well before 2 PM. So was the check-in time on board then? When we got onboard, no one knew what that not to be missed check-in was… And none of the dinner times I had selected online, were recorded. But we found our cabin which was just fine. A large, clean bed, a place to sit, a desk, plenty of storage space and a small fridge. Next time I’ll check the price difference with an outside cabin which has a window or small balcony. It would be nice to see daylight and what the weather is doing…

The service on the ship was impeccable. Everyone was friendly, courteous and helpful. The food quality in the main dining room was superb. The ship can hold just over 2,000 guests. It has its own bakeries, one for bread and one for pastries. We rarely got the same little dinner rolls. And the cinnamon buns were out of this world.

Here’s a glimpse at the ship’s weekly shopping list:

  • 15,000 pounds of beef
  • 1000 gallons of juice
  • 15,000 pounds of flour
  • 30,000 pounds of fresh fruit
  • 5,000 dozen eggs!

They said Costco loves it when they stop by!P8280237.JPG

I found it fascinating how our daily schedule and priorities changed overnight. On the first night, we sat in the gorgeous dining room and watched two whales spouting against an orange sky. The quiet wake of the ship seemed to drain my aches, my tiredness and my worries about deadlines, about which B&B room to clean, about how much more weeding I should be doing… From then on our main concern was what to order for breakfast… A waiter draped a white starched napkin across my lap and handed me a menu. A menu for breakfast! Choices included 5 different kinds of juice, many options of fresh fruit, yogurts, pastries, breads, eggs, smoked salmon or bacon, porridge or french toast, pancakes, waffles… Enough already! Just bring me one of each 🙂

After breakfast there was nothing to do but wait for lunch and repeat steps 1 – 3 (sit, order, eat). Same at dinner…

Good thing the ship had a pool (for me) and a walking track (for Kees).

The ship also offered bars, two theatres, a library, an observation lounge and many more facilities. It took us three full days before we stumbled upon a casino. How do you hide an entire casino on a ship? You put it between the shop and the art gallery, one deck up from the bars and theatres. We had a ball sitting in a quiet corner and watching people. My favourite times were sipping a drink while listening to a good string trio playing Vivaldi.Of course these cruises are ideal for those who are less mobile. But they obviously also attract people who like to eat. I’ve seldom seen so many overweight people in one place. Good thing the ship doesn’t sink easily. But the guests on this ship were as varied as the books on a library shelf. Young, old, active, obese, classy and not so classy. They came from countries all over the world: Germany, France, Australia, Japan, China, USA and everything in between. The crew alone represented 62 countries.

P9010273.JPGBesides on board entertainment like concerts and shows, we also stopped in beautiful locations:

  • Ketchikan, Alaska is a quaint village clinging to the hillside. It rained – which it often does here. But we found a nice coffeeshop with wifi (even if it was 5.- per hour);
  • Throught gorgeous scenery we sailed to Juneau, the capital city of Alaska. Juneau is more than the gold rush image ofcolorful wooden houses near the dock. It is also a large city with a Costco, schools, university, libraries, and more. We visited the  Mendenhall Glacier and a fun bear viewing boardwalk just above a creek full of spawning salmon. It rained. I think ‘Alaska’ is the First Nations’ word for ‘rain’.
  • Skagway used to be a tiny gold rush village near the beginning of the famous Chilkoot trail. Instead of aging into a ghost town of cracked wooden sidewalks and sagging houses, the town choose opted for a facelift. The saloon type store fronts now host a Starbucks, many jewelry stores and confortable eateries offering wifi. Yet it maintains its last frontier image and offers can-can girls and Soapy Smith shows to its thousands of visitors. Skagway has discovered a whole new kind of gold mine.P9010283.JPG
  • Next we departed for Glacier Bay. Rough grey waves of the Pacific made way for a pristine, blue reflective bay of immense proportions. At the very end, our ship glided toward a crumbling glacier. The mirroring water was dotted with small, white icebergs. The view was breathtaking. The temperaturesdropped drastically since we left Vancouver. Capris and sandals made way for fur coats and woolen hats while we watched the icy beauty of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a United Nations World Heritage Site. Comprised of 3.3 million acres of natural wonders, it is home to magnificent glaciers and snow-capped mountains.P9020349.JPG
  • Next was Hubbard Glacier (I didn’t know that Alaska is home to an estimated100,000 glaciers!). Tall, wide and generally massive, Hubbard Glacier is a mesmerizing natural wonder framed in striking glacial blue. The largest tidewater glacier in North America is a whopping 76 miles long and 1,200 feet deep. Its foot is some 7 miles wide and the exposed ice is said to be over 450 years old. Impressive facts but not nearly as impressive as the sight of being right next to it. Hubbard is nicknamed the “galloping glacier” because of how quickly it’s advancing toward the Gulf of Alaska through Disenchantment Bay. This results in major calving — the dramatic breaking off of chunks of ice at the edge of a glacier. As we stood on deck, we heard sonic booms, followed by long deep rumbles. Large chunks of glacial ice broke off and tumbled into the sea, leaving spray and mist. The sounds and the feel of icy air, made the sights even more impressive. A sight I won’t soon forget!P9020384.JPG

After this natural wonder, we sailed to our final destination of Seward, Alaska – some 12 hours on very rough open water. We had winds of 45 knots and 14’ waves. Even though this was a huge ship, it creaked and groaned as we bobbed on the waves. As if by magic, little barf bags appears on all the stair handrails…

In the next blog, we will continue our Alaska Adventure by road.