Cruising to Alaska and all her glacial glory!

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August 1st 2013
Published: April 9th 2019
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Sleepless in Seattle?

We could barely contain our excitement as the plane landed in Seattle a little after 1 AM. We checked into a hotel close to Seatac and arranged to have a cab take us the following morning to pier 66 to sail away on the Norwegian Jewel (inner passage) to Alaska.

A lot of prep work had gone into putting the dream summer vacation together. After much back and forth we settled on Alaska and Banff. The children's exams, recitals, RCM piano and my work had to be dealt with, and as always work particularly seemed to go on endlessly ...

Since we were going to places where reception was spotty at best or non-existent we decided to call our family in India to talk to them before we set sail. MIL told us that she'd seen on TV that Banff was experiencing floods and suggested we not risk it – bless her heart always on top of things!

After we hung up we called up and they said all roads in and out of Banff were indeed closed. We spent the wee hours of the morning trying to cancel all of the 2nd leg 'non-refundable' bookings we had made in Banff and re-book phase 2 of our trip last minute to Yellowstone National Park. This of course meant you took what you got at the price they quoted! I did make some of the reservations as the cruise ship to Alaska was pulling away and connection was fading in and out.

The Armenian cabbie taking us to port regaled us with stories on Seattle local politics including how much he resented the New Seattle aerial tramway because it was cutting into his livelihood. We did have a chance to spend a couple of hours at Pike place market. I do so love that place. We picked up some sweet smelling lavender cream and some fresh flowers for our cabins on the ship.

Alaska Trip Photographs :

Washy, washy ... Happy, happy

The 'Jewel' was a nice ship. Every conceivable cuisine was available on board and the crew was simply delightful. We were going to sail through the inner passage and hit key towns of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway in Alaska and Victoria, Canada as well.

I would be simply amiss if I did not mention this one special fellow who was in-charge of making sure all passengers were 'purelled' before hitting the buffets. After the Carnival scares ‘Noro virus’ was like the plague!

Little did I know that there was an outbreak of Norovirus at Yellowstone where were headed for phase 2.

The special fellow (ship’s bus-boy) wielded the spray bottle with gusto and burst into a jingle which ran something like this - "Washy, washy, kills the germie , germie, makes me happy, happy". He told me he had several thousands of followers on YouTube for his jingle. Made a note to look him up on YT.

Something about washy, washy brought a smile to everyone's face. The cheerful fellow was like a ray of sunshine!

Sailing away party included a Gangnam style dance on the pool deck followed by a divine lobster and steak dinner. The decadence of eating began with much gusto!

Misty Fjord loses the mist and looks breathtaking!

Bright and early the next morning the ship docked and we got picked up for our tour of Ketchikan.

Ketchikan boasts of Misty Fjords, the wonderous Eddystone rock and breath taking views through Behm canal. However, the biggest problem was none of these are easily accessible.

You either sea-planed through the majestic fjords or you went on a smaller boat and we chose the latter.

Our jaw hit the floor in awe at the Majestic fjord that was carved by a glacier several moons ago.

The tour boat had an upper deck from which we could drink in all the grandeur. We passed by the totem pole village and shortly thereafter spotted a small pack of wolves. The captain took us close to the shoreline for a photo op.

Soon the little boat sped toward New Eddystone rock. The tale goes: Captain George Vancouver was in a race to find a trans Canada water route linking West Canada with East Canada. However, the day Mr. Vancouver sailed through it was very misty and he spotted a tall shape looming in the distance and his heart sunk because he thought another boat had forged it's way ahead of him on the trans route. To his surprise he discovered it was a very tall rock which he promptly named 'New Eddystone rock' after a similar structure from his home town in England. Later it was identified as solidified magma rising so gracefully but unexpectedly in the middle of the fjord carved out by glaciers.

Typically, the entire area is shrouded in mist, but we must've taken our sunshine with us :-)

Hard to describe how awe-inspiring the views were - hope the pictures do it some justice.

The little boat’s captain took us on a whale-watching expedition as well. We found a bunch of frolicking hump-backs. We wondered if these were the children of ones we had seen one winter many moons ago in Hawaii - there was a striking resemblance to their parents tail(lol)!

Ketchikan is also known for its zillion waterfalls and as we cut our way through the fjord we saw several bursting through the sheer face of the cliff sparkling like Swarovski crystals against the craggy faces.

There we were sitting in our little boat sipping hot Alaskan clam chowder, munching on Alaskan smoked salmon topped with salmonberry jelly and the experience couldn't have gotten any better. But, wait a pod of playful porpoises pull up against the boat’s starboard side lending to a very happy ending to a wonderful day at Ketchikan.

Also, even though it is pricey I would recommend this shore excursion to all.

If you are debating between this trip and 'glacial walk and chopper ride' in Juneau or Skagway, then go with that because that experience is unrivaled and certainly an experience of a lifetime.

The boat tour did come with a marine biologist who kept very interesting commentary going. There was an 'assimilated' native American onboard but had such a monotonic voice it lulled you into a 5-minute power-nap!

We spent the rest of the afternoon leisurely strolling through the tiny town of Ketchikan taking in the lovely totem poles and the pecking order it represented. The higher up the totem pole your crest was the more important you were - aha - that's where the expression bottom of the totem pole comes from!

We visited the little re-creation of the red-light district and I even got my picture taken with Ketchikan's Madame Heidi Fleiss - all make-believe of-course!

Juneau - magnificent Mendenhall glacier and the 'Trail of Time' hike

Jumped off the ship bright and early the next morning when it docked at Juneau.

The ship's shuttle can take you into downtown (about 10 to 15-minute walk) from port to downtown where you can catch the blue bus or hail a cab.

Folks take the blue bus to Mendenhall glacier. At $8 each way per person it a’int so bad. Or better still do what I did, for just a tiny bit more, for $40 get yourself a cab. For a family of 4, it worked out well!

In about 30 minutes the cab got us to Mendenhall.

If you can get there bright and early you got yourselves a completely private viewing of Mendenhall glacier, a nice picnic on the beautiful beach before the blue bus load of tourists hit ...

And that is exactly what we got ourselves - a private viewing of Mendenhall and the beach all to ourselves for a good one hour before the rest of the tourists arrived.

Our cabbie was Russian and regaled us with stories of black bears vs. brown bears vs. polar bears. He said that from one point in Alaska - Russia was just 14 miles away (Ms. Palin wasn't way off base and perhaps she could see it from her backyard if she climbed up the salmon berry bush????).

We spoke Russian politics and Putin and his antics :-) It was about a 30-minute ride to Mendenhall.

He gave us his card and told us to give him a call when we were done and he would come get us. We took off on the hike. Remember to carry bug spray on all your hikes - mosquitos aplenty!

There was a quarter mile hike to the first vantage point from where you saw her - magnificent Mendenhall in all her glory. She was beautiful icy blue with lacy fringes in her less dense parts.

Since there was no one we took our time setting up our make-shift tripod for a family thasvir. I am writing my travelogue on the long red eye flight home so not sure yet if the photos did justice to her magnificence ...

We then took off to the beach section. Folks this is a MUST-SEE in Juneuau - you know - hehe.

Jokes aside, beach, glacier and cascading Nugget waterfalls all within a quarter mile radius - tourist paradise.

We sat ourselves on the beach taking in the splendour all around us. We went to the waterfalls section next and the rest of tourists joined us and there were collective oohs and aahs at the scenic splendour and amazing vistas that lay before us.

You cannot help but be inspired and at the same time think of ways we can all cut down on global warming and preserve these for our future generation. Also, if you are a 'creationism believer' like I am you cannot help but close your eyes for a minute and thank the good Lord and hope we are good stewards and do our part ...

Next, we trotted down the 'trail of time' hike. About 2 to 3-mile hike. Got a firsthand glimpse of how far the glacier has receded in the last 100 years. There were several interesting “pause and ponder” moments along the trail.

There was a spot where President Harding (the first ever Prez to visit the last frontier) stood and vowed to preserve the wilderness and all her beauty.

We decided to take the blue bus back to town to visit the famed Red Dog Saloon and do some shopping. The Saloon had an interesting barnyard vibe to it with hay and sawdust on the floor. They served Alaskan beers. Neither Sheldon nor I drink beer, so we'd be hard pressed to make a recommendation on a good Alaskan lager.

The girls and I picked up some Alaskan mementos for ourselves and for our friends.

Tracy Fjord and Splendid Sawyer Glacier and her Calving!!!

We huffed and puffed our way back to port just in time as the ship was ready to set sail again!

That evening (sunset was typically 10 P.M) the Captain was going to deftly maneuver the Jewel through Tracy Fjord and take us up-close and personal to Sawyer glacier.

There was a slight drizzle and we were hoping it would clear by the time it reached the Fjord and it sure did just in time.

The Jewel's captain was a brilliant navigator and he said that for the first time that season he could bring her really close to Sawyer.

We stood on the top deck and watched the Jewel make her way through Tracy Arm Fjord. Words defy me at the breath-taking beauty that assailed our senses. The sheer rock faces with the cascading waterfalls and large icebergs floating down the ocean surface simply unrivalled anything I had ever seen before. I will rate this trip as the most spectacular trip ever. I’ve been to many scenic spots in the world, but this simply took my breath away!

The Captain deftly maneuvered the ship through the narrow passage and you heard the Jewel creak and groan and that did lend itself to mounting excitement. Brilliant sunshine caused the icebergs to glitter like Kohinoor diamonds and one could not help but reflect on the Titanic and her fatal voyage. (On a lighter note, there is a YouTube Tamil spoof of the movie Titanic going viral presently. The language is so reminiscent of college campus talk at my alma-mater PSG. It has me in irreverent splits).

We pulled close to Sawyer and I must say she was a real beauty. Dense blues and frothy whites with a dusting of glacial brown-grey rocky sediments.

The Jewel's chef set-up a hot Alaskan clam chowder stand with Salmon bake right on the top deck and made the experience divine. There was even a neat little table-scape to go with it.

Piping hot chocolate was served by the bus boys. I must say that aboard the Jewel they made every attempt to make everything extra special. I've travelled aboard Royal Caribbean, Carnival and NCL but something aboard NCL felt special. They seemed so in tune with all the little extras that made it so special.

Maybe it was Alaska in and of itself. Maybe it was the presence of rice and rasam (Mulligatawny soup to the rest of you) which greatly appealed to the South Indian in me. Whatever it was, I loved every minute!!!!

We switched to our telephoto lens and caught glacial calving in action. This is the part where chunks of glacier breakaway into baby icebergs and create quite the splash and sight. Little Cassandra (my younger child) enjoyed taking spectacular pictures of the calving!

Let me talk about the joy of cruising next before the euphoric feeling passes and life and reality set in and bring me down. Feel free to skip and go right to the Skagway section for what I call my 'glacial walk experience of a lifetime'

Cruising never gets tired

Alaskan time is 4 hours behind EST so it worked out great. We got up early and jogged on the ship's upper deck almost every day. There was a sharp nip in the air, mighty windy lending itself to some resistance training.

I ran just so I could stuff my face less guiltily. We were rapidly getting used to multi-course meals and multi-spread of desserts.

There was an entire spread of rice and dhal as well for the sambharini in me! Just in case I was not wolfing down copious quantities there was the 24x7 Blue Lagoon Cafe dishing out spicy wings and divine hot fudge topped with vanilla ice-cream.

I simply nullified my Dr. Oz detox program in just one sitting ;-)

The formal dining 'Czars Palace' served the best seafood from lobsters galore to local fare including Alaskan salmon, crab, pork tenderloins glazed with Alaskan salmonberries.

As always, every minute spent on board was crammed with fun activities including the 'White Hot party’. I had not quite packed for it but managed to pick up a bejeweled white clutch from the ship’s boutique.

Woe if the ship's comedian bumped into you! You'll hear the cheerful 'NCL is free style not no style’ so I did not want to risk it – hehe.

We had tons of fun dancing to music from different decades. I do dance like Elaine from Seinfeld: uncoordinated and all limbs akimbo but that did not stop me!!

We shuffle boarded with the children, did many origami classes, napkin folding and towel animal making and did go for a cha-cha class as well!

The crew was overwhelmingly Philipino and Indian and were the sweetest bunch. If I could've tucked away a few in my bag I would've.

Wendell our cabin boy made us lucky towel animal frogs with pennies tucked into his folds to bring us good luck during bingo and other games. Sheldon and I did try our hands at Deal or No Deal, bingo with the lively bingo mama, slot machines. Needless to say we did not win anything!

Every night as is customary on cruises we had all sorts of entertainment: Magic Shows, Standup comedy, Vegas style variety shows followed by amazing dinners.

One night we even had a chocoholic buffet as well.

Skagway Choices

Ship docked at Skagway the next morning. Once again we got the girls breakfasted bright and early and ready to go. We had jam packed day ahead of us. I’d booked the Skagway Temsco chopper ride and glacial hike using M&M tours online.

There are 3 great choices. Book online if possible outside of the cruise lines to get a break in prices. The Ketchikan boat trip I'd booked through NCL as it beat prices online.

#1 Option: Chopper ride + glacial walk + dog sledding with Alaskan huskies. The girls had wanted to do this one. It was very pricey and the bigger downside was if weather got cloudy, misty or rainy the whole she-bang would get cancelled.

#2 Option: Chopper ride + glacial walk. Steep, but without the dog sledding in play they choose one of the 3 glaciers : Meade, Ferebee or the other one, so if weather is bad you still had the chance of hiking, because you had 3 options. Like the 3 tenors Pavarotti, Domingo and I can never remember the 3rd glacier-guy's name, and always refer to him as the other guy! Giggling as I write this, as you can see, I am a big Seinfeld fan as well.

Depending on visibility you landed on the lower glaciers for activity option#2 so it tended to run per schedule despite inclement weather. For activity #1 the dogs were positioned on the glaciers at a higher altitude.

The day we docked in Skagway the skies were a tad bit overcast and fellow cruisers who had booked activity #1 were crestfallen as their entire she-bang got cancelled and #2 was overbooked so they were turned away.

#3 Option: White Rail train ride to experience the Klondike gold rush era. There was not enough time to do #2 and #3. However I was not going to leave Skagway (Skagua) without getting my version of 'What would you do for a Klondike bar???'

Skagway – Klondike Walking Tour!

Our chopper ride and glacial hike was not until mid afternoon, so we decided to take a historic tour of Skagway and learn about her being one of the gateways to Klondike gold fields.

We got ourselves a knowledgeable tour guide courtesy of Skagway visitor's centre. Apparently, Klondike's gold fields had a steady influx of gold stampeders straight out of Portland via steamboat. In the pre-google, pre-GPS days stampeders were limited in attempts to get to Klondike (the internet connection was very spotty so even if they could Google their way through, no connection would’ve hampered them!).

Their only option was the trek through treacherous Alaskan Chilkoot pass. Both towns Dyea and Skagwua were vying for stampeder $$$$ and promised the gold seekers straight and easy journey via their respective towns.

Skagway route was treacherous. The story goes a large avalanche killed 3000 horses / loot seekers and Dyea papers pounced on that and tried to make hay by publishing in glaring headlines: “Dead horse stench wafting down Chilkoot pass, Dyea promises safer passage”!

Skagway wasn't your bed of roses by any stretch. The town's chief 'Soapy Smith' was a slimy guy who lured stampeders with a promise that he'd provide safe passage. He ended up fleecing poor travelers, by pretending to send fake telegraphs to their loved ones back home, when the telegraphs ended going no farther than 15 feet from his home!

The guide regaled us with tales of how he'd encourage weary stampeders to try his Salon and have the barber mark gullible gold-diggers, so he could prey on them later. Overall the whole history was darn interesting.

I had read online that “Sugar Mama” on 5th Avenue had the most divine cup cakes and it sure did! Red Velvet topped with cream was my favorite.

After the historical tour, it was time to land on a glacier and do some exploring!

Skagway Glacial walk and a Chopper Ride - Experience of a Lifetime!

Temsco had us boot and vest up and after a quick security briefing we were up and away.

Our pilot was a nice fellow and regaled us with good factoids.

The view from the sky was simply spectacular. We were going to land on Meade glacier, where we were to be led on glacial hike by some ground staff.

Was a little unnerving when the chopper buffeted wildly in the wind as we pulled in for closer views of the cirque’s (rounding off mountain peaks by glacial erosion or so Lauren told me J).

All in all, the chopper ride was a very thrilling experience.

Soon we were coming in for a smooth landing into Meade glacier. Felt like crystalline ice-fields under your foot but the special footwear loaned to us by Temsco kept us warm and gave us a firm grip.

The difference between glaciers and ice-fields are glaciers move at the rate of ¼ inch every hour or so apparently. The chopper pilot took off after dropping us off on the glacier. He joked that given glacial movement he was hoping he would still find us when he came back!

We were met by a very nice trail guide who handed us ski poles and told us to stick together and follow her pathway. There were several deep crevasses and moulons (so deep you could see the beautiful copper sulphate stretch seemingly endlessly into the earth’s womb).

She was happily skipping and jumping across crevasses like a mountain goat causing my reckless older child to follow in her footsteps whilst I nearly had me an angina!

I wanted to peer down one particular moulon and she said she’d hold to my vest straps and that I could tread carefully to the edge and take a peek and so I did albeit nervously.

The girls collected small glacial rocks as souvenirs. We walked around for a bit and at one point came across a relative shallow crevasse and the guide suggested we all get down on our fours and try and take a drink. It was well worth the effort to scooch close to the ground to take a sip – it tasted crisp, clean, sweet and quite divine.

Can see why glacial ice-cubes are pricey as hell!

Sheldon scooped some water up for the girls to try. It was truly a very thrilling experience.

The chopper did come back at the appointed time and whisked us back to stable ground. I would highly recommend this excursion to everyone, was worth every penny!

On terra firma we called around to find out if the girls could go and pet some Alaskan huskies, but they were done for the day.

Also, with all the stories about Klondike gold rush, wanted me some 24 karat pendants. There was one design that was particularly delicate and beautiful. A natural leaf that had some special processing applied to it until it became wispy. The wispy leaf was then preserved by dipping it in 24 K gold.

Result: delicately charming gold pendant.

Picked up a few including one for my darling neighbors who are like the girl’s surrogate grandparents!

Overall Skagway was phenomenal.

Beacon Hill beckoned us – Victoria, Canada

Next cruise stop was Victoria in Canada.

Having visited Butchart gardens and Craigh Darroch’s castle on prior visits we decided to take the kids to Beacon hill park to visit the children’s petting zoo (since the girls love animals), Vancouver’s Capital building and the famed pier Artists market.

Beacon Hill gardens had nicely manicured lawns and gorgeous trees.

There were peacocks running freely in the gardens and we had a chance to feed them. There were giant Sequoia trees in the garden which the girls and I tried to climb J

Since Sequoia is known for its majesty, 1500 trees were brought in from California and planted throughout Beacon hill gardens.

There were some nice water features and ducks as well. At the children’s petting zoo the girls got a major kick playing with baby goats and cute little sheared Alpacas named Donny and Osmond! There was a peculiar little Albino Shetland pony as well.

We walked to Capital building gardens which had some spectacular rose gardens.

At the ‘Artists market’ we were greeted by artists from various walks. Bought a spice jar named ‘Armageddon’ put together by a chili pepper artist.

The girls enjoyed eating exotic flavored fudge. I tried one that was spiked with Serrano peppers!

There were some really good graffiti artists, venetian mask makers, quaint and eclectic mix of all sorts of peddlers.

I often call out to the girls when they dilly-dally and lag behind: ‘Come here Zangzoos’. One roadside artist who was playing the violin mistakenly assumed my little one was named Zangzoos and told me “What a fascinating name, and when I have a little baby girl, I shall name her Zangzoos”. I did not want to correct him. My girls got a major kick out of the repartee and insisted I put that in as part of my travelogue!

Overall the trip was amazing, and we were onto the next hastily planned phase2: Yellowstone and Grand Tetons phase (Banff was closed due to the floods).

Little did I know then what a phenomenal phase Geyser land was going to be – Travelogue to follow!!!

As always it is such a joy to share one’s travel experience and thank you to everyone who emailed me saying that they were inspired to travel themselves after reading my travelogues and seeing the pictures and asked for tips.

I am always glad to share my 2 cents.

I read other travelogues and see travel pictures to be inspired and glad to pay it forward.

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