Alaska Cruise

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September 28th 2022
Published: October 2nd 2022
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Wed, 21 September – Cruise day 1 - Vancouver

It was a sublime sleep in our room at the Sahara Hotel which was rudely interrupted by a 4.30pm alarm, reminding us of our 7am flight. Such a shame to leave a wonderfully cosy bed.

We returned the car, flew from Vegas to Portland and then Portland to Vancouver. We were anxious about the flights because our original itinerary was to fly direct from Vegas to Vancouver with Air Canada, but they cancelled their morning flight and so we were bumped onto the alternative via Portland. The anxiety came because the cruise had bumped up their departure time from 6pm to 4pm and our rerouted itinerary meant landing at 11.50am instead of 10.30am, so our 8-hr buffer had shrunk to 4 hrs, assuming no delays.

At Portland we were treated to a view of two F-15 fighter jets taking off down the commercial runway. Apparently, the Air Force shares the facilities with the Portland International Airport, so that was very exciting to see them accelerating and taking off in front of our eyes. It was a little taste of Top Gun.

We also got to fly a little retro on a twin prop Bombardier Q400, so being on a smaller plane was different as well. Fortunately, all our flights departed on time and we were seated in the first five rows, so we made the cruise on time. In fact, we had to go through immigration three times in a day which is a record for us. We had to exit the US, enter Canada and then re-enter the US on Holland America. It was all very annoying and left our feet and legs rather sore from all the queues.

Vancouver was a sunny 23C so we checked into our room and made our way to the Lido Market for a belated lunch of make your own salad. The good news? We’d been upgraded from a Verandah room to a Signature Suite. The bad news? It was only one level below the buffet so we may not need to use the stairs as much. Obesity here we come!

We departed Vancouver at 4pm and made our way out of the harbour under Lions Gate Bridge and into the inside passage between the mainland and Vancouver Island. A single seal swam up to the ship to farewell us as we pulled out. No otters. It’s been exactly 20 years since we were in Vancouver. It’s changed a lot with lots of extra sky scrapers.

Kms walked – 11.2

Thu, 22 September – Cruise day 2 – At Sea

We left the good weather behind in Vancouver and awoke to rain and fog which is supposed to be with us for the rest of the trip. It could be that cruise v2.0 is bust v2.0 as well.

On days at sea there are plenty of things to do on the ship. We got up at 9am, skipped breakfast, attended a couple of talks about the port stops and wildlife. I caught up on my blog, ate lunch in the Dining Room, had a nap and sat on the balcony watching the inside passage cruise past at the lower levels, as we couldn’t see anything above the low-level cloud. Dinner was back at Lido followed by a dance concert on the mains stage and some personal movement to pop tunes in the Rolling Stones Lounge. The entertainers are very good.

Kms walked – 9.2

Fri, 23 September – Cruise day 3 – Juneau

We traversed fjords as we cruised into Juneau, Alaska’s capital. Unfortunately, the rain had set in and we could only see a couple hundred metres above the water line so whatever peaks surround the town, evaded us. It looks like it might be pretty. Will have to look at photos on Google. Temp had dropped to a max of 12C – quite a change from 38C in Vegas!

We put on our rain gear and headed out for a hike. We left the tourists behind inside their souvenir shops and climbed up the hills behind the town, to a road that led to the Mt Roberts trail head. Mt Roberts usually has an expensive cable car running for US $45 return, but if you hike up and buy $15 worth of food per person you can ride down for cheaper. We were planning on hiking this strenuous trail to save money – 2km one way with a 500m gain – but alas, the cable car was shut for the day due to high winds.

We quickly decided we didn’t want to walk 4km on the strenuous trail in the consistent rain, so we chose a shorter trail called Flume. We crossed a wooden bridge with a very torrid river running below in the flume, and on the other side the old water channel has been roofed and converted to a board walk. We followed that along several hundred metres in the soaked temperate rainforest, desperately looking for bears or any wildlife that would make our time outdoors worthwhile. No bears or any other wildlife. We soon arrived at a rock slide cutting the track in two with a small waterfall running down the slip. The water course was 2m wide with a slope of another 5m or so, before dropping away into the flume 10m below. After surveying our options, we decided there were a couple of stones we could jump on get to the other side. We carefully crossed the stream and continued down the board walk. It was misty in the trees but it would be very pretty in fine weather too.

We arrived at the end of the track and walked back to town. We wandered around the shops briefly before the rain started getting heavier so we quickened our pace back to the ship.

The biggest problem with this cruise is that all the scenic cruising is overnight, with port stops in the day. Ports are fine but it’s a shame we can’t see the water highways that we take between ports.

Kms walked – 12.5

Sabbath, 24 September - Skagway

Awoke in Skagway. Weather was overcast but not raining. We’re told it also has peaks. The funniest thing is our ship has docked front end in, so when you are at the end of the main street looking back towards the dock, it looks like the ship is carving up the street between the buildings. It’s bigger than the buildings and is right on top of them!

As we disembarked in an aggressive wind, the cables that were tethered to the dock were singing a song as the wind whistled by them. It was actually quite beautiful and we heard it every time we were on the gangway.

We travelled on the White Pass and Yukon Railway tourist train, our only paid excursion on this cruise thanks to onboard credit. Cloud hung in the valley and as we ascended to the summit of White Pass, we were enveloped in a complete white out. Perhaps that’s why it’s named so. Apparently, it also has stunning views! Will have to Google that too. There were a couple of cool span bridges and we did have great valley and waterfall views at lower elevations. At one point the clouds broke briefly and we were able to snap a snow-dusted peak against a semi-blue sky. The whole trip was 3hrs and because the Canadian border is at the summit, the train doesn’t stop and you can’t get out because they don’t want to deal with border issues. It wouldn’t have mattered today since we didn’t have views but it’s a bit stink that on clear days, you have all of 10 seconds to snap those views before the train enters the loop track to start the descent.

I like this town more than Juneau. They’ve kept most of the historic buildings which date back to the gold rush. Every second shop is either a jewellery or souvenir shop but at least the facades are authentic. Skagway was one of the main starting points for the Klondike gold rush of 1897-1899. It only ran for 2 years but 30,000 stampeders made the 800km trek to Dawson, only to discover the land and gold had already been claimed and they’d made the brutal trek for nothing. But don’t cry for them – cry for the 3000 horses that died one season because they were starved and flogged to death as pack animals on impossible trails, loaded up 1 ton of food and equipment. It was a shocker.

Kms walked – 8.3

Sun, 25 September – Glacier Bay

It was a total white out when we opened the curtains, and our spirits sank as we considered the prospect of being in spectacular Glacier Bay but not seeing spectacular Glacier Bay.

This national marine park is 3.2 million acres with supposedly over 1000 glaciers. It is home to eagles, bears, sea lions, mountain goats and otters and birds. I find it sad that in 1898 the whole area we are cruising was covered by glaciers. To put it into perspective, that means 125 years has seen some glaciers completely disappear and others have retreated 65 miles. I find that mind blowing.

Only 2 cruise ships are allowed in the park per day.

We stopped to pick up the obligatory Rangers who stay with the ship throughout the day providing commentary, and then disembark before we exit the park. The Ranger tip for the day was most unimpressive: “Embrace the rain because ultimately that is what we’ve all come to see.” I was not amused. It’s easy to say that when you’re cruising the park every day but for those of us who are doing the once in a lifetime trip, there’s no do-over.

After collecting the rangers, we started to enter the park and slowly but surely, the cloud started lifting. It still hovered around the tops of the little islands but we could see inlets and beaches. The rangers pointed us to Knobby Point, which had white mountain goats dotted all over it. There was also a brown bear on the beach. Both sightings needed binoculars as they were over 1 mile away so they were white and brown spots respectively.

The captain opened the bow and we donned every winter and thermal gear in the suitcase to go outside in the 3C temps. Up ahead, a circle of cloud like a halo opened up over…wait for it…a line of snow-capped peaks! Everyone thought it was a mirage but as we inched closer to the halo, the crowds started swarming through the door and people were jostling for position on the sides. When the ranger said “look to the port side” we all gasped as we saw a large glacier 1km wide and 70m high at waterline. This is the Margerie Glacier. The icy green and blue colours leeched in matte format into phone cameras. The overcast conditions prevented the colours from dazzling but given the lack of scenery, we’re taking anything we can get.

We cruised deeper into the bay which didn’t exist a mere 125 years ago. Cruises decades ago used to take passengers to the Muir Glacier, but this like others, has retreated so far that it’s no longer visible from the bay so the cruise companies had to find others. There are small glaciers hanging in the surrounding valleys but they are mostly covered with brown moraine and therefore nothing much to look at. We arrived at our final destination – Johns Hopkins Glacier. This glacier can only be accessed by ships in September and October.

This glacier is 1 mile or 1.6km long and also comes down to the waterline. We stopped a couple of miles off the face and used our binoculars to spot hundreds of harbour seals floating on the surrounding ice. At this point the cloud was high above the peaks and we were treated to 360-degree views of the snow-capped peaks all around it. The views were stunning.

The captain rotated the ship to port side for 30 minutes and then rotated to starboard side for 30 minutes, giving everyone in balcony rooms the opportunity to watch the glacier. We were on the bow so got to enjoy the sights from all angles. Over the course of an hour, we witnessed 3 large calvings (not carvings) of ice sheer away from the face and crash to the water below. It started with the sound of cracks, followed by a boom and a subsequent wave. I feel blessed to have seen that.

After an hour we turned around and started the return journey back to the ranger station at the mouth of bay. The cloud started descending with each passing mile and by the time we were half way back to the ocean, the cloud had covered the peaks and was back to sitting just above the water line. We had glimpses of islands between the ocean sitting cloud and the peak hiding clouds. We saw a couple of sea lions swimming and tons of sea otters, which are very cute. Some of the sightings needed binoculars but hey, it was better than nothing. It’s unlikely we’ll be seeing whales or moose.

Kms walked – 8.9

Mon, 26 September – Ketchikan

We awoke to the sound of fog horn and a white out, which has become a daily occurrence. The captain had assured us that the cloud would lift by the time we reached Ketchikan at 11am and we’d be left with an overcast and rainy day. By 10am the fog had lifted and the rain beat down on the windows as we came into dock. It wasn’t torrential but it was significant enough to be miserable so we decided to have lunch first and then head out after 1pm, when the weather said it was going to ease.

Ketchikan is the salmon capital of the world. It’s an interesting town in that the waterfront district, main road and tunnel are basically on piers over the water. The residential houses, painted in all kinds of colours, perch precariously on the steep hills, which if the piers weren’t there would be waterfront. It looks like it could be quite a scenic town if the mountains were in view.

After lunch the rain had subsided to a drizzle so we geared up and ventured out to the famous Creek Street. This small district is a boardwalk built over the Ketchikan Creek, because it was too expensive to blast into the solid rock. There are 25 or so houses along the walk that served as the town’s red-light district. During prohibition, it became a smuggler’s delight for bootleggers. Nowadays it’s home to souvenir shops and fish restaurants. The main reason tourists come, apart from colourful photos, is to see the salmon run and the resident otters and seals trying to catch them. We saw 4 seals doing laps of the small district, a couple fighting over an unfortunate salmon.

From there we walked uphill on Married Men’s Trail to the purpose-built salmon ladder. There were dozens of pink salmon in the ladder and at the top of it. Ironically, pink salmon are brown. Sockeye salmon are pink but they don’t run in this area or at this time. We followed the river for another couple of km’s to the fish hatchery and city park, observing hundreds of salmon that had made it up river and were taking breaks in the quiet shallows before they pushed forward to spawn. We also saw a number of Totem poles belonging to the Tlingit people (pronounced tlinket). The rain had been on and off and we were ready to dry out.

We made our way back to town, poking around here and there in souvenir shops and being absolutely amazed at the plethora of diamond and tanzanite jewellery shops. We do not understand the fascination with all these jewellery shops nor do we understand how any of them make money, given the over supply in every port. To be honest, they are a bit of a blight on the local scene.

We left Ketchikan at 7pm and headed out into the Pacific, trying to keep ahead of the oncoming weather depression.

Kms walked – 15.6

Tue, 27 September – Cruising the Inside Passage

The ship’s fog horn blew for 15hrs straight, every 2-3 minutes, thanks to the dense fog that surrounded the ship. We could not see more than 10m out from our balcony and this lasted until 1pm. We were cruising past scenic inlets but we couldn’t see a thing.

Just after lunch, the fog lifted and we saw both sides of the Inside Passage. This stretch of waterway extends from the top of Vancouver Island to the bottom with the mainland on the other side. We had 5 hours to enjoy the views before sunset, so we sat on the pool deck watching the scenery go by. We’ve made friends with another couple from the Gold Coast who travel similar to us (no kids, money conscious, cheap holidays etc) so they joined us for an hour or two and we chatted on our last day before parting ways.

At 5pm a shout went up and we rushed to the port side to see over 100 porpoises having a feeding frenzy on a large school of fish. They were everywhere! Some were even surfing the ship’s ripples. I couldn’t get any photos because of the fading light and they’re still far away from us even if they’re directly below us. After 5 minutes the ship had passed and they continued feeding in our wake.

Another 10 minutes later, another shout and it was orca! A family of 7-9 orca including one teenager and one baby, cruising on the starboard side. We had a decent 2–3-minute viewing of them and that was special. A little later and we saw a couple of otters. Hopefully they get out of the way of the Orca family in time. We watched the sun set for only the 2nd time on the 7-day cruise.

It was a great way to end our cruise. We didn’t get to see all the sights we were expecting or hoping to see, but as Dwayne said, “the weather could have been a lot worse.” We had 1.5 good days to see Glacier Bay and the Inside Passage, and we saw otters, orca, a bear, mountain goats and porpoise. We also got to see a glacier calve. We may not have seen spectacular scenery or mountain peaks every day, but on the days when we did see things, we saw a lot.

It never ceases to amaze me how many kilometres are walked whilst on a cruise ship.

Kms walked – 5.6

Wed, 28 September – Whistler

In 2002/03, we left Australia for a working holiday in Canada. Today, 20 years later, we revisited our old stomping ground that we called home that year.

After disembarking our cruise, we picked up a hire car and drove out to Squamish and Whistler to see what had changed. The weather was overcast but dry and the clouds were above the peaks so we were treated to marvellous views as we snaked our way on the famous 99 Sea to Sky highway around Horseshoe Bay.

First stop was Squamish. We had camped here for a month in 2002 before winter started whilst trying to find jobs in Whistler. It was a bit of a hole back then and despite all the current development, it’s still underwhelming. We tried to recall the campground we stayed at but the place has grown and changed so much it was unrecognisable. They’ve even built cruise ports! The gnarliest walk in the area, The Chief, now has a cable car for those that don’t want or have time to hike the 4km trail that rises 700m in elevation. It’s a steep C$63 so we didn’t bother.

We continued on and arrived in Whistler at lunch time. To our surprise, the town hasn’t changed that much at all. Shops have moved and buildings have been refreshed or updated, but the city limits haven’t grown and there doesn’t appear to much more development than when we lived there. The prices for food have gone up and we nearly died to see that a summer pedestrian lift ticket is C$65, but I guess that’s to be expected in a resort town. The thing that surprised us most was the height of the trees in the village. They now hang high above the Village Stroll pedestrian walkway making an archway of greenery during the warmer months.

I went looking for my old workplace, Cougar Mountain Adventures, where I worked for 4 months. We used to run snowmobile and dog sled tours. Its location eluded me initially and just as I was giving up hope of finding it, I rounded a corner and there it was, exactly as I remember it. CM shut down when the two business partners retired and the office now houses a real estate business, but it was good to find it and confirm my memory is still intact!

We sat down at a coffee shop at the top of the village to watch all the mountain bikers coming down the front valley. It was a sunny and pleasant day with 23C temps and we watched the world go by like it was 2002. Not as many squirrels. Actually, hardly any wildlife in the USA and Canada compared to our previous trips.

We eventually decided to have an early dinner so after checking out what felt like every menu in town, we decided on one last Mexican meal. Before too long, it was time to drive back to the airport for our flight to Sydney. I’d like to return for a week of skiing one day.

It’s been a great trip! Hiking Zion was the highlight for both Dwayne and I. If I have one piece of advice, it’s to do the road trip in the opposite direction to us. I’d recommend doing it counter clockwise from Vegas, starting in Grand Canyon and then onto Sedona, working up to Zion, rather than the other way around. But whatever you do, add Utah and Arizona to your destination list. They are two underrated states with amazing landscapes.

It was great to be overseas again travelling in pre-covid conditions. Apart from wearing masks on Air Canada and in Canada, the USA and cruise were mask free and we didn’t have any health issues with the lack of controls. It was comforting to see a degree of normalcy has returned in most places.

Well, that’s it for these avid travellers until March 2023, where we’ll be skiing the French Alps for 2 weeks, followed by a week spent defrosting in Malta.

As someone once said “Have stories to tell, not stuff to show.” I hope you’ve enjoyed the tales as much as I’ve enjoyed penning them.

Additional photos below
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2nd October 2022

I’ve enjoyed the tales...
as much as I’ve enjoyed penning them. While you may have had bad weather for your cruise, you saw many more animals than we did on the same cruise in 2008. I agree that Utah and Arizona should be on everyone's destination list!
5th October 2022

Thanks for Sharing
It's great to hear about a cruise in Alaska that has some normalcy to it... not every cruise can have the great weather and "once in a lifetime" experiences! It was refreshing to hear about clouds and rain and "normal" Alaskan weather. Thanks for sharing.

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