Fourth Alaska Cruise

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North America » United States » Alaska
May 25th 2014
Published: May 25th 2014
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One of our favorite vacations is an Alaska cruise, so in June of 2013 we took our fourth! They just never get old. There is so much to do in every port that we’ve not taken a single excursion twice in our four cruises. Alaska is a place of magnificence, with the tallest mountains, the highest concentration of glaciers, the longest stretch of coastline in the U.S., and some of the most incredible scenery to be found in the United States.

We began our trip with a United Airlines flight into Vancouver, Canada. We had arranged for transportation to the dock, so we boarded a bus and enjoyed a one-hour tour of the eclectic and fashionable city as our bus driver drove the scenic route from the airport to Canada Place, where the cruise ships dock. The City of Vancouver, population about 600,000, is consistently named as one of the top five worldwide cities for livability and quality of life.

We couldn’t help but feel the beauty and natural majesty of the city as we sailed at 4 p.m. from Canada Place, to underneath the Lion’s Gate Bridge, past Stanley Park, and out into the Burrard Inlet as our seven-day cruise got underway. Our five-star ship was Holland America’s Amsterdam, which has a capacity of 1,380.

After the mandatory lifeboat drill, we enjoyed a delicious dinner in the La Fontaine dining room. Along with newer amenities, the Amsterdam has a certain regal note, and passengers on Holland America still have the option for set-seat dining (which we prefer). As we strolled the decks after dinner, we admired the ship’s multi-million-dollar art and antiques collection, then enjoyed a show in the main theater, danced to the Neptunes, and took a turn at the casino’s blackjack tables.

Porpoises and whales cavorting alongside and behind the ship entertained us during the first full day of cruising, which was spent at sea as the ship made its way north along the breathtaking beauty of the British Columbia coast and the Alaska panhandle on one side and thousands of islands on the other. We began the day in the main dining room with a traditional Dutch breakfast called Uitsmitjer, which consisted of an open-faced muffin laden with ham, Gouda cheese, and fried eggs. We were seated by the windows with the perfect view to watch three whales that seemed to swim alongside the ship, at a safe distance, of course.

We tore ourselves away from wildlife watching to listen to a naturalist’s informative lecture called “Feathers, Fins, and Fun,” which prepared visitors for the rich wildlife of the region with info such as

• bald eagles are no longer endangered; there are no grizzly bears in Alaska;
• brown bears fatten up on salmon, mate in the sprint, but delay implantation of the zygote until just before hibernation;
• black bears can also be brown or white, and they feed on grasses and berries.

After cheering on contestants in a “Dancing with the Stars” waltz competition, we ambled toward the Champagne art auction, the first of several on the ship. I had been to many auctions on other cruises, but this was Bill’s first foray into the world of fine art. After listening to a brief lecture on art history, the auction began and “art rookie” Bill purchased five lovely, signed, limited-edition serigraphs, two by well-known Ukrainian painter Igor Medvedev and three by the Israeli modern master Itzchak Tarkay. He got them at great prices, too!

Maple-lacquered duck breast anchored another delicious dinner, followed by entertainment in the piano bar, at the show, and in the casino to finish out the day.

More whales entertained us againduring breakfast as we enjoyed Italian frittatas, muesli, and Kadota figs. Since today would feature the grandeur of scenic cruising in Glacier Bay, we wanted to stake out the perfect spot for viewing nature’s richness, so as soon as we finished listening to the lecture called “Alaska: Land of Ice,” we hurried to the Crow’s Nest lounge on the top deck for the best indoor seating.

The naturalist’s glaciology lecture was fascinating and informative. He explained why glacial ice is blue and regular ice is white: Regular ice has a lot of air, which diffuses the light and reflects all colors (thus appears white), while glaciers are denser with less air, so only the blue part of the spectrum is reflected. He also spoke about climate change, telling us that there is no doubt among the scientific community that climate change is occurring because 95% of the world’s glaciers are receding. The differences are political—what to do about it. He discussed calving versus corking: corking is underwater calving, followed by the calves popping up in the water as icebergs, of which we only see the top ten per cent. Most calves are the size of houses. He added that Glacier Bay is actually a fiord and is a national monument. Park regulations allow only two cruise chips per day to enter its waters.

To keep guests warm, Holland America’s traditional Dutch pea soup was served on the outside decks, followed by a poolside Alaskan salmon bake with Caesar salad and bread pudding. As the ship entered Glacier Bay, Park Ranger Amanda took to the loudspeaker to narrate “The Wonders of Glacier Bay” as she explained the history and phenomenon of the area. Glacier Bay is one of 401 units of the national park system and consists of hundreds of tidewater glaciers that touch the sea. Currently undergoing the fastest retreat known to science, Glacier Bay was actually once all glacier, but now consists of 55 miles of ocean water. A member of the native Tlingit tribe from the Eagle moiety also spoke about the Tlingit way of life and their belief that everything has a spirit, including glaciers, trees, animals, etc. They view Glacier Bay as their sacred homeland.

As the ranger spoke, we saw a herd of mountain goats, harbor seals, puffins, and a huge brown bear that seemed to fall about 20 feet down a cliff as it hunted for berries. We all waited with bated breath to see if he was injured, but he got up and continued on his quest. Some of the most noteworthy glaciers we passed were the Rendu Glacier, Reid Glacier, Lamplugh Glacier,Margerie Glacier, Grand Pacific Glacier and the Johns Hopkins glacier, which presents one of the most beautiful views in the world. At the waterfront it has a width of one mile, rises 250 feet above the water, and stretches twelve miles upstream. It is one of the few glaciers that is not retreating, due to the enormous volume of snow at its origin.

Skagway, Alaska, was our port of call the next day with an arrival time of 7 a.m. An exceptional excursion out of Skagway is the White Pass Scenic Railway, but since we had taken that trip on our previous two cruises, we opted instead for a delightfully entertaining tour of the town. An appropriately costumed, bubbly, and funny young lady named Raymie took us on an hour-and-a-half tour of this one-mile town in a 1927 Mack model AB streetcar and filled us with more stories and tales and facts than we could ever remember.

She told us that Skagway was a Tlingit word for “nasty place to live in winter,” but I think that was one of her “tales.” Anyway, Skagway, population 800, lies at the foot of the tall Chilkoot Mountains in a stunningly scenic valley and is the town that gold built. During the 1897-1899 Klondike gold rush, thousands of gold seekers landed here to begin the arduous trek to Canada’s Yukon wilderness. So many people and animals died from exhaustion and lack of food that the Canadian government finally required a minimum of one ton of provisions for every person making the climb over the mountains. Of 100,000 who started out for the Klondike, only about 40,000 made it over the pass,and of those, only a few found gold. No gold was ever found near Skagway; it was just the jumping off point for the long trek into Canada.

During the gold rush, scammers converged on the town and took advantage of the gold seekers. One famous “outlaw” was legendary Soapy Smith, who conducted some 300 scams on unsuspecting prospectors, including the telegraph scam. He offered to send a telegraph for anyone to anywhere in the world for only $5. There was but one problem—there were no telegraph lines! Somehow, however, answers always came back, collect, in minutes! One day he went too far and was shot after stealing $2,400 worth of gold. We visited his grave in the Gold Rush cemetery, which included many graves from the gold rush era.

Skagway is actually Tlingit for “chilling winds,” and it is surrounded by the natural beauty of mountains rising into azure peaks out of a valley lush with cottonwood, spruce, hemlock, and birch trees. We paused at a scenic lookout overlooking Skagway and Cathedral Peak in the Chilkoot Mountains and returned to the city to drive around the 23-block by 4-block city. During Soapy Smith’s time, there were 80 saloons in Skagway; now there are four, including the original Red Onion, where the cost is still $5 for fifteen minutes upstairs with a lady. It was a fun way to see the town and learn its history.

The weather was unusually hot—in fact the year has been the hottest on record for Alaska—it was 90 degrees. Before returning to the ship we had lunch and visited the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, where we spoke with a park ranger who remembered talking with our grandsons, who had visited a few weeks earlier.

Our five-star ship is comfortable and elegant. There are fresh flowers everywhere, it is nicely decorated with millions of dollars of art and antiques, and it has a huge library. Our cabin is quite large with a balcony, ten feet of closet space, a full tub, full sofa, and king bed. Our dinner companions are lovely Canadian couples, two from Stratford and one from Calgary. One of the ladies had been an elementary school teacher of Justin Bieber. She had a few stories to tell!

For dinner this evening, I enjoyed roast lamb with artichokes, chilled banana soup with ice cream in it, and baked Alaska for dessert.

Every cruise ship stops at Juneau, so this was our fourth visit to Alaska’s capital city, which was voted as having the ugliest state capitol building in the U.S. (Hawaii and New Mexico are # 2 and 3.) Completely surrounded by mountains and ocean, Juneau is accessible only by boat or plane; there are no roads into Juneau.

On previous trips we experienced many of Juneau’s attractions, including the Mt. Roberts Tram, gold panning and salmon bake, a whitewater rafting (Class II and II rapids) trip down the Mendenhall River, visiting a salmon hatchery, and hiking on nature trails. We chose an excursion called “Mendenhall Glacier and Wildlife Quest.” We began with a visit to the only “drive-up glacier,” thirteen miles from Juneau, the twelve-mile river of ice called the Mendenhall Glacier in the Tongass National Forest. A mile and a half wide at its face, the glacier has already retreated some 2 ½ miles due to climate change.

After a scenic motor coach tour through Mendenhall Valley, in Auke Bay we boarded a water-jet powered catamaran specifically designed for whale and wildlife viewing. We relaxed in the warm and comfortable main cabin, surrounded by windows as we glided through the island-studded waters of Stephen’s Passage. Against a majestic backdrop of snow-capped peaks and the Ptarmigan, Eagle, and Herbert glaciers, our onboard naturalist explained the behavior and habitat of the wildlife we encountered: humpback whales, Stellar sea lions, Dall’s porpoises, and harbor seals. We saw several pods of 9 to 10 whales, including one pod that exhibited an inventive technique of feeding called bubble net feeding, where a group of whales swims in a shrinking circle blowing bubbles below a school of prey. The shrinking ring of bubbles encircles the school and confines it in an ever-smaller cylinder. Observing this phenomenon and listening to the whales’ vocalizations were such a treat.

“Surf and turf” (filet and lobster), along with escargot and another baked Alaska, which is available every night, were the highlights of my dinner, after which we watched a mesmerizing magician in the showroom, followed by sing-along time in the piano bar. No casino tonight, as Bill had had three days of gambling losses—very minor ones—and hoped to break his pattern!

The next day meant Ketchikan, which is one of my favorite ports anyway, but where I would experience my all-time favorite Alaskan excursion as well.

What was becoming my usual breakfast of Swiss muesli, kadota figs, and an Italian frittata (egg whites, cream cheese, basil, sundried tomatoes—baked) started the day as we awaited our noon arrival into port. An art lecture on Kincaid and the naturalist’s interesting lecture on the geology of Alaska passed the time before our afternoon excursion, which I had eagerly anticipated, the Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s Tour on the Aleutian Ballad king crab boat made famous in season two of Discovery channel’s award-winning television series, Deadliest Catch.

It was an adventure I won’t forget! The friendly and engaging crew, Danny and Derrick, and owner David, greeted us as we boarded and found seats in the comfort of the heated and sheltered stadium seating on the lower deck. As the Aleutian Ballad set out in the calm, protected waters of the Inside Passage, close to shore and safely away from open waters, we were surrounded by beauty and treated by the crew to stories of adventures they had experienced while risking their lives fishing the Bering Sea. One of the fascinating and colorful stories was about the 107-foot Aleutian Ballad itself and how, in season two of Deadliest Catch when the boat was named the Shannon Marie, it was hit by a massive rogue wave, rolling it onto its side during a treacherous storm with 100 mph winds and 50 to 60-foot seas. Fortunately, after a “mayday” call, all of the crew members were rescued from the water by the Coast Guard as the boat floated on its side.

We witnessed firsthand the amazing yet dangerous way of life of commercial fishermen as the skilled crew hauled and set long lines, barrel pots, dome pots, and the huge 750-pound king crab pots. We marveled at the catches: about 25 king crab in 450 feet of water, then opilio snow crab and box crab, as well as a number of sunflower sea stars. The amazing marine life was placed in an on-deck aquarium so everyone could get up close with the unique creatures of the sea and take photos holding crabs, sea stars, and other sea life. The crew was unbelievably patient with us tourists, posed for hundreds of pictures, and made sure everyone was having a great time. It was obvious that they love their job!

One of the highlights was when the boat anchored off-shore of a small island where eagles were nesting and watching perhaps fifty or so bald eagles come swooping down to catch the fish the crew were throwing overboard. They were a magnificent sight as they plunged and pounced on the floating bait fish only about ten or so feet from us.

As we slowly made our way back to Ketchikan, Danny (who crewed on the Maverick and has been a commercial fisherman for 23 years after getting a golf scholarship to San Jose State) and Derrick (who captained the Cornelia Marie) continued to share stories about the life of fishermen, noting how expensive and how risky crab fishing is from a financial standpoint. The crew all has a stake in the catch, and if the quota is not reached, they might find themselves owing the boat owner money! For example, it takes about $100,000 for fuel, $15,000 for bait just to get started on a 150-pot trip.

From the minute we stepped onboard, the personable and entertaining crew treated every guest wonderfully—it is truly world-class customer service—and we loved being there with them. The adventure is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a unique, fascinating, and entertaining experience that is considered one of the top rated excursions in the world today. I certainly agree!

While regaling everyone at dinner with tales of our adventure, I enjoyed an apricot glazed salmon and later tried a gentle drink called “Grizzly Bear” made with Jaegermeister, Kahlua, and Amaretto as we listened to the Neptunes in the lounge. Bill’s one-day absence from the blackjack tables turned his luck around, and he actually won some money tonight!

Our final cruise day was at sea, and I made good use of time by attending a salmon cooking class in the fancy show-kitchen called the Culinary Arts Center. In the afternoon, we attended the Grand Finale Champagne Art Auction (but didn’t buy anything!)

The next morning we disembarked in Vancouver, B.C. after a thoroughly enjoyable, never boring or repetitive, fourth Alaska cruise!


11th August 2015

your cruise
We have been on one cruise to Alaska and are planning on going back in 2016. Loved reading your comments and I agree the Crab boat tour was great. We went on a Holland America cruise and it was really nice.

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