January 28, 2014 by Rokman61
Alaska, Part 1: on board and on shore
Norma and I had been thinking about taking a cruise somewhere someday. After all, doesn’t everybody do it? We decided that this would be our year, so booked passage with a major cruise line to Alaska. The voyage started and ended right in Vancouver, from September 14th to 21st, 2013.
At the Canada Place terminal the ship was awaiting our arrival, looming above us in the mist, looking very imposing. (This photo was actually taken in Juneau, where there was a better angle for conveying its overwhelming massiveness).
Obviously, this was one BIG boat, but just how big was it really? We were told that it would dwarf the Titanic, so out of curiosity I googled up the stats for both. The Titanic was 883 feet in length, and the displacement was given as 52,500 tons. The Zuiderdam is 956 feet long and displaces 82,300 tons, so in bulk it is about one-and-a-half times the size. Interestingly, the passenger capacity given for the Titanic is more than for the Zuiderdam, 2435 versus 2272.
Here we are aboard, waving from our veranda, one of the tiny pigeon holes in the virtual wall of cabins.
My brother and sister-in-law came out to send us off, perhaps thinking they may never see us again. He seems to be saying something like, “Pity they have to go sailing off into oblivion and end it all this way – still so young!”
But he claims he was actually saying, “My brother has finally succumbed to total geezerhood”.
As we were pulling away from the pier we passed by a still bigger cruise ship. This one left port hours after we did, but beat us to Alaska, probably because of its two giant jet engines mounted on top.
We had heard a fair bit about life onboard a cruise ship, but it is something else to actually experience it. Our vessel would be described as a ‘mid-sized’ cruiser, as there were barely over 2000 passengers and 800 crew aboard. Still, the ship is big enough that one needs a map to navigate around – conveniently placed beside each elevator.
Our cruise to Alaska was the second last of the season. After that, the boat goes through the Panama Canal and spends the winter in the Caribbean. There were some hints on board that the conditions there might differ from what we were to experience.
Inside there are endless distractions to amuse the passengers – gambling, stage shows, seminars, spas, exercise room, library, and bars everywhere you looked. Of the many aspects that caught my attention, I will present a random selection here.
The decor on board was conspicuously opulent and arguably ostentatious.. Art was everywhere, such as these reproductions of classic Venetian statuary.
For times when one had to wait a few moments for an elevator ride, tasteful and comfy benches such as this one were provided . I preferred to stand.
Fresh flowers abounded throughout the ship.
A live orchid graced each table in the buffet, and were even placed in the men’s washroom!
Something I did not expect to see onboard was real natural stone, as lighter weight plastic products would seem to be more practical. But real stone was observed here and there, such as these tiles of travertine making up the floor of a bar area.
One of several lounges.
One of several bars.
I’m not sure why there is a three-story atrium amidship, but it was certainly noticeable. Does Las Vegas come to mind anyone?
Here’s the main theatre. Free bubbly was offered at one of the shows, for sharing a toast with the captain and crew.
We could not have been more pleased with the crew members that interacted with the passengers, mostly young men from Southeast Asia. All of them were friendly, helpful, courteous, and had a wonderful sense of humour. On the ship they were away from home and family for months on end, and it was gratifying to see these young people working hard and making it fun. Each day they featured some sort of theme, sometimes a particular ethnic cuisine, and below we see a ‘miner’ with his stash of gold on ‘Klondike Gold Rush Day’.
The cabin crew tidied up our room every time we stepped out!
Each morning there appeared a different piece of towel art on the bed, along with pamphlets pertaining to the next day’s events. This one we assumed is a swan.
Piggie and squid – or is that a lobster?
Koala and gorilla.
For us, a major attraction on board was the food. If you have never been on one of these junkets, imagine it like this: a Sunday brunch all-you-can-eat buffet, three times a day for a week! Here was one ‘course’ on a typical lunch sitting.
Food was prepared by a crew of workers from the Philippines. They provided nearly endless variety, and it was quite apparent that they were very proud of their work. Here some of them are showing off the desert for one of the dinners – baked Alaska of course!. Like those from Southeast Asia they seemed to work hard and enjoy it.
Check this array of fruits and vegis used to spiffy up one of the buffet stations.
The buffet was only one option: alternately we dined in the sit-down restaurant, where we were served a four-course meal. By our standards, this was truly ‘fine dining’. Here Norma ponders her selection for breakfast; below is a typical lunch menu.
We were told that on some cruises one can opt for assigned seating – good thing we didn’t have that! Sitting with different people at every meal was one of the most rewarding aspects of the whole cruising experience. We got to chat with folks from many countries, albeit more Aussies that anything else. A complete range from blue-collar to wealthy, young and old, newbie cruisers and veterans – all mixed in. A German judge, an American Republican Tea-party wing-nut, some elderly upper-class English widows who might have choked had they known the stature of the commoners they were breaking bread with.
Sailing north up the inland passage, the seas were very flat, and the sky heavily overcast. Here is a typical view from the first day. Sometimes there wasn’t even a horizon in sight.
Birds were relatively few. These are White-wing Scoters, a species of sea duck that is also abundant back home. The real sea-birds I most wanted to see did not make their presence known, save for one brief session when I didn’t have my camera at hand.
(More scenic photos taken whilst cruising and some wildlife shots to be presented in Part 2).
Our first shore day was a visit to Juneau, the State Capital. This image pretty much covers most of what there is to see/do. Firstly, the weather was typical for the region. Secondly, two of their most significant commercial ventures are visible, namely multiple opportunities for tours and/or adventures, and the sale of gemstone jewellery. The cruise ships don’t come this way after September, so the few permanent residents are believed to hibernate for the winter months.
Instead of spending our time and money in town, we decided we would like to see the Mendenhall Glacier. We could have purchased a tour package on the ship for about $40 each, but somebody told us we could get a bus to the glacier for less if we purchased it on shore. As you can see right above the umbrella, the bus ride cost $8 per.
The Mendenhall Glacier is billed as the “Most accessible in the USA”. You can drive right to this viewpoint, but of course you have to get to Juneau first by ship or aircraft. (In western Canada one can drive to glaciers beside major highways).
While here we took a pleasant little walk to the waterfall – it hardly rained at all.
Along the way, a touch of fall colour . . .
We overheard a park naturalist mention that black bears had been observed near the visitor centre the previous week, foraging for “groundcone roots” . Curious about the ‘groundcones’, we kept an eye out for them and Norma spotted some beside the trail to the falls.
This odd-looking plant is a parasite, wholly dependant on extracting nutrients from its host, usually alder shrubs.
Juneau has (we were told) some rather funky watering holes, and many numerous places to shop. This window art is in the retail outlet for the Alaskan Brewing Company, a celebrated local suds producer that ships all over western USA.
Here is a bit of street art that caught my eye, the design in classic Northwest Native style.
White Pass & Yukon Railway
I was told that this is a “Must-do”, and after having done it, I whole-heartedly concur. This railway was built in 1898 in response to the Klondike Gold-rush, so has very great historical significance. I will present here only a few tidbits of our adventure: for those interested in the railway there is an excellent article about it in Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Pass_and_Yukon_Route
We booked an excursion for a ride to the top of White Pass and return. Boarding was conveniently on the docks right beside our cruise ship. Here a train is approaching the ‘station’.
Some of the coaches are over a hundred years old, and others are replicas conforming to the original designs. This was a really nostalgic moment for me because as a youth back in Ontario, we often travelled by train, and the conductor in uniform was a familiar icon of the day.
As the train passed by the rail yards at the edge of town, we could see a number of locomotives of different vintages. Note the snowplow blades up front.
Apparently some of the old locomotives were dumped over the edge of the trackbed to help protect steep slopes from erosion.
The track winds its way up, offering views of the route across the very steep valleys. Here another excursion train preceded our unit up the hill.
Middle-level slopes are clad with a forest of conifers. The lush bluish-green trees are sub-apline fir, and the other ones are Sitka spruce.
White Pass was one of the several routes used by the gold rush hopefuls to access the Klondike. Before the rail line was laid, traffic was by foot or pack animals. Here is a section of the original trail, still very much visible more than a hundred years after it was essentially abandoned.
Near the top, a very deep gully was spanned by this spindly-looking trestle. By-passed long ago, it now provides a superbly scenic subject for the many thousands of photos taken here each year.
The top of the pass marks the international border. From left-to-right, flags from Alaska, Yew-ess-aye, Canada, BC, and Yukon. Some train excursions continue into the Yukon, but the one we chose did not go beyond the pass. Here the locomotives are shunted on a siding and repositioned at the opposite end of the train, and all the passengers are asked to switch sides to even out viewing opportunites.
The terrain is above the treeline, so looks like this.
This is also prime habitat for Willow Ptarmigan, which would be a new bird for my BC lifelist, and we were several metres inside BC. But they wouldn’t let me get off to look, this being ‘foreign’ turf. I scanned furiously with my binoculars for the few minutes whilst they moved the locomotives, but there was no joy this time, and all too soon our train headed down the same way it came.
Back in town, we went to check things out, Skagway being a town of enormous historical interest in a spectacular setting. First some history . . .
Now some setting, looking back down the main drag. In the distance you can see some blue glacier ice looming above the mist and our ship docked at the end of the street.
Because we were there nearly at the end of the cruising season, the local merchants were eager to dump excess stock. We noticed a steady stream of cruise-ship workers exiting this particular outlet, carrying big red bags of bounty. This was definitely the time and place for stocking up on souvenir items.
Bears are a major attraction that many many tourists hope to see in Alaska. This life-size bruin stands guard in the emporium pictured above, watching over the shoppers.
As one might expect there is an endless supply of Tee-shirts, trinkets, and miscellaneous schlock for tourists like us to throw money at. There are also some fine boutiques with very high-end quality offerings, mainly gemstone jewellery and native art. One example, this superb knife of carved bone and Damascus steel, made by a local artisan.
You know you are not in Canada when you see a sign like this one.
As they say in Alaska, there is “The right way, the wrong way, and Skagway”.
(Continued in Part 2: Glacier Bay, a bit of wildlife, and heading home).