I tell my friends that I've seen Alaska. But
that's an exaggeration. Alaska is too vast - nearly
one-third the size of the entire continental United
States. It is mostly untamed, unexplored wilderness
- from arctic ice to a lush rainforest interior.
But in cruising the "inside passage,"
I think I saw its essence and felt a glimmer of
I was mulling over ideas for a family vacation.
One where we'd all be together, travel, see interesting
sights, yet be free of the hassle of packing and
unpacking, deciding when or where to eat, and
what to see and when. So, a cruise seemed like
a good idea. Alaska, I admit, was not my first
choice. Afterall, the cities there hold little
historical charm for me. Most were indian fishing
villages until the mid-19th century. From then
on, their history can be summed up by "they
found gold, people came" or "they found
oil, the oil spilled, and people came." However,
my kids had images of mountains of ice falling
into the sea, breeching whales, ballets of dolphins,
and millions of salmon vaingloriously fighting
their way upstream to breed. And so, the choice
There were plenty of cruise lines to choose from
- Princess, Holland American, Celebrity, and more.
All seemed to have glorious ships - floating hotels
with vast dining rooms, theatres, casinos, pools,
exercise rooms, and spas. Everyone I spoke to
about cruising Alaska said, "you have to
go the Glacier Bay." So, a cruise that went
through Glacier Bay became de rigueur and narrowed
the choices. I chose a Princess cruise. I can't
say whether another line would have been better
or worse. But the service, the amenities, the
dining and entertainment aboard the SUN PRINCESS
were generally excellent.
Traveling to Alaska, even in summer months, is
a gamble on the weather. But except for one foggy,
rainy day at sea between Vancouver and our first
port of Ketchikan, we had excellent weather -
warm, tee shirt and shorts days, calm waters,
cold but sweater comfortable nights.
Regardless of the Alaskan cruise you take, the
ports are generally the same - Ketchikan, Skagway,
Sitka, and Juneau. My cruise visited them all,
except Sitka, whose primary attraction is its
Russian and Tlingit indian past. You can either
depart from Vancouver - a wonderful city, worth
spending a holiday in by itself; or from Anchorage,
with a shuttle bus taking you to the unglamorous
departure port of Seward, Alaska. There are also
roundtrip voyages from Vancouver.
Vancouver is an exciting and grand port city
with snow capped coastal mountains a glorious
backdrop for a city of glass and concrete skyscrapers.
We spent several enjoyable days walking and gawking
in downtown, along the upscale shopping area of
Robson Street and along Water Street in quaint,
historic Gastown. At the northern tip of Vancouver
is 1000-acre Stanley Park with a myriad of hiking
and biking trails, beaches, and harbor views.
Drive across Lion's Gate Bridge to North Vancouver
to visit the Capilano Suspension Bridge and the
nature preserve around it, and a little further
on to Grouse Mountain, Vancouver's ski area with
incomparable views of the city. Take a day to
drive 45 minutes south to Tsawwassen where the
ferries board people and cars for the two-hour
trip to Victoria Island. Drive off and visit the
famous Butchart Gardens. A little further on,
you'll come to Victoria, the capital of the province
of British Columbia, with a quaint old-English
seaside town charm. Bordering the harbor is the
dramatic domed Parliament building and the ivy
covered grand Empress Hotel, famous for its afternoon
English high teas. Back in Vancouver, you'll board
your cruise ship at Canada Place, a city landmark
with its cruise terminal roof designed to look
like giant white sails.
Excluding the cost of airfare, the cruise lines
offer attractive base prices for their tours.
You can find a cabin on almost any line for little
more than $100 per day per person. Of course,
these are usually inside cabins, windowless, claustrophobic
places. If you can afford it, choose a balconied
stateroom. On an Alaskan cruise, which hugs a
coastline with ever-changing and grand vistas,
it "makes" the voyage extraordinary.
Call room service, sit back on a lounge chair,
sip wine, snack, and with long daylight hours
extending to midnight, marvels will pass before
your eyes - snowcapped evergreen mountains with
blue glaciers dipping into the sea, walls of ice
thundering off the face of glaciers with thousands
of tiny icebergs floating into a bay, an occasional
fluke or geyser of water as whales breach nearby,
dolphins playfully trailing the ship, otters lounging
on ice flows.
While the cruise line base fares appear enticingly
reasonable, there are plenty of extras that add
up quickly. There's tipping. Princess adds a $10/day
per person charge as a standard gratuity for its
waiters and stewards. Liquor is extra. And while
the Alaskan port towns, each with their own Gold
Rush or indian histories, are interesting, all
can be explored in just a few hours. So, you are
tempted to take one of the many land excursions
the cruises offer. Taking a few of these brief
tours can quickly add up to more than the cost
of the cruise itself. A floatplane flight costs
about $200-$250. A fishing trek, the same. A helicopter
ride, landing atop a glacier, $300. A helicopter
and dog sled ride, nearly $400.
The opportunity to eat aboard ship is never-ending.
There is someplace to eat 24 hours per day. In
the main dining room, waiters encourage gluttony.
If you don't like the main course you've chosen,
choose another. Uncertain which desert to order,
order both. A cruise is perhaps the best place
to experience those exotic foods you would be
wary of trying or ever have the opportunity to
order again. Try the frogs legs or squid, the
venison or caribou. And with a spa and gym aboard,
there is plenty of opportunity, for those so inclined,
to work it off.
There is also plenty of entertainment aboard
ship - singers, dancers, comedians, magicians,
and variety shows. In the evenings at sea, other
than relaxing in your stateroom or gambling, a
ship's passengers are a captive audience. And
though the entertainment was generally good, there
were some duds. The downside to entertainment
at sea, there's no opportunity to get an advance
review. You'll only know, whether a show deserves
a thumbs up or down, after the curtain closes.
Our first port, the town of Ketchikan, Alaska's
southernmost city, measures its yearly rainfall
in feet, not inches. The archway sign you pass
under as you enter the town heralds KETCHIKAN
as "The Salmon Capital of the World."
The town, buttressed against the hills, is probably
a quarter mile wide and a mile long. Though I
saw plenty of native Alaskan indians, most were
obviously the poorest of residents, a fate that
has befallen most Native Americans. Chatting with
other Alaskans, it seemed that while a few were
native born, most were transplants from northern
states like Montana or Washington, or Canada's
British Columbia. And many told me they returned
to those "warmer" climes with the onset
of Alaska's harsh and dark winters. Storekeepers
bemoaned the decline of Ketchikan's population.
The economy in Ketchikan, and much of Alaska,
is based on three industries: salmon fishing (depleting),
logging (restricted by federal legislation), and
tourism. And tourism is seasonal. Ketchikan's
population, once about 15,000 is now about 10,000.
The highlights here were watching a multitude
of eagles soaring overhead, checking out the local
totem poles, walking along picturesque Creek Street
with remnants of Ketchikan's rowdy early days
including Dolly's House, a bordello turned into
a museum. The tourist shops everywhere in Alaska
sell the same fare - variations of moose, salmon,
bear, whale, and eagle souvenirs; indian relics
- totem poles, masks, katchina dolls, carved whalebone;
or Russian and gold rush mementos.
Juneau is also a small town. Once a native fishing
village, it became a gold mining town in the 1880's.
Today, it's Alaska's capital. Highlights there
were the Red Dog Saloon, the onion-domed St. Nicholas
Russian Orthodox Church, a few museums with Eskimo
and gold mining exhibits, and the state capital.
I found the capital interesting with its historical
pictures and a quaint statehouse chamber smaller
than the meeting rooms of some California suburban
school boards. Fifteen miles out of town is Mendenhall
Glacier, the most visited glacier in the world.
It is easily accessed by road and worth a side
trip, not only to view its blue ice but also to
explore its visitor center with a theatre and
exhibits that do a great job explaining the remarkable
environment around it. There's also a salmon hatchery
nearby. If your visit is timed right, you can
watch the salmon leaping upstream. If not, you'll
see a few in an aquarium with an informational
display. Like the weather, the rest of nature
can be fickle too.
Skagway, ninety miles north of Juneau, is another
gold rush town. This gateway to the Klondike is
famous for the arduous Chilkoot Pass that 19th
century prospectors had to traverse to reach the
gold fields. You can choose more modest shore
excursions here on the White Pass and Yukon Railway
to take you up into the picturesque mountains
bordering the Canadian Yukon. Or, for the more
adventurous, you can take a shuttle to the mountaintop
and bike down into town, stopping along the way
to inhale magnificent views of mountains and waterfalls.
If tourist shopping or shore excursions are not
to your liking, there are wonderful hiking trails
in all the ports. And a walk through Alaska's
rainforest is an adventure. Words of caution,
be prepared for rain and mosquitoes.
Despite the sojourns through Alaska's historic
towns, the "highlights" of Alaskan cruising
are the vistas of glaciers, the shoreline, and
catching views of native wildlife. And doing it
aboard ship provides some wonderful incongruities.
Picture yourself, soaking outside in a spa, sipping
margaritas, while watching ice flows and glaciers
slipping by, whales and otters in the water, perhaps
a brown bear onshore.
Last stop Seward, with an early morning departure
to Anchorage. It takes about an hour to drive
from Seward to Anchorage. This drive through the
Kenai Peninsula was a rewarding trip in itself,
past coastal streams, mountain goats traversing
seemingly impossible cliffs, and the Turnagain
Arm of Cook Inlet with a daily mini-tidal wave
that occurs nowhere else in the world.
Anchorage, with 250,000 inhabitants, is home
to nearly half of all Alaskan residents. It's
a cosmopolitan but bland city - like the rest
of the lower 48 populated by fast food outlets
and shopping malls. It's main streets - 3rd, 4th
and 5th - are dotted with the usual tourist traps,
a few art galleries and quaint cafes, and an Alaskan
heritage art museum. On the outskirts of town,
Earthquake Park memorializes the greatest earthquake
in North America that devastated Anchorage in
1964. Anchorage is not a city worth visiting just
for itself. It's a step-off destination - to a
cruise or perhaps a trip to Denali National Park,
crowned by snow-covered Mount McKinley. Or, it's
a home base for Alaska's nearby outdoor adventures
- be it hiking, fishing, hunting, kayaking, or
I went to Alaska to see wonderful creatures and
grand vistas and enjoy them with family. I wasn't