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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Cruising Alaska

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 its spirit.

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 was made.

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 mountain climbing.

I went to Alaska to see wonderful creatures and grand vistas and enjoy them with family. I wasn't disappointed.