An Alaskan cruise to remember

This chunks were about the size of a car, from what we could see. They created some pretty big...

This chunks were about the size of a car, from what we could see. They created some pretty big waves. -- Photo by Thibault Dambrine, CANOE Travel reader. Full Gallery


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Full Gallery of Thibault Dambrine's Alaskan cruise photos

September is late in the season to visit Alaska. By chance, it was the time when both my wife and I became available for this trip, our choice for vacation in 2005. We picked a cruise-tour package composed of seven days cruising from Vancouver to Seward and four days visiting Denali National Park.

We boarded the ship, Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas, around noon at the Canada Place pier in Vancouver, B.C., famous for its sail-like roof structure. Since our rooms were not ready when we boarded, there was only one thing to do: discover the ship, starting with the Windjammer buffet located at the top of the ship. Beyond this, we found the "Vision of the Seas" to be a massive ship, being 78,000 tons with 11 decks (not including the lower crew decks).

By late afternoon, we had access to our room, which had a window. When I got there, I realized that our room view was on the left side of the boat and worried that we would not see much of the coast or any of the rugged land this cruise is famous for. This impression proved to be wrong, as the inner passage is quite a sight to behold on both sides of the ship, given that we actually sailed in the channels formed by thousands of islands bordering the west coast.

By 5:00 p.m., we started sailing out of Vancouver Harbour. Slowly leaving the pier, waving to the tourists who hung on to see the ship depart, we had the surreal impression of being in one of those black and white documentaries. From all we could see, the appeal of this old-fashioned gesture has not faded with time.

Once on our way, we sailed under the Lion's Gate Bridge, which looked nearly frail from this angle, despite the amount of traffic it supports every day. Passing this point with the sun low on the horizon and the air of the sea coming to meet us gave us a sense that our vacation was really starting. We headed to the formal dining room for our first evening meal aboard the ship. We liked the buffet, but we had higher expectations of the dining room and service. We were not disappointed.

Eight years before, we had been on a cruise in the Caribbean and my wife became very ill with motion sickness. At that point, she had followed a friend's advice to wear pressure point wrist-bands which were supposed to alleviate any of these problems. It was a complete failure. This time, she purchased motion-sickness patches which one can apply on the skin just behind the ear. This product proved to be very effective. With a bottle of Gravol, we were set! While the patch worked well most of the time, there was one evening when the ship hit rougher waters and she did get a bit sick but only once in a week was already a big improvement on the previous cruise.

During our first meal in the dining room, we got aquainted to our head-waitress, our waitress and her assistant. All three were very attentive to our every need. Generally, we found the food to be very good too.

After the meal, we explored the ship more. The casino was now open and well attended, there was a choice of bars with different themes and also a theatre with a different show each night. Imagine, this theatre could accommodate 1,000 people!

The cruise took us to the following ports of call: Ketchikan, Skagway, Juneau, Icy Straits, a visit to the Hubbard Glacier and finally, arrival in Seward.

Each of these little towns had their own personalities and with only one exception, the locals we met appeared to enjoy life in the north. Although Alaska is part of the United States, Alaskans appear to be a different people. They typically refer to themselves as Alaskans before Americans. Often, they refer to the "Lower 48," meaning the 48 contiguous states south of Canada.

Ketchikan has a creek by the same name in which we saw litterally thousands of salmon going upstream to spawn. There were suggestive and humorous t-shirts in the shops warning of the dangers of obsessive spawning -- the salmon die after this last trip. The shops and houses in Ketchikan are mostly brightly coloured, painted wooden structures. From this first stop, we knew we had crossed into a different place. Most of the shops by the harbour catered visibly to the tourists, but in arriving at the end of the season, we saw many "SALE" signs and many locals taking advantage of nearly off-season prices.

The cruise was one of these trips where one can take the time to do what is not usually done, like read a book from end to end or sit in a hot tub while admiring the cold sea around and the wild coast of Alaska. The contrast of our ship's comfort compared to the wilderness and obvious harsh conditions all around us made me wonder how the first explorers of this region perceived it.

Skagway was born in 1897 as a gateway to the Klondike gold rush. It is actually 500 miles away from the Klondike, but that did not appear to be too much of an obstacle. Many walked that distance by foot with horses to carry the mining equipment. Once there, we boarded a narrow-gage railway which follows the White Pass Trail, also known as the "Dead Horse Trail," and goes all the way to Whitehorse, the Yukon capital. This dangerous path got this name in the winter of 1897-98, when over 3,000 horses, used by prospectors to carry gold digging material, died on the trail from cold and exhaustion. The train traversed mountains and valleys in what appeared to be completely wild nature. We crossed an area named Tormented Valley which looked so completely inhospitable that even the vegetation looked miserable and shivering in the damp and foggy cold. Of all the places we visited, Skagway still had that edgy look of a frontier town with a checkered past.

Captain George Paraskevopoulos was the chief on board. He went by "Captain George" and made several appearances during our trip. During our first cruise, we had the opportunity to visit the ship's bridge. This time (since 9/11 actually), we attended the Captain's presentation. A PowerPoint commented by the Captain himself with a question period.

Landing in Juneau, the capital, we found ourselves in the rainiest day of our trip. After a late breakfast, we walked out to visit the place and after a quick tour of downtown, opted to share a cab to visit the famous Mendenhall Glacier. We asked the cab driver when it started raining and his answer was "in January, with a few interruptions here and there." This man was the only one we met who was looking forward to leave Alaska. From all we could gather, there would not be much of a town in Juneau without the state government. Some people acknowledged that having the state capital in such an awkward spot was not such a good idea but they also said that it would cost too much to change it.

There were few children on the ship. The majority of passengers on the cruise was either retired or in that general zone north of 60 years old. To take best advantage of this trip, we realized quickly that one has to be an early riser. Many of our stops were earlier than the time we'd normally wake up on vacation, but these factors did not hinder us.

Icy Straits and Hoonah Bay
Our next stop was in Icy Straits. The ship parked itself in the middle of a pretty bay. From there, we boarded one of the "tenders" -- these are the bigger (over 100 people), motorized rescue boats that hang on each ship -- to Hoonah Bay, an isolated and small native community. Once again, we saw a familiar pattern of a place that once boomed but was now a museum in itself. The resource there was salmon, which was processed, canned and shipped in a local factory. We saw a fish processing machine called the "Iron Chink," designed in 1903 by a Seattle inventor to replace the (mostly Oriental) labour necessary to do this work. This device had to be adjusted for different sizes of fish and it could slit and gut 110 fish per minute... a lot more than the two fish per minute by an experienced worker.

Leaving Icy Straits, we heard the familiar voice of Captain George on the public address system, announcing that we would make a detour to see some whales. Indeed, we were not disappointed as did see some from the ship. We could also have purchased a tour to go and see them but we found these tours -- as with most of the tours offered by the cruise ship -- were very expensive.

The Hubbard Glacier
At 6:00 a.m. the next day, we arrived in Disenchantment Bay (also known as Yakutat), within view of Hubbard Glacier. We were told to be prepared to wake up early and we did. Luckily, we had a bright and crisp sunny day for that memorable visit. The glacier is massive to look at and one can see large chunks of ice fall into the sea on regular intervals (every 5-10 minutes). Prior to seeing the ice blocks detatching themselves, we could hear loud cracks, similar to thunder claps.

The Vision of the Seas is equipped with side thrusters, which enabled the ship to move sideways when leaving a port or a pier (thus saving the need for a tugboat). For the occasion, Captain George used these side thrusters to literally spin the boat on one spot, so that every cabin with a balcony could have a 360 degree view of the scenery without leaving their room. He got very good reviews for his maneuvering in a tight spot. We were on the top deck taking pictures, and this change of angle ensured that anyone who waited long enough could get a good spot by the railing to take a picture. Although a bit early in the morning, this sight was by far the most spectacular of our cruise.

With Hubbard Bay behind us, we were bound to Seward, which we would reach the next day. This would be our longest stretch at sea and it gave us time to explore the ship once again. By now, we were used to the people everywhere, and some of the faces were familiar. Despite carrying 2,400 passengers and 700 crew members, it did not feel crowded.

One of the touches that I enjoyed was the art everywhere in the ship. The sculptures were especially attractive, each with a picture of the artist that created it and on a small plaque, along with some words on their work in general. Most, if not all, were very tastefully chosen, placed strategically and decorated the place in a way which gave the impression that someone payed attention to what they were doing. There was also an art auction during our stay. We did not purchase any paintings but seeing original Salvador Dali watercolours -- or so we were told -- was an interesting surprise.

We arrived the next day at 4:00 a.m. in the port of Seward. Immediately, the port staff got to work to unload the luggage and tend the ship; this we could tell from the noise since our room was on the side of the ship that was against the pier.

Upon setting foot in Seward on a still dark, foggy, rainy and cold morning, we we got a warm greeting from Linda, our land tour guide, and Larry, our bus driver. We were invited to board the Royal Celebrity coach (no mere bus, we were told!) chartered for our group.

Our land itinerary took us from Seward along to Anchorage where we had lunch and then on to Talkeetna, a small town that actually inspired the TV show "Northern Exposure." We actually stayed in the Talkeetna Lodge, a few miles from the actual town.

The lodge looked like someone's dream building: a quaint lodge in an isolated spot, only bigger. The terrace apparently had a view to famous Mt. McKinley, as we deducted from the post cards, but the weather was overcast when we arrived.

The main foyer had an imposing fireplace, with the capacity of burning several 3-4 foot logs at a time. It was built with river stones, hand-picked by a local high-school football team (this effort paid for their uniforms). Our tour guide, Linda's son, was part of this effort and it was an obvious source of pride. Several traditionally trained stone masons took several weeks to erect this stone structure in the middle of this wooden lodge. It was spectacular to behold, especially when loaded with new logs and burning at full rate.

Denali National Park
The next day, we took our trusty coach and rolled toward Denali National Park, home of Mt. McKinley, which the locals call Mt. Denali, the native name for the mountain.

At the entrance of the park, we switched transportation and boarded a park bus, the only ones allowed within the park boundaries. Once in the park, our bus proceeded on a steady climb until we came to a designated spot for sight-seeing.

I am not sure of the elevation, but at that point, only small shrubs and mixed varieties of grass managed to take root on these harsh, rocky slopes. All vegetation by then had turned a rusty-brown colour, orange, deep red or a shade in between with large boulders strewn here and there, and grey bedrock never too far deep below a thin coat of top soil.

With one's back to the dirt road, the impression of isolation and complete absence of people gave the feeling of being in another world, nearly untouched by people, preparing for shutting down to hibernate. There was no sign of life. No deer, no bears, no birds, not even insects, only a chilly wind howling a lonely moan over the mountains. The cloud ceiling was low and even the smaller peaks were "socked in," as the tour guide described them. From that lookout, we should have been able to see Mt. McKinley but it too was burried in the clouds.

We returned to our lodge, located just outside the Park border. That night, we attended an Alaskan-themed rustic dinner theatre performance which put a smile on every face. We learned the next morning that there were Northern Lights that night but we were too blissfully unaware that we could have asked for a wake up call if we wanted to see them... next time!

In the morning, we boarded our coach for the last time, bound for Talkeetna again where we would board a Royal Celebrity double-decker train car, bound for Anchorage. Two noteworty events occurred during this trip: we saw a bear and three cubs in the wild -- Larry turned the bus around to give us a second look -- and we saw Mt McKinley, at 20,300 feet, the tallest peak in North America, for a few brief minutes. Finally!

The top of the car had comfortable seats and panoramic windows while the bottom hosted the restaurant. On this train, we ate what was probably the best slice of prime rib I ever tasted in my life. It was not included in the tour but hard to avoid the opportunity to splurge for our last scenic meal of our trip. Our final night in Anchorage was at the Marriott. The next day, we were on our way to the airport.

Looking back on this trip, we thought about the highlights, leaving Vancouver, the Hubbard Galcier, the view in Hoonah Bay, the terribly barren Tormented Valley, all places that seemed so remote and so different from our daily routine that we could not have imagined them if we had not been physically there.