Jul – Aug 2009: Alaska
July 24th, 2009 – Day 0
Oakland to Seattle, WA
Well, it seems that the vacation bug didn’t disappear for long as we were able to secure time and opporuntity to make one more trip before travel restrictions come into play with Natalie’s pregnancy. This time around, we were headed north to Alaska on a 7 day cruise, followed by a 5 day road trip in the Alaska interior.
Darin left work at 4:00pm and met Natalie and Aunt Mickey at the house for a 4:30pm departure to the airport. It was slow and go on the freeway, but once we arrived at OAK, things moved quickly and we had time for some California Pizza Kitchen before boarding our flight to Seattle.
As always Southwest did a fine job and we arrived without delay or any extra fees. (Can you tell I dislike nickel and diming by the airlines?) At SeaTac, we grabbed our bags and headed out to the curb awaiting our shuttle bus driver to our hotel. It was a busy night for the hotel free shuttle, and though it took almost 45 minutes to arrive, it was a nice evening in Seattle, so the wait wasn’t unbearable.
Arrived at the hotel and settled in for the night. Tomorrow, we transfer to Vancouver to board our ship.
July 25th, 2009 – Day 1
Seattle, WA to Vancouver, BC
After a nice breakfast at the hotel, we made our way back to the Airport, where we met hundreds of other travellers taking the Seattle to Vancouver bus transfer available from Princess. Boarding at 11:00am and arriving at around 3:00pm, the scenery was very nice, and although we had a delay at the border crossing, things were smooth with the process and our luggage was taken directly to our stateroom (an extra plus!).
Check-in lines for the Sapphire Princess were non-existent as we were in the final group of passengers to board, and shortly thereafter were in our stateroom for the week, Baja 529, and meeting our stateroom steward, Alex. He was an excellent staff member and constantly stayed ahead of all of our needs.
To the emergency drill, where we realized that there were more people in our muster station than were on the entire ship on our last cruise! The Sapphire Princess holds 2600+ people and is the largest vessel we had sailed with in our travel history. It was clean, well maintained, in excellent condition, and we didn’t really feel “overcrowded” at any point, which was nice.
From here, we headed to sail away and took pictures as we left the Vancouver dock on a nice afternoon. Back to the stateroom to get unpacked for the week and then back out to tour the ship.
We have late siting traditional dining for the cruise and at 7:45pm, made our way to the International Dining Room and to table #66 where we met our tablemates for the cruise. Great folks (a husband and wife team of pharmacists from Florida and a husband and wife from Spain and the UK) Everyone was a lot of fun and make meals really something to look forward to.
We caught a bit of the welcome aboard show and saw the short intro for the comedian on board (you will hear more about him later) and met the Cruise Director (honestly, he was the one part of this cruise that I could have done without… Every joke recycled, every line borrowed from every other CD we have ever taken — so tuned him out and enjoyed the rest).
From here, it was time to call it a day. Tomorrow is a Day at Sea on our way to Ketchikan.
July 26, 2009 – Day 2
Day at Sea
Today’s day at sea was peaceful, relaxing, and enjoyable on ship. We walked around to see the public areas of the ship and found a favorite table on Lido Deck outside, but wind protected to play some cards and Scrabble. We also borrowed a set of wool blankets and found a secret spot on the Promenade deck outside on the deck chairs where we will be returning for the two scenic cruising days at Glacier Bay and College Fjord.
Overall, it was a nice day and the less written about it means the more resting and relaxing that we enjoyed, so I think we are acheiving the goal. We had another great evening with our tablemates tonight at dinner and took in the production show in the theater. It was fine, but we are looking forward to seeing the comedian, who has gotten some really good reviews.
Tomorrow, we head into Ketchikan, the “First City” of Alaska.
July 27, 2009 – Day 3
Dubbed “Alaska’s First City”, Ketchikan is the first city that any ship approaches on the Southeasten coast of Alaska. It is also where thousands of cruise passengers disembark daily to take advantage of all there is to offer in the area. While Alaska is a huge state (three times the size of Texas), the Southeast is surprisingly isolated and is made up of a huge number of small islands and geographic features that lockout these locations from the rest of the state. Ketchikan has a total of approximately 30 miles of drivable roads, but given the growth of tourism, is now the fourth largest city in the state (we will be visiting 3 of the 4 on this trip).
As we have been to Ketchikan before and had taken advantage of a number of different excursions here (Cape Fox Lodge, Misty Fjords Floatplane, etc.), we elected to “go local” and take the local bus line up north about 9 miles to Totem Bight State Park. At this location, more than 15 totem poles have been recreated or rehabilitated to be presented as testimony to the native peoples that use to occupy these lands. On the site is also a clan house, recreated to show how the native peoples worked together and survived the frigid and brutal winters of this state.
The weather was beautiful this morning and the park was really nice. It was great to be walking around on our own and enjoying the sights, while trying to dodge the cruise ship groups of 50 people that were spending exactly 1.4 minutes at each station, because they had to stay on schedule! We spent about 2 1/2 hours here and then made our way back towards town with a quick stop at the Walmart (opened since our last visit and might just be the smallest Walmart on Planet Earth) to pick up a few items for the trip.
From here, we returned to downtown and just walked around and rode the free downtown shuttle. (It was over 80 in Ketchikan today, so letting someone else drive and enjoying the breeze was nice.) What was amazing is that just in the last 4 years since our previous visit, Ketchikan has grown from 2 cruise ships in port (that’s all there was room for) to now supporting 4 ships in one day. This crush was immediately felt in the downtown shopping area, so it was great to spend a good portion of our day a little further from the chaos.
We made our way back to the ship, where we had an early departure of 1:30pm. This first port stop was a bit challenging for the rest of the passengers though — the lines to reboard the ship were nearly the length of a football field as everyone tried to return at the last second. We, however, enjoyed the view from deck 14 on Lido with a slice of pizza from the pizzeria.
We somehow left port ontime and we starting heading north again towards Juneau. It was a nice afternoon, and before we knew it, it was almost time for dinner (yes, we took a long nap). We made our way back to the dining room, enjoyed another great evening with our tablemates and headed over to the Explorer’s Lounge for the comedian.
Steve Maris started life as a musician, and somehow over his 20 year career, the comedy seemed to follow, and combining those two passions made for a great show. The crowd roared and if they say laughter is the best medicine, we were good to go for a while!
Off to bed and tomorrow… Juneau!
July 28, 2009 – Day 4
Another beautiful day in Alaska, as we had no big rush to exit the ship. We are in port all day today, and our excursion didn’t start until 11:30am. We headed up to the Breakfast Buffet and enjoyed a leisurely meal and then made our way off the ship and into downtown. We tried to make a stop at the Juneau public library (free Wifi and a nice quiet view of the bay from their 3rd floor windows, if you just want to get away from all the people), but they wouldn’t be open for another hour, so we checked out the shops and had some fun with the sales people to see just how “super special” their deals really were… (They weren’t…)
We headed over to the 2nd floor shop to meet the staff of Orca Enterprises, near the pier and the Mount Roberts Tram for our 11:30am departure. Today, we would be spending the day with “Captain Larry”, an amazing talented cross between the Gordon’s Fisherman and a roadie for a country western singer, but man this guy can find whales…
We headed out from Auke Bay, a 15 minute drive from downtown Juneau on the OdySea (yes, I spelled it right), a boat with jet engines (no joke) that would be taking us to as many places in the waters near Juneau where Whales, Orcas, and other wildlife could be found. With the color commentary of first mate Brent, we were not disappointed.
We enjoyed several hours of almost non-stop sightings, from bubble netting with humpbacks, to transient and resident orcas, glaciers, bald eagles, and more. The ship had a viewing platform on the second deck and it allowed us to take lots of pitcures. It was another beautiful blue sky and warm day and it was a wonderful afternoon out on the water.
On the drive back to Juneau, we caught a few glimpses of Mendenhall Glacier (which is really shrinking so go see it quickly!) and headed back into town where we spent about an hour at the library (the beautiful view of the bay was blocked by a cruise ship — 5 of them were in port today) and then back on board to enjoy a night dinner and to watch our sail away. The sun is setting later and later every night as we continue north, and tonight we finally said goodbye to the sun around 11:00pm.
Off to bed! Tomorrow is Skagway and our road trip to British columbia and the Yukon!
July 29, 2009 – Day 5
Skagway, Alaska, Fraser, British Columbia, Carcross & Whitehorse, Yukon Terrtiory
This was an early day as we were off the ship by 7:30am to reach the rental car counter at Avis by 8am. Avis is one of two rental car providers in Skagway and with 4 ships in port (unbelievable for a town of 1200 people), we weren’t the only people with the bright idea to rent a car and get out of town.
The line was about 10 people deep when we arrived at the Avis “office” which was about the size of a shoebox. However, I must give credit to the staff who moved people through with military precision and we were on the road in our Chevy Malibu by 8:30am.
The entire drive from Skagway to Whitehorse is about 120 miles each way, and given that we had 12 hours in port, we could take our time. The caravan of rental cars and tour buses made their way out of Skagway on state route 98 (only road out of town) and we shared the two lane road (only one lane in each direction) without issue or concern. Drive was easy, with amazing views from snow-capped peaks to valleys full of wildflowers and lakes that were glass and reflecting the landscapes around them.
We arrived at the border with Canada, in the tiny speck of Fraser (Canadian border agents live in the baracks near the customs gates) and there is nothing more than the turnaround point for White Pass railroad. But the views are beautiful everywhere you look.
Ater no less than 100 stops for pictures and to enjoy the view, we crossed into the Yukon, the first visit to this Canadian province for Natalie and I. We continued on Canada route 2 and headed towards Whitehorse stopping along the way whenever the need struck.
The only town in our entire travel from Skagway to Whitehorse is called Carcross, and to call it a town is giving them the benefit of the doubt. There is one gas station, but no stoplight, so you may define as you see fit. It is also home of the world’s smallest desert. This is not a tourist trap, there are no souvenir stands here. There is actually a desert on the side of the road with dunes and sand! It is really small, and it only takes a few moments to pass it in the car. Then back to the scenic views.
Our final stop before reaching Whitehorse was Emerald Lake, a beautiful photo opportunity of a lake that is varying shades of green depending on how close you are to shore. It was a nice break as we continued into the capital of the Yukon.
Upon arrival into Whitehorse, we realized two things… 1) This is the capital of the Yukon and is the only major city for hundreds of miles in every direction so the focus is on practicality vs. scenic and cultural mecca and 2) It was hot… 88 Degrees, so most of the locals were melting. The waterfront parks were very nice and packed as we leisurely made our way to a nice lunch at a local Canadian restaurant.
Before we left Whitehorse, we needed just a little more Canadian culinary influence, so we stopped by a Tim Horton for some donuts to provide a nice sugar rush on the way home. It was a great way to end the day and we returned back to Alaska, arriving into Skagway around 5pm. All of the sights today were amazing and being able to see them at our own pace was really what made the day exceptional.
Dinner back on the ship as we began to sail away and head for Glacier Bay.
Tomorrow is on deck for scenic cruising!
July 30, 2009 – Day 6
Glacier Bay (Scenic Cruising)
Today is a light day on the travel log as we spent most of the day (6:30am – 3:30pm) on deck as we made our way into, through, and out of Glacier Bay National Park. The naturalists and pilots on our ship were very good, providing a substantial amount of information and allowing us to get extremely close to some of these glaciers, even getting some amazing views of calving in action.
For the most part, we spent the day on the outside of Promenade deck (Deck 7). It was nice having padded deck chairs and we were not as crowded for views and railing space as on the upper decks. It also seemed like you were much more at eye level with the sights that we saw, but don’t take my word for it… Check out the pictures.
Dinner this evening in the main dining room was a blast as we enjoyed another fun evening with our tablemates and then we settled back in for a relaxing day tomorrow for more scenic cruising, this time in College Fjord.
July 31, 2009 – Day 7
College Fjord (Scenic Cruising)
Whereas yesterday was an early day for scenic cruising in Alaska, today we will not reach our scenic location until late in the afternoon (5:30pm) which was fine by us! We had a lot of fog today and we sailed along the coastline and many on the ship were a little concerned that we may have one poor visibility evening in College Fjord.
In the meantime, Natalie and I made our way to the main dining room for breakfast today, enjoying some french toast, bagels, ham, hash browns, etc. etc. At breakfast you are paired randomly with any passengers who arrive at the same time, so the tables are much different than from our dinner partners, but the food is still good and this morning, the view out the windows was really non-existent (foggy).
Believe it or not, it was our final day on the Sapphire Princess, so we took some time to pack up for the next leg of our Alaskan adventure as our bags needed to be out in the hallway for collection by 10:30pm tonight.
With that out of the way, and enjoying Lido buffet on deck playing some cards, we enjoyed the day and took a walk to go see the art gallery and auction to see if there was anything we couldn’t live without. Though we found a couple pieces we liked, we took a pass this trip and just enjoyed the afternoon.
Upon arrival into College Fjord, the fog had let up just enough to let us in, and provided us with a somewhat errie and surreal feeling as the tops of the mountains were swirling with gray clouds, just the slightest hint of blue sky and a bit of struggling sun. Almost perfect for Alaska and we enjoyed another 3 hours of scenic cruising, seeing a number of glaciers and arriving at the Harvard glacier, one of the largest and most active in the area, getting about an hour to allow to the ship and all of its guests to see it, hear it, and experience more calving, cracking, and the awesomeness that is nature.
One final and hilarious evening at dinner with our table mates and we wished them all a good trip home or onwards (one couple was headed back to Florida to their young kids, while the other was about to head off for another 2-3 weeks on the Alaska interior). We put out our bags, and headed off to bed…
Tomorrow, we arrive in Whittier, and head into the Alaskan interor!
August 1, 2009 – Day 8
Whittier, Anchorage, and Talkeetna, Alaska
We arrived into Whittier just after midnight, so we spent most of the night sleeping at the dock, but this time allowed for the ship to take off all of the luggage (and there was a lot) to ensure that it made it to the next destinations for passengers. Many of the passengers on the ship were taking the Princess branded train trips to Denali, McKinley, or Kenai so they all were required to be up and onto buses or trains before 5am. By the time Natalie and I awoke, about half the ship was already gone, and we had a quiet breakfast in the main dining room.
We disembarked about 8am and was onto the motorcoach to take us to Anchorage, but then the driver said… “We’re in no rush, the tunnel doesn’t open until 9am.” Huh? Well, Whittier is located on a tiny inlet with a huge port, but no way to move supplies and people back to the interior as there is a very large mountain between the town and the rest of Alaska. So, they built a tunnel. It is 2 1/2 miles long and the longest passenger tunnel in North America. The starnge part is that it was originally built for the train, and given how infrequent it ran to whittier, they only made the tunnel for one set of tracks (it was obviously cheaper that way too). In 2004, they widened it ever so slightly to accomodate buses, cars, and big rigs and the result is a very cool, if only clausterphobic experience. It takes 6 1/2 minutes to work through the tunnel and all the vehicles are paced at exactly 25 mph and 1/3 mile apart. Northbound traffic runs from :00-:15 past the hour, southbound traffic from :30-:45 past and the train trumps everything. So it can take a bit to get into and our of Whittier. Just another cool experience to add to our trip. So about 9:07, we exited the tunnel on the other side, and worked our way North to Anchorage.
We arrived at the Airport, where we picked up our rental car (no wait, no line) and started our roadtrip about 11:00am. Our stop for the night is in Talkeetna, and we need to be there about 5pm, so we had plenty of time to make the 120 miles to our destination. We leisurely made our way north with a stop in Wasilla to get snacks for our next few days and arrived into Talkeetna about 3pm. Our B&B tonight was beautiful, about 5 miles outside of town, overlooking a small valley full of wildflowers and trees. We also had a nice view of Denali (Mt. McKinley) and we grabbed a quick nap before heading over to our flightseeing trip.
Talkeetna Air, located just a couple blocks off the main road in town was our evening excursion to fly up and around Denali. The weather in Alaska can be tricky and we were fortunate to spend the next 2 hours with our pilot Danielle, as she introduced us to the mountain up close and personal. She was a great pilot, providing us with narration and answering all of our questions. The scenery was breathtaking and the pictures were being taking at an insane pace.
Then, just as the clouds were threatening, she was cleared to land and we brought the plane down and landed on a glacier in the middle of the range. It was amazing. We were able to get out, walk around a little bit and just stand in the beautiful silence of a place that not many people would be able to experience.
As we took off and worked our way back to Talkeetna, we realized just how fortunate we are for all of the opportunities we have to travel and the things we get to see. Alaska is a truly beautiful place and one that we hope you all get a chance to experience.
Upon landing back at the airstrip, we went into town (small town America at its best) and had a wonderful dinner at the Wildflower Cafe, sitting on the porch at our table, drinking water from mason jars and watching the townspeople at a music festival across the street for the grand opening of a new restaurant in town. Friends were sharing conversation over a good beer, kids were dancing on the lawn as the musician (mostly country and bluegrass suddenly belted out a round of “The wheels on the bus go round and round…” A moment of pure Americana in Talkeetna, AK. Only wish that would happen more often at home… Now the kicker in this little scene that I just mentioned was that it was 10pm at night… The sun was still up and everyone in town was active! Alaska summer is crazy!
We headed back to the B&B, enjoyed more views of Denali as the sun set around 11:30pm (if it truly “set” is subject to debate) and we headed off to sleep.
Tomorrow, a leisurely day to Denali!
August 2, 2009 – Day 9
Talkeetna, AK to Healy (Denali National Park), AK
This morning, we woke up around 9am and headed downstairs where our B&B host Bill was busily preparing us french toast, bacon, home fries, eggs, muffins, juice, fresh fruit, and the list just seemingly refused to end! He and his wife had been running the B&B for several years and the effort they put into it showed.
After stuffing ourselves silly, we packed up the car and worked our way north another 150 miles with a few scenic stops along the way and arrived into Denali National Park. We stopped into the center where we would be taking our Park shuttle tomorrow and picked up our tickets and made sure we knew where we would start our day (a test run you could say, given that we needed to be at the park and on-time at 5am).
From here, we continued through Glitter Gulch (a local name given to the tourist trap built a mile from the main entrance to support the onslaught of tour groups that stayed in huge lodges and hotels right near the park) and made our way 10 mintues north to the tiny town of Healy, where we arrived at our next B&B, where we would stay for 2 nights. Our host was friendly and introduced us to our cabin (yes, we had a cabin, built by her husband all to ourselves…) Two queen beds, a bathroom, and a small kitchenette, along with freshly baked breads (Cranberry cake and Cinnamon Coffee Cake — YUM!), juices, cereals, and coffee were brought to us, so we could schedule our own breakfast times.
This afternoon, we relaxed and took a nap, to make sure there was enough energy for the next day’s trek (12+ hours), and when we awoke, we headed to dinner at the Black Diamond Cafe. This restaurant is locally owned and operated, and the food and service showed. It was excellent in every way and they even made us box lunches for Denali the next day (no food is available inside the park at all — you must pack in and pack out everything).
We tried to go to bed early, but with the Alaska summer, we were far enough north now that the sun really never set… So we did the best that we could and woke up at 4am to make sure we were ontime at Denali by 5am to start.
August 3, 2009 – Day 10
Denali National Park, Alaska
At 5am, we arrived at Denali and with more than enough light, we could see that today was going to be something special. The weather was picture perfect and we couldn’t wait to start our 160 mile round trip bus ride into the park.
Cars are only allowed to mile 15 these days… Beyond that, park buses (retorfitted school buses) do the rest of the way in on Gravel roads that varied from level valleys with beautiful views on both sides to cliff hugging one lane roads where you took a deep breath and just hung on a little tighter to your seat back.
Mike Dyas, our driver met us at 5:15am as we boarded our bus to take us out to Wonder Lake.
As we took off 15 minutes later, we learned that Mike was a no-nonsense and somewhat monotone guy and though we were a bit concerned at the start of the trip, this turned out to be a truly winning combination. He did his job exceptionally, driving the park road with expertise and finding us so much wildlife and nature that the cameras and the viewing almost never stopped. We saw bear, moose, caribou, elk, bald eagles, dall sheep, foxes, squirrels, and the list goes on and on.
As we slowly made our way into the park the views of Denali were getting better and better by the minute given that visibility was quite good. Between the mountain and the wildlife, the first 7 hours of the day flew by and we arrived at Wonder Lake, our turnaround point, right about 12noon. Unfortunately, at this point, a wildfire near this point in the park left a lot of smoke and haze, so we didn’t stay here too long. We headed back towards the entrance, again seeing more sights and animals along our path, with the buses stopping to allow us to take pictures and get information on each sighting.
On these buses you can hop-on, hop-off, so we said our farewells to Mike at the Eielson Visitors Center at Mile 66 and enjoyed a wonderful picnic lunch with our food from Black Diamond last night and enjoyed floor to ceiling view of Denali mountain as we ate. The visitor center had picnic tables both inside and outside of the center which featured exhibits for kids and adults to help them understand the fragility of the park, and its history.
We spent about 2 hours here, and took in a short hike where we ran into red-tailed foxes and ground squirrels (fortunately, no bears upclose and personal) and we boarded another bus back to the park entrance. Though our driver on the return was less than stellar, we still had a fantastic trip to Denali and couldn’t have asked for more. It was an amazing day and one that we highly recommended to all.
Upon reaching the front entrance around 5:30pm, we decided on a quick dinner and then to bed, because we were exhausted. We stopped for dinner at the Salmon Bake, another locally owned and operated resturant (excellent food), and headed home. I think Natalie made it to 8pm before she crashed, and I struggled to hold off til 10pm. A brisk wind was blowing this evening, and we slept with the windows open. I don’t think it dropped below 60 that night and we both slept soundly.
August 4, 2009 – Day 11
Healy, AK to Seward, AK
At the advice of a family friend who had lived in Alaska, we decided to head South and spend our final day in Alaska in Seward, a coastal community at the end of the road in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula in Resurrection Bay.
This would require a drive of nearly 400 miles today, but we were ready, rested, had plenty of good snacks in the car, good music, and wonderful scenery for the trip. It was uneventual, lacking in traffic with a couple of very minor exceptions and we couldn’t go the entire trip without some rain, so today was the day. We finally started running into grey clouds in the Wasilla/Anchorage area, which turned to a steady falling rain by the time we reached Seward. Though this reduced the amount of sightseeing we would have along the Turnagain arm, it was just fine as all kinds of weather give Alaska a unique and interesting view. We arrived into Seward around 5pm, checked into our hotel, and walked into downtown to Christo’s for dinner. Another locally run place, we enjoyed a unique speciality (Taco Pizza), which for as odd as it sounds was excellent.
The walk to and from the resturant allowed us to see the town of Seward, and once we got back to the hotel, we called it a day and got ready for our Kenai Fjords Catamaran trip to take place the next morning.
August 5, 2009 – Day 12
Kenai Fjords, AK
Breakfast was provided by the hotel in their lobby, and then a short 3 mile walk brought us to the Kenai Fjords tour building on the waterfront, just a few yards from our catamaran for the day. We arrived on a low visibility, foggy, drippy, and downright soggy morning, which left the passengers on the boat just a bit anxious about what wildlife we would or would not be seeing today, along with the question about what kind of water would we find out in the ocean as we traveled in the Keni Fjords National Park.
The first question was answered quickly by our extremely knowledgeable and capable captain as he indicated that we would likely see even more wildlife on a dark and dreary day vs. a bright and blue sky one and he did not disappoint… Whales, orcas, birds galore, otters, seals, puffins, bald eagles, and the list goes on and on. And that we before we even got to the glaciers!
As for the waves, in a high speed catamaran, the ocean was for the most part nice, but there were a few sections there where Darin got to ride the roller coaster, which he enjoyed immensely. Unfortunately, there were quite a number of passengers that simply thought of the experience as the vomit comet.
Thankfully that didn’t last long, and we spent a wonderful 9 hour trip seeing an immense amount of the Kenai coastline and all of the beautiful sights that it held. Upon arriving back into Seward, we bid the town farewell, as we climbed back into our Toyolla Corolla Sport and made our way back towards Anchorage. We arrived around 9:00pm at night, grabbed a late dinner, and made our way to the airport where we dropped off the rental car and headed to our gates. Natalie somehow got an hour of sleep before we bounded the plane, and it was time to head home.