Alaska Cruise: day 10 (to Denali)

Day 10: Disembarking was easy. Packing was hard. I will go over this later.

Princess does a great job of making the disembarkation process painless and simple. We arrived in Whittier, AK which is a town that was a military city until only recently. A population of around 800 or so, but every resident lives in one tall communist-style condo. There is a one-room school house (with indoor playground) across a yard from the condo, but because the city did not want snow days as an excuse from school, they built a tunnel underground so the kids always have to go to class. The city cannot expand because its only available land is owned by a company in Hollywood who wants too much money for it.

The only way out of Whittier by car is through a tunnel under a mountain. The tunnel is so long it needs its own ventilation system and a series of safe houses with food and water in case there is a cave-in! It is only one lane wide so traffic enters Whittier on the hour and exits on the half hour. Our bus driver had to wait for the half hour mark so he took us on a tour of the entire city. We saw every building in that city in a five-minute tour! The local kids were friendly and waved to us!

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After we made it through the tunnel, which was completely black, we came out the other side to see an amazing glacier lake! We stopped off at the visitor’s center and got a few great pics of us with blocks of ice near the floating icebergs! We are from San Diego, and were quite happily wrapped in double jackets. Our guide, however, was wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt. Show-off! Anyway, we learned a lot about glaciers and the tundra, and how global warming is affecting and changing the area. Ice is always changing so it is easy to study!

On our bus to Anchorage, we drove past a moose and a mountain goat! We saw a bald eagle couple fishing in a stream! The only thing we didn’t get to see was the illusive Beluga. We made it to Anchorage in one piece. We headed to the nearby mall to grab some cheap food. We saw an AT&T store, so we decided to swing in there after lunch. Beau managed to get a new iPhone, but while he was in the process of signing everything over, I realized that my backpack was not with us! I had forgotten it in the food court! It had everything in it, including my MacBook, our passports, our reservations and confirmations, and even the key to my luggage lock with all my clothes!!

I immediately left him to run to the elevator (which of course decided to stop at every floor on the way) praying that it would still be by the table. To my horror, when I arrived, the bag was missing! I asked a couple sitting nearby if they had seen it. The man said, “I did see it a minute ago! It was right here! I thought it must have belonged to another table” so he started running around with me looking for it. I finally asked a lady at Hot Dog on a Stick where the lost-and-found was, and she directed me to the mall office.

I ran full speed downstairs and around the halls until I saw an obscure sign pointing to the office. Of course, the office is down a windy path that zigzagged several times before I ran into the office, out of breath, yelling, “please help me! I need the lost-and-found! I forgot my backpack in the food court and I went to the phone store and then it was gone!” The lady was so sweet and calmed me down before radioing the mall cops describing my bag. They said they did have it and had already given it to Beau at the AT&T store! Thank God!!!

I walked quickly back to the store where he was waving for me to come in. Apparently, his phone had JUST been activated, and the lady handed him the phone, but as she did he got a call. “Hello, is this Beau? We have some of your information here. Did you loose a backpack in the food court?” Why, yes, sir, I did! I saw the mall cops walking by. They looked like Canadian Mounties in white! Alaska is such a friendly state! We really lucked out!

Once we got our things together, we headed back to the bus for a six-hour ride to Denali. We were wiped out. We booked our stay in Denali a week before we left on our cruise, so the only place left that wasn’t $600 was in a little dry cabin behind a restaurant, the Salmon Bake. There is only one restroom for the site, so it is basically camping with insulated cabins. We got a great price considering, and it is right above a restaurant. For dinner, we had smoked king salmon on a cedar board and buffalo chili made with bison meat! It is a really cute little place!

Alaska Cruise: day 9 (at sea)

Day 9 (part 1): Today was at sea, with an unbelievable cake buffet extravaganza! I took a dozen pictures of the deserts before asking for way too much cake. I headed back to my stateroom, but got a knock on my door. It was Sasha, my little 6-year old friend! She had been begging her grandmother to take her to visit me! What a sweetheart!! Again, my day has been made by a little smile!

I took some time to update my blog on a lounge chair with an ice cream cone while looking at the ocean. I saw a herd of seals, dolphins, swimming birds, and even a humpback whale! This is a great view! I might do a round of miniature golf later before preparing for dinner and then packing up for disembarkation.

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(part 2): We played a round of mini golf. It feels strange to play golf in the middle of an Alaskan fjord. We decided to go to dinner early so we could finish before we left the College Glacier. On our way out from golf, we looked over the railing and saw a dolphin! Pretty soon, we saw several other marine animals but these were black with white spots! After a few jumped out of the water, we realized they were Orca Whales!!! We saw about 10 of them!

Since our cruise was a celebration for our graduation, the cruise gave us each a card to bring to our waiters whenever we wanted to celebrate. We had forgotten until now, so we brought them this time for our last dinner. We were sat near another table with people we had eaten with before and a new couple, all of whom were very friendly and talkative. Two tables away, I saw little Sasha and her family! I didn’t want to disturb them so I let them be. When we gave the waiter our cards, he brought us out two wonderful celebration cakes! They sang us “Happy Graduation” to the happy birthday tune. All our old friends who we had met on our trip joined in singing and clapping for us! Then, front and center with the singing waiters appeared little Sasha who had just noticed me! Her grandmother came to me to ask what I studied. I told her that I studied linguistics and a little Russian. They had been whispering to each other in Russian, so Sasha looked a little embarrassed. Her grandmother smiled “khorosho!” and Sasha looked at her horrified and shushed her. Sweet Sasha insisted that her grandmother speak English and pronounce my name correctly. She had perfect pronunciation! Her family kept trying to keep her at their table but Sasha wanted to be with me for as long as possible.

The crew brought out the grand Baked Alaska Parade, which I had to try. It was an interesting take on the Baked Alaskan with Neapolitan ice cream. Sasha’s family got up to leave, so she ran up to me for one last goodbye. I snapped an adorable shot of her before she had to leave. We had to have our suitcases packed and out in the hall by 10:30 tonight so they could check them and have our bags waiting for us when we check out. Tomorrow, we will need to leave our stateroom by 8 am.

Last day aboard requires some preparation. You need to make sure your account is clear, but since we had our card registered it wasn’t a problem. Whatever cruise line you are on, make sure that your steward will receive a tip. Princess adds a $12 gratuity per person per day to your account, and that is split between your steward and every waiter who has served your meals, so you don’t need to worry about anything else.

Alaska Cruise: day 8 (Glacier Bay)

Day 8: Today did not actually have a port of call, but was a visit into the fjords of Glacier Bay. What an amazing sight! We visited all the places John Muir studied, say some unbelievable glaciers, watched a bald eagle float along on an iceberg, listened to white thunder, and enjoyed a talk given by park rangers that secretly boarded our ship while we were sleeping! We were at the bay for several hours. I spent a lot of the time sipping coffee while watching. A nice man let me borrow his binoculars (note to self: next cruise, buy and pack binoculars).

They had a special fish buffet to honor the trip. It was formal night again, which required us to dress up and head down for dinner. Tonight was lobster tail and prawns! I sat next to a man from the Panama Canal, who taught me all about the politics and issues of that region! I found it more difficult to walk in heels tonight because we were in more open waters than before, so I felt like I was stumbling drunk. While waiting in line for the restroom, a 6-year old girl looks at me and whispers to her grandmother, “look behind you! She’s beautiful!” I smiled at the girl and she told me that purple was her favorite color. When I came out of my stall, she was waiting for me with a huge smile on her face! Her grandmother told me that she thought I was so beautiful that she wanted to be my friend! Her name was Sasha. We walked to the dining room together, but Sasha didn’t want me to go! I told her my stateroom and wished her good night. She brightened my whole day!

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Alaska Cruise day 7 (Skagway)

Day 7: We slept in as long as possible before our 8 am tour. Skagway was once a gold rush town, where prospectors came hoping to strike it rich! Unfortunately, nothing more than gold flakes were ever found here. It is now a virtual ghost town, with a population hovering around 300 most of the year, but it picks up in the summer for tourists. It only gets 20” of rain a year, so Canadians use it as a spring break hotspot! It was really beautiful, with the most authentic old west charm I have ever encountered!

Our tour group was so small it was just us and a family of four! A mom and three young kids turned out to be from La Jolla, living very close to my university! Our bus dropped us off at a small center where we met a man who raced in the Iditarod sled dog race 7 times! This happens to be the national sport of Alaska! Anyone see Balto? Matt showed us his gear and how modern sleds look, describing how he manages 16 dogs racing non-stop for two weeks in -40 Fahrenheit! We then went out and met the huskies! It turns out that ‘husky’ is not a real breed but more like the ‘mustang’ of the horse world. The Siberian Huskies of the AKC are bred for looks anymore and are no good for a real race! They hooked the dogs up and took them out on gravel for us to see! This is how they train in the summer. Finally, we got to play with the husky puppies! They were so cute! Mine was named Jab, but there was Uppercut, Sucker Punch, and another I forget. When we finally put the puppies away, we headed for the cold chamber!

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The grounds had an ice room maintained at 40-below-freezing. They gave us heavy winter coats to put on and we tested how long we could stay before getting uncomfortable. Even the little kids had a blast! I stayed the longest and got some fun pictures! Last, we learned about gold panning from a man dressed as a prospector, and got to try our hands panning for gold! We were guaranteed to find gold, and they helped us get the most out of our pans. Then they took us in to measure and weigh it, while telling us how much it was worth! We both made around $17 each, even though it was just a tiny sprinkling of gold leafing. I can imagine why people get gold fever!

The experience really made our trip! I highly recommend it for anyone heading to Skagway. They have a cute café there as well, with delicious homemade root beer! Their gift shop is interesting. They even sold sled-dog champion dog poop fertilizer! I had fun showing that to the San Diegan kids. When we finished our tour, the bus driver went out of her way to drop the two of us off at the 19th century cemetery! We took a little walk to see their 7-tier waterfall before reading the names and ages of the old-west grave markers!

Apparently, back in the day, ‘Soapy Smith’ was a notorious conman. He built a telegram machine, charging homesick residents $5 per message out and $5 per message received. The problem was that his telegram wire went up the mountain, but no further! Every return message was fake, and no message was ever sent! His life ended in a bloody shoot-out, where the US Marshall died only hours after his only child was born. Soapy was killed by the same man who founded Skagway, but he was also killed by one of Soapy’s men. There were many markers that showed this same death date.

Downtown Skagway, which is really the only part of Skagway that there is, looked like an actual step back in time! Even the sidewalks were wood planks! This was one of my favorite ports! Most of the shops were for jewelry, since most of the visitors are from cruise ships. Even Starbucks is actually in a jewelry shop! I visited a Russian shop where most of their goods are handmade in St. Petersburg! I bought some small souvenirs there, since Alaska was once Russia, so I thought it was fitting. I remembered to turn on roaming again, which gave me extended 3g, allowing Beau to order transcripts for his grad school and me to update Facebook. I have some amazing pictures from Skagway!

After sailing away, we were still on the inside passage. The howling wind through the fjords was enough to take my breath away! This is the Alaska I expected! How does one fully appreciate snow-capped mountains while on a cruise ship? From the hot tub of course! We met another couple from San Diego and spent about 3 hours in the hot tub. We watched the most amazing pink sunset over the mountains I had ever seen! Was it cold outside of the hot tub? It was freezing. Were we comfortable? O yes! Still, it was an adventure to run back to our towels while wearing wet swimsuits! Fortunately, the tub was so hot it took a long time to get to where we were in pain.

Alaska Cruise day 6 (Juneau)

Day 6: Juneau is a cute city. Much larger than Ketchikan, but certainly would not constitute a ‘large city’. Our tour didn’t leave until 1:30 so we were able to sleep in, have a nice breakfast in the dining room, and take a stroll over to the Mount Robert Tram. This was the traditional cable car taking you up a sheer evergreen mountain up to a nature center. We got amazing views of the city. The tram was $29 per adult, but I still highly recommend it. Unfortunately, the day before had so much snow that most of the trails were still closed. We took a nice hike around the mountain, got some amazing pictures of waterfalls, and had a section of the trail that we had to hike through the snow. We were not dressed for the weather. My tennis shoes were not designed for ice. Even still, it was 85 degrees out, which made it too hot to wear my long-sleeved shirt. Some guys from the Philippines took their shirts off and wrestled in the snow! Back at the nature center, they had a rescued bald eagle, Lady Baltimore, who was available for pictures. It was a great site, and should not be missed!

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We headed back to the cruise ship for lunch (why pay for extra meals when we are on a budget?) before meeting our guide on the dock. He happened to be from Murrieta, which is 45 minutes from my hometown! We went to a rainforest garden, privately maintained by a local landscaping family, which allowed for even more amazing pictures! From there, he took us to a salmon hatchery where we sampled caviar and smoked salmon while learning about rehabilitation efforts (ironic, I know!) but had to leave early due to a special event. Apparently, someone decided to actually get married at the salmon hatchery! I suppose that could be romantic…

Finally, we were dropped off and Mendehall State Park, which offered a nice 15 minute hike to a glacier and waterfall! This was incredible! We stood on the beach in 80-degree weather, with little kids swimming around us, while we listened to a 200’ waterfall blowing out pure white water and watched icebergs float by! We listened to the famed ‘white thunder’, which is the sound a glacier makes when chunks break off. It really sounds like thunder! No National Geographic special could ever compare!

On our way back to the bus, we stopped by the visitor’s center where we could touch a 200-year-old block of ice, learn about how glaciers were formed, and admire local taxidermists (hehe). Beau used their telescopes (free to use!) and found a mother and baby mountain goat running down the mcliff above the waterfall! We did not get enough time to spend there. If a family had kids, I might recommend taking a shuttle straight to the glacier park and spend most of the day on the beach and at the visitor’s center!

Making it back to Juneau, I forgot that I had turned off my phone’s roaming, so I couldn’t figure out why I had no service! We found a place with free Wi-Fi in downtown Juneau at a local bar. We were kicked out of the downstairs part, because it was apparently reserved for betting on the fight. Upstairs was more like a pool hall with bar service and had free Wi-Fi, which allowed me to update Facebook.

By the end of the day, we were too tired to move. We ate at the buffet and retired early.

Alaska Cruise day 5 (Ketchikan)

Day 5: Time change! New time zone allowed us to sleep in one extra hour! Still, up at the new 5:30 for breakfast buffet and out to meet our guide! We had a lovely local woman take us to Potlatch Park, a native village with totem pole carvings. We met an expert carver, saw replicas of native housing, saw an antique car collection, and even saw a wild bald eagle! He is an adolescent who hasn’t ‘balded’ yet. We picked up a few touristy things in their gift shop.

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Next, we went to a salmon hatchery that also had a bald eagle rescue! We saw a lovely couple of rescued ladies who can’t be returned to the wild. One was taken down after flying into electric wire, the other broke her wing in a fishing net. They started yelling at each other, which looked pretty cool. We learned about the different species of salmon, and what they were doing to help restore the wild salmon population.

Ketchikan is an adorable little town of about 14,000 residents. The average July temperature is 58 degrees F, with annual rainfall of about 13 feet. We happened to make it on the hottest and sunniest day of the year for them! We walked all around the downtown area, checking out many of their (mostly touristy) shops. Next time we visit, we will have to check out their world-famous lumberjack show, but we didn’t have time for that today. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had ‘extended service’ for Verizon! Even limited 3G! Unfortunately, cruises have not yet jumped on the bandwagon of free Wi-Fi. It costs about $0.79/minute at either their Internet café or on our laptops in our rooms.

Later, we enjoyed a late afternoon tea and a dance show before enjoying a late dinner in the restaurant. We ended up sitting at 9:30 and served about 10, but there was still full sun with a perfect view of the nearby islands floating in the Pacific. It was Italian night, so we enjoyed an assortment of Italian dishes and many courses. For dessert, I got a delicious almond-honey gelato. They had a special tonight of $5 for a Limóncello shot with a free souvenir Princess shot glass! We also decided to purchase some of their candid photo prints. They were expensive, about $20 per page, but they looked so good, it would cost much more than that for a comparable sitting fee. Who knows when I will look that nice again!

Overall, it was a great day, and I look forward to our adventures tomorrow in Juneau.

 

Alaska Cruise day 4 (at sea)

Day 4: We slept in as late as possible before getting up for a breakfast buffet. Our steward, Patrick, placed ‘congratulations’ balloons on our door showing that we were graduating. We took another nap after breakfast to make up for the weeks of no sleep preparing for finals and my party and Disneyland. We woke up in time for afternoon tea, a treat that I did NOT want to miss! We were sat at a table for 12 with lovely sandwiches and scones. We made friends with one of the families at the table, who were made up of Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Italians, so we had plenty to talk about! I now know how to travel to Cuba, and even got contact information for a ‘buddy in LA’ who does charter flights to Cuba. Apparently, Cuba actually places a card in your passport and stamps the card, so no one will know by just looking at your passport that you ever entered the country! Now, why can’t Israel do that too? They suggested I get two passports so that I can keep the ‘objectionable’ stamps in one while traveling with the other to countries that might give me hassle with having certain stamps. I’m not sure how legal that is, but worth considering in the future.

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Tonight was formal night, so we had to run to our room after tea to dress up for our 5:30 reservation (the only one available). We were probably the nicest dressed young people on the ship. We were sat at a table for 6 with a very interesting elderly couple who decided to retire on a cruise ship. They have taken over 250 cruises and had been in the same cabin for a month already. It is their second home. They say the cruise ship pays them more in perks than social security, pension, and retirement altogether! They have permanent reservations at the same table and insist that they get four different guests every night. In fact, the last maître di made the mistake of reserving the same four guests to their table for the length of the cruise, and they spoke to the headwaiter and got him fired! These people don’t mess around!

We got to do the champagne fountain and got several formal pictures of us in our fine dress, but probably won’t buy any of their photos. We went to a comedy act in the theater and bought some drinks (I got a no-jito) receiving numerous comments on how nice we were dressed. The older crowd really appreciated that at least some young people knew how to dress up for formal night. Once we were done with the show, we ran back to the room and got out of our fancy shoes as fast as possible. It was so nice to get back into normal clothes even though I really liked the feeling of being so glamorous! Funny thing was, even though we had been eating all day, we were still hungry! We ran to the top deck and grabbed pizza before sneaking back into the buffet to grab more fruit. We have to keep our strength up for Ketchikan tomorrow!

Alaska Cruise day 3 (Vancouver)

Day 3: After checkout, we headed downtown on foot (easy walking, even with heavy suitcases). We were able to hang out in a coffee shop until boarding. The cruise was very easy to find with plenty of signage. Even the local homeless were more than helpful, offering us very specific directions without us even asking. We boarded easily. They have a place to check your bags. Fortunately, I had already printed our luggage tags, so that saved a lot of time. The porters took our bags as we went through customs (a much more pleasant experience this time). After making it through, they had glasses of water awaiting us in the sitting area. Beau forgot to fill out his immigration information *sigh* so that took us longer than necessary. Once we boarded, our rooms were ready and our checked bags were preparing to be delivered. We went straight to the buffet.

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The food was amazing. The buffet had lovely bistro-style seating with a panoramic 180-degree view of the front of the ship. After lunch, we had an emergency drill. The announcement was made while I was on the phone booking dinner reservations, so I didn’t hear what she said. I asked Beau what the announcement said. “They said to put on our life vests and go to the meeting place”. All right, so we read the sign describing how to wear a life vest and put them on before going into the hallway. To my embarrassment, we were the only people wearing our life vests rather than just holding them. Soon, the announcement called out “do not wear your life vest yet!” I gave Beau a dirty look. “Yea, I wasn’t paying attention to the announcement…”

After the emergency drill, we went back to the buffet to snack on fruit. We were up there when we left port, watching Vancouver as we left. Beau went outside to snap pictures of Stanley Park and the city as we left. We walked to the other side to get some more shots, but Beau tripped on his way out. His iPhone flew out of his hands, bounced off the rubber floor, and slipped through a very small slit in the bottom of the railing, plummeting off the ship. Off went his pictures, contacts, etc. This was an obvious blow, and a huge damper on top of already having broken a suitcase. Please, everyone, do be careful with your electronics on deck.

After taking a deep breath and remembering that it is only a plastic brick that is easily replaceable, we were able to move on with our night and enjoy a nice dinner for two at a very fancy restaurant sitting right by the window. We were concerned about seasickness, but it honestly hasn’t been a problem yet. We enjoyed three courses of wonderful food with white-gloved service. Best of all, we saw dolphins out our window! I could really get used to this.

Alaskan Cruise Days 1 and 2 (departing to Vancouver)

Day 1: after an amazing graduation party with friends and family, I stayed at the Best Western near Disneyland with Beau and his family. His mother is a hard-core Disney fan, so she had us all up at 5:30 AM for breakfast and to be there at the opening of the park. I have never been to Disneyland at the opening, but we made it on every ride before lunch. While at the park, his boss called him requesting a last-minute write-up (right before a 2-week vacation). We had to leave for him to work on it while his parents stayed for the fireworks. He, of course, had to finish it before we had to get up at 5 for LAX.

;

Day 2: We arrived at LAX early without a hitch. Thankfully we checked in the night before and printed our passes so we were first in line and very quick. The flight was quick and relaxing, and the arrival in Vancouver was lovely. The airport has beautiful native artwork, a small pond upstairs with a recreated canoe, and lovely fountains. It was beautiful. The line for customs wasn’t terrible, but still tiring. Unfortunately, our customs inspector was a surly lady with a bad attitude.

“What are you doing in Vancouver for 2 days?”

“we are taking a cruise to Alaska”

“who is paying for this trip?”

“we are…”

“how?”

“excuse me?”

“what do you do?”

“we just graduated…”

“if you just graduated, how can you afford a cruise?”

“um, we saved?”

“how did you save? What do you do?”

Mental note: when dealing with customs, always have answers ready and sound confident. Now I can understand what it is like for foreigners to enter America.

When our luggage arrived, Beau’s wheel was broken off. After trying to secure it, he could barely drag the bag. I told him to pack lighter before we left, but oh well. Thus, our affordable plans to use the Skytrain were voided, leaving us with a $40 cab ride. Fortunately our driver took US dollars. Our hotel was very reasonably priced, near Chinatown with prostitutes on the corner during the evening. Even still, the homeless mostly kept to themselves and left us alone.
The Patricia was clean enough with helpful staff, just very small rooms with no view and a less-than-comfortable bed. We booked the cheapest room they had so it was expected. For lunch, we grabbed Pho and a place across the street (the hotel’s pub was not really what we had in mind after a day of travel). We found a cheap suitcase in Chinatown for $40 that was even larger than his old suitcase (unfortunately, the wheels are already starting to bend in). Vancouver has a beautiful downtown but is very expensive. Sales tax was a big hit to the budget.