Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sept. 18
As I am typing this, we are driving south on I-5 in northern California on our way back to Park Sierra. The sun is shining and we are enjoying that after fairly cool and occasionally rainy weather in Washington and Alaska the past few months. I haven’t posted since the beginning of our Alaska cruises on Sept. 2, so this update will be lengthy. Those of you who check this blog merely to see where we are and how we are, can quit reading after this paragraph if you want – we are both doing well, although I am recovering from a cold I picked up the last 3 days on the ship. Of course, we also picked up a few pounds despite the fact that we worked out in the gym nearly every day. Now the task is to get those off before the next two cruises start on October 14!
The Radiance of the Seas is a beautiful Royal Caribbean ship, which we were eager to compare to the Jewel of the Seas, her sister ship which we sailed on in April-May first to England and then to the Scandinavian countries and Russia. The Radiance had just undergone about 3 weeks in drydock before she started the Alaska season, so there were some major differences in the ships. Our cruise started in Vancouver, always a beautiful city and mostly sunny the day we sailed. Here is a picture of Elaine on the ship with the Vancouver downtown skyline behind her.

We sailed out of Canada Place, right on the downtown waterfront, with beautiful views all around the entire harbor area. It was exciting to sail under the Lion’s Gate bridge which connects downtown to North Vancouver. That evening we joined our cruising friends, David & Diane Wilson, Carol & Byron Hall, Mark Lorenzetti, and Pene DeMore at Chops Grille, one of the specialty restaurants, to celebrate David’s 65th birthday.

Diane had surprised David with these Alaska cruises as his BD present and secretly convinced all of us to join them on the ship. Chops is always the best restaurant on the ship and our dinner together was delicious and also fun.
After a day of cruising along the Canadian coast, and up through the lower part of the inland passage, we reached Ketchikan. I will let the pictures tell most of the story: Elaine and I are standing on the dock across from the gangway in Ketchkan in this shot, and you can see there are lots of small boats there and wooden rustic houses on the hill.

In most of the Alaska ports the hills and mountains rise dramatically up right behind the town buildings and the towns are small. Ketchikan is in what’s called the “rainforest”, and it rains at least part of the day, an average of 360 days a year! This rain gauge was near the docks

to remind us of this fact. Happily for us, it wasn’t raining! This is also “the king salmon capitol of the world” (self proclaimed), and this is the time of year when the salmon are returning to the rivers and creeks where they were hatched in order to spawn. So we headed up to the area of the creek where we could see them. This is a fish ladder.

It enables the fish to get off to the side of the raging river to swim and jump upriver in calmer areas created by the ladder. Here is a picture of some of the salmon resting in one of the fish ladder areas:

You can see the rushing water of the main river on the left. We saw quite a few dead fish lying alongside the river on some grassy areas too.
Proceeding down the creek on a wooden boardwalk, which is called the Married Men’s Trail, we came upon many wooden buildings built partially over the creek, which used to compose the Red Light District when this was a mining and logging town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Now most of them are either restaurants or shops to entice tourists. Dolly’s House was one of the more famous (or infamous) and long-lasting bordellos, and it is now restored as a museum with one of the “girls” offering tours for $5.

Of course, right where the cruise ships dock there are lots of gift shops selling genuine Alaska artifacts, tee shirts, jackets, etc. While we were on Creek Street, we started shopping for Ulu knives, which are implements used by the native people to do everything requiring cutting, even filleting fish.

We already have one which we mainly use to chop veggies. But ulu knives make great gifts because they are one of the few Alaska souvenirs which is useful. Diane wanted one for her daughter, so we started the search for a unique one which took us to a lot of stores in every port for the entire 2 weeks! While we were shopping, we saw a some very nice baskets, made by First Nations people, such as these:

Especially valuable and attractive baskets are made of baleen, which are the fibrous filaments found by the thousands in whale mouths, used to filter the krill that they survive on out of the seawater.

Later on we learned that many items being sold to tourists such as whale bone handled ulu knives, baleen baskets, carved walrus ivory, etc. are not allowed into Canada and would be confiscated by customs people when we returned to Vancouver. Many people had these items shipped, or mailed them home.
Totem poles carved by the First Nation people, or Inuits, are found in a couple of centers in Ketchikan.

We noticed some scattered around the downtown, and a few in front of people’s homes:

When we returned to the ship, I took this picture of a home located across the inlet from Ketchikan:

It shows all the methods of transport needed by someone living on the Inside Passage, where it is not possible to drive into the towns– you must come by boat or plane. These people have a float plane, several boats, and a car to drive into town.
Juneau, the state capitol, and our next stop, was overcast when we arrived but the setting was still stunning, since the mountains surrounding the city are so steep and waterfalls cascade down above the houses:

Some of the buildings have decorative murals on them

Our gang took the local bus out to the Alaskan Brewing Company:

Elaine and I like Alaskan Amber beer, and in the tasting room there were 9 beers on tap, with each person being allowed 6 free glasses to sample. There was also an informative talk about how the brewery got its start:

They have lots of colorful gear for sale and very friendly staff. By the time we left, it was raining, so we took the bus back to the ship.
We arrived in Skagway very early in the morning so we missed seeing the town as we parked, but later got this shot showing what a beautiful setting this place has.

Here is a picture of the main street, showing a cruise ship parked at the end of town and mountains with glaciers on top towering over everything.

Here is a closeup of the glacier:

Skagway developed as a gold rush town in 1897 because of its location near the passes leading to Dawson City and the gold fields. First it was a tent city, then wooden buildings and boardwalks emerged, which still exist today, after being restored, I’m sure. Most of the buildings are now shops selling everything tourists demand:

Because it was near the end of the season (our cruise was the last for Radiance in Alaska this season) there were huge sales in every town, with 50% off merchandise in most places. Having no intention of making this a shopping trip, we ended up buying some nice sweatshirts, shirts, and fleeces just because they were so inexpensive and of good quality. Shopping tip for the future: Juneau and Skagway were the best places to shop with the biggest discounts and the most selection. Skagway also has some creative ways to see the surrounding area such as the White Pass to the Yukon, the Chilkoot trail, and Emerald Lake :

The Red Onion Saloon is from the Gold Rush days and is a lot of fun today too. The White Pass and Yukon railroad takes you through a stunning area, but is a bit pricey at about $120 per person.

This picture shows the locomotive with the huge blower on the front which is needed to remove snow from the tracks in winter

We didn’t do any out of town excursions since we spent quite a bit of time here in 1995 in our RV and had explored everything then, including hiking part of the Chilkoot Trail. Here is a picture of our group heading back to our ship (in the background) with several full shopping bags, and you can see by the way we are dressed, it was a cool day!

Sailing out of Skagway, in the Inside Passage, we had some incredible scenery to watch.

This is when we really appreciated seeing Alaska from the water since people who drive up and back miss these water views. In 1995 we drove our RV up and returned to the USA by taking the Alaska Marine Ferry which you can see here:

It doesn’t look very big but it carries lots of trucks, RVs, cars and people all over the Inside Passage. We took our RV off at every port and spent several days exploring each place – it was great!
The next day the amazing views continued as we entered Yakutat Bay and our ship went very close to the Hubbard Glacier.

In this next picture you can see the front of the glacier and the “river” of ice behind it.

It is one of the longest glaciers at about 76 miles, and it starts in the Yukon! The face of it, on the water, is about 6 miles wide, and our ship got to within ½ mile of it. Ships don’t go any closer because of “shooters” which are ice fragments that break off under water and shoot up, possibly causing hull damage. There were several loud booms, and some big pieces of ice fell off the face, which is called “calving”. Here is a closeup of the Face:

Later the sun came out and shone brilliantly off the snowcapped mountains towering over the glacier:

The ship stayed at the glacier for several hours, doing 360 degree turns, so that everyone on the ship would have a good view and plenty of time to take pictures. Later, as we sailed away and down the Inside Passage again, we had many hours of scenic viewing of the mountain range running along there, and the tallest mountain called Mt. Elias.

On Friday, Sept. 9 we arrived in Seward, on Alaska’s mainland, where most of the passengers debarked. About 66 people stayed on board for the return cruise to Vancouver, and they had a very nice lunch for us in the dining room while the ship was being prepped for the incoming hoardes. Then Diane, David, Elaine and I went off to explore Seward

You can tell by our jackets and hats that it was very cold. Seward is also in a gorgeous setting:

Our ship was docked near the small boat slips and tall mountains with glaciers on top were all around. There are nearly 100,000 glaciers in Alaska! Seward is mile 0 on the Iditarod Trail.

Miners blazed trails to the gold fields in central and western Alaska and sled dogs carried supplies from ships to the goldfields using this trail. Now the Iditarod starts in Fairbanks and ends in Nome every year and is merely a strenuous race. Seward is the smallest town we were in yet there was a free shuttle from the port to the downtown. We walked around and noticed lots of RV parking right along the waterfront. At the boat slip area a charter boat had just come in and hung up the day’s catch for a photo:

I should have taken this picture with someone in it so you could see how big these halibut were – the center one weighs over 100 pounds!
The second week of cruising we visited the same ports, which worked out well because we mostly had different weather and/or experiences in each place. The Hubbard Glacier day was overcast this time and we could see the colors of the glacier better than when the sun was shining on it.

There was also a large number of icebergs in a stream near the glacier

and in this shot you can see that some showed the blue color:

Icy Strait Point was formerly a place where there was a salmon and crab canning facility mostly run by the Hoonah nations people. It has been acquired by Royal Caribbean and the huge cannery building turned into a museum and also shops.

We took the tender in with Diane and David and went for a walk through the nearby forest.

Royal Caribbean has built the world’s longest zipline here, but we didn’t take it as it would have cost $99 pp. Then we walked through the old cannery. Here is Elaine near the huge crab pots they used:

The canning equipment was old but has been restored and explanations were posted.

Some of the Hoonah nations people let us take their picture:

The tenders returned us to the ship

As we were moored there, we saw the spouts of lots of humpback whales.
Of course, besides the ports, ship life is also enjoyable. Byron & Carol received an award for achieving Pinnacle status – that means 700 cruise points with Royal Caribbean!

The rest of us are merely Diamond + members but that is enough because we get free drinks every evening from 5 to 8:30 in the Diamond Lounge which had great views and fabulous service, by Jaime, from Brazil, and Rodrigo from Mexico. Here is Jaime with one of the drink trays:

The last night he picked up Rodrigo for this picture:

Here is our gang in the lounge:

On the ship there were some new specialty restaurants (which we paid extra for) so we tried 2 of them. Here is our gang at the Samba Brazilian Grill, which had wonderful ambiance, great views, beautiful dishes, delicious appetizers and side dishes, and 9 main course meats served on a sword with the waiter slicing off as much as you want. ALL of the meats were extremely salty and very over cooked. We would never go there again.

The second restaurant, Izumi’s, was a sushi place and I had my doubts because I don’t like it that much. But the food was fantastic! Look at this lunch assortment:

And here is my happy sushi lover enjoying it:

We went back twice.
On cruising days we often ate at the Park Café in the Solarium, which had good food, a nice atmosphere, no crowds, was free, and had good service. Here are Pene, Mark, and Elaine in the Solarium:

This ship had the youngest captain in the fleet and maybe the best we have had yet. We met him several times at various functions and because he is Norwegian, I think he looks like my youngest brother, Jerry.

I’m sure the ship was as fabulous as it was because his presence was constant everywhere on the ship and he always gave so much credit to his crew.
Thanks for traveling with us!!!