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Trip Report Bears and Traps. Our Grand Alaska Sea & Land Tour

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I have to confess that, originally, we wanted to go on a cruise to Western Greenland. However, all vessels had been booked a year ahead. Hence, we decided to travel to Alaska. “We” is a three generation family from Germany, consisting of our twin sons, who turned 25 during the trip, ourselves, a couple in the mid-fifties, and dear MIL, aged 82, but still able to hike six miles without stopping talking. Since English is a foreign language to me, excuse me for the many mistakes I make, particularly the wrong use of prepositions (They will forever remain miracles for me. For me? Or to me? Whatever).

Our itinerary was as follows: Flight from Frankfurt to Vancouver, two nights in this beautiful city, then a 7-day cruise to Seward, a couple of days in Seward, proceeding to Denali, from there to Chena Hot Springs (near Fairbanks), then back to Anchorage, flight from Anchorage, another day in Vancouver and back home – three and a half weeks in total.

Planning a trip is part of the fun of travelling, but I must say, planning the trip was the most challenging task in my life – planning a three-week trip to Africa was a breeze compared to Alaska. One reason is that several places had already been fully booked nine months before the trip, which was, however, in high season, that means August. The second reason is that the excursions which are offered by the cruise ships are so outrageously expensive that you have make arrangements by yourself which is not so easy as in other parts of the world because there is a lack of professional tourist-oriented businesses in Alaska. E.g. a simple task like making a reservation for a rental car requires a surprising amount of research and communication, since worldwide car rental firms are not present and local firms do not have online reservation systems.

Well, we had nine months to arrange everything, and with the help of this forum, of cruise critic boards and some guidebooks, we finally succeeded.

In addition, I liked to read two books as a preparation for this journey. The first one is “Alaska” by James Michener, a novel about the history of Alaska from the beginning of the earth up to the present. To be sure, it is not Michener’s best book and it has a weak start, but I learned a lot from the episodes about the Russian pelt hunters, about the gold rushes, the salmon fisheries and more – edutainment at its best! The second book is a mixture of a guidebook and a storybook, called “The Alaska Cruise Handbook – A Mile by Mile Guide” by Joe Upton, an Alaskan native who shares a lot of an insider’s knowledge about the Alaskan shore.

Okay, let’s start.

August 1, transatlantic flight & Vancouver

We had booked a flight from Frankfurt to Vancouver with Air Canada. We spoiled ourselves with business class seats which were just twice as much as economy class. It turned out that it was a code share flight operated by Lufthansa which, however, would have charged the double fare as Air Canada.

During the flight I watched a BBC documentary on grizzly bears. When it ended, I asked the flight attendant if they could take us back to Germany on the same plane. She declined, and I watched a Tolkien movie with elves, orcs, giant spiders and a dragon called Smaug which calmed me down a lot.

The flight from Frankfurt to Vancouver takes 9 ½ hours and is incredibly scenic. We saw Greenland, the arctic sea, the east coast of Canada and, already descending, the snow-capped rocky mountains east of Vancouver. When we deplaned, our biological clocks were set to midnight while in Vancouver it was a bright early afternoon. Vancouver Airport is very pretty, with a lot of First Nations symbols and a man-made stream flowing through the terminal. Customs & immigration is a breeze in Canada, especially compared to that what the USA do to their visitors.

For $42 including tip, a taxi brought us five and our huge amount of baggage to downtown where we stayed at the Fairmont Hotel. The Fairmont used to be something like an institution in Vancouver and has historic charm, but sadly it shows many signs of wear and tear. Anyway, to adjust to the new time zone, we stayed awake and strolled through town to the waterfront. Canada Place, dominated by the new cruise ship terminal, is a big urban planning mistake and ruins the otherwise beautiful Vancouver skyline. At least, we enjoyed watching the seaplanes starting and landing. We walked the boardwalk to Coal Harbour (now a yacht harbor) and enjoyed watching hundreds of locals sunbathing in the park. We walked back along Robson Street which is Vancouver’s liveliest street, packed with shops and restaurants.

For selecting a restaurant for dinner, we had just two criteria: it should be near the hotel and not too expensive, since we had planned to splurge on the next evening. We ended at the “Blackbird”, a combination of a public house and oyster bar. According to our criteria, our expectations were low. And then we got it, our first Canadian meal. After all the champagne and wine on the plane (we flew Lufthansa business class), we enjoyed a good amber local beer to wash down two varieties of oysters, one with a fresh taste and the other with a creamy texture that we like so much. For the entree, I chose something what I had eaten many times before in Boston and in other places at the East Coast: clam chowder. But what I got here, was from another planet: a most delicate soup with a few potato cubes surrounding a pile of clams in their shells and bacon. This was the first of many examples how even middle-class restaurants in Vancouver turn common dishes into gourmet feasts. We ended with a liquid center chocolate cake, French style. The bill was $32 p.p. including beverages what I found most reasonable for the quality we got.

To be continued.

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    So glad you made it to Alaska. I'm sure Greenland is amazing but Alaska is special too. Can't wait to read the rest of your report. An Alaskan cruise is still on my bucket list.

    We met several Germans in Alaska. All their flights flew over the North Pole and took about the same amount of time as our flight from Cleveland, Ohio.

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    August 2, Vancouver

    The next morning, we had a similar culinaric experience. In the Fairmont’s restaurant, we ordered eggs benedict with Dungeness crab cakes for breakfast. Again, I have had many crab cakes in place U.S. cities so far, but the Vancouver crab cakes were by far the best.

    Since it was a warm and sunny day, we took a taxi to Stanley Park. It turned out that we had to take two taxis because the city of Vancouver allows only 4 persons per taxi and the Fairmont’s doorman was very strict on that rule. We dropped of a the Totem Pole’s where we saw our first poles, very impressive, and got excellent views of Vancouver’s skyline. Also, the gift shop with lots of first-class native art was irresistible for us. Although we did not want to buy souvenirs on the first day of our trip, I purchased two ties with elegant native patterns.

    We boarded the park shuttle, which was, with 5 persons, not as economical as a taxi would have been. At Lion’s Gate, we left and took photographs of the bridge. We walked Siwash Rock Trail which led us through the beautiful forest, with a spectacular view of a free-standing rock in the sea. The trail ended at Third Beach, a beautiful sandy beach. The air had become really hot by now, and the water of the Pacific was surprisingly warm. We regretted that we had not thought about bringing swimming gear with us, but at least took of our shoes and waded a bit through the water. After that, we wanted to get to Gastown. We thought we board the shuttle bus, ride two steps and change to the city bus. However, when the shuttle had not arrived 15 minutes after scheduled departure time, we waved down a taxi. The taxi driver asked, “five people?”, and, after short consideration, said “I take you all for $10 extra”. I needed half a second to think about this case of breaking the law and agreed. BTW, the driver’s name was Mike.

    Good humored by this deal, the taxi driver transformed into a tour guide, chose the route through the historic district, showed us the heritage homes and gave detailed explanations. He dropped us off at the steam clock and after having received the metered fare, $10 extra and a tip, he was as happy as we were. The guidebooks make a great fuss about the steam clock, but in reality it is not overly impressive. We were a little too late to hear it whistling, but through the glass panel, we could see the mechanism, and it was still emitting a small amount of steam. But Water Street was cute enough, lined with old buildings who now housed restaurants and souvenir shops. After a little walk, we felt we need (1) a little rest, (2) something to eat, (3) more to drink and (4) something to relieve ourselves. At first, I wanted to lunch at the Old Spaghetti Factory, but they had not outdoor table available. We ended at a nice, shady table at a place called “Chill Winston”. It was opposite the statue of “Gassy Jack” (who founded Gastown) which is on the site of the maple tree under which the old ones congregated and decided to name the town after Captain Vancouver. Hence a touristy place. We expected nothing. I ordered a local brew and a bison hamburger. And again, a Vancouver restaurant could make a delicious treat from the most ordinary dish. The bison patty was large enough, perfectly grilled and served with most delicious french fries, cut from unpeeled potatoes.

    After our meal, we walked to Chinatown, which is not a tourist trap like San Francisco’s equivalent, but still authentic, albeit somewhat run-down. On our tourist map I had spotted Dr. Soandso’s Chinese Garden which we entered, again without much expectation. And again, we were pleasantly surprised by the beauty of this not so little gem in the heart of Vancouver’s Chinatown.

    I had found another entry on the map: the Jimi Hendrix Shrine. And as a great lover of his music, I dragged my family a few hundred meters to a shack that had somehow been forgotten to be bulldozered by urban development, brightly painted in psychedelic pattern. Inside was a man, psychodelically dressed, playing an electric guitar, lots of psycholedically painted guitars, photos, photocopies of Hendrix’ song manuscripts, figurines and whatever. Outside was a small garden with garden chairs and a table and photographs showing Jimi sitting exactly in one of these chairs.

    The shack once housed a soul food restaurant where Jimi's grandmother cooked for the black community and from time to time for a jazz musician like Nat King Cole or Louis Armstrong. Jimi was often there over the summer.

    The psychedelic guy explained that he was given the copies of
    the manuscripts by Jimi’s sister, and he told us a lot more. All in all, we had a most moving spiritual experience in this shrine. The entrance was free, but donations were experienced to support the volunteers working here. I put $10 in the box and knew for certain that this money would be spent for psychedelic drugs. Jimi would have liked it.

    Out of the shrine and struggling with adjusting our eyes to the bright sunshine, I waved down a taxi. The driver was from Iraq. He asked us where we came from. When I answered “Germany”, he was most excited: “The World Cup winners!” (For the Americans: the German team had recently won the World Cup in a game that is called “football” everywhere in the world, except in USA, where it is called “soccer”). He drove us back to the hotel, and when I presented a $10 bill for the fare plus a generous tip, he declined: “The ride is free – you are the World Cup winners!” I pressed him a bit to accept the bill, but he insisted, and finally I did not want to insult an oriental man and thought by myself “these are the $10 which I gave to the Jimi Hendrix shrine”.

    Since it was so hot and we had walked quite a bit, we did nothing else this afternoon but soaking in the hotel’s refreshing pool.

    For dinner, I had planned to splurge. In fact, I wanted to go the the city’s best restaurant. According to the Vancouver Magazine, Hawksworth should be the place, but it had been impossible to get reservations for 5 people. Alternatively, we had booked a table at Diva at the Met, mainly because Vancouver Magazine wrote of the chef’s “daredevil cooking” and that was something that attracted me.

    Fortunately, I somehow sensed the dresscode for posh Vancouver restaurants, but with chinos and polo shirt, I still felt a bit overdressed, since most patrons in this pricey restaurants wore shorts. Anyway, we ordered the six-course tasting menu.

    They offered the menu with wine pairings, but as a European, I recognized cheap Italian and French wines as pairings and chose to order wines from British Columbia. We consumed a bottle of sparkling wine, a bottle of Cheney blanc (named Road 13) and a bottle of Shiraz plus other beverages (named devils advocate), all from BC Valley called Okanagan. The sparkling wine had these subtil citrus flavors (fantastic!), which are typical for real Champagnes, the white wine was aromatic and complex and the red extremely fruity with a typical shiraz-notes of cherry. Given that all three wines ranged among the less expensive ones, we were very satisfied with our choices.

    The food was quite inventive with highs and not-so-highs. The composition of the menu was rather strange with two salad courses in a row and two other courses with the same vegetables. The lingcod was practically tasteless while the pork belly saved the meal. The dessert (the second dessert, in fact) was fantastic – choco fondant – accompanied by a BC Ice Wine, which was strongly recommended by the sommelier, who was proud to hear that in a blind tasting no one would have detected a difference to german Ice Wine.

    To be continued.

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    August 3, Vancouver & embarkation

    Next Morning was embarkation day. Having had so good food we opted for a smaller (read: cheaper) breakfast at Café Crèpe on Robson street, which was less than half price compared to the Fairmont and had the atmosphere (and the staff) of an LGBT bar – black walls, bright paintings and loud lounge music. Wouldn’t we have consumed orange juice instead of tequila sunrise we wouldn’t have noticed that it was breakfast time instead of midnight. This time, we had eggs benedict (what else?) with smoked salmon.

    Coming out of the darkness of our breakfast place, we found ourselves in the midst of the preparations for the Gay (and Lesbian) Pride Parade which made lively Robson Street even livelier. Everybody enjoyed him- or herself; even the police people were rainbow-coloured and took selfies with the drag queens.

    For embarkation day, I had clear plans: to embark early, to have lunch on the ship, to consume a lot of free cocktails (because we had bought a beverage package) and to swim in the ship’s pools. It did not happen that way. First, embarkation took full two hours, mostly because of the U.S. border control procedures of taking fingerprints and pictures. In the hall, there were posters hanging, saying “You are the face of the USA”. If this was true, it was, however, the face of a rather “ugly American” (there are many threads on this topic on fodors.com).

    Finally, we were through and found that Holland America Line had messed up our booking. Instead of eating, drinking and swimming, I spend the better part of the afternoon standing in line at the front desk and talking to Asian agents who knew there handbooks but had no understanding at all what to do when the cruise line had make a mistake. Finally, for $55, I bought a pass for an ultra-slow wifi connection and needed almost an hour to send an email to my travel agent, who would settle the matter quickly and effectively the next day.

    One word on the pools: the MS Oosterdam has two pools. One is for children only, and the other is not allowed for adults. If an adult tries to swim in any of the pools, he is immediately punished with splashes of water, puffs in his ribs and deafening yelling in his ears. However, this happens only on days with fine weather. When the sky is cloudy, the open-air pool on the aft deck is always empty, albeit the water is nicely heated all the time and they have hot tubs to warm you up after swimming.

    Another word on food: Unlike other cruise ships which serve standardized meals on each cruise, wherever it goes, the Oosterdam used regional products. The Oosterdam took over its supplies in Vancouver and this guarantees first-rank seafood. Especially the smoked salmon was outstanding, and we ordered it each time when it was on the menu. And the chef was able to cure it each time in a different way. We most liked the B.C. smoked salmon when it was orange-cured.

    Basically, the Oosterdam has three restaurants: The main dining room, a buffet restaurant and a socalled specialty restaurant, the “Pinnacle Grill”. We found dinner in the main dining room really good, and we are spoiled gourmets. For breakfast and lunch, we usually opted for the buffet restaurant which served good curries and had Mexican buffets for lunch.

    One evening, we were invited for a dinner in the Pinnacle Grill. Usually, they charge an extra fee for the Pinnacle Grill, but for us, it was a gift horse. And one of the weirdest dining experiences we ever had. First, the Pinnacle Grill is a design disaster. They have tried to create a somewhat special atmosphere and they ended with combining grossly overdone mega-baroque chairs which look as if from a Tim Burton movie with an illuminated ceiling obviously designed for a discotheque and large photographs of Dutch motives on the walls which look as if taken from a cheap fast-food venue. Second, they are pretentious. And how pretentious! I have dined at quite a few restaurants with three Michelin-stars and they were all sloppy compared to this stiff cruise ship restaurant. And it was a well-trained stiffness.

    The Indonesian sommelier explained that the sauvignon blanc from Kenwood would taste like a sauvignon from New Zealand. We, who had travelled to Kenwood, to New Zealand and to Sancerre, which is the homeland of the sauvignon grape, were most amused by this lecture. Of course, the Kenwood tasted like Sonoma Valley and nothing else. We concluded that the sommelier was a Muslim and therefore forbidden to drink wine.

    Then another Indonesian waiter came and explained to us Europeans what an amuse bouche was. To us neighbours of France which is a three-hour drive away from our hometown! But those Indonesian waiters were trained to say such things and, robot-like, they performed, whoever was their guest.

    Now the food. I wrote that the food in the main dining room was really good and they serve four courses there. Here, in the socalled specialty restaurant, they served three courses only. I had crab cakes, and I can honestly say, they were the worst crab cakes on our whole trip, with at least 50% breadcrumbs of the total matter. Then I had ribeye steak, the ladies filet mignon. They make a big fuss with an X&X Ranch where they get their beef from. And again, it were the most tasteless steaks we ever had on our trip – and not well prepared either. Later, in Chena Hot Springs, short of the end of the world, we would be served much, much better steaks.

    So much for the Pinnacle Grill. At the end of our journey, we would get another complimentary invitation which we, of course, declined in favour of the main dining room where we also were served by Indonesian waiters who were friendly, witty and personal (at least after we had given them a small extra tip). So, no matter of nationality. More a matter of management and instructions.

    August 4, day at sea

    The first full day of the cruise was a sea day. From our cabin’s verandah, we saw four schools of orcas and three humpback whales at very close range. We saw everything – fins, bodies, bellies, tails and breath. One of the humpbacks performed like his cousins in the aquarium shows. I even managed to make some photographs although the critters were damned quick and you never knew where they would emerge from the sea.

    This evening, we had our first formal night on the ship. On the men, we saw not more than two or three tuxedos, some wearing dark suits, some light suits, some no suits at all. About 20% of the men did not even wear a tie. One of the patrons wore jeans and a checkered flannel shirt. We later found out that he was German. Probably a school teacher who voted for the Green Party. Amazingly, the general rule was that the gentlemen dressed better than their ladies. How did we go? I was dressed with my tailored black silk suit, white shirt and a red-and-black tie with Tlingit patterns that I had bought in Vancouver. DW wore a dark blue lace dress with a colourful Kenian scarf and multi-coloured shoes, so, I think, we were fairly equal.

    To be continued.

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    Very interesting reading. We took an Alaska cruise on the Oosterdam in June. Like you, we were also somewhat disappointed in the Pinnacle Grill - not nearly as nice as a few years earlier, on the Zaandam. Fortunately for us, we sailed southbound TO Vancouver, and so did not have the immediate comparison with the delicious food to be had in that fine city.

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    traveller1959:

    Your command of English is excellent.

    I am enjoying your delightful detailed report very much. Looking forward to more and hopeful that you will post some photos.

    Sandy

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    Dear friends:

    Thank you for your encouraging comments. I will continue.

    @sludick:

    We had always thought that it is better to take the northbound cruise because the scenary becomes more dramatic the further north you travel.

    But from a culinary point of view, you are certainly right. But wait for the last evening of our trip, which we spent in Vancouver again...

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    August 5, Ketchikan

    Our first port was Ketchikan. Ketchikan calls itself the “Salmon Capital of the World” and “Totem Pole Capital of the World”, others call it “America’s Rain Capital”. In fact, it had rained early that morning, when the ship was still at sea, but after we arrived it gradually cleared up and became a warm and sunny day. So much for the rain capital. From the approaching ship, Ketchikan looked neat. On the fringes of town, we spotted salmon canneries. Then came a picturesque small boat harbour and finally the town itself which is made up by many historic structures. However, clever urban planners have managed to place a few ugly high-rises into the town’s silhouette.

    In a cruise critic forum, I had read that Herring Cove was a popular hang-out for bears, so I had reserved a car for us five. Alaska Car Rentals would pick us up at the pier at 8 a.m., and with DS II, I was ten minutes early on the pier. We used the time to visit Downtown and Creek Street, and within these ten minutes we had already seen anything what is worth seeing in Ketchikan.

    We finally drove to Herring Cove, where we found no bears but a tourist trap called “Rainforest Sanctuary”. They would charge $79 for a walk through the forest. We declined and drove further to the end of the road, where we hoped to find an ancient salmon cannery, but instead there was nothing but a hydroelectric power plant. On the way back, we stopped again at Herring Cove. Again no bears but a couple of Holland America Tour buses. Our first chance to spot bears was missed.

    There was a kind of viewpoint over the beach, from which we saw salmon jumping in the open sea, very strange. Obviously they were eager to swim into the rivr in order to jump even more over some rapids. In a kind of garage, a local fisherman offered salmon which he had smoked himself. It was pricey but just delicious, and we bought a few pieces to consume it later for lunch. It would be our best smoked salmon we ever got in Alaska. And quite an experience in this garage.

    Our car led us to Saxman Native Village. There are three totem pole parks in Ketchikan, and Joe Upton recommended Saxman most. We found no native village, but a clan house, brightly painted from the outside, several contemporary totems, some of them quite funny (one with a caricature of William Seward on the top), a carver’s workshop with glass windows and a gift shop run by native people which offered, very sadly, cheap totem pole replicas fabricated in Indonesia.

    We drove through town northwards and turned onto Revilla Road which led us up into the mountains. It is a gravel road with lots of potholes and I was lucky that I had rented a SUV. We drove to Harriet Lake which is a remote and scenic place. We were the only humans there (the tour buses had not arrived yet) and the ladies were reluctant to leave the car because they were afraid of being eaten by bears. Finally they left and survived. It was pretty lonesome there, with no cell phone reception. A broken tire would have been a problem.

    On the way back we stopped at Ward Lake which is equally scenic, has facilities, a nice hiking trail around the small lake and some people who were there hiking and fishing. We munched our smoked salmon at a picnic table and were happy to see no bear here. On the beach, however, we found tracks which were unmistakenly bear tracks. They sent shivers onto our spines.

    After returning the car, we spent a couple of minutes walking through Creek Street and through town. The Dolly House boasted being a place “where men and salmon came upstream to spawn” but we did not bother to spend $10 p.p. to visit this tiny house because there were public boards with detailed explanations of hard-working men and whores.

    On the way back, we browsed several galleries that sold native art, which we found high quality and high-priced. Some pieces carved out of whalebone looked very good, but we assumed that it would be illegal to import them to Germany. The most interesting shop was a taxidermist (“tall tale taxidermy”) which had all the animals at display which roam the rainforest. Lots of fur and claws and teeth. Again, we shivered. We found many of pieces quite affordable but we did not buy anything, since DW needed most of our luggage for her collection of shawls and dresses.

    At 1:30 p.m. we were back on the ship which was scheduled to sail at 3:00 p.m. We had spent $100 for the rental car and gas, and $5 p.p. admission to Saxman Village (which was, as we were told later, kind of illegal). Had we booked the the ship excursions to Herring Cove, Saxman and Lake Harriett we would have paid $317 p.p or $ 1585 for us $, so, by renting a car, we saved $ 1460. This is, of course, a theoretical number because you can not combine three tours in half a day. So, by organizing our landtrip ourselves, we saw much more and saved much money. We should practice this strategy on our next excursions as well. And if you are not travelling with five, you can use the cruise critic roll call to find other travellers to share a rental car.

    The ship’s schedule had said all aboard at 2:30 p.m. and at 2:30 sharp they removed the gangway. At 2:45 a late lady arrived at the ship and she burst into tears when she saw that the ship sailed away two minutes later, a quarter of an hour before schedule.

    Luckily, she missed the ship in Ketchikan where she could easily board a seaplane to fly to Juneau, the next port. We prayed for her that she had her credit card with her.

    In the afternoon, when we sailed through picturesque channels, we saw more orcas and humpbacks at close range from our cabin balcony, and eventually we stopped counting them. Had anyone written that you do not see much from big ships?

    To be continued.

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    August 6, Juneau

    Juneau was cold and overcast. Although Alaska’s State Capital, it is a small town. At least, it has a kind of skyline which is dominated by ugly high-rises and a particularly disgusting parking garage of dirty concrete. Some fake old-time looking buildings with tourist stores right near the cruise ship docks does it not make look better.

    In Juneau, we had a late start. I had reserved a car at Juneau Car Rental which has a small office near dock A. Unfortunately, I had an official-looking map that confused dock A with dock D, and then, after finding that out, I got wrong directions by a local man and ended up walking 1 ½ miles. Finally arrived at a little hut near the dock, I was greeted by a girl with a warm smile and everything feeled god again. What a smile can do! The paperwork was done in 20 seconds and then she handed me a map on which she had already highlighted the attractions around Juneau and she gave me explanations what to see where. I appreciated that service a lot. Almost as much as the smile.

    When I drove me freshly rented car to our ship’s dock, my family already waited at the curbside. “Vow, what a Mafia car!” shouted DW, when she saw me in my black Lincoln Town Car. I had reserved a full-size sedan @ $85 per day and what I got was this vintage Lincoln, which had no CD player but a cassette player and had already run 99,000 miles. Although the Lincoln was well-suspended, I understood after a few miles while Mercedes and BMW are so popular in North America.

    We drove to Mendenhall Glacier which is the main attraction of Juneau. In fact, Mendenhall was the reason to rent a car, because the bus fare was $16 p.p., so for five people the rental car was roughly the same price (even for a Lincoln) and we got much more flexibility. Right next to the parking lot of the glacier, there is a bear viewing bridge. However, the ranger told us that this day no bear had been seen so far. But we saw big fat pink salmon in the shallow water of the small creek below the bridge. Obviously a perfect dining spot for bears.

    We walked the short Steep Creek Trail and proceeded to the photo spot and then took the East Glacier Trail to Nugget Fall. It was incredibly scenic, and from everywhere you had good views of the glacier and the icebergs floating on the glacier lake. Nugget Fall was quite impressive, and there we had water from below (the lake), from above (it had started raining) and from the side (the fall’s spray). I had to wipe my camera lens several times, but soon it stopped raining and even cleared up a little. The low-hanging clouds and the fog created an eerie background for the ice-blue glacier and the icebergs.
    Back at the parking lot, we regretted that our ladies had spent so much time at the restrooms and we had been so polite to wait for them, because we were 30 seconds too late to get a proper view of the black bear and her cub who had just crossed the creek. We only got a glimpse of a black something quickly disappearing in the thicket. Second chance missed by a few seconds! But we came closer to our target. Yesterday tracks and now a shadow. Not too bad.

    We drove to Eagle Beach which had been recommended by the friendly girl at the rental car agency. I explained to my children that they should take place names not too seriously. “Probably, 200 years ago a trapper named the beach, because he had spotted an eagle there”, I said with the superior knowledge of an elder one. Eagle Beach is a very scenic river mouth with extensive tidal flats. Right next the parking lot, we saw a porcupine walking leisurely along. Not bad either. At the beach, we saw (and heard) hundreds of seagulls, ravens and – bald eagles, half a dozen at least. So, Eagle Beach is properly named indeed. One of the eagles was picking on some kind of prey, and a raven approached him and got his share, too. On a log, we saw a bald eagle, a golden eagle and a raven sitting side by side. When I slowly walked to them, I could rank them by their degree of angst. The first one who flew away was the bald eagle, the second one the golden eagle and the boldest of the three was – what a surprise! – the raven, of course. Thus, the conflict of Eagle and the Raven tribe of the Tlingit should be settled. And the USA should think twice about their heraldic animal.

    We drove back the coastal road to the Saint Therese Shrine, a catholic chapel built in the 1930ies, mildly interesting, but conveniently located on our way back to Juneau. The girl had recommended Auke Bay for whale watching, but since we had encountered so many whales from our cruise ship at close range, we skipped that. I would have liked to visit the State Museum, but the rest of my family was happy that it was closed for renovation. That cost me something, because DW would later buy replicas of First Nations masks of the museum in a gift shop.

    Returning to the dock by 3 o’clock, we were as hungry as a bear. I returned the rental car and took a taxi back. I asked the taxi driver which place was best for king crab, and without hesitation, she said Tracy’s. “I don’t know how they do it, but somehow they make the best”, she said.

    Tracy’s Crab Shack is a shack, indeed. They advertise themselves as “the best legs in town”. On the shack, there is a picture of Tracy – a gorgeous girl with a black mane in a very short dress with endless legs which look like… – well, you have to find out yourself.

    We ordered Alaskan beer, a bucket of king crab legs and 27 crab cakes for us five. The legs, warm and fresh from the boiling pot, were outstanding. For our convenience, they were already sliced open, so we did not need the nutcrackers. The crab cakes were also excellent, with a hell of a sauce. And everything was dirt cheap. We really had a feast with the best of king crab, plenty of crab cakes, beer and finally ended with having spent less than $40 p.p. And the staff was good-humoured and the place very atmospheric, really an experience.

    At this point, I have to add a word about Alaskan beer. Juneau has the biggest brewery, but also Fairbanks has one and many other towns have their microbreweries. And all make excellent beer. In fact, they make German beer, even “Pilsner”, “Weizen” and “Kölsch” (Cologne-style beer which they call “Summer” in Alaska). No wonder, since 19 per cent of the Alaskans have German ancestry, thus making the Germans by far the biggest ethnic group in Alaska. And in Alaska, we heard German everywhere, at least “danke”, “auf Wiedersehen” and, quite unusual for North America, the more contemporary “tschüss”. Even native-looking Alaskans spoke German and at some place there was a very native-looking girl who even had a German last name.

    After the meal, we went up the short shopping street, bought a jade pendant for my mother’s birthday, several masks and a pair of colourful Turkish boots for DW, who would draw everybody’s eyes on her feet the next evenings on the ship.

    With DS II, I briefly entered the Red Dog Saloon, a former brothel, now an infamous tourist trap. It had some stuffed animals on the walls, sawdust on the floor and a guitar player/singer playing country music. For our liking, it was too touristy, and we do not care for country music anyway, so we left without consuming something. And why do we need a brothel? – The ship’s daily programme, translated to German, says for each morning what in English means “Jeanette is available” (BTW, Jeanette is the location guide).

    To be continued.

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    @Sandy:

    I think yeas. She could have taken a seaplane from Ketchikan to Juneau which is a quite scenic flight, stayed overnight at a hotel in Juneau and board the ship next morning. There are more comlicated ports to miss a ship.

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    August 7, Skagway

    Skagway is the infamous town where the trail to Klondike started and where many of the gold seekers lost their money in saloons and brothels. Things have not changed so much since then. Today, the cruise ship tourists are relieved of their funds, however, not in the brothel but by a slick business called “White Pass Railroad”. The train station is the first thing that you stumble upon when you leave the ship, and once they have you in their grip, they charge an incredibly steep fare.

    The craziest thing you can do is to take the 3-hour train ride up to White Pass, which is just mildly scenic, especially when the clouds are hanging deep. For the longer train ride to Carcross, Holland America Line would charge $269.95 – per person, of course.

    The train has two locomotives and is incredibly slow. The Hell’s Canyon Train into the German Black Forest climbs about the same altitude, covers the same distance, has one locomotive, is ten times faster and the fare is a twentienth of the White Pass fare.

    But many American travellers seem to consider train rides as a special experience, hence the train makes a good trap to catch tourists (and their purses).

    We did the better thing and rented a car. Because we did not rent from a local business but from Avis, the charge was $196 for a SUV, but we got a brand new car. We drove the Klondike Highway up to White Pass, passed the Canadian border without any hassle and found ourselves in the midst of a surrealist scenery consisting of a zillion lakes, shrubs and bare rock.

    The section between White Pass and Carcross is the most scenic part of the Klondike highway and there are many pullouts to take photos. When we left Skagway, we found ourselves in an endless convoy of tour buses, but after White Pass traffic become thinner and after Suspension Bridge we were practically
    alone on the highway.

    Suspension Bridge – what a tourist trap! It is just an ugly steel bridge, but they charge a hefty admission fee to walk across it. You have to pay money even to see it! They have the canyon fenced to obscure the view. However, I found a place that allowed me to see the miraculous bridge and to take a photo as a proof that it is not worth seeing it, even if there were not an admission. On the other side, there is nothing but a mock mining camp, Disneyland style.

    The real beauty comes after the bridge, when the highway leads along some very scenic lakes until you reach Carcross (what stands for "Caribou Crossing"). Carcross is a mixture of a ghost town and tourist trap. There is the station of the White Pass railroad, surrounded by huts which cater for tourists. There is a historic grocery store, converted to a souvenir store, but nicely done. Next door you can buy icecream, made by Nestlé.

    But since we had been so much faster than the railroad which would arrive much later we were practically alone in Carcross. We enjoyed the ghost town part a lot. The setting between river and lake is very picturesque, with an old steel bridge for the railroad, the remains of steamer, fishing boats and huts.

    If you walk a bit around town, you find some very picturesque shacks and houses, most of them decorated by rusty miners’ equipment, like gold washing pans and shovels, remains of the time of the gold rush when Carcross was an important camp.

    In the meantime, the sky had cleared up and we enjoyed bright sunshine. Leaving Carcross, we drove a few miles further to “Carcross Desert”, which is, of course, no desert, but a large, very impressive sandfield, created by an ancient glacier and the wind blowing from Lake Bennett. We walked through the sand and climbed the dune. Here there were no more human tracks. It is really amazing that the cruise ships’ gyms are day and night packed with people running stupidly on the treadmills while no one seems to be able to walk up a medium-sized dune. Our reward for the short walk was a breathtaking view over the sandfield, the lake and the ice-capped mountains around.

    We drove just another few minutes to Emerald Lake which is shimmering in multiple shades of green. There is a roadside lookout above the lake and another pullout that gives direct access to the lakeshore. We found ourselves completely alone and enjoyed the silence of this beautiful spot.

    We drove back to Carcross and had our lunch at a picnic table on the beach – a scenic and peaceful spot! (The trains had not arrived yet.)

    On the way back we were a little afraid what to expect from the U.S. border control. We showed our passports and the officer interrogated us – about places to see in Germany where he wanted to go soon! Completely different from all other border controls we had suffered from in the past. The USA can have a friendly face, too.

    West of White Pass, the sky was cloudy again, but at least it was not raining. We turned right to Dyea, the starting place of the Chilkoot Trail which would meet White Pass trail. We saw the trailhead and visited the Slide Cemetery (where the victims of a great avalanche are buried) and the adjacent village cemetery. There we found a nice tombstone of Dyea, obviously a First Nations Woman after which the town was named.

    We also visited the remains of the once thriving town, but finding nothing but a few piles of wooden planks. Where once was a fairly large town, we now found ourselves in a thick forest that had quickly grown after the gold rush was over. My estimation is that in ten years, even the rest of the debris will be gone.

    We then followed the bumpy dirt road to the tidal flats, just because we still had a lot of time and we hoped to find a scenic beach. We found something indeed – a brown bear trotting through the marshes! He was nicely coloured, brown and cinnamon, searching for frogs and other small animals with his paw and and he was munching grass.

    Occasionally he would roll on his back and stretch all four paws in the air – like a pet dog. He walked leisurely through the grass and came even closer to our car. Finally he was so close that we could hear him chewing! Really amazing.

    Of course, we got excellent photos, shot out of the rolled-down window of our car.

    After 20 minutes or so, we left the bear alone and drove to Skagway’s Gold Rush Cemetery. On the way, when we drove by the river, all of a sudden a dog-like head emerged from the river, curiously looking straight at us, before it submerged again. A seal!

    At the edge of the cemetery, you find the decent grave of Soapy Smith, a con man who terrorized Skagway (in Michener’s novel, you find a chapter about him). In middle of the graveyard, there is a large, impressive monument for James Reid, the man who killed Soapy but died from the shooting himself.

    A few minutes’ walk above the cemetery are the Reid Falls, not overly impressive but easy to reach. From the base of the cemetery you have a view of an old gold dredge, impressive enough. We drove back to town, returned the car and walked a bit around this cute historic town. Even the gas station still has the historic signs and we found Soapy Smith’s photo parlor, where he started his businesses that finally made him dictator of Skagway. Our last station was the Red Onion Saloon where the waitresses are dressed as whores. Like the Red Dog in Juneau, we found it too tacky for us and we left it quickly. More interesting for us was a little stream with a fish trap that had caught two salmon indeed.

    To be continued in a few hours.

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    I just started reading your trip report and am really enjoying it - thanks for posting!

    I was also delighted to read you enjoyed "Devil's Advocate" as my goddaughter is co-owner of that winery! We enjoyed a bottle the other night.

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    Enjoying your report. Yes, Alaska is expensive, but they only have a very narrow window in summer to make money. It is what it is. We didn't find the towns particularly pretty. It is all about nature's beauty. I would have loved to purchase a baleen or beach grass basket, but way too expensive. Native crafts are pricey, but also a dying art. Young people aren't sticking around to carry on :(

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    August 8, Glacier Bay

    This day was completely devoted to Glacier Bay. We passed many islands. On the beach of one of these islands, called Strawberry Island, we spotted a black bear, but even with our powerful binoculars, it just looked like a moving rock with four legs.

    Much better to see was a colony of sea lions on the next island – dozens of them lounging on several rocks.

    When the ship entered the fjords the seawater turned green from the minerals, set free by the glaciers, and the barren, ice-capped mountain ranges, partly covered with clouds created a ghostly atmosphere. Finally, we reached Margerie Glacier, the most impressive glacier in the bay.

    The vessel slipped very smoothly into the fjord. It was noiseless and without wake. The water became speckled with tiny icebergs, and a special atmosphere evolved.

    The ship got very close to the icy blue glacier. We could hear it cracking and saw it calving several times. The ship turned slowly so that both sides had excellent views. We spent almost an hour very close to this glacier. It was very special – you kind of forgot that you were on a big ship. Instead you immersed into nature, with the iceberg-speckled green water around you, the mountains and fjords and the glacier with its crevices and cracks and its sounds.

    Some guidebooks write that you should travel on small ships because the large cruise ships do not come close to glaciers. With almost 2,000 passengers, MS Oosterdam is not exactly small and we came VERY close – so nothing to miss.

    Johns Hopkins Glacier we saw from a distance – not so much because of the size of the ship, but because it is a protected area for seals. Again, we had a close encounter with Lamplugh Glacier and the fourth glacier we saw was Reid Glacier which was surrounded by some fog and looked like a ghostly vision. Sailing out of Glacier Bay, we swam in the ship’s outdoor pool, looking at snow and ice on the mountain tops. Quite an experience.

    August 9, day at sea

    The final day of our cruise was a sea day with nothing to report, except that it was the second formal night with surf & turf. Filet mignon was excellent and the lobster tail, too, tasty and tender, not overcooked. We got second portions of lobster tail and enjoyed chatting with our Indonesian waiters who performed some songs from their homeland.

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    August 10, Seward Highway to Anchorage and back

    In Seward, the land part of our Alaska trip should begin. When we planned the trip, we found that it was quite difficult to rent a car in Seward. Rates were outrageous, and it seemed impossible to find a car that would be large enough for five people plus lots of luggage.

    The trick was to rent a car at Anchorage Airport. Enterprise offered a full-size SUV at a reasonable rate. We planned that DS I (who would be the second driver) and I would take the cruise ship’s transfer to the airport. After some internet research, I found a certain Alaska Bus Connections company that offered the transfer at half price and including a scenic wildlife tour. Hence, I booked this tour for all five of us which turned out an excellent idea.

    The minivan that would transport us was dated, to say the least. But the driver was good-humored. BTW, his name was Mike. In Alaska, every bus or taxi driver is named Mike. Like every guide in Russia is Olga.

    The drive from Seward to Anchorage is very scenic. Between the mountains, we passed many lakes, swamps, rivers, meadows, forest. We had an unplanned stop in Moose Pass to pick up two other passengers, and the 15 minutes we waited there well-spent because we saw the floatplanes of Trail Lake, a nice lodge and salmon spawn in a little stream just next to the parking place.
    The couple that we picked up turned out to be grumpy Texans, so Mike chose to ignore them and to continue chatting with us, telling us about life in Alaska and asking us about travelling to Germany where he wanted to go some time. He wanted to visit Friedrichshafen and see the Zeppelin factory. We told him that Friedrichshafen is a town at the shores of Lake Constance, which is quite scenic. Since Mike was a tech nerd, I told him about other factory visits in Germany, like BMW in München, Mercedes and Porsche in Stuttgart and the Meyer shipyard in Papenburg, where many cruise ships are built (e.g. Celebrity’s Millenium Class). Also, he was interested in snowboarding in Germany. Quite funny. Alaska has better mountains and more snow, but no lifts, and Mike, who lived in Alyeska Valley, told us that he climbed up mountains for several hours to ski down for a couple of minutes.

    We stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center where they have many indigenous animals like elk, moose, caribou, wood bison, musk ox, lynx, fox, black bear and brown bear. A most rewarding stop. We saw a well-fed black bear eating the innards of a salmon and learned that he was found as a cub on the streets in Juneau, abandoned by his mother and not able to care for himself. We also saw a mighty big brown bear who also was not able to live in the wilderness because he had an encounter with a porcupine which hurt him so severely that he lost his ability to hunt. Our respect for porcupines grew considerably.

    The next break was at Turnagain Arm, at a place called Bird Point. There we saw no birds at all and our driver said that beluga sightings had become very rare. But there were powerful public telescopes and a local guy who was there with his family showed us numerous mountain goats on the slopes of the mountains. He had even spotted a brown bear, but we failed to see it through the telescope.

    Driving along Turnagain Arm was very scenic, too. The Texans had become impatient and demanded lunch. We did not mind that the driver did not drop us off at the airport but drove to Anchorage downtown to drop them off first. He told us that he would have some time now and if we wanted to see a few things more before dropping us off at the airport.

    We agreed and he drove us to a muddy stream where half the population of Anchorage stood fishing silver salmon on this Sunday afternoon and we even saw a man actually catching a fish. He drove us to Earthquake Park and to Lake Hood which a harbour for hundreds of floatplanes.

    Finally, he dropped us of at the car rental, but not before circling the small airport three times because he had trouble to find the lane to the arrivals level which I had seen on our first approach. But such things happen to outdoor types who are not used to cities.

    In a minute the paperwork was done and we took over our huge black Chevrolet Tahoe. It was afternoon, and we had gotten hungry. We stopped at a roadside BBQ shack which had been recommended by our driver. We had amber beers and pulled pork sandwiches and ended with $16 p.p. including tips. Funnily, the waitress wanted to see the ID’s of every person, including 82-year-old MIL. When we made jokes about that she told us that she would be fined $ 10,000 and loose her license if she would serve alcohol to minors. Anyway, ID or not, the beers were good as always in Alaska.

    The drive back to Seward was scenic and peaceful. We checked into the Holiday Inn Express which we had selected because it had a swimming pool. The pool however, had the size of three bathtubs and was crowded when it was occupied by more than two people. Yet, the hotel was conveniently located right at the small boat harbor, and when we left the hotel at 7 p.m. we watched the arrival of fishermen bringing in big fish and a guy walking his pet elk calf on a leash. Welcome to Seward!

    We had dinner at Chinooks, a seafood place, where we had oysters, seafood, chowder, silver salmon (unfortunately overcooked) and king crab legs which were even better than at Tracy’s in Juneau. We had a couple of beers and cocktails and two bottles of wine and ended with a bill about $80 p.p.

    To be continued tomorrow.

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    August 11, Seward

    We had planned to stay for three full days in Seward. Seward has enough to offer for three days – a small boat cruise into the Kenai Fjords on one day, Exit Glacier and a float plane flightseeing trip another day, a helicopter flight to a glacier and dogsledding on the glacier plus visiting the Sealife aquarium the third day.

    However, all these activities require fairly good weather. What we got were three days with intermittent rain, drizzle and low-hanging clouds. Aircraft flights were cancelled, and so were the boat trips. We tried to make the best of our time, but we certainly did not reach the activity level that we had enjoyed in Skagway.

    Our first day in Seward started with rain and we decided to drive to Exit Glacier. Luckily, it stopped raining when we started around 10 a.m. Exit Glacier got his name from “exitus”, the Latin word for death, because you can watch a dying glacier there. It retreats from year to year and is not overly impressive any more. We hiked from the visitor center to an overlook above the glacier. There were still maps that showed trails to the toe and the edge of the glacier, but they had been closed for security reasons. The guidebooks said you can touch the glacier, but no chance anymore. Our boys who were very eager to experience a glacier were quite disappointed. We all knew glaciers from the Alps and from Norway, but our boys had never stepped onto a glacier and had hoped that they could do that in Alaska. However, yellow ribbons made that impossible.

    The next disappointment came a few minutes later. We had planned a floatplane flight from Trail Lake, but they told us it was too windy today – a situation that should repeat itself during the next two days.

    Never give up. We searched our next chance. We drove to Seward Airport and asked for a helicopter ride onto the glacier. They made a reservation for 5 p.m., but later told us they were running late and the reservation was changed to 9 a.m. next morning.

    The afternoon had somewhat been spoilt, but we tried to do the best and visited Sealife aquarium. We had seen many aquariums of this kind in Miami, San Diego and Brest/Brittany, and we appreciated very much that Sealife in Seward was completely focused on critters living in the region. Salmon (of course!), puffins and a giant octopus were quite nice.

    This evening we did not want to spend much money, so we had dinner at a very atmospheric place called “Smoke Shack” in a converted railroad wagon. Their specialty, the green chile burrito, had no chile at all (at least nothing that was spicy) and it was a great disappointment for us Germans that they did not serve beer, but they played great blues music (like every BBQ spot in Alaska).

    Back at the hotel, we made ourselves cosmopolitans and margaritas on the hotel room and hade wines and beer. After all, when it is raining, a party on a hotel room is not the worst option.

    August 12, Seward

    We had set our alarm clocks early, because we were scheduled to be at the airport at 8:40. However, the fog was anything but a good omen. Weather did not improve, so the heli flight was postponed. Instead, we tried to get tickets for the Kenai Fjord cruise. Again, all fjord cruises were cancelled for this day because of fog.

    What to do? Since it did not rain anymore, but rather drizzle lightly, we drove to Lowell Point and walked along the beach which was composed of black slate and black sand and looked pretty eerie with the fog above our heads. It was low tide and we found crabs, jellyfish and shrimp. Miller’s Landing is a cute place where we found bearded fishermen sitting around an old-fashioned blazing oven. Like a scene from an old movie. After all the tourist traps in the cruise ship ports, we finally found a piece of true Alaska.

    Afterwards, we drove up Seward Highway to Moose Pass, stopped at a few lakes and walked a bit. The floatplane rides were still postponed.

    In the early afternoon, we had an extensive picnic lunch in our hotel room. A freshly purchased bottle of High West Whiskey, an effective means to catch jackalopes, helped us through the rainy afternoon.

    In the evening, we wanted to spoil ourselves. We made a reservation at Ray’s, Seward’s best restaurant. It rained so hard that we got soaked when walking just 100 yards to the restaurant. The wind was so strong that umbrellas broke.

    Ray’s rewarded us with the best food in Alaska so far. The price level was the same as Chinooks’ but the food was way better. As appetizers we had oysters, outstanding seared ahi tuna (in fact, better than any ahi we had in California) and excellent crab cakes, made from king crabs. As entrees, we had halibut and sockeye salmon. For the first time in North America, we got salmon cooked medium rare (as it should be). It was brilliantly spiced in Mexican style, with green chile, Spanish rice and vegetables. Really good!

    August 13, Seward

    When we saw the low-hanging clouds and the heavy rain in the morning we forget about our 11:20 reservation for the heli flight. Instead, we prepared to drive to Anchorage to spend the day in the museum. Just when we were ready to leave, the heli office called us: “We can make it.” I could not believe it. The mountains were still in clouds but they assured us: “There is some visibility.” We quickly took on our winter clothes, hats and gloves and headed for the airport.

    We got knee-high overboots, and in two portions, they flew us to Godwin Glacier. The flight was short, yet incredibly scenic. The pilot’s name was – what else? – Mike. We emerged from the clouds, flew over hills and saw the glacier coming in sight. We flew over the glacier with its crevasses, spotted the dog camp and landed. Two puppies gaily rushed at us and wanted to be hugged. The musher told us that the dogs are usually shy and that they let the tourists pet the puppies to accustom them to humans. The older dogs were excited. Because of the bad weather, they had been idle for eight days and got terribly bored. We learned that the dogs love to work. Strange creatures!

    We mounted the sleigh and off they went. The sleigh was so fast that the ride over cracks and bumps was like a roller-coaster ride. We stopped at a huge crack in the ice and we peeped down into an 80-feet-deep hole in the ice. Back we went, and the musher, a most friendly guy, photographed us in front of the dogs. Finally, we had to feed the dogs. The bolder ones ate directly out of our hands.

    The boys were happy. Finally they stood on a glacier. And walked. And felt the snow. And peeped into the cracks.

    The flight back was even more scenic. It had cleared up a bit, and we had incredible images with the glacier below, the mountains on the sides and Resurrection Bay in front. The heli flight with dog-sledding on the glacier was one of the most memorable travel experiences I ever had – and I had a lot in all parts of the world.

    This experience was enough for the day – we were completely satisfied. My proposal to visit Seward’s historical museum did not find much acclaim. My second proposal that the boys should visit the museum and deliver a written report for the elder ones failed too. O tempora, o mores! No one interested in culture.

    For dinner, we chose to dine at Ray’s again. And it had been so good, and it was good again. This evening, they prepared the salmon with blueberries.

    The next morning, we would leave Seward. BTW, Seward has only one taxi, Mike’s taxi.

    To be continued.

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    August 14, from Seward to Denali

    It rained cats and dogs, and since we already had our scenic trip on Seward highway, it did not bother us. As often, in Anchorage the rain stopped and we even caught a spell of sunshine when we stopped in Eklutna. Eklutna is a small Athabaskan village and has a most interesting cemetery. There are two Russian-Orthodox churches, one from 1870 and one from the 1930ties which have the typical iconostasis, but rather the poor way. The main attractions are not the churches but the graves.

    Most graves are spirit houses combined with Orthodox crosses – striking examples for syncretism. We got an excellent introductory tour, brief and precise. The traditional Athabaskan belief is that when a human passes away the spirits stay for a while with the dead body. Therefore they build small houses for the spirits. The houses are brightly painted according to the family colours, e.g. one family had red and white spirit houses, the other family blue and white houses. Some houses were red and blue and white – indicating intermarriage. It is believed that the spirits do no stay for long in their houses, so they are not maintained and eventually start rotting and collapse. Eklutna cemetery has spirit houses in all states – from brand new to completely rotten. But most of them are still looking pretty.

    Neither the Athabaskans nor the Orthodox Church had problems with combining the beliefs. The most fascinating fact about this cemetery was that it is still used and has some very new spirit houses, still syncretist.

    There was a Jewish grave for a man named Rosenberg, without a spirit house, but with a stone on the gravemarker. Next to it was the grave of his Athabaskan wife – a very elaborated large and modern-looking house, a kind of doll-house with a door and windows. Through some of the windows you looked on pictures of Mary and other holy images. There was another new grave with a spirit house which was decorated with fresh flowers, an American flag and a bundle which combined Christian and Athabaskan symbols like feathers and a claw. Among the Christian symbols was a key with the inscription “God never shuts one door without opening another” – certainly a belief that is shared by traditional Athabaskan and Christian belief.

    All in all, Eklutna was not just a hidden gem right at the highway, but a most fascinating site to study the blend of pagan and Christian beliefs. We would later find more syncretist graveyards, but Eklutna is the best of them.

    Overall, we found the highway between Anchorage and Denali not scenic at all, but rather boring. So, we were looking forward to our next stop, Talkeetna. However, when we drove into town, everything cried “tourist trap!” To be sure, Talkeetna has a few historic structures, but most of them had been converted into gift shops and tacky restaurants. And hordes of tourists swarmed through the small town. How atmospheric had Carcross been in comparison to Talkeetna!

    There were two buildings in Talkeetna which we found interesting, both log cabins. The oldest structure in Talkeetna was the log cabin of the railroad engineer who started the town. It was built like stone-age houses in Europe and erected in 1916, a time when people in other parts of the world drove automobiles and flew airplanes.

    We briefly paid the local grocery store a visit, which is still a grocery store and which has its charm. We did not see the cat and, frankly, did not care for it because the legend that they elected a cat as mayor did not seem authentic any longer in this tourist-swarmed town. To be fair, Talkeetna could still have some charm but it has been corrupted by mass-tourism like many other historical villages in the world, including many villages in Europe.

    On our way to Denali, we stopped at two roadside viewpoints. At this point, I have to say something: if you travel to Denali do not expect to see Mount McKinley. It is obscured by clouds most of the time, as we were told by local guides. We spent four days around Mount McKinley and had never the slightest chance to see it. IF you see the mountain take it as a kind of lottery win. You may be lucky but never count on it. But, without seeing Mount McKinley, Denali National Park is fascinating enough.

    We had reserved accommodation in November last year, and the Denali area had already been booked so much that we had very limited choice. So. without any real alternative, we ended with a reservation at McKinley Creekside Cabins which is a 15-minute drive away from the park entrance. We found the place quite charming, with rustic cabins and a small restaurant that always played good music and served hearty homemade food. Most we loved to sit on comfy wooden chairs directly at the creek and sip our pre-dinner and after-dinner drinks.

    August 15, Denali

    Months ago, I had reserved the park shuttle to Wonder Lake at 6:15 a.m. The park shuttle is the most economic way to visit Denali. You can also book tours like the “Tundra Wilderness Tour” or others which have exactly the same school bus-type buses and drive exactly the same way and stop exactly at the same place but which cost three to five (!) times more than the park shuttle. The only difference is that you get a sandwich on one of the overpriced tour buses.

    So, we did the right thing. Our driver was named – you guess it – Mike. He wore a beard as all bus drivers in Denali (except the female ones) and had a very deep voice. In the park brochure, there was an ad for the Denali Brew Pub which boasted to have a good choice of whiskeys and Mike’s voice was as if he was a regular customer. The rest was done by his smoking habits – three cigarettes at each pit stop.

    Mike talked about the wildlife. He said that grizzly bears are not really dangerous. “It’s not true that they are chasing people. Usually they don’t care for people. Only once in a while they would consume a human.” Quite comforting!

    We were sure that a fight between a grizzly and Mike would have no clear winner. Most probably it would end with Mike and the grizzly having a whiskey together afterwards.

    So, how was the tour? Firstly, it was incredibly scenic. We explored one of the most fascinating landscapes on Earth. We drove through tundra, taiga, dramatic mountain scenery, over broad rivers. The most spectacular place on the drive is Polychrome Pass which deserves its name well. There are stunning vistas. We had started with an overcast sky and low clouds, obstructing the view of Mount McKinley but leaving enough snow-capped mountains in sight. At Polychrome Pass, the clouds opened a bit and we got some sunshine, creating a most dramatic combination of sunshine and shade. And if God had not done enough to show his skills to create spectacular scenery he added a rainbow on top of a hill! Awesome.

    Scenery is one part of the bus drive, wildlife is the other. During our 9 hour drive (plus two hours at several stops) we saw moose, dall sheep, lots of caribous (at one place a herd of 28), ground squirrels, golden eagles, a red fox and we no less than eight (!) grizzly bear sightings. Three of them were munching blueberries, one was sleeping on a rock, one mother bear went with her two cubs, one climbed a steep slope while harassed by a magpie and one was walking around our bus, so it was at a very close range. Everyone opened the windows and took photos. After all, such a school bus has advantages over a modern bus where you cannot open the windows any more.

    Whenever we saw wildlife, Mike stopped the bus and we would open the windows and get excellent pictures. Besides Polychrome Pass, we loved Eielson Visitor Center, where we stopped twice for 30 minutes each time. Eielson is a tranquil place in the tundra where you are encouraged to leave the trails and walk just straight through the tundra. Keep in mind that Denali National Park has just 8 species of trees but 600 species of moss! On our second stop at Eielson, we could see a grizzly eating blueberries right from the visitor center’s terrace. The rangers were aware and closed the paths that led towards the bear who did not care for the humans with their cameras. After a while, they reopened the trails that led into the other direction. Eielson has also facilties and picnic tables, so we were able have our box lunch there.

    We proceeded further to Wonder Lake. On this way, we climbed even higher and got into clouds and rain. There is only one reason to drive to Wonder Lake: to see the reflection of Mount McKinley in the lake, otherwise there is nothing to see. Also, there was little wildlife between Eielson and Wonder Lake. So, next time, we would probably turn back at Eielson, because the Wonder Lake tour is quite lengthy. My tip would be: reserve the trip to Wonder Lake and go there if there is clear weather, if not, turn back at Eielson.

    The total tour took 11 hours, including stops. We had started early, because I have read that in the early hours, wildlife is most active. On this cool day, this was not true. We saw all kind of wildlife during all hours of the day. In fact, four of the grizzly sightings were on the way into the park in the morning and the other four were on the way back in the afternoon. And only in one case, it was the same bear.

    The 11-hour tour is quite strenuous and the drive to and from Wonder Lake was a waste. Do it only if you have a clear day and you can see Mount McKinley. Better take some time to hike in the Eielson area. It has good sight and is safe because you cannot be surprised by bears there.

    August 16, Denali

    We did not take the shuttle bus again. After eight bear sightings the day before, there is nothing more you can expect. Instead, we drove our own car to Savage River which is at the end of the paved section of the park road which is allowed for private cars. Along Savage River, there is an easy loop trail which is two miles long which was manageable for MIL (she is 82, just to remind you).

    At the end of the maintained trail, we hiked a bit further up on a hill with additional vistas. The trail leads mostly through tundra and a bit through taiga. We spotted several ground squirrels and a flock of willow ptarmigans, Alaska’s state birds, which were not shy at all.

    We could have hiked more, but it was cold and extremely windy. On the pass at the end of the trail, we could name it a storm. It was the fourth day in Alaska that we needed our winter clothes, hats and gloves (after Mendenhall Glacier, Glacier Bay and dogsledding on the glacier). The late afternoon we spent at the banks of our creek and enjoyed being in Alaska.

    To be continued.

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    August 17, from Denali to Chena Hot Springs

    Again, an overcast day. Driving from Denali to Fairbanks is pretty boring – with the exception of Nenana, a historic town that has stayed authentic. Nenana was a major transportation hub – with a railroad depot (the historic station still stands, also the historic hotel), a port and the highway.

    Fairbanks is a widely scattered town, still, as the name indicates, with pretty riverbanks and two paddlewheel steamers lying there. We visited Pioneer Park which features a historic paddlewheeler, inside with excellent dioramas showing historic settlements in Northern Alaska. There is also a replica of a gold-rush town, with some original structures and some mock-ups. There is a cute historic museum which looks a bit like Grandma’s attic. We especially liked the gloves which were made from wolves’ heads. The railroad museum is more like a railroad workshop, and there is a rather insignificant airplane museum. Most of the exhibitions are free, but we made a donation.

    In Fairbanks, it started raining and it did not stop until evening. Our destination was Chena Hot Springs Resort, which we had selected because we had thought it would be the end of the world.
    How surprised were we when we found it – on this Sunday afternoon – crowded by people, creating a lively hubbub. A band was playing country music, children were running around and everything was very busy – until the rain got really heavy and the place quickly emptied. We later found out that they had been there for the annual renewable energy fair. The next days would be quieter.

    We had selected Chena Hot Springs because we wanted to relax at the end of our trip. We must say, it was by far the most expensive accommodation we had in Alaska (and everything was expensive, including chain motels), but the accommodation part of the resort was disappointing. The resort is a peculiar blend of beauty and ugliness. The landscaping is fantastic – with flowers everywhere, even vegetables (like cabbage and artichokes) used for decoration and a lot of antique cars and machinery, also used as flowerpots. On the other hand, there is rubbish everywhere and several really ugly buildings. On the positive side you find a lot of activities – like hiking, biking, canoe rentals, ATV rentals, dog sledding, flightseeing, the ice museum etc. On the negative side is the poorly managed hotel.

    In our family suite, practically everything was broken – the handle of the door, the window, the blinds, the sinks, the lamp, the shower was leaking heavily – and it was stinking from cigarette smoke (although smoking was forbidden in the room and on the premises). We also found the service unsatisfyingly – the girl at the front desk was grumpy, we had no phone in our suite, they have no fridges on the rooms etc.

    Anyway, dinner was another positive experience. The restaurant is very atmospheric, in a log cabin with many stuffed animals and Iditarod memorabilia. The great surprise was that the food was outstanding. The steaks, both ribeye and filet mignon, were the best on our whole journey. The clam chowder was good and the salmon was cooked as it ought to be: medium rare. And it was reasonably priced. For soup, entrée, dessert, cocktails and wines we ended with $55 p.p.

    In some way, we profited from the renewable energy fair because they had hired a band for this night. They played excellent unplugged music – a mix of country, blues and rock. With the increasing amount of alcohol intake, the crowd – mostly younger folks, the resort’s gardeners among them – became enthusiastic and there was dancing and cheering and singing. There seemed to be a lot of local people in the crowd, including two older couples of Athabaskan wife and white husband and an Inupiat family. We tried to blend in somewhat and, after dinner, ordered what the locals drank – it was straight whiskey, BTW the cheapest drink on the menu.

    Still more to come.

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    traveller1959:

    Your reporting is very good.

    I am sorry that the Chena Hot Springs Resort was so poorly maintained. You should post a review on this hotel perhaps on www.tripadvisor.com so that others are aware of what they are getting. Glad to hear the food was good.

    Sandy

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    Sandy - I have posted my review already on tripadvisor.

    Actually, the accomodation was the only weak point of Chena Hot Springs Resort. They have definitely to do something about that.

    Read here more about Chena:

    August 18, Chena Hot Springs

    It continued raining through the night, but stopped in the morning. It was cool and wet and nasty, but the hot springs pool warmed us thoroughly. The pool is absolutely fantastic – very hot natural water, with a slight sulphuric smell and so much minerals that you almost float. The lockers and showers area looks a bit like a 1950ies public swimming pool, but the hot springs pool is strikingly beautiful. The original springs are too hot for humans, so the water flows into to cooling ponds and from there into the swimming pool which is a large pond. You can swim or float or just sit and relax.

    We spent the morning with a leisurely walk through the premises where they have goats, chicken, duck, geese and reindeer. When we went through the sled dog kennel the huskies got very excited when they saw some people coming. When other people came they started howling but calmed down when the cat came and wanted to be petted by us. Somehow, it seemed as if the cat was the chief. We hiked an easy 1 ½ mile long trail through the forest and around Beaver Pond, a nice pond where you can rent canoes.

    After the walk, we soaked again in the hot springs and needed some time to cool down. We also bought tickets for the ice museum including appletinis in ice glasses. Vow, this was way better than we thought. We wore our warmest clothes, which had served us well on the glacier, including gloves and hats, but were still glad that we got warm parkas at the museum’s entrance. Of course, there were the usual Americans in our group wearing shorts. These are the obedient U.S. citizens who always wear shorts when on vacation, regardless of temperature. In the ice museum, the temperature was 25° Fahrenheit which is obviously shorts weather for U.S. citizens.

    The museum is a quite large building, rather sparsely illuminated in varying colours. The ice sculptures are partly elegant – especially the ice bar and the wedding space – and partly kitsch. There is a section with four igloo-type hotel rooms, where you can spend a night @ $600, warmed with reindeer pelt.

    Reindeer pelt was on the bar stools, too. We had booked the ice museum tour with appletinis. This was $15 extra, so the appletinis were the most expensive drinks on our trip – but worth every penny, because half of the amount is for the drink and half for the glass. The drink was excellent and served in ice glasses which we were allowed to take home as souvenirs. Of course, we took them to our hotel suite, where we poured cosmos and white wine in them. In a second, the drinks were perfectly cooled – some of the best cosmos we ever had. And the first time that we crushed our glasses after drinking without any feeling of guilt.

    August 19, Chena Hot Springs

    We had the large Alaskan breakfast, so we decided to do a little workout. We chose to hike the Angel Rocks Trail. This trail was a little bit too strenuous for MIL, so the ladies stayed at the resort and it became a father-and-sons-thing. DW was very quick to say that she would stay with her mother, since she was a little bit afraid to meet a bear on the trail. I asked the guy at the resort’s activity center about the odds of a bear encounter and he said that there a good chances to see one. He said it in a tone that indicated “you might be lucky to see a bear”. I wanted to purchase bear spray, but he said “It’s useless – when a bear is in the range of the spray it is too late anyway”. So we went without any protection.

    The Angel Rocks Trail is a 3.5-mile loop trip with an ascent of 900 feet. The trailhead is on Chena highway and the trail is quite scenic. In the beginning, we hiked along Chena river, then went deep into forest before the trail went rather steep up the mountain. Right under the lower Angel Rock we heard an eerie howling. It was too loud for a wolf – it came from a more dangerous predator, obviously a younger individual.

    At the rock, we met the individual who climbed the rock barefooted. We also climbed on each of the rocks and enjoyed the vistas, especially when the sky, which had been overcast so far, cleared up a little. On the way down we kind of missed the main trail and took a cut-off which went straight down the slope. Maybe it was not even a cut-off but just a dry bed of a waterfall. Anyway, we got down quite quickly and were rewarded with seeing a real beaver pond with a perfectly built dam. After the hike, we drove a bit along the highway and several times pulled into sideways to have views of many ponds and rivers.

    While we were hiking, the ladies did the greenhouses tour and the geothermal energy tour and appeared to be quite satisfied.

    The afternoon had become warm and sunny. We spent almost three hours intermittently soaking ourselves in the hot springs and cooling down on the terrace in the sun.

    To be continued.

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    August 20, on Glenn Highway from Chena to Anchorage & Matanuska Glacier

    Originally, we had planned to take the same direct route to Anchorage via Parks Highway which we had driven a few days agp. Parks Highway had been rather boring and a fellow Fodorite had suggested to take the slightly longer route via Richardson and Glenn Highways.

    This advice was priceless, because Glenn Highway proved to be the most scenic route on our whole trip through Alaska. First, we loved the section between Delta Junction and Glenallen which led us through the Alaska Range, along wide rivers and partly along the Alaska pipeline. We were amazed by the coolers that had been installed along the underground sections of the pipeline to prevent the permafrost soil from melting. Just at the roadside we spotted a moose cow with a calf, but when we got out of the car, we were cautious enough to keep safe distance, since Mike, the Denali bus driver and wildlife guide, had told us that female moose are the most dangerous animals in Alaska at all.

    South of Paxson, we found a lovely picnic table right at the banks of Copper River with great views of snow-capped mountains around us. The river was full of spawning red salmon. It was amazing how far the salmon had travelled upstream and that they still were pretty active, although they were deathbound after spawning.

    Further south, we caught some glimpses of Wrangell-Elias National Park, but the peaks were in clouds. The section between Glenallen and Palmer was even more scenic than crossing the Alaska Range. On the left side, we had magnificent vistas of the snow-capped Chugach mountains with three mighty glaciers pouring down into a wide river valley.

    The most impressive glacier we ever saw in Alaska was Matanuska Glacier which stretches many miles into the flats, although it is receding too, long after the little ice age. We drove to the glacier, and from the parking lot we walked through a moon landscape of mud and rocks and lakes and rivulets – the work of the receding glacier. The boys had wanted to walk on a glacier. On Godwin Glacier (where we flew with the helicopter), we were able to walk (and sled) on the snow field, but here we could walk over the ice fields and ice hills of the glacier tow.

    We actually walked into the glacier through the beds of small streams of melt water and did a little bit of climbing and sliding on the slippery surface of some parts of the glacier. They have organized half-day tours with ice-climbing gear but, since we had just one hour or so, it was fun enough to fool around a bit on the ice.

    The backdrop of the surrounding mountains, dark clouds and occasional sunbeams created magical images. I got good photos. This was another climax of our Alaska trip.

    Back in our car, we drove through Matanuska Valley and thought that everything here in Alaska was completely out of scale. To be sure, we have mountains and valleys and rivers in the European Alps too, but in Alaska the mountains have a different dimension. They are way bigger, the valleys are wider and the rivers broader than everything you find in Europe.

    In a small town called Sutton, we spotted another small cemetery with spirit houses and Russian-orthodox crosses as we had seen them in Eklutna, so syncretism appears to be widespread in Alaska.

    After 11 hours of driving, frequent stopping for photos, picnicking and glacier hiking, we arrived in Anchorage, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in socalled Midtown (a nondescript business district with all the chain motels) which we had booked because it featured a pool. Since it was late, we decided to have dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, Juno. We did not expect much, but again, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of food, especially seafood, in a rather simple restaurant.

    To be continued.

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    August 21, Anchorage

    Finally, it seemed that we had caught an entirely warm and sunny day in Alaska – but you should not praise the day before evening! In bright sunshine, we visited the Native Heritage Center where we bought combi tickets with admission to the Anchorage Museum which was also on our itinerary. Just arriving, we watched a well-made Inupiaq dance performance with good explanations.

    Then we walked through the exhibit with historical artifacts from Native life in Alaska (which should later be surpassed by a similar exhibition at Anchorage Museum). Outside, they have an excellent array of traditional dwellings from different first nations. In each of the dwellings, we heard explanations and saw more artifacts. Many things that had I had read about in Michener’s novel, I saw here, e.g. the air-filled sealskins that were used as balloons when hunting whales and otters.

    The best thing, however, was a sign “Sled Dog Cart Rides” with a native Iditarod musher – for $10! It was unbelievable. Holland America offered this kind of tour for $79 and Chena Hot Springs Resort for $60. And here for $10 – unbelievable.

    We felt so sorry for the poor dogs who were barking and screaming and eager to work that we booked the cart ride. It was exactly like the pricey kennel tours, with a cart ride (albeit short) and being photographed with the dogs, with petting the lead dogs and with holding a 2-week-old puppy. When we told our musher, a native girl, that we had done the sled ride on Godwin Glacier she told us that she had worked there. Alaska is a small country where everybody seems to know everybody else. BTW, despite her native looks, she had a German name, because her mother had married a man of German descent. Of course, she spoke a bit German. A fascinating mix of cultures – Inupiaq, German and Alaskan-American!

    We continued our visit, and after emerging from an earthhouse, I pointed to a brilliantly blue large dragonfly. I hard hardly finished speaking, when the majestic insect landed right on the back of my extended hand where it would sit for a while munching a grasshopper – for whom she certainly was a dragon. With my free hand I was able to take close-up pictures. When the dragonfly had almost finished her meal, I shook her off, and, slightly annoyed, she flew over to a leaf to consume the rest of her prey.

    We paid the gift shop a visit and found most beautiful native artwork there – but everything was made with whalebone or baleen. I asked the clerk whether it was legal to export the whale products. I had assumed it was a simple question that occurred daily – like the drinking age in a liquor store. My question, however, triggered a procedure of remarkable efficiency. The clerk said “I have a paper in my drawer” and began searching her drawer for several minutes, but to no avail. She called someone, without result. She looked up a document in her computer, without success. She called a colleague, who, after ten minutes or so, returned with the first ten pages of the ominous document. On page 4, there was table with symbols she did not understand. Under the table, we read “explanations of the symbols on page 24”. Again, the colleague went away to print page 24. She came back and presented page 24 and the clerk could not understand the meaning of the words. She finally called the paper’s author and received a clear and simple answer: “no, strictly forbidden”. The whole process took about half an hour and left us quite frustrated but also somehow proud that we had not contributed to the extinction of dangerous species.

    The Anchorage Museum is a mixed bag, but with excellent exhibitions. It houses an excellent historical museum, again with many artifacts about which I had read in Michener’s book. Unlike the petite historical museum in Fairbanks, it was professionally made and state-of-the art. We also liked the display of historical and contemporary Native art. It is breathtaking how the artists have developed traditional forms and materials to highly inventive contemporary art.

    There was also an excellent temporary exhibition of artists who had worked with plastic garbage from the ocean is most creative ways. They had scientific explanations how the plastic garbage reaches the oceans and how it floats in the large gyres (the exhibition was named “GYRE”) and what damage it does to marine animals. And the artists used all their creativity to make this problem visible to us. There was a collection of garbage items, each one neatly wrapped and labeled “a present from the Atlantic” or whatever ocean they came from. There was a haunted “Ghost Dog”, entirely made from nylon threads, dropped by careless fishermen, and much more.

    There was also an earthquake exhibition with photos how Seward had been destroyed by the combined forces of an earthquake, a landslide, several tsunamis and the burning fuel tanks. This lovely town had really suffered! (And now, it suffers from endless rain.)

    A couple of years ago, our kids would have loved the children’s museum department and still, I loved the king crab in her tank, however, I would loved her more if she were showing me her beautiful legs on a plate.

    The evening we devoted to fond memories of a former stay in Mesilla, New Mexico, where we had been happy to find a decent eating spot called Applebee’s. Since we stayed in socalled Midtown, which actually meant “Motel Town”, we chose Applebee’s for dinner. The food was okay, however no match to the tasty Alaskan food we had enjoyed so far in authentic Alaskan restaurants. Although it is a kind of fast food chain eatery somehow, miraculously, the check turned out pretty steep, although we had not consumed much alcohol. These chain eateries are slick businesses which make their money. We recalled our gourmet experiences at Chena Hot Springs and at the Creekside Café at McKinley Cabins and at Ray’s in Seward and at our hotel restaurant, Juno, and swore we would never enter a chain restaurant again, except in emergency. But wasn’t it a kind of emergency looking for a decent restaurant in a business district without taking the car?

    Since the weather had been beautiful all day, we had walked to Applebee’s without jackets and umbrellas. But all of a sudden, the sky darkened, and a hell of a rainstorm broke loose. We waited in the restaurant until it was over and were quite lucky that we managed to walk back to our motel without getting wet feet, since business districts in American cities are not really made for walking, as we Europeans like to do, especially when we want to have a glass of wine with dinner.

    To be continued.

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    Thank you for taking the time to write this excellent report. I'm a senior Aussie, who has travelled three times to Alaska, but have never been on a cruise (unless you count the nearly six weeks it took in the sixties to go from Sydney to Europe).

    I was really interested to read your thoughts.
    DH ( German born) and I travelled to Anchorage from Sydney twice in early Spring (May-June) and once in Autumn (Sept) when some attractions were shut but there was not much traffic, and had wonderful trips each time with our hire car. I could relate to many of your experiences.

    We observed the receding of the Exit Glacier each time we went. Hope to go back one more time soon, and may try to include a cruise this time. Worry a bit about the whole ship getting flu or something though!

    Danke schoen and Tschuss!

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    Hallo Carabella!

    I am glad that you liked my report. There is still a little bit to come.

    A cruise is a very convenient way of travelling. No packing and unpacking during the cruise, you are getting good food, you have some entertainment (if you wish), a pool, a sauna, massage (if you need), even a doctor.

    The negative side of a cruise is that land excursions are outrageously expensive. However, I tried to show a way to cut these expenditures. In Alaska, every port is easy to explore on your own. Renting a car is fairly easy and inexpensive, especially when you have four our more persons to share a vehicle.

    We did not only save a lot of money, but we saw much more on our self-organized excursions (maybe missed a few narrations - but who needs narrations after reading Michener's "Alaska"?

    No worry about infections onboard. They have become very careful. Everywhere you find dispensers for hand desinfection. The first three days there is no self-service at the buffets. Even the Captain will not shake hands. At the end of the cruise the Captain even told us to keep our aquired habits of washing the hands on land (in fact, I have washed my hands all my life).

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    August 22, Anchorage to Vancouver

    Our last half day in Alaska was completely devoted to packing and travelling. We arrived in Vancouver in the evening. Nothing to report except that we wanted to have a late dinner at the Blackbird which, however, had closed the Oyster Bar by 9 p.m., so they sent us to the pub, which was deafening noisy with a huge crowd of excited young people and a DJ desperately trying to fight the talking and shouting and laughing and cheering. We drank just a beer, walked out and found, strangely enough for us Europeans, an Italian restaurant that was able to feed us. But of course they had crab cakes on the menu, so we managed to get Canadian food even in an Italian restaurant.

    August 23, Vancouver

    We had again breakfast in the Fairmont because we wanted these fabulous eggs benedict with crab cakes again. Still, the crab cakes were outstanding, but after three weeks in Alaska, they were not exceptional any more. All crab cakes that we had during our trip had been outstanding (except the ones Holland America’s bizarre specialty restaurant).

    It was another bright and warm day in Vancouver. What a summer for this rain-stricken city! We still needed a few souvenirs for our relatives and I asked the hotel’s concierge for a proper gift shop. She, with a certain glance in her eyes, recommended Hill’s in Gastown. So we walked to Gastown, and, by incidence, watched the famous steam clock whistling a simple 4-tune-melody. Quite an attraction.

    Hill’s proved to be a gem. It was like a gallery. Unlike the gift shops in Anchorage and Ketchikan which focus on Inupiaq art made from forbidden whalebone, Hill’s focused on local artists (Tlingits and other nations) who use mostly cedar wood. We found some totems which were authentic and beautiful and affordable. We needed to buy a wedding present for DW’s cousin, who works for the nature protection authority in Lübeck, North Germany, and thought that a totem would be a nice symbol for her and her husband since totems show the respect for nature.

    We bought a nice totem displaying a bear and a salmon for her. We learned that the bear usually seduces the chief’s daughter and that, hence, we all are bears, at least partly. This explains why I often, especially after a long day, am hungry like a bear. And our boys obviously have much more of the bear in them. I must think about what DW has done 25 years ago. The salmon is even more interesting. There are humans living in cities deep below the ocean and each spring, they disguise as fish and swim up the rivers in order to provide themselves as food for the people. If the people throw complete salmon skeletons back into the streams they will become salmon people again and the cycle of life is completed. So, never eat fishbone! (I usually don’t, except when I was in Japan, where roasted eel bones are a delicacy.)

    In one of our guidebooks we had read “no trip to Alaska is complete without a flight with a bush pilot”. We did not want just a flight with a small plane, but we wanted the experience of starting and landing in a float plane. Due to Alaskan weather, we had not been able to do the flight, but here in Vancouver they have seaplanes. We walked to the waterfront and booked the cheapest flight, 10 minutes @ $ 82 pp which was less than the Alaskan pilots would have charged (there, the flights start @ $ 100). Actually, we were not so much interested in the flight itself but more in starting and landing, so we (rightly) thought 10 minutes are enough. And with starting and landing, the whole thing was more like 25 minutes.

    The flight itself went over Stanley Park and Vancouver Downtown and was very scenic. Although we had not a bush pilot, but a uniformed professional, we enjoyed flying the famed Beaver Airplane and landed smoothly. DS II, who is quite sensible, got slightly seasick or airsick or both, but he recovered quickly and said the experience had been worth it.

    From the seaplane terminal, we took a taxi to Granville Island where we walked through the Public Market. It was the right place to be since the bears in us had awakened and there you find a huge selection of all kinds of food. We had lunch on a bench at the harbour. Granville Island is part tourist trap, part small boat harbour and part gallery district. There was a gallery displaying most impressive modern art influenced by native traditions. Awesome!

    We took the ferry back to downtown. The ferry turned out as a miniscule boat directed by a young girl, serving as captain. Quite a sight! Our last evening of our trip approached. Weeks ago, we had made a reservation at the Blue Water Café in Yaletown.

    Vow, we got the best seafood we ever had in our lives. The restaurant was anything but pretentious, rather very relaxed. We ordered what was called “seafood for two” and we were served a stainless steel tower with four tiers containing a ceviche of raw scallops with grapefruit and coriander leaves, a kind of sandwich of Dungeness crab meat between radish slices, a terrine of smoked salmon and salmon mousse and, best of all, tuna tartare in a crispy crust of deep fried tuna skin.

    We five of us had four different main courses and, of course, exchanged. Every entrée was excellent, whether it was char with leeks, or sturgeon with beets, or buttery sablefish Japanese-style or rare cooked scallops. The desserts were also were good, also the wines and the Lot 40 Canadian Whiskey, and finally the check was very reasonable, considering the outstanding quality of the food. Definitely the best seafood dinners we ever had!

    We walked back to the Fairmont Hotel (slightly less than a mile). Vancouver is walkable, like a city in Europe, and the locals walk a lot. In fact, if you can afford to live in one of the high-priced condominiums in Downtown, you do not need a car at all. You can walk to the park, to beaches, to businesses, to restaurants or take public transport. One effect of walking is that we spotted not a single obese person in Vancouver. In total, we had spent about three full days in Vancouver, and had seen several thousands of people there and not one obese person was among them! Amazing. Imagine a U.S. city in comparison! Probably, it is not the walking alone, it is also the seafood than keeps the Vancouverians slim. And the excellent wine from British Columbia which has far less calories than Coca Cola.

    It was a mild Saturday evening and everybody seemed to be out. Yaletown and Robson Street were crowded with pedestrians like European cities and every corner smelled of cannabis. Vancouver! What a city! What an evening!

    August 24, the last morning in Vancouver

    Another bright day in Vancouver, this most charming city. We chose to have breakfast out of our hotel. Being kind of late, every breakfast place on this Sunday morning was crowded. Our last resort was the café at Vancouver Art Gallery. And what a breakfast we had there! It was a most beautiful spot, on the terrace in the sunshine, surrounded by palm trees and abundant flowers. Actually, it was more like a brunch than a breakfast, but it was delicious and, after all, the least expensive breakfast we had on our trip.

    After finishing packing our luggage, we paid the Vancouver Art Gallery a proper visit. They had a temporary exhibition of a Canadian artist called Douglas Coupland, which was mediocre, since he was trying to emulate Warhol and Oldenburg and Lichtenstein, an exhibition of historic Canadian landscaping and cityscaping painting which was catastrophic but also a full floor with an outstanding exhibition of contemporary artists who created highly creative and well-done three-dimensional spaces which were most entertaining.

    This Coupland guy had created one room with the intention to display Canadian cultural identity. For us Europeans this cultural identity was 99% North American, practically the same as US identity. But he kind of tried to separate a Canadian culture from the US culture, but not really succeeded. Frankly said, for us Europeans, Canada is just a friendly version of the USA (at least when it comes to immigration officers), but otherwise 99% the same. From France, which is the closest neighbour to us Germans, Canada has nothing. At least, Vancouver has nothing. And the food in Vancouver is not so excellent because it is influenced by France, it is so good because of the quality of the ingredients and because of the mix of cultural influences which is unique for North America and especially for Vancouver with its influx of Asian immigrants.

    It was time to leave Canada. Since Vancouver taxis do not take more than four passengers, we booked a Cadillac stretch limousine to take us to airport (which was less expensive than two taxis). Along Granville Road, we admired the stately mansions, all of them worth more than $ 10 million each, until we arrived at beautiful Vancouver Airport and finished our wonderful trip. BTW, the driver’s name was not Mike, but Nick, but I still advise each mother to name her newborn boy Mike. He will eventually find a job as driver or pilot.

    Almost the end, but I have forgotten something.

    What did I forget? I forgot to write about the mosquitoes. In our guidebooks and in trip reports, we had read horror stories about Alaskan mosquitoes, being as big as helicopters. In Alaska, we saw a postcard with the caption “Alaska’s State Bird”, showing a mosquito. It might be a seasonal thing, because we travelled Alaska in August, but we encountered not many mosquitoes. Most places were totally mosquito-free. There were just a few spots where we met mosquitoes. Not a single insect in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Carcross. The first mosquitoes were in Dyea. Then we met some at Exit Glacier (but nowhere else in Seward) and some in Denali. The Alaskan mosquitoes are not particularly big, but they are slow and stupid, very easy to catch. Our repellent with DEED worked well, but eventually we did not bother to take it because we found out that the bites are harmless, neither swelling nor itching.

    Now, the end of our report. The trip was really grand, and Alaska is grand. And Vancouver is a fine addition.

    A thank you to all the Fodorites who had given us advice when we posted to prepare our trip. You made it magnificent. If you have further questions do not hesitate to ask them. From time to time, I will read this thread and I will happy to tell you more. So far, tschüss (as the Alaskans would say, like in Germany, rather than the somewhat outdated and more formal “Auf Wiedersehen”.)

    Finis.

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    Thank you for your comments. Our trip was packed with exciting experiences, and we were still relaxed. I had time enough to write the trip report. Maybe because we did not have internet connection most of the time.

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    Thanks again for a great report, Traveller1959. I too, found the Michener book good to read before our first trip. We spent some time in April in Vancouver, after a surprising and exhilarating snowy white Easter in Banff. We stayed in English Bay and walked into the city from there, but twice we crossed the Lion Bridge by car,to the beautiful Lynn Canyon. It has a smaller suspension bridge than Capilano, but was not a bit touristy, and is a great place for walks in a rain forest. It's free too.

    One place we enjoyed in Alaska that I think you did not mention - Byron Glacier. A little way out of Anchorage on the way to Seward, it is at the same turnoff for Portage Glacier (which was a good but short boat trip), but one can walk to it fairly easily, and we could get right up to it, at least we could three or four years ago. DH actually walked a short way on it, as there was no one else there. It has ice worms.

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    This sounds like a fantastic trip. Great that it suited the whole group and sounds like you might have gained a pound or two with all the crab cakes. Well, maybe the activities took care of that.

    Thanks for the report.

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    Ah, those crabcakes in Alaska and Canada have no breadcrumbs...

    ...we stayed fairly slim.

    Yes, it was a once-in-a-lifetime-trip.

    Was it the greatest trip in our lives? Well, Namibia was darn good too. But Namibia is apples and Alaska is oranges.

    We are so thankful that we had this opportunity.

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    I enjoyed your report. Thanks for reporting back.

    We spent 2 weeks in Alaska last summer and were awed by the beautiful scenery. We hope to return. Would love to do the cruise someday.

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    Thank you for your very entertaining report. We've just booked a cruise on the Oosterdam so appreciated your comments on the ship, as well as your tales of your adventures in Alaska. Sounds as though you really enjoying your travels.

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    Great trip report! I missed it when you posted it so I'm happy it made it back to the top.

    I've been to Alaska 3x but always out in the bush photographing the bears. Your trip sounds very enjoyable!

    Thanks for sharing.

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    sundowner:

    That sounds fascinating. You must tell us how you survive so close encounters with bears. Bear spray or not?

    marg:

    You made a good choice. The HAL ships are among the few which have permission to cruise into Glacier Bay. On our trip, in each port, the Oosterdam had always the best berth, and we cruised into Glacier Bay around 10 a.m., which is much more agreeable than in the early morning (like other ships do).

    Also, our captain was so fascinated by the cruise himself that he gave us plenty of opportunity to see wildlife. He seemed to enjoy the cruise as much as we did.

    Before our cruise, I had read quite a few prejudices about Holland America ships.

    "The ships are too big - you do not come close to whales and glaciers." - Totally wrong. We came so close that we could hear the whales breath and the glaciers crack.

    "The passengers are so old on HAL ships." - Wrong again. There were passengers of all ages onboard, including a good number of families with kids and teenagers.

    "The food is mediocre." - Wrong. Dinners in the main dining room were high-quality, using excellent regional ingredients (bought in Vancouver), inventive and well-presented. The buffet restaurant was good enough for breakfast and lunch. And they make really great cocktails @ $7.95.

    "You loose a fortune on excursions." - Right and wrong. Yes, the excursions are expensive and not all of them are good. But, as written, you can easily go on your own and save $$$.

    Enjoy your cruise!

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    traveller1959, I've been there during the salmon run when the bears are all around the rivers feeding. They are so concentrated on the salmon that they don't really pay much attention to us. We are on the ground, often standing in the water because there is no shore. The group leader is very familiar with bear language as is the local guide(s). The local guide does have a firearm in case something goes horribly wrong. No bear spray. :) We do call out and make noise when walking where we can't be seen or if a bear walks towards us so they aren't surprised when they see us. Here are pics from the first trip if you are interested http://www.pbase.com/cjw/2009_grizzly_bears_alaska I never have enough vacation time to see the see the bears and experience the rest of Alaska like you have but so far I've always chosen the bears. :)

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