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Bears and Traps. Our Grand Alaska Sea & Land Tour

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Aug 25th, 2014, 09:38 AM
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Bears and Traps. Our Grand Alaska Sea & Land Tour

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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Aug 25th, 2014, 11:08 AM
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Looking forward to more.
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Aug 25th, 2014, 02:51 PM
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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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Aug 25th, 2014, 05:30 PM
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Lets hear some more.
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Aug 26th, 2014, 04:09 AM
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Can't wait to hear more.
By the way....your command of the English language is better than many of us who speak English on a daily basis.
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Aug 26th, 2014, 01:05 PM
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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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Aug 26th, 2014, 10:02 PM
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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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Aug 27th, 2014, 05:24 AM
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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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Aug 27th, 2014, 07:55 AM
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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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Aug 27th, 2014, 01:20 PM
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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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Aug 27th, 2014, 11:28 PM
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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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Aug 28th, 2014, 01:54 PM
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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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Aug 28th, 2014, 02:01 PM
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traveller1959:

Thank you for the last two entries. Carry on please.

Do you know if the lady who missed the ship in Ketchikan has rejoined the tour?

Sandy
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Aug 28th, 2014, 03:21 PM
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Really enjoying your report trav. The crab feast had me drooling, my favourite food in the world !
And, your English is excellent, please continue.
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Aug 30th, 2014, 12:16 AM
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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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Aug 30th, 2014, 12:30 AM
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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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Aug 30th, 2014, 07:18 AM
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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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Aug 30th, 2014, 10:22 AM
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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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Aug 31st, 2014, 02:24 PM
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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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Aug 31st, 2014, 02:44 PM
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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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