21st Jul 2012 - 28th Jul 2012
The Inside Passage - Our Alaskan Cruise
About a month ago, we finally decided to take the plunge (!) and book ourselves on an Alaskan Cruise. There are almost too many options (especially when you’re in Seattle and are making Vancouver your next destination), but we eventually settled on a round-trip from Vancouver. As one of the main reasons for doing these cruises is the view, we treated ourselves to a state room with a balcony. Posh? Yus, mi’lady.
Needless to say, before departure, the cruise company (Holland America), showered us with e-mails inviting us to spend even more money and upgrade to a better cabin. Stout troopers that we are, we ignored the lot. Then we got an e-mail saying that we’d been upgraded – to something that looked much the same. The day before we were due to sail, another upgrade notification arrived. That got ignored too.
At the Cruise Terminal, we wound our way through queues and successfully jumped all the hurdles of officialdom until we finally got to the Holland America check-in desk. The lady there said, with a hint of envy, “You’ve got a good upgrade there. After this, cruising will never be the same.” We smiled and thought that maybe we should have looked more closely at that last e-mail.
On to the boat, turn right and head for the blunt end. She, who has experience of seamen, keeps pulling me up on my navel terminology and says she’s lost count of the number of times she’s told me the “the blunt end” is known as “aft”. We open the door to our cabin and, as they say, “OMG”! We were in a huge suite with king-size bed, large balcony (‘veranda’ is the posh word) offering excellent views port, starboard and aft – not to mention various other perks we won’t bore you with. The very first thing we did was sit on the veranda and ‘high-five’ our luck!
Leaving Vancouver in the afternoon sun was a joy. Roy’s not one to get too excited about cruises, but even he thought the view of Vancouver as we sailed slowly under the Lions Gate Bridge was the puppy’s privates.
Next day was what they call a ‘day at sea’, which means we’re going somewhere without stopping. This day ‘at sea’ involved passing many pretty islands, the weather was beautiful, we had a private balcony, sunshine, books – and the odd glass of chilled wine. Do you get the idea, Jealous Ones?
Traditionally, a cruise is the acceptable face of gluttony; a way for constantly hungry porkers to shove their snouts into troughs of culinary goodies almost non-stop. In an effort to cut down on some of the waist , Holland America Line have introduced a kind of weight-watchers training programme at the start of every voyage. Instead of letting the overly hungry pile food on to their own plates, for the first 2 days, the staff dish up all meals, to show the obese what a normal portion looks like. Of course, they SAY it’s to minimise the risk of Montezuma’s Revenge striking the entire ship’s company, but we don’t believe that old tosh, do we!
As we approached our first port of call the next afternoon, the sun had disappeared. A gentle reminder that this wasn’t the Med, this IS Alaska! Coats on for our disembarkation at the capital of Alaska, Juneau. It’s now home to about 30,000 people, much the same as it was in its boomtown days in the late 1800’s when gold was in them thar hills. Now its main business is tourism – and most of them arrive, just for a few hours, by… cruise ship. We were the third to dock that day – which is 6000 punters - all desperate to buy things that can’t be found in any other town in the world…
Juneau’s quite a quaint place – not that you’d want to live there. The main attraction is the Mendenhall glacier about 12 miles away. We ignored the ‘organised’ tours and got ourselves on a Big Blue Bus, driven by a character with a real Santa beard. Thirty minutes of comic narration and North American driving got us to the glacier. Without meaning to sound disrespectful or unimpressed, of all the glaciers we’d seen on the trip so far, this was the smallest… We walked around trying to get THE view and, after 20 minutes, realised this was THE VIEW. Very nice, different and so it was time to get back on yet another Big Blue Bus. This one was driven by Santa’s brother. What is it about Alaskan bus drivers that they all have to have beards?
Back in downtown Juneau, with several hours before dinner time on the boat and even more hours before said vessel weighs anchor (see, I do know some maritime terms), we try to find a bar that won’t turn Lady Muck’s nose up. We eventually found a suitable watering hole, a waterfront pub that overlooked the seaplane pontoon, where the local nectar was very amber and pleasing – and they served quite decent wine for the ladies. As we imbibed, we became aware that the Alaskans (and Canadians), know how to use seaplanes – after this, we saw Beaver and Otter everywhere we went!
This little bar, as with another that we were afraid to go in, was a bit touristy. An afternoon in Juneau had taught us that touristy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The books say that Juneau’s population is 30,000, but the town itself isn’t that big, probably only a third of that. What the books don’t warn you is that many of them look like they’re a bit too closely related. No roads lead to Juneau – but that also, maybe more importantly, means that none lead FROM it…
Still we escaped - only slightly wobbly from the local beer and boarded our floating hotel for dinner and afterwards; a show.
The show that caught our eye was comedy, which we approached with some degree of trepidation. Well, what’s the likelihood of the comedian on a cruise ship actually being funny? As it happens, Rod Long (yes, it really is his name), has a very surreal sense of humour and is extremely funny.
Skagway was our next port of call, and our boat was third to arrive that day. We drew back the curtains and looked out, not at the town, but at the inlet that we’d been taken up during our slumbers. Ohh, er, missus. After the daily routine, we went to breakfast and, on our return, were extremely disappointed to see that our view of the scenery had gone – replaced by the vision of loveliness that was the Princess of Rust, another tin hotel full of expectant travellers desperate to be relieved of their dollars.
Skagway is a much smaller town to the north of Juneau and has about 800 permanent residents. This number doubles in the summer with all the staff needed to serve the boat-people. The Klondike gold rush was responsible for its prosperity over 100 years ago, when it was described then as ‘little better than a hell on earth’. Now, it’s quite cute and, for a town that’s 3 blocks by 5, it’s got lots of character, nice little saloon bars and its very own brew-pub!
During our wanderings we bumped into the previous evening’s Funny Man and got chatting to him. Forget all the comments about comedians being somewhat dour in real life – this man doesn’t stop bubbling and being generally amusing and great to talk to.
The highlight of our trip was the next day when we cruised in to Glacier Bay – the bay itself covers almost 1400 square miles and, until 200 years ago, was a single glacier. Since the mini-Ice Age of the late 1700s, the ice has retreated 65 miles - enabling us to be able to cruise right up to it. And, more recently, since the previous day, the skies had cleared and the sun had come out – perfect glacier gawping conditions!
Another of life’s coincidences cropped up that morning. Roy’s friend Tony had advised us that his neighbours, Beverley and John, were going to be on this cruise. What are the chances of meeting a couple who live about 10 miles from us in the UK being on the same cruise as us? We met up with them and had coffee and chatted whilst watching bits of glacier crash into the sea to become little icebergs. Of course, it brought back memories of THE glacier in Argentina so we viewed these with mixed feelings – the feelings being “smugness”, “privilege”, and of course “coo, good innit”!
The rest of that day was ‘at sea’ and, once again, the mist and cloud descended upon us as we chugged slowly towards Ketchikan, which was to be our last port of call. Our evening entertainment was courtesy of a third-rate conjurer whose act consisted of pulling doves from his clothing and strings of silk hankies from his mouth and getting his two little dogs, Tess and Tickles to perform cunning stunts on stage. All of this was punctuated by subliminal (?) advertising for his DVDs…
Arriving at Ketchikan early next morning, we were delighted to wake to brilliant sunshine. According to a reliable source, it rains 300 days of the year here. Every local we spoke to was pleased that we’d personally brought the sunshine with us, although, if we looked to the south, there was a constant reminder of their normal weather – the edge of the fog-bank was only about a mile away. We kept expecting this fog to roll in and smother the town, but are very pleased to announce that didn’t happen.
We rated Ketchikan as a ‘proper’ town; and one that’s big enough not to be overwhelmed by the four steel apartment blocks that had docked that morning. Once we’d walked the gangplank from ours and escaped the creeping hordes of wrinklies by moving quickly away from the docks, we found ourselves in reasonably quiet streets and made our way to one of THE town’s attractions; the Totem Museum. Believe it.
We thought that totem poles were something that had been part of North American Indian culture for hundreds of years. Seems that’s not true. According to the museum’s information sheet, carving eagles, wolves, naked women, etc into dead tree trunks was a bit of a passing fad in what’s now called First Nation history – archaeologists (in North America, archaeology is the study of anything older than the motor car), have determined that the peak of totem pole production occurred between the mid-1800’s and about 1929. In the Depression years you couldn’t get the wood you know…
No visit to Ketchikan was ever complete without a stroll up Creek Street to see the houses of ill repute and we dutifully completed our visit to the town late that afternoon.
The last day of our cruise was another all at sea and, sadly, it was another of the dull cloudy variety. Amongst other things, we occupied ourselves by looking in on a light-hearted cookery demo and Stephanie attended a ‘Get More Out of Windows7’ session given by the resident Microsoft teacher, who went under the unlikely moniker of “Tech-Spurt Tina” (or something like that). We met up with John and Beverley again, this time for afternoon tea in our Suite (just to rub it in!).
Arriving in the dining room for the second ‘formal’ evening, I initially thought that the decorators were still at work. Mi’lady assured me that the, once standard, method of dressing up a dining room for classy functions by covering the chairs with beautifully ironed cloth, tied on with ribbons that accent the colours in the floral table decorations, has now fallen from favour. It would seem that Holland America are slowly moving towards today’s way of doing things and have so far dispensed with the unnecessary frippery of ribbon and flowers and ironed cloth. The overall effect was of a house whose furniture had been hastily covered in creased dustsheets before the owners left for a long overseas trip…
We arrived back in Vancouver early on Saturday morning under grey, cloudy skies to be met by our friend Kevin, who emigrated to Canada in 2004. He and his wife Carol were to be our hosts for the next 10 or so days.
But that, as they say, is another story…