Vancouver B.C., Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway via Cruise Ship
May 5, 2009 Inside Passage between Ketchikan and Juneau
Shannon and I are on the second day of a seven day Alaska cruise. We booked this at the last minute, with the economy being what it is these days, there are some incredible travel deals out there. The cruise departed from Vancouver on Sunday and I first found out about it a week before on Friday. We ended up booking it that Sunday. This is the first cruise ship of the season, and in between the economy and it being early in the season we were able to get our room at about 75% off.
I know a lot of people that have been on cruises and that really enjoy them, neither Shannon nor I have been on a cruise and I really haven’t thought it would be something that I would like due to the differences from my normal way of travelling. I really don’t go for organized group activities whether it be a tour or excursion. There are times that I have participated in organized tours, hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu or Shannon I going to the ATM cave in Belize as examples, when you really need a guide and the logistical support makes it worthwhile.
One of the other issues that I have had with cruises is that I have been in a couple of places where and when cruise ships come in. The first issue is that they often go into good ports which are often not great towns for touring; the second is that many of the towns are small and are truly overwhelmed when the cruise ships arrive.
There are a few cruises that I have wanted to go on, Antarctica and the Galapagos being the primary places. At the same time the cruises to Alaska have interested me. A trip several years ago to Petersburg, Alaska which is southwest of Juneau on the Inside Passage showed me the beauty of the region, and I have thought a cruise would be a great way of experiencing it. So while Shannon and I had not expected the opportunity for another longer vacation this year, we both had enough vacation time available and with such a bargain, jumped at the chance to take the cruise. So on Saturday Shannon and I drove from Salem to Vancouver, BC. I had found a hotel that offers cruise packages where you are able to get parking for the duration of your trip and a room for about the same price that parking alone would cost.
Saturday when we got into town we went straight to an outlet store for one of my favorite brands. Arc’Teryx is a Canadian outdoor clothing company that I think is the best stuff made. The North Face, Patagonia and Mountain Hardware all make some good stuff but Arc’Teryx has always seemed to be a step or two above the others. Unfortunately this is not only in design and quality but also in price. Their jackets are in the $300-500 range and while I have always wanted one I have never been willing to pay that much for one. I have bought a few things of theirs over time and when I found out that they had an outlet store in Vancouver (they have another in Montreal) I knew that we had to go. We both picked up several things, both of us an example where able to get shorts that retail at $100 for $9.
The next morning we went to another store I have wanted to go to, which is Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) the Canadian version of REI. The prices for the products they carry have always seemed to be much less than you can get anything in the US (in large part due to the exchange rate which is currently $.82 to the US dollar). I was impressed by the store; it is probably twice the size of the REIs in Portland with huge selections in several areas such as climbing gear, that REI has limited selections of (of course this really doesn’t matter as I don’t climb but it is still interesting to see).
This was my first time in Vancouver; it is some place I just really haven’t made the time to visit before. Shannon has been here once before and really wasn’t impressed but now she thinks it is because of the part of town that they stayed in, it is a city that I like. It has a similar vibe to Portland and Seattle, is in a beautiful location with the mountains and ocean and is someplace that I would like to spend some more time exploring. We really don’t have much chance this trip, just a few hours prior to departing for the cruise. Our cruise gets back into Vancouver on Sunday morning when we have to drive back home so we can be back at work on Monday.
May 9, 2009 Between Ketchikan and Vancouver
I haven’t spent the time to write anything since Monday, it is now Saturday and our cruise ends tomorrow. We have had a great time. Ketchikan was a great little town. We didn’t do any excursions, just spent the morning exploring the town. We didn’t have a lot of time there; we got in around 7:00 and then were back out at 1:30. The excursions seemed the least interesting in Ketchikan and the town more interesting so we just spent the morning exploring some of the various shops. The one thing that amazes me about the impact of cruise ships on the towns that they visit are the types of businesses that open to support them. You would expect the tour operators and souvenir shops, what I didn’t expect is the number of jewelry stores.
Ketchikan has about 7,500 residents (5th largest city in Alaska I was surprised to find out) and about 30 jewelry stores. I don’t know if any of them are open during the winter. Juneau and Skagway both have a lot as well but nothing like Ketchikan. It is a neat little town, the weather was great, warm enough at one point that I was in a t-shirt. They have one area along a boardwalk that runs along a creek that has interesting shops, some of which are housed in former bordellos from the turn of the last century. The hole are just has character. One of the shops had a large number of bottles from the late 1800 to early 1900’s. Everything from tonic, ink, poison, beer and whiskey bottles from cities up and down the west coast. Shannon bought a bright blue poison bottle and I got a brown whiskey bottle from a company in Portland that has the company name and city in raised letters.
On Wednesday we were in Juneau for the morning. Since I had been to Juneau about 10 years ago and didn’t find it that interesting, we decided to take advantage of one the excursions. I did my research before had and had booked a trip with a local company for both of us to take a helicopter ride out to one of the glaciers. The reservation was for 9:15 and the company didn’t have any record of our reservation, through one of the local booking agents we were able to book a trip through a second company and I ran back on board ship to double check and see if I had been charged (which I had) and to call them and get a credit. Come to find out the reservation was made in their records for the previous week. They are issuing a credit so that problem was resolved.
The flight was wonderful. The weather wasn’t especially good in Juneau, kind of cold and raining. We took off from their base and flew down the Gastineau Channel that runs in front of Juneau and went around the backside of the hill that Juneau is on. The weather was much better on this side. We flew around the area and the pretty sizeable icefield that is composed of several different glaciers. We then landed at a point that had two bald eagles looking right down on us from the glacier that was about 50 yards away. We then we able to walk around for a little while before getting back in the helicopter and exploring some more from the air and then returning to their base. Shannon had never been on a helicopter before, and it was one of the more scenic flights I have taken. Two crew members on board saw Orcas surfacing below, I was on the wrong side of the helicopter to see and Shannon didn’t spot them in time. We have yet to see any whales on the trip.
That afternoon the cruise ship went up Tracy Arm which is a fjord just north of Juneau. In places it is pretty narrow; at times the walls of the fjord are 100 yards or so off either side of the ship. There are two glaciers that run down into the fjord, Sawyer is the bigger of the two, unfortunately there was a decent amount of pack ice around it so we weren’t able to get as close as they sometimes can. It was still very impressive to visit.
On Thursday we went to Skagway. Both of enjoyed this the most. Skagway was the largest city in Alaska between 1897-1899 as it was the primary place for everyone to come through during the Klondike gold rush. Originally everyone went to the nearby town of Dyea and then went up the Chilkoot trail or over White Pass above Skagway to the town of Bennett 40 miles away in British Columbia. In the winter of 1897-’98 10,000 people waited on the shores of the lake for the ice to break and when it did, 7,000 rafts floated down the Yukon river to Dawson City. During the boom they built a railroad that went up White Pass and then eventually all the way to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory 120 miles a way.
By 1900 Dyea was a ghost town and Skagway started to shrink, now down to 850 year round residents. We explored the town some in the early morning and then went and got rental car (again I made a reservation but they had no record of it but they at least had a car available). We went to the gold rush cemetery and the drove to where the town of Dyea once stood, saw a cemetery there which has 49 of 75 victims from an avalanche that happened on the Chikoot trail in 1897, saw a number of bald eagles (we haven’t seen as many as I saw in Petersburg when I was here before though) and then started to drive up the Klondike highway which runs about 100 miles to the Alcan highway. So Skagway is one of those towns that you can actually drive to from the lower 48.
The drive was incredibly scenic. At this time of year the highway was totally clear but we did see a lot of snow. On parts of the drive the snow in several places was still 4 or 5 feet thick, lakes where still frozen over and in some places waterfalls were beginning to flow. You don’t get very high on the highway, I think the highest the road gets is around 3,500 feet, but at times that are mountains that surround you that must be in 8,000-10,000 foot range.
You drive first up the hill abound 20 miles to the top of the pass and then enter back into British Columbia and then a short while later into the Yukon. You have to stop at the Canadian border crossing at Fraser, BC but there isn’t any town that we could see. Then you do get to Carcross, Yukon, where there is a post office that is open for an hour a day and a restaurant, convenience store with not much more than some soda and gas pumps. Just outside of town they have some sand dunes in what must be one of the weirdest places in the world for them to be. You drive through some absolutely spectacular scenery of towering snow covered mountains, frozen lakes and amazing vistas.
We went all the way to Whitehorse, which is some place I have always wanted to go and wasn’t that impressed. It is a normal town just like most others in the US or Canada. I had always imagined that it was someplace with some character and it really doesn’t. On the drive back just past Carcross we saw a small black bear that wasn’t any more than 30 feet or so from the car. It crossed from one side of the road to the other in front of us, climbed the 30 feet or so up the other side and then started chewing on a stick. A little later we saw a mountain goat pretty high up a hillside next to the road.
It was nice to have a long day in Skagway. We got into town at 7:00 and the ship left that night at 9:00. It gave us the time not only to spend time in town but also take off on the long drive. It was much nicer than the short amount of time we had in both Juneau and Ketchikan.
Yesterday (Friday) we spent sometime in the room and then some time in the casino. We really haven’t found that much on the ship that we want to do, we went to one show with a magician-comedian that was pretty good but other than that there has not been a lot that we have wanted to do. We have been to the casino a couple of times, yesterday we both entered in a slots and a blackjack tournament. Neither of us did that well in the slots tournament (Shannon did come in second in her round, but only the first place person progressed to the final) and both of us didn’t do well in our first round of the blackjack tournament. They had 2 for $25 entries for both and I went first in the blackjack and Shannon was in the second group. While I was playing someone walked up and gave Shannon a free entry, since I didn’t do well in the first round I entered her round which I won and that put me in the finals.
What they do is give everyone $2000 in chips and you play 7 hands and whoever has the most chips at the end wins. I was leading the chip count at the end of 6 hands and there were two other players who were in contention. Unfortunately I bet wrong and made what was probably the best bet (out of the possible outcomes I had the most number covered where I would win) but out of the five or six outcomes the one option that I didn’t cover was one person winning his hand and he ended up winning the $271. We did get a bottle of champagne and it was a lot of fun but had I just bet about $700 more I would have won. I did enjoy it and would like to play more blackjack tournaments, it requires a slightly different playing style than I am used to so more experience would be good.
Today we have been pretty lazy, watching movies in the room, reading and enjoying the view from our room. Overall I am really glad that we have done this. I don’t know if we will do many cruises in the future, as I mentioned before there are a few more places like the Galapagos that I would like to do on a boat (the Nile being one other). I can’t imagine being on a boat for more than 7 days, I think it would drive me nuts. One of the other cruises which I think we would like is Norwegian does 5 days cruises out of NYC to Bermuda, one day out at sea, three nights in Bermuda and then one day back. In this case the ship becomes your hotel and you get three straight days in Bermuda.
While I do think everyone should try this at least once, and I think Alaska is a great cruise, I don’t recommend booking excursions through the cruise ship, they are significantly more expensive than you get otherwise and don’t offer any substantive benefits. Norwegian has some restaurants on board that require an additional cost ($10-20 per person) which is well worth it. Overall the food has been pretty go but the additional cost restaurants and very good and well worth the extra money. I also recommend a balcony. The scenery on an Alaska cruise is spectacular and a balcony is a must, but even on other cruises I think an interior room would not be somewhere where you would want to spend much time and it has been nice to be able to stay in our room, watch movies and watch the scenery go by.