Call it the Gold Rush of the 21st century. The most popular choice
for domestic summer vacations in 2003 was, according to a travel
industry survey, a cruise in "the last frontier" state.
No doubt, an under the water economy and world unrest kept many
travelers in our own country. But the appeal of boarding a big ship
to troll the glacier-filled inlets, fjords and craggy coastline
of the Inside Passage has grown for other reasons.
Cruise ship leaving Vancouver
Ten years ago Alaskan voyages attracted mainly gray-haired passengers.
In the ensuing decade the age demographics plunged. Trips to the 49th
state evolved from "sit on the ship and stare at the scenery"
to "cram sports and outdoor adventures into a seven- to 10-day
Radisson Seven Seas, Crystal, and Silversea are the
premier lines plying the Alaskan waters. Standard Inside Passage
cruises begin or end at Vancouver,
San Francisco stopping
at the ports of Juneau,
Skagway and Seward (Anchorage)
and sailing into Glacier and
Hubbard Bays. Some itineraries deviate
to include Valdez or
Victoria and Tracy Arm,
College Fjords and Sawyer Glacier.
The season runs from early May to late September,
months when the "midnight sun" stretches the daylight
hours well into the evening.
Visitors Center, Anchorage
The shore excursions as listed in our ship’s activities handbook
numbered about 90. Most of them took place in the open. For a relatively
short trip that amount was staggering. I had never before cruised
in a location where there was so much to do. Whatever your pleasure—kayaking,
salmon and crab fishing, canoeing, flightseeing, exploring the glaciers,
dog sledding, whale watching, gold panning and taking a helicopter
or jeep wilderness safari or a nature walk—it can be pre-booked
or arranged after embarkation.
Our ship left from Vancouver and dropped us off in Seward. The
first full day was spent at sea and on the second one we docked
in Ketchikan, the "Salmon Capital
of the World" as well
as the "First City" so
coined because it is the first
stop on the Inside Passage. The city is one of rich Indian culture
and holds the largest collection in the world of authentic Indian
totem poles at Totem Bight,
a nearby state park (www.visit-Ketchikan.com).
Wilderness Sea Kayaking Adventure
We are so wild about wild salmon and were so gung ho to learn to
fish that at 7 a.m. we bounded down the gangplank to meet the
Charter Boats, Inc. representative who escorted us to the F/V Flying
High and introduced Captain Danny Hoggard and Deckhand Kevin Mackey.
It was a gratifying and productive four-hour jaunt. At that time
of year, early August, the fish in the waters are so plentiful that
with two lines hanging off the boat, it was practically like catching
them in a barrel. By law Danny was not allowed to help us reel in
the fish and he didn’t. Some of the salmon were slippery enough
to get away, but we were more than satisfied with our haul of six
6-pound pink salmon and two 10-pound silver ones. We had to throw
back the king of the catch, two king salmon because they measured
slightly under the requisite 22 inches. Carla, who runs the company,
said that you can walk into the office, which is not far from town
where the ships dock, to arrange a charter. Or you can reach her
at Tel. 800-272-7291 or www.ketchikancharterboats.com.
Totems and tribal house stand guard at Totem Bight, a state park near Ketchikan
We brought our fish to the Cedars Lodge
and arranged to have them
frozen and shipped to our home. Their smoked product is tasty, but
we preferred to do our own smoking and poaching. Many of our 50
friends and relatives who ate the salmon at a party said it was
the best they had ever tasted (www.cedarslodge.com)
Our next four excursions were arranged by Alaska Travel Adventures.
The company handles cruise ship tours, but you can also book on your
own. Our afternoon in Ketchikan was spent on the company’s Backcountry
Jeep & Canoe Safari. The guide in the first Jeep Wrangler stayed
in touch with the other drivers by radio and led the caravan on a
bumpy old logging road into the berry- and wild flower-covered Tongass
National Forest. At Lake Harriet Hunt the group paddled 20-person
native-style canoes to a remote campsite. Following a clam chowder
and hot smoked salmon lunch the guide escorted us on a short nature
walk through the rain forest.
Backcountry Jeep & Canoe Safari, Ketchikan
Among the several ways to experience the Mendenhall Glacier, a
12-mile river of ice and a Juneau highlight, is by a float or raft,
which accommodates eight to 12 people. For this 3-1/2 hour trip
a motor coach took us to the shoreline to put on rain gear, a life
vest and boots. Compared with rafting in level four waters, the
trip was like gliding on a pond. It was a very gentle form of white
water rafting. In some cases the guide did all the work. Or passengers
could choose a raft that was fashioned to let some of them paddle.
After crossing Mendenhall Lake, which afforded a front-seat view of
the one- and one-half mile wide and 150-foot high glacier, we turned
into the river. Calm mostly prevailed, with the rapids reaching level
two in just four places. The rock-studded river ran past snow-topped
mountains and Alaska-style mansions. During the trip the guide talked
about the natural phenomena of the scenic valley. The ride ended where
the river met the tidewater.
outdoor salmon bake takes place in Juneau beside the Salmon
Creek. While the chef grilled the fish over alder wood we
asked what kind of salmon it was. He said that he only cooks the
best--king. Ribs, salads, rice, baked beans, corn bread and cookies
were on the buffet table. A teacher moonlighting as an entertainer
sang lovely ballads and accompanied herself on the piano. The scenery
in the surrounding rainforest, particularly the waterfall near the
remains of the old Wagner Mine
where you can pan for gold, was lovely. And if you want to prolong
the evening and take the last shuttle to the ship you can linger
to toast marshmallows over a campfire (Tel. 800-791-2673, www.alaskaadventures.com).
Mendenhall Glacier Float Trip, Juneau
On the following morning our ship arrived in Sitka, Russia’s
capital in the New World, which was established in the late 18th
century and was referred to as the Paris of the North. In its heyday
it knew great prosperity as a fur trading center. Overhunting depleted
the sea otters. I could not a find a single otter coat in any of
the many fur stores in Alaska (www.sitka.org).
The town combines a trove of Russian architecture and artifacts, native
(Tlingit) culture and stretches of wilderness. Indeed, the activity
we chose in Sitka was the Wilderness Sea Kayaking Adventure. A guide
met us at the dock and steered us in a motorized inflatable to a floating
camp. He instructed us in how to paddle the two-person kayaks. We
were assigned a different escort who led a small group out into the
water to explore the bay and the inlets, admire the lush forest and
perhaps sight wildlife.
Skagway, the next stop, gave Alaska a new face. Popularly referred
to as the "Gateway to the Klondike," the town owes its
existence to the Gold Rush of 1897-98 when stampeders gripped with
gold fever set out from here to journey to the Yukon. Stroll along
boardwalk-lined Broadway and the roaring past of this wild frontier
town, formerly populated by gangs, gamblers and ladies of the night
and crowded with 80 saloons, comes alive (www.skagway.org).
Gold Creek Salmon Bake, Juneau
During the Klondike Gold Rush a narrow gauge railroad, the White
Pass & Yukon Route, later designated an Historic Civil Engineering
Landmark, was built from Skagway to the summit of White Pass, a
2,865 elevation. At the Skagway terminal we boarded a restored old-fashioned
parlor car pulled by a vintage diesel locomotive and retraced the
original 20-mile route over the Coastal Mountains. As the WP &
YR climbed to the U.S./Canadian border, we learned about the railroad’s
often harrowing and frenzied history from a narrator. He pointed
out the steel cantilever bridge, which was the tallest of its kind
when it was constructed 1901, and important historic sites, such
as the original "Trail of ‘98",
Dead Horse Gulch
and Brackett Road, which was used by wagoners. The train traveled
through two tunnels, over bridges and trestles and executed steep
turns as it passed waterfalls, glaciers and gorges (www.whitepassrailroad.com
The town of Haines sometimes alternates with Sitka as a port stop.
Both are located on the fjord-like Lynn Canal. The fast ferry takes
35 minutes from one pier to the other. The narrated crossing is
a safari on water with frequent sightings of humpback whales and
bald eagles (www.haines.ak.us).
White Pass & Yukon Route
Our guide Lisa Herzlinger, a representative of the Haines Tourist
Bureau, said of her adopted home, "There is no other place in
the world to be."
Who would have believed that a couple of young and ambitious sophisticates,
she from Seattle and he from Ontario, would have found happiness in
the Alaskan hinterlands in a community with a population of 2,500?
But with many recreational opportunities, four museums, a sizable
group of artists and hotels, restaurants and galleries located in
town’s center where Fort Seward once stood, the Herzlinger’s
are living their ideal lifestyle.
Northbound Inside Passage sailings end in Seward on the Kenai Peninsula.
People reach Anchorage, 125 miles away, by motor coach or train.
Many cruisers continued on to Denali State Park, a side trip, we,
too, had planned before leaving home (www.dnr.state.ak.us/parks/units/denali1.htm).
A fellow cruise passenger who had been to Alaska many times, but never
to the park told us that both tours and independent travel to Denali
were "rip-offs." Sadly, he turned out to be right. I can
count on one hand with a few fingers missing, destinations that I’ve
disliked. Denali State Park was one of them. The eight hours spent
on the McKinley Explorer train (800-717-0108) was the only enjoyable
aspect of the trip. As the domed cars traveled the several hundred
miles northward from point to point, the resplendent landscape unfolded
outside the windows.
Mt. McKinley, Denali Park
Accommodations in the park, including those at the three most expensive
lodges, were adequate, but not as attractive as they appeared in publicity
photographs. The crowds made DisneyWorld look like a ghost town. Multiple
groups, often numbering more than 100 each, waited to board tour buses
that did not take them very far into the wilderness. Wild life was
sparse and the only animal we sighted, a moose, was more accessible
in downtown Anchorage. On a clear day, about one in three, you might
glimpse Mount McKinley.
Our Inside Passage cruise, sandwiched between the ports of Vancouver
and Seward (Anchorage) did not afford us enough time in the city
of embarkation due to a delayed flight. Luckily, we were able to
squeeze in a two-hour trolley tour that stopped at 23 landmarks
and gave us an overview of the town’s European sensibility
in a modern architectural setting. Time did not permit us to get
off the trolley, but we did see parts of Chinatown, Gastown and
Stanley Park. Despite our brief sojourn we immediately understood
Vancouver’s draw (www.canada.com/vancouver).
The Westin Grand Hotel, Vancouver
The hotel in which we overnighted would satisfy even the mostly finicky
traveler. The Westin Grand, designed to accommodate both the leisure
and business traveler, has every amenity and more. Located in the
downtown area, its sleek silhouette curves against the Vancouver skyline
in the shape of a grand (Grand as in Westin Grand?) piano and forms
quirky layouts in some of the 207 suites. Every accommodation features
a well-equipped kitchenette, spacious bath with double-headed shower,
living room and bedroom. More than half the suites have Heavenly Beds,
a Westin special, offering 10 layers of comfort to the weary guest.
Before leaving Alaska, we spent several
days in Anchorage and found enough
activities to fill our time including a walk along the coastal
trail, visits to the Native Heritage
Center, the Museum of History and
Art and the Alaska Center for the
Performing Arts, a narrated trolley
tour and dinner-theater at the 4th
Avenue Theater (www.anchorage.net).
Native Heritage Center, Anchorage
Most of Anchorage’s better hotels are tall, modern, and belong
to colorless chains. We were delighted to have stayed in what we perceived
to be the city’s best accommodation, the Historic Hotel Anchorage.
The city's only hotel property listed in the National Register of
Historic Places, it dates from 1916. Newly refurnished with just 26
rooms and junior suites, our quarters were comfortable and homey.
It was hard to say goodbye to Alaska, a state where the vibrancy of
the present blends effortlessly with mood of the past. Although it
was only my second visit to the state, I now understand why my husband,
Ed, chose to spend his freshman year at University of Alaska and why
the experience was so indelible.
The Westin Grand, 433 Robson Street, Vancouver BC Canada V6B
6L9. Tel. (604) 602-1999. www.westingrandvancouver.com
The Historic Hotel Anchorage, 330 E Street, Anchorage, Alaska
99501. Tel. 1-(800) 544-0988, 1-(907) 272-4553. www.historicanchoragehotel.com