Title: You can do anything in Alaska.
Length: 2300 words.
Published previously. SBSR and non-UK rights available.
Travel operator: Royal Caribbean.
About the author: Derrick Grover.
|For readers who seek extra excitement at the start of their cruise I recommend sailing out of Vancouver, amidships, on the top deck of the Rhapsody of the Seas. It was obvious that we could not get under Lion Gate Bridge. Some passengers cowered by the railing. I watched in disbelief. Why were the ship's propellors not in reverse? I was torn between the evidence of my eyes and the likelihood of this enormous ship tearing a hole in the roadway. In fact it was an optical illusion and the ship sailed triumphantly through and then on past Vancouver island at 24 knots. The height of the funnel above the waterline was 202 feet, it missed the road bridge by two feet. As the captain remarked later: "Two feet is enough". It was an example of the precision with which Royal Caribbean organise the cruise.|
We had a comfortable flight from England by British Airways and spent the first night at the Pan Pacific Hotel with its splendid views over the harbour. Now we were to spend seven days visiting Alaska. To me it had been a spot on the corner of the map and a figment of the imagination in the guide book. The USA bought Alaska from Russia for two cents an acre in 1867 and then they found gold. It is now one of the major wildlife reserves of the world. Humpback whales, seals, sealions, bald eagles and grizzly bear are there in abundance. It is a land of glaciers, rain forest and unspoilt natural beauty. Alaska is twice the size of the next largest state. If there were Texans present they were keeping quiet.
The first day at sea is a chance to explore the ship and book the shore excusions which are a must on a trip of this kind. The visitor to a Royal Caribbean ship will be astounded by the splendour of the decor. Hanging above the Centrum is a wooden sculpture forty feet high. It can be viewed from the glass walled lifts which glide between the decks. In moments you rise from your cabin to the upper decks perhaps to swim in one of the two pools, to exercise in the well equipped gymnasium or partake of a meal in the Windjammer cafe. The water in the pools is filtered from the sea and heated to a pleasant temperature.
Cabins are spacious and comfortable. A two bedded cabin has ample wardrobe space, two arm chairs, shower, usual facilities and television. Alternatively a family cabin has its own veranda and can be converted to sleep up to eight people (with separate accommodation for four).
Visit the library early in the cruise. The books are colour coded into eleven categories, whether fiction; biography; travel; science etc. In one corner is a book exchange section.
A quiet place to read is the Crown and Anchor study. It has a sound absorbing ceiling. Only the gentle chimes from the lifts could be heard as they declared their presence at another deck.
The Explorer's court on the port side has board games - scrabble; chinese chequers and many others. In the Card room guests can sign a list to contact others wishing to play bridge. The Casino Royale is popular with many people. Slot machines in abundance align the walls but for the novice there are free tutorials for Black Jack, Crap and Roulette.
It was time to visit the pursor's desk and change some money and have my cruise card registered. It would permit me to charge any expenses on board and pay by credit card at the end of the cruise.
The music from the Centrum changed to rythmic piano playing reminiscent of Charlie Kunz. I would, I decided, take a seat and give the player my support. As I approached the empty piano stool I realised the piano was being played automatically. I am not one to dismiss the wonders of the electronic revolution; sitting in an armchair with my back to the piano I could not tell the difference but remembered not to applaud at the end of the piece.
Few trips are as scenic as the Inside Passage - trees from the shore rise up on steep mountainous slopes for mile after mile on either side of the ship. The islands here provide shelter from the open sea making the water smooth for the duration of the voyage. My test for a calm sea is whether a pencil will balance on its end on the table. It remained as vertical as a rocket ready for launching.
A day at sea gives time to prepare for the Captain's Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party (the beauty salon offers all kinds of treatment ranging from massage to hairdressing and facials). It is one of the two formal evenings. Dress is black tie or lounge suit. Rum punches, wine and non-alcoholic drinks were served with canapes.
Our first port of call was Juneau. In 1880 Joe Juneau and Dick Harris discovered gold in a stream. A tented city quickly appeared and the town grew as supporting services for the gold diggers arrived and set up in business. It is now the capital of Alaska but is accessible only by air and sea. The fine looking roads terminate outside the city. We were booked on the Juneau Wild Life Excursion costing $97. This is one of twenty excursions offered at prices ranging from $28 to $146 for landbased tours. Seaplane and Helicopter tours cost from $117 to $299.
So confident are the tour operators of the abundance of wild life that they guaranteed we would see at least three species of wild life or else we would receive a $40 cash refund. On board the high speed catamaran, we had the good fortune to see a hunchback whale feeding its baby. The baby was vigorous and jumped out of the water every few minutes. Each time they leapt out of the water to breathe, they consumed energy equivalent to eight pounds of fat. Whilst this seemed a good way of slimming, it is not significant when you weigh fifty tons. Sealions could be seen huddled on a marker buoy in the middle of the channel and bald eagles were viewed off Sentinel island.
The Red Dog Saloon is a noted stop for the tourist. Although it has moved from its original position in the Goldrush days it still retains a frontier like atmosphere. A moose's head mounted on the wall surveys the tourists and a stuffed grizzly bares its fangs from a safe distance. You are entertained to the lively sound of a honky tonk piano and guitar. Drinks and food are reasonably priced and many of our party stayed there; arriving back at the ship after dinner.
We arrived in Skagway early the next morning. 100 years ago it was the scene of a momentous gold rush. 20,000 goldseekers passed on their way to the White Pass and the Chilkoot trails. Many perished but today the tourist can view the historic trail from the comfort of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. Rising through the most rugged terrain, up to nearly 3000 feet, this route was hacked out of rock to become the supply line for the Yukon gold fields. The tourists who went on this excursion described the awesome scenery ranging from panoramic views to shear rock face; glacial valleys and sky blue lakes.
I was full of admiration for one couple who declared they were going on the 15 mile Klondike Bicycle Tour ($69). Then I discovered that a van took them to the top of the pass and they simply cycled downhill as they passed waterfalls, glaciers and the coastal mountains on the way back to Skagway. As the brochure noted "the participants must be comfortable using handbrakes".
We chose the Skagway Glacier Explorer Helicopter tour, a two hour trip which would ferry us high over the glacier. We were fitted out with special boots to grip the ice and life jackets over thick sweaters. A headset enabled us to communicate with the pilot for a commentary as we floated over the glacier remarkable for the jagged ice fields where the ice had been crunched together under enormous pressures. We moved onto a smoother area for landing with instructions to watch where we were walking because here were crevasses to be avoided. The biggest danger was to take step back without looking when taking a photograph. A feature of the glacier is the blue ice. Our Guide was a mine of information:
" The ice is blue because the oxygen is squeezed out."
"Yes, if you fall into a crevasse you become wedged in and as your body heat melts the walls you sink lower."
Over the mountains there was a sense of unreality as we looked at one side of a feature and then floated around to the other side like a bee encircling a flower. Moments later we were hovering a few feet over a very narrow ridge with sheer drops of thousands of feet on each side - too narrow for even a mountain goat.
Passengers not taking the excursions would find the towns suitable for walking. Alternatively there was a full range of activities on board. Bingo; entertainers in the Schooner bar or wine tasting in the Moonlight Bay Lounge with its sculptures in white carrera marble 7 feet high. The fully equipped gymnasium was open from 7 am to 8 pm. Enthusiasts were to be seen exercising before breakfast even if they had been at the Viking room Disco until 3 oclock in the morning.
Haines is a short trip from Skagway. It is one of the prettier towns and one with a road connection to the Alaska highway. It is next to the coastal mountain range and lies on a wooded peninsula. Here we were to go on the Bald Eagle Preserve Float trip through the Chilcat valley. We were kitted out with boots and life jackets and seated eight to an inflated raft. "Where is the outboard engine?" I asked. In fact the water is too shallow and we were guided down the swiftly flowing river using oars. The shallowness of the river causes the salmon to be visible to the eagles, which are present in large numbers. Soon there was one at the water's edge. Personally I think "bald" is an uncomplimentary description of such a splendid bird. The white feathers over its head and neck give it a majestic appearance. They stand out in contrast to the black feathers over the wings and body.
Every so often the raft would ground on the pebbles and our guide became very energetic; heaving us off onto deeper water as we jumped up and down on the raft to release it. We passed under an eagle sitting 10 metres above us on a branch. The raft was anything but still and rotated here and there giving us a 360 degree view of the magnificent scenery.
Our evenings were often spent at the Broadway melody theatre, the song and dance revues were as practiced and polished as I have seen anywhere. The acoustics also are excellent, you can hear every word in any part of the theatre. Sometimes we would listen to Dave Curtis at the piano bar. He was not our editor in disguise, but a talented musician much given to wit and humour.
The Hubbard Glacier was the event in the afternoon of the next day. We ventured slowly up to the ice blue glacier. Around us were miniature icebergs caused by the ice breaking off the end of the glacier as it slid down over the rock. Some were large enough to float a human being. The glacier is six miles wide and 75 miles long. It glows with this pure mellow blue which is characteristic of the light reflected from compressed ice. The deck was crowded with people looking for the photo opportunity - a source of profit for film manufacturers! The scene had its own particular kind of beauty not seen elsewhere on this cruise, or any other in my experience.
I went on a tour of the galley, a scene of polished stainless steel. It made me realise the extent of the organisation necessary to feed over 1000 passengers at one sitting. If your utensils shine at dinner it is not surprising. They undergo a three stage cleaning process. A wash, rinse and then sanitisation with chlorine. It is evident that as far as the management is concerned this is a five star hotel; which happens to have water underneath.
Dinner was an occasion for international cuisine at its best. There are alternatives for the health conscious guest included in the "Shipshape" selections and a vegetarian menu. My neighbour debated whether to choose the Crab Claws with Cocktail Sauce or Smoked Trout as an appetizer and a vegetarian chose Buffalo Mossarella Antipasto. For my soup course I had the Black Bean soup and our vegetarian friend the Chilled Vichyssoise. I was particularly fond of the Blue Cheese Dressing for the Waldorf Yogurt Salad and my neighbour liked the Romaine with Cucumber and Tomato.
My choice for entree was the Poached Alaskan King Salmon as an alternative to the Sirloin Steak, my neighbour the Caribbean Lobster with Citrus Sauce, while our vegetarian plumped for the Stir-Fried Chinese Vegetables with Tofu. The wide range of deserts made a choice difficult. I noticed that the Charlotte Royal au Cointreau and Key Lime Pie Swan Chantilly were popular. I opted for the Orange Sherbert as suitably slimming.
Kechitan was our last stop before returning home. We went on the Mountain Lake Canoe Adventure. It was priced at $77 for two and a half hours. It was not an excursion for the keen canoeist but is well suited for the first timer.
We returned to Vancouver in the early morning. I checked with the harbour master. The clearance under the Lions Gate Bridge was only 200 feet at high tide and on our outward trip the tidal range had been under twelve feet.
Photographs supporting this article.
Glacier panarama; Mountains panorama; Trolley bus; Snow plough; Crevasse; Canoe excursion; Seal buoy; Crowd viewing glacier; etc.