NORTH TO ALASKA: Two if by Sea

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

PART TWO: Two if by Sea

Disclaimer: Neither Dina nor I have ever been on a cruise (not counting the Staten Island Ferry) – and never harbored any desire to do so.

At the Whittier dock we stood in line with hundreds of other people readying to board the Coral Princess. My violently shaking right hand held my boarding pass. Canadian Customs officials eyed me suspiciously as I approached. You could read their mind – “Is it contagious?” “Should he be quarantined?” Much to my surprise the official in charge asked, “Have you ever been on a cruise before?” I answered “No” and his body language eased. Just another cruise newbie.

The Coral Princess can accommodate 1,974 passengers, has 14 decks, 1398 staterooms/suites, 9 restaurants, 4 performance spaces, numerous bars, a casino, outdoor pool, sports deck, hot tubs, an outdoor movie theatre and is 964 ft. long. It’s an ocean going hotel. As long as you have a Coral Princess ID card the world, or in this case the Coral Princess, is your oyster.Coral Princess Card

Most cruise ships stop at different ports during the day so passengers can go on day excursions and cruise to the next port at night. Excursions are a huge money-maker for cruise lines. The premise is once you have the cow, or in this case passengers, milk the heck out of them. As soon as you sign up for a cruise, information regarding various available excursions floods your in-box and doesn’t stop – whale watching, scenic train rides, glacier landings, high-speed power boat river rides, nature adventures, dog sledding, salmon fishing, visits to totem pole parks…

SkagwayOur ports of call were Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan with a final destination of Vancouver. The main industry in the first three (discounting Vancouver) is tourism. All towns were no more than a five minute walk from our docked ship, and each had its overwhelming number of discount jewelry, t-shirt, Harley Davidson and tchotchke shops. So much so that I felt that the real towns were hiding a few miles away and we were exploring sets built for the tourists.

Glacier BayOn our way to Skagway we spent an amazing afternoon cruising Glacier Bay National Park, which is on Alaska’s Inside Passage and covers some 3.3 million acres. Glaciers are constantly moving masses of ice under tremendous amounts of pressure. As tidewater glaciers reach the water, large pieces break off, or calve, and form icebergs. The sound of these massive chunks of ice plummeting into the water around us was thunderous and eerie.

Our first port of call was Skagway, a town founded in 1897 at the head of the Taiya Inlet – the northern most point of the Inside Passage. After having our fill of tourist shops we boarded the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway for the 40-mile White Pass Summit Excursion. White Pass TrainThe breath taking ride in vintage passenger coaches took us along wild flower festooned valleys, mile high waterfalls, mammoth glaciers, snow peaked mountains, and part of the original Klondike Trail, a narrow trail where countless lives were lost in the search for gold.

Our next port of call was Juneau, founded in 1890 and the capital of Alaska. It has the distinction of being the only U.S. state capital with no road access. Could its founding fathers have needed their “alone time”? If you want to get to Juneau you either fly or sail in. (Alaska has the highest number of pilots per capita than any other U.S. state)

By this point in the trip, with passengers having gone on numerous excursions, a game of one-upmanship commenced. During communal meals claims like “I saw 2 bear”, or “Well, I saw 7 moose”, and “Big deal – I saw 6 bald eagles” were common. I found myself being swept up in the moment. Up until that point Dina and I had only seen 3 moose and some spawning salmon but out of my mouth came “Well, we’ve seen 4 black bears, 6 whales, 9 moose, 8 bald eagles and 3 squirrels”. Ooops. What does a kid from Brooklyn know about animals in the Northern wild? While in Juneau, however, Dina and I went on a whale watch and spotted numerous humpback whales breaching and sea lions sunning themselves along deserted beaches. We were ready to play the game again! Emergency Sign

Food is served 24-hours a day on a cruise ship and you’re never farther than 3-minutes from a meal. Passengers have their choice of Anytime, Traditional, or Buffet style dining. For an additional charge you can have dinner at one of the ship’s five Specialty Restaurants (remember the cow theory). If that were not enough, you can also graze at The Grill & Bar, Ice Cream Bar, Princess Pizzeria, and International Pastry & Coffee Bar.

At home, except for dinner, our meals are simple and quick. I boarded the ship determined to hold to the same regimen. Keep in mind that one of the big activities on a cruise ship is eating – and most passengers whole-heartedly embrace the activity. Suffice to say that I left the ship weighing an additional 5 lbs.

SelfieWe chose Anytime dining for meals. Now we had the option of eating by ourselves or at a communal table. The first night we chose to dine alone. Were we embracing the Alaskan concept of “alone time”? Or was it that I like people only when I’m in the mood? During dinner we struck up a conversation with a couple at the next table. Steve and Barbara from Arizona were in their mid 80’s and had gotten married in the last year. We had a pleasant conversation which led us to choose communal dining from that point on.

Over the next 6 days we ate with roughly 144 interesting people and heard some fascinating stories. We met a husband and wife from Burbank, CA who collect and restore 1956 Cadillacs, a couple from Australia who take 3-month vacations several times a year, and a woman from South Africa who ended up becoming sick on vacation in Russia and convalescing in a hospital there. (Here’s a shout-out to Tom and Paula from Delaware and Jack and Judy from Colorado. It was great meeting you!) I truly enjoyed taking my meals and talking with many of the 144 people – except for one right wing wing-nut from Ohio. Maybe it was the fact that I’ve worked alone at home for the past 21 years and needed some time around people.

Ketchikan, the least touristy town of the three, was our next port. By that time we had our fill of excursions so we just meandered around. The highlight of the day was visiting Burger Queen on Water Street – an excellent burger joint with killer malteds. It was the best malted I’ve had since living in the East Village. I suggest the pistachio – even with a hamburger. Some women like to buy jewelry on vacation. What was my wife’s treasured purchase? A 3” tall pewter moose purchased in Ketchikan that now sits proudly on our living room mantel.Moose

Vancouver was the final destination. By that time we both needed our “alone time” so we stayed for 3 days and shunned people. Did I have a good vacation? I had a great vacation! Did I enjoy the cruise? Most definitely! Would I do another cruise? Probably not, but I did confront my fears and the nightmares have finally stopped!

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NORTH to ALASKA: One if by Land

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

PART ONE: One if by Land

Eventually we all have to confront our fears. My time came this summer. Young DavidEver since I was young I’ve had a reoccurring nightmare of being trapped at sea on a mid-size cruise ship in a cold climate. While on this ship I’m forced by tribal customs to eat sizeable meals every 4 hours and make pleasant conversation with large numbers of people from all over the world. (But more about my nightmare later.)

This year was my wife’s turn to pick our summer vacation destination and Dina chose Alaska. I believe she selected it in retaliation for my choosing Cuba last summer. Dina is not a fan of hot weather, humidity or nail polish, and I’m not a fan of cold weather, gated communities or cruise ships. The dagger to my heart was that, in addition to the cold of Alaska, part of the trip would be spent on a cruise ship.Coral Princess

The first thing I did was research weather in Alaska in August. Not too bad – a high of low 60’s to 70˚F. What did concern me was descriptions like “weather highly unpredictable”, “dress in layers” and “Alaska gets rainier as the summer progresses”. We set off on July 29th with our first stop being Anchorage. The weather gods must have been listening to my prayers, because when we landed it was 80˚F and sunny. And I do mean sunny because at that time of year Anchorage experiences 20 hours of sunlight per day. Lucky for us our hotel room had blackout curtains.

What’s the first thing to do after landing in Anchorage? Play “Anchorage” by Michelle Shocked – a personal favorite of mine. What’s the second thing? Find a place to eat some great seafood. For us it was Simon’s and Seafort’s Saloon & Grill. After consuming a dozen local oysters, wild Alaska salmon Carpaccio, crab cakes, and several glasses of sauvignon blanc while watching the sun go down over the bay, we were ready to start our Alaskan adventure.

Mt. McKinley RangeOur first stop was the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, where Mt. McKinley (proper name is Mt. Denali – meaning “The High One”) could be seen in the distance. Standing at 20,237 feet tall it’s the highest mountain peak in North America and only fully visible 33% of the time. We took a short bus ride to Talkeetna, a small village at the base of the mountain, for a glacier landing with K2Aviation. Put this awesome adventure on your bucket list!

Jeff BabcockJeff Babcock, a retired 28 year veteran pilot of the Alaskan State Troopers was our pilot and enjoys his job. As soon as the de Havilland Otter took off, Jeff’s shoulders relaxed and he cracked jokes through our headsets. After flying over moose grazing below, we were within a mile of one of the most amazing sights in the world. To accentuate the moment Jeff pressed play on his iPod mini and we were instantly grooving to Johnny Horton singing “North to Alaska” followed by John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”. Yes, I know where the second song takes place, but it still worked.

Glacier LandingWe landed at an elevation of 5600 feet on the Ruth Glacier. Alaska is aptly nicknamed “The Last Wilderness”. The scene was one of austere beauty – vast, quiet, pristine and uninhabited. Dina and I were as silent as the landscape, awed and aware that we were in a place that only a small percentage of the world population will ever see.

The following day we panned for gold with Rich Humphrey, the new owner of Denali Gold Tours in Trappers Creek, Alaska. Rich was born in Alaska and has spent his entire life there except for a hitch in the U.S. Marine Corps. Since Dina and I were the only people on the tour that day, Rich had time to talk about Alaskans. The best way to sum them up is “friendly people who need their alone time”. Many live off the grid with no running water, electricity and little contact with neighbors – and prefer it that way.

Even though Dina and I have faced numerous precarious situations while living in NYC, we were nervous driving 20 miles down gravel roads into the back country with a man carrying two hand guns. Rich assured us that the guns were only a precaution in case we encountered bears. His explanation shifted our worry from him and his two guns to possible bear confrontations.Gold Panning

We were lucky since no bears were sighted, but we did see moose and spawning salmon. Dina proved to be a master gold panner in the mountain-fed freezing river as she found several flecks of gold. The best I could find was some flour gold – so small it wasn’t worth saving. Our back breaking labor was rewarded with a gourmet lunch of Reindeer Dogs and cold drinks at the local 7-Eleven equivalent and a visit to the Trapper Creek Museum. (Best of luck with the new business, Rich!)

Our next stop was a 2-hour drive to Denali, Alaska. There we took a half day tour of the six million acre Denali National Park and Preserve, filled with snow capped mountains and virgin forests. Our visit included an exhibition of overzealous 80-100 lb. dogs pulling a sled. The excited dogs almost pulled their trainers out of their boots as they went from the kennels to the sled. The trainers had to restrain the dogs’ enthusiasm by grasping their collars and lifting their front paws off the ground. No matter what the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages says about cruelty to horses, these dogs love pulling a sled.Lake WasillaDog Sled Exhibition

The next day we left on the McKinley Explorer glass-domed train for a relaxing six-hour train ride from Denali to Whittier, Alaska. The ride took us through endless acres of forests, over rivers and gorges, past Sarah Palin’s summer home on Lake Lucille in Wasilla, Alaska and down the coast along the Prince William Sound to Whittier. The train did stop briefly in Wasilla, but as hard as I tried …  I couldn’t see Russia from there!

NEXT WEEK

PART TWO : Two if by Sea