Mendenhall Glacier, outside Juneau
Ketchikan, as seen from our stateroom
En route from Portland to San Francisco on Alaska Airlines flight 388 (yes, I just had to try the WiFi…)
The cruise was wonderful. I would do it again. The land excursion not so much. I've already written about the train trip and Denali Lodge. McKinley Lodge was nicer, and we had some good food there. Our second night, we have a marvelous dinner with first rate service. Terry loved her salmon and I've never had halibut prepared quite like that before, with a cheese crust. In general, people were dispersed enough that meals were never a problem at McKinley.
But the issue is that Princess likes to run at full capacity. This works on a cruise. It doesn't work so well on the land tours when it comes to transportation. The buses from one place to another were completely full. There were six buses at one time this morning from McKinley Lodge to the airport. Our luggage wasn't on our bus. We had to wait for the luggage truck for two of our bags, and the third one was on a bus behind us.
There also doesn't seem to be the same concern for the customer on land as at sea. While the gift shop at McKinley was great about helping us ship two flat rate boxes of dirty laundry home to help us with our overweight luggage issue, Denali had no clue. And we were always being shorted luggage tags – each segment needing different tags. Nor did McKinley provide assistance with boarding passes, which to me makes absolutely no sense. If Princess doesn't want to provide the service, there are third-party companies that operate kiosks for that purpose. As it turned out, the Alaska counter was not busy when we got there, but still.
I don't mean to be the travel curmudgeon. But, really, honestly, I think I would have been very happy to have just done the cruise. And I'm not losing sight of the fact that the cruise was absolutely spectacular.
We know for next time.
Thursday – back on dry land with a reasonably fast internet connection at the Princess Denali Wilderness Lodge
Some critics have suggested that Paul Theroux is something of a curmudgeon in his later travel writings, an accusation to which he takes exception. This time out I want to take on the curmudgeon voice, though I have nowhere near the writing skills or travel experience of Theroux.
I start with this: the Princess railway trip from Whittier to Denali is overrated. Big time.
Yes, the view from the domed cars is great. I also have to admit that I can't give an entirely accurate review due to a technical glitch. The microphone in our car was non-functional, so the tour guide had to improvise and talk to a group of passengers at a time. It was probably more informal and interactive than the normal routine would have been, but it was not the experience Princess wanted us to have.
Our car was full, with two couples per table. Quarters were cramped. The trip took a tiring ten hours. I can only say that I am so grateful that our tablemates were very pleasant. There was some great scenery. We got to see Mt. McKinley unobscured by clouds, something we are told only happens a few days during the season. Still, much of the trip was a case study in people behaving badly. Whenever the tour guide advised us that a view of the mountain was coming up, a horde of people would jump up and crowd the left-hand side of the car, showing no consideration for others who wanted to take pictures. I have to admit getting caught up in that myself. Not my finest hour.
Similarly, someone would shout, "bear!" or "moose!" or "caribou!" and people would lunge to the side of the car on which the sighting was and start clicking away.
I have to say, really, that nothing on the train trip came close to the breathtaking views on the cruise.
The lodge itself is nice enough, but is really designed as a jumping-off point for the Denali tour. That tour, being five hours on a school bus with stops for facilities only every ninety minutes, we decided to skip. Which, if nothing else, gave us a nice, leisurely morning for me to write this blog entry.
- There's always been a touch of sadness for us when a cruise ends. I thought that that would not be the case this time, since we still had more vacation after the cruise. Wrong. There's always a touch of sadness at the end of a cruise, whatever the next destination.
- First thing I learn after getting back to a faster internet connection: Buster Posey is likely out for the season after sustaining a broken leg during a collision at home plate. sigh
- Don't make assumptions department: Fellow on the train had a t-shirt that said "Friends of the Hunley – Complete the Journey." I was sure it was some kind of religious cult. I looked it up this morning. Turns out it's about finding a Civil War submarine that mysteriously disappeared.
Next up. Two nights at the Princess McKinley Lodge, then head home.
Tuesday – Island Princess, at sea, headed to College Fjord
Sunday afternoon we took the Yukon & White Pass Railroad to White Pass Summit on the Canadian border. Today the railroad pretty much serves only the tourist industry, but it was built in the late 1800's to support gold mining. Touristy or no, it was an excursion well worth taking. The rugged landscape is not something we would have seen otherwise.
Sunday dinner was at the premium Italian restaurant, Sabatini's. We've both eaten plenty of Italian food, of course, but never in the traditional Italian manner. They ask you to order your main dish, then they bring you a sampling first of antipasto and then pizza. They stop and ask you if you want soup and/or salad, which we declined, and then they move on to the pasta. Only after that do they bring you your entree. I had the Sea Bass covered with pesto, which was marvelous and Terry had the lobster, which she loved.
We wanted to skip desert, but our waiter told the manager, and the manager told us that in his restaurant dessert was mandatory. Since it didn't affect our bill one way or the other, we acceded. We shared a lovely white mousse.
Monday was a day at sea in Glacier Bay, visiting Margerie Glacier in the morning. It is a humbling experience to be in the vicinity of something so huge and quietly powerful. We heard a couple of rumblings of "white thunder," but our naturalist said that the glacier was quieter than usual.
Monday dinner: A couple from San Antonio. The wife was career navy. And a couple from the Boston area. The husband was retired from high tech and used to work in Palo Alto.
While we're at dinner the room steward does the usual turn down and closes the curtains. The first thing we do when getting back to the room is open the curtains. Monday evening I was knocked off of my feet. I opened the curtains to the sight of stark, white, craggy peaks framed by the blue sky above and the blue sea below. It was the most stunning landscape I've ever seen in my life. Terry was blown away as well. We were looking at Icy Point. The woman from room service who brought us our wine said, "You wonder whether it's real." So true. We had a good couple hours of that view before it faded away. Stunning. Breathtaking. Pictures will not do it justice but I will share some when I have a faster internet connection.
- There's a lot going on on the ship in the evenings, but with the exception of Jean Mack, we haven't indulged ourselves. After all, why see a stage show when you can sit in your stateroom, order wine from room service, and watch the show nature is providing right outside your stateroom? (See above.)
- It's a very odd experience to be looking out the sliding glass door of your stateroom with plenty of light to see the shore, and realize that it's 9:30 p.m. Likewise when you get up for the bathroom at 4:30 a.m.
- It's second nature for me that when I have a question about something I get on my computer and look it up. Not now. Not here with the speed and price of the internet connection.
This evening: College Fjord. Wednesday: Whittier and the train to Denaili.
The journey continues. As does the extremely slow and unreliable internet. So I will continue to batch my dispatches.
Friday was our first experience with Anytime Dining and our experience was much improved over our first evening's dinner. Much more what you want at dinner on a cruise. We were seated at a table for six. Also at the table were a couple from Ontario, Canada who were veteran cruisers and a couple from South Africa who owned a farm with a history going back to the Dutch colonial days. The conversation was lively, ranging from the national origin of each of us at the table to the Royal Wedding to the kinds of wines produced in South Africa and Canada. A thoroughly enjoyable dinner.
Terry and I are both fans of practitioners of the Great American Songbook, so we noticed right away that one of the acts was the Jean Mack Trio, tagged as singing exactly that. By the time we managed to see them they had been moved from one of the bars to the Cajun restaurant. Not the best of venues, but we thought we would still go. We arrived while they were on break. After waiting several minutes, three people walked in the door and headed for the stage. One of them, a not-terribly-young woman, appeared rather tired. But when she looked out and saw Terry and me waiting for her, she brightened up and came over to talk with us.
It turned out she was British, and most friendly and gracious. She asked what we wanted to hear and where we were from. When she found out we were from Northern California she talked about sticker shock over a dinner in San Francisco. All this while her husband, the pianist, and the bassist vamped till ready in the best jazz style. We thoroughly enjoyed her music and her husband's piano skills, despite the noise in the restaurant. Later on a a couple of her fans from earlier in the cruise stopped in, which really delighted her. When we got up to leave we waved and she blew us a kiss. Marvelous.
Saturday morning was rather chaotic, with a crew emergency drill on the ship, and checking voicemail to find Tasha had had a seizure back at home. But all turned out well. We're happy that the crew is trained in emergency procedures, and in fact the Coast Guard was on the ship to observe the drill. We just happened to run into them on the elevator on our way to breakfast. And we know that Tasha will have a seizure once every blue moon. The vet told us the first time this happened that that's just the way she is wired. Meaning, in effect, that we have an epileptic dog. The kennel was great (as they always are). We spoke to the owner on the phone and were much reassured. They took her to our vet and were keeping a close eye on her. So we felt comfortable relaxing and enjoying the rest of our trip.
Saturday afternoon we took a bus trip to the Mendenhal Glacier and saw an unusual salmon hatchery. Seeing the glacier was impressive and the science of how glaciers form is fascinating. The salmon hatchery is a non-profit operation which has an interesting way of helping to maintain the salmon population in the wild. I can't explain it all here, but if you use your search engine to look up "salmon hatchery" and "Juneau" I'm sure you'll find it.
At Saturday dinner our table companions included a couple from South Carolina and a couple and mother from Texas. Conversation ranged from previous cruises to the Food Network to barbecue to cooking rice and growing rice in Texas. An enjoyable dinner.
- How is it that I can forget a dress belt and Terry can forget panty hose, and we can find neither either on board ship or in port?
- There are those who are seasoned travellers who know how to pack for a long trip. Terry and I are not among them.
- There are those on the ship who don't care where you are standing if they want to be in that spot. Fortunately there are enough pleasant, friendly travellers to counterbalance that.
This afternoon: White Pass Scenic Railway. This evening: Dinner at Sabatini's, the premium Italian restaurant. Monday and Tuesday: scenic cruising at sea.
Next update: when it happens
Your faithful correspondent is writing to you from his stateroom on the Island Princess, in port at Ketchikan, soon to be en route to Juneau. On board internet access is expensive, slow, and metered. So my reports to you will be composed offline and uploaded intermittently.
Our story to date:
We had quite a long day on Wednesday, getting up at 4:00 a.m. to take the shuttle from the San Francisco Airport Marriott to the airport for our 7:00 flight. We flew San Francisco to Portland on an Alaska Airlines 737, and then Portland to Vancouver on a Horizon Air puddle jumper. We went through customs at Vancouver and took the charter bus to the port at Canada Place. There we went though customs again, putting us back in U.S. jurisdiction. Must be among the shortest international trips on record, but one made by a lot of people. We then went through security again before boarding the ship. The Princes security people in Vancouver could provide the TSA folks some lessons in friendliness!
After boarding we got lunch in the buffet, took a nap given our early morning, and went up to one of the upper decks and enjoyed the Vancouver skyline as the ship got ready to set sail. We went down to dinner at our assigned early seating and met our table mates. I certainly wouldn't want to characterize them, by any means, but if I were to do so, which I wouldn't, I would use the word "boorish." Fortunately we were able to switch to Anytime Dining.
Thursday was a relaxing day at sea, where we slept in, caught our breath, and watched our shoulders lower. Thursday afternoon we attended a wine tasting at which we discovered that the dining room staff are also entertainers. Thursday dinner was at the Bayou Cafe & Steakhouse, one of the two premium restaurants on board. Marvelous. More on that below.
Today at Ketchikan was an interesting experience. A town very much a part of Alaska's history is today all about tourism. Lots of shops selling everything from souvenirs to necessities one might have forgotten to expensive jewelry. Three ships in port all at once! But then the town has always been about commerce. It's just that it used to be about logging and salmon fishing. Only the nature of the commerce has changed.
- Princess, more than the other cruises we've taken, is about selling you stuff. Whether that be merchandise, a wine tasting, or dinner in one of the premium dining rooms.
- As a newer ship the Island Princess is more stable that other, older ships we've been on. Wednesday night I hardly knew we were at sea.
- There is a tendency to want to tip, but these days tipping is automatic and added to your total bill. The service is very good and friendly, nonetheless.
- I was surprised to see so many people flout the dress code on formal night. And impressed at how great those who didn't looked. (And "flout" is the correct term here, right Pobble? 🙂 )
- It's a wonderful experience to have a delicious Cajun meal, feel the pulse of the engines beneath you, watch the ocean go past, and see the joggers run by on the deck.
- There's a perception, one I've had at least, that Alaska Cruises are primarily taken by the retired set. If that ever were true, it's not so today. While there's plenty of 65-plus folks on board, there are lots of young couple and some families, along with every age in between. And lots of different nationalities as well, as one would expect on a cruise like this.
- Whether it's compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or just the recognition that it's good business, the needs of those with mobility problems are being addressed. I've seen both wheelchairs and motorized scooters on board. Don't think you would have seen that ten years ago. The shore excursion listings are flagged appropriately as well.
That's it for now. Next report whenever it happens.