Exploring Alaska with Un-Cruise: Part One

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What comes to mind when you think of Alaska?  Snow? Wildlife? Long, bright days? Adventure? Relaxation?

Blue Ice
Gorgeous blue ice in the bay

I’m well-traveled when it comes to Alaska.  I traveled with friends and explored the fishing  port of Ketchikan long before it became a shopping mecca for trinkets and T-Shirts.  I took my son on a cruise to Alaska for his fifth grade graduation. We took a helicopter ride over Mendenhall Glacier in  Juneau,  landed, and  trekked across the glacier. (I’d venture to say that’s the closest you can get to feeling like you’re walking on the moon!)  We went rappelling in Skagway, America’s best-preserved Gold Rush town, and rode the White Pass and Yukon rail to see spectacular scenery inland. I’ve explored inland Alaska from Anchorage to see Denali National Park, Mt. McKinley and Fairbanks.  I’ve even been lucky enough to see the spectacular Aurora Borealis.  Words can’t describe the stunning beauty of Alaska, and even photographs don’t adequately capture its splendor.

By far, my best cruise experience to Alaska was on board Un-Cruise Adventures Endeavor in July 2012.  My father and I chose to go on this trip together because it has something for both of us: he likes to relax, sit back,  and enjoy the scenery from the deck of the ship while I like to be active and explore.  And since we both love small ships and expedition cruises, this was the perfect vacation choice!

Susan & Dad in kayak-001
My father and I kayaking in Alaskan waters.

Seattle Sights

We left Atlanta at the beginning of the month on a day with record-breaking heat – it was 104 degrees when we headed for the airport. We had the chance to stay in (the much cooler) Seattle the night before the cruise, and despite popular perceptions about the rainy, dreary weather to be found there, we had perfect weather while we walked around the city.  Pikes Place Market was teeming with folks shopping for fish, beautiful fresh flowers, and everything else you could possibly want to buy. My dad had never met a stranger, so as we walked along he befriended a cat and met some sweet and colorful ladies with bunches of flowers.

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Pikes Place Market. So much seafood!
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My dad making new friends in Seattle
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He just loved this cat!

Of course, what’s a trip to Seattle without a visit to the Space Needle?

View from the Needle
The view from the top of the Space Needle.
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Seattle Space Needle

That night we stayed at the fabulous Fairmont Olympic Hotel, just steps from Pike Place Market, the waterfront, museums and world-class shopping. (This is one of my favorites for my clients, where I can offer them an upgrade if available on arrival,  complimentary full breakfast, early check-in/late check-out and a $100 USD Food & Beverage credit.  Yes, please!)

The next day we flew to Juneau, where we boarded the ship in the late afternoon (but only after visiting Tracy’s Crab Shack for the BEST crab bisque and king crab legs ever!) And then on down to the famous Red Dog Saloon for some beer and dancing!

All Aboard – A Special Greeting

I knew what to expect on board the ship, because this was my second trip with Un-Cruise.

The admiral stateroom on the Endeavor.
The Endeavor dining hall.
The Endeavor salon.

The excitement began early the next morning without warning. Folks, saying I’m NOT a morning person is a gross understatement.  But when I heard our expedition leader’s voice quietly coming over the intercom at 6 AM announcing that whales were on our starboard side, I bolted out of bed and out the door as if I were on fire.  No hesitation. Right there, just in front of me, close enough to touch, was a humpback whale welcoming us to Glacier Bay with a big loud burst of air shooting from his blow hole! What a way to start our adventure!  (I know, I know.  Where’s the picture?  Real talk: I was in such a hurry and so mesmerized that my camera was the last thing on my mind.  In the end I enjoyed the moments watching the whales instead of trying to get the perfectly impossible shot with my amateur photography skills.)

We sailed through Stephens Passage and Frederick Sound, where we saw colonies of sea lions lounging on rocks, and then we headed into Glacier Bay National Park, where we visited a small, rustic museum where one can learn about what makes Glacier Bay so special.  An expert Park Ranger joined us for a hike – and what an adventure that was!

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Some seals lounging on the rocks.
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I got some good shots of this eagle!

Calling All Bears

Before the hike, we were warned to call out for bears. (Quite comforting.) “Hey, Bear! Hey, Bear!” I decided to take off on my own so I could focus on nature and taking some good pictures, but while the thought of seeing a wild bear got my adrenaline pumping, I wasn’t about to take any chances.  I enjoy having all of my limbs, so I adhered to the rule and ran them off. I got to see a lot of beautiful wildlife without incident – thank goodness! (*Note: I did come across some steaming hot bear turds.  I guess I really did scare the crap out of that bear!)

group on shore
Getting ready to venture into the wild!

I had been in Glacier Bay before on the big cruise ships, but on those, nobody gets off the ship.  You peer through binoculars looking for wildlife, looking on from a distance and wishing you could get a better look.  The landscape was beautiful from those cruise lines, but wow.  What an eye-opening experience it was to get up close and personal with all that is in and surrounds this amazing place.   To feel it under your feet (the terrain is mushy, mossy, mushroom-y…take your pick) and to see and smell and photograph it up close is a whole different experience.  Really, it’s a magical, mysterious place of pristine beauty.

Mussy Jungle
Some of the mossy terrain.

Returning from the hike,  I took this shot.  That’s iconic Alaska, right there.

purple flowers
Some beautiful flowers I saw on my return hike.

Trouble in (Alaskan) Paradise

I knew from Day 1 that my dad wasn’t feeling well, but he had been doing a great job of hiding his health troubles.  In fact, he went so far as to lie about his doctor telling him he should get checked out before boarding the ship.  So there I was, thinking everything was fine and going about our trip as usual, when on our second night in Glacier Bay he finally gave up the act and admitted that he was having a lot of trouble breathing.  Let me be clear: we were in the middle of the Alaskan Wilderness – far, far away from the nearest town, let alone a hospital. It was quickly escalating into a serious situation.  The crew was very responsive, bringing oxygen to his room to help him breathe.  The hours ticked by, and we went through every oxygen tank on board as my father waited throughout the night for a sea plane to come to the rescue…

Check back next week to find out what happens next!

Travel Tips: Why It’s So Hard to Use Those Flyer Miles

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mileage award points

It’s that time of year when you want to start planning that dream cruise to Europe, and you really want to use those frequent flyer points to book your flight.  Only, let’s face it.  It’s hard.

I get it.  I’ve been there.  I’ve watched my frequent flyer miles like a hawk, and when I finally go to redeem them for a dream vacation… it’s next to impossible to use them on my flight of choice.  Most people are finding it increasingly challenging to find those awards seats. Delta, especially, makes it difficult to book award seats.

That’s because the airline, ever-dedicated to making money, is doing everything in its power to sell those seats first. (I suppose that’s understandable – business is business.)  As a result, they hold out on releasing the seats until the very last minute, or they require an astronomical number of points to book the ticket. It’s annoying, I know.

It’s even worse when you want to use your points to upgrade to business class.  In that scenario, you have to purchase a higher class of service – a so-called “upgrade-able ticket” – which could be almost as much as buying a business class ticket outright.  It’s just not easy to book peak season award tickets, especially on direct flights. (Though you will have better luck booking seats with airline partners like Air France or KLM.)

This understanding of the unfortunate strategies used by major airlines is all well and good, but what can you do?

There are a lot of things about awards programs that can slip through the cracks unless you do your research. You need to milk the most out of your points.   Gain leverage.  Find loopholes. Honestly, the general population isn’t necessarily equipped to do this because those airlines are pretty sneaky, and awards programs can be complicated with all of their fine print exceptions and rings of fire that they make you jump through.  Lucky for you,  there are experts who do this for a living who have had proven experience with “battling” the airlines.  They’re knowledgeable about this stuff.  Save yourself a bucket of tears and let them do the work for you.

I recommend contacting  mileage-award expert Gary Leff, who writes the blog View From the Wing and helps people get the maximum value for their miles and points via his BookYourAward service.  If you are still unable to get that award seat, just bite the bullet and buy that ticket.  Regardless…

JUST GO! Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer!

Peru: Up Close and Personal

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Saying that I love to travel is an understatement.

I mean, I love it so much that I made it my career – my life.  That means that much of my time is filled with countless, amazing trips, and 2013 was no exception.  I’m so excited that I can now share them in detail with all of you on this new blog.  With all my recent adventures last year – from Australia to New York – it was difficult to choose just what to write about first.  But if I’m honest with myself (and you), my favorite trip was by far my adventures in the mountains of Peru.

And with good reason.

Susan & Lhama
I enjoyed meeting a friendly llama and some native girls in the mountains of Peru.

What an amazing country! Every day of my journey was full of surprises and beauty at every turn. The resorts were fabulous, and the food!  The food was fresh, wholesome and delicious.  We explored Machu Picchu, the legendary lost city of the Inca Empire, rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. It is truly one of the most amazing and mysterious places on earth. We also had entertaining and knowledgeable guides throughout who told us all about the history of the people.

This is me standing atop Machu Picchu.  This could be YOU!
This is me standing atop Machu Picchu. This could be YOU!
The lost city of Machu Picchu
The lost city of Machu Picchu

From Machu Picchu, we took the famous Hiram Bingham luxury train to Cuzco, enjoying a delicious gourmet meal, fine drinks and music along the way.  All the while we were met with views of breathtaking scenery and vast landscapes.  It was a great reminder that half the fun of travel is getting there.

The highlight of the trip was a cruise on the Amazon aboard the 24 passenger Aqua Expedition’s  Aria.  We explored  the river on small skiffs with native guides  who could point out gorgeous birds in the trees, sloths and even chameleons that we never could have seen on our own.   The most exciting moment was when the guides spotted an anaconda lounging in the reeds.  They struggled with it for quite a while before finally pulling it out of the water. What a photo op!

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I got to test out my navigation skills on the Amazon.
I've never been in such close proximity to such a huge reptile!  The tour guides were having fun, too.
I’ve never been in such close proximity to such a huge reptile! The tour guides were having fun, too.

Lake Titicaca was another notable highlight. The lake is both the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest lake in South America, and it is home to a population of pre-Incan people called Uros who live on artificial islands made of floating reeds.  (Yes, reeds.) It’s like the mother of all houseboats, really.  Someone decides who he wants for a neighbor, then builds the island. If the relationship sours and they no longer want to be neighbors, they just cut off their portion of the island and float away!   It was like nothing I’d ever seen.  And I guess that’s what I love about travel – there is so much about the world that you have to see to believe, and I want to see it all.

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Here are the floating islands at Lake Titicaca.
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People riding on a boat at Uros.

Peru was truly unforgettable.  From the kind people and the hospitable culture to the delectable food and exciting attractions, what’s not to love? I would go back again in a heartbeat.

Don’t take my word for it, though.  Let us help you experience it for yourself.  This is one trip you don’t want to miss.  Check out more pictures from my trip in our photo gallery for more inspiration.