What comes to mind when you think of Alaska? Snow? Wildlife? Long, bright days? Adventure? Relaxation?
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!
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.
Of course, what’s a trip to Seattle without a visit to the 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 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!
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!)
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.
Returning from the hike, I took this shot. That’s iconic Alaska, right there.
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…