INTRODUCTION: This is another in a series of travelogues chronicling the adventures of Frank and Patricia Hall. On this cruise we were joined by our "Travel Buddies," Larry and Patti Webber of Bend , Oregon (formerly of Arcadia, California) with whom we have shared many adventures including, most recently our Cruise through the Panama Canal in 2010.
This cruise, aboard the Oceana Cruise Lines Regatta, left Vancouver on Monday, July 11th and arrived in Anchorage on Saturday, July 23rd. We spent a night in Vancouver before boarding and two nights in Anchorage before flying home.
Our ports included Ketchikan, Wrangell, Juneau, Hoonah, Skagway, Sitka, Seward, and Homer. It also included two "At Sea" days touring the Hubbard Glacier and the College Fjord. All of these are within the boundaries of the State of Alaska. Actually, Alaskans are only too happy to point out that you could put two states the size of Texas inside her land mass and still have room left over.
We had been to Alaska on a Cruise in 1993 and this trip only rekindled our love affair with this beautiful state. It also marked the end of our love affair with Oceania Cruise Lines, which had changed management in the few short months since our last cruise on this same ship and the difference was like night and day. There will be more on the Regatta's decline after we talk about the wonders of Alaska and her many opportunities for adventure.
GETTING TO ALASKA: Alaska Airlines has good service from Los Angeles to both Vancouver and Anchorage. From LAX to Vancouver will take about 3 hours. Coming home from Anchorage will take about 9 hours including an hour layover in Seattle and loss of an hour (the difference in time between Anchorage and Seattle) There are highways that will take you to many spots in Alaska, but some ports, including the State Capital of Juneau is inaccessible by land, since it is surrounded by glaciers. Alaskans are partial to "float planes" which you'll see by the dozens next to the boats in every Alaska harbor. I'm convinced the only way to see the wonder of Alaska is by Cruise Ship, unless you own a float plane.
VANCOUVER: We arrived in Vancouver in early afternoon and by the time we arrived at our hotel it was too late to do any sightseeing. We selected the Hampton Inn and Suites for our one night stay because it was close to the Cruise Ship Terminal and offered van service to the Terminal, to Gastown and to various restaurants. Also, we could use our Hilton "Points" to pay for it.
EATING IN VANCOUVER: We were only in Vancouver for 24 hours, but we had two notable meals we thought we should report.
MOXIES is a local chain, with a location near the Hampton Inn. We stopped in for lunch and were pleasantly surprised. We didn't want a big lunch, so we ordered two appetizers - the Honey Garlic Barbecued Wings and the Pot Stickers. They were both terrific. We'll go back for a larger meal next time we're in Vancouver.
JOE FORTES SEAFOOD AND CHOP HOUSE is at 777 Thurlow St. near Robson in downtown Vancouver. It's named for a beloved lifeguard in old Vancouver and is justly famous for its Oysters. They claim they're the best in Canada and we won't dispute them. Larry and I had Oysters on the half-shell which included Oysters from various Canadian Provinces from Prince Edward Island to British Columbia. Patti and Patricia shared an order of Oysters Rockefeller. All were superb. For the main course Patti and Patricia had the Fish and Chips, which were excellent, while Larry and I had their Spicy Cioppino - the best we've had in years.
The ambience at Joe Forte's is great, too. A Honky Tonk Piano Player is elevated over the main dinner floor and he never stops playing. It's a lot of fun and we recommend it.
THE INSIDE PASSAGE: The Southeast section of the State of Alaska is a thin strip of land extending roughly from Ketchikan to Glacier Bay. It has a comparatively temperate climate, with the temperature seldom falling below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Located on an inland channel protecting them from the fury of the Pacific Ocean, these cities and towns are popular cruise ports. Before the United States acquired Alaska from the Russians in 1867 for $7.2 Million Dollars, the inhabitants were primarily the native Tlingit Indians plus a few fur trappers and Russian Orthodox Missionaries. The event that caused the population to increase was not the American purchase, but the discovery of Gold in the 1870s in the Sitka area and then again in Juneau in 1880. These strikes were followed by others every few years until the great strike in the Klondike area of British Columbia. The only access to the area was through Skagway, Alaska.
All of the towns in the inside passage are rich in the history of the frontier. It makes exploration of the shops, museums and saloons that much more interesting.
KETCHIKAN: On your cruise to Alaska, if you are traveling from Southeast to Northwest, you must stop in at least one Canadian port so the cruise line can offer gambling, available only on "international" cruises. That's why most cruises to Alaska include Vancouver. However, your first American port will no doubt be Ketchikan which bills itself as Alaska's first city. Sitka, founded in the 18th Century, was certainly founded earlier by the Russians, but Ketchikan may have been the first American City. The current population is a little under 15,000, making it one of the larger cities in Alaska and they certainly had a thriving town following the Gold Rush in the 1890s.
Early Ketchikan was a typical frontier town with a thriving Red Light District on what was called "Creek Street." Today, Creek Street is a thriving commercial center with many interesting shops located in the old "Pleasure Palaces." One such, "Dolly's Place" has been converted into a museum where, for a price of course, you can see what a visit to Dolly's would have looked like. The front door was reserved for single men while a secret "trap" door in back was for the use of the married guys. The tour is not "X" rated and I think you'll find it entertaining. You can buy any number of souvenirs including a tee shirt that proclaims, "I did Dolly's."
If you have elected to explore the town instead of going on a tour you'll find many interesting places to eat. Ketchikan also bills itself as the "Salmon Capital of World." While there may be many places where more Salmon are canned or otherwise "processed," we doubt there are many cities where more Salmon are caught. There are a whole bunch of creeks flowing through the city and during spawning season these creeks will be jammed with salmon trying to get up stream.
There's a big "Salmon Fishing Derby" in Ketchikan every year and our guide told us that last year the 1st prize was won by a cruise passenger. So, there may be hope for you, too, if you're interested in fishing. If eating Salmon is your thing, you can get it prepared just about any way you like in one of the many local cafes. We ate in the Fish Pirate's Saloon right outside our ship's dock and had a terrific salmon sandwich with a nice local Micro-Brew.
We had done the "stroll on your own through Ketchikan' on our last visit to Alaska, so we elected to take a "Float Plane tour of the Misty Fjord National Monument."
Float Planes are the transportation of choice in much of Alaska. You will see them moored in nearly every piece of shielded water in the whole state, from the lone plane floating near the Indian Village we visited to a gigantic "airport" for them in Anchorage. The Float Plane we flew in was a 6 passenger "DeHaviland Beaver " built in the 1960s and still the aircraft of choice in much of Alaska.
We were escorted on a Motor Coach from the ship to the headquarters of a company that specialized in Cruise Ship Tours. Here we came in contact with a young man named Evan who we learned was the epitome of the "Summer Worker" in Alaska, a college student from West Virginia who was our pilot and tour guide. His goal in life is to be a commercial pilot and this summer job gives him the opportunity to put in the "flying hours" necessary to earn his license and make good money while doing it. We met a dozen of these kids, energetic enough to do the hard work an Alaska Summer Job demands and learning skills that will be valuable to them in later life. We'll mention others we met as we go along, but there don't appear to be job shortages for young people in Alaska.
As Evan led us to our plane, Patricia asked him, "Can I see your driver's license?" He looked that young.
Evan flew us to Misty Fjord, only a few minutes by air from downtown Ketchikan, one of the most beautiful landscapes you will ever visit. Sculpted from the mountains by gigantic glaciers, the "Artists" of all you see, Misty Fjord is owned by the Tlingit Indians, (pronounced by natives as "Klink it," at least that's what it sounded like to me), the Tribe indigenous to Southeast Alaska. From the air you can see vast areas of forest including areas denuded of timber. Evan told us that the Tlingits have no "reforestation" program because nature takes care of replacing the forest soon after it is harvested.
We were very lucky there was little "mist" in Misty Fjord on the day we were there and we had a beautiful view of the landscape. The Tlingits have built numerous fishing shacks which hardy fishermen can rent for a few days, as long as they are willing to brave the elements with no heat, plumbing or electricity. You can only reach these shacks by float plane.
After touring the Fjord from an altitude calculated to get us over the peaks, Evan landed our Beaver in the Fjord and let us get out to stand on the "Pontoons" to enjoy the scenery from water level.
It was a great excursion if a bit "Pricey."
WRANGELL: The little town of Wrangell, with a population of about 2,500 hardy folks is located on an island. There really isn't much to see here, although there were numerous excursions for the outdoor oriented: fishing, hiking, kayaking etc. We elected to stay in the little town where we visited a really dandy little museum devoted to the history of the Tlingits and the pioneers who settled here. We were invited to a bake sale at the Presbyterian Church and one local bar bragged that "Happy Hour" lasted from 11 AM until closing. Now, that's what I call a happy hour, but, it turned out they closed at 2 PM. We checked out the "Totem Bar" which turned out to be the town meeting hall. A large meeting room, several nice pool tables, but limited menu. We bought a beer and a T-Shirt, which I thought would be the only "Totem Bar" T-Shirt in Sierra Madre. It turned out I was right, so far anyway.
At the museum we met our first native Alaskan to use the term "You Betcha" in response to a question. We heard that several times on this trip, so Sarah Palin's use of the term was not unique to her. It's a phrase I'd heard many times as a boy from my Minnesota born relatives.
When you take an Alaska Cruise you'll have your choice of length from about 7 to about 12 days. If you elect the 12 day cruise you'll see some smaller ports like Wrangell.
JUNEAU: From little Wrangel we cruised to the state capital, Juneau - the only capital in the United States (and perhaps the only one in the world) not accessible by automobile. The City is completely surrounded by glaciers. You can't get there except by air, by water or by Dog Sled.
Up until World War II the dog sled was the desired method of communication and in some cases, transportation between Alaska towns. Mail was delivered by dog sled and so were groceries and supplies. When the War broke out, Japan attacked the Aleutian Islands and actually occupied two of them, which prompted the U.S. Government to move full speed ahead on the project to build the Trans-Alaska Highway to open up access to Alaska. The advent of vehicles like the snow-mobile also made the Dog Sled obsolete, except in the hearts of Alaskans who now embrace dog sled racing enthusiastically. They may not be able to tell you who won the Super Bowl, but they all know who won the "Iditarod."
If you grew up in the late 40s or early 50s you remember the radio serial "Sergeant Preston and his Dog King" who brought us Alaska adventures every afternoon. Sgt. Preston was a member of the Canadian Mounted Police and his cry "On King! Mush you Huskies!" echoed from every radio in our Bakersfield neighborhood on weekday afternoons. Patricia says the same was true in Brooklyn. We all wanted to grow up to be "Mounties."
So, when the Cruise Line offered an excursion to ride in a dog sled with a team of Huskies we and Webbers jumped at the chance. There are dog sled excursions in many Alaska ports. Since we were bound and determined to do it this trip, we selected the excursion in Juneau.
Sled dogs are fabulous athletes who compete in three lengths of competitive races.
1. Short races are usually 100 miles or so. (Yes, 100 miles is a short race)
The Iditarod, which commemorates a famous mission of mercy to deliver life saving serum from Seward to Nome, is over 1,100 miles which the winning "Musher" and his team will cover in as few as 8 days. And, that's with the same team of dogs, no substitution. The original rescue effort on the Iditarod Trail took 23 days.
2. Medium length races are in the range of 300 to 500 miles
3. Long distance races can be 1,000 miles or more
The sled itself will carry only the Musher and food to feed the dogs and Musher on the trail. Each dog will eat a pound of food a day, (about 10,000 calories) so the sled will carry upwards of 300 pounds of food for a long race.
The dogs live to run in the snow and in the summer time to go to "Summer Camp" to keep in shape for the "Season" which starts in the fall. So the dogs end up pulling sleds on wheels with 6 to 8 Cruise passengers on a course over a mile or so to give you a thrill and keep them in shape.
When we arrived at the summer camp we could hear the dogs barking, particularly the team that would take us on our ride. The dogs, for the most part, love people and happily wag their tails when you talk to them and pet them. Our "Musher" Caleb invited us to get on the sled, which had six seats for the seven people on the tour, forcing our "Travel Buddy" Larry to join Caleb standing at the back and hang on. The dogs continued to bark and play until Caleb shouted "Ready, Hercules?" (The Lead Dog) and all the barking stopped abruptly. All the dogs faced forward straining at their harnesses. Caleb shouted "All Right" and we were off.
Caleb told us later that every Musher has a different starting phrase to avoid confusing the dogs, when several teams are around and getting ready to go.
Patricia told Caleb she was disappointed that he hadn't said "Mush you Huskies." He laughed and said his dogs wouldn't have any idea what he wanted if he shouted "Mush."
He did use standard "harness" terms "Gee" and "Haw" to tell them to go left or right at a crossroad and simply shouted "Straight ahead, Hercules" when he wanted them to go straight.
After our ride we were allowed to meet a fairly new litter of puppies, hold them and photograph ourselves with them. We also learned a lot more about Dog Sledding.
There is no electricity or plumbing in the camp, which uses an old fashioned "Out House" for sanitation purposes. Caleb and a couple of the others are Alaska natives, but most of the kids working with the dogs in the summer are students from colleges in "The 48" up in Alaska to rough it with the dogs. Many of them are future Veterinarians and a few aspire to be "mushers" by the time their internship is over. They sleep in sleeping bags and make their meals on camp stoves. What a wonderful experience for a kid, sort of like a "Super Scout Camp."
If you decide to do the "Sled Dog excursion" you won't be disappointed.
When we returned to the ship in Juneau we took the "Mt. Roberts Tramway" which climbs the side of the mountain facing the port, to the restaurant at the top for lunch. The tramway takes you over the original goldmine that made Juneau one of the first boom towns of the Alaska Gold Rush. We seemed to have "Halibut and Chips' in every port, as we did here, and were never disappointed.
When we came down the mountain we walked to the Famous Red Dog Saloon for a beer and some frontier entertainment. Brian, a great Alaska character, sings the old songs of Alaska and plays a mean Honky Tonk Piano. When you go to the Red Dog you will be invited to pin your business card to the wall as millions of tourists have done before you. So be sure to take a few cards with you.
Tee shirts from the Red Dog Saloon are so popular that they have opened a gift shop next to the saloon to meet the demand. Of course all four of us bought one.
HOONAH: This little community was established 2,000 years ago by the Tlingit people. It's only industry, the Icy Strait Point Salmon Cannery, closed several years ago and they have now embraced tourism. The only "privately owned" cruise port in Alaska, it's owned by the "Huna Totem Corporation", basically the Tlingit Tribe. About 700 tribal members live here. The land has been occupied by Tlingits for over 13,000 years and while they've been chased out by two different "Ice Ages" they always come back.
You will be "tendered" into this port where you'll be met by your Native Guide, host for your visit. Our guide pointed out the Russian Orthodox Church and told us about 80% of the Hoonah population are members of the Orthodox congregation. The history behind this is fascinating. When the first Russian fur trappers arrived in Alaska in the 18th century they were followed shortly by Russian Orthodox missionaries. These missionaries played a pivotal role in the development of the Tlingit people because it was they who created a written language from the Tlingit tongue, then only an oral language. Once it could be translated into written form, the Priests taught the Tlingit people to read and the world opened up for them. By 1865 when Russia sold Alaska to the Americans, the Christian faith prospered because many Tlingit native boys had become priests. The priests of Russian extraction were required by the church to go home to Russia. A few stayed, but, for the most part native priests led the church. And the Orthodox Church in Alaska became part of the American Orthodox Church operated almost exclusively by Priests from Alaska's various Native tribes.
The Americans brought with them their own missionaries, mostly Scots-Irish Presbyterians who converted the few remaining non-Christian Tlingits. There are now Presbyterian churches in many native villages, but their congregations are always smaller than the Orthodox ones.
In 1917 the Bolshevik Revolution destroyed the Church in Russia as the many great cathedrals were turned into warehouses and museums and the Russian Orthodox Religion was all but obliterated in its homeland. It didn't die, of course, it just went underground. For more than 70 years Christians practiced their religion in private hidden from officials of the Communist party. When the Iron Curtain was finally lifted in the late 1980s, the Russian Orthodox Church came out of hiding, but faced a shortage of Priests. Some young Russian men wishing to become Priests traveled to St. Herman Theological Seminary in Kodiak, Alaska to study their religion with the Tlingits.
So, the pupils became the teachers and helped restore the Orthodox Church to its homeland.
My wife Patricia says, "When God closes a door, he opens a window."
Your guide will take you to the Tribal Meeting House where you'll witness Tlingit ceremonial dances symbolizing the origin of their people. Originally, you will be told, the Tlingits came from Glacier Bay, some distance to the north. Their legend says that their world was created by the "Great Raven." Their two clans are the Raven and Eagle Clans, and when you meet a young Tlingit for the first time he will recite his lineage to you as a part of his self-introduction. This custom is very similar to the Navajo tradition of the American Southwest. It certainly helps avoid in-breeding and inter-marriage between first cousins which can result in a bunch of "crazy Aunts in the attic." The Egyptian, Roman and even the Hapsburg Emperors could have learned a thing or two about the dangers of incest from the Tlingits.
Before returning to the ship we lunched in the "Cookhouse" where Larry and Patti had Caribou Burgers and pronounced them quite good.
SKAGWAY: Skagway was the port of entry for the Klondike and many fortunes were made here, mostly by "Outfitters" who supplied the implements and other resources necessary for "prospectors" who wished to climb over the steep mountain pass to attempt to find their fortune. Few succeeded.
The Klondike is a region in the Canadian territory of the Yukon where gold was discovered in about 1890. The most popular "excursion" to take in Skagway is a ride on the Skagway to Klondike Railroad that recreates the route taken by the prospectors. The trip by rail is over an hour and parallels the trail taken by those hopeful prospectors.
The American territory of Skagway was largely a lawless area whose hucksters, including the infamous "Soapy Smith" preyed on the starry-eyed hopefuls. All of this has been made famous by the writing of Robert Service, "Poet of the Klondike" who's "Dangerous Dan McGrew" and other marvelous poems have enshrined the period in our memories. One of my most cherished acquisitions on this trip is a book of Robert Service's poems with which I intend to entertain my grandson.
Canada, on the other hand had the famous "Canadian Mounted Police" who enforced the law in the Yukon. They had no desire to bury hundreds of the so-called miners who would freeze to death, starve to death or both, getting to the Klondike from Skagway. So they had a strict rule that prospectors couldn't be admitted to Canada unless they could prove that they could survive for up to a year. This meant a lot of equipment; foodstuffs and mules had to be acquired before the trek could be attempted. That's how Skagway became for a time the richest city in Alaska.
Many would-be prospectors arrived in Skagway by ship without even a winter coat. They often didn't have the money to buy their "stake," so often as not; they ended up in a Poker Game in the Red Onion Saloon attempting to make enough to buy the needed equipment. Few succeeded at Poker, either.
There are many reminders of these early days in Skagway today, including the Red Onion itself, rebuilt and refurbished for your pleasure. Bar girls, dressed as they would have been in the "Gay 90s" are mostly college students from the "Lower 48" working in the Red Onion on their summer break.
We had done the railroad trip on our first visit to Skagway and wanted to see the town. Besides, it was Sunday and I wanted to attend Mass at St. Therese Catholic Church in Skagway. I found the Church on line and vowed to walk the mile or so out of town to get to it. I arrived at Noon to find every pew in the little church occupied by more than 50 cruise passengers who had the same idea I had. And, there were 3 different Cruise Ships in port.
About 5 minutes after the Mass was scheduled to start a young woman, (another of those summer workers) stood and informed us that their Priest wasn't going to be able to make it that day. It seems he is the Catholic Chaplin on an Air Force Base nearby who conducts 10 O'clock mass on base and then flies his float plane to Skagway 100 miles away to preside over Mass at Noon. This Sunday the Plane suffered a breakdown, so the young woman and another parishioner conducted the "Liturgy," then asked the audience to introduce themselves and say where they were from. It turned out they were from all over the world. Afterwards, we shook hands with as many other folks as we could and shared stories of our adventures. I'm sorry the Priest couldn't make it, but we all sure had fun.
I met up with Patricia, Larry and Patti after Mass and we had lunch at the Skagway Brewing Company. Have I said they have great local beer in Alaska? Well they do. They also have "Buffalo Wings" and great Cole Slaw; at least they do at the Skagway Brewing Company.
We strolled through the town looking for bargains and stumbled on a "Sarah Palin Store." It was absolutely overflowing with Sarah souvenirs. The couple who ran the store said they had Mrs. Palin's permission to operate the store and it was the only such store in Alaska. You will find full size cut-out cardboard Sarahs in nearly every store in Alaska, so you can have your photo taken with her nearly everywhere. But, in the Sarah Palin store you can get T-Shirts, Coffee Mugs, yard signs, refrigerator magnets and plenty of conversation with fellow "Sarah fans".
SITKA, the capital of Russian Alaska, was founded by the Russians in 1799 but was soon attacked by Tlingit warriors who killed most of the 400 inhabitants and enslaved the rest. The Russian governor paid a handsome ransom to gain the freedom of the captives. However, two years later the Russians were back with a warship and plenty of gunpowder to recapture Sitka and reestablish their town.
There are many historic things to see in Sitka, including the original Orthodox Cathedral which has been restored and contains many icons and other artifacts of Russian Art. Its well worth the visit and you'll get some great photographs.
We also were treated to a show of "Russian Dancing" by a troupe of local women who volunteer to entertain visitors in the summer. Some are employed full time as nurses or teachers and some are "stay-at-home Moms" but, they've certainly done a wonderful job of recreating the Old Russian folk dances including the energetic ones usually performed by male dancers. We were told their husbands were originally invited to participate, but were too busy doing other things. Once the troupe was established and began to gain some accolades, several men volunteered to join but the original members voted to keep it "all girls." The attitude being, "Where were you when we needed you."
Our tour of Sitka was concluded with a visit to the National Park Center with one of the largest collections of Totem Poles in Alaska. I had always thought these were strictly religious in nature, but, we learned that each Pole tells a story of some historical significance to the tribe. Not having a written language, all history was passed on by "Word of Mouth." You'll see a representation of a male face with his tongue hanging out to his chin on many totem poles. This is an exhortation to future generations to pass the story along. Today at the National Park Center native artists are still working to create new poles. So, the telling of stories goes on in the age of texting.
Our guide told us that weather in Sitka is considered balmy as the temperature never falls below zero or rises above 70.
EXPLORING THE GLACIERS: After leaving Sitka we spent two days exploring the Glaciers. First we visited the giant Hubbard Glacier. A glacier is literally a river of ice. The Hubbard originates in Canada near the top of Mount Hubbard, a peak over 15,000 feet high and flows 76 miles to the sea. At its snout (Rivers have "mouths" glaciers have "snouts") it covers more than a football field in width.
It takes a glacier about 400 years to advance to the sea, meaning that the glacial ice falling into the sea at the snout was frozen around the time the Russians first came to Alaska. Unlike most glaciers that advance an inch or two a day, the Hubbard "surges" ahead. In 1986 it was advancing so fast, about 30 meters a day, that it damned up the mouth of an adjacent fjord. The fjord water built up behind this icy damn for five months before the damn broke and created a reverse Tsunami into the sea.
We arrived on a particularly beautiful day, with hardly any wind. The ship's captain was able to get us very close to the glacier so we could hear the roar of icebergs breaking away from the glacier (called "calving"). It was a spectacular experience. We've had the good fortune to see glaciers around the world in Chili and in New Zealand. They are beautiful, too, but, nothing like Alaska.
The next day we traveled to the College Fjord on the Northern Coast of Prince William Sound.
In 1899 Edward Harriman, the Railroad Tycoon, decided to take an expedition to Alaska. He invited more than 30 well known scientists and naturalists (Including John Muir) to accompany him on a trip from Seattle to Siberia and back. Along the way they were the first Americans to find what has become known as "The College Fjord," so named because the scientists, most of them from elite New England Colleges and Universities named each of the glaciers in the Fjord for one of their schools. The two largest Glaciers are of course, Harvard and Yale. The Glaciers on the north side of the Fjord were named for Women's Colleges (Smith, Vassar, etc.) and the ones on the South were named for Men's schools (Amherst, Williams, etc.). It is said they took great delight in naming no glacier for Princeton, which happened to be unrepresented on the expedition.
The Glaciers are spectacular and pass by your ship one after the other. Many are receding, but before you go blaming it on Global Warming, you should know they've been receding since the Little Ice Age, which occurred about the time of the American Revolutionary War. In fact most of them move so slowly the ice now reaching the Fjord was probably formed about 1776.
At one point in your tour you'll be able to see as many at 7 glaciers at once if you have a clear day.
We did not go to "Glacier Bay" another very popular tourist stop which we saw on our last cruise here. No matter which glaciers you visit, you'll be glad you decided to cruise Alaska.
SEWARD: Many cruises of Alaska on large cruise ships terminate at Seward, a deepwater port, and take you overland by motor coach to Anchorage and your homeward bound transportation. There is also a train trip from Seward to Anchorage taken by our friends Bob and Patty Misen on their Alaska Cruise. They said the train is a much better way to make the two and a half hour trip than the bus. But, our ship, The Regatta, a smaller ship, (less than a 1,000 passengers) could make the trip to Anchorage by sea.
We took a motor coach from the ship into "old town" Seward where the Alaska Sea Life Aquarium is located. After checking out the few "downtown" shops we stopped for lunch at "Nellie's Roadhouse."
Patricia and I had the very good Halibut and Chips and Larry ordered a "Caribou Burger" he said was quite good. I took his word for it. It's a cute place; I think you'd like it.
It was here that the Iditarod sled dog race was born in 1973. The Iditarod Trail, a historic sled trail from Seward to Nome was the site of the first race. The starting point was moved to Wasilla, home of Sarah and Todd Palin, some time back and now extends more than 115 miles. Mushers from all over the world participate. The first non-Alaskan to win the race was Doug Swingley of Montana, in 1994 who went on to win it three more times to the chagrin of the locals.
About the only thing to do in Seward is to visit the very interesting Alaska Sea Life Center.
More than an Aquarium, they also have exhibits of Sea Lions and Puffins who inhabit the Alaskan waters. It's also a rehab center, where injured wildlife is rehabilitated before being returned to the wild, as well as a vast research center. As a private non-profit organization it's unaffiliated with the state and they'll gladly invite you to their annual fundraising Gala.
HOMER was our last "port." The little town has lots of visitors because, as they happily tell you, they are the Halibut capital of the world. A large sand bar, called the "Homer Spit" is the fishing Mecca and it's crowded with automobiles. You wonder where they all come from, but, you'll see license plates from all over the States. These are the Fisherman Tourists, who mob Alaska every summer.
The popular reality show,"the Deadliest Catch," is filmed in Homer. If you're a fan of the show you'll find familiar boats anchored here, including the "Time Bandit." Deadliest Catch T-Shirts are popular sellers everywhere in Alaska, but especially in Homer.
The Spit is also home to the Salty Dawg Saloon where the fishermen hang out. Larry and Patti opted to visit the Salty Dawg and were gone all day. Hmmm.
Patricia and I decided to visit the town of Homer six miles inland. The transportation to town was via a school bus, borrowed by the cruise line for the purpose, and it wasn't big enough to fit all the people anxious to get off the ship. We waited through one filling of the bus and then noticed a fellow with an 8 passenger van waving for us to come over. It turned out he was a local who convinced one of the local souvenir stores to pay him to pick up passengers and drop them at the store. He had figured out a way to make a buck from the tiny school bus's lack of capacity. And, they say Americans have lost their ingenuity. In Homer, they haven't.
He also showed us an eagle's nest in the Store's parking lot complete with baby eagles each screaming for Mom to bring them a tasty morsel.
My Son-in-law has a Jack Russell Terrier named Homer, to whom I addressed a post card, and that was about the extent of our visit to Homer. We should have gone to the Salty Dawg with the Webbers.
ANCHORAGE: We arranged to stay 2 nights at the Anchorage Hilton as part of the Oceania "Post-cruise Package" before heading home. The hotel was sold out, as it is almost all summer, and all the Cruise passengers were arriving at the same time. We noticed a large "Flea Market" (a "Swap Meet" to us Californians) set up in a huge vacant property across the street from the hotel. We decided to check it out while we waited and I'm glad we did. We were later told that the spread is there every day in summer, so it is definitely something you want to experience, too. Here you can buy nearly every food product made in Alaska and every possible souvenir. Every T-shirt made in Alaska, every sweat shirt and every boot can be found here. And the locals love to tell you the history of every item. I bought a children's book for my Grandson, autographed by the author, a Professor at the University. We bought a bunch of other stuff we didn't need, too. But we had a great time.
We shopped in Anchorage and discovered that Sales tax is a local affair. The State of Alaska made a deal with the Oil Companies in which they pay the State royalties every year. It amounts to so much money that every Alaskan (who has been living there a year or longer) gets a check from the state for his or her share. It amounts to more than $1,000 per person in most years. So the state doesn't need additional income. Alaskan's do have property taxes which pay for their local services and schools. The state charges no Sales tax. Local authorities may elect to have a sales tax to pay for a local project and you'll be charged tax in many cities, but, not in Anchorage. Patricia and Patti discovered a Nordstrom store in the downtown mall. It provided many happy memories for the two of them and the absence of sales tax saved Larry and me a few bucks, too.
The Cruise line provided us with a tour that included the Raptor Rehab and Refuge Center, the largest one in the United States. Raptors are birds of prey and the majority of the birds at the rehab center are Eagles. It gives you a chance to see these magnificent birds up close and to learn a lot about them.
Our tour guide, a school teacher from Fairbanks, provided us with the obligatory lecture on Global Warming painting verbal pictures of Polar Bears stranded on melting icebergs. This turned out to be an Urban Legend, the Polar Bears are thriving. But, he did tell us some interesting things we had no reason to doubt.
He took us to Earthquake Park, site of a former housing development swallowed up in the "Great Alaska Good Friday Earthquake of 1964" that leveled the whole city. All of the downtown buildings are new since 1964. The quake reached a magnitude of 9.2, the 2nd largest on record with an epicenter near the College Fjord 115 miles away from Anchorage and caused deaths as far away as Oregon.
He also told us about his home in Fairbanks, far north of Anchorage. He said the phrase "Too cold to snow" was coined in Fairbanks where temperatures of 50 below zero are not unknown. He also told us that there is a lively tourist trade in Fairbanks from people, mostly Asians, who come to see the "Midnight Sun." Some stay in the world's first Igloo hotel, made entirely of ice. I think we'll skip it.
EATING IN ANCHORAGE: Here is a warning: If you plan to go out to eat in Anchorage (and what else would you plan to do?) you'll need reservations in advance. We were there on a weekend and the town was so full we couldn't find a place to eat. We tried a couple of restaurants that didn't require reservations, but gave up because the wait was so long. We ended up eating at the Hilton Coffee Shop, which we don't recommend.
We did have a decent lunch at a place called the Snow Goose. Larry had another Caribou Burger and shared it with Patti. I had the Reindeer meatloaf, which was good but didn't make up for the glare I got from Patricia for eating "Rudolph."
We also ate at a place called Simon's on Saturday night, where the food was good but not great. We recommend you take the afternoon flight to Vancouver or Seattle to have dinner.
We thought the Hilton was a nice hotel. The rooms are nice and large and it's certainly centrally located.
OCEANIA CRUISES: We have always touted the praises of the Oceania ships and have considered them a favorite. No more.
Oceania was founded by a couple of guys one of whom was with the Renaissance Cruise line before he decided to strike out on his own. They decided to aim at high end Crystal, the Tiffany of Cruise Lines, and created a really terrific product. Fine Specialty Restaurants, top notch food, Eastern European Crews and Casual attire made Oceania a winner. We loved it.
In 2007 Oceania was sold to Appolo Management, a leveraged buy-out firm, which later that same year purchased another cruise line, NCL (formerly known as Norwegian Cruise Lines). In 1992 our first cruise was on the Crown Odyssey a wonderful ship with the best food and service you will ever see. We had several wonderful cruises on Odyssey ships before they were sold to the Norwegian Cruise Lines. They changed almost overnight.
We were leery about what might happen to Oceania after their acquisition, but for several years, nothing seemed to change however, in 2011 everything changed. From the botched "check-in" process which made us wait in long lines to get on board to the last day's disembarking process when there was no service, including coffee, after the sun came up, everything that had made Oceania exceptional had changed. We assumed it was caused by turning it over to NCL Management. Too bad!
We complained about lots of things including: the quality of the meat- even in the specialty restaurants, the number of wait staff in the Dining Room, and the response time to maintenance requests. Here are a few examples: 1) when I asked for a slight menu change in the dining room I was told it couldn't be done because "it was against Corporate Policy." 2) When we complained about slow service in the dining room we were assured that the number of waiters was the same as in the past. What they failed to tell us was all the "Bus Boys" were all laid off, so the waiters had to take time to clear the tables, too. 3) One day the stench of gasoline was so powerful on our deck that people had to evacuate their cabins. Everybody complained, but we were only told to open the balcony door. No explanation was ever made, so we had no idea what to expect the next day.
I wrote a four page letter to the President of the Cruise Line when we got home and received no direct response. A copy of our letter was sent to our travel agent who forwarded it to the Oceania Sales Representative. The Sales Rep responded to the letter with a "whining" email to the Travel Agent offering us a $100 Shipboard Credit on our next Oceania Cruise in recompense.
Pardon us, Oceania, if we never redeem your "generous" offer.
CONCLUSION: We loved Alaska and will willingly go again and we were disappointed with Oceania Cruise Lines and will use Crystal or another "High End" cruise line in future.