Alaska – Cruising the last frontier

“As we progressed along Frederick Sound, the largest body of water in the Inside Passage, Pacific Humpback Whales appeared, blowing and displaying their graceful tails. The sea’s surface was mirror-like at best, goose-bumped at worst…..

The Highlight of our Trip

Outside of spending time with family in Canada, we saw the cruise on board the Norwegian Pearl as the highlight of our month-long trip to Canada and the USA for a few reasons – most of all that this would be the one week when we would totally relax and leave the organizing, catering and ‘driving’ to others. This was also our very first cruise and we hoped that everything we had read about Alaska, known as The Last Frontier, would be true.

Sunday 17th August 2014 : All aboard!

Arriving by taxi at Pier 66, Seattle, courtesy of Hassin our Ethiopian driver, we saw what looked like a city block berthed at the dockside and looming over us, with much activity in the immediate area.

Boarding in Seattle
Boarding the Norwegian Pearl in Seattle
Don Gerda Lynette Jakobus
Don Gerda Lynette Jakobus

Boarding a large cruise ship with a couple of thousand others from around the world was bound to be an experience, but it went off really smoothly and before we knew it we were being photographed (for later collection of a souvenir photo) and guided on board, up to the 9th level and to our stateroom (no “cabins” on this ship) on the port side. Our stateroom No 9572 was pretty much like a compact hotel room, with a bathroom which would not be out of place in a caravan (cue John Denner : “It’s a Trailer – what is it with you Africans!”), nevertheless very comfortable with a large bed, small sitting area inside, kitted out with a tea/coffee maker, and a small balcony outside. This was to be our home for the next week and we relished the prospect of relaxing and enjoying it to the full.

Cabin on Norwegian Pearl
Cabin on Norwegian Pearl
On board - the long passages
On board – the long passages

The balcony was a real boon, allowing constant viewing of the passing scenery and I was soon enjoying the many seabirds, mostly Gulls, either on the sea surface or floating in the air above it. I’ll go into the details of the birding during the cruise in a separate post dedicated to that subject – suffice to say it kept me busy and alert for most of our waking hours, sorting out the many different Gulls and the other seabirds. 

Not having done a cruise before, we were curious to experience the meals on board and overall the catering scored very highly during the week of indulging in just about everything on offer. Before setting sail from Seattle at 4pm, we had already tried the buffet restaurant for lunch, and the only thing you could complain about if you were really fussy would be having to stand in a queue for more than a minute for your second helping of ice cream. OK, it was crowded and noisy, but we were always able to find a table and the choice of food covered every taste and whim – our eating companions were a constant source of interest, clearly coming from diverse nations and many of them getting through astonishing amounts of food.

Quart in a can
Quart in a can

We’re off!

The ship left Seattle precisely on time in perfect sunny weather, which changed later in the afternoon to heavy mist, blotting out the view altogether, but the sea was very calm and we just glided along – it probably helps to be amidships where our stateroom was located, as any motion is not as pronounced.

Leaving Seattle
Leaving Seattle

Later we tried the “Summer Palace” a la carte restaurant – the largest of the restaurants and serving dishes of equally high standard with mostly friendly waiters, in a much quieter atmosphere with piano music in the background – really nice as we headed north towards Alaska.

Monday 18th August : Puffins sighted!

This was to be an auspicious day without doubt!

We awoke at our own time (ie “lekker laat”) and our breakfast arrived not long after – a plate of quality fresh fruit, corn flakes, yoghurt and a muffin – simple, but what a luxury! It was overcast and just too chilly to eat on the balcony, so we sat at our little table inside and enjoyed breakfast while gazing at the sea passing by – very serene.

Breakfast in the stateroom
Breakfast in the stateroom

Between breakfast and lunch, we whiled the time away and I was on the lookout for any birds, as usual – I soon spotted some small black birds on the water, swimming away as the ship’s wake caught up with them. It was difficult to get a fix on them with my binoculars with the ship travelling at some 20 knots and the birds moving away, so I grabbed my camera with long lens attached and rattled off a few photos. To my surprise and delight they turned out to be Tufted Puffins, thus fulfilling a long-held dream of seeing a Puffin – in fact over 50 years since I read about them in a “Famous Five” Enid Blyton book in my primary school years, long before I became interested in birding.

They were quickly followed by other species including Albatross and Storm-Petrels. After this burst of action, the birds disappeared and hardly any were visible for the rest of the day.

Ship's position and conditions (roughest day)
Ship’s position and conditions (roughest day)
Ship's position and conditions (roughest day)
Ship’s position and conditions (roughest day)

The sea had changed as we headed into deep waters, no longer protected by nearby land and the ship was rocking and rolling for most of the day – this didn’t deter us from eating as we tried the Italian restaurant in the evening, along with a bottle of sparkling wine from Italy to celebrate the Puffins in style. Then it was time to do the 9.30pm show in the large theatre, which was surprisingly good and most enjoyable.

Celebrating the Puffin
Celebrating the Puffin

Tuesday 19th August : Juneau Visit

After yesterday’s ‘rock and roll’ seas, we awoke to a magical scene of calm waters and a backdrop of glacier-capped mountains in shades of blue, green and white. The skies were filled with fluffy white clouds, the blue gaps allowing splashes of sunlight to fall on the mountains.

Calmer waters of the Inside Passage
Calmer waters of the Inside Passage
Calmer waters of the Inside Passage
The Inside Passage
Calmer waters of the Inside Passage
The Inside Passage

As we progressed along Frederick Sound, the largest body of water in the Inside Passage, Pacific Humpback Whales appeared, blowing and displaying their graceful tails. The sea’s surface was mirror-like at best, goose-bumped at worst – speaking of which, a skein of Canada Geese flew by in formation as the ship glided along.

Pacific Humpback Whale
Pacific Humpback Whale
Canada Geese crossing the bow
Canada Geese crossing the bow

For the rest of the morning we relaxed in our room as the ship glided by the beautiful scenery on both sides and just after lunch we docked in Juneau, with Gulls wheeling around the ship in large numbers. The area is known for its Bald Eagles – a few were seen as we approached Juneau and one was perched on a tall pylon as we disembarked, almost as if placed there to welcome us (maybe it was a stuffed one, wired to the pylon).

Stephen's Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen’s Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen's Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen’s Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen's Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen’s Passage en route to Juneau
Arriving in Juneau
Arriving in Juneau

 

Shuttle buses took us the short distance into town where the ‘girls’ went shopping while Koos and I looked for a good angle to photograph the ship, majestic against the backdrop of the surroundings.

Alaska-9405

Norwegian Pearl at berth in Juneau
Norwegian Pearl at berth in Juneau
Juneau - seaplanes are popular
Juneau – seaplanes are popular
Juneau, Alaska
Juneau, Alaska
Local character
Local character

I took a walk up an inviting hill away from the main shopping road – I always like to see the “real” town with interesting houses, some neat others scruffy, and not be bumping into fellow tourists all the time. I came across a few totem poles, each of which carried a number of symbolic messages.

Juneau, Alaska - the back streets
Juneau, Alaska – the back streets
Juneau, Alaska - the back streets
Juneau, Alaska – the back streets
Juneau, Alaska
Juneau, Alaska
Juneau, Alaska - totem poles
Juneau, Alaska – totem poles
Juneau, Alaska - totem poles
Juneau, Alaska – totem poles
Juneau, Alaska - totem poles
Juneau, Alaska – totem poles
Juneau, Alaska - totem poles
Juneau, Alaska – totem poles

When we were all done with our various pursuits, we found a nice coffee shop and late afternoon we made our way back to the ship, but not before stopping at the “Crab Shack” which we had seen earlier and which had been recommended as a ‘must try’ by my sister Sheila (Sam). It turned out to be a spot on suggestion when we tasted the sensational Giant Alaskan crab legs – just two of them cost $50 but were so good we forgot the heavy (for us currency-disadvantaged Sefricans) price. A Ukraine family next to us got through about $300 worth and were in 7th heaven.

Alaskan King Crab delight
Alaskan King Crab delight
Alaskan King Crab delight
Lynette with Alaskan King Crab delight

Back on the ship it wasn’t long until dinner, this time in the Takkanyaki Restaurant, where they prepare the food on a large hot plate in front of you with circus-like tricks thrown in – fortunately not heavy food after the crab feast. There was still time to catch the show in the theatre which was mostly 1950’s musical fare.

Leaving Juneau 10pm
Leaving Juneau 10pm

Wednesday 20th August : Skagway and a train trip to remember

By the time we awoke we were docking in Skagway and we followed our by now familiar routine of breakfast in the room and relaxing until around 11.30 am when we made our way to the Garden Café for a combined late-morning tea and lunch (would that be a tunch?).

Skagway harbour
Skagway harbour
Harbour Seal, Skagway
Harbour Seal, Skagway

We had to be ready for our excursion at 12.30 so we made our way to the end of the pier, where the train was waiting to take us on a trip up the mountain. Called the White Pass and Yukon Route, it first operated in 1900 taking fortune-seekers to the Klondike Gold Rush – on this trip we only went for 20 miles but in the process climbed 2,865 feet (way more impressive than 873.25 metres) to the White Pass summit.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway

On the way we passed a number of interesting landmarks and truly spectacular scenery, marvelling at the engineering that went into constructing the winding railway through granite mountains, steep grades and cliff-hanging turns. In 1994 it was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and deservedly so.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway

At some points trestle bridges remind you of the old Western movies where the train inevitably ended up tumbling into the gorge when the baddies blew up the frail bridge – sometimes the goodies too, depending who was on the train. The coaches were mostly modern reproductions, the locos were powerful diesel-electic units dating from the 1960’s, all modernised over the years.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway

All in all a great way to see the mountains.

Back in Skagway we walked the small town and I did my usual diversion to the back street to get a feel of the real town – it is unfortunate that these small towns on the cruise ship routes are so tourist-driven and -reliant that they end up like Hollywood film sets with a main street full of tourist shops and facades, while just one street back they look like any other small town ie a bit ragged at the edges. Immediately I came across a couple of birds in a garden, which was pleasing after not seeing a single bird on the train trip of almost 3 hours.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
Cool old ambulance
Cool old ambulance
Skagway
Skagway
Skagway main street
Skagway main street
Skagway
Skagway
Skagway
Skagway

Back on the ship we enjoyed dinner – this time in the French Restaurant, Le Bistro which was good but not inspiring (we really are getting fussy in our old age)

To be continued …………….

 

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