Viewing entries tagged cruise
This morning when I woke up and looked out the porthole, the first thing I saw was a waterfall streaming down a slate rockface. It was speckled with patches of small brush and pine trees, some only two or three feet tall.
I’m currently sitting in a lounge that’s located on the top deck of the Rhapsody, writing from a table that sits in front of floor-to-ceiling windows. We’re directly in front of Dawes Glacier, slowly spinning in a circle (we’ve been here for about 20 minutes now). This is the second arm, or channel, that we’ve sailed down today. The ship has consistently been about 100 yards from the shore on both the port and starboard sides, and the mountains, glaciers, pines, snow, waterfalls and low-hanging clouds have filled the windows since Sunday morning.
Locations and temperatures aside, one thing that really separates an Alaskan cruise from other popular routes departing from the United States (such as a trek across the Caribbean) is the scenery during the days spent at sea. Aside from the first day when we saw nothing but water, we have always sailed well within sight of land, usually on both sides and always worthy of your attention, constantly changing and evolving (as you saw in my post about the train ride in Skagway, the conditions in Alaska can go from whiteout snow to lush spring-like green colors in a matter of miles).
The words above come from a previous post, when I was on site and in the thick of the experience. Forgive me for reusing content, but there's nothing truer than emotions expressed in the moment. I could attempt to recreate them now, although I'm not sure why I would when I have an eyewitness account written by my former self from the deck of the ship.
The photos tell the story, anyway. This is the part of an Alaskan cruise that might often go overlooked when browsing itineraries. Our eyes are always drawn to the stops and the excursions/experiences they offer, yet as you will see below, there is an absolutely stunning, untouched beauty beyond the ports.
Here's what we saw from Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas as we navigated the inside passage of Alaska:
Yours truly in front of Dawes Glacier.
When I was in New Orleans, I passed a newsstand that had been defaced. It was a USA Today dispenser, and the word LIES had been written on the front glass.
I was not offended, which is interesting considering my educational and professional background in journalism. I suppose I have an easy time remembering the reasons why I stepped back from hard news reporting, so perhaps my indifference is not that surprising. I typically find breaking news journalism rushed, sensationalized, and lacking compassion for subjects of misfortune – neither of which contribute to the founding practices of the craft. That’s only my opinion, however it is rooted in some research – the result of dedicating two years of study to the manner in which journalists cover tragedy.
Liarsville near Skagway, Alaska
People may disagree with my views, but I rest peacefully knowing that I’m not the first person to become annoyed by irresponsible reporting: Skagway has dedicated an entire town to the deed, mocking the journalists who covered the Alaskan Gold Rush of the late 19th/early 20th century. They are pretty blunt about it – they refer to the town asLiarsville.
I mentioned that the Skagway railroad was used to transport men to the mines, but that was not until later. The initial Gold Rush required men to hike long distances carrying all their gear, the journey so difficult that journalists would not make it themselves. Instead, they set up a camp just north of Skagway and relied on the stories of the men returning from the mountains.
Who the hell knows who they talked to, but they began reporting how easy it was to reach the gold mines, how wealth was a sure thing to find. Remember that this was happening in a time with limited communication - people had no choice but to rely on these reports - and many men left their families to come join in the rush, thinking the decision was a no-brainer. They cashed in their life savings to make the trip to Alaska, arriving only to find going from rags to riches wouldn't be as easy as the journalists made it out to be.
I don't know about you, but I'd be ticked.
There is an excursion to a recreation of Liarsville that you can arrange through your cruise line – ours was combined with the Skagway train ride (White Pass Yukon Railroad). You can also look into booking it directly through the private company. The experience includes a salmon bake, a short theatrical show, and a demonstration on how to pan for gold.
Buyer beware: The history was the highlight for me as a writer, however the recreation is unfortunately nothing more than a few tents. What I learned that day added to the mystique of Skagway, but in all honesty it didn’t offer much more. I cut short my gold-panning-in-a-trough time and took a walk through the nearby woods, which sort of tells you the extent of the excitement. If the experience ends up being included in another excursion package, so be it – feast on some salmon. But, having read this post, you’ve already heard everything worth going for. Allow the knowledge to enhance your visit, but spend your time elsewhere.
I won't be a tease, I'll get right down to it: Skagway had more bars and brothels during the late 19th/early 20th century Alaskan Gold Rush than Vegas has strip clubs. Most are obviously no longer in operation, however at that time there were over 70 of them (FYI you can walk from one side of downtown to the other in about 10 minutes).
Most famous is the Red Onion Saloon, hard to miss in the center of town. Skagway was a stopover/launching point for men participating in the gold rush, and did they ever need some entertainment (especially after being lied to by journalists re: the feasibility and ease of finding wealth... story to come on what the locals refer to as "Liarsville").
The men would come into the Red Onion and order a shot of whiskey, at which point they would eye the line of dolls on the shelf behind the bar. They were all carved in the image of one of the girls working upstairs, and if the doll was upright she was available. Five dollars worth of gold would buy a man fifteen minutes, so they would often sit and wait until their favorite gal became free.
Each room upstairs had a hole in the floor into which the girls would drop the gold piece upon the session's completion. The hole fed a tube that carried the gold into different chambers behind the bar, and when the bartender heard it coming down he would turn the corresponding girl's doll upright, signalling she was once again primed for purchase.
A little more about Skagway: It's been 30 years since a baby was born there, there is no doctor in town (only EMTs, nurse practitioners, and physician's assistants), the closest trauma center is Seattle (1123 miles), the population in January (winter) is around 400 people, and the town was equipped with electricity before New York City.
Interesting place, for sure, but it's not only the history and culture: Nature is what will make your camera smile. Skagway is tucked in a valley amongst the mountains and situated right on the water, very similar to the way Juneau is positioned (you can drive into Skagway, however). To get the full scope and lay of the land, we traveled by bus up into the mountains to Fraser, British Columbia (about 20 miles), and took the White Pass Yukon Railroad back down to Skagway (there are several different tour options).
It didn't take long for us to meet the members of the Alaskan wildlife head on: Twenty minutes into the drive we came across a black bear on the side of the road, munching on dandelions (see photo below). The driver pulled over and we crowded the windows on the curb side, the bear only ten to fifteen feet away, although he hardly acknowledged our presence. He was more concerned with the dandelions, just out of hibernation and apparently very, very hungry. We continued on but that moment stuck with me very clearly throughout the day - how many people get that close to a bear outside of the zoo?
The weather on the coast was mild (50s), but it was almost as if a white sheet had been tossed over the landscape as the train departed Fraser approximately 20 miles inland - snow covered the ground and mountains in all directions, the only variation the stone rocks that jutted out and the small pools of blue glacier water that could be seen on either side of the tracks (see photo on Wake and Wander's Facebook page).
White Pass Yukon Railroad near Skagway, Alaska.
The railroad was built and used during the gold rush to transport men up into the wilderness - a project that solidified Skagway as a major boom town of the Klondike Gold Rush. The ride is pleasantly slow and scenic, the snow giving way to lush mountainsides of green trees and cascading waterfalls. There are different shades of green, some bright like spring and others deep and hearty, the latter represented by the winter-tough tall pines.
I found the railroad to give a perspective that would typically be associated with a plane or helicopter ride (such as the seaplane ride in Juneau), a broad overview of the land that you simply cannot achieve by a walking or bike tour. Those excursions are no doubt available for visitors to Skagway, but the advantage one gets on the train lies in the person's proximity to what they are observing. I wasn't looking down upon the land, I was immersed in it, looking up at the tops of the pines and rolling through the valleys and over the rivers. I think that's an important aspect to keep in mind as you mull over the options of exploration.
Those on a tighter budget should check out Reid Falls near the Gold Rush Cemetery, a 300-ft waterfall located about two miles from downtown Skagway. The area is known for its abundance of Rhubarb - keep your eye out for a slice of pie.
Although we had pleasant temperatures and good visibility below the peaks, we battled an overcast sky for most of our time in Skagway. You'll see in the photos how it prevented me from capturing the contrast between the sky and the mountains, but I did the best I could. The first couple photos are courtesy of White Pass Yukon Railroad to illustrate the scenery on a clear, sunny day:
Scenery near Fraser, BC.
Scenery near Fraser, BC.
Scenery near Skagway, Alaska.
Scenery near Skagway, Alaska.
Scenery near Skagway, Alaska.
Scenery near Skagway, Alaska.
Scenery near Skagway, Alaska.
Scenery near Skagway, Alaska.
Scenery near Skagway, Alaska.
Train departing for Skaway from Fraser.
We were in the sky when I had my first shock and awe moment, flying over a glacier in route from Juneau to Taku Lodge. It was a small, 12-seater seaplane and from the window I could see the pools of blue water on top of the white snow. It relaxed my lower jaw and forced me to push my sunglasses to the top of my head - the color I was seeing couldn't possibly exist.
Glacier blue water near Taku, Alaska.
You'll see it in the photos below - that ridiculous blue - so unlike any other shade of my favorite color. Don't think sky blue or Caribbean blue, this is glacier blue, a category of its own. It symbolizes such a fresh and pure quality - I think that's what draws me to the color blue in the first place. It is an instigator of deep breaths, for sure, and I looked over at my friends in disbelief.
It certainly didn't take long to be blown away in Alaska. An hour earlier our ship (Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas) had docked in Juneau, one of only two ways to access the state's capitol. It's either by boat or by plane - there are no roads into or out of the city - it's located in a channel and surrounded by mountains. Later in the day we would take in the city and go for a local hike, but first a prearranged excursion to Taku Glacier Lodge to have a look at the wilderness and sample some Alaskan salmon.
Upon landing on the Taku river (which feels about the same as landing on concrete, although the view out the window is much better) and arriving at the lodge, I sat on a swinging bench on the front porch, looking out over the water, the glacier coming down the mountain to my left. I could see the blue tint in the glacier - the frozen block of ice clearly could not be described as being plain white. Readers in the northern part of America should not picture the snow in their backyards - this was different (the ice is frozen so solid that it pushes out all the oxygen. When light enters it creates a prism, producing the blue hue).
Taku Glacier Lodge near Juneau, Alaska
Because of the grilling of the salmon, the lodge is known to attract bears - apparently they are routinely spotted at the nearby edge of the woods, curiously smelling the air. We were not so lucky as to have a sighting that day, although I would get my wish the following day in Skagway (see photo on Facebook).
I can now see why the bears come calling: Not only was the salmon delicious (along with the baked beans, herb biscuits, apple compote, and ginger cookies), but could you ask for a better setting? Sitting in a lodge in the Alaskan wilderness beside a glacier, eating grilled salmon that was caught from local waters, looking out the window and seeing the seaplanes land on the river, the lower green vegetation leading up to the snow-capped peaks of the mountains. Throw in an Alaskan Amber and check back on me in a couple hours, please.
While at first I pondered whether the idea of an organized seaplane excursion to a salmon feast alongside a glacier was too touristy of an activity, just writing the first part of this sentence makes me laugh. Really? That scene described above seems "too touristy," Will?
Yikes. This is what happens when you start getting a little travel under your belt: The jaded perceptions try to sneak into your brain. I think it's important to catch yourself in those moments and realize how incredibly crazy that notion is. When I was boarding the Rhapsody of the Seas a few days earlier, a couple told me they had waited 35 years to take this trip. And meanwhile I was wondering if such an opportunity was too touristy? Good lord.
Not everything has to be rocket science - sometimes the masses lead you in the proper direction. Take this Feast and Flight journey with confidence. For those on a tighter budget, you can take the Glacier Express Blue Bus to Mendenhall Glacier ($16 round trip). When you tire of the jewelry and novelty shops that are abundant in downtown Juneau, walk up to the top of Franklin Street and take a hike through parts of Tongass National Forest (they have built a nice "boardwalk" through the forest and there are plenty of waterfalls. Ask a local for directions as you must wind your way through a neighborhood to access it... 15-20 minute walk from downtown).
Alaskan King salmon.
Glacier as viewed from seaplane.
Seaplane outside of Taku Glacier Lodge.
View of a glacier from the seaplane.
Taku Glacier as seen from seaplane.
Yours truly standing alongside our seaplane.
We are currently at sea on our way to Victoria, arriving tomorrow morning and spending the day in the city, which will include a visit to Butchart Gardens for high tea. Today we were treated to two behind-the-scenes tours to learn more about the operations of our Royal Caribbean vessel, Rhapsody of the Seas.
I think a large part of any experience is recognizing what it takes to make it happen on the other end, all the hard work and planning and organization that go on in order to ensure the end product satisfies the consumer. This afternoon we took a walk through the galley with the head chef and were invited up to the navigational bridge to meet the captain.
A few things I learned about Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas:
Approximately 15,000 meals are served each day on board, and the head chef has 97 other chefs working under him. While the first number is certainly surprising considering there are 2,000-3,000 passengers on board, the fact that there are 97 chefs is rather remarkable. I suppose when you have that many meals to serve, you can never have too many cooks in the kitchen.
Captains work 10 weeks on, 10 weeks off - one day at home for every day at sea. Although the captain admittedly does not sail the ship much while in open waters, he does take control during both the arrival and departure phases of docking (although it is still only 30% of the time - he mostly directs, gives orders, and oversees the training of his officers). On this specific route, he is also highly involved when navigating the small arms and fjords(channels).
While on the bridge I had the opportunity to meet the captain directly, and he did a quick Q and A with the group of writers. I asked him about the docking aspect of the ship: How the hell do you park this thing when you cannot even see the stern from the bridge?
He said it takes a team to complete the task, including lookouts to report distances on both the bow and the stern. There is also a "bridge wing" off either side that extends beyond the normal width of the ship, allowing the captain the backwards vision he needs to dock (there is a full set of controls on each wing).
As the session wound down, I asked the captain for his thoughts on the infamous saying, the captain goes down with the ship. Frankly, he doesn't buy it. While he believes he should be the last one off the ship, he said there's no reason to remain onboard otherwise.
I bet there are a lot of traditional, old-school captains who would disagree.
I was shown proof today that it doesn't always rain in Seattle, but unfortunately it was only for one short afternoon. It didn't start raining - I simply had a boat to catch. I flew into Seattle early Thursday afternoon, giving myself a few hours to check out the city.
View of downtown skyline from Myrtle Edwards Park.
I had some great recommendations from a friend that my research showed I would probably really enjoy: A restaurant in University District (Thai Tom), Gas Works Park, Alki Beach Park, Lake Washington, the many islands to the west and the abundance of national parks that surround the Emerald City.
As always, I'm long on ideas but short on time - I shove off on an Alaskan cruise tomorrow afternoon, leaving me only a few hours to explore the city during the daylight. Rather than chase my tail running all over, I decided to hang out downtown - that part of the city was as new to me as any of the others. Next time, nature, I thought, looking over the map and the abundance of green spaces.
I took the light rail from the airport to downtown (40 minutes) and checked in at the Vintage Park Hotel at the corner of 5th and Spring, and my first impressions are very favorable, both in terms of location and personality (more to come).
When I walked up the stairs to street level, I was surprised: I wasn't expecting the hills.
You know, it sort of reminded me of San Francisco upon first glance, not necessarily in terms of exact looks or vibe, but the hills, the clean air that comes through the trees, and the view of the water you get when you stand on certain street corners call to mind the City by the Bay, the abundance of green and pines drawing up memories of Big Sur.
I am going to have dinner in the Space Needle tonight with a few friends, hopefully around sunset. Thoughts and photos to come. Here's one from downtown Seattle:
Downtown Seattle, Washington
Yesterday I returned to Philly from New Orleans, arriving long after the sun had set and far after I would have preferred to be in bed. My head was bobbing for most of the second flight out of Atlanta - I don't really even remember the drink cart coming through.
Rhapsody of the Seas, Royal Caribbean
The stories will begin to filter out this week, however I must admit that getting back into gear after a memorable weekend is never easy - I think that concept is universal, even for travel writers. I'm good about having fun anywhere and everywhere I go, but there's a big difference between covering a destination and eating one up, letting it under your skin.
The people you travel with certainly play a large part in determining which way the trip goes, and this morning when I woke up with a stomach that was still full and calves sore to the touch, I knew we had taken the Big Easy head on (cheers guys).
As much rest as I would like to pencil in this week, I truly can't afford to spend too much time horizontal: I confirmed last week that I will fly from Philadelphia to Seattle on Thursday and depart on an Alaskan cruise this Friday. We will be shoving off via the Rhapsody of the Seas (Royal Caribbean) and head for the Inside Passage, making three stops in Alaska (Juneau, Skagway, and Tracy Arm Fjord) and one in Victoria, BC.
In addition to New Orleans coverage, I will also be finishing up a couple stories from the past few weeks: GoNOMAD and Famtripper features on Detroit, Denver, and Nassau are in my queue.
These short breaks in my schedule are typically the hardest part of my job - the lull between two high points - yet the timing on this one is perfect given the packed schedule of late.
With New Orleans in the rear-view mirror and Alaska in the windshield, consider the curtains closed until Thursday morning.