Cruising the Last Frontier - Alaska
Cruising or Land Tour in Alaska?
Travelers planning on going to Alaska are often confronted with this question, to cruise or do the land tour? Alaska is very big. It's the biggest state in the US area wise. It has a total of 665,384 sq. miles. It is followed by Texas with 268,96.5 sq. miles and California with 163,694.7 sq. miles. According to the World Atlas (www.worldatlas.com), Texas, is a mere 40% of its total land area while Alaska covers 18% of the country's total land area. It is bigger than the combined area of the 22 smallest states in the US.
Interesting, right? How could you cover a lot of territories in one trip, if it is this big? Besides, cities in this state are scattered all over, some in the mainland and a lot are located in the middle of the Pacific ocean or only have access in the ocean. One least known fact is that the capital of Alaska, Juneau, can only be reached by boat or plane. It has no access inland. It is true that travelers come on different budgets. In our case, our original plan was to see some relatives in Unalaska, which is located in the Aleutians Islands. They have come down and visited us a couple of times and would love to have us. After talking of how much it would cost, we kind of backed off a little bit. It was very costly. The airfare alone from Anchorage to Unalaska is around $1,000 more or less. Then, we would also have to spend money on airfare from our state of Tennessee to Anchorage, which probably would cost us at least another $1,000 round trip. And, of course, we are aware that the cost of living is very expensive and that a loaf of bread costs $5! We added everything up including hotel stays, food and activities and we finally settled on doing the cruise. With the cruise, you have board and lodging already taken care of. And, the favorite part of cruising is food! Endless delicious foods!
So, here we go on a cruise to Alaska. The budget traveler in us made us decide to see America's Last Frontier this way. It also helped with our budget that we were able to use our American Advantage miles for our round trip tickets from Nashville, TN to Seattle, Washington. We decided on going the first week of August, it was cheaper. Peak season for cruising to Alaska is July. For some reason, it peaks again around the end of August. I guess, people would make last minute decisions before it gets too cold or before the end of the cruising season in September.
Our itinerary was Seattle, Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria, B.C. in Canada on the way back as our last port of call and back to Seattle. We got our booking from Costco since we are members of this store club. We got a good deal for an obstructed ocean view for a little over a $1,000 each. Costco had some bonuses we were able to use, like the fine dining dinner, credits for outings and travel vouchers.
It was very exciting. As soon as the ship left the Seattle port, the party began. We stayed exploring the outside of the huge ship Emerald Princess. I learned why they call parts of the ocean "sounds". As we passed through Puget Sound, we could hear the wind howling, the wind was so strong it lifted up my brother-in-law's shirt up to his face! It was eerie, very eerie sounds that would remind you of the famous mermaids and creatures of the sea talking. It was beautiful looking at the city lights of Seattle vanishing in the horizon and watching the vastness of the ocean and the beautiful islands in the Inside Passage.
Four Cities in One
First Stop: Ketchikan
The first glimpse of the quaint picturesque town of Ketchikan was early morning following an all night sail on the calm seas of the Pacific going through the narrow Inside Passage. Ketchikan is right in the outer part of the Inside Passage just before the ship is engulfed in a narrow strip of water in between the mainland and a series of small islands on the west side. Ketchikan is where the last frontier begins. Alaska has the most jaw dropping wilderness scenery in the world. It was in this early morning musings embracing the unique beauty of this land that I first saw icebergs. Yes, icebergs! They were so beautiful floating in blue green waters! Seeing these was simply one of the most memorable sight to see! They looked like gems in different sizes and shapes, glistening as they reflected the early morning rays of the sun.
Ketchikan is famous as the salmon capital of the world. The town is small that you can actually walk the whole city in less than a day. The weather was nice for walking, if only we knew that we could, we would have just walked instead of getting those expensive excursion tickets.
The most important and least expensive place we planned on going was the Totem Heritage Center. This center houses the oldest and most number of of totem poles in the US. It proudly exhibits 33 poles carved dating back to the 19th century by two American native tribes, the T'lingit and the tribe of Haida. We started at the museum where a young lad from the T'lingit tribe did the narration. Then we went to the social center which is the biggest structure in the area. It used to be a village house where several families live inside. There was a beautiful presentation of dances and songs from the younger generation of the tribes who came back to live. A handful of these kids know the native language as all of them speak English. They are just now re-learning their native languages.
Outside were the gigantic, neatly carved totem poles. Each has a story tell. Each pole shows carvings of eagles, killer whales, bears and human faces with big eyes and ears. We were also ushered to the work shop where an older man was demonstrating how the bare poles were lovingly carved. It takes approximately 4 years to carve one pole and they are very expensive at $2,000 a foot. Some poles were as high as 40 feet.
We bought souvenirs of totem poles, shirts and knick knacks at the store in the Heritage Center. We also bought several packages of the world famous smoked salmon when we got back to the city center on the way to the ship.
Photos from Ketchikan
Second Stop: Juneau
Juneau is the capital of Alaska. The city can only be accessed through the seas in the Inside Passage or by air. There are no roads that would lead you in and out of this city, no roads to connect you to the rest of the State or the North America. It has an estimated population of around 32,000 and was incorporated in 1900. Upon disembarking, I was so amazed at the heavy population of the American bald eagles. They were scattered everywhere as there is wetlands surrounding the city of Juneau.
Before we reached Juneau at past noon on the third day of our cruise, we were treated to the most awesome view on earth. The whole length of this trip was just majestically beautiful. A trip to Alaska is probably one of the best trips that every person should put in their bucket list. Sailing through the Inside Passage is a showcase of natural wonders. Cascading waterfalls so many of them I lost count! Icebergs, dolphins, glimpses of whales from a far. We booked a special breakfast which we never regretted to get because the food itself was awesome and there were very few people (yes, because it was not part of the free food). We were foretold by our favorite waiters that most areas of the decks will be so full of people starting at dawn to get a space on see the Tracy Arm Fjords.
Tracy Arm Fjords. How majestic! The ship circles around to get in and out of the area. The fjords is about a mile far and to see it up close you have to pay an excursion which was pretty steep for our budget. The ones who did were not able to get back to the ship but they were taken to the port of Juneau instead. I could never get tired of how beautiful it was! I was able to take dozens of pictures with my Nikon D7000 camera. I could sit all day to see that view.
Mendenhall Glacier. The missed opportunity to get close to Tracy Arm Fjords was compensated by the nearness of Mendenhall Glacier. The park is about 12 miles from the port. Here, we were able to observe salmons in the creeks trapped on the way up for the salmon run to spawn on gravel beds. Amazing, wonderful, awe-inspiring, beautiful! - you'll ran out of superlatives to describe this gigantic ice! Technically, these two are different but to a lesser mortals like us they are the same.
Dog Sled and Musher's Camp. One activity you should not miss in Juneau is the dog sled and musher's camp. There were no snow so they used wheels but they were lead by a pack of Alaskan husky puppies. They were strong, beautiful, friendly dogs. The owner of the camp is owned by a winner in the Iditarod race years ago. They were training some puppies to be in the annual race.
The time in Juneau was the shortest among all four ports of call. I wish Royal Caribbean would change the Juneau itinerary as there lots of things to do there. Unfortunately it rained all the time we were there but it was still a worthwhile experience.
Photos from Juneau
Third Stop: Skagway
Skagway was a bit of a disappointment. Don't get me wrong, the town is beautiful and it has it's own charm, but really nothing much to do. It is the smallest of the three cities in our itinerary. The only thing we did was ride a van to the White Pass. This was a mistake. If you plan on taking the train to the famous White Pass, please, make sure you don't make the same mistake. Actually, we didn't know we won't be riding a train. I thought it was pretty cheap but then I was thinking it is a shorter train route. The only redeeming factor was the beautiful scenery on the road leading to the White Pass and the Yukon Route. And, it was rich in history of the infamous Klondike Gold Rush in 1900. Our van driver cum tour guide was very knowledgeable and funny, it was not a boring ride. It rained all day we were there so that added to the dampen attitude.
Photos from Skagway
A Piece of Advice
A word of warning if you take the van to WP & YR: There is a public latrine by the border and it belongs to the Canadian BC side. The view is so overwhelmingly beautiful but DO NOT use the public restrooms! It was so stinky and dirty and it's the old kind that is just a hole that goes directly down. It was so gross that anybody who was forced to use it just puked. Sorry, just to be brutally honest I meant to write to the Canadian tourism but forgot about it
Fourth Stop: Victoria, B.C.
Victoria, B.C. - This port was our last stop before returning to Seattle. This is our second visit in Victoria but this time we went to the Fisherman's Village. Since this is not part of Alaska, I will not write much about this city. We only had a couple of hours to spend so we decided not to go to the famous Butchart Gardens. We rode a water taxi and walked all the way from the Empress Hotel to the pier. It was a pleasant night and it seemed safe. We did have one find that was noteworthy. We passed by the house of famous international painter and writer, Emily Carr, located in the historic district while on the way to the inner harbor.
My Favorite Photos
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