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Travel with Hafeez to Alaska

Updated on January 20, 2012

Having seen a major part of mainland USA, I was now bracing myself to visit Hawaii and Alaska in one go. When my traveling agent went through my itinerary, he said without looking at me, “No problem but air-fare alone would be around US$ 5,000”. It was a stunning blow as I had a total of US$1,500 for all & sundry - hook, line and sinker. With a heavy heart, I stood up, straightened my back and left the travel shop.

In the next two days, I searched on Google, sent emails to friends and forums like Thorn Tree & Globe Trotters. Mostly advised me to cut either Hawaii or Alaska and look for a cheapest of the cheap deal on websites like kayak, orbitz and Travelocity. But Michael Schmidt, a friend in USA, dropped a hint for traveling by Alaska Ferry and, my God, that solved the problem.

On 25thJune, 06, I left for Los Angeles by Qatar Airways via Doha & London. I reached Los Angeles next day and after resting for two days continued my travel -first to Seattle and then to Bellingham, about 2,300 km away from Los Angeles. I stayed at both the places for a day or two for acclimatization. For the next 10 days, I covered Alaska at very low budget.

 

Alaska resembles panhandle.
Alaska resembles panhandle.

ALASKA

Affectionately called Panhandle, because of its shape, Alaska is a happy mixture of water, land and heritage. In Native American it means "the great land". It is the Last Frontier of USA and its largest state, 2,240 km long and 4,320 km wide. Its capital is Juneau accessible only by boat or plane. Alaska is almost as close to Tokyo Japan (5,200 km) as New York City (5,248 km).

Its revenues mostly come from oil and natural gas industry. Besides, it supplies salmon, crab, halibut and herring to other parts of USA. It earns heavily from tourist trade as it has snow-capped mountain, sea and water channels.It has a majestic wilderness with abundant wildlife such as whales, eagles, otters, seals, bears, foxes and wolves. Also plenty of birds like pelican, raven, heron, water fowl, hawk, falcon, crane, gulls, swallows and ducks.

INSIDE PASSAGE
INSIDE PASSAGE

Alaska Marine Highway System

Alaska Marine Highway is not a coastal road. It is name of the company which owns and operates 11 ferries. Its primary object is to provide transport facilities to people who live and work in Alaska. Catering to tourists is secondary. The company's ferries are like small cruise ships with decks for passengers and vehicles. There are cabins, observation lounges, restaurants, gift shops and spacious decks.

AMHS ferries serve in the Inside Passage which is shaped by the staggering force of massive glaciers millions of years ago. It has wildlife-filled fjords and forests — habitat for bald eagles, sea lions, porpoises and whales.

It is heavily travelled by cruise ships, freighters, tugs and fishing boats. Because it is a narrow channel, the sail is smooth, no rolling or pitching.

Photo of MV Columbia Courtesy M/V Columbia Crew
Photo of MV Columbia Courtesy M/V Columbia Crew

MV Columbia

I reached the Bellingham Port and went straight to AMHS office on June 30,2006. By paying $352 through my Visa Card, I got a ticket as walk-on passenger. On entering the ferry, I deposited my traveling bag in a safety box and secured the key. Next I located a reclining chair in "the dark lounge" and dozed off.

In the evening the ferry sailed. By that time, I had enough rest and came out to enjoy the passing scenery. Soon twinkling lights of Vancouver were in sight giving an impressive view. Next the ferry passed by Bella Bella, an island village of British Columbia. The sail was very pleasant and the views were spectacular. The canal was flanked by high, steep mountains on each side. Numerous small islands dotted the surface. The route became increasingly scenic as the channel narrows and the snow peaks loomed closer.

After about two hours, I went inside. There was a café selling cereals, sandwiches, yogurt, chips and cookies. The café had about 100 seats arranged tables for two, four or six. I had a light meal with tea and moved to forward lounge, with wraparound windows and captain chairs. There were many solo travelers like me. An instant camaraderie develops among us. I especially like Rick, a retired engineer who had served in Alaska for 20 years and loved to have a joyride on the ferry every six months or so. Another was a single mother with her kid. She grew up in Alaska, but had lived on the mainland USA for five years. She was back to find out possibility of re-settling but confided in me as “May be I get sick of living here in Alaska and go again to New York.”

Ist July, 2006

Next morning, I started off with a hot water shower, had a nice breakfast and sat in the passenger lounge surrounded by a by spectacular scenery. Alaskan summer has a very long day. For quite sometimes, I sit on a bench and spotted many kind of fishing boats. A fellow-traveller explained to me unique features of each.

The water was calm and the ferry was said to be making 17 knots per hour.

By mid-day, I went up to the solarium, which had a partial roof with several banks of overhead heaters. This was the favorite spot of adventurous travelers who avoided the extra cost of a stateroom, choosing instead to "camp out" in this protected outdoor environment. Many had their tents or mattresses. There are other areas on the ferry where passangers were allowed to curl up and sleep for free like movie lounge. But the best is the upper deck for sleeping under the stars.

There were few alerts when whales were found near the ferry. These can be easily spotted as there was a mist like cloud due to their forceful exhaling of air. Also, there are some organized programs on board. A maritime wildlife ranger gave a talk on Alaska's flora and fauna. In addition, there are regular movie shows, announced in advance over the ferry's intercom.

On July 2, 2006

Early in the moring, a fire broke out in the auxiliary engine which temporarily impaired steering and propulsion. At that time, the ferry was passing in Seymour Narrows in Canadian waters. The ship motored to Duncan Bay, British Columbia for damage assessment. The passengers were warned of the damage but were advised not to worry. After a few hours stay, the ferry continued on to Ketchikan's dry dock for more extensive repairs. All passengers were advised to disembark and proceed to a nearby ferry office for further arrangements.

Ketchikan
Ketchikan
A statinary ship in calm water.
A statinary ship in calm water.

KETCHIKAN

For me, Ketchikan was the first and last port of call. Rick asked me what my plans were? I told him that I would pursue the original plan of going to Skagway. He smiled and told me that in South East region, Ketchikan was number one place. He lured me to a grand plan: (i) we insist on going back. It would be free, (ii) once we are at our respective homes, we ask for refund of US$ 352 paid through Visa Card, and (iii) we ask for compensation for the mental torture we suffered because the aborted tour. “Think Hafeez,” he stressed, “this entire trip would be free plus at least a sum of US$ 200 as compensation." It appealed me that I agreed to tow his line.

So we went to Ferry Office, raised hell for cancellation of the voyage and asked for immediate arrangements for our return. The management apologized for the inconvenience and regretfully informed us that the earliest connection was two days away. This suited us but we made faces and asked for free accommodation. The company has no such provision but sent an assistant with us to get us a concessional rate for staying two nights. It was a peak season and a hotel room was difficult to find. Despite this, the company representative managed to get us a double at Black Bear Inn for US$50 per night. This was quite reasonable and we accepted it.

Alaska's First City

Ketchikan is known by many names like the "Salmon Capital of the World" and "Alaska's First City". It is a scenic town perched along the shores of coastal mountains and surrounded by protected waterways. It is a popular cruise destination, as well as a wonderful spot for travelers who want to experience wilderness and adventure. Native cultural influences continue even today as majestic totem poles can be viewed on downtown streets, in local parks and museums.

We were told by local that being located in the heart of Tongass National Forest; the town gets good rain (160 inches). Because of rain, their fishing was unmatched; wildlife abundant and trees dark green.

The most interesting area was Creek Street. It was a boardwalk winding along Ketchikan Creek. It had many art galleries like Soho Coho (5 Creek Street). There were a large number of shops selling a variety of high-end crafts such as velvet scarf, pendleton blanket with Indian themes, silver pendant and bronze sculpture. One store has a sign which shows the odds against the prospectors in the Gold Rush: 20,000 came north, 4000 found gold, 300 could be considered wealthy and 50 held on to their wealth.

We had a good walk for reaching a tram station. It lifted us to Cape Fox Lodge located on a hill top overlooking the city. The hotel had an interior décor reminiscent of a ski lodge with a river rock fireplace, pine-beamed ceilings and overstuffed furniture.

There’s an old saying: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. We were in a town famous for its hailbut fish. So we smelled around to find out where fish was being fried. We found one ramshackle restaurant and had a hearty lunch of halibut and chips.

Most interesting feature of Ketchikan was float planes which were taking off or landing in the channel one after another. That is why Alaska is said to have highest number of pilots per capita, one pilot for every 58 people

In the evening we returned to our hotel and slept like a log.

Alaska in only $650 all inclusive

Next day, we boarded a southbound ferry and returned to Bellingham. While Rick left for Portland, Oregon, I spent another 20 days visiting friends and relatives in Detroit, Columbus Ohio and Norfolk.

On return, I claimed a refund from Visa International and in about two month I got it along with US$ 200 as compensation.

My Alaska tour cost was: Return air fare for Karachi-Los Angeles $ 750, Alaska Ferry $352, lodging at Ketchikan $50 and roughly $100 for foods and side travel. In all I spent about $1,200 of which I got back 550 as refund or compensation. That means that I spent only $650 on Alaska Tour against $5,000 for airfare alone quoted by the agent.

Once when I was passing by the travel shop, I saw my travel agent standing at the door. My blood boiled up and I could not resist shouting,” Alaska in five thousand dollars, you cheat. I did it in 650.”

 

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    • profile image

      Adeel Aleem 7 years ago

      very informative sir ... keep it up!!!

    • profile image

      Misbah Mansoor 7 years ago

      This is the second time when I read a journey by man travelled himself. First was Mustan sar hussain Tarar's a night in Ghar-e-Hira. It was also interesting but contains more religious feelings. Now this tale is really wonderful having some fun element in it. In short, I really enjoyed this journey.

    • profile image

      yasir rizvi 7 years ago

      impressive..... simply amazing.

    • profile image

      maria arif 7 years ago

      i must say when there is a will there is a way, and u r very lucky. mashallah! u avail all oppotunities and chances

    • Tom Philips profile image

      Tom Philips 7 years ago

      Another great tale from professor Hafez, the master of adventure and budget travel. Your stories always sound so exotic and far away but this one was a little closer to home and brought back a few memories. I flew as a float plane pilot and have landed many times on the strait in Ketchikan. I remember well the wooden boardwalk and little restaurants he describes. I’ve never taken the ferry to Alaska, but I remember seeing it go by and always wondered what it was like. Leave it to Hafeez to discover an adventurous and inexpensive way to go. I would love to try it. Bravo on another great adventure.

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      saleha 7 years ago

      Very informative but you should also visit our beautiful northern areas and if you have visited please write about it and you look good in that hat :)

    • profile image

      Mashood Khan 7 years ago

      It's really amazing $ 650, I can increase my budget to $ 800, very soon I will contact you to advice me regarding economical trip to Alaska.

    • profile image

      mushtaq2006 7 years ago

      Its extremely nice travel tale. With lesson that its will and keen interest in nature that is needed to travel not the Money. and Mr. Hafeez is full of these two Qualities.

      God Bless you and Keep up the Great Spirit.

      Regards,

      Mushtaq Ahmed

    • profile image

      Syed Taha Ghayas 7 years ago

      Alaska in $650...simply unbelievable!

      It was a very amusing travelogue I must say...and I'm jealous (very positive one) as I'm really fond of traveling!

    • shahnawaz sheikh profile image

      shahnawaz sheikh 7 years ago from karachi

      wonderful artical sir, amazing journey with a refund what more can one ask for , keep it up sir

      GOD BLESS

    • profile image

      donna 7 years ago

      Ah, my friend, excellent, as usual! I might point out that you were apprised of refunds by a friendly American. We do have some redeeming qualities, no?

    • Syed Mairaj Ahmad profile image

      Syed Mairaj Ahmad 7 years ago

      Amazing journey! You make travel around the globe sound very convenient-one thing I have learned is that PR is important in all areas of life :) The descriptions of the state of Alaska and especially the ferry ride were highly enjoyable. Also I must say I admire the strategy you used to make your travel less expensive!!

    • profile image

      maria javed 7 years ago

      awesome! sir, you possesses a bundle of knowledge, im really very impressed the way you delivered your trip in a wonderful piece of tale. i really enjoyed & gathered really worth full knowledge

      thanks for sharing this to us

    • profile image

      ASIF HUSSAIN 7 years ago

      Sir! you have very good quailties of becoming a good writer.........it is not that much easy to write about anything with such detail....

    • profile image

      Carol H 7 years ago

      Thank you once again for sharing your glorious journey with us. I live in the US and have never been to Alaska. Your beautiful pictures and commentary have inspired me to want to go someday !!

    • Syed Kabeer Ehsan profile image

      Syed Kabeer Ehsan 7 years ago

      Dear Teacher, the best thing i like is float plane.. .

      I wish i cud go to Alaska some day, but my Father not even allow me to leave Karachi.. .

      but Its Wonderfull Sir.. .

    • TEERATHMAHESHWARI profile image

      TEERATHMAHESHWARI 7 years ago from karachi

      great. a trip with low cost is amzing. i think this strategy very useful in recession. i must say it a wonderfull story. and also for whom who is new to traveling.

    • profile image

      sanam khan 7 years ago

      Thats really gr8 :),i m also feeling like to go with the same budget.

      sir, regards to u.

    • profile image

      Rao Nisar 7 years ago

      Fantastic travelogue. I envy Hafeez and have requested him to take me along on any such tourl he always tells me this is very expensive.

      My regards to the great Ibne-Batuta of our time.

    • Rufi Shahzada profile image

      Rufi Shahzada 7 years ago from Karachi

      Wow!

      Amazing and sharp minded.... U actually taught how to save some bucks :D

      RUFI SHAHZADA

    • profile image

      michaeljamesschmidt 7 years ago

      What a great story! Who but Hafeez could visit Alaska for $650? Last I checked, that was the airfare alone and that from the U.S.!!

    • Fahad_Khan profile image

      Fahad_Khan 7 years ago from Karachi

      I must say that anyone who is new to traveling and visiting new places should get tips from Mr. Hafeez Ur Rehman.

      Excellent travel tale and a nice strategy to travel on minimum possible budget. Hats off to you!

    • profile image

      Haris saleem 7 years ago

      nice strategy sir :)! sharp very sharp