Saturday, July 28, 2007

Alaska: Aboard Ship

The first leg of our Alaska trip was aboard the Radiance of the Seas, a massive cruise ship operated by Royal Caribbean. Our group of five couples had adjacent balcony staterooms on the starboard side, Deck 8, just below and aft of the navigation bridge.

This was the third cruise for Terry and me, and quite different than our prior voyages in the Caribbean. The obvious difference was in the latitude: there would be no sunning on a deck chair through the afternoon this time around, although we did have some warm days were we could sit on our private balcony and enjoy the sun. Southeastern Alaska is rainy and chilly, similar to what many of us think of Seattle. The capital city, Juneau, is one of the wettest cities in the country.

The cruise began when we boarded the Radiance in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. We had never been in Vancouver before, and our first impression was of the rattier parts of town on the route between the airport and the harbor. The Cleverleys have friends who live in Vancouver, so they came out a couple of days before to visit. Their impression of Vancouver was that it is a beautiful city. As is always the case in a big city, there is wealth, and there is poverty. At least everyone has access to the healthcare system in Canada. We sailed in the early evening.

The next day was spent at sea. It was sunny, warm and smooth. We were accompanied part of the way by Dall's porpoises, who apparently get a kick out of surfing in the wake of the ship. It was formal dinner night, when we got to meet our waiter, Darko (no kidding). He was a tall and intense Croatian man who I thought would make a good Count Dracula. Compared to the waiters we've enjoyed on other cruises, this guy was humorless. His assistant was a Bahamian named Leaford who spent most of his time getting ordered about and criticized by Darko. Nonetheless, the ten of us had a table to ourselves, and enjoyed the food and company each night. The evening closed with a stage show and a stunning sunset.

Our first port of call was Ketchikan Alaska. We arrived in the early morning, escorted by a Coast Guard patrol boat on which the forward 50cal machine gun was manned and ready. We never learned why we got this escort, and it was the only port in which this happened. One can understand a cruise ship being a juicy terrorist target, but I'm not sure Alaska is a primary target area. Who knows in this crazy world. Ketchikan is just a tourist trap, with most of the businesses owned by Royal Caribbean as we understand it. We walked around the block and came back aboard the ship.

The next day, we arrived in Juneau. Although it is the capital, Juneau's population is only about 30,000. An interesting fact about Juneau is that it cannot be driven to; one must go there by either air or sea. In the morning, we rode a bus out to the Mendenhall Glacier. When we booked this excursion, we didn't know that we would later be seeing the Hubbard Glacier from the ship. The trip to the Mendenhall wasn't a waste by any means, but these land excursions are kinda pricy, and on that basis I don't think I would recommend spending the money if you are going to see the Hubbard anyway that is.

The afternoon was spent whale-watching with Barb and Jim, and we had the opportunity to see several mother-calf pairs of humpbacks. Afterwards, we looked around town a little, and stopped for a snack of reindeer sausage at the Red Dog Saloon – a fun place to go.

We arrived at the tiny town of Skagway to find three other cruise ships in port. This is an amazing thing since Skagway has a permanent population of under 1,000, while each cruise ship carried around 2,000 tourists. The high point of this trip was the ride to the White Mountain Pass on a narrow gauge railroad. After the ride, we stopped in the Red Onion Saloon for lunch, another fun place.

Next was Icy Strait Point, where the Hinkles, Cleverleys and Krzykowskis rode the mile-long zip line. They said it was a blast. We looked around the little village which had been constructed there just to host cruise ships, and hopped back aboard.

After working our way out of the Inside Passage, the Radiance sailed to the Hubbard Glacier. This was by far the most spectacular part of the cruise. The glacier is massive, with a face several times the height of our ship and six miles wide. The weather was clear and sunny, and the captain was able to maneuver us within a few thousand feed of the face. Every few minutes, we would hear a rumble. If you were quick enough, you could see a hunk of ice fall from the face into the ocean.

From here, we sailed due west toward Seward, the terminus of the cruise half of our journey.

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