Canada and Alaska: Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay National Park was the turn-around point for our cruise and the visual highlight. The weather had been almost unremittingly foggy and grey for the whole trip up to this point and so we were all a bit concerned we wouldn’t actually see anything.

Fortunately some sun did appear, and there was no rain. The weather was cold, but because the ship did a loop up the channel and back, we could see everything from our balcony. I did go out on the prow though and took photos from a few different spots around the ship.

It was also a day when the ship’s crew celebrated 77 years of Alaskan cruising with a serving of pea and ham soup (it’s a Dutch thing? Or something) that I thought was very nice but not many others seemed to enjoy it.

The scenery was spectacular, and the onboard tvs had documentaries on the wildlife and the formation of the bay that were quite interesting. They also had a park ranger do a voice-over as we went past the different glaciers.

No big icebergs were to be seen, but lots of little one made the water look like a styrofoam boat had exploded. Although not all of the icebergs were white – many were a dirty brown and you could watch them float along shedding clouds of rock flour that clouds the water and makes it that milky turquoise shade.

Next: Grouse Mountain and Vancouver for a day before heading home.

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Canada and Alaska: Ketchikan

If Skagway had the best weather of the cruise, Ketchikan had the worst. Which was a shame because it did have a certain charm.

Mum and I went out for a quick walk first thing then back to the boat to dry off and regroup. I ended up taking off most of my clothes and going out in shorts and sandals with a light rain jacket, figuring it was better to be a bit cold and towel dry my skin rather than have to try to dry jeans and sneakers.

Ketchikan has a little ‘ye olde’ area called Creek Street, which was ok, boardwalks on stilts along a creek full of salmon. Better though, was a great book store called Parnassus Books, which was nearby. A great range and friendly staff. I recommend dropping in if you’re looking for some travel reading.

I don’t really have much to say about Ketchikan. It felt a lot like Juneau, obviously a town where people lived and worked outside of the tourism sector. Lots of people on our tour did plane and helicopter rides and could probably give a better impression of the place but we spent most of our time there on the ship. How sad! That’s what sideways rain does to you though.

Next: Glacier Bay.

Canada and Alaska: Skagway

After a day at sea the ship docked at Skagway, a tiny town north of Juneau. Someone told me that Skagway’s population all leave in winter – basically it’s a town set up for tourists and boy, does it feel like it.

There’s one main street with a real wild-west feel, right down to the wooden boardwalks. A lot of the building are either original or restored to the original state, so it’s not like the place is fake, it’s just Alaska-Disney. Everything is very clean and nice, plus the hordes of tourists have almost nowhere to go but from one end to the other, looking in the stores full of jewellery and pyjamas. I don’t know why, of all clothing items, pyjamas are the thing Alaska doubled down on, but it’s hard to find a shop that doesn’t sell them – particularly those long-john/onesie style ones with the flap at the back.

However, it was the nicest weather of the whole cruise, so Mum and I decided to visit the Jewell Gardens, which were a short bus ride away. They were very different to the Burchard Gardens. Smaller, messier and with lots of fruit and vegetables.

Also a glass-blowing workshop. It had a really nice artist-enclave vibe and the cafe had good food (and wine of course). As we were leaving there was a brief shower of rain, despite there being barely a cloud in the sky.

“Alaska’s weird’ said the guy behind the counter when we commented. Which reminds me that I forgot to mention that in Juneau there was a girl in a kimono riding a skateboard down the main street and blowing bubbles the whole way. Fabulous!

The only other noteworthy thing about Skagway was the salmon, which were currently doing their kamikaze run upstream. There are many sad sights in the animal kingdom, and watching thousands of salmon queue for a metre-wide fish ladder so they can struggle towards their death, is definitely one of them. Our bus driver said the smell in town about a month hence is unbelievable as the bodies pile up. Grim but fascinating.

Next: Ketchikan

Canada and Alaska: Juneau

Possibly the place on the tour I’d been most keen to visit, Juneau was our first stop on the cruise.

Juneau, despite being the third largest city in Alaska by population (after Anchorage and Fairbanks) with around 33,000, it is the capital of the state. It is also the second largest city in the US by area – bigger than the two smallest states! Its population can rise by as much as eight to ten thousand people during the days when the cruise ships arrive. Despite being one of the horde, I felt sad for the people who live in these towns – it must seem like a daily invasion and I don’t know how they manage to drive through town and not deliberately run down the people who stand in the middle of the road taking photos. No doubt it’s a great boost to the economy, but still.

I thought Juneau was beautiful. The day was overcast (which is the usual state of affairs in Alaska) and we joined our tour leader on a quick walking tour of the town. It was nice to get away from the scrum of people in the gift shops on the harbour – most people don’t like to walk up any kind of hill. In fact all of our stops were like this – if you’re not afraid of a bit of a hike you can get some peace and a better sense of what each place is about.

Buildings in Alaska are made almost entirely from wood and in Juneau the town climbs up steeply from the harbour, with steep and charming wooden steps visible between some houses, leading up to the next street. I neglected to take any photos so here’s a couple of little ones I stole from the internet:

After the walk Mum and I wandered around a bit and I found a fantastic store called  Alaska Robotics. They had a range of art and cards and things that were completely different from the usual tourist rubbish and so I bought Luke a t-shirt with a shrugging squid, and for myself a bunch of cute postcards and a calendar. They also give away a great alternative Juneau map that has stuff on it that you won’t find out about from the cruise ship. The cruise info is mainly about encouraging you to buy jewellery from the places right near the dock.

The other place worth mentioning was The Viking Bar, where we later stopped to use the internet and have a drink.

If you’re in Juneau I recommend going in, the place has a great vibe. Lots of neon lights and taxidermied animals, plus cheap drinks and fast wifi.

Juneau is great. I am biased because it has loose associations with my all-time favourite tv show, but it just has something about it that’s a lot more real than Skagway, and it’s bigger than Ketchikan so you can get away from the masses more easily. I definitely want to come back!

Next: Skagway.

Canada and Alaska: Aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam

The Nieuw Amsterdam docked at Juneau. 

After a lovely but sad farewell dinner in Victoria, the remaining members of our group (some weren’t doing the cruise) caught the ferry from Victoria back to Vancouver then said goodbye to our wonderful tour leader Carmen.

I had joked with her that there was an aspect of Stockholm Syndrome in tour groups and we’d come to love her so much that whoever this ‘Stephanie’ was (the APT rep on the ship), she’d have a lot to live up to. Well, Stephanie turned out to be lovely, and incredibly patient at re-explaining things she’s just said. She would make a good teacher ;-).

There were three APT groups joining the cruise, which meant about 100 people all up – most of them Australian. We had two informational group meetings, one at the beginning and one at the end, plus a bunch of meet-ups throughout the week so people could catch up. In such a large ship it was a good idea to provide these opportunities otherwise we might not have seen some of our group again.

 

The ship:

The Nieuw Amsterdam holds just over 2000 guests and has 11 accessible floors. It also has glass elevators, which were awesome. The average age on the ship was probably between 50 and 60. A few families, but mainly retirees. Below is a video of the indoor pool area.

There were a range of restaurants, from extremely high-brow to burgers and pizza.  Plus 24 hour room service (which I always get excited about then rarely use.. I think we ordered one pot of tea). There was a canteen-type area called The Lido, which had some self-serve options. My favourite places for food ended up being the pizza place and the Mexican bar.

Everything but drinks was included in the ticket price (although we had a special deal for 3 complimentary drinks each night with dinner) although if you wanted to eat in one of the fancier restaurants there was an additional cost. Everything we bought was charged to our swipe cards and these cards also let us on and off the ship. It was a great system and meant that you could leave your room with empty hands, even if wearing a dorky lanyard all day meant that it felt like we were on a 7 day conference.

Our room was small but certainly big enough. It had a little lounge chair and coffee table and a balcony with two chairs. We enjoyed the fact that the tap arrangement was one of the simpler ones we’d come across – at one hotel Mum had ended up having a bath because we had no idea how to get the shower to work.

During our time on the ship we did a few activities – most notably winning the final night trivia. To be completely honest, our team mate Lynn would’ve probably won it on her own, but we all got badges anyhow, so now I have two unearned badges from my trip. Score!

Apart from the trivia and spending our evenings at the quiet Silk Den bar, Mum and I didn’t do many of the organised shipboard activities. There were quite a few things on – presentations, movies, shows, games clubs and more. Including a daily art auction of a vast number of really ordinary paintings (and a few good ones). That was a bit weird.

On the voyage there were three stops (Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan) plus the northernmost point was a morning in Glacier Bay National Park. I’ll cover each in a post of its own.

Next: Juneau!