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.

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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!

Canada and Alaska: Vancouver Island

We spent two and a half beautiful, sunny days on Vancouver Island, right before our Alaskan cruise.

If your geography is a bit shaky, Vancouver Island sits along the south-west corner of Canada, it is part of the province of British Columbia and the capital of that province is Victoria, which is situated on the island. The island is a 40 to 90 minute ferry ride (depending on where you go from and how fast you go) from the mainland and it is a really big island, over 500 km long. Big enough for some people to feel that it could get along quite well without the rest of Canada, thank you very much.

Vancouver Island also has its own microclimate – or many microclimates, depending on how you look at it, the weather can vary from bay to bay. It does not get anywhere near the amount of snow as the rest of Canada and so is a haven for retirees. Being an island, it keeps the prices a bit lower for real estate than Vancouver city, but it is becoming more popular.

Anyhow, we left Whistler, drove down the coast then caught the ferry across to Nanaimo, a town north of Victoria. Then we drove to Chamainus, a small logging town that now attracts tourists by being super cute and having lots of murals all over town. I saw a hummingbird while we were there. It was so tiny that I thought it was a beetle until I saw the beak. No photo though!

Last stop was Victoria and our waterfront hotel. Victoria is a city built on fur and gold and so it has some similarities, architecturally and culturally, to Melbourne. Our guide the following afternoon told us that the Chinatowns in Victoria, San Francisco and Melbourne were the most significant centres for Chinese culture outside China, and their existence allowed for free discussion that led to the uprising that led to the overthrow of the monarchy and communism in China.

Victoria’s Chinatown also has one of the narrowest streets in North America. Fan Tan Alley. The area is now popular with artists and designers.

Victoria has a wealth of beautiful buildings and I won’t bore you with too much history, but the most notable (and noticeable) are the Empress Hotel and the Parliament Building. They were both designed by a fellow with quite an interesting history. He was a very young architect who scandalized Victorian society by running off to England with his mistress. The mistress then fell in love with an employee (a butler or something), they messily bludgeoned the architect to death to grab his fortune. They were both caught and, upon learning her lover was to be hung, the mistress threw herself off a bridge. However the lover’s sentence was commuted, then he was drafted for WW1, survived with medals of honour and was eventually freed.

Despite his dubious past, the fellow obviously knew what he was about, architecturally-speaking, and these days the parliament buildings are outlined in lights at night, giving an appearance similar to a birdcage. Although there are no bulbs within reach of the ground because people would steal them.

While we couldn’t see the birdcage from our hotel room, we had a great view of the harbour. Victoria has the cutest water taxis I’ve ever seen and I spotted a seal in the water. Others had just seen an otter – you can imagine my disappointment at missing out!

Terrible photo but that underwater slug is actually a seal.

Next: Burchart Gardens!

Canada and Alaska: Whistler and a Float Plan Ride

Whistler rivals Banff for prettiness and the mountains, dare I say it, are even more spectacular. Here’s Mum and I at the float plane dock.

Although who can really say which place we’ve been is the best? I’m reaching that stage of travel where I can’t honestly recall precisely what Banff’s mountains looked like. Lucky I’ve got five million photos!

The float plane was fantastic but slightly wobbly. The scenery was a ring of mountains with glaciers and lakes. The colour of the water was really stunning from the air.

As always, I felt my stomach lurch when the plane bumped up and down, but it was worth it! The other good thing about doing the flying options is that they’re quick (20 minutes this time) and so there’s time to do some walking around afterwards. Whistler town centre is a pedestrian mall and the town is set up for lots of summer sports. BMX and mountain bikers we catching the chair lifts up and riding down the mountain right to the middle of town. I got a free gondola ride and watched them from above.

I didn’t go up the mountain until late so I just did a little walk around, enjoyed the scenery and then came down. The gondola is one of the longest in the world and takes 20 minutes to go all the way to the top. Dare I say it even got a little boring? The views were great though, when it wasn’t rocking in the wind.

After having lunch at a cheap pasta place, Mum and I had enough leftovers to heat up for dinner in our room, which had a microwave. Imagine being able to eat what you wanted, with only a one minute wait and not have to make conversation with a waiter or try to work it tips! Luxury!

How one’s priorities change when traveling, hey?

Next: we go to another place and do more things.

Canada and Alaska: Lake Moraine and Kelowna

We left Lake Louise early (have I mentioned my tour group are ALWAYS on time? I love these people) to get to Moraine Lake, which is just down the road. When we turned in there were many, many cars and motor homes and whatnot. Which is the tourism paradox, I suppose – the more beautiful a place is, the more you want it to yourself, the more people you’re going to have to contend with.

Anyhow, it wasn’t too bad, we took photos, had a wander then got back on the bus. I didn’t realise that there was a short walk up a hill, and that the height showed the jade colour better. I’m sure if you want to see it there are about five billion photos elsewhere online. Here is the reverse view from the above photo.

We made a few stops during the drive that day on the way to Kelowna (cologne-a). Including a rest stop where we spotted this guy and his huge ass!

Tee hee!

We passed through very smoked valleys, but then emerged from the haze and were back to corn fields and wider skies. We also spotted a BEAR!

I realise how bad this photo is, but it was copied over to me from someone else’s camera (thanks Wayne!) then blown up, but it was a real, wild bear! It was on the edge of a corn field. It looked at us for a bit then wandered off into the forest, which is what I’d do if I spotted a big tour bus.

After that excitement no one was sleepy. We stopped off for ice cream (I had maple syrup and also a giant punnet of raspberries that were OMG delicious), then got to our hotel. A quiet night ensued. I mean, my nights are always quiet, but Mum also went to sleep reasonably early too for a change. holidaying with a party animal is a challenge, but I’m coping like a hero.

Next: Whistler and float planes and other stuff.

Canada and Alaska: Lake Louise

It’s iconic, it’s incredible, it’s a huge tourist trap. It’s Lake Louise! One of the world’s most recognisable hotels, the Fairmont Lake Louise is a huge, bustling building and we were lucky enough to have a lake-view room.

That’s the view from our room at 6:30am. Of course the views from around the lake are even better. After we got to our room and unpacked, I left Mum to do her own thing and I walked the 2.5km path that follows the right side of the lake to the end.

It was packed with people. As I walked I could hear accents from around the world. I know some people could find it annoying to be somewhere so beautiful but also surrounded by people, but you have to come to terms with being a tourist and being part of the problem and just enjoy it for what it is, and it is stunning.


I later learned that the lake changes colour throughout the year. Obviously it’s frozen in winter – it is used for hockey and skating and sledding etc, then the ice melts around the beginning of June and at that point all the rock flour (glacier sediment) has settled and the water is crystal clear. As the glaciers around the lake start to melt in the warmer weather they bring superfine rock particles that cloud the water and reflect the light, becoming a deep jade (what you see now in August), then the glaciers freeze solid before the lake does, so the water clears in September and then freezes again. So all the lakes we’ve seen are glacier-fed and jade-coloured, but will be clear in a few months. I find that fascinating!

If you walk to the end of Lake Louise you can see six separate glaciers, three of which are visible from the hotel, but one of which is mostly covered in moraine, or landslides. People think of glaciers as pure, ancient water. But the truth is that the water that comes out of them is filthy because they grind the landscape so harshly that they pick up the rock. In Iceland icebergs are often striated with black volcanic gravel that the glaciers churn up.

Anyhow, Lake Louise was quite experience. The hotel is vast and very busy. We had dinner again with Heather and Steve, which was lovely, then an early night because we were leaving early to get to Moraine Lake, another postcard-perfect site.