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

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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!