Thursday, August 6, 2015

From the Lower 48 comes the 49th State -Alaska!

Hubbard Glacier Calving, photo credit D. Watkins
After a significant break from this medium, I believe this topic is worthy of the time!  I hope to add more photos and videos soon!  This will be a bit long - I tried to think of all the things I wished I'd known before I went. We got the Frommer's Easy Guide to Alaskan Cruises -- it seemed up-to-date and accurate.

We did the 7 day cruise through Glacier Bay and added 4 days at the end for Denali NP.  We embarked out of Vancouver, BC and disembarked in Seward, AK.  These are the excursions we took.  I do recommend booking excursions through the cruise line -- in most instances the upcharge is $5-$15 a head.  However, if there's an issue around timing and getting back to the boat -- the onus falls on the excursion operator and not you as the individual to get back to the boat.  If I don’t list a specific site it’s because there is only one operator in that area. 

Cruise -Online check in – I highly recommend this – there will be a specific time frame that you have to meet – we had to check in 10 days in advance.  The cruise line will send you stickers that correspond to your on-board accommodations.  Our travel agent recommended putting the stickers on our bags BEFORE getting on the airplane.  If your bags are delayed, obviously it is a lot easier for the airline to find your luggage and work with the cruise line to get them to you.  We did go out a day early – it took almost 2 hours once we got to the dock in Vancouver to get checked through the boarding process on the ship. 
Weather --The weather in Alaska can have a 20 degree range during the day.  The wind off the water is cool because the water is so cold.  It's a place to layer.  I took 3 pairs of outdoor pants (like ex-officio/columbia) and 3 pairs of shorts.  I did bank on finding a Laundromat-- which I did in Juneau.  I am warm natured, so I mostly wore shorts except when we had planned hiking.  It's what I call the three layer temp range --so for me that meant some sort of tank, short sleeve shirt and either a long sleeve shirt or "jacket."  Which meant -- I either wore a long sleeve shirt or a vest -- if I keep my trunk warm - I'm warm.  John is more cold-natured, so he generally wore a jacket and always long pants.  I don't think anyone needs hiking boots -- definitely two pairs of tennis/gym shoes in case one gets wet.  I wore my trail runners for the hikes and some old running shoes for "around" town.  I do tend to be conservative when it comes to new experiences – for instance even though it was pretty hot when we got to Icy Strait – I wore long pants for the zip line because I didn’t know what to expect. 
"Sunrise" from ship
Misc. -- take some sort of "daypack."  To carry the umbrella/jackets if the sun comes out and temp rises and the reverse -- if it's hot when you get on shore but cools off.  Take water bottles for everyone.  It's pretty dry out there.  You can carry water, sunscreen anything you buy etc.  Unless you’re planning on being on land after the cruise – don’t pack a hairdryer – you can’t use it on the ship - -one is provided in staterooms.  Normal ones pull too much amperage.  This will sound funny – but there is usually ONE outlet – with two sockets.  I brought an eight plate so charging phones, iPads, cameras and GoPro didn’t require a lot of thought.  There are 50 different types of mosquitos.  I took the extra deet bug spray just in case.  Bugs, in general, apparently like light coloured clothing. 
Wireless --I did not upgrade to international cell service - partly because I like disconnecting.  As such, I had crummy/to no cell service most of the time.  The wireless on board was $50 a DAY.  My sister-in-law got 40 minutes free a day because she had 4 people in her party. 
The Drink packages -- our travel agent got us ours for free.  However, if we'd had to pay for it we'd have only gotten one for both of us.  Ours covered $50/day.  There's a premium and mid-tier level -- I would get at least one per family because you get 2 bottles of water a day with it. 
Seasickness – I have no idea what this is like – I’ve never been susceptible.  Only twice did anyone in our party feel it.  Only when the boat was “at sea,” i.e. not in a passage banked by land on both sides, did it affect our family.  There are some bands you can get for your wrist that help keep the symptoms at bay and then of course Dramamine.  I think the latter can make you drowsy?  I saw a lot people wearing the bands. 
Gratuities – I highly recommend going to the Purser’s office 1-2 days before you disembark.  That’s where you get a copy of all the charges.  Once you’re on-board everything is charged to your room via the “room” key.  We gave our stateroom attendant an extra 10% at the end and our family sat together every night for dinner – we had the guaranteed dinner seating arrangement – and we gave that crew extra as well.  The list of charges will show any gratuities that are being charged anyway so each family can make their own decision. 

Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau AK
The Lumberjack show in Ketchikan was pretty fun -- the kids had a blast - and it was pretty inexpensive.  The walk through Ketchikan was moderate - we saw some of the running salmon and the Totem Pole Center was interesting.  The snorkeling was pretty different from anything I'd done before -- the water is not clear - but we saw starfish, sea urchins, indigenous jellyfish and several other kinds of sea life.  That was run by -- there is an 80lb weight requirement and that's because the wetsuit is a 7mm wetsuit -- you are essentially a bobbing cork -- I had a weight belt and still had trouble really getting underwater.  You're covered from head to toe -- and the water was right at 63 degrees -- I was warm enough the whole time. 

Icy Strait -- This is one of the few places not "owned" by the cruise lines.  The zipline was AWESOME -- but I'm an adrenaline junkie so it might not be for everyone.  It is over a mile long with speeds upwards of 60mph.  The whale watching ( i.e. orca watching was spectacular - complete with extraordinary transient orcas.  There were several places just to walk around through nature as well.

***There is a decent Laundromat here*** It opens at 6AM and is about a mile from the boat docks.  It only took me 2 hours to get it all done.  Coin Op Laundry – big yellow building.  I walked.  I did bring my own detergent – they have a change dispenser.  11806 Glacier Hwy, Juneau AK
My in-laws took the Seaplane Glacier excursion ( they really enjoyed it -- they flew over several glaciers that can only be seen by air and ate lunch at a salmon lodge.  The “kids” took a van to the Mendenhall Glacier which is right on the outskirts of town (about $30 for 8 of us) we hiked around.  Then on our way back into town we took in the Alaskan Brewing Company (I am allergic to hops so I can’t drink beer) by brother-in-law is a microbrew fanatic and so he ferreted out all the micro-brews for us.  This was a neat experience – I did try a tiny bit of the winter white and it was pretty good.  They do free tastings at the top of the hour and 50 minute tours at half past the hour.  Taxis are easy to schedule – just grab a number once you’re on land and the dispatcher will get it set up. 
Skagway – My sis-in-law and her family did the dog mushing here – they had a tremendously good time – children’s ages were 7-11 girls and boys.  John and I did the mountain biking run by Sockeye Cycle Company – they were awesome – right blend of safety and fun.  It’s super easy – all downhill with one quarter mile uphill.   John then went to do Glassblowing with his niece – they all really enjoyed that experience – you get to make something and the company ships it back to your house.  They made ornaments.  I just went running.   The public library (8th/State Street) has free wi-fi for which you can give a donation.  It’s walkable from downtown.  Our breakfast friends did the train tour – said it was totally worth it.  My parents-in-law did the city bus tour and enjoyed that.  They were ready for a “rest” so to speak.  The train tour is an all-day commitment and bus tour is half a day.  
Alaskan Brewing Co, Juneau, AK photo credit O-Man

Seward – we arrived at 7AM.  Since our train to Anchorage didn’t leave until 6pm we went on another whale watching excursion in the Kenai Fjords NP.  If you are catching a train to somewhere else –you can check your baggage at the train station and then not have to worry about it.  The train from Seward to Anchorage is quite interesting and pretty – I recommend this open carriage view over the one from Anchorage to Denali.  

You may see a celebrity from the Discovery Channel if you're on the right train!  

Conductor Animal - ARR


Rafting on the Nenana River, Denali NP
South Mountain, Denali NP, photo credit D. Watkins

Denali – just in case you are considering it.  It is astounding – no doubt.  Having been to 4 continents, I can honestly say I’ve never seen landscape like that.  However, it is what is called an “intact” National Park.  This means that unlike what most other NPs – there is one road in and out and very few private vehicles are allowed in.  Only 1 in 3 visitors see Mt. McKinley/Denali – we saw the 8,000 to 12,000 part – but the 12,000 o 20,000 foot part was covered in clouds.  For me, I’m not sure I’ll remember seeing a moose/bear/caribou in Alaska more than one in Colorado.  For the camping family – I suspect it’s an entirely different experience.  I glamp … :)  which means running water, a bed and an enclosed sleeping area.  The accommodations are a monopoly run by Aramark – we paid almost $300 a night for an okay room.  Due to the train/bus schedule we opted to stay an extra night to have 2 full days.  I would recommend doing it that way but it does start to get expensive.  The Salmon Bake is some of the best food in the Denali area.  They had awesome drinks.  We also went river rafting with the Denali Outdoor Center -- again the perfect blend of fun and safety.  Our guide let the kids "drive" the raft - an experience I'm sure they're not likely to forget soon!  We wrapped up the Denali portion with an early bus ride back since it left earlier and was quicker. 

Celebrity Millenium Seward, AK

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