“Whalebone and crosses,
Stand against the arctic sky,
The wind blows through the graveyard,
Where our fallen fathers lie,
The timeless hunt a journey back,
To what we once came from,
Compassion and nobility,
Beneath the midnight sun,
The mighty struggle of the seas,
A way of life is run.”
Stewart Goes Walkies is grateful to have another travelogue by our old friend, Allen Lai. This time he visited Alaska
Whalebone and Crosses – It was a popular hit back in the ’70s by John Denver (writes Allen). The melody was sonorous, the lyrics were poetic yet the content was sentimental. Since then, I have longed to go to Alaska, to see and experience what he saw. To breathe the air he breathed. Now that COVID seems to have settled down a bit, it was time to catch up with the traveling I missed.
My original plan was to fly to England and board the Queen Mary II for that once-in-a-lifetime transatlantic crossing. But the antigen requirement before boarding deterred me. After the last trip on the flight back from Turkey, I tested positive, even though I had absolutely no symptoms whatsoever. The thought of flying to England and then finding out I couldn’t get on board was scary. So, I picked Alaska, as the tour departs from Vancouver and I can do my Antigen test in Toronto before boarding the plane.
The Alaskan cruise season is a little over six months long, but choosing the best time to cruise Alaska isn’t straightforward. Drastic changes in weather, cruise prices, wildlife and seasonal excursions all vary from late April through October, making it a challenge to figure out the best month for a cruise.
I picked the end of July, which is supposed to be one of the best times to travel. Since I have not been on a cruise for over 3 years, I decided to pamper myself. I upgraded my stateroom to Blu, which allowed me to enjoy my own dining room, drink-all-you-can-drink package, wifi, and other special privileges for using some facilities.
Because it travels through the inside passage, the cruise ship, Celebrity Eclipse, is rather small when compared to other passenger liners. But still, it’s quite massive. It’s about half the tonnage of the largest cruise ship in the world – Wonder of the Sea, but double the tonnage of the Titanic.
To put things into perspective:
Tonnage – Passengers – Crew
Wonder of the Sea 236,857 – 5,734 – 2,300
Celebrity Eclipse 122,000 – 2,856 – 1,271
Titanic 52,310 – 2,566 – 908
From the above, you can see that, despite the Titanic being half the tonnage, it carried more or less the same number of passengers, I can imagine that life can’t have been too comfortable on it. (Not to mention the fact that it hit an iceberg and sank – SGW)
Getting to the ship
Flying from Toronto to Vancouver is hectic. Everyone is using the opportunity to travel, and Toronto airport simply cannot handle the number of travelers. At the time of writing it is ranked as the number one worst airport in the world for lost luggage, delays, and canceled flights.
We Torontonians finally have something that has reached number one. A couple of weeks ago, a group of my friends went on a 12-day tour of France, they got their luggage 14 days after they checked in, back in Toronto! In view of that, I packed everything into a hand carry as l dared not check in my bag. So there goes my Tuxedo, dancing shoes, second camera, and lenses, as well as many extra fancy clothing items.
The check-in was straightforward, but it still took about an hour to go through customs and security. Once on board, the first thing I noticed was that COVID no longer existed. Other than the crew, less than 3% of the passengers were wearing face masks. People were high-fiving, shaking hands, and hugging and social distancing was non-existent.
And at the Oceanview Cafe, which is an open all-day buffet restaurant, all food is self-service. No longer was the food enclosed and served only by the crew. It was then I found the beauty of the drink-all-you-can-drink package. Before the ship set sail I had one champagne, one red, one white wine, two beers, and 5-6 cocktails that I don’t know the names of. I could see that it was going to be a wonderful trip.
The Ship, the Amenities and the Route
Our first day is sea day. Just exploring the ship, the restaurant. Being in the Aqua class, our specialty dining really made it worth our money. We have our own dining hall, so we do not have to mix with other passengers, and food was better, not to mention the waiter would address us by the first name, and always brought us our favourite drink without being asked. Around every corner of the ship, there was always another bar. I start to think that I was in trouble. Entertainment on board was all first class, we had nightly shows, singing and dancing everywhere, pools, and the top deck actually had real grass for mini golf and lawn bowling.
There was a designated dining area for Aqua Class passengers and the chef cooked at your table.
Sitka, our first port of call, was once owned by the Russians and is the capital of Alaska. The main street is about 1 km long and has two traffic lights. Fine dining for the locals is MacDonalds. We visited a few local restaurants, but the price, the food, and the sitting environment weren’t proportionate. We ended up having reindeer sausage purchased from a street vendor as lunch, and it was surprisingly good. We climbed up fortress hill and visited the Russian church, which was certainly interesting.
The Hubbard Glacier
The Hubbard Glacier was the highlight of the trip. North America’s largest glacier. The weather was not at its best. It was cold, raining, misty, and windy. But just as we approached the glacier, we had a break. Captain Leonardos managed to steer through all the floating icebergs and put the ship just a few hundred metres away from the towering blue ice.
Everyone was on deck, tucked in warm gear to see the ice. Well, the Brits were in their arctic wear, the Gringos were in their cowboy denim, checker shirts, cowboy boots, and covered up with the poolside blanket while we Canadians, were in our shorts and T-shirts… Not really, we bundled up like everyone else.
We could clearly hear the ice moaning. As we watched there was an ice calving, huge chunks of falling ice creating a tsunami. The long 350 ft tall glacier is very impressive indeed.
Thanks to mother nature, we had a taste of Alaskan weather, rain, mist, cold, and wet. Many of the shore excursions were canceled. We strolled around the little town, browsed through different shops, and checked out the restaurant menu, just like other tourists, except, we didn’t spend any money, as we were traveling with two tiny carry-on bags, and we didn’t have space for souvenirs.
The Juneau experience cannot be complete without a peep of the inside of the Red Dog saloon
Founded during Juneau’s mining era, the Saloon has been in operation for decades. For a time, “Ragtime Hattie” played the piano in white gloves and a silver dollar halter top. Later, in territorial days, the owners would often meet the tour boats at the docks with a mule that wore a sign saying, “Follow my ass to the Red Dog Saloon.”
The saloon hosted an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show just after Alaska became a state.
And it feels like you are walking in history when you enter the red swinging doors of the Red Dog Saloon. You find yourself transported back in time. There is an aroma that rises from the floor every time you take a step, the smell of fresh-cut wood. The floor is covered in sawdust. The atmosphere is smoky. Music wafts through the air reminding you of years gone by. The building is filled with objects and memorabilia from the early 1800s. As you take in the sights you know you are in for a treat. One such piece of memorabilia was a handgun, purportedly owned by Wyatt Earp.
The story goes that Wyatt Earp passed through Juneau in 1900. He was asked to check his weapon by U.S. Marshalls on June 27. The Marshalls were concerned about his notoriety as a gunslinger. The story continues that Earp departed for home aboard the S.S. Senator at 5 am on June 29, 1900. The Marshall’s office wasn’t open yet, so Earp left the gun in Juneau. How did it get to the Red Dog Saloon? Well, there was an employee of the Territorial Museum that had a large bar debt at the saloon, and he used the gun to pay off his debt. So now it sits behind the bar at the Red Dog.
Ketchikan, the “Salmon capital of the world”, where both men and salmon came to spawn. The weather was more settled here. We had a short walk around town, visited the famous Creek street and the Dolly’s House. You can’t help but notice that most shop owners are not Aboriginal people. Upon inquiry, most are Americans who came up from Florida to run shops. Selling Made in China souvenirs to tourists like us. They then go back down south when the tourist season ends. Still, life must be tough, no wonder people say it takes a special breed to live in Alaska, the last frontier.
Sea day, returning to Vancouver.
It’s been a great trip, an eye-opener. Rain or shine, Alaska is so beautiful, it is nature at its best. High mountains, quiet island inlets, whales, bald eagles, glaciers, clear blue sky, mist around the mysterious hills, cold and wet days in Juneau, calm and rough sea, friendly locals, fellow travelers, excellent floor shows, it seems we experienced them all.
Also during sea days, I have plenty of time to paint. But I think the cruising life is not for me yet. I must have gained about 5 lbs. With all the gourmet food from the specialty restaurants, my body is bloated with alcohol and caffeine from all the drinks. The nightly dancing and morning gym didn’t help much. Having said that, the drink package is definitely for me, which fortunately or unfortunately, comes with a cruise. Overall, it’s been a great experience.
Now is the time to cross my fingers and get ready for the flight back to Toronto Pearson airport, the number one worst airport in terms of delays, lost luggage, and canceled flights.
Stewart Goes Walkies is, once again, very grateful to Allen for his wonderful descriptions, photos, and paintings. Allen has informed us of some of his future plans so, we have a lot more of his adventures to look forward to.
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