We arrived in Vancouver to overcast skies and drizzle - normal summer weather! From the airport we took the new train to downtown. Tickets cost CAD$4.50 per person, but buying them from the ticket machine incurs a CAD$5 surcharge, making the tickets effectively $9.50. We later learned that you can buy the tickets from the newsagent at the airport for cost price, but nobody tells you this. The new train is fast and efficient and we arrived Downtown in no time at all. We checked into the Samesun Backpackers on Granvillle Street, in the heart of the nightlife district. It was pleasant enough and the double bunk bed in our room proved to be surprisingly comfortable.
Our first stop was Gas-town, the old heritage district down by the port. It's now a gentrified area of cafes, restaurants and art galleries. There is an excellent underground tour that escorts you through the hidden streets and sewers of the old town. It's very amusing. We certainly recommend it but we didn't do it this time. With the rain increasing steadily we settled in for a meal and a couple of drinks before heading back to the hostel.
The next day we did a Food Truck Tour with Vancouver Foodie Tours. This was an excellent tour even despite the constant drizzle. Our guide, Manuela, was very funny and informative as we sampled some of the products served up by the various gourmet food trucks that service the CBD. These included Japadog's famous Japanese flavoured hot dogs, a glorious fish taco from Tacofino, and a grilled cheese sandwich from Mom's Grilled Cheese Truck. NEVER has grilled cheese tasted sooooo good. Vancouver City Council is to be commended for their support of the gourmet food truck idea. If only the Perth City Council were as imaginative.
The rain let up in the afternoon and we visited the Granville Market. The food and produce section is simply amazing, with great displays of quality produce.
We weren't long in Vancouver. We had a pleasant sleep in and then set off to the port for check in to our Alaskan cruise. Two ships were departing that morning so the port was packed with people. We dropped our bags and then joined the long queue for immigration, customs and boarding. These are always frustrating and tiresome processes, but as a traveller you have little choice but to put up with them as best you can. The procedures themselves were handled quite efficiently, but amongst our fellow travellers we observe there were some who found the whole process of queueing and following simple instructions somewhat perplexing. Certainly to have gotten this far, they had to have done this before?
After about an hour and a half of processing we finally boarded the ship - the Radiance of the Seas. She was quite magnificent. Perhaps a little gaudy in a 1990s hotel decor kind of way, but that's normal for a cruise ship. We could not check in to our stateroom until 1pm so went to the buffet for lunch. Wow, what a spread. We put on a kilo just looking at it.
Ballast stowed, we checked into our stateroom on deck 9. I'd expected something small and cramped but it was bigger than many hotel rooms we'd stayed in and had a decent size balcony. It was going to be a great cuise!
Day 1 - Cruising
The ship left port at 4pm. Shelly had been anxious about seasickness but we never even felt the ship leave port, only noticing we were moving when we glanced out the window. We spent the afternoon exploring the ship - and there was a lot to explore - buffet restaurant, formal restaurant covering two floors (two dinner shifts), four specialty restaurants, a two storey theatre, cinema, four bars, casino, nightclub and an external and internal pool, and many other things. We had a formal dinner at 8.30pm, which was nice, and then cruised the bars into the wee hours.
A note on drinks prices. All the literature warns you in advance that drinks prices are exorbitant onboard. This may be true if you are American, but for an Australian from Perth - the most expensive city in the country these days - drinks are cheap as chips. In general cocktails averaged around US$8. At home they would be twice that. Also, to note, the bar staff are not stingy with their shots. Cocktails were lethal.
Day 2 - Cruising
We rose late for a lavish breakfast in the buffet. Day 2 was a cruising day so we generally lazed about, ate, napped and drank. Unfortunately wifi and internet cost were outrageously ridiculous otherwise we might have updated the blog and photos earlier. That evening we had the formal welcome dinner so got all frocked up. The captain provided us with some interesting statistics at the welcome cocktail party.
The Radiance of the Seas was carrying 2200 passengers on this voyage, serviced by 816 staff. There were 46 nationalities aboard the ship, with the greatest variety being amongst the staff. The largest national group was, of course, Americans, at 1800. The next largest group was Canadians and then British. There was a handful of Germans, French, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans.
There is a saying from the 1930s Golden Age of Cruising that cruising is for old people. And their parents. There certainly was an older demographic aboard ship. But there were quite a few young families aboard too. There were quite a few groups of multi-generational families touring together - grandparents, parents and children. There were at least five couples travelling on their honeymoon and two young couples got engaged on the cruise. But it would be safe to say it wasn't a party boat.
Being confined aboard ship for a week with so many of our fellow human beings, we did notice that apart from "normal people" there were three special sub-categories amongst the tourists aboard, who, despite their small numbers, were noticeable everywhere they went - the immensely large, the incredibly stupid, and the chronically unhappy.
As far as the first category goes, the US does have an obesity problem and there were a small number of super-sized travellers on board. These people weren't a problem at all, except if you were stuck behind them in a queue or trying to get to the buffet.
Of the second category, they were easily identifiable on account of their constant, loud, confused banter about the incredibly obvious and their inability to understand even the most simple instructions. Every day we disembarked and reembarked ship the same way - scanned in and out our Seapass card, all bags scanned for contraband, and then step through the metal detectors. It was the same EVERY DAY. And yet, the members of this sub-group would invariably be confounded each and every day. "What do you mean, Seapass?" I don't know how some of these people manage to put their pants on each morning.
And then there are the unsatisfiable, miserable and unhappy people, who scowled, moped and complained about everything, all day, every day. We can only sympathise with the poor crew and staff who had to put up with their complaints.
Takes all kinds I guess.
Day 3 - Ketchikan
We awoke on day 3 in Ketchikan. Ketchikan is an island off the south western coast of Alaska, within the Inside Passage. It's a small, non-descript Alaskan town that stretches along a small area of flatland along the waterfront. Steep hillsides back directly onto the town, limiting its urban sprawl. The major industries of the town were fishing, shipping, seaplanes and tourism. The entire black facing the cruise ship harbour comprised jewellery stores interspersed occasionally with tourist shops. There were three cruiseliners in port that day. The town can handle six.
There were several tours available in Ketchikan from sea kayaking, whale watching, fishing charters, and seaplane flights out to Misty Fjords. We chose to do the seaplane flight. After a quick walk around the historic township (which was about two blocks wide), we were picked up and taken to the seaplane dock for Taquan Airlines. Taquan Airlines had a fleet of about ten seaplanes. They not only provide tourist flights but serviced the hundreds of islands and townships along this stretch of coast. In fact, many towns in this area can only be reached by boat or plane.
Taquan had two types of plane, the De Haviland Beaver, a very long serving and successful utility seaplane that seated six people, and the new Cessna Caravan, seating ten. We were assigned to the Cessna. Neither Shelly or I are particularly good with small planes but the take off was surprisingly smooth. Occasionally the plane was tossed about by a cross breeze, but the flight was less nerve wracking than expected. We had a great view over the mountains and fjords of the island, before we landed on one of the fjords for a quick rest stop. Then we took off again and returned to town. It was well worth the trip.
That evening we briefly spotted whales in the distance but they were too far away to identify.
Day 4 - Icy Point Straight
We had nothing planned for Icy Point, which was little more than a village deep in the Inside Passage. Only 770 odd people live there. 85% of the people are native Indian descent. Fishing remains the main industry with a welcome cash injection from the cruising trade. The Icy Point's harbour was too small for the Radiance so she parked in the deeper water and ferried people ashore via the ship's tenders.
The old cannery outside of town has been turned into a tourist centre and this is where we were landed. It turns out Royal Caribbean owns the whole tourist operation here, as we found out they do in most of the ports.
One of the main attractions here was the zipline ride from the top of the mountain. Its apparently the longest in the world. It takes a 45 minute bus ride around the mountain to reach the top. Getting down is a lot faster! We watched a couple of people come screaming down the mountain and decided - maybe not! We chose a sea kayaking excursion instead.
The sea was like glass and we enjoyed a good, long paddle across the bay. To our surprise and delight we saw a pod of three whales slowly crossing the other side of the bay. We gave chase but they easily outpaced us, we turned back towards the harbour where we had an excellent view of dozens of Bald Headed Eagles nesting in the trees. Every now and again one would swoop down and snatch a fish from the water.
Late in the evening the Radiance set off for Juneau, the strange capital of Alaska. Juneau was only some 60 nautical miles away from Icy Point so the ship cruised along at little more than 2 knots.
Day 5 - Juneau
We'd set the alarm early in order to get up and explore the city before we headed out for excursions, but as always we slept in. It was very easy to sleep, eat, drink and sleep onboard. Too easy. Just as we were about to head down at 9am (early for us!) I checked our tickets and realised we had had a helicopter flight booked for 8.45am. We'd missed our flight! I rushed downstairs in a bit of a panic, but both the cruise line and the tour operators were very obliging and moved us to a later time. Thank God! At a bit of a loss, we wandered around the pleasant old town for a while, grabbed a coffee, checked our emails and then headed back to the ship to grab a bite to eat.
At 9am the weather was looking overcast. By 10am it was raining and by 12, when we were booked on our new flight, things were looking quite grim. The rain had not let up, but the tour operator advised that the helicopter pilots were quite comfortable and prepared to go up. It rains a lot in Juneau so in their opinion a little rain never hurt anyone.
About 1pm we were all trussed up in snow gear and harnesses and bundled into the chopper. We flew a short distance out of town to the Mendahl Glacier, our pilot weaving us there through the canyons. We were set down on the glacier for a two hour trek. Fortunately there was no real rain on the glacier, just an occasional drizzle. It was a truly excellent experience, although Shelly's thighs were complaining several days afterward.
That Juneau is the capital of Alaska is somewhat perplexing. The town is quite small and its not in a very practical location as it is cut off by mountains from ... basically everywhere. It can only be reached by boat or plane. There are thirty miles of paved roadway in the Juneau district, but they don't go anywhere.
That night, before we were off to dinner, we were on our balcony watching the scenery we saw a pod of maybe 20 pilot whales pass us by in the opposite direction. Magic.
Day 6 - Skagway
Skagway was known as the gateway to the Yukon. During the gold rush of 1867 this was the port that most of the miners passed through on their way to the Yukon goldfields. Initially the trek was done on foot, or by mule, which took an appalling toll on both miners and livestock. In the 1870s a railway was constructed to replace the miner's trail. What a feat it was, snaking its way along steep mountain sides and bridging enormous gorges. Of course, the railway no longer transports goods these days, only tourists. The scenery was magnificent, although the train's gentle rocking made it difficult to stay awake.
Skagway town was probably the most picturesque of the towns we'd visited. It has been preserved as something of a frontier town theme park. It did not seem to be a real town. In fact, only about 400 people live in Skagway and this number drops dramatically in winter. The cruise lines own many of the businesses here. Those owned locally loudly proclaim the fact with signs. As in the other cruise ship towns, there were dozens of jewellery stores. These stores, owned by the lines, are fly in - fly out operations; here for the summer and then packed up and reopened in the Caribbean during the winter season.
Day 7 - Hubbard Glacier
We left Skagway early that afternoon, about 4pm, as we had to cover a lot of distance to get to Seward, our destination. There was a formal dinner and shows to attend. More champagne and cocktails to be drunk, hangovers to be nursed.
Early the next morning we arrived at Glacier Bay. The ship navigated up the bay to park at the head of Hubbard Glacier, a six mile wide river of ice slowly grinding its way down to the sea. Hubbard is very active and the ice could be heard cracking and groaning from miles away. We witnessed at least five sections of the glacier face crash into the ocean with a deafening roar. It was an impressive sight.
The Radiance stayed at Hubbard for two hours, slowly rotating around so everyone could get a good view, then we were off again. The race was on to Seward. There was a sadness in the air as we knew the trip was coming to an end. I know cruises can seem a bit lame, but we really enjoyed ourselves. And the food! It was great - even if we admit eating too much. The last day wasn't much of anything. We arrived in port at 5.30am and were disembarked at 9. A new phase of our holiday was beginning.... but it still felt sad.