Amcan Travel cruises up the coast of Alaska from Juneau to Anchorage on the Sun Princess.
We took the Princess courtesy bus to Vancouver from Seattle in a leisurely manner, a pleasant if uneventful journey. Several of our fellow passengers were Amcan customers, booked on the same cruise with us. Upon arriving at the docks in Vancouver, we were taken by the beauty of the Sun Princess (photo, Sun Princess) ready to pull herself out of downtown Vancouver. The ship is a handsome 1900-passenger, 900-crew vessel flying the Bermuda flag, with heavy British influence. Most of the officers seem to be Italian, but the majority of the crew are eastern Europeans or Filipino. Since we all used the Princess website to pre-register, the check-in process was amazingly easy and fast. The boat departed Vancouver Harbor and we bid this beautiful city goodbye (photo, departing Vancouver). Most of Amcan Travel's customers spent a few days in Vancouver before boarding the cruise. We looked for family members on board and had our first dinner at a table of eight. Our waiters, Radu and Gabriella are both from Romania and speak excellent English. The food is very good, fresh and expertly prepared and presented, though the menu is on the safe side, shy from exotic spices.
Second day on the ship was Tuesday, spent entirely at sea. The on-board program got into full swing. Barbara started with her in-laws in the morning for a yoga class. The instructor holding the class is a boxer from South Africa, doubling as yoga teacher. It is quite funny to see such a muscular guy doing the yoga moves. No wonder he asked us to do a lot of standup gestures. However, attempting to balance on one leg with the other leg lifting high, while the ship sails at full speed (though stable) is quite a challenge. After breakfast, we attended a food carving demos, where penguins and rabbits were imaginatively carved out of eggplant, watermelon and squashes (photo, fruit and vegetable carvings). The carving demonstration was followed by the Sushi demo in the food court right before lunch hour. The chefs did a fine job, but the demo's master of ceremonies is a young woman from California who apparently hates sushi. She repeatedly stated that seaweed is weird, wasabi too spicy, and no one is supposed to eat daikon radish. Being sushi lovers, we felt we could do a better job out of the genuine love of the food. The lunch buffet with Asia Theme was a bit of a disappointment. Being right in Alaska, sushi with just two kinds of fish and one kind of shrimp doesn't do justice to the fertile waters we are sailing on.
Tuesday afternoon featured a nature talk hosted by a retired teacher from the Midwest who has spent the last 20-some years living in an Eskimo village. She emphasizes the primitive aspects of life without sewage or grid electricity. The talk was good, entertaining even though mostly an introduction to Alaska with lots of statistics. Afterward, we enjoyed our first art auction on board with free champagne, hosted by a young ambitious couple, though the showing was not very interesting. We spent some time on the promenade deck with other family members and enjoyed the surprisingly warm Alaska late summer sun. The evening dinner was formal, so we saw a lot of pretty dresses and suits on fellow cruisers of different age, size and shape. It seems our fellow passengers are mostly senior people and few kids. Dinner was again fabulous with lively conversation at the table.
Wednesday morning we arrived in Ketchikan (photo, view of Ketchikan). Barbara enjoyed a nice foggy sunrise as the ship pulled into the narrow strait. While doing her yoga and tai chi on the top deck, she saw seaplanes are taking off and landing right next to the ship (photo, seaplanes). Apparently the Japan Current brings warming tropical ocean water up north during the winter, so the water temperature is about the same around Ketchikan as in the San Francisco Bay Area. We walked around the town. Totem Heritage Center (photo, totems) offers some history about the local people and their culture. We strolled back along Creek Street (photo, Creek Street) and watched the spawning salmon so thick they make the water look black (photo, salmon crowd). The dead fish exposed along the river bank make a distinguished odor. We learned this attracts bear to come to scarf up the bodies of the fish and clean the river. The nature knows how to take itself here. The ship left town around 2pm with the help of a tugboat that looked tiny next to our ship (photo, tugboat). We attended a second nature talk titled "Honey-buckets at 40 below". The talk focused on subsistence style of life in rural Alaska.
Following the talk, the naturalist announced that, since we were navigating out of the narrow strait of the water, and it was almost sunset time, we were very likely to see some whales and dolphins. We all piled up on the upper decks, holding our breath and with cameras ready, we saw a few, as they exhale and dive with tails flapping. We saw none of the extraordinary jumping out of the water like we see on the cover of the brochures.
We joined everyone at the dinner table for Italian night. After a couple of bottles of nice wine that our in-laws got at the afternoon wine testing, the atmosphere got lively and we shared our off boat stories. Our younger siblings had gone snorkeling at Mountain Point. Though the brochure ensures us the quarter-inch wetsuit keeps the snorkeler toasty warm in the water, and this claim was confirmed by our in-laws, we still shivered when they told their adventure story. Our other table-mates had gone fishing trip caught some nice big salmon, which were immediately processed and quick frozen, shipped back home to East coast. After figuring the cost of the fishing excursion, processing, and shipping, their salmon will average out to some $80 dollar a pound, the most expensive salmon they've ever had. Dessert at Italian night is probably one of the best for the entire trip and we were all fooled by the sweetness of the after dinner drink, especially when Radu and Gabirilla kept filling our glass-ball bottom shot glasses up. At the end of the night, we were all giggling and being silly til we were practically escorted out of the dining room after passing their closing time.
Thursday morning we arrived in Juneau, the capital city of Alaska. The weather turned out to be less than wonderful, so we ditched our plan of hiking up the Mt. Robert. We got into town, did a bit shopping, and had some coffee at a local cafe. In the afternoon, we took a local bus tour to Mendenhall Glacier (photo, Mendenhall Glacier), which marked our first Alaskan Glacier encounter. At the park's visitor center, we walked to the observation deck. Now about two miles away from the glacier, this location was still covered by glacier just 50 years ago.
We took the same tour bus back to town, just in time to catch a talk given by the first woman champion of the Iditarod race, Libby Riddles. She is a classy lady, and a good speaker when talking about the practical details of dog mushing. The experience was quite personal and moving with her video. At dinner, we compared our day experience again. Our younger siblings had kayaked along the Glacier Lake, while others went on a whale-watching trip. Ours seemed to be the least challenging and uneventful. We checked out the Karaoke bar after dinner and Richard tried a few songs.
Friday morning we arrived at Skagway, a small town of 800 people (photo, Skagway). That's about a third of our boat population, and there were other cruise ships at the dock. The city has done a great job preserving the original town layout from the 1898 gold rush era. Surrounded by snow covered mountains, it is indeed a hidden beauty. We rode the White Pass Scenic Railway, taking an old fashioned parlor car. The route climbs 3000 foot over 20 miles of steep grades and cliff-hanging turns (photo, White Pass). It follows the original route to the summit where 20,000 dreamers climbed in 1898. Less than 250 people got rich from the adventure, while Skagway became the home of the largest criminal gang in North America at the time. We felt the chill at the top of the pass, which is at least 20-degree difference. Back in Skagway, there are still red-light saloons, old brothel houses and bars, though now strictly tourist attractions. We bought a pair of gloves for next two days glacier viewing and had some jalapeno peanut butter ice cream, strange and wonderful. We took a break in the midday. While Richard had a nap, Barbara took the excursion to the steam bath and sauna. The hot tubs were full of people with drinks in hand, but both steam bath and sauna were empty.
Before sunset, we set out again for a short hike to lower Lake Dewey (photo, Dewey Lake). The birdseye view of Skagway from the top of the hill makes the town even more attractive. We saw a lot of different kinds of mushroom, some as big as our head, others in bright colors (photo, wild mushroom). It was so beautiful out that we almost forgot time, so we had to rush back before the boat left without us. Dinner conversation started with a historical picture of 1898 gold rush our parents had bought in town in a specialty photo shop. The black and white poster size picture depicted the path covered by marching golden diggers. The Friday night show was by a comedian, pretty funny after he warmed up a bit making fun of passengers.
Saturday became the climax of our cruise, when the boat slowly cruised up Glacier Bay. There are only two boats our size allowed into the bay every day by the State. We were lucky that the weather was glorious, bright and sunny. The water was smooth and dark, reflecting like a mirror. We got out on the deck by 8am and spent the five hours watching the glaciers and taking pictures. We rode right up between Marjorie and Grand Pacific Glaciers (photo, glacier), and rested there for an hour. The whole while there was commentary broadcast on the ship PA about glaciers and Alaska wildlife by park rangers on board. The day's picture taking was more than the five previous days combined, since we saw about half dozen glaciers in a single day (photo, glacier). After the boat left the bay in the afternoon, we went to another art auction and it was livelier this time. A dozen or so pieces were sold including director's beloved Dali. We also tried a trivia challenge before dinner, but our team failed pretty miserably. Later, Barbara took the whole table to the bar to cheer Richard on in the Karaoke bar. Since this was the second and final formal night, everyone was decked out in their finest and tossing back unlimited free champagne from an elaborate champagne waterfall. Finding ourselves up late, we decided to check out the midnight buffet. There are mainly desserts of all kinds and Richard hoovered down a sweet or two.
Sunday we woke up to rain and some rough sea, since the boat had finally hit some true Alaska weather. Richard stayed in bed much the morning, but did go to register for the talent show for the night. The schedule called for whole day sailing. We went up to the deck to check out College Fjord in the rain, while our naturalist narrated some of the passage around the fjord. Barbara did more sauna, steam bath and yoga to detoxify from the champagne and heavy desert consumed all week long. At dinner, everybody was a bit sad at the end of this fun friend and family cruise. A giant Baked Alaska, loaded with 4 exotic ice creams, knocked off the blues from all of us. At the talent show, Richard attempted a version of "St James Infirmary" accompanied by the ship's music director on piano and the staff rhythm section. It didn't have quite the Dixie feel he would have liked, but he received kisses and congratulations from all family members who were there to support him. This is almost a perfect ending of the cruise.
Monday morning we arrived in Whittier. Time to get off the boat. Since our flight home was scheduled in the afternoon, we had signed up for some kayaking on Prince William Sound, but the excursion desk generously canceled for us without penalty due to the heavy rain at the time. We got into Anchorage after an hour-long bus ride where we saw some of the most beautiful mountains and waters along the way. Family had lunch in the fancy over the water restaurant in Anchorage before we bid everyone goodbye.