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Nhu and I recently returned from a cruise to Alaska on Norwegian Cruise Lines. Before the cruise, though, we spent a few days in the Seattle area, including two days at Mount Rainier. Afterward, we boarded the ship in downtown Seattle, and arrived in Juneau two days later where we spent the afternoon docked. My main goal in Juneau was to see the Mendenhall Glacier from Brotherhood Park, a spot that frequently appears on many postcards. Unfortunately, a fatal motorcycle accident occurred just as we were supposed to be boarding the city bus which was supposed to take us there. Because Juneau has only one main road to the Mendenhall Valley, not only was our bus very late, but it took us two and a half hours to go the ten miles. We did get to the spot eventually, but we were unable to go up to the glacier as planned. Instead, I took pictures quickly, and we got on the last express bus going back to town. We then had just a short time in downtown Juneau before we had to board the boat again.

Very early the next morning, we arrived in Skagway. This small blip on the map boasts less than a thousand permanent residents, and a stunning fifty two jewelry stores. Apparently the cruise ships have done wonders in shaping the local economy. Here we had an excursion scheduled: a Jeep tour up into the Yukon Territory. After thirty five people crammed into nine Jeeps, we were on our way. We drove up the beautiful, breathtaking Klondike highway, stopping three times for photos, plus a fourth for Canadian customs. I was somewhat disappointed that we didn't get to stop more often though, as the scenery was definitely picturesque. After an hour or so, we eventually reached the sleepy town of Carcross, much smaller even than Skagway with a population of fifty three. Here we had coffee and lunch, and then went up into the mountains for our brief off-road adventure. One of the Jeeps got a flat, but changing the tire took only a few minutes. After making our way back down the mountainside, we rushed back to Skagway, though I suspect the only rush was for the company to pick up a second load of tourists before the ships left that evening.

The following day was spent cruising around the breathtaking Glacier Bay National Park. The ship got fairly close to a few of the glaciers there, and we did see some (very) distant orcas and humpbacks. Later that night though, during a beautiful sunset, an entire pod of humpbacks got much closer to the ship. Nhu was ecstatic, as she had never seen whales before, and wanted the chance to spot them on the trip.

The morning after that, we arrived in Ketchikan. Unfortunately, the entire area was covered in a very, very thick layer of fog, which meant that our scheduled seaplane ride over the Misty Fjords was canceled. Luckily, there were a few spots left on the local boat-based tour, and we jumped on that instead. At first it looked like the fog would not clear at all, but our guide assured us that it would, and indeed it finally did clear up, just in time to see New Eddystone Rock, the iconic rock formation of the park. A few hours later, we were back in Ketchikan, but with even less time than we had in downtown Juneau. We rushed down the streets in an attempt to see as much as we could; we even had time to buy some very tasty smoked salmon before heading back to the boat.

The following evening, we arrived in Victoria, our final port, only to find that our whale watching excursion was also canceled, though I could not say why. It was cloudy, but certainly not foggy; I would have thought it the perfect weather to spot Orcas. Anyway, instead of whale watching, we visited downtown Victoria. We considered going up to Butchart Gardens, but we arrived in Victoria fairly late and I did not think we would have enough time for the trek to be worth it. After some brief exploration, we went back to the boat and headed for Seattle.

The ship itself, the Norwegian Pearl, is really a beautiful boat. It is large enough that we felt no movement at all except for the brief period that we were on open ocean. The staff was very friendly, and the food ranged from excellent to barely passable. The free (or rather, included) buffet was generally decent, and had a very good breakfast. The other included restaurants onboard were also quite good. Interestingly, most of the premium (i.e., cover charge) restaurants we tried, such as Brazilian and Shabu Shabu, were not as good. The exception to this was the French restaurant, which was truly spectacular; I wish we would have eaten there twice.

Overall, the cruise was fun, and I am very glad that I did it, but I don't think I'll be going on another one any time soon. I like planning my own vacations, and I'd rather not be stuck with a ship schedule. The port we spent the most time in, Skagway, was also the least interesting; I would have loved to spend more time in Ketchikan and Juneau. Still, the cruise was probably the cheapest way to see everything that we did, even if I didn't get to see as much as I wanted.

Posted by nick.steinbaugh at 5:39 PM

I spent Memorial Day weekend in Alaska, and while the sun was not up at midnight, it was up at 11:30. Flying up to Anchorage from Seattle, I witnessed a reverse sunset; as I traveled north, it continued to get lighter. It was a very unique experience, and could have afforded me a very nice view if it were a bit less cloudy. It was still dusk when I made it to my hotel 45 minutes later. The following two days were spent on day cruises, one from Whittier, and one from Seward. The first day was beautifully sunny, and the second a bit dreary, but the second offered much more to see. The first boat ride was into Prince William Sound, which has plenty of scenery and tidewater glaciers. The second, though, was through Kenai Fjords National Park, and offered numerous whale, orca, otter, seal and bird sightings (and of course photographs). Although we only saw one glacier on the second cruise, I thought it was more photogenic than those of the previous day. Overall, despite the gloomy weather, which is very common there, the cruise was amazing.

The third day was spent exploring the remainder of the Kenai peninsula. Upon first glance, there wasn't really much to see there. Homer, the supposed bald eagle capitol of the world, was a great disappointment. Not only did I not see any mature bald eagles, the entire Spit area was not much more than a gigantic trash pit with some RV parks thrown in for good measure. I was pretty put off by the place. However, a ranger at the visitor center there told me about a great place I could find bald eagles: Anchor Point. This small state park is home to a few of the birds, and has a few nests as well. At first, I managed only to find some a great distance away in a field, but eventually my perseverance paid off. One of the eagles allowed me to get quite close to him, and I got some great photos. Then, as I was getting ready to leave, I saw more of them by the water, picking at some fish on the shore. So, I spent some more time photographing these birds, until eventually they left. I then made my way back up to Anchorage.

The next day, I climbed Flattop Mountain near Anchorage. Supposedly this is the most climbed mountain in Alaska, but much to my surprise, the last few hundred feet required climbing up some fairly treachorous rock. The view at the top was decent. You can see Anchorage down below, and other nearby mountains as well, but it was far from stunning. After climbing back down, I went to the Moose's Tooth, which was recommended by friends as an excellent pub and pizza place. The pizza was indeed quite good, and though I am no connoisseur, the wheat beer I tried was also very tasty.

The following day, I woke up early and trekked all the way up to see Mount McKinley. The drive was definitely worth it. The 20,327 foot monster dwarfs the surrounding fourteeners; it is truly a sight to behold. Photos do not do the mountain's grandeur justice, though I certainly tried! I was glad that I woke up early, though, because when I reached the mountain the weather was nice, but soon the clouds rolled in, and I took my leave. On my way back south, I stopped in the small town of Talkeetna, took in the small town, and had an excellent vanilla malt before leaving for Anchorage to catch my plane.

Posted by nick.steinbaugh at 3:42 PM
Filed under: Travel, Alaska