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North to Alaska, a Travel Guide: Part 2—Sea-ing Is Believing

By Derek May:


Alaska at sea — Photo by Derek May

Welcome back! With preparations made and the virtues of an Alaskan land tour covered in Part 1, we’re ready to set sail!


Our cliffhanger ended in Whittier as my wife and I prepared to board the Grand Princess. Whichever luxury liner you end up with will be impressively stacked with all the modern amenities, including a dozen decks’ worth of shops, restaurants, theatres, bars, pools, spas, and, of course, passenger rooms.

These rooms can vary in price, and I’ll repeat some advice: the best room to choose might really depend on the voyage you take.

Trips spending days only at sea or ports might justify saving some dough and simply

View of Grand Princess balcony, Alaska — Photo by Anne Trominski

booking an internal stateroom, cheapest because they lack any external view. For a few dollars more, you can opt for a window with limited viewing. Where you may feel the pinch is in springing for a balcony, but for a cruise such as Alaska I’d still recommend it. We’d initially settled for a port window due to costs, but we were tempted by Princess’ continuous offers to bid on an upgrade. The repetition led us to correctly assume Princess was underbooked, and so with only a minimum bid we won a balcony suite for half the cost (a huge thanks to my wife for that!). Alaska’s inside passage allows for magnificent views on either side, and thus the balcony truly paid for itself within the first few vistas. If you have the means, I’d say take the chance and see if you might luck into a late-hour deal.


EMBARKATION


Princess Medallion — Photo by Derek May

If all goes well, your luggage (which we gave up in Denali) should be waiting in your room. By now, you should also have your “medallion,” a small wireless device that acts as your GPS, credit card, and ID. Currently unique to Princess, it’s a clever way to avoid carrying anything else aboard ship, including cash, which is all but absent. Aside from futuristic functions such as unlocking your door as you approach or magically wishing you a happy birthday or anniversary as you pass a screen, your medallion checks you in and out at ports, so do NOT lose it. The internal tracker can also direct you to locations, track the positions of your companions, and allow food and drinks to be delivered to you anywhere aboard ship.


Grand Princess, decks 5–7 — Photo by Derek May

As we first stepped aboard, we hit a wall of confusion as hundreds scuttled about trying to figure out where we were and where we needed to go. Whether new to cruising or not, you may have no idea what deck you’ve arrived on, where the stairs or elevators are, what deck your room is on, etc. On Royal Caribbean, crew members had patiently guided us; here, the crew were busy peddling upgrades with no interest in offering directions. Your Wi-Fi hasn’t been set up yet, so the app can’t guide you. Ultimately, we found our room (B323, on Deck 11—how’s that for intuitive?). You may look for yours prior by searching the ship map on the Princess website, but this might still be confusing without a starting point, so my advice is to beeline for one of the LED touchscreens that should provide a schematic.


Finally, by law everyone needs to complete a safety check before the ship can depart. You are required to watch a 10-minute safety video either on the app or on your stateroom TV; HOWEVER, what they do NOT tell you upfront is that unless you watch it on the TV, you must each watch it individually through your personal profile on the app (watching together on my wife’s phone registered me as still noncompliant). Lastly, once you’ve checked in at your muster station, you should be ready to go!


LIFE ABOARD SHIP


The basic cost of your cruise includes access to most ship events and multiple dining options. Free food and basic non-alcoholic drinks are available 24 hours at certain locations, most notably the buffet. However, beyond this requires either out-of-pocket expenses (via the credit card attached to your medallion) or the purchase of one or more supplemental packages. These offerings vary wildly to taste, but if you drink coffee or alcohol, it’s probably worth it. A drink package provides a limited, though substantial, number of drinks per day and even includes gratuities. One word of caution: some companies are better than others at detailing what exactly is included in your package (RC gets a mark above Princess in this area), so be prepared for a potential learning curve.


Surf & Turf — Photo by Anne Trominski

At least three large dining halls serve a limited but rotating menu far beyond the quality found at the buffet. Managers are usually pretty good about moving patrons through, but if you don’t want to risk waiting you should make reservations through the app or on your room TV, but be warned spots fill up fast and, occasionally, the system crashes. At some point you’ll likely find yourself at a shared table with around six other guests. While not always ideal, it can be a fun way to meet new people, and I’ve rarely found conversations stagnant or uninteresting. So don’t be shy!


Depending on the length of trip, your ship will likely have at least one “formal night.” It can be fun to dress up and have lots of pictures taken at various stations or by roving photographers (available later for purchase), but it seems to be a dying convention, with no more than half the passengers typically participating. Still, if you have the room in your luggage and a nostalgia for classier times, why not?

Romeo, the Friendly Wolf — Photo by Anne Trominski

Most ships have a casino—but be warned, if you don’t smoke, you might find the experience intolerable (I couldn’t even linger on the same deck). Still, there are plenty of alternate forms of entertainment, and I’d highly recommend attending any lectures unique to the area. We attended both presentations by naturalist-writer Nick Jans, who regaled us with stories of life in the Alaskan wilderness as well as his unique friendship with a wild black wolf named Romeo, who we recognized at his unmarked exhibit on a later excursion (a treat we’d never have appreciated without that experience).


GLACIAL PACING


I had some initial misgivings that our first two stops required us to remain aboard as the ship navigated toward solely external views of several glaciers, but I needn’t have worried, as this was indeed the best and only way to view these magnificent sites.


Hubbard Glacier, Alaska — Photo by Derek May

Hubbard Glacier is nestled in beautiful Yakutat Bay. As much as six miles wide, it is considered the largest tidewater glacier in North America. A breathtaking spectacle surrounded by snowcapped mountains, it’s truly a wonder to behold. If you’re fortunate, as we were, you may spot mountain goats walking along cliffsides or a herd of sea lions resting on shore.


Sea lions near Hubbard Glacier — Photo by Derek May

The next day we entered Glacier Bay, a gorgeous and aptly named spot. The largest and most impressive is Margerie Glacier, a prototypical ice wall leading right to the water’s edge. You’ll likely witness “calving,” where giant sheets of ice break off into the water with a thunderous boom you have to hear to believe. We were gifted a living Alaskan postcard when we saw a herd of sea lions resting on a nearby iceberg, a dozen sea otters floating around the other side, and a bald eagle in the middle posing on an icy peak, all situated before the gorgeous white-blue glacial façade—ALASKA!


Margerie Glacier, Alaska — Photo by Anne Trominski

It's a double-edged sword learning that the ship was able to navigate closer to these glaciers than it had ever before. While this afforded unique viewing opportunities, we couldn’t help but feel a little sad understanding how climate change is wreaking havoc on these natural wonders. While this may be politicized in all-too-many places, it is a stark and well-acknowledged reality in the north, as nearly every guide we met lamented its tangible ongoing effects. It’s uplifting to hear that cruise companies and other commercial entities are working closely with national parks and environmental groups to preserve these natural wonders, yet I still advise you to see them while you can.


SKAGWAY


Downtown Skagway — Photo by Derek May

Like many stopovers, Skagway is little more than a half dozen intersected streets filled with quaint shops ranging from tourist traps to cannabis stores (it’s legal in Alaska). It’s worth an hour or two to bum around in, but the real magic lies in its proximity to the Yukon and the vast wilderness surrounding it.


Yukon panorama — Photo by Derek May

Most tours offer some combination of Yukon exploration and ride aboard the White Pass Scenic Railway. Whether you take the train up or back, it’s a must-do. We started our adventure by bus through the countryside on our way across the Canadian border (so have your passport ready). The scenic ride offers a year’s worth of vistas in a few short hours as you trek through snow-covered plains and mountains into green pines and across flowing rivers. In places, it is exactly the image you’d expect as you conjure visions of gold seekers forging through with dreams of fortune (few of which ever came true).


Carcross Commons, Canada — Photo by Derek May

Carcross, Canada, is a tiny village with one foot in either century. Some fading original buildings and vehicles mix in with a modern island market filled with artisan shops and food. Enjoyable enough, but the real action is just up the road at Wild Adventure Yukon (formerly Caribou Crossing Trading Post). This campus of delights offers a small museum exhibit, a

Sled dogs in training pulling tour vehicle — Photo by Derek May

warehouse full of taxidermed local animals, an opportunity to pan for gold, shops, and your provided lunch. There’re also the numerous pens of living animals to visit—and even pet—including horses, alpacas, goats, and, indeed, sled dogs. You can interact not just with older dogs enjoying retirement but with young pups prepping for life on the run. In fact, for an extra fee you can be taken on a short ride by a group of excited, yelping dogs in training as they “pull” your group in a motorized vehicle driven by one of the trainers. You witness firsthand how much these animals truly love their job as they build the muscle and experience needed to work with transport or rescue sleds (in some places still the only means of travel) or perform in races such as the Iditarod.


White Pass Railway — Photo by Derek May

Returning to Fraser, a “town” embodied by the Canadian border patrol building, you’ll catch the White Pass Railway train back to Skagway. The cars have an original aesthetic but with comfortable modern touches. You can either relax under the massive windows or step out onto the fore or after platforms for an unobstructed if windy experience. Either way, while you may be traveling the same route you did on the bus, you’re now deeply immersed in the wild, clacking through at an easy pace, witnessing some of the most gorgeous vistas nature has to offer as well as potentially some wildlife (this was the only day we saw bears—and we saw two black bears right up close!).


JUNEAU


Downtown Juneau — Photo by Derek May
Red Dog Saloon bartender serving Dick Farts — Photo by Anne Trominski

Though definitely more of a city than some other stops, Alaska’s capital is still relatively small, with most of downtown easily walkable in a few hours. The shops along the crisscrossing streets mostly cater to cruise stopovers, but there are some lovely bits within. If you have the time and inclination, definitely stop by the Red Dog Saloon. If the line at the main entrance is too long, slip around to the side enclave, where a friendly bartender in classic saloon attire can serve you their most famous shot: the Duck Fart (it’s delicious).


Humpback whale, Juneau, May 2024 — Photo by Anne Trominski

We chose to start our day with one of the many whale-watching tours available. Each tour guarantees a sighting, though what that means can vary. On the day, it meant spotting five humpback whales from our large passenger vessel. We weren’t afforded more than seeing their backs and tails as they dived, but it was still thrilling to be so close to these massive creatures we could hear the blowholes spewing like cannons. We were too early in the year for orcas, but we did see plenty of seals and sea lions. And for motion-sensitive travelers like myself, fear not, as the sail was smooth with only a gentle rocking.


Mendenhall Glacier and Valley — Photo by Derek May

Another must-see is definitely Mendenhall Glacier, a short bus ride outside the city that affords a chance to see more of the surrounds. Sitting within the vast Tongass National Forest, the glacier is more than a mile wide with a visitor’s center parked in perfect view of the white beauty. The center itself is worth a linger, with a descriptive short film, informative displays, and several indoor observation opportunities. If you recall our mention about Nick Jans, this is also where you can see the final resting place of Romeo, the friendly black wolf that frolicked amongst his human and canine neighbors for six years before his tragic end.


KETCHIKAN


Downtown Ketchikan — Photo by Derek May

We were informed that our originally booked tour had been inexplicably canceled, but an informative trip to the ship’s guest services desk helped us quickly choose another. When my wife visited the first time, she attended a lumberjack show, one of the most popular events in town. And while enjoyable, we really wanted something that would delve deeper into the cultures of the native inhabitants and so chose a relatively new excursion promising a variety of experiences.


Derek dancing with Tlingit natives at Saxman Village — Photo by Anne Trominski

We started in Saxman village, a brief shuttle ride from the harbor. Only natives and relatives are allowed to live there, and the local Tlingit members have done a nice job establishing infrastructure catering to both residents and tourists alike. At the meeting house, we

Nathan Jackson using a traditional tool to carve a totem pole image — Photo by Derek May

observed ancient relics and art, even crafting some ourselves as we each painted our own ornament featuring a native animal. We were served some delectable local food and drinks and got to informally chat with a resident. A short trek through the woods led us to the Beaver Clan House, where we were gifted a performance of ritual dancing. Outside the house were numerous totem poles, which our guide described in detail before leading us into a carving room where world-famous Tlignit artist Nathan Jackson was busy working on his latest piece.


Creek Street, Ketchikan — Photo by Derek May

Returning to downtown, Ketchikan offers a picturesque hamlet perfect for strolling. If you hit the right time of year, you might observe salmon swimming upstream near Creek Street. Also check out the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, but be warned, it closes early. There are no shortage of shops or eateries, so you’re sure to find something catering to your tastes.




DISEMBARKING


As the ship closes in on its final destination, which for us was Vancouver, you’ll find plenty of sales aboard. And that doesn’t just include merchandise, as we were able to get a wonderful couple’s massage on our final day for 50% off, so definitely explore your options or plan ahead to save a little green.


You’ll likely have to prepare your luggage to be picked up the night before and find it waiting in the terminal hall as you enter customs in Vancouver. Everyone will have to fill out a customs declaration, which was neither noted nor provided to us until we reached the gate. If you don’t receive one while waiting to disembark, ask for one; you’ll save yourself time and trouble later.  


As most people aren’t heading straight to the airport, shuttle service to your hotel should already be included. There are also still excursions to be had, so don’t miss out just because you’re back on land.


VANCOUVER


View of north downtown Vancouver — Photo by Derek May

The name “Vancouver” can vary in meaning, mostly referring to the downtown center of the city where you’ll arrive (or depart) by ship and are likely to stay; however, there are also “North Vancouver” and “West Vancouver” (not mention “Vancouver Island”), so simply be aware that terminology can shift.


If you can only stay a day, or even an afternoon, I highly recommend booking a city tour. If you feel confident in your own navigational skills, you can buy a 24-hour pass on the hop-on-hop-off bus or sign up for one of their 5-hour guided tours. As we’d decided to add a few extra days to explore downtown on our own, we opted for a highlights tour that got us a bit out of the city.


STANLEY PARK


Stanley Park totem poles — Photo by Derek May

Our first stop was Stanley Park, a massive and manicured green just a bit northwest of downtown. Filled with lush gardens, massive trees, stunning statues, and dozens of Canada Geese, the park is probably most famous for its collection of totem poles, each one detailing an ancient or modern story. If you have more time, check out a stage performance or take the kids on a mini train ride.


CAPILANO PARK & SUSPENSION BRIDGE


Derek on the Capilano Suspension Bridge

We crossed over the water into North Vancouver to visit the famous Capilano Suspension Bridge, an impressive feat of engineering that will either excite or terrify you as you cross its narrow length 200 feet above the rushing river. Though it can be crowded, it’s worth the spectacular views, and keen-eyed observers may recognize it from numerous shows, notably The Crow: Stairway to Heaven.


A short jaunt from there you enter Capilano Park proper to witness some of the most massive cedar trees in the world. Considered a temperate rainforest, the verdant surroundings are simply mind-boggling, with trails leading through dense but navigable foliage. Trees knocked over by strong winds find new life as homes to mosses, animals, and even other trees. If you time it right, you may see salmon running upstream to spawn, but even if you don’t, explore the hatchery nearby that details their incredible journey and learn how humans are supporting and facilitating their continuation.


Capilano Park and salmon hatchery — Photo by Derek May

DOWNTOWN


Vancouver has a definite and unique vibe I’d described to my wife as a “cross between Austin and Detroit.” On the one hand, it is a bustling and vibrant city, progressive, diverse, and aimed to cement itself as a premier modern destination for business and tourism. On the other, this growth is skyrocketing prices, making affordable living ever more difficult and likely contributing to the city’s pervasive and expanding homelessness issue. The lingering scent of legal marijuana is near constant, which depending on your views may or may not be a contributing factor to the common site of addicts shooting up or smoking crack literally right on the streets. The price of gas has driven many to electric cars, and most public buses are powered by overhead streetcar wires, leading to a refreshing lack of smog in the air. Yet, noise pollution is prevalent in the numerous people (often homeless) throughout the city blasting music from portable speakers with nary a care for those around them.


Electric city bus, Vancouver — Photo by Derek May

Moving around is easy. If you’re physically able, you can certainly walk just about anywhere within the downtown area, but you also have the option to rent bicycles through the Mobi system or use the variety of public transportation. The three main options are bus, subway, or seabus. You can by single trip, round trip, or even day passes that includes all three within a zone (downtown is Zone 1), though be aware there are competing private ferry companies, False Creek & Aquabus, that are not included as part of Translink and require their own tickets/passes. While buses can be found everywhere, know that the subway’s expanse downtown is limited, so plan for a combination of methods to reach your destination.


CITY HIGHLIGHTS

Gastown Steam Clock at night — Photo by Anne Trominski

One of the most popular areas is Gastown, a collection of blocks having been or in the process of being renovated/gentrified with shops, restaurants, and with an easy, upscale-but-accessible vibe. The highlight is the Gastown Steam Clock that musically chimes every fifteen minutes while puffing vaper from its tower.


A little southeast of Gastown is Chinatown, an area of mixed reputation. Most locals commented that it was perfectly safe during the day and contains a wealth of delicious restaurants, but it might be best to avoid at night due to increased drugs and muggings. Unquestionably, however, is the beauty and elegance of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, an exquisite oasis of architecture living in harmony with nature. Pools with ducks, turtles, and swans center the labyrinthine complex, sporting several art and historical exhibits and a lovely gift shop.


Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden with city reflection — Photo by Derek May

Farther south you’ll find two massive stadiums where you might catch a soccer (football) or hockey game, as well as Science World for the kids. Across the bay are dockside eateries and shops in addition to multiple parks. Stroll along the bank or take a ferry ride up and down the bay.


View of south downtown Vancouver — Photo by Derek May

If you have the time, check out the Granville Island Public Market, a bustling bazaar with local artisan foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, ethnically diverse eateries, and lots of shopping from delicate glass sculptures to souvenir knickknacks. You might also hop the ferry over to nearby Vanier Park, where you’ll find the Maritime Museum and the Museum of Vancouver (which also houses the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre).


Granville Market — Photo by Derek May

SUMMARY


I hope you enjoyed this exploration of merely one of many ways to enjoy Alaska and the greater Pacific Northwest. Most of all, I hope it helped or inspired you to plan a trip for yourself. The natural wonders of this area are truly astounding and all but impossible to put into words that do any justice. But now you are forearmed with knowledge and humble advice to assist in creating your own adventure of a lifetime. Get up there and have fun, and don’t forget to send me your pictures!


 

Derek May, of San Antonio, TX, is Editor-in-Chief and occasional writer for Flapper Press. He has written nearly 50 movie reviews for movieweb.com and completed 13 original feature film and television screenplays, many of which have been winners or finalists in such prestigious competitions as the Walt Disney and Nicholl Fellowships, the Austin Film Festival, and the Creative World Awards. He served as a judge for 10 years for the Austin Film Festival and Texas Film Institute screenplay competitions. His latest project has been the highly acclaimed stop-motion animation fan series Highlander: Veritas, which released its second season in July 2022.

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