Alaska
September 2000
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For months we tried in vain to join this cruise, every cabin was booked months before.  One day when we were on holiday in Laguna Beach, California, the travel agent called to say there was a cancellation, and before she finished the sentence I screamed " What are you waiting for ?"

We flew from Los Angeles to Anchorage on September 9, 2000 and upon arrival we were taken by bus to Seward where our beautiful ship, the Ocean Princess was  waiting.  We dumped our luggage and were off to discover that gorgeous ship which was built in Italy with so much care and taste as to be expected only from Italians, and launched only four months before. 

The 14 story ship which looked like a floating city, is one of the biggest cruise ships ever launched.  Its length equals the total length of three football fields and the weighs 77,000 tons.  An impressive machine.
   

We sailed that night after an excellent dinner and found ourselves next morning anchored a mere stone throw away from Harvard glacier in Collage Fjord.  The surprise I had when I opened our cabin balcony left me speechless.   A gigantic torrent frozen in time, was my first impression.  And having breakfast on the cabin balcony, a mere one hundred feet away from a glacier, was certainly an experience difficult to forget.  Cold ?  Well, when you are at Latitude 61º North, you are not that far from the North Pole, and the use of some warm clothes cannot hurt.  We went up on deck to have a full perspective of the first glacier we ever saw, and it was quite a sensation.  After a couple of hours the ship began sailing away from that wonderful glacier. I felt a bit sad but I knew there were many more glaciers to come.

Sailing through the fjords was also an unforgettable experience .  We were running from one side of the deck to the other so as not to miss any angle of that ever changing panorama. Walking around on deck revealed many curious corners of the Princess as well as the facilities available for passengers like beauty parlors and fitness centers and the like.  Lunch is normally served either in the formal dining room or in the cafeteria on the uppermost deck.  Two types of people prefer lunch ar the cafeteria to the dining room: those with insatiable appetite for food, and those with insatiable appetite for beauty.  In between, there is a third category which combines both, and this is where I belong.  Presentation of food in the cafeteria is a real attraction.  Example Allfood is a sculpture made out of a variety of foodstuff like rice, orange, lemon and melon among other things; a feast for the eye and a feast for the stomach.
vCollagefjord
 

We spent most of the day enjoying the cruise through the fjord as one masterpiece of nature unfolded after another. In the evening we were ready for the first formal dinner which was preceded by a welcome speech by the captain in his charming Italian accent.  In the dining room we were met by an Italian maitre d'hôtel who ushered us to our table and was so happy to learn that we spoke Italian.  We suddenly became quite special.

 

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Every night after dinner there was some sort of show, in one of the two theaters.  That night we went to see a floor show cabaret, an acceptable floating imitation of the Parisian Crazy Horse show.  For those who prefer a more quiet evening there were many corners where soft piano or guitar music can be enjoyed in the various charmingly lit corners of the multi level lobby.   The more energetic individuals went to enjoy square dancing or disco music in special lounges around the lobby.  There was something for everyone and every taste, even a casino and an art gallery where an auction was held every morning while art objects were still there to be had.
Cabaret on board the Ocean Princess
 

We sailed all night in rough seas, but the ship weathered very well, and in the morning we found ourselves embraced by glacier bays with its most incredible glaciers, like Glacier Bay which stood in the water like a blue clad congregation standing solemnly in mass, oblivious of the curious eyes gazing at them with awe and in silence.  According to official data, the end of the bay had retreated some 60 miles from where it was when George Vancouver sailed through the Icy Strait in 1774.  Further retreat is of course expected as a result of the global warming taking place on our beautiful planet.

The scenery around was breathtaking.  Wherever you looked around the bay, there was a corner that called for the brush or the lens of an artist , and contrary to one's expectations which link snow with white,  glaciers tend to have a bluish tinge.  This is because ice reflects all colors except blue which gets absorbed and stored in the layers accumulating over the millennia.

Glacier Bay

 

 

Lunch at the cafeteria, apart from being a welcome activity after the cold deck adventures,  is also an occasion to watch people, not only as to how much food they throw into the enormity of their bellies, but how they actually shove it in;  and one wonders whether those enormous human heaps realize that there are other things one can do in a cruise apart from chewing.  Anything they cannot devour, like the ever changing artistic food presentations as in foodsculpture  are normally not worth wasting any time looking at. They just walk past them.
   

 

 

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Mendhall Glacier

Our comments in Italian on the ingenuity of those presentations caught the ears of the cafeteria's head waiter who proudly introduced himself as an Italian.  So was the captain he told us and sure enough, he took us after lunch to the bridge to meet the captain, where he said I could take photos without shivering on the cold deck.  The captain was friendly and the bridge provided a vintage point in comfortable temperature.  Unfortunately, however, with the exception of some harbor seals, we were unable to spot any of the wildlife normally abundant in Glacier Bay, which is famous for being the habitat of a wide variety of marine life including whales, porpoises, sea otters, bears, moose and a large variety of birds.

Next morning we found ourselves in Skagway, a city, at last.  Well, a big town, which was left as it was a century before.  Everything downtown reminded one of the the gold rush movies.  The famous gold rush to the Klondike River in Canada's Yukon Territory began, we were told,  in 1896 not far from Skagaway.  After a stroll downtown we went on one of the many available excursions, a train ride to one of the highest train stations in the world, just across the Canadian border.


Skagwaydown
The green landscape around was a welcome change from the blue of the sea and ice of the last few days, and the scenery on both sides, during the winding climb changed with every turn throughout the climb from high green coniferous trees covering the gentle hill sides skagwayhill,  to barren mountain tops, to deep ravines as in Skagway Ravine with gushing waters racing toward the lower valleys far beyond the horizon.  The climb down on the return journey which lasted about an hour was equally interesting with a different perspective,  like seeing somebody's front and then his back  Skagwaydown.

Skagway Revine

The following morning found us in the capital city Juneau, a charming place forgotten by time and kept as a reminder of the gold rush days. The National Museum had an interesting display of Alaskan Indian design art and wildlife as well as items reminiscent of the gold rush days.  Juneau was founded in 1880 by a famous gold explorer by the name Joe Juneau who gave it his name not knowing that one day it was to become the state capital.  Looking around, nothing seemed to have changed since then. As you walk around, some turn-of-the-century residences, rustic saloons, hotels and stores take one back in time and any of those local people walking around could well have been Skookum Jim or Tagish Charlle or even Joe Juneau himself.

Our choice of that day's excursion was probably the highlight of the whole cruise.  We were taken by bus to see the famous Gastineau salmon hatchery just outside Juneau, where some of the returning salmons are trapped just before reaching their final destination to lay their eggs and die.  We were shown the whole operation including the adult spawning salmons as they struggle to climb the largest fish ladders in Alaska.

From there we were driven to Mendhall glacier, a visit never to be missed.  We were warned of surprise encounters with bears, but the view was too tempting and I decided to take the risk in order to make as many pictures  as I could of that extraordinary place.  After all, how often does one visit a paradise like this.  From every angle you could see a  masterpiece of creation.  Bears or no bears, I ventured from one corner to the next and the deeper I went the stronger was the urge to go further.  But alas, the ever deterrent factor, time, compelled me to leave that paradise only because we were warned that the bus would depart on time, with or without late arrivals.  That had been always my dilemma on guided trips. I was always a late arrival.  In China, one of the two guides of our tour was allocated to me lest I go astray here or there.

Mendhall Glacier

The following morning we arrived in Ketchikan, known as Alaska's "First City" , because it is the first major center where northbound travelers reach.  The name in Indian means " Eagle with spread out wings".   Ketchikan is a real charming and beautiful place famous for salmon fishing and for its natural  beauty.  One of Ketchikan's main attractions and beauty spots is the infamous  Creek Street, the former red district area frequented by sailors and fishermen.  The romantic beauty of the place is  testimony to the good taste of its former occupants, and a paradise for photographers and painters of all tastes.  Now it hosts a shopping center where Indian art work and souvenir items are traded, and where schools of salmon can be seen in the canals heading towards their final destination.  Another great attraction in Ketchikan is the incredible collection of totem poles in Totem Bight State Park.

Ketchiken and Creek Street

Ketchican was our last port of call before the end of the cruise.  We sailed in the afternoon and cruised all night and all day Friday.  I had thought the last day at sea would be a boring experience, but every minute that passed proved how wrong I was.  The dramatic scenery, as we sailed by the coastline, and the hope of spotting a whale or some other marine life kept us anxiously watching  around the deck and enjoying the ever changing panorama around.  But you can's be lucky all the time.  I saw none, but others were more lucky.  The last evening was quite spectacular, as the typical champagne glass pyramid was erected and full glasses were offered to everyone around while the more energetic ones danced around the different floors of the lobby till the early hours of the following day.

In the morning we sailed into Vancouver harbor and those stopping over were taken on a city tour starting with Chinatown, the second largest such town in the Americas, then to Stanley Park before being dropped in their respective hotels,  thus ending that unforgettable cruise.

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Vancouver Harbor

Our hotel room commanded a lovely view of the harbor, and from the lounge on the other side, parts of Vancouver were in view.  Looking around Vancouver you immediately notice that you are in a cosmopolitan city with a European touch.   It was originally cited by someone called Gassy Jack as a suitable place to build a saloon for gold miners on their way to the Yukon.  The saloon he built and named after him became quite popular and a shanty town soon grew around it and became known as Gastown, to be changed later to Vancouver after Captain  George Vancouver who sailed in that area in 1792.

The view from our hotel room in Vancouver
Vancouver

Next day we joined  an excursion to the island of Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia.  Victoria, in contrast to Vancouver, is as British as Big Ben or Buckingham Palace.  The architecture,  roads,  hotels and even the way people walked reminded you of good old England, except that driving is on the right.  A beautiful city in every sense, but alas, the stay was too short to enjoy it fully.

The highlight of the Victoria excursion was the visit to Butchart gardens with all its exotic flowers and plants and that melange of colored tree leaves like I have never seen anywhere else on earth.  I had to be dragged away from that paradise in order not to miss the ferry back to Vancouver and the flight next day to Los Angeles and from there to Laguna Beach.

Victoria
Butchard Gardens

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