Wednesday, August 27, 2014

THINGS I LEARNED ON MY SUMMER VACATION, PART 3

Southeast Alaska looks a lot like Washington and other places we've visited in the west.  On our cruise, the Inside Passage route from Vancouver to Skagway afforded some stunning scenery.  Beautiful blue waters, emerald green hills and craggy mountains, waterfalls galore. Yet, we often said, "This looks like the San Juan Islands."  Or, "This reminds me of Lake Chelan."  Rafters on the river looked like they were shooting the Tieton.

Once in Denali National Park, the scenery changed to wide open spaces and enormous vistas -- reminding us of Glacier National Park or Yosemite.

It's funny how the brain makes sense of things by comparing them to other known things.  That's why meeting someone often prompts one to say, "She reminds me of my sister"..or friend..or co-worker.  When I met Alaska it reminded me of other places I already know, which surprised me.  I had expected the National Geographic Channel "TV version" of Alaska -- all herds of wildlife and calving glaciers, fields of wildflowers, and salmon jumping upstream with grizzlies patrolling the riverbank while fly fishers hauled in record-setting fishes.

I know those travelogues are real and even if I didn't see it, it was happening somewhere.  (Our travel companions did go fly fishing.)  But I realized on some naive level I expected to see all of it up close and personal at every turn.

We saw very little wildlife:  a few bald eagles, a caribou from about a mile away and a few moose -- one up close and 2-3 just outside of Wasilla along the train tracks.  We were lucky enough to see a black bear up close catching salmon in a stream near the Mendenhall Glacier.  We were on a boardwalk adjacent to the parking lot and the stream ran under a footbridge which is where the bear was.  Hoards of tourists 3-4 deep jostled with cameras.  Hub got a nice video.  I was too short to see it "in person" over all the other people crammed onto the rail of the bridge.   Not a postcard sort of sighting.

Once I settled into expecting the familiar, I could appreciate the nuances of Alaska that are different.  Tundra for one.  It's bouncy.  We stuck our hands into a hole and only a few inches below the surface soil it was frigid cold, though warm enough for us to be wearing T-shirts that day in the sun.



Glaciers are another.   We saw the Mendenhall Glacier first, which terminates into a lovely lake fed by a pounding waterfall.


Yet, it was the Hubbard Glacier that was the highlight of the trip for me.  Our ship got to within 1/2 mile, which I understand is the closest it has ever been able to go.  The early morning was calm as we floated through beautiful ice floes.  The captain was able to turn the ship in slooooow 360-degree circles so all got a view, no matter where you stood.  We saw and heard the calving ice.  Most observers were silent as we absorbed the enormity of this amazing natural phenomenon.







And Denali (Mt. McKinley) itself is something to see -- if you can.  It is often shrouded in fog and clouds - only 30% of visitors ever see it.  We were lucky.  We were 60 miles away, but there it was and there is no denying its majesty and enormity.










The other thing I loved was the domed train we rode from Denali National Park back to Anchorage.  It was an all-day trip as the bus had been, but there was no comparison.  It was so much fun to sit "up top" and have the panoramic view.  The service was excellent, the intermittent narration just enough, the trip to the dining car downstairs for a light lunch felt elegant (white table cloths, leather bound menus!) and fun.

Back in Anchorage, we had another 24 hours before flying to Seattle.  We found a couple of great restaurants and coffee shops and visited two breweries (for Hub's microbrew-tasting hobby).  We found a waterfront bike and walking trail that was quiet and lovely.  A nice, mellow end to the trip.

And this, my friends, ends the summer vacation series.

The biggest lesson I learned was to appreciate exactly where I live.  After 32 years of living in this vacationland of two mountain ranges, an enormous Sound, dozens of rivers, the Pacific Ocean, lakes, lakes, lakes and a big metropolitan city along with picturesque small towns, it's easy to take it a bit for granted.  I am always appreciative of where I live, but I do expect I'll see mountains when I wake up and the waterfront of our town, and the river I drive next to on the way to my Yoga studio.  It's just the backdrop to my life.  After this trip, I see it all with the eyes of a tourist and can feel the amazement I felt in 1982 when we decided to settle in this part of the country.  Two young "kids" from flat cornfield country Illinois looked at each other and said, "Can you believe we get to live HERE?!?"  Yep, we do.  And we are blessed.

At least, that's the view from here… ©

Friday, August 22, 2014

THINGS I LEARNED ON MY SUMMER VACATION, PART 2



Be very careful, or more astute than we were, when booking a Gray Line of Alaska tour.

The WORST day of the Alaska trip began with our disembarkation from the luxury Celebrity Millennium cruise ship to begin the Denali tour portion of our vacation.

The Gray Line of Alaska tour materials described a seamless transfer from ship to shore, where a luxury motor coach would transport us to Denali National Park.  A free shuttle was to meet us at the cruise terminal in Seward and take us to another nearby location to board our big, comfy motor coach (not some silly bus, mind you…a MOTOR COACH!) which would travel on to Anchorage where we would have a 90-minute stop at the Anchorage museum and lunch.  Then back on the coach, off we'd go toward Denali, including a 30-minute stop in the village of Talkeetna, and finally our destination, the Denali Princess Lodge.  A long day, but sounded fun!

Not so much.

First,  the free shuttle at the cruise terminal was nowhere to be found.  The guys both tried calling Gray Line's 800 number, only to be interminably on hold and then to find representatives completely befuddled by our predicament.  We were concerned because we had to meet the motor coach at a give time, which was fast approaching.  Finally, our travel companion just called a taxi and we were on our way.

Once we got to THAT destination, there was still nothing in sight that said "Gray Line" -- no building, bus, or person.  Hub went inside a store nearby and they said, "That's your bus out there at the curb."  That bus said "Park Connection"…how were we to know?  But inquiring with the young woman standing near it with a clipboard, sure enough our names were listed.

We gals got on board, hoping to find a seat not completely in the back, since we were late arrivals.  We lucked out and were only about 1/3 of the way back.  The guys stayed with our luggage and ended up helping load since the driver was well into his 70's, with a hitch in his giddy-up and rather dazed and confused by the task at hand.  Our guys mostly wanted to be sure our luggage made it on to our bus.

Once seated, we realized our motor coach was not especially luxurious.  It was a bit long in the tooth and rather cramped -- like sitting in coach on a crowded flight and everyone insists on reclining their seats into your lap.  (As was also the case on the bus).   Our driver looked a bit frail to be the one in charge of this behemoth vehicle, but what choice did we have?  We gripped our armrests and hung on.  And a good thing too, since whenever he decided to offer some narration about sights along the way, he started to veer in the direction he was pointing.  At one point we were drifting into oncoming traffic on a 4-lane (no median) highway as he tried to spot some bison that sometimes wander into a field.  He quickly corrected and said, "Whoa!  I need to keep my eyes on the road!"  Good idea.

We were eager for our museum stop in Anchorage.  Yet, upon arrival all the luggage was unloaded and lined up on the curb while the bus went on to the airport to deliver other passengers there.  Apparently we were not all on the same tour.  We expressed some concern about our suitcases just sitting on the city sidewalk, but those in charge assured us "someone will stay nearby" and commented about our consternation, "You must be from a big city or something."   Then, asking about the museum, we  were told we were free to go in if we wanted to or we could go find a spot for lunch, just be back in an hour to hop back on the bus.  Hub explained that the museum was part of our tour and that's when we got the message.  Nope.

"I hear that all the time", the gal said.  "We are not a tour, we offer transportation for Gray Line.  We just take you there."  No museum unless we wanted to pay the $20 admission like everyone else, and lunch was on our own dime too.  We skipped the museum and went to lunch.  Those who drink, drank.

Meeting back up with the bus at the appointed hour, we watched as our luggage was re-loaded and were relieved to see the driver had changed.  This guy was a sprightly 60-ish year-old with a better command of the process.  Some modicum of confidence was restored.

Back on the bus, he did a good job of some narration, but the cramped conditions and long, long hours of riding ahead of us were still an endurance test.   At least we had our stop in the picturesque-sounding Talkeetna to anticipate.  But, once we reached that turn-off, we were told we'd just be dropping folks off at a resort there -- 15 miles from the main highway.  Our 30 minutes in Talkeetna was actually a 30 mile round trip to drop off some passengers who were staying there.  We were not happy.

Then came the music.  The driver announcing he'd "keep quiet now for awhile" was a welcome idea since much of the narration had become personal stories of one nature or another.  But in an effort to keep us all entertained, he said he'd put on some music.

I don't know about  you, but I really rail against the current cultural expectation that I have to be "entertained" every minute of every day with pictures and noise.  Airports, doctor's offices, vet clinics, restaurants -- TVs and Muzak constantly bombarding me with programming not of my choosing nor often of my liking.  So, our driver decided we'd all enjoy a tour of Europe and started with a playlist of smaltzy "Italian" music, following later with another selection of French-themed drivel.  At some point I remember accordions…and then finally, as we approached our destination, Country and Western.  That was when our friend turned to us from across the aisle and said, "Just shoot me."

We had left Seward at 10:30 a.m.  We finally arrived at the Denali Princess Lodge at 9:30 p.m.  Exhausted, hungry, frustrated…we found a beautiful lodge, a big resort with shops and restaurants, and comfortable accommodations, all owned by Princess/Carnival Corporation.   And the sun was still shining brightly, adding to our disorientation.  We ate late and went to bed around 11:30 -- dusk.

Strange day.  But memorable.  And now laughable.  Just beware Gray Line.

At least, that's the view from here….


Saturday, August 16, 2014

THINGS I LEARNED ON MY SUMMER VACATION, PART 1

HEY YA, HI YA!  I'm home from my Alaskan Cruise Adventure!  I am no longer a cruise virgin; I am one of "them", the hoards of mostly 50-60+somethings who disembark enmass in the early morning hours lining up for their motor coach, minivan, bus, train, hiking, biking, boating, flying "shore excursions".  In spite of my attempts to NOT look like a cruise tourist, there was no denying my too-new hiking boots (but PURPLE!  So CUTE!), my tell-tale backpack (but  31 years old and pretty beat up; I've taken it on every trip I've ever taken since 1983) and my look of confusion and gullibility.  (Sure…I guess I need a new Made in Alaska coffee mug filled with chocolate caribou "chips".)

Here's what I can tell you about my cruise experience:  Those ships are enormous and luxurious.  The Celebrity Millennium is a floating 5-star resort, with 2000 guests and 1000 staff.  We were greeted onboard with champagne, mimosas, and fresh squeezed orange juice…and it was pretty much like that the whole time.  The food was amazing, prepared and presented like you'd find at the best fine dining restaurant; the decor was glamorous; the activities and amenities plentiful and varied; our veranda stateroom was essentially a large bedroom with a sitting area and a balcony and was super comfortable (I want that cushy mattress!);  the service was impeccable.

Interestingly, the attention to clean hands bordered on OCD.  ("There will be NO norovirus outbreak on our ship!")  Purell has a sweet deal with its cruise line contracts.  Your little purse-sized bottle is a drop in the bucket compared to the ubiquitous self-dispensing Purell machines at every stairway, elevator, restaurant, bar, and boarding location on a cruise ship.  My hands have never been so disinfected; I believe I could have performed surgery.

Yes, I do see the appeal of this form of luxurious transportation.  For, to me, that's what it was.  My hotel was taking me to the places I wanted to visit.  It was weird to leave one port of call, have a little dinner, see a show, then go to bed and wake up berthed in a new town.  I felt like a kid who sleeps through the road trip.  It was a bit disorienting.  In addition, I feel like I missed some of the scenery reputed to be so beautiful on the Inside Passage route.  I was asleep!

On our land excursions, which had to be scheduled according to when the "hotel" was setting sail, I felt I only scratched the surface of each place we visited.  It was a quick look-around (several hours, but time went fast), snap a bunch of photos, and back on the ship.  Go, go, go.

I saved time, however, by not being the type of woman who likes expensive fine jewelry.  At every single port of call, the "tourist shops" are lined up for blocks  immediately in front of the cruise ship docks.  And the first line of shops are jewelry stores.  We were stumped by this…why would Ketchikan, Alaska be the sapphire and diamond capital of North America?  Well, come to find out…the cruise ships and jewelry stores have a little thing going.  I had heard that the cruise lines actually OWN these stores, then that was disputed, so I'm not sure.  But the cruise lines certainly promote the stores and I've read they receive huge kick-backs on sales as well as collect hefty advertising dollars by recommending stores in the daily onboard circulars that are delivered to our stateroom doors the night before we arrive at the next port of call.  Maybe you can get a deal; I don't know.  But the cruise lines are making a tidy little profit from this strange jewelry concession.

(Speaking of owning things…did you know that Carnival Corporation owns Carnival Cruise Lines, Holland American Cruise Lines, Princess Cruise Lines and a bunch of European cruise lines as well as shore excursion companies, hotel franchises, etc.?  And maybe some jewelry stores…)

I know you are wondering if I got seasick, since that was my biggest fear (even bigger than looking like a stereotypical cruise ship tourist).  No…not really.  But maybe a little.  We had perfect weather, so seas were mostly calm.  As seas go.  The Inside Passage, being protected from the open ocean was generally smooth as glass.  But about 12 hours after first setting sail, at 4 a.m., we went through a narrow passage that included howling winds and swirling currents that bounced us around a bit.  My anxiety soared, so I put on my scopolamine patch and popped half a Xanax.  All was well, except I slept on and off most of the next day.  We were "at sea" making our way from Vancouver to Ketchikan, so at least I didn't miss any stops in my stupor.  The other day "at sea" was at the end of the trip when we left Skagway and headed across the Gulf of Alaska (south of which is the North Pacific Ocean, so really just a lot of big water) to Seward.  It wasn't terrible for most people probably, but when that much water is pushing toward shore in big swells, your boat is gonna rock and roll a bit.  So, I hit the meds again, and stayed mostly in my stateroom trying to keep my eye on the horizon and not move around too much.  I tried to join my companions at dinner, but left after the appetizer, feeling queasy.  I was happy to be at the dock in Seward when I woke up the next morning, even if it was raining (our only day of rain).

So, would I cruise again?  There is no denying that the beautifully appointed ship, the "how may I serve you?" staff, so many fun and interesting things to see and do are a feast for the senses.  Yet, me being me, I really liked just being alone and quiet in my stateroom and on my private veranda too.

I didn't take advantage of many of the ship's attractive offerings -- never used the spa (I decided not to spend the extra money for a massage I could get cheaper at home), the gym, the bars (since I don't drink), the pool, the library, the on-board gift/jewelry/Apple store shopping, the casino, the late-night games and festivities.  Many of these would have been fun, but I was either off ship during the day or eating/sleeping with not much "free" time.   As for the amazing food selections, I was anxious about feeling seasick, so I didn't eat all that much and the choices I made were rather bland -- so I lost 2 pounds on the trip.  (That's a good thing, but far from typical, I know.)  I tired of being on a schedule for meals and sailing times.  I did fine with my wardrobe of "smart casual" clothing for the restaurants, but it felt dressed up to me and I was much more comfortable in my shore duds -- hiking boots, comfy Yoga pants, and a sweater.   I felt like I had to pack too much to create the necessary outfits, which I guess means I must dress mostly like a slob at home in my weird "get-ups".

I think ultimately I'm a little bit of a reclusive, nausea-phobic hypochondriac, sloppy-casual landlubber who likes spending a longer time in one place, on my own schedule.  (But I'm still lovable, right?)

Mostly I'm happy to have shared the experience with Hub and our friends.  I was leery about traveling with other people since my inner Introvert needs a lot of recovery time after extended socializing.  But we gave each other enough space to have separate experiences as well as having  a lot of fun shared times.  Every day I looked forward to our dinners together.  We laughed so much, especially when things went awry, and will have memories to share over the coming years that are priceless to me.  And that made the whole cruise worth it.  I feel closer and more connected to our friends... and any activity that contributes to meaningful, lasting relationships is one that is worth doing.

At least, that's the view from here…. ©

STAY TUNED FOR MORE VACATION REPORTS:  Bus from Hell, Denali Tour,  Favorite Sites, Arctic Olympics!