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Archive for July, 2014

Vacation 2014

Hi!  I’m back! (you probably didn’t know I was gone with how infrequently I post around here)

Last year, Cynical and Ragged’s trip to Alaska flung the craving on us, so we plotted a trip back to Alaska.  This one wouldn’t just be a cruise; we added a land tour up into Denali.

Day-1: Pre-trip

It had been 13 months since our last vacation. (yeah, I never got around to writing that one up, so I’m keeping this journal as I go) As with many of our trips, this one started with a trip to Microtel Indianapolis for their great park, sleep, and fly. Though in our case, I’m pretty sure we should call it park, lie horizontal until 4am, and fly. There is no sleep.

It was nice this time as the day before the trip was July 4, and as that is one of Ramblin’s six holidays, we were able to leisurely depart and arrived a few hours earlier than we normally do. This meant we were able to do another pre-trip tradition earlier as well – Kazablanka. Since it was an earlier meal, we thought it would be wise to fortify ourselves so we wouldn’t be hungry later. That was misguided thinking. After an order of Killer Nachos (they don’t use that term lightly) followed by a reuben and coleslaw for Ramblin and a hamburger and fries for myself, we rolled ourselves back to the hotel and drifted in and out of consciousness for the rest of the evening. Having fireworks exploding all around us, coupled with karaoke night at Kazablanka, did not make for good slumber. Also, I swear the neighbors had a dog.

Day 1: O’dark Thirty

Yes, it was another early flight for us. It was a little later departure, but an international flight required being at the airport earlier. Having flown into Seattle and riding a bus for six days hours to Vancouver to catch the ship, we had learned our lesson and would fly straight into Vancouver. We made it through security with more than enough time to spare, but better safe than sorry when it comes to air travel.

The time passed rather quickly, and we began the first leg of our journey. We had a short flight to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Our layover was only an hour and twenty minutes, but we hoped our next gate would be close. No. It was the farthest distance it could have been in that airport from our arrival gate. The bad news is that we go back there for our return flight, and the layover is only 50 minutes. The worse news is that there is the potential to have even further distance between gates. Oye.

However, we made it before the scheduled boarding began had even more time as boarding didn’t start at the time stated. We got settled into our seats and watched the latest Captain America movie. Soon enough, they were handing out customs declaration forms. We touched down, wound our way through customs (I’ll tell you a neat story about that in a bit), collected our luggage, and headed for the Sky train. For about $15, we were delivered to downtown and made our way to our hotel, the Coast Coal Harbour Hotel. It’s where we stayed our first time, and we loved it. Though we weren’t fortunate enough to get one of their harbor-facing rooms again, the room was a corner room on the 16th floor with floor to ceiling windows on two sides of the room.

Since we weren’t completely worn out from a 16-hour travel day like last time, we utilized our two-day trolley pass immediately and headed to Stanley Park, specifically Prospect Point Cafe. This was another one of the places we enjoyed last time we were here. The fish and chips are awesome. England, take note, because Vancouver is beating you handily.

Fish and Chips at Prospect Point

The trolley driver highly recommended getting ice cream while we were there, and you ignore the advice of a local at your own peril.

Pistachio Almond and Espresso Ice Cream

Pistachio Almond and Espresso Ice Cream

Then we hopped on the trolley back to the hotel. We enjoyed the hot (they also aren’t using that term lightly) tub and heated pool before retiring to our room. Remember the story I was going to tell you about going through customs? Ramblin turned on the TV, flipped over to a channel with a show about Canadian border crossings, and there was the agent who had welcomed us into Canada. What are the odds?

There was one regret (well, other than leaving) from our last trip – we were too lazy to go get a picture of the Olympic Cauldron at night. We swore if we ever went back, that was first on the agenda. And once it got dark, that’s exactly what we did.

Olympic Cauldron at night

We wandered down by the waterfront and Canada Place until they were closing things up and made our way back to the hotel.

Day 2: Ding-ding!

The second day in Vancouver was saved for Granville Island. Yet another thing we missed out on our first time through, this was on our gotta-do-it list for the day. As we left the hotel, we saw a trolley at the end of our block, but as there are so many sightseeing vehicles, we weren’t entirely sure it was ours, until it pulled away. Rats. So we proceeded on to Canada Place to catch another. I should mention at this point that it was raining. We saw a trolley parked out front, and Ramblin ran for it. I slogged along behind. We boarded the trolley and wound up waiting while the agent sold tickets to several more riders. Finally, we were on our way. Our trolley driver was a bit unique in that if there weren’t any riders waiting at a stop, she might not stop there. If you wanted to hop off, you had to yell, “Ding-ding!” Also, at each stop when more people got on, she would say, “We have a bunch of lovely new bodies that need trained; what’s the magic words tomake the trolley stop?” And we would all chorus, “Ding-ding!” Though apparently not very perkily as she kept threatening to take us through a drive-thru for coffee. Canada Place was stop #10; Granville Island was stop #25. We rode through Stanley Park again and about an hour later, it was time to call “Ding-ding!”

Granville Island is a haven for local artisans and food. Since we had to wait so long to get there, dreams of pastries and coffee quickly turned to full-blown lunches. We sought out the public market where most of the food vendors operated. Ramblin found a sushi place and got Alaska and BC rolls. I suffered from sensory overload for a bit and wound up defaulting to fish and chips again. I had ordered a root beer, but once I sat down, I realized I had been given a ginger ale (Canada Dry, of course). It turned out to be serendipitous, as it was quite lovely and refreshing. Maybe I need to drink it more often.

Fish and Chips at Granville Island

Once our hunger was at bay, we looked at the shops in earnest. I knew there were places there that sold yarn hand-dyed by local artists. We found a great shop that had a yarn that immediately called to me. The shop also featured lots of weaving, so on our next trip back, I just might be better prepared to get some goodies for the loom.

Really Roz yarn from Vancouver

We went back to the public market to get some local roasted coffee and ice flow cappuccinos. While wandering through the other booths, what should I spy but gooseberries and what appeared to be ground cherries (they were labeled ‘goldenberries’). The favorite fruits of my childhood! I quickly purchased them, and we headed back to meet the trolley.

One came along a minute or two after we reached the stop. The driver told us that his windshield wipers had quit working, and a mechanic was on the way, so it should only be about a ten minute delay. I took that time to break into my goodies. The gooseberries weren’t quite as sweet as the ones that we raised, (people have no patience in letting gooseberries ripen), but they still reminded me of summers and reading while munching my gooseberries picked before the day got too hot. Then I opened the other berries, popped one in my mouth and . . . whoa, hey, that’s not a ground cherry! You know that shock you get when you’re expecting one flavor and get something totally different? Ground cherries are usually described as a strawberry-like flavor, very mild. I gave one to Ramblin, and he described it as citrus meets tomato. Weird, but definitely edible.

Gooseberries and Goldenberries

The mechanic showed up, tried the wipers, went out and pulled them over, tried them again, and pronounced the trolley had to go into the shop. The next trolley to come along didn’t have enough room for all of us, so we waited for the next.

A trolley with enough room came along, and we were back underway. We rode the trolley back around to Stanley Park, where we hopped off at the Rose Garden, made our way to Lord Stanley’s statue, then proceeded to the totem poles. Seeing all that we had wanted to see, we headed to the trolley stop to wait.

Who should that be but our driver from the morning. As Ramblin got on, he said to her, “Ding-ding!” She said, “So you’re pretrained, is that what you’re telling me?” Since we had been on her route that morning, we knew the spiel and could just about join her in reciting it. It was the last round of the day, and we were her last dropoffs.

Back to the room for dinner research. I checked the Google recommendations for restaurants near us, and the hotel next door was supposed to have a good one. And it did. West Coast Cobb Salad for me, Butter Chicken Curry for Ramblin.

West Coast Cobb Salad

(Ooh, I’d like to have another one of those right now.)

After dinner, we headed back to our own hotel and went for another dip in the hot tub. My knee was aching a bit from the day’s exertions, and that was just the ticket.

Alaska awaits.

Day 3: Embarkation

On sail-away day, we woke up, got ourselves together, and asked the front desk for a recommendation for breakfast that wasn’t Starbucks. We were directed to Cafe Artigiano, just around the corner from our hotel. We both got the cranberry orange scone with a capuccino for Ramblin and a Mexican latte for myself.

Cranberry-Orange Scone and Mexican Latte

Then we headed back to the hotel for final preparations. At 11am, we checked out and wheeled our luggage to Canada Place.

The last time we sailed out of Vancouver, it was a bit of a snaggled up mess. We thought that it was just part of getting 2000+ people loaded on a floating hotel, but later on a cruising forum, someone else that had sailed on our cruise reported that in 20+ cruises, that was easily the worst embarkation he had been through. I think it took between 1-2 hours to get through security, customs, and check in. This time, however, it was 30-45 minutes. Easy peasy.

We boarded the ship and walked around a bit until the rooms were ready. Then we waited in the cabin for our luggage to appear or to be called for muster, whichever came first. Muster was called, so to muster we reported. Then it was back to the cabin, passing lots of other cabins with luggage waiting outside. Not ours. About 4:30, my bag was delivered, but Ramblin’s was nowhere to be seen. I had tipped the baggage handler, and Ramblin quipped that his was probably at the bottom of Coal Harbour. Fortunately, at 6:15, his finally arrived.

With all the luggage accounted for, we headed to the buffet. Food was good, but not spectacular. Then we were off to the Welcome Aboard Variety show. We got to see bits of the different acts that would be performing through the week. As it was close to sunset once the show was over, we headed to the front of the ship on the top deck. It was blustery, but pleasant.

We retired to our room to rest up for the next day.

Sunset on sailaway day

Day 4: Sea Day

We woke up around 9:00am, wiped the sleep out of our eyes, and went in search of breakfast. One of the things I loved on the Pearl buffet was that they offered mounds of bacon in your choice of chewy or crispy (as if there’s any other choice than crispy). I couldn’t wait for that on this vacation. We made our way to the buffet, only to discover there was no bacon to be found. I was stunned and thrown completely off my game. Who doesn’t offer bacon on a breakfast buffet?!

After the lackluster breakfast, we returned to our room, and I went off to learn how to make paper boxes. Ramblin stayed in the room to wait for the glacier presentation to start. After I folded a rather nifty box, I joined Ramblin for a presentation on the different shore excursions at the various ports. I left before the last port as there was a scheduled knitting and crocheting get-together. My people! First, I went to the 5th floor area of the atrium, found a seat, and waited. And waited. And then I asked to be sure I was in the right area and got directed to the 6th floor, which had no more knitters or crocheters than the 5th floor. So, I decided if I was the only knitter on the ship, I could just as easily hold the meeting on my own balcony.

Now, I make it sound like I just flitted here and there with the greatest of ease. No. To get to deck 5, I had to go from deck 9 aft (back of the ship), down to deck 4, up to the front of the ship, up to deck 5, and back to the middle of the ship. To get to deck 7, where the excursion presentation was held, I had to go back to the front of the ship, up to deck 8, all the way to the back of the ship, and down to deck 7. Using the mid-ship elevator would make this slightly easier, but we try to take the stairs whenever possible to help work off the food. However, since there’s no bacon on this ship, I might start using it.

Ramblin wasn’t back yet, so I started some of our coffee we brought to enjoy. Yes, some people bring their favorite wine; we bring coffee. Ramblin returned as the coffee was brewing and told me about a neat possible excursion for the last port. We weren’t going to do many excursions since we were doing the add-on land tour at the end, and we thought we could easily fill the time in port on our own. I had thought we had to be on the ship two hours prior to sailing, but they told us it was only half an hour before. This gave us 12 1\2 hours in Skagway, and that seemed daunting. He said there was a wilderness river adventure that was recommended in the presentation. While enjoying our coffee, we looked over the options, found another possibility, and went to the shore excursion desk. Ramblin said that while the presentation was given by the shore excursion director, all the shore excursion staff had taken all of the excursions, so theoretically any of them could give good advice.

We stepped up to the next available representative and told him we were trying to decide between two excursions. “I would do ze float.” Ramblin asked what the difference was between the two (trying to find out something more specific than the fact that it was $30 more per person), and he replied, “Ze other is on a jet boat, and ze float is slower pace.” Never mind that the float is actually rated a 2 of 3 for activity and the other one was a 1 out of 3. We signed up for ze float. We did find a brochure on ze float (oh yeah, that’s getting used the whole cruise), and it sounded like an amazing trip.

We stopped back by the room, checked a few places and times, and went off in search of the sale shirts. Those were just meh, so we waited in the atrium (yes, the original site of the one-woman knitting group) until it was time to see lumber and bush pilot documentaries in Zazzles nightclub. It’s really Dazzles, but what fun is that? So we’ve renamed it Zazzles. Because it’s just so zazzy.

Then it was time for food. We tried the no-bacon-having buffet again and found a few things. After that full morning, it was time to retire to the room for some balcony time. We spotted dolphins frolicking in the waves coming off the ship.

Dolphins in our wake

Soon the sun chased us back inside for nap time for Ramblin and knitting time for me.

The evening was upon us, and we decided to try something a little different for dinner. We actually went to one of the main dining rooms. With Norwegian, there are several complimentary dining options, but we’ve always gone to the buffet. I had Caesar salad, fillet of salmon, and Norwegian’s Signature Cheesecake with strawberry compote. Ramblin had pork spring roll, Thai chicken and coconut curry, and chocolate raspberry truffle cake. The food was more elegant than we were. (NCL’s main marketing point is that you don’t have to dress up, but you’re certainly free to do so if you want to.)

Salmon in Four Seasons

Norwegian's Signature Cheesecake with strawberry compote

After that, we grabbed our jackets and wandered the ship, waiting for sunset. We snapped a few pictures before it became obvious that there were too many low clouds on the horizon, so we opted to go back to the room and rest up for Ketchikan.

First towel animal of the trip – bunny!

Towel animal - Night 2

Day 5: Ketchikan

I woke up early on Wednesday, feeling the ship moving just a bit differently than it had been. We were pulling into port. Since we had no specific plans for the day, we could be leisurely with our time. Now, remember the story about the bacon? Well, we had went exploring after breakfast the day before to see if any of the other venues offered bacon. We found a buffet tucked out of the way, and there was indeed sad little scraps that were once bacon. So this morning, we returned to see if there just might be more bacon today. And there was! Hooray! Not many people knew about the secret bacon club, so we had a very quiet and enjoyable breakfast.

We then gathered up our belongings and headed off the ship. On the previous cruises, there were signs at every stair landing informing you of how to get to the gangway. Not this ship. I had overheard on the intercom that it would be on deck 5, which was a change from the embarkation day of deck 6. I’m pretty sure tides, specific port setups, and dart boards are involved in determining what deck will be the exit deck. We were the first ship in port, but four more would join us as the day went on. As you might guess, that meant a lot of people were in Ketchikan.

Welcome to Ketchikan

We wandered into a couple of shops and then headed to Creek Street.

Creek Street

We hoped to see some salmon making their way up the creek, but none were to be found. Realizing that spending the whole time wandering the town right by the dock wasn’t a good use of time, we went to the visitor center to see what might be available. Well, plenty of tours were available for the town with 30 minutes of wildlife viewing, but if you wanted more wildlife time than that, you were going to have to pay dearly. Since we would be doing Ze Float, in addition to, you know, Denali, it didn’t seem necessary. Instead, we opted to take the city bus to Totem Bight State Park. Getting to and from the park set us back a grand total of $4 for the both of us, but we shared that ride with about 50 people shoulder to shoulder. Totem Bight, as the name suggests, has totems.

Totem Bight Clan House

It was a quick loop through the scenery, then we were ready to go back to town.

While we were waiting, I’ll remind you in a STATE PARK (take only pictures, leave only footprints, and all that jazz), I saw one person tromp through their landscaping to pick the strawberries that were part of said landscaping (in other words, it’s not your personal snack bar, doofus) and another announce, “Hey, I found me a piece of driftwood!” and carried it out to his car. I weep for humanity.

We rode back into town, this time getting to sit down and let the others fight for real estate, and spied a place for lunch that was one of the top spots in Ketchikan – Annabelle’s Keg and Chowder House. There was a short line, not bad for five ships in port, and it was moving fast. Or it was, until a group of people decided they were too good to wait in line and simply walked past us and found a server to seat them. May your beer be flat for the rest of your vacation, thou fusty nuts without kernels (I got a Shakespeare insult mug for Xmas – it’s awesome).

We were seated quickly after the cheaters, and the meal was excellent. As Ketchikan is the Salmon Capital of the World, I had to get the salmon, charbroiled with fries and their signature herbed bread. Ramblin, craving crab but not quite at the $100 price tag for three pounds, went with the crab cake sandwich and coleslaw.

Oops, it appears I couldn't wait to take the picture before digging in

Oops, it appears I couldn’t wait to take the picture before digging in

We still had some time to kill, and we mostly walked around the shops. I did discover a quilt shop that I thought might have some local handdyed yarn, but sadly not. We got back on the ship, chatted with our neighbors from our balconies and watched as we slid away from the port. I’d like to take this time to mention that the water has been like glass. If the whole trip is like this, it will be smooth sailing, literally.

Smooth Sailing

In the Freestyle Daily, NCL let’s you know what activities are planned for the next day. We saw that there was a Norwegian Sun scavenger hunt that evening. We theorized that it consisted of being able to find bacon, the gangway, and the knitting and crocheting get-together and declared ourselves the winners.

After the success of dinner in the main dining room, we checked the nightly menu to see if we wanted to return. Nothing struck our fancy (I would have picked salmon for the third time in less than a 24-hour period, not that there’s anything wrong with that), so we tried the buffet to see if maybe it had more variety. I wound up with – salmon. Not the best of the trip, so I will stick with the main dining room for that.

Tonight was the comedian Don Friesen. He was entertaining in the Welcome Aboard show, so we thought a longer show would be fun, and it was. We came back to the room and sat on the balcony. We had been bringing the big cameras with us (we joke it scares the wildlife away), but didn’t take them out this time. Sure enough, we saw a splash (possibly more dolphins), and that sent Ramblin scrambling for the camera. By the time he came back, we had passed whatever it was, but he kept the camera with him. I said now he would be ready for the next show. Not long after that, here came the telltale puff of breath – whales just off the ship! They breathed a few times, then we saw the back arch, in preparation for a deep dive. When they do that, they flip their tail up in the air, one of the favorite things to capture with a camera. Ramblin got three whale tail shots.

We stood outside for as long as we could stand it, but it was just so beautiful and still. After a full day, we were ready for bed. And more whales tomorrow. And bacon.

Towel animal – dog?

Towel animal - Night 3

Day 6: Juneau

I think the excitement of Whale Day got to me (or maybe it’s the 5:00am sunrise), but I woke up before 6:00am. As we wouldn’t be in port until 10:00am, that was just crazy, so I read for a bit and went back to sleep. We woke up at a more civilized hour, went to the secret bacon nirvana, and waited until the ship was cleared to release passengers. At breakfast, Ramblin had spotted two eagles hanging out on a cell tower. We were able to see them from our balcony very well and snapped a few hundred pics. I spied the NCL eagle down on the walkway prepping to take pictures with the passengers as they disembarked. The video is quite entertaining.

NCL Eagle stretching

We won our own version of the scavenger hunt again by finding the gangway on deck 3. People aren’t even normally allowed on deck 3. Our ship had to dock waaaaay at the end of the pier, so far away that they had actually hired Gray Line shuttles to get us to downtown. However, we wouldn’t need one as we had our own ride with Harv and Marv’s Outback Alaska whale watch. This was the same company we used the last time, and it was the only ‘must do’ repeat of the trip. And when we come back to Alaska, we’ll book them again.

We found their representative, got our names checked off, received a paper bracelet with our boat’s name (Haarvendam), and boarded the shuttle. Once we had all of our people, we were off to Auke Bay Harbor. Captain Liz met us at the dock and walked us to the boat. We cast off and headed out to sea.

First, she took us for a view of Mendenhall Glacier from the water, and then we cruised by an eagle’s nest. After those warm-ups, we were ready to go in search of whales. We came up on one, but Capt. Liz didn’t feel that one was active enough. There was a big group of boats to the north, but she decided to go where there were less boats. It wasn’t long before we started seeing the puffs of breath. It seemed to be a decent-sized group of whales. They dove a few times, then suddenly there was a phenomenon we had never witnessed – bubble net feeding. And being in a small boat, we were right on the water level to have a perfect view. Several of us were able to spot them as they were coming up, making for great shots. There were whales breaching all over the place.

Bubblenet feeding

Breach aftermath

Too soon, it was time to head back to the harbor. We got to see sea lions hanging out on a buoy.

Sea lions hanging out on a buoy

We left the harbor and had a stop at Mendenhall Glacier, this time from land. Capt. Liz said her husband worked for the park service, and they were monitoring a glacial lake that fills with water and lets loose suddenly, causing flooding for a short while. The previous times, they thought the lake got about 45% full before it let go. Right now, they believed it to be 80% full. When we got to Mendenhall, the water in front of it was so much higher than our previous trip.

Mendenhall Glacier 2014

After the brief stop, our driver took us back into town and dropped us off for the Mt. Roberts Tram. The last time we were in Juneau, we only had time for the whale watch and a quick souvenir purchase, and we didn’t get to go on the tram. Since we had more time, and we knew there was a restaurant at the top, we decided that would be a great end to the day.

We reached the summit and made for the restaurant. I had a Cobb salad with salmon add-on, and Ramblin had the halibut and chips. (No pictures this time as we were starved.) One funny note, when I got my salad, the salmon (which was delicious, btw) was in a separate dish, and the salad consisted of lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. Know what’s missing from that Cobb salad? BACON! (and blue cheese and egg, too) What is up with people trying to keep me away from my beloved bacon?

After our lunch, we went out to the observation deck for a few pictures, got to see a captive eagle, and looked around the gift shop. When we got in line for the tram down, the worker asked, “Everyone have your stamp?” They had stamped our hand at the bottom, but one would think by virtue of being 1900 feet up an incline of 31 degrees, having paid to come up would be implied. We had great fun theorizing just how one would have avoided paying to come up (parasailing, hitchhiking on an eagle, helicopter dropoff, climbing the steel cables hand-over-hand, or possibly something involving sasquatch).

The Sun from the top at Mt. Roberts Tram

The Sun from the top at Mt. Roberts Tram

At the bottom, we stopped in a few stores, but nothing grabbed our attention. This trip, we’re trying to avoid bringing home 10 t-shirts apiece. This time we did take advantage of the shuttle back to the ship. We sat out on the balcony, watching the eagles once again at their station on the tower. A couple of harbor seals even made an appearance.

Eagles at Juneau

Harbor seal at Juneau

Though we hadn’t eaten terribly long before that, we were starting to get that empty feeling, so we made a trek to the buffet. Then it was back to the cabin to look through our footage of the day, charge the batteries, and get ready for tomorrow – Ze Float!

And of course, enjoy our gorilla towel animal!

Towel animal - Night 4

Day 7: Skagway – Ze Float

For having 12 hours in port, we had to get up terribly early. We woke up at 6:00am, got bacon breakfast, came back to the room to grab our stuff, and headed to the Stardust Theater to meet our group. They had several excursions meeting there, and it ended up that there were only 13 in our group. We’ve done excursions through NCL before that had well over 50 people.

We disembarked the ship, signed agreements that NCL wasn’t liable if we got stampeded by moose, and were directed to an old school bus. Our driver joined us and said since NCL wants us off the ship so early, we had time for a quick drive around town. Thanks, NCL. (yet another good reason for booking independently)

She brought us back to the harbor, and we loaded onto the ferry to Haines, Alaska. About 45 minutes later, we got onto another classy bus and began our journey to the Chilikat River. Since this was a last minute add-on, we probably weren’t as prepared for this excursion as we might have been had we been planning on it for months. However, this company seemed to be familiar with that and had extra jackets for everyone in addition to the supplied rubber boots and life jackets. We geared up, got a lesson on river safety from our guides, and loaded into the rafts.

Preparing for Ze Float

There had been recent heavy rains, and they told us that every day it was like going down a new river. Our guide, Bryce, navigated it awesomely. It wasn’t long before we saw our first eagle. And then another. And another. The river opened up into a flat, wide area, and eagles were perched on driftwood or simply stationed on the silty flats. There were mature and immature eagles everywhere. That probably sounds like taking pictures of them would be a piece of cake, but bobbing up and down in a raft makes for tricky focusing.

Bald Eagles - mature and immature


Eagle convention

Bryce was keeping an eye out for changes in the river, but still managed to survey for wildlife. Suddenly, he called out, “Moose!” Yes, quite a distance away, there was indeed a moose. The tour guides up here have awesome spotting abilities. He was maneuvering us over to a shallow to get the raft steady for pictures when another raft was carried into us. That wouldn’t have been a problem except that the oar was coming right for my head. Ramblin said I threw up a hand to deflect it, which I don’t remember doing, but I have the scuffed and banged up finger as a souvenir. Better that than my head.

Moose on the loose

The moose, clearly startled by people, didn’t hang around long. We pushed off and went back into the current. We sailed by a couple of eagle’s nests, one active and one abandoned. On one of the flats near there was a mating pair of eagles.

Mating pair of eagles

We then made for the shore and our ‘tasty riverside lunch’ of sandwiches, chips, cookies, fruit, and hot chocolate. While we were there, a pair of immature eagles drifted into a tree close by.

Bald Eagles - sibling immatures

Soon it was time to board the bus back to civilization. From Haines, we took the ferry back to Skagway. It had begun a light rain that stayed with us. Once back in port, we headed to my one request of the trip – the yarn shop. The last time we were in Skagway, the quilt shop had a small corner for a local dyer. Now, it was half of another store with many more local dyers featured. It was tough to decide, but I finally came away with some treasures.

From there, we did more wandering in the shops. We stopped in at the train store for some Raven’s Brew coffee. As there was still a few hours left, we made our way back up the main street, looking for a request from Ramblin’s mom. Three years ago when we were here, Ramblin found her a very stylish light jacket/cardigan. She gets lots of compliments on it, and her friend just loved it. She asked us to pick one up if we saw one like it, but we were afraid that three years would be too much time for styles to have come and gone. We had been checking in every port, and the new style similar to it was more coat than cardigan. There was one shop on the last block of town that looked to have a bit more refined clothing than the cheaper touristy garb. We looked around the store for a bit and found a jacket very similar, but it was an XXL. Ramblin then spied the main display which had the size we needed for his mother’s friend.

On our way back to the ship, I saw a shop listed in our guide that had intrigued me. It featured millefiori jewelry. If you know me, jewelry for the sake of jewelry doesn’t hold any appeal for me, but handcrafted items are a different matter. I got to see the actual worksite of the gentleman that made the jewelry.

Millefiori jewelry

His nephew was telling us a bit about it while another family member was cutting lengths of cording for other necklaces. They were arranged into different colorways, and I finally settled on which one I wanted. It was in a heart shape, and the colorway was Wildflowers.

With purchases made, we headed back to the ship. Another ship apparently leaving port blew its horn, which gave us a start, because it was right behind ours and sounded like it came from our ship. Confident the ship wouldn’t leave three hours early (or would it?), we restrained ourselves from running for it.

We had planned to eat at the Skagway Fish Company, but since we had lunch provided on our excursion, that thwarted that plan. That evening, we went to the buffet and then, to give the steward time to ready the room, we went to the show which featured a magician. Not the best show we ever saw, but it killed some time. We then returned to our room to see what towel animal awaited us.


Towel animal - Night 5 - froggy

Day 8: Glacier Bay

I knew from reading Cruise Critic forums that Glacier Bay day would begin early, so we set our alarms for 6:00am. Not very vacation-like, is it? Ramblin opened the curtains . . . to a wall of fog. We were crushed. The navigation channel seemed to indicate that we weren’t going very far into the fjord, and it seemed to be the Sawyer Glacier all over again.We got breakfast at the usual place and then went to the ranger talk to see if there was any salvaging this situation.

The ranger was trying her best to be reassuring. She said that the weather at the opening was not necessarily what the weather would be like at the glaciers. She was also encouraged by the fact that she could tell where she was as there had been trips where the fog obscured even that. A light rain foiled our plans to be out on the top deck, so we went back to our room to see if anything could be seen from our balcony.

Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay closeup

Amazingly, the weather did in fact clear as we approached the glacier. We got a great view and even saw some small calving. As the ship was turning for the starboard side to get a view, we went to the Promenade Deck for covered viewing as well. From there, we went back to the Observation Lounge as we headed to the next glacier. There was outdoor viewing available there, and we did go out for a bit, but shortly returned inside and went back to the room. From our balcony, the glacier was Right There. As the ship turned, we looked out over ice broken away from the glacier and spotted a seal lazing on a piece of ice. The ship must have made him nervous, as he slipped off into the safety of the water.

Harbor seal chillin in Glacier Bay

More than three hours had passed, so of course it was time to eat again. Ramblin had wanted to try the sushi bar on the ship, and at lunchtime, they offer noodles as well. This meant that I could find something to eat. Ramblin had a dynamite roll and a Godzilla roll. I had glass noodles with chicken and vegetables. I also got an order of fried rice, which bordered on insanity. Here’s the thing about most Asian restaurants – whatever your complaint might be, a lack of food will never be it. We had to leave half of the fried rice. It was sad.

Glass noodles with chicken and vegetables

Fried Rice at Ginza Sushi

By then, our room was ready, so we retired for knitting, napping, and coffee. The afternoon passed quickly, and soon it was time to eat again (you’re seeing the pattern, right?), and our room wasn’t quite ready, so we went to the show. It was called Rock You Tonight and was a compilation of hits from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Then they recognized the officers, staff, and crew. When we got back to our room, Ramblin said, “Aw, no towel ani. . . monkey!”

Towel animal - Night 6

Our steward had placed a hanging monkey on our coat hook,out of view until you turned the corner. Very adorable.

Day 9: Hubbard Glacier

Another glacier day, and another day of fog. Fortunately, we had opted to sleep in and see how the viewing would go. We were not nearly as close to this one, and the cruise director explained that since so much of this glacier was underwater, it would send up icebergs from below which could damage the ship. That was fine with us, as no one wants a repeat of the Titanic.

Hubbard Glacier

Hubbard Glacier closeup

By this time, it was prime breakfast stampede. Our beloved bonanza of bacon was overrun, so we headed to the main buffet. Ramblin found us a seat, and I went foraging. I got a plate and queued up in line. It was creeping forward, and I saw the usual baked beans, biscuits, gravy, sausage, hey, those potatoes and ham look pretty tas-BACON! Glory to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, there’s bacon! Potatoes and ham were forgotten in my joy. (Why am I so excited about bacon? Well, even though I’ve discovered the secret to easy-peasy perfect bacon at home – baking it – I don’t have it often enough, so it’s a treat. A salty, crunchy, wondrous treat.) Another neat thing we had was fresh pineapple chunks with mint and possibly juniper berries. It doesn’t get stuck in your teeth nearly as bad as the wedges with the rind on, and the mint really gives it another taste dimension.

We knew that there was no way the room was ready, so we killed time at various places around the ship. One of those included a line dancing class (just watching) with a rousing version of Gangnam Style. I probably should have been learning all the dances offered in addition to using the stairs.

We had planned to return to the sushi place for lunch, but when we got there, apparently they had slid in a murder mystery dinner (not mentioned at all in the Freestyle Daily) and that comes with a set menu that is definitely not sushi or noodles. We decided skipping a meal wouldn’t hurt us and went to a towel animal demonstration instead.

Then we did go back to the room, as the sun reappeared and made sitting on the balcony much more pleasant. Some of our fresh brewed coffee made it even more so.

Another trip to the buffet, and then we went to the juggling show with Tuey Wilson. He was very good and very funny. After that, it was time to go back to the room and pack for disembarkation the next day.

Day 10: Disembarkation aka Get Off the Ship aka You Don’t Have to Go Home, but You Can’t Stay Here

For a day that had things scheduled, it was a leisurely day. We had to be out of the cabin by 9:00am, but we didn’t meet our tour until 10:45am. One final breakfast in the buffet and back to the room to collect our things. NCL handled our big stuff, so we just had our cameras and knitting (well, I was the one with the knitting). We said our goodbyes to Gusti and made our way to the theater to wait. Ramblin and I had pondered how many people would be on the land tour with us. Ramblin thought it would be around 150; I guessed 16. The reality was 50, a good number for a tour group. We met Scott, our tour director, and he instantly put me in mind of Ryan Reynolds, only with a beard.

We left the ship and met up with our bus driver, Jenette aka Beenie. She was lovely. We left the port at Whittier, only to have to wait 25 minutes for the tunnel. A few years ago, the tunnel was only for trains, so other road vehicles had to be loaded on the train to be transported to the other side. Now, vehicles can go on their own power, but they do have to wait for their turn, every hour on the hour leaving Whittier and every hour on the half hour entering Whittier.

Soon enough, it was our turn to go.  The scenery around Whittier is just stunning.

View at Whittier

Another view at Whittier

Our first stop would be the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.  They had bears (black, brown, and grizzly), elk, moose, lynx, wood bison, musk ox (the source of qiviut fiber), porcupine, and caribou.  Most of the animals here have experienced some sort of issue that prevents them from being released back into the wild, although the wood bison herd has been grown intentionally to allow for release into the wild in 2015.

Brown bear at AWCC

Brown bear

Wood bison at AWCC

Wood bison

Musk ox at AWCC

Musk ox

Moose (of course)

Moose (of course)

What I learned at the Conservation Center – moose are not bright animals.  We were at the moose enclosure, photographing a couple of moose lying about, when one got up, wandered into the pond, took a long drink, and then proceeded to pee in the pond.  In his water source.  Oh well, I guess at least he waited until after, but the other one still might not appreciate it.

After leaving the AWCC, we continued on to our first hotel of the trip in Girdwood, the Alyeska Resort.

Alyeska Resort

Since our rooms were not quite ready, we hung out in the lobby and took advantage of their sweet, sweet, free wifi.  After putting out a few fires and calming a few frazzled nerves (an adjunct’s work is never done – LITERALLY.), our room was ready, and we collapsed in comfort.

Our stay included a complimentary ride on their tram.  We were told that there was supposed to be an awesome bore tide in a few minutes.  So we braved the high wind to wait.  And wait.  And wait.  Well, nothing seemed to be happening, so we returned down to the bottom and went in search of food.  Our resort was supposed to have the best sushi in Alaska.  How could Ramblin pass that up?  He tried their Chugash roll and Alyeska roll while I went with my safe chicken teriyaki.

Chicken Teriyaki at Sakura

We looked around in their shops a bit and found some candies we had seen featured on an episode of How It’s Made.  Add those to the chocolates on our pillows, and it was a tasty dessert indeed.

After an appropriate amount of time passed, we went to the saltwater pool and hot tub.  The hot tub was indeed hot, but the pool afterward felt so good.  We retired to our room and didn’t have one bit of trouble falling asleep.

Day 11: Denali Bound

Tuesday morning, we went down to one of the restaurants for a breakfast buffet.  This buffet had reindeer sausage (very similar to our own deer summer sausage) among the excellent selection of food.  We then boarded our bus and headed to Anchorage.  We went out past the airport to a scenic viewing area that would give us our only view of Denali (Mt. McKinley – but he was never there, so pbbbt).  Of course I left the big camera on the bus as I don’t think we were given the heads-up about the Denali photo op.

Denali (on the right)

Denali (on the right)

We stopped off at a Fred Meyer (those are awesome, btw) for lunch and the opportunity to purchase snacks or whatnot for the next few days.  Ramblin got a sandwich and I assembled a salad from their incredible salad bar, then each of us got a Starbucks blackberry mojito tea.  Tasty.

Then we were on the road to Martin Buzer’s dog camp.  Martin is a four-time Iditarod champion.  He’s ran in 31 of them, finishing each one.  You can tell he loves his dogs and they love him.  We got souvenir dog booties with a trading card inside.

The rest of our travels that day included some gorgeous scenery as we made our way to Denali Park Village.  We were fortunate enough to stay in the newest building in the village.  We had our own balcony overlooking the Nenana River – well, that’s not true.  We let the mosquitoes have it.

We looked around at the shops in the Miner’s Plaza and then headed back to the main lodge for supper.  At the Gold Rush Dining Room, I talked Ramblin into getting a leg of king crab to go along with his burger while I went with the halibut and chips.

Halibut and Chips at the Gold Rush Restaurant

Day: 12 Into the Park

As we knew we would be on a bus for the biggest part of the day, we went light for breakfast, picking up fruit and yogurt parfaits from the main lodge and brewing up some coffee (long out of our good stuff and forced to settle for the provided Starbucks) in our room.  Our tour departed at 8:45am and was scheduled to be 6-8 hours, depending on how much wildlife was stirring.  Oh my, was it stirring.  Our bus driver/tour guide warned us that we probably wouldn’t see much before our first rest stop, and that proved to be the case.  As we drove up further into the mountains, we began to see dall sheep waaaaaay off in the distance.  We made it to the second rest stop, and there were people excitedly pointing off in the distance.  Moose!  But truly, way off in the distance and in the brush, to boot.  Ramblin got an okay picture; I got a vague brown spot in the greenery.


Moose (I promise, right there in the center)

Moose (I promise, right there in the center)

We hopped back on the bus, and while we were waiting for the rest to board, I looked out our window  . . . and saw a fox!  Right out there, less than twenty feet from the bus.  People on the bus dropped the windows and started clicking like crazy.  The fox ambled up the hill and was wandering in the shrubbery mere feet from tourists.

We continued on, seeing more and more gorgeous scenery.  At the next rest stop (there’s one about every 1 1/2 hours), there was an Alaskan Geographic tent store set up.  I went in to look around, and when I came out, people were pointing excitedly up the hill.  Ramblin helping someone find whatever it was they were looking for, so I went to him to find out what was up.  Bear!  I was looking without any success, until he tells me, “See that white dot?”  Huh? White?  Well, in Denali, the grizzlies are blond, and it indeed looked white at that range.  Mu camera has a 840mm capability, so keep in mind, this was quite a ways off, easily more than a mile by Ramblin’s estimate.  This is at almost the max of my camera’s optical zoom.

Bear from rest stop

Here’s the zoom in from Paint.

Bear from rest stop - zoom

There were also dall sheep on the opposite mountain.  Lucky for the sheep.

We continued on our way and spied some caribou.  The bus was stopped there for quite a while watching as another group joined them.  The other group had been running, and people were speculating what might have been making them run.  The bus driver assured us it was most likely flies, the scourge of every species.

As we wound our way down the road, we noticed several buses stopped at an area.  What should it be but another bear!


This guy was after some dinner in earnest.  We sat at our location for a bit, then the driver thought we could get a slightly better vantage point around the next curve.  The bear came back into view, and so did something else – another bear!

Bear the third

The driver commented, “Let’s just sit here and see what happens.”  At that point, when an expert who sees this day in and day out says something like that, I knew it was going to get good.  And it did.

Bear fight!  Once one bear noticed the other, it was on.  They tussled for a bit in the brush, then one decided to beat a retreat with the other in hot pursuit.  They reemerged and made for the hill.

Bear Pursuit

It was shortly after this point that both became exhausted from the exertion.  The pursuer simply collapsed into an imitation of a bear skin rug.

Bear rug impression

Without much action occurring, our bus continued a short way down the road to the turnaround for our route and came back by the bears.  Yup, still hadn’t moved.  we continued backtracking our way out of the park, with a spotting of another caribou, but not much else in the way of wildlife.  We certainly had gotten a great show.

We made it back to our lodgings a little before 5:00pm, so we had a full day of exploring.  Based on the success of the previous evening, we opted for the Gold Rush Dining Room, and both ordered the salmon.

Salmon at the Gold Rush Restaurant

When we got our bill, I noticed they hadn’t listed our drinks on it.  As our server came back to our table, she explained that it was her birthday, and the tradition in her country was that the birthday-ee gave gifts on his or her birthday, so she was buying our drinks.  How sweet!  That kindness also earned her a bigger tip, so it all worked out.  :)

We did a bit of last-minute souvenir acquisition, then wandered the property a bit more.  The Nenana River made such a nice backdrop to the hotel, and we got to see some river-rafters set off on their adventure.  Then it was time to head back to the room, pack up, and get ready for the next day’s adventure.

Day 13: All Aboard the Wilderness Explorer

This would be one of the more leisurely mornings that we had, and we spent it doing not much of anything, breakfasting on Kind bars we had brought with us and room coffee.  We joined up with our group in front of the lodge and boarded our bus to the train depot and park visitor center.  We had a little time before the train rolled in, so we had a quick look in the visitor center, popped into the gift shop for some Alaska Geographic goods, and walked to the depot.  The train soon pulled in and unloaded the folks from Fairbanks.  I swear to you, Mark Hamill was one of the people that got off the train.  Never mind that he was on location shooting the next Star Wars movie at the time, he was there with a decoy family to throw people off the scent.  And he’s lost a lot of weight.  :)

Our group was to have its own double-decker car with dome viewing above and dining area below.

Wilderness Express

Since we had  boarded at 12:30pm, they began seating people for lunch very soon after we were underway.  We were lucky enough to be nearer the back, where they began taking people down for lunch.  I had the salmon salad, and Ramblin got the Reindeer Chili.  Both were very good.

salmon on the train

There were more stops to pick up passengers along the way, with one being in Talkeetna, the town that Northern Exposure was supposed to be inspired by.  Unfortunately, the depot is well outside of the town, so we didn’t get to see it.  But I did get a picture of one of the homesteaders in Alaska.  The only way to access their homes is by a train that runs specifically for flagstoppers.  They know the schedule and sit out to meet the train for supply trips.  Mary is waving to us in this picture.  They, along with our conductor Lynn ‘Animal’ Reitz, have been featured on the TV show “Railroad Alaska”.


The afternoon passed with me knitting, Ramblin watching the scenery, and soon it was time for dinner.  We were seated with a mother and son from the UK and had lovely dinner conversation.  There were a couple of moose spotted on the ride, but sadly taking pictures from a train is not the optimal condition.

We had planned to get coffee, but the bartender never seemed to get to us.  Near the end of the trip, after we had given up on the idea of coffee, she finally noticed us and commented, “Did you just get on the train? You haven’t been here the whole time, have you?”  Yup, we have.

Finally, we rolled into Anchorage, disembarked the train, embarked our bus, and were transferred to our hotel where our luggage was supposed to be waiting for us.  When we got into our room, Ramblin’s was, but mine wasn’t.  Back down to the lobby, and as I approached Scott to say, “I’m missing a bag,” he wheeled my suitcase over.  Crisis averted.  It had been delivered to another room.  Took the bag back to the room, then went back down to print off our boarding passes.  At this point, it’s almost 9:00pm, and we have a 5:45am flight.  We had to be in the lobby by 4:00am, so we put our bags out that evening (bags out by 3:00am for them to be picked up), and tried to sleep.  This was only moderately accomplished as it was bright and too early for the hotel noise to settle down.

Day 14: Travel Day

Nothing good can be said about travel days. It’s getting up far too early, worrying about catching flights, and then a three hour drive home. Long, long day. Ours started at 3:00am (the fact that is really 6:00am at home doesn’t help when you’ve been on this schedule for two weeks) for a 5:45am flight. It was this or fly out at 11:00pm for a red-eye. Alaska is much like Hawaii; there’s very limited options for when to fly. A Pecannabon from Cinnamon helped ease our morning insult.

The first leg of our flight went pretty well, and boarding must have gone extremely well as the pilot said we were due in a little early.  If you will recall from the flight out, we were a little nervous about a 50 minute layover in Minn/St. Paul to begin with, but even more so after our first hike.  We got off the plane, found our next gate (not as far as the first time, but still a haul), and off we went.  I kept periodically checking the boards as we passed them since our flight back from Europe had a late gate change, and I thought I saw a blip about a delay, but no way was I slowing down long enough to read it.  We could find out details once we were at the gate.  And once we got there, sure enough, there was a delay of about 40 minutes, but they said it might not be, so stay near the gate.  At this point, we had another Kind bar since going to a restaurant might mean missing the maybe/maybe not delay.  They claimed it was a routine inspection, then it was a repair, and then when we were finally able to board, we were told the delay was due to waiting on a replacement for one of the flight attendants.  Who knows, maybe we’re lucky to be alive.

We arrived in Indy, grabbed our luggage and called for the shuttle.  This is always one of the most trying parts of the trip.  Waiting for 50 minutes for the shuttle is pretty standard, and at least we had good weather.  However, the shuttle showed up in record time!  But there was a catch – he had another group coming.  So we waited, and waited, and waited.  Our driver called the hotel to have them check, and there was something about them not being able to find a luggage cart.  And here’s another public service announcement: when you are instructed to call for a shuttle AFTER you have your luggage, do that.  Do not call from the tarmac and make others wait 50 minutes for you to get your act together.  And oh my word, their luggage.  There were eight people and 42 pieces of luggage.  Maybe not that many, but enough that Ramblin and I were wedged in the back seat.

Did I mention our day began at 3:00am?  When we got to our destination, Ramblin climbed over the seat, piled some up to clear a path for me, and we got the heck out of there.  Both of us were definitely through with other people.

But it wasn’t smooth sailing yet.  About an hour outside of Indy, traffic ground to a halt.  At this point, it’s about 8:00pm, and Friday traffic plus road construction equals a snarled-up mess.  Progress was made in measurements of feet for about an hour.  Finally it cleared, and we were moving at the speed limit.  We pulled off at our favorite post-vacation stop (Wendy’s in Marshall), zipped through the drive-thru, and  made our way home to our favorite fuzzy person.

Since I didn’t write up the Europe trip, you don’t know this, but Tugger meowed for 12 hours solid when we got home.  I had to get up and lie on the couch (which offered the bonus of propping up my feet as my ankles were about twice their normal size), rubbing his head, and still he meowed.  We were hoping not to have a repeat performance.  No such luck.  This time, I think he meowed for two days.

This was the longest vacation we have been on, and I think it was almost too much on us.  But, given recent past events, we’re trying to fit in things while both of us are able-bodied enough to do so.

But the next trip may only be one week instead of two.

Here’s some videos Ramblin posted on his account.

Ketchikan highlights

Whale-watching trip with Harv and Marv

Chilikat Bald Eagle Preserve

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Denali National Park