Sunday, August 24, 2008

OC Domer Alaskan Cruise Report

Last summer it was the East Coast College Tour. This summer the OC Domer family went on a cruise to Alaska. It’s not like there has been any clamor for an explanation of the lack of posting from July 29th through August 8th, but that’s why OC Domer was pretty quiet for a couple of weeks. We went with my wife’s family (her mom, her brother and his family, her sister and her family, and the four of us), a total of eleven people in the group. We all flew to Vancouver on Tuesday, July 29th with the seven day cruise scheduled to depart for Anchorage, Alaska on Wednesday, July 30th.

Vancouver. The trip got off to a very exciting start. Just as we landed in Vancouver the cell phones started ringing with the news that a 5.8 earthquake had hit in Chino Hills, which isn’t very far from OC Domer HQ in Tustin. With visions of Northridge dancing in our heads, we all made calls to friends and neighbors to see how bad it was. Amazingly, very little damage was being reported anywhere, let alone in Tustin. So we all breathed a big sigh of relief and resumed our vacation, hoping against hope that a disaster wasn’t waiting for us when we walked back into our houses in eleven days.

We had reservations at the Renaissance Vancouver Hotel Harbourside, which put us in the heart of Vancouver along the water and pretty close to the cruise ship terminal at Canada Place. Vancouver is a great, cosmopolitan city, and I have very much enjoyed the short time I have been able to spend there. But it has one quirk that baffles me. Essentially there are no freeways in (or through) Vancouver, which means that after arrival at the airport there you are faced with a long, jerky cab ride along surface streets to your hotel downtown, or maybe a loooooong ride through the whole city on surface streets in your rental car if you are heading to destinations north of the city. There is no quick way into, through, or around Vancouver. Gives it character, I guess.

After check-in we wanted to do a little sight-seeing and enjoy the city. Having watched the weather forecasts closely, we weren’t surprised when we got soaked in the rain while walking around (in the jackets that we THOUGHT were waterproof and that we were counting on to keep us dry through a rainy week in Alaska). We walked toward the historic Gastown area, checking out the shops. There is a lot of merchandise on display for the 2010 Winter Olympics that are being held in Vancouver and Whistler, BC. I was surprised by a shop selling Cuban cigars, and just had to get one. After talking to the salesperson and being assured that I could take a Cuban cigar onto the ship in Vancouver as long as I didn’t take if off the ship in Alaska, I paid $18 for a Romeo & Julieta. I know almost nothing about cigars, and have only smoked a handful in my life. But forbidden fruit and all that. When I finally smoked it later during the cruise, I honestly didn’t think it was any different than any other cigar I’ve had. But then, I can’t tell good wine from bad (although I can usually detect bad beer!). We finished up the day with a big dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory on Water Street. Not fancy, but they had a table for eleven, fresh baked bread and good beer.

The next morning my son went for a long run along the waterfront and around Stanley Park with his uncle, and my wife and I got out and took a nice long walk to Stanley Park as well. We had a few sprinkles in the morning and a threat of rain, but the weather held. Then it was time to get packed up and head for the ship. We were sailing aboard the Carnival Spirit, boarding anytime after 12:30 and heading out to sea around 5:00 p.m. The check-in procedure was surprisingly fast and easy, even with the security procedures, so were all aboard by 1:30, and our bags had made it to our cabins by 2:30.

The Cruise. I have been thinking about it a lot, and I think the best way to review the cruise is to write on the one hand about the shipboard experience on Carnival Spirit, and to write separately about Alaska itself on the other. I’ll start briefly with some thoughts on our ship.

The Carnival Spirit is a really big ship designed to carry (house, feed, entertain) over 2,000 passengers and nearly 1,000 crew members. The ship really does resemble a Las Vegas hotel. Rooms are very functional, but not spectacular. Food is abundant and diverse but not great. Décor that is tastefully tacky. Entertainment is more Fremont Street than Las Vegas Boulevard. I don’t want to be critical of the ship, but I would rate the overall ship experience as a solid “good.” Not “very good” and certainly not “great.” The cabins (I can’t bring myself to call them “staterooms”) are small, but ours didn’t seem nearly as small as the cabin we had on a Disney cruise several years ago. Also, the cabins seemed to have a much better design, with plenty of storage for all our clothes and miscellaneous stuff. We made sure that everyone in our group had balconies, since so much of the Alaskan cruise experience is watching the scenery and wildlife while underway. Our cabin stewards were very good, and very unobtrusive. When we did run into them they were always very friendly, but they generally worked under the radar. They kept our cabin immaculate (including straightening and organizing all the junk that was scattered about each day), realized very early on that we go through a lot of towels, and never tapped on our door with the dreaded “housekeeping” chant when we were trying to sleep. The televisions in the cabins actually had real T.V. programming from home, although there was no ESPN (only available in the sports bar) and there was a puzzling line-up of local channels from Denver. But CNN and Fox News were both there.

The dining room experience was the source of some disappointment. We did get the “early” dinner seating we asked for (6:00 p.m.), but we were not all at the same table, instead sitting at two tables that were very close to one another. The tables are fixed to the floor and cannot be moved together. I went to the Maitre D’ on the first day to see if we could be moved to a single large table for eleven, but he was unable to help us unless we wanted to switch to the late dinner seating (8:00). This was frustrating since there were other large groups sitting at single tables all around us, and it wasn’t clear why we got hosed. So the Maitre D’ didn’t get any tip from the OC Domer group at the end of the week. The menus for dinner were good, featuring many fine choices, but short on dishes that many of the kids in our group were very eager to eat. They tried different things, but were rarely truly happy with the offerings at dinner. The quality of the food in the dining room was uneven. “Good” most of the time but never “great.” I think it compares well with the dinner you might get at a wedding reception for 1,000 people or at a pretty decent college dining hall. A recurring theme was food that wasn’t hot.

Breakfast and lunch were buffet style on the Lido deck. Lots of variety available, fair quality. And it was usually hot! The staff at the buffet was very friendly and genuinely eager to make sure that you got what you wanted. The issue at breakfast and lunch was the crowd. Everyone on board is eating at the same time, and seating was somewhat limited by the weather. On a normal warm weather cruise, a lot of passengers are going to sit out on the pool decks or other areas of the Lido deck for breakfast and lunch. In Alaska, where it is much cooler, more folks want to sit inside to eat and the indoor seating is really at a premium. Finding a table inside for a large group at breakfast or lunch was a problem we never really solved. We usually bundled up and had breakfast near the indoor pool and tried to ignore the chlorine smell.

The slate of scheduled activities on the cruise seems to have been pared back from a typical Caribbean cruise, as the primary activity (even on days “at sea”) is sight-seeing, including looking out for whales and other wildlife. I did manage to bring home the trophy for winning the sports trivia contest, which almost made up for the money I lost in the poker and blackjack tournaments. The ship had a pretty good casino, although it is clear that the purpose of the casino is to generate revenue for Carnival, not provide entertainment for the passengers. Heck, even the BINGO games were giving out paltry prize money compared to the revenue they were generating from selling the cards.

As I alluded to above, I really compare the shipboard experience with spending an entire week at the Luxor Las Vegas. It’s very new and exciting for a few days, but by the end of the cruise you’ve seen all there is to see, you’ve eaten all the free ice cream you want, and you’re ready to get off.

ALASKA! Of course the whole reason we were on the Carnival Spirit was to see Alaska. Although I had some ambivalence about being on a ship for a week, I’m not sure if there is a better way to see Alaska. It is such a big state, so spread out and in places very inaccessible, that the cruise is just about the best way to do it. The scenery along the inside passage is breathtakingly beautiful, and watching it glide by either from your own cabin balcony or from the rail on one of the upper decks is a wonderful way to pass the time. Despite our worries about the weather, we were blessed with the best weather Alaskans had seen all summer. Those sunny days rather than rainy, cloudy skies allowed us to see more of the scenery, and showed it off to its best advantage.

Our itinerary consisted of a cruise along the inside passage, with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Sitka, before crossing the Gulf of Alaska, entering Prince William Sound and spending several hours on the last day of the cruise in spectacular College Fjord. In my mind, I pair up Ketchikan and Juneau on one hand, and Skagway and Sitka on the other. The first two cities are larger and actually have an economy and industry extending beyond cruise ship tourism. Ketchikan is a fishing town. Juneau is the state capital and is thus a government town. Both welcome the tourists and have a build-up of typical tourist shops near the cruise ship dock, but beyond the tacky touristy area is a normal town that gives one some feel for “authentic” Alaska.

Skagway and Sitka are much smaller towns, and I got the feeling that if the cruise ships stopped coming, the towns would close up shop entirely. Each of these towns has a very quaint “downtown” area (two or three blocks long) that has shops in historic buildings catering to the cruise ship crowd, some residential areas nearby housing the folks working the tourist industry, and not much else. But each of these towns is very interesting to visit because of its unique history. Skagway was ground zero for fortune seekers during the Klondike gold rush. Sitka was the capital of Alaska when it was a Russian territory.

I mentioned above that a cruise ship is probably the best way to see Alaska. One of the reasons is that the towns are too small to handle the tourists any other way. As big as Alaska is, each of the towns we visited clings to the shoreline seemingly fearful of being shoved into the ocean by the mountains that loom over them. It’s ironic, but land is at a premium in these coastal towns that sit wedged in between mountains and the sea. The towns have very few hotel rooms and very few restaurants, yet they are inundated daily with anywhere from 5,000 to 12,000 cruise passengers. If all those folks wanted to spend the night in town (or indeed, just have lunch in town) there would be no way to accommodate them.

The towns are cute, but the fun begins when you get away from town and into the wilderness. The mountains, rivers, trees, and wildlife are the greatest show on earth, and the vast scale of the landscape is hard to comprehend. The only other place where I felt that the scale of the landscape was so intimidating was on a trip to the Canadian Rockies when we visited Banff.

In Ketchikan my son spent the day with his uncle and cousin on a couple of excursions. The first was a cruise aboard the Aleutian Ballad, a crabbing boat once featured on the Deadliest Catch television show but now rigged to show tourists what it’s like to work these boats in the waters off Alaska. In the afternoon they hopped aboard a floatplane and went looking for bears. The plane actually flies back into the wilderness near Ketchikan, lands near a popular bear fishing hole, and they hike in to get a look at the bears feeding on migrating salmon. The salmon weren’t really running yet, so our crew only saw one bear that day. Meanwhile, my brother-in-law, his son, and I went sea-kayaking near the Tatoosh islands. We rode a van about 30 miles north of Ketchikan, then took an inflatable boat another twenty minutes out to the islands, where we were fitted out for splash gear, life vests, and kayaks. Once we were all set our guide led the group on a 90-minute paddle all around these pristine islands. It was a lot of fun, the scenery was amazing, and it was so quiet. The stillness was so surprising. My biggest regret from our trip was that I purposely didn’t take my camera on the kayak excursion, since I have a history of flipping small water craft and didn’t want to risk losing or ruining my camera. I have always wanted to sea kayak in the great northwest and finally getting a chance to do it exceeded my expectations. According to our guide we covered about four miles during our paddling excursion.

In Juneau the big excursions was a “float trip” down the Mendenhall River. The big attraction near Juneau is the Mendenhall glacier, which is about 20 or 30 minutes from town. Our trip consisted of a short van ride out to Mendenhall Lake, where we were all fitted for splash gear and life vests, then assigned a guide and a raft. After pushing off from the shore of Mendenhall Lake, we were treated to amazing views of the glacier as it worked its way down the mountainside and into the lake. From the lake we entered Mendenhall river which we rode for about 90 minutes back towards town, watching foe eagles and salmon along the way. As a raft trip this excursion was pretty tame, since it features only a short stretch of class III rapids, and since the guide did all the rowing. But as a way to get out into the countryside and see the glacier and experience the outdoors of Alaska it was a lot of fun. It was also one of the more reasonably priced excursions available in Juneau.

Skagway was a lot of fun. Our excursion that day featured a train ride on the historic White Pass & Yukon Route from Skagway (sea level), over the White Pass (approx. 2,800 feet), and into Fraser, Canada. From Fraser a short van ride took us back to the White Pass summit, where we all boarded mountain bikes (from the folks at Sockeye Cycle Co.) for a speedy downhill ride all the way back into Skagway. The scenery from the train was (you guessed it) amazing, and everyone had a lot of fun on the bike ride back to town.

In Sitka we had a more low-key day, checking out the historic sites of the town, before heading back to the ship for our voyage across the Gulf of Alaska. Because of the glorious weather, our crossing was smooth as glass. According to members of the ship’s crew, the southbound voyage one week before our cruise featured bad weather, rough seas, and a lot of miserable passengers. So we were very fortunate.

The last day of the cruise featured a Prince William Sound and several hours in College Fjord, which boasts more than a dozen glaciers, five of which actually reach the waters of College Fjord. The Harvard glacier sits at the head of the fjord and is over 1.5 miles long where it enters the water. We actually docked in Whittier, Alaska, late that night (midnight) less than an hour after sunset. As you get farther north, Alaska really is the land of the midnight sun. The next morning they kicked us off the ship there in Whittier, which really isn’t very close to Anchorage at all. But using Whittier as the turnaround point saves Carnival probably a full day of sailing the long way around all the way to Anchorage. That’s a lot of time and fuel saved. Plus, by docking in Whittier Carnival can rake in about $75 per passenger for the bus ride to Anchorage. That’s $150,000 in “transfer fees” per cruise.

But we opted instead to pick up rental cars at Avis (the only game in town – book ahead!) so that we could take a side trip to visit my wife’s cousin who lives with her family in Soldotna, Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula. Our two days in Soldotna were a lot of fun. The cousin lives in a beautiful home on the shore of one of the many lakes in the area. Their floatplane is docked just a few yards from their front door. The plane is fitted for floats in the summer and skis in the winter. Those that wanted to got a chance to take a spin in the Piper Super Cub, which was a real kick. The kids paddled the canoe around the lake, rode the ATV out into moose country, and got to shoot pistol, rifle, and shotgun. For dinner we had halibut enchiladas on the first night, and moose stroganoff the second night. (I’m not sure that’s the real name of the dish, but it tasted like beef stroganoff with moose meat instead of beef. It was great!). We got to see a bear on the Russian River and see how sled dogs are raised. It was great to get away from the touristy Alaska and get a feel for how folks there really live. One thing that is hard to get used to is how late the sun stays up in the summer. You end up having dinner at 10:00 at night as the sun approaches the horizon because that’s when it “feels” like dinnertime.

After seeing Soldotna we drove to Anchorage (which is nearby in Alaskan terms, but which was a three hour drive in perfect conditions). We dropped our rental cars at the airport ($100 drop fee per car) and flew home to Orange County, utterly exhausted from our vacation. Once we got home we were very happy to learn that the earthquake hadn’t caused too much damage. A Little League trophy fell off a shelf and broke, a Lladro figurine fell off the mantel, some picture frames fell off the wall. We were very lucky and very grateful.

It was a great trip, and I’m so glad we all got the chance to see such a wonderful place. Although I didn’t take my camera kayaking, I did take it everywhere else. I took over 1,500 digital photos during our trip. I have culled through all of them and compiled by Best of Alaska 2008 slideshow which is embedded below. If you click on any of the pictures, it will take you to the online gallery where you can see larger versions of the images and flip through them faster (or slower) if you like. I’m pretty pleased with how they turned out, and I hope you enjoy them.

This post is way too long, but I really left a lot out. If you are interested in Alaska or have any questions about our experience, please leave a comment below or e-mail me (click on my “profile” link to the right for e-mail address).

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