Sat . June 15 Vancouver We had half day to see the city.The hop-on hop-off bus cost $37 pp for seniors; I chose instead to get a $7.50 pp all day bus pass. Took a us to Stanley Park, but found the park too large to see by foot. Got back on the local bus and spent an hour going to the end of the route, through Chinatown, old and new business areas, fancy and run down residential areas, and suburbs to another bus/train station at the city’s edge. Found an elevated train (Skyway) back to the motel by two p.m., and that was our somewhat disappointing superficial visit to Vancouver. Took a shuttle to the Sapphire Princesss and had fast efficient boarding, thanks to my Preferred Boarding Pass as a Platinum Captain’s Circle veteran cruiser and the fact that we both walk with canes.
We have our usual good comparatively unobstructed lower cost “obstructed” outside cabin, E425 on the Emerald deck 8 amidships, up one from the Promenade (deck 7) and relatively close to everything. Layout is similar to other Princess ships, and so familiar to us. Had usual visit with Maitre D to get assigned early seating. Theoretically one can do this in advance, but Princess usually makes this impossible, sending us notices we have “chosen anytime seating,” which is a lie. They force “anytime” on us, & we have to see the maitre D almost every time. At least we now have this wonderful feeling that for the next week we need not worry about where to sleep, where or what to eat, what connection we have to make, or any of the other frustrations of independent travel. We can relax.
Sun. June 16. At sea. I spent some time in the “Sanctuary,” napping, writing these entries, and reading an excellent book, Wade Davis Light at the Edge of the World, A Journey through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures, about numerous societies and languages in S. America, the arctic, New Guinea, Africa, etc. The book had a lot of beautiful photos. Voodoo in Haiti, coca among the Incas in Peru, canoe people in Venezuela, eupiak in the arctic, others in Sumatra and Borneo, far more than i had realized. Basically, the cultures have been the victims of modern commercial culture: gas, oil, and lumber. Skimmed/read another book, an odd one by Sylvia Brown titled Secret Societies, supposedly telling the truth about Skull and Bones (Yale), the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Comm., the Bilderberg Group, Freemasons, the Knights Templar and Malta, the Rosicrucians (Yeats belonged), the Priory of Sion, the Opus Dei, New World, the Illuminati, and Gnostics, with a chapter on “Lies about Christ and the Vatican.” A weird book that cited a few sources and had some convincing info. but relied extensively on her “Spiritual Adviser” Francine.
Mon. June 17 Ketchikan. Been here before. Not a lot to see or do. Wandered around the town and took a local bus to a beautiful new library with current papers and magazines.
Tue. June 18 Juneau. Took an independent whale watching trip ($125 each) which I had scheduled in advance. They guaranteed we’d see whales (though later in the season trips may take longer), and we did indeed see a lot of humpbacks, to the right of us, to the left of us, all around us, some in bunches (almost colliding), a few w/babies. Found out later Princess had cancelled their whale watching excursion (cost $199 each) because of “rough seas.” Ours was a bumpy ride out and back, but we had wonderful views of many whales. I believe there is a lesson here. Then took an $8 bus ride out to Mendenhall Glacier ($8 return). Excellent visitor center (free w/Golden Passport):detailed exhibits, especially on retreating glaciers due to climate change. A good day.
We’ve had some very good song and dance shows, better than on other Princess cruises, though still too loud, with bright strobe lights that annoy everyone we’ve talked with.
Wed.. June 19. Skagway. My companion took the White Horse/Yukon train up the narrow, beautiful route the gold miners had used, with tales of their strains and suffering and of many dead horses. She had a long walk and wait in the hot sun and felt the ads, info, and planning were lousy, though the trip was an interesting one through beautiful scenery. I’d been there, done that, so spent some time on the computer and wrote my notes here.
Thu. June 20. A day of cruising Glacier Bay. Several forest rangers came on board; we heard one good lecture on the history and nature of glaciers including the effects of climate change on them. We spent the time leaning on the rail and looking at the mix of beautiful blue and white ice as well as the old dirty parts; taking photos, eating, napping, reading.
Fri. June 21 Summer Solstice Sunrise 4:10 a.m. Sunset 11:28 p.m. Over 19 hours of daylight!
Basically, another day at sea, with a brief cruise into College Fjord to see a few more glaciers, one quite large and beautiful. Also a goof in my planning. We had only three ports on this “7-day” cruise (actually 6). Some cruises stop at four ports, including Sitka, a very interesting one. I had volunteered for the Passenger Talent Show. Signed up, but did not have any audition and never heard anything more. Went to the location at the time of the show, and they called my name to perform. Fortunately, I had brought my copy of “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “performed” it to considerable applause and positive comments. Spent the rest of the day resting, reading, writing in here. There’s a lot we did not do: attend the art auction, drink the expensive cocktails they pedal at all hours, use the hot tubs, watch the movies, play ping pong or bridge, solve the sudoku puzzles, take rhumba lessons, look at the thousands of posted photos, pay for Pilates, eat reindeer chili, play trivia or Bingo, gamble, take afternoon tea, have our tongue or pulse analyzed with Chinese herbal medicine, play croquet, or dance the night away. We did chat with some interesting guests, ate many good meals, and spent a lot of time napping and relaxing.
Sat. June 22 Docked in Whittier, near Anchorage, around 1 a.m. We disembarked and set off on a land tour, at the mercy of Princess. We had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to get to our “staging area” (our Santa Fe restaurant) by 6:00 to wait until 6:30 with a couple hundred others, like cattle, to a waiting train car #3, table #15, to sit facing backward with another couple (facing forward) for the trip to Talkeetna, arriving around 4 p.m. Dumpy sort of train, not at all like the luxury of the Rocky Mountaineer. I had tried several times to get more info from Princess about this part of the trip: whether we had reserved seats, any choice of where we sat, whether all seats faced forward and/or reclined. I prefer to see where I am going to, not where I have been. I never got answers. Either they did not know, or, more likely, did not want us to know. We were then transferred to coaches (had the option of staying several hours in Talkeetna for an extra charge). Tired, we went on to the Princess McKinley Wilderness Lodge on a hilltop with an excellent view of the highest mountain in North America.. Word is that the peak is enshrouded in clouds six days out of seven, but for all three days we were in the area we had wonderful views of the mountain in all its glory and majesty. Also some good photos and postcards . We are, however, in the clutches of Princess. Nothing at all nearby to get anything to eat other than their expensive restaurants. I talked a bartender into a glass of milk ($2.50) so we could eat some cereal with a banana we had snitched from the ship.
Sun. June 23 Motor coach to the Denali Princess Lodge, in the small town with a Subway across the street. We have been surprised at the large numbers of people from China, Japan, and India on these cruises and tours, probably because we left from the west coast. The Subway was so jammed that we settled for tuna sandwiches from a nearby gas station. Our tour included a four or five hour bus trip through Denali National Park and Preserve, where one hopes to see the “big five”: bear, caribou, moose, antelope, and wolf. The best time to do that is early morning. Our tour went at 2:30 p.m. (Princess chose the time) and was, I believe, billed as a “landscape tour.” We had only a distant view of a caribou and a moose or two. In the evening, we saw (extra cost) a hokey, home-written hill-billy type play about the first climb of Mt. McKinley.
Mon. June 24 Motor coach to Fairbanks. Not a lot of fun. Some lovely mountain scenery, and then a long ride through flatlands with one-way, dusty, bumpy road construction and orange barrels, just like home. After a four hour ride to the outskirts Fairbanks, we had a good paddle wheel boat ride lasting several hours. It included views of riverside shanties and mansions, a famous sled-dog training farm, some float plane docks and a plane taking off and landing beside the boat, and a stop of several hours at a park with lectures and exhibits of the earlier ways of life here: processing and smoking salmon, making of fur and other clothing, song and dance, mostly by natives from Alaskan villages. I found it sad, though, that none of the young lecturers could recite a poem in any native language. All spoke the English that the missionaries had taught their parents or grandparents. And though in some villages there are old folk willing to teach the young ones the language that their grandparents spoke. Most of the youth, as in Ireland, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and many other places, want to speak the current lingua franca (an odd Latin/french phrase that now refers to English). Alas.
Tue. June 25 Fairbanks Spent last night at the Princess Riverside Inn near the airport, and today is the official end of the Princess tour. We have two more days on our own in Fairbanks. Tried to use the free (for seniors) local bus service. Had to deal with long waits and walks and missed or late buses. Found a good, reasonable downtown hotel, the Bridgewater, and rented a car from AK rental.
The logistics of this Princess tour are, on the one hand, highly complex and efficient, but, on the other, very frustrating. After we got off the train from the ship, another whole group of passengers boarded to get back to the ship for a departure that afternoon. The bus from Denali to Fairbanks then took other passengers from Fairbanks to Denali. We never had to show tickets. Someone from Princess appeared at the right coach or train with a manifest, and checked off our names as we got on. And there always was someone at the right place at the right time, at least in our experience. So someone at Princess must have known all these details, yet they refused to share them with us passengers. We did not know what time the bus would leave until the day or night before; we did not know what time we would arrive somewhere until we boarded the train or bus and asked. We did not know when our tour of Denali would be until the night before. And we as individuals have no knowledge or control of the specifics until shortly before or until they happen. The agents in the hotels or those who answer the 800 numbers either do not know or are forbidden to tell. They seem dumb, or perhaps are under orders to act dumb. I found this lack of information very annoying. I heard some passengers complain a lot about being in an annex some distance away from rather than in the main hotel at Denali, but they got no satisfaction.
Wed. June 26 My companion wanted to drive to the arctic circle, about 7-8 hours on a dirt road (illegal to do w/our rental) past mostly monotonous tundra and then 8 hours back. We chose not to go. In the morning, I had a wonderful experience. On an earlier visit to AK to visit my brother, I had called a float plane instructor about a lesson. He said he would give me one, except that the lake was frozen and the plan on skis. So I had a ski plane lesson instead. This time I had called another instructor. We drove to his hangar and plane on a big old quarry next to the Fairbanks airport. I sat in the left seat (primary pilot), he on the right with dual controls. He took off and then said “the plane is yours. He directed me over a pass in the mountains. I kept us straight and level on the course he directed to some lakes. Practiced some steep turns and a 360 turn. He landed the plane, had me take off, fly around, land, and take off again. A challenge, but I did OK, and can add that to the list of types I have flown (a T-6 WW II 400 hp trainer; the ski plane, an aerobatic one w/a few lessons, and a glider). All challenges and fun. We spent the rest of the day at the excellent University of Alaska museum, a mixture of anthropology, natural history, art, sculpture, and more. Driving in Fairbanks was confusing and frustrating: not to scale maps and inadequate road and street signs. There is a large animal research center where we hoped to get the close-up views of moose, bear, and antelopes that we had missed at Denali. We found it at closing time and had only a distant view of something we could not identify.
Thu. June 27 Took the day to get away from the metropolis of Fairbanks and headed into the boonies 25 miles or so northwest toward the arctic. Found an exhibit where the AK pipeline was exposed and explained. Saw intersecting hills with countless pine trees, some clear spots with heavy equipment, and every few miles a mailbox at a lane where some lone souls of the pioneer type probably live alone. Returned the rental car in time to make an 8 p.m. United red eye flight to Chicago.
Fri. June 28 Arrived in Chicago late enough to miss our connection to Dayton. We got home tired and bleary-eyed, an OK end to a wonderful adventure. This was my companion’s first trip to AK and, if she were a few decades younger, she’d be ready to move there.