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Carnival Spirit: Alaska
Day 1: Embarkation: Whittier/Anchorage
Day 2: Cruising the Fjords
Day 3: Sitka
Day 4: Juneau
Day 5: Skagway
Day 6: Ketchikan
Day 7: Cruising the Inside Passage
Day 8: Debarkation: Vancouver
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Day 5: Monday, Skagway
SkagwayOkay. I admit it. My legs feel like two lead weights from our hike yesterday. Warning to Alaska adventure seekers: If you plan to hike, pack hiking boots (I wore sneakers) -- and work out before your trip!

Today Erin and I booked ourselves on the White Pass Rail & Bike Adventure ($164 per person) out of Skagway, so no sitting around and feeling sorry for myself. We got up early for a 7:45 a.m. departure (fortunately, Carnival Spirit's Lido buffet provides the opportunity to grab breakfast quickly including made-to-order omelets) and hit the rails.

The White Pass railroad dates to the turn of the last century (begun in 1898, it took "two years, two months and two days" to complete) and the 1.5-hour ride on the wood-paneled narrow gauge train allowed us a chance to marvel at this engineering feat -- the cliffs are steep, the landscape rugged, the scenery including snowcapped mountains spectacular.

Skagway is historically significant as the place prospectors began their long trek into Canada's Yukon Territory in search of Klondike gold. In 1898, tens of thousands of Gold Rush stampeders packed with tons of supplies crossed the mountains on similar routes as we did without the benefit of the train. Torture. We caught views of Dead Horse Gulch where so many spent horses were left by the stampeders their bones are said to leech from the ground even today. Our guide, Joey, a student from the University of Idaho, working in Skagway for the summer, pointed out waterfalls and other photo ops. And Erin thought he was hot! The views were truly inspiring for all.

We got off the train at Fraser, B.C. (in Canada), about 27 miles from Skagway with a population of 12 (all customs agents). You need to bring a passport or two government-issued forms of ID (one with a photo) in case customs agents ask; in our case, they didn't. After a brief ride in a van were outfitted with mountain bikes, helmets and gloves. It was chilly up at about 3,000 feet, but the ride downhill was easy with our hands getting the biggest workout since they controlled the hand brakes. Joey kept a pace of 15 to 20 miles per hour and one terrified slow poke gave up and rode in the van (but she didn't seem to mind). We found the downhill stretch exhilarating as our eyes watered in the cool breeze (sunglasses to protect eyes are recommended). The skies were slightly overcast but allowed for magnificent views of mountains and valleys. For those less inclined to get active there are also roundtrip excursions by rail. And the pricey helicopter trips here and in the other ports got rave reviews from those who did them. Gold-panning was another popular Skagway excursion, and no one seemed to mind when they only brought back a few flecks.

Our guide Joey was a sweet delight, very talkative -- he even reciting poetry about Alaska at one point. Erin enjoyed chatting with someone her own age about college, Web sites, music and so forth. Take-home water bottles were provided on our trip and we also got a snack on a granola bar (because, you know, when you cruise you need to eat every few hours and this was a four-hour excursion).

Most of the other bike riders were in the 45 to 60 age range but all did well except for a few (including me) who were a bit slow on the one hill we came too, long but not all that steep, but still requiring enough effort to be physically challenging (again, I learned I'm not as fit as I pretend to be). When we got back into Skagway the road was joyously flat and I was okay despite my sore legs. We passed through a residential neighborhood of mostly ranch-style prefab homes and a school and past the fire station where they were holding a small-town car wash with the fire truck hoses splashing the cars. Funny to watch.

We turned in our bikes back in town. Erin and I were uninterested in the plethora of souvenir shops and jewelry stores (if you want real Alaska goods make sure to look for a Made in Alaska sticker as I know from past experience a lot here in Skagway is imported).

Skagway brings in literally hundreds of added workers in summer to cater to the cruise-ship crowds. But the old Gold Rush buildings still hold a special charm, despite the signage (which includes Starbucks). Come here and you at least know from the architecture you're in the Old West. Unlike a lot of other towns, Skagway was spared fires and earthquakes, so many of the painted wooden buildings and houses you see are the real thing, dating to the late 1800's and today protected by the National Park Service. You can pick up a guide to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic District at the visitor's center at 2nd and Broadway.

Lucky for us, just as in Juneau, we were the only ship in town (it's early in the season still, and Carnival's midweek embarkation helps it avoid some of the traffic), so you could actually get into the Red Onion Saloon (which dates to 1898, and was actually frequented by the Gold Rush gang) for an Alaskan Pale Ale (the preferred beer here) without much of a wait. We stopped at an Internet cafe on 2nd Street to check our e-mail since the computers on the ship were down (for a day and a half due to "satellite problems").

We headed back to the ship for lunch because the featured buffet cuisine was Indian and we love Indian food. Since the head chef on the Spirit is Indian, it was pretty decent too, with a nice spicy kick (dishes included a vegetable curry, marinated chicken and lamb kabobs).

At night, during formal night, the ship's exceptionally friendly captain was available in the atrium before dinner for photos and again after dinner in the Deco Cigar Bar, smoking a cigar. Captain Pier Paolo Scala, who hails from Sicily, likes to mingle (his crew members said he often appears at crew gatherings as well) and since he's cruised in Alaska for seven years he's quite the expert (ask him about the 30-pound salmon he once caught). His pretty wife Chloe, from New Zealand, is the ship's chief purser.

At dinner, the maitre d' asked if we wanted to sit with other people and after Erin and I let out a joint "yes" (not that we were getting bored with each other or anything), he searched his computer which lists open seats and passengers by age. He couldn't find a match age-wise for us, but did find a table of three 50-ish singles from Louisiana who were at least entertaining companions. Danny, a first-time cruiser and first-time Alaska visitor, said of the cruise: "nothing out ranks the scenery. It doesn't even look real." Sitting at an adjacent table were an Australian couple and their son, who we totally bonded with as they, like us, are well traveled (although this was their first U.S. cruise). He is a pilot, and I have friends who are pilots. We talked about our visit several years ago to Australia, and they talked about their visit to Boston. And they even generously shared some really good Australian wine they had smuggled onboard, something Carnival discourages.

The nighttime show was Singin' with the Big Band, and the only part of it we found impressive was that the music was performed by an orchestra of 10. Some of these same musicians join the jazz trio in improvising in the Deco Cigar Bar, and we found the smaller venue much more enticing. Plus, the jazz musicians were quite easy on the eyes, even if they were closer to Erin's age than mine.

Tomorrow, our dynamic duo hits the shores of Ketchikan and finds bright sunshine, excellent kayaking and bald eagles galore.
Day 4: Juneau red arrow Day 6: Ketchikan

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