The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

October 8, 2014

We’re Quickly Running Out of Frontiers Here: A Week in Alaska by Sea, Part 1

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 12:00 am

As much as I suspect a lot of us would like to have it hang around a little while longer, it looks like Summer has just come to an end.  As always, this is roughly when you start looking over what you did over the Summer and trying to make sure you didn’t waste it.  In my case, I have to admit that it just didn’t feel like I’ve really done much.  Until a couple of weeks ago, I don’t think I had been more than about 50 miles from home at any given point this Summer, and in fact hadn’t really traveled anywhere since the last Disneyland trip me and my friend took back in April just before our Annual Passes expired.  A lot of this is due to the fact that our big vacation for the Summer got scheduled for just about the last possible time we could have scheduled it, set to end just two days before the Autumnal Equinox.  To put the situation into football terms (I hear football is kind of popular around Seattle these days,) it’s basically a matter of being down 28-3  with a minute and a half to go in the fourth quarter, and trying to get down the field for a garbage time touchdown just so it looks like you didn’t get completely blown out.

Then again, much of the reason that we didn’t do much this Summer was because we had this particular trip planned.  Admittedly, in spite of the fact that I’ve done quite a bit of cruising over the past few years, Alaska has never been all that high on my list of possible destinations.  As I believe I’ve said here before, to me it seems like Alaska has the type of weather than I go on vacation to get away from. Then again, it was my friends who were planning this particular trip, so in a lot of ways I was just along for the ride.  Not that there was much of a ride involved anyway (at least not until we boarded the ship.)  One of the nice things about cruising to Alaska is that a lot of ships use Seattle as their homeport during the Alaska season.  For two Summers I have worked in Downtown Seattle just off the waterfront, which means that if I look out the window in some of the conference rooms at the office I can see the ships docked at either Bell Street Pier about half a mile away, or Smith Cove several miles beyond that.  It certainly makes the prospect of just hopping aboard one sound a lot more tantalizing when you can actually see the ships in port.  If nothing else, it’s kind of nice to take a cruise and not have to fly across the country twice to get there in back (nothing against Fort Lauderdale, which is a perfectly nice place to get away from the weather, but a quick 12-mile taxi ride to the pier is, shockingly, a little easier to deal with than a flight of 2,800 miles in each direction (not to mention a fair bit cheaper.)

The itinerary for this particular cruise would be a 7-day roundtrip out of Seattle, making stops in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria, as well as a day spent aboard the ship as it cruises slowly through Glacier Bay National Park (other ships with a similar itinerary may omit Glacier Bay in favor of Tracy Arm Fjord.)  Since I had been to none of those places (except for Victoria on a previous cruise) before, I didn’t know a whole lot about what to expect.  The ship, on the other hand, was in large part a known quantity, as if you’ve been on one Grand-class Princess ship you should have little trouble finding your way around any of the other ones.  The Golden Princess is one of the older ships in the fleet (she first sailed in 2001,) and is a sister ship to the Grand Princess and Star Princess.  Although these three ships were originally virtually identical, over time a number of renovations have taken the three ships in significantly different directions.  Nonetheless, even with the various changes between the three ships you are going to find that the passenger experience is pretty consistent across the Princess fleet regardless of which ship you happen to be on.  All in all, it’s not a bad way to go.

After the jump, a look at some of the highlights from the trip.

In many ways, Seattle is a city that shows off its best side when you arrive (or leave) by water, as anyone who has taken a ferry ride across Puget Sound can attest to.  Fortunately, this particular day just happened to be about as nice as you can expect at this time of the year, with hardly a cloud in the sky.  Not quite the postcard view of the city (that would generally come from either West Seattle or from Kerry Park up on Queen Anne Hill)  but I’d say it’s pretty close.

Given the fact that the voyage information channel typically found on the ship TVs was out of commission that was pretty much the last time I actually knew where we were at any given point in the trip, but the views were generally pretty nice no matter where you were.  This was taken as the sun set on the way out of Puget Sound after dinner on the first night.  It was actually a lot darker than this, but fortunately my camera seems to do pretty well in low light.

 

Every once in a while you could also see some city lights off in the distance.

For a good portion of the trip up we were also followed by a Norwegian ship (the Norwegian Jewel I believe) as it made its way to Vancouver for its repositioning cruise.  She will be spending the Winter sailing Caribbean itineraries out of New Orleans, then returning to Seattle next year.

The next day was spent at sea as we made our way up to Juneau, so I don’t have a lot of pictures.  This pretty much sums up the day right here.  Lots of water up close, and a distant view of the mountains of British Columbia to the east.

This was the scene the next morning as we arrived in Juneau.  The low clouds would prove to be something of a running theme on this particular trip.

From the Sun Deck of the ship where this photo was taken, you are at a height of roughly 120 feet above the water.    The hills  almost directly next to the pier rise dramatically, which is something you don’t see a whole lot even in the more rugged parts of Washington around Puget Sound and the Hood Canal.

To give you some idea of how tall these hills really are, the Mount Roberts Tramway (visible in the distance in this photo) takes guests to a vantage point 1,800 feet above the city, which is less than halfway to the 3,819 foot summit of Mount Roberts.   All of this happens within less than half a mile of the waterfront.

Although we were near the end of the Alaska cruise season, Juneau remained quite busy, with four different ships in port on this particular day.  This Carnival ship (I don’t recall exactly which one it was, they all start to look the same after a while) had to drop anchor in the harbor and transport its passengers to shore by tender boat.

 

In spite of the clouds, even at this point there were a few sunbreaks peeking out, and eventually things would clear up pretty well, making for a rather pleasant day (which isn’t the kind of thing you expect when you think Alaska, but I’ll take it.)

Shortly after we docked we got off the ship.  Our plan for the day was to get a rental minivan, which we would then use to drive to Mendenhall Glacier and several other locations in the area.  One of my friends had reserved the rental car in advance, and after a decent amount of walking from the ship we found the rental place.  Seems legit…  (But really, we had no problem with the rental van, even if it was somewhere north of 140,000 miles when we got it, and for a group our size it was probably a lot better option than trying to find a shore excursion suitable for everyone anyway.)

From the rental car place we can get a different angle of the ship.  From here you can get an idea just how insignificant the mountains surrounding Juneau can make even a 109,000-ton cruise ship look.

 

If you’re expecting to be out in the middle of nowhere in Juneau, you would be right and wrong at the same time.  For the most part, things should look pretty familiar to someone who lives in the Pacific Northwest.  Juneau has a Safeway, a Fred Meyer, a Walmart, and a number of other businesses that should be familiar to someone living in Washington or Oregon.  All in all, the place has the feel of somewhere like North Bend, where you have a relatively modern-looking city surrounded by mountainous terrain.  At the same time, Juneau is in many ways isolated due to the fact that Juneau is not connected by road to the lower 48 states, so pretty much everything has to be brought in by either sea or by air.  Skagway, on the other hand, is accessible by road from the lower 48, but getting there from Seattle would require a drive of roughly 1,600 miles, which isn’t exactly next door.  More on that when we get there.

After getting the rental car, the first order of business was finding the Walmart in Juneau to pick up some (allegedly) cheap souvenirs as well as a couple of items that we forgot to pack.  Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to find.  Just follow the shuttle.

Of course, it didn’t take long before there were more interesting sights to be found outside the window as we made the approach to Mendenhall Glacier.

On arrival at the parking lot for the Glacier, there are two ways to get to the visitor center:  The direct route along the sidewalks, and a slightly longer route through some woods where one can supposedly see wildlife on occasion.  There was none to be found today though, at least not that seemed interested in hanging around.

The main attraction wasn’t far off though (well it still was, but we could see it pretty well from here.)  From the south end of Mendenhall Lake, the glacier is hard to miss.

There is a visitor’s center at the south end of the lake (which costs $3 a person to enter if you aren’t coming in on a tour bus) where you can get a higher-up view of the glacier and Nugget Falls, as well as the obligatory video presentation about the place.  A hiking trail leads to the falls, which would be our destination for this particular outing.

The hike to the falls is about 3/4 of a mile in each direction on a relatively easy trail, and will take you to a shoreline area on the lake just below the falls.  The guide estimates about a 45-minute round trip hike to get there and back, which sounded just about right.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures during the hike since the scenery was fairly generic along the way, but this should give you an idea of what to expect.  There was a steady stream of hikers in each direction along the way, many of them carrying souvenir bags from back near the cruise docks.  Given the number of ships in port, it was probably safe to assume that almost all of the people on the trail were cruise passengers (which could be said for most of the stops during the cruise.)

Upon arrival at the falls, this was the view you were rewarded with for completion of the relatively modest hike.

Nugget Falls is the outflow of Nugget Creek (which is fed by a different glacier several miles to the east) and is 388 feet tall as it cascades down the hillside.  This was taken from a couple hundred yards away to get a larger overall view of the falls.

From up close, the falls were even more impressive.  Just don’t stand too close if you were planning to come back dry.

Even looking in the opposite direction from the falls, there was still an impressive view to be had.  You can’t really see them in this photo, but a number of chunks of ice that had calved off the glacier could be seen floating in the lake.

After departing from the glacier, our next stop was the Shrine of St. Therese, a Catholic shrine found about 22 miles north of downtown Juneau along the water. which includes several easy walking trails, as well as a chapel and a number of other facilities.

I didn’t take a whole lot of photos from here, but since Alaska seems to be one of those places where everywhere you look is one postcard view after another, this should give you an idea of what to expect for a view here.

The drive back from the shrine was just as picturesque as everything else here.  Even obnoxious orange barrier fence couldn’t do much to spoil the view here.

On the way back into Juneau we made one last stop at the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery, located just outside of town.  By the time we got there it appeared that all the tour groups had pretty much left for the day, so there weren’t a lot of people here.  In addition to the fish ladders outside the hatchery (which had a fair number of fish swimming up them,) there were a number of displays inside where you could get an up close look at salmon in their highly unnatural habitat.

You could also go into another building and see where the young salmon were being raised prior to their release into the wild.  There were four of these large tanks in this building, and even at this young age the salmon seemed anxious to get going.  As you watched, you could see a number of them jumping out of the water.

Rather unsurprisingly, the view across the channel from the hatchery was quite spectacular.

Shortly after completing our visit to the hatchery we arrived back at the pier, where we returned briefly to the ship as one of my friends went to return the rental car (the office was closed, so we were advised to just leave the keys inside) and then made a short trip back out to do a bit of shopping before returning to the ship for dinner.  We had a fairly late departure from Juneau since the next day’s destination of Skagway wasn’t too far away, but this is the last of the photos that I took here.  All in all, I thought the minivan was actually a pretty good idea, especially with the size of our group.  One of the unexpected perks of doing something like that was the fact that some of the tourist attractions figured that just about everyone visiting would be on a tour bus (probably a safe assumption with four cruise ships in port and few places in town to rent a car,) so they didn’t seem to be bothering to charging their usual admission fee.   It also didn’t cost all that much more for the entire group than a shore excursion for one person would have cost, especially with the cost broken down between six people.  I’d probably take that approach again if I ever make another visit to Juneau, even if it was a bit of a hike to the rental car place from the ship.

Anyway, this post ended up being a lot longer than I anticipated, so I will go ahead and continue this in another post.

Next up:  Ziplining in Skagway, a cruise through Glacier Bay, and short stops in Ketchikan and Victoria.

 

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