With a record number of visitors expected to come to Alaska this season, residents can expect to see scads of people with cameras hanging from their necks as they wander the sidewalks and byways.
A majority will be on guided tours, but thousands of individuals will arrive by plane or car. Several cruise ships will dock this year in Anchorage, disgorging thousands of passengers onto the streets for a quick glimpse of the 49th State. Others tie up at Seward or Whittier, where passengers are taken by bus or train to the big city. Some Alaska tours are limited to Southeast, round-tripping from Vancouver or Seattle.
Many Alaska cruise-takers choose two-week land and sea bookings, taking the train to Denali or Fairbanks. They are able to see more of what Alaska has to offer before flying back to their homes. Tour guides do their best to answer questions after making presentations on superlatives and a brief history lesson.
This writer and his bride were introduced to cruising several years ago as guests of her sister, Lois Anderson—herself the wife of a sailing master who commanded an Army transport ship in Alaskan waters during World War II.
Our favorite cruise is the Inside Passage, something experienced five times.
One of those was a round-trip excursion. When booking the seven-day southbound trip, it was discovered that the return price was about equal to a night’s hotel room, meals and airfare. The tour passage includes meals. Retired and with no deadlines to face, we stayed on board and enjoyed the sights coming and going. A big benefit was that on the southbound run we stopped at Sitka and on the way back were able to spend a day at Skagway. Both played huge parts in Alaska’s history. The trips also were helpful to my own resource searches.
We have sailed on Carnival, accompanied by No. 2 Son Ole and his wife Diana. The Carnival Dream was much larger, accommodating almost twice as many passengers as the Holland America ships we prefer. It must be noted that the Dream voyage to the Western Caribbean was a single experience, one that was shared with a predominantly younger bunch of people aboard. It may not have been a fair comparison and the Carnival line has been chosen again by our offspring. We just prefer staying on this side of the continent.
All cruises seem to have similar venue experiences for guests.
We like to join folks in the Piano Bar where a pianist entertains for the evening. On the Dream, the pianist was an Australian who tickled the ivories with enthusiasm and worked the audience with skill. His pace was astounding—seemingly requiring constant rehydration. Other entertainers on different voyages were equally skilled in the use of the 88 black and white keys, coming close to the entertainment level of the Aussie, just not as memorable. Diana’s rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in the Karaoke Bar was also memorable and drew praise from fellow passengers for the Alaska Sound Celebration soprano.
Professional touring groups put on shows in the auditorium during all the cruises, featuring talented singers and dancers, comedians and other show people. The showroom is in the bow of the ship, seemingly a full quarter of a mile forward of the dining room in the stern. That gives one a chance to work off some of the calories taken in with the delicious pre-show meal.
On the first night, passengers get to meet the ship’s officers. One night of most cruises, members of the crew put on a show, generally exhibitions of folk dances from their native lands.
In addition to excellent meals, cruise ship chefs show off their culinary abilities with a display of confections prepared for a late-night showing once during each cruise. Sculptured chocolate figures, layers of decorated cakes and other desserts fill the room and are arranged to make onlookers drool at the sight.
Diners have a choice of several restaurants on the ships. The main dining room has a wide assortment of entrees on the menu. A cafeteria-style restaurant is less formal and offers longer hours. There is a semi-private dining room and restaurants that serve specialized items such as pizzas. Service is fast and waiters strive to make sure each passenger is well satisfied. Always remarkable is how quickly your name is remembered by all the servers and the housekeepers. By the second day, each guest is addressed by name. That they manage to remember all those names with the entire passenger list changing every week is hard to believe, but they do.
The housekeepers are skilled at forming animals from rolled-up towels.
A different figure is placed on the pillow each day. Beds are comfortable. Passengers have a choice between single- or king-size beds. If you choose single, the bed is against the wall with night-stands between. If king-size, the night-stands are against the wall. The beds say together and the joint between them is not noticed. Linens are changed frequently during the week and are cabins cleaned thoroughly each day.
Ships have a variety of gift and souvenir shops that cover a big part of one full inside deck space. Some voyages have a sponsored theme, such as featuring an artist whose work is available for purchase. It is easy to add to one’s credit card balance since all purchases are paid for in plastic and, unless the shopper keeps track of the individual purchases, the total is somewhat of a surprise at the end of the voyage. Since cruises are care-free adventures, the atmosphere is conducive to over-spending.
When I first came to Alaska as a young soldier in 1948 (the year changed while enroute, so I was in Southeast waters in 1948 but arrived at Whittier in 1949), it was aboard an Army transport ship. We slept in hammocks below decks. Shortly after pulling away from the dock in Seattle, there was a loud pop. From the rail, I could see a wide crack running from the deck where I stood down to the waterline, and presumably far below. The tugs circled and took us back to the dock. Two days later, we were again underway. The next day, the ship stopped dead in the water due to a lost propeller. Divers put another one on and off we headed again. Expecting to meet my Maker at any moment, I became violently seasick and remained in the sack for the rest of the voyage.
Sailing aboard a cruise ship is a far more pleasant experience.
The vessels are well maintained and move smoothly. They are equipped with stabilizers to help minimize side-to-side sway. Even in stormy waters, the pitch is not especially disturbing. On our maiden cruise aboard the MS Statendam enroute to Hawaii from San Diego, we stopped to rescue the crew of a storm-damaged sailboat, but had not ourselves been bothered by the waves.
Yes, there have been mishaps involving cruises, but we must remember the huge number of sailings that take place every year. Many fires and accidents happen around the neighborhoods where we live; because they did not occur ’way out on the water, they don’t make headlines. Things need to be kept in proper perspective.
So, if you can spare a week and are returning from a trip Outside, consider taking an Inside Passage cruise. You’ll see Alaska as you’ve never seen it before and get to explore our glorious history. Stops are made in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Glacier Bay before docking in Seward. Or, do as we did once and go both ways. You get to see either Haines or Sitka instead of Skagway on the opposite leg of the journey.
In addition to the sightseeing, history and entertainment, you’ll be treated like royalty and feast on gourmet food.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.