Cruise Alaska – Inside Passage

Alaska here we come – well once we get out of Canadian territorial waters. We grab a taxi and get down to the terminal building – there are two cruises going away this morning – ourselves on the Norwegian Jewel, and a Disney cruise (there are a lot of people getting around with Mickey Mouse ears on this morning). The boarding process with checking in, customs and screening takes around an hour and then we are allowed onboard. Our rooms aren’t going to be ready for a couple of hours so what to do – emm, find a restaurant and have a munch (we would pay for that later in the week – the boat had something like 7 complimentary eating options and then the specialty restaurants where you pay as you dine). We are soon able to access our rooms (for us an inside cabin, and with the three of us, it would be cosy). We explore the boat – I think there are 8 main levels for us to get around. The boat casts off from Vancouver around 5pm – the weather had packed in and it was raining heavily and clagged in but once we got up the harbour a bit, things started to clear. Each day on the boat you get a schedule of activities – our evening routine for the week would consist of taking in the evening show and either having dinner before or after the show.

Tuesday was a full day at sea so we did plenty of exploring around the boat and explored some of the eating options. We went to an art auction, and enjoyed a great disco themed show that evening, and started going to the trivia sessions. Obviously on a large ship like this you meet a load of people – we bumped into one chap that we would see most days – Gus from Foxton Beach. Like myself, we were some of the only ones on the boat getting around in shorts the majority of the time. Like the range of guests on board, the crew came from 60 countries we were told – majority being from the Philippine’s.

Wednesday dawned with us crossing over into Alaskan territorial waters. First port stop for us was the town of Ketchikan which is in the south eastern tip of Alaska (with arriving into Alaska our clocks had to slip back a further hour as well). We miscalculated with the alarm clock and instead of getting up at 6.30am, the alarm had us up at what was actually 5.30am so we headed out to the deck to watch the ship enter and tie up at Ketchikan. We headed off the boat and had a wander downtown before heading back to the wharf for our excursion – we were going on the Bering Sea Crab Fisherman tour. The boat used was formally a real crab fishing boat – made famous from the wave that hit it in season 2 of Deadliest Catch (fortunately the boat righted itself after being hit by a rogue 60 foot wave, after which the skipper decided it might be safer to convert the boat – the Aleutian Ballad, into a tourist operation). Captain Derek and his crew did a nice job telling stories, explaining how things work on a crab fishing boat and of course, pulling up some crab and fish for us (we had the bonus of a couple of octopus being caught as well). No King Crab were caught – they are too protected, but the boat carries plenty for you to look at and hold – as the photos will support. The tour was well done. Back on Ketchikan we had a wander around the rest of the town – a quaint fishing town that back in its heyday would have been quite the rollicking place to have lived / visited. One interesting area is the Creek Street brothel area – being a sea port, the brothel trade was strong and some of the houses from that era, and stories are displayed in the area (essentially Creek St is a channel off the harbour with the walkway stretching out over the water’s edge with old houses dotted along it). Interestingly, the salmon spawn up this ‘creek’ and then subsequently die – the bottom of the creek was littered with dead salmon and a very fat seal / sealion having a great feed. After some further exploring we were both damp and hungry so it was back to the ship for a late lunch and to take in activities on board for the rest of the day.

Thursday mid-morning had us docking at Juneau the state capital. Carol and I hadn’t arranged any excursions for this stop but Netty was off the boat to do a helicopter excursion up to one of the glaciers. The day was overcast and it wasn’t until she got out to the shuttle that they advised that they couldn’t fly – a real shame as the day actually started to improve as it wore on. Juneau is obviously a real cruise ship hub – there were 4 cruise ships in whilst we visited. Population of the city is around 32000 which obviously swells on days like today with all the tourist activity around. One of the main attractions is the Mount Roberts cable car – takes you up the hill to look out over the bay (I think the announcer on the boat quoted some crazy fact that by area, Juneau is the second largest ‘city’ in the US – not sure how they works – must have a very large city boundary). Carol and I opted to walk the city instead and walk we did. We have a good look around the water front and down to the Overstreet Park Whale in the Water sculpture – very impressive. From there we went for a bit of a hike up into the hills behind the city to the Last Chance Mining Museum and had a look around before heading back into town and then back onto the ship.

Friday dawned grey and wet as we docked at Skagway (the inside passage is just that – a network of different channels, some of which have small settlements in them such as Skagway – I think the population locally was less than 1000, but with three cruise ships in, it would swell to closer to 7000 on a day like this). Skagway was once the major Klondike gateway and was very important as the gateway port for the Yukon Gold Rush in the 1890’s. Around 1895, gold was found near the junction of the Yukon and Klondike rivers sparking a rush to the area with people ‘hoping to find their fortune’. The shortest but more difficult route to take to the gold fields was to catch a boat up to Skagway and then hike (carrying all you needed on your back) up and over either the Chilkoot Trail, or over White Pass. White Pass was the shorter route, but much steeper and yet 10’s of thousands set out over this route. In 1898 someone decided a train line could work and put a gang together building the line up and over the pass – a steep 20-mile track that due to the terrain had to be narrow gauge. The line took 2 years to build and really only saw action for a couple of years before the gold rush was over in the area (getting up and over White Pass was only the start of the trek – from White Pass they had to trek 20-30 miles down to Bennett Lake and then it was a 500 mile paddle up the Yukon River – hard core).

Anyway, we took the opportunity of doing the White Pass Rail excursion – the loaded old wagons were pulled up the hill to the top of the pass where it turned around and trekked back down. There were loads of waterfalls, drop off’s, viaducts, couple of tunnels – was very well done. The train pulls right up towards the dock in Skagway – traffic stops for the train to pull in / pull out. The train excursion was the better part of 3 hours and then we explored the town on foot – the town has restored / maintained its look from the late 1800’s and has a very rustic feel to it with old saloon style buildings – very popular with the tourists. One of the stores made an Alaskan special – fried bread – looked to be very popular. Satisfied that we had seen a lot of what Skagway had to offer, we wandered back to the ship, dried off and enjoyed the activities that the ship was offering that evening.

Saturday was all about the glaciers – the boat pulled into the area known as Glacier Bay – the area is a national park and preserve in the vast area of the southeast Inside Passage – a favourite area for the cruise boats. Carol was up and out early wanting to secure a good spot to view the action that lie ahead and sure enough her pre 6.30am start rewarded her with a front row sit in the Spinnaker lounge at the front of the boat. The ‘bay’ is flanked by high peaks, and glacier after glacier (the park comprises 3.3 million acres of mountains, glaciers, forest and waterways and is part of the wider Inside Passage World Heritage site – which covers 25 million acres of area). The boat made its way up the Tarr Inlet for everyone to view the Margerie Glacier which spills down to the water’s edge, and the Grand Pacific Glacier that sits out over the back of the ranges. Of note is the fact, or rather the impact that global warming is having on the glaciers – they are receding at a faster than anticipated rate – yes, much the same as we see back home, but the scale of the glaciers here is like everything in the US – they are upsized. The ship gets in close to the glacier but not too close – the area is well known for being a fur seal breeding area so all boats have to ‘reserve the seals space’ as we are nearing the end of their breeding season. From the Tarr Inlet we come out and around and into the John Hopkins Glacier – another massive ice structure greets us. The majority of the boat are outside to view the glacier activity today – nice to see. A group of National Park rangers had come on board to provide commentary on the area and they did a really good job. Much ice later we pulled out of the main inlet and back into some open water. Carol had a great day – she managed to see whales (Humpback and Orca), sea otters, seals and sea lions, mountain goats – she ticked a lot off today and was nice to see her very much in her ‘happy place’.

Sunday represented our last full day on the boat / on the water. Early morning we were in place to view the Hubbard Glacier – North America’s largest tidewater glacier that covers 1350 square miles of blue ice (the glacier is located in eastern Alaska and part of the Yukon (Canada), and was named after the Bell Telephone Company president – Gardiner Hubbard). To make the glacier bigger, the Valerie Glacier ‘flows into / blends into’ the main Hubbard Glacier just before it spills down into the water. I think I heard them say the glacier has moved 74 miles in 400 years. Whilst we were viewing the glacier, lumps of ice were breaking off and falling into the water (there’s a special name for this that eludes me at this time). I think it’s the share scale of the faces of these glacier’s that surprise you – they are very wide. Coming back out of the inlet, the pilot who helped glide up and around the inlet is disembarked and we head back out into the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska as we make the last push through to Seward. Our last evening on the boat involves the final trivia quiz (which were pretty hard), more eating, and a show before retiring as we have an early start to disembark the ship in the morning (ship is due to dock / tie up in Seward by 5am, and we have to catch a shuttle to Anchorage at 8.30am, so we will be up earlier).

Summing up my first cruise experience, it was good, I enjoyed it. You get to see a lot of different landscape, if you’re lucky you will see some wildlife, and you get to meet a load of people – if you want to. Excursion days are good as you get a good dose of exercise walking around, but you have to be disciplined on ‘sea days’ and do some laps of the ship etc (for me I think I’ve only written in an elevator twice – the rest of the times I have tackled the stairs – to say I have seen enough stairs is an understatement). Proximity to food can be dangerous – yes, I feel heavier as I leave the ship – back to crackers and tomatoes once we get back to the camper van. In talking to Carol we’re not sure if we would rush back to do the cruise experience again, and I think for me anyway, I wouldn’t want to be on any bigger ship – the Jewel had just shy of 2400 passengers, and well over 1000 crew so there are people everywhere – it’s a fact you can’t avoid. We can see why people love this form of travel – it offers loads of dining and entertainment choices, and the options to go out and explore with the excursion packages – to be as active or inactive as you choose to be, all in one contained area. For us, whilst we can, I think we prefer being in charge of the direction we take so let’s see what the next week brings as we explore Anchorage and beyond.

Facts and figures

  • Norwegian Jewel was commissioned in 2005 and refurbished 2015
  • 810 miles of cabling and 65 miles of piping through the ship
  • 25,000 light bulbs onboard
  • 60,000 eggs consumed during the passage
  • 34,000 lbs of vegetables (excluding spuds)
  • 5,000 lbs of rice consumed
  • Crew come from 60 different countries
  • Average fuel consumption – 48 gallons a minute

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