British Columbia & Alaska Cruise

April 2001

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When we visited Alaska last year, we vowed to come back. We just didn't expect it to be so soon. But the opportunity arose, and we took it. It would be a chance to visit some new places as well as some we'd seen before, try a new cruise line (Norwegian - NCL) on a relatively new ship - the Norwegian Sky. We also decided to visit Vancouver Island before our ship departed from Seattle.
So we leave Austin on a Thursday (April 26) and fly to Seattle fairly uneventfully. But it soon gets eventful. Our hotel doesn't have a reservation for us. Called NCL, who insists we are in: a) the wrong hotel; b) the wrong city; c) maybe both. Eventually get this straightened out (although details were still sketchy) so we can relax, eat some salmon and get some sleep.
Friday morning, NCL calls at 6:30 AM just to say they're thinking of us. They do this again at 7 and 8. Finally the local agent turns up - and is well prepared with tickets, maps, itineraries and more. We hop in a cab and head for the harbor where its onto a float plane and off to Victoria, BC. We land in Victoria's harbor, two blocks from our hotel. (They've booked us a "suite" - two bedrooms, no place to sit!) After unpacking, we walk down to the Empress Hotel to check the tour times. After a half hour chat with a retiree from Saskatchewan (retirement is the 2nd biggest industry in Victoria, after tourism), who doesn't believe we're Americans (a compliment, I think), we decide to head out to Butchart Gardens for lunch and a tour. This is a 50 acre "garden", built on an old quarry site and - even in April - its positively gorgeous! We see thousands and thousands of tulips (and hundreds and hundreds of Asian tourists!). That night we walk into town for dinner, then get caught in the rain on the way back. But we resist the importuning of the Kabuki Kab drivers (or, as AM calls them, Kamikazi Kabs) and hustle back to the hotel.
Butchart Gardens quarry
Saturday morning promises a fair and sunny day, so we board the double-decker tour bus for the all-encompassing city tour. It's a pretty city, but doesn't look especially British. Our tour guide tells us that the British ex-patriots who gave Victoria the "most English city in North America" nickname have all died, and nobody cares. In the afternoon we visit an outdoor art fair, an underground aquarium and all the monuments and statues near the harbor before settling down at a outdoor café to drink and watch the tourists. As the wind whips up it gets much colder, but we're the last to leave (just before the storm breaks).
Victoria harbor and Empress Hotel
Sunday morning it's overcast, windy and gray - but not actually raining. We head to the harbor for our float plane trip back to Seattle, which we do into the teeth of a 50 knot headwind. No one actually gets sick (although one woman looks pretty green).
Seattle harbor
Off the plane, on to the ship, settle down - do the lifeboat drill - then weigh anchor and head up the inside passage for a day and a half. The Sky is a relatively new ship, the entertainment is better than expected, the food is OK, the service spotty. But we have a private balcony, so we can hide from the world and watch the scenery go by. A lot of that scenery consists of lighthouses along the Washington, British Columbia and Alaska coast.
Inside passage
Dryad Point Light
Monday night we leave the protection of the islands and face the fury of the sea (I think it was furious) - the wind howled, the boat shook and our balcony door flew open, then banged around in the breeze. Of course, the following week, this ship had even more trouble when the auto-pilot slipped and a number of people were injured.
Juneau from ship
After lunch on Tuesday, we dock in Juneau. All we want to do, though, is jump on another float plane and head out to Taku Lodge. Interestingly the air is heavier and the float plane can't clear the same mountains it could in July. The folks at the lodge seem bemused when we tell them we were there last July and just came back for the beans - but I am first in line to get the alder-smoked salmon, and we are the first tourists of the season! There's snow on the ground (check the picture of AM on the snowmobile), and no mosquitoes!
Taku Wilderness Lodge view
Skagway After dinner, the ship heads north for Skagway. We dock early Wednesday morning and head into town. We don't stay long, though, because its really windy and cold. After lunch, we jump on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad train (its on the dock, next to the ship) to recreate the route the miners took to the Yukon gold fields. Up and up the train goes. Down and down the temperature goes. The drizzle turns to snow, the snow to a blizzard (well, it looks like a blizzard to us Texans!). Wow! AM spends lots of time on the open platform to get good pictures (and frostbitten hands, I think). Still, it’s a really fun afternoon.
White Pass & Yukon Railroad
We leave town that night and head south again. By morning we're turning into Tracy Arm (an inlet off the inside passage) which is narrow and twisty. Its overcast, drizzly and gray. It really looks like an alien landscape as we slowly, very slowly, make our way towards Sawyer Glacier. We have to go slow because its so narrow and there's lots of floating ice. You can imagine the size of the icebergs when you look at the orange Zodiac floating next to one - those boats hold 20 people comfortably! The captain parks so that each side of the ship has a good view of one of the two faces of the glacier. And since we are the first cruise ship of the season, there's no rush to move on. Eventually, though, we head back to Stephens Channel and turn south. Tracy Arm
Sawyer Glacier - south face
Ketchikan Friday morning finds us once again in Ketchikan (last year's visit is here). No expedition planned, so we just walk about. Visit Creek Street, the former Red Light District (now tourist shops). Watch some harbor seals frolic. Back on board for our 1 PM departure, we decide that today is "nap day" (that way we can stay up for the midnight chocolate buffet).
Victoria from ship
We sleep late on Saturday morning, then kick around on deck in gorgeous weather all afternoon. Around 7:30 PM, we dock in Victoria (a different view from the ship, though!) but decide not to get off.
Sunday its back to Seattle, off the ship and onto a plane bound for home. Goodbye, Alaska or, more likely, au revoir!