Saturday, July 31

Alaska glides by


Every hour our cruise ship passes yet another picture perfect landscape. With two days of cruising already under our belt I’ve already amassed enough postcard images to warrant their own blog post. Enjoy! The last image? That’s for Rhonda. Garry thought you’d appreciate the scenery we enjoyed at afternoon tea today.


The crew also ran a trivia quiz as we devoured one too many cakes and scones this afternoon. Incredibly Garry and I won today’s competition, scoring an impressive 11 out of 15 correct answers. Our proudest correct answer was a lucky guess at the age Marilyn Munro would have been were she still alive today (84 if you’re wondering). We now have vouchers we can redeem at the onboard gift shop for a souvenir baseball cap or similar.

Ketchikan


Ketchikan is a quaint harbour town clinging to the shores of Tongass Narrows in the Southern Panhandle of Alaska. It was founded in 1885 as a cannery site and once titled itself the Canned Salmon Capital of the World. At least a third of local industry still depends on commercial fishing. However, cruise ship tourism has become the town’s largest earner in more recent times.


Ketchikan is also considered the rainiest locations in Alaska. In 1945 a staggering 202.55 inches of rain fell in a single year. That’s almost 17 feet of rain. An average year is far drier with only 13 feet of rain falling. We were lucky today. As we pulled in dockside day was breaking with largely blue sky and sunshine. The only indicator of the city's wet weather was a Liquid Sunshine gauge we found bolted to the side of the Tourism Centre. 13 feet of rain is a lot of water when you're standing next to it!


We spent an hour wandering the compact downtown zone. Compact is a comparative term as the city is rarely more than ten blocks wide but stretches miles along a narrow coastal shelf lying in the shadow of 3000 foot Deer Mountain. Perhaps the city’s most famous sight is Creek Street; a collection of old wooden dwellings built on piling over Ketchikan Creek. It was once the town’s red light district until prostitution was outlawed in 1954. At its peak, the boardwalk accommodated more than 30 brothels. The most renown was Dolly’s House. Today it houses a museum dedicated to the building’s former licentious owner.


We later walked along the creek, watching literally hundreds of enormous salmon make their way upstream to spawn. Delicious! The spawning salmon attract plenty of local wildlife, including bears. This was something we had to see for ourselves. Months ago I’d booked a floatplane tour to Traitor’s Cove, more than 25 kilometres north of Ketchikan. We chose a small family-run business called Seawind Aviation. Steve, our pilot and business owner, flew six of us up the coast in perfect conditions. The views of the town, our ship and the surrounding wilderness were breath-taking; as was the isolated glassy-smooth cove we eventually landed in.


A short bush walk took us to a wooden viewing platform built by the national park authorities on the bank of Margaret Creek. It’s situated above several fish ladders built to help salmon swim upstream. Within minutes of our arrival a juvenile black bear sauntered into view on the opposite bank. Shortly afterwards a mother bear and cub came into view.


It wasn’t long before we saw a bear catch a salmon in its mouth. It made the feat look effortless. The bear literally bent down at the mouth of the fish ladder and scooped up a tasty snack within seconds. It then made its way up to a bush to the side of our viewing platform where, hidden from view, it ate its catch. Its presence was distinguished only by the occasional rustle of the trees. We eventually saw two bears catch fish and a third struggle gallantly, but never quite make it.


The creek was also home to several bald eagles. We watched almost a dozen birds swooping over the creek and perching on branches all around us. It was incredible to see so many beautiful birds up close. Our guide later took us to the lower reaches of the stream where we could see the salmon actually spawning in the shallows. The entire morning was literally an experience out of the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Friday, July 30

An overcast blessing


Our first day at sea has dawned with grey, overcast skies and cooler temperatures. The change in the weather has been a bit of shock to the system after five days of glorious sunshine in Vancouver. However, it seems we should be grateful for small mercies. Last night the barman told us that the cruise prior to ours had battled five straight days of rain.

The forecast for the next few days is for more overcast skies, but largely free of rain. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Ketchikan, our first port of call, averages 162 inches of rain annually. A cloudy day is considered the local equivalent of perfect Summer’s day. Fortunately, we’re be spending the entire day today at sea, sailing north along the Canadian coast.


A short while ago the captain announced we'd already travelled 163 nautical miles since leaving Vancouver. Each day at noon he has a ritual of updating passengers on our progress, the weather and our current location. Today he advised that we're travelling at a speed of 17.5 knots with just over 228 miles to run until Ketchikan. The area we're currently passing through is known as the Inside Passage. It's a remote area dotted with isolated pine-clad islands and pristine, untouched inlets. We think the scenery is a perfect accompaniment to a glass of wine and a few pre-lunch nibbles.


We’re making our way north on the Seven Seas Navigator. It was built in Genoa, Italy in 1999. Its 172 metres long and has 13 decks. It’s a relatively small ship, carrying an average of 490 guests, plus another 300+ crew. Despite its compact size it still boasts a compact central atrium through which glass-fronted elevators rise eight decks. Our cabin in on Deck Nine, conveniently located one level below the pool deck and breakfast lounge. It’s a spacious suite with a small outdoor balcony. In fact our bathroom here is larger than both bathrooms we have in London.


Last night we dined in the Compass Rose restaurant; a large, open venue seating more than 200 people. It’s been carefully designed so that you never feel you’re part of a massive crowd. We feasted on plump scallops, pan-seared salmon and crème brule – all washed down by some delicious Australian wines. Any illusions we'd had of dieting have been well and truly thrown out the window.


Tonight we're off to the main theatre to watch a Latin spectacular. It sounds grand. The show is billed as a celebration of contemporary and legendary Latin song and dance, whose cast sizzle in response to sultry percussive beats and cutting edge choreography. I think I could get use to this cruising stuff.



UPDATE
We spotted our first killer whales this afternoon. Garry happened to look out the window as a pod of whales blew spout after spout of steamy breath. We then noticed a number of spouts dotting the horizon both fore and aft of the ship. Very cool. The sun has also made an appearance. In fact, as I type there is hardly a cloud in the sky.

Thursday, July 29

Alaska bound (a satellite blog update)


We’re off! Fifteen months after booking an Alaskan cruise, it’s finally underway. The ship cast off shortly after 6.00pm local time and steamed out of Vancouver harbour under a brilliant blue sky. The skyline literally glowed in the late afternoon sun as we sailed past Stanley Park, under the city's iconic Lions Gate Bridge and into the lower reaches of the Inside Passage.


If the first few hours are anything to go by, our cruise will be a magical experience. We were greeted on arrival with a obligatory champagne, followed by a leisurely late lunch on the pool deck. Then, before casting off, the entire ship participated in a legally mandated lifeboat drill. This was where we were told that the ship had 503 guests aboard, considerably less than the full complement of 700. As a result, we’ve noticed plenty of empty tables at every venue and few queue for anything.


However, I think we’ll be spending plenty of time on our stateroom’s balcony. We’ve intentionally booked a cabin facing east to ensure the best scenic views all the way to Seward, Alaska. This evening’s coastal scenery has been truly magnificent. We sat on our balcony watching layer upon layer of haze-drenched coastal mountain glide by – washed down by a chilled bottle of champagne waiting in our cabin upon arrival.

Casting off in Vancouver

We’ve booked several excursions over the next week, all but one is complimentary. In Ketchikan we’re taking a seaplane flight to Prince of Wales Island to watch wild bears fish for salmon. In Juneau, Alaska’s state capital, an excursion will take us to the foot of Mendenhall Glacier before sailing around the surrounding bay in search of whales. We’ve been told there are several Killer Whale pods currently resident in the area. Then finally, we’re off in search of sea otters while docked in Sitka.

Stay tuned for regular blog updates and photos – if our satellite internet access permits.

Wednesday, July 28

Stanley Park


Stanley Park dominates the western fringe of downtown Vancouver. It’s one of 223 parks located throughout the city and covers 400 hectares of forested peninsula. The park was created in 1886 and takes its name from the nation’s Governor-General at the time; Lord Frederick Stanley. Its most famous feature is a seawall that follows the shoreline for 8.8 kilometres. It takes three hours to walk and an hour to cycle.


Garry and decided to explore a short length of the seawall today. We ventured over to English Bay for a leisurely brunch, then ventured down to the seawall for a walk that took us past Second beach, along the northern shore of Lost Lagoon and on Brockton Point. We walked for almost five kilometres soaking up the sunshine, while witnessing random displays of mother nature right on Vancouver’s doorstep. Highlights included watching a cheeky racoon swimming along the shore of Lost Lagoon and a hungry blue heron catching fish on harbour shore front.


Four points of interest stood out during our walk. The first, opposite Second Beach, was the Air India memorial. This simple monument commemorates Flight 182 which was destroyed by a tourist bomb mid-flight in 1985. In all, 329 people perished, among them 280 Canadian nationals, mostly of Indian birth or descent. The bomb was checked-in by a Canadian who boarded a domestic flight in Vancouver, hence the memorial’s presence in Stanley Park.


The second point of interest was a totem pole display near Brockton Point. It’s an impressive sight of almost a dozen decorated poles, each telling a different story. I suspect we’ll be seeing a few more of these before the vacation ends. The third memorable stop on our walk was nearby; our first view of Lions Gate bridge. This x metres long suspension bridge spans a narrow strait dividing Stanley Park from the northern suburbs of Vancouver. The view reminded me of those from Christy Park in San Francisco.


The final sight of note was a small statue sitting on the crest of a large boulder sitting just above the low-tide mark. It’s aptly called Girl in a Wetsuit – which is exactly what it is. The sculpture bares a striking resemblance to Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue as both figures strike a similar reclining pose on an isolated rock.

The similarity is no accident. The city attempted and failed to secure permission to replicate Copenhagen's statue. In response it commissioned a modern version with diving mask, wetsuit, and swimfins. It was created by Elek Imredy and placed in its current location on 9 June 1972. I found it somewhat ironic that we never did see Denmark’s icon, but after travelling halfway across the globe we were able to see a subtlety satirical knock-off.


Our day continued with an open-bus tour of the city. We eventually disembarked at Granville Island, an old warehouse district south of Downtown. The once derelict area has been converted into a bustling marketplace, filled with fresh produce, artesian outlets and marine industry facilities. We couldn’t help ourselves in the markets; purchasing salamis, cheeses and olives to accompany evening drinks on our forthcoming Alaskan cruise.