fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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cruising Alaska, part five: Victoria, then home

At the Empress Hotel in Victoria, B.C.

Cruising, for most people, invokes images of passengers in deck chairs with umbrellas drinks in hand.

That’s not the case with me. At least not yet.

For me, when in port there’s sightseeing to be done and the bustle that arises from acting every bit the busy tourist.

But one unique aspect about a cruise vacation is that — though already having “wound down” away from everyday life — one can take time to wind down between ports.

That’s what we did the day after leaving Skagway. We were at sea, steaming toward Victoria, B.C. Without conscious thought, we made it somewhat of a quiet day. Almost winning a passenger trivia game in the morning, a leisurely lunch, and time spent in a hot tub with a view astern to the ocean; a quiet pause in the closing days of a superb vacation.

Sunshine greeted us the next morning in Victoria, where what is regularly referred to as “High Tea”* awaited at The Empress Hotel. More accurately, The Empress refers to it as “Afternoon Tea.” To be polite, I’d practiced the proper pinkie curl.

Gwendolyn’s little finger would be curled under and away from the heat of the cup which might otherwise inflict a burn on her delicate skin. The little finger would never be arched upward. Arching would be deemed a sign of extreme arrogance. Should you know of moments extreme enough to demand an arched pinkie, contact us immediately.
— from The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde

There was a remarkable consistency to the extraordinary knowledge imparted by tour guides and bus drivers we met during this trip, and our driver in Victoria was no exception. He filled our nearly hour-long drive to, in and around the city with history, trivia and pop culture references. Soon enough we disembarked in front of the impressive Empress Hotel.

Above the commoners' side entrance to the Empress Hotel.

The 103-year-old hotel near Victoria’s waterfront can’t be missed, and there’s a story that for many years it did not have sign out front because of local sentiment that anyone who didn’t know it was The Empress shouldn’t be staying there. It is an imposing structure that’s hosted kings and queens and a fair share of celebrities.

Wondering if we weren’t worthy of a public arrival, we entered through a side door to find the Tea Lobby. With everyone seated on sofas upholstered with richly patterned chintz or in wing back chairs, our hostess set about placing tiered stands stacked with traditional tea sandwiches, pastries and cakes. Our starter was a bowl of big, tasty blueberries, certainly not an everyday occurrence for me, but something I could get accustomed to. Our cups were filled with The Empress’ tea (a blend of teas from Kenya, Tanzania, South India, Assam, Sri Lanka and China), and though I’m not a big tea drinker, it was tasty (and fun—how often does one get to say “I’ll take two lumps” without ending up with a headache?).

I don’t pretend to be a gourmand but found great pleasure in the tea sandwiches and cakes served at The Empress. Even the cucumber and watercress sandwiches were good. My personal favorite was the smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich. Our gastronomic climb up the stand found a second tier filled with some of the best-ever fresh scones and preserves, and ended with the top tier’s assortment of light pastries. It was all good, but I was left wondering how such dainty sandwiches and pastries could be so filling.

We’d have another day at sea before arriving home, and there’d be whales, porpoises, and a special dessert courtesy our maître’d. But Victoria was the last big “hurrah” for me on this fantastic trip.

A last sunset at sea…


*It’s interesting to note that what’s often referred to as “High Tea” (in the U.S. at least) may in fact be “Low Tea” or “Afternoon Tea”, and I’ll bet that most of my six readers didn’t know that there were two types of “Tea.” Gleaning the Internet will tell one that High Tea ttraditionally was a working-class meal served on a high table at the end of the workday and comprised of heavy dishes (such as steak and kidney pie, pickled salmon, crumpets, onion cakes, etc.). Afternoon Tea or High Tea was more of an elite social gathering with assorted snacks and tea. But in the end, who’d really want to go to “Low Tea?”


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cruising Alaska, part four: Skagway

There’s something about getting off the beaten path that brings about a certain type of inventiveness. That’s not to say that city folk don’t have their fair share of ideas. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that when left to employ natural resources, interesting things happen. Skagway’s just such a place. The ship docked in Skagway that morning under overcast skies. The ocean astern was steel gray. A later departure time for our shore excursion allowed for a lingering breakfast.

Our decision on a Skagway shore excursion was predicated on setting aside time for walking around town. So, to ensure we’d have the afternoon to explore, we chose the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway summit excursion, a 20-mile ride to the 2,865 foot high White Pass summit. The WP&YRR was built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush — ironically completed after the Gold Rush was finish — as an alternative to the trails climbing almost 3000 feet in just 20 miles. The narrow gauge railroad was a cooperative project that brought together American knowhow, British money and Canadian labor.

Headed toward the summit.

In a vintage coach car we passed through the east side of Skagway and began a climb that would take us past Bridal Veil Falls, abandoned trestles, Inspiration Point, Dead Horse Gulch and broad vistas looking back on Skagway and down to the Skagway River. The trees and bushes were painted with a blush of fall colors. Leaving the forest behind, we entered the alpine zone and arrived at the summit, our halfway point and the only point of the trip that entered Canada. The hard beauty of the summit was accented by trees dwarfed by a short growing season and heavy snow. Summit Lake seemed to kiss the edge of the railroad bed.

Fall color in the railway bed.

Then it was time for the “Summit Shuffle.” We were instructed to stand up, grab the back of our seat and pull it towards us, reversing the direction of the seat, then move to the opposite side of the aisle, guaranteeing that everyone would be have a new view for the ride back to Skagway. A neat trick. Just as remarkable was every passenger’s good natured approach to switching seats.

It was clear that on this trip we’d be laying groundwork for a return, as we soon accepted that our trip on the WP&YRR would one of those excursions that’d be repeated. Now knowing that Skagway isn’t a large town, next time I’d opt for the full-day 67½-mile WP&YRR trip to Carcross, Yukon.

The first sight to greet us after disembarking near town was that of pink salmon, stretching from bank to bank and filling the Skagway River. It’s one thing to see a few salmon heading upstream, or someone else’s video, but it’s another to see enough fish, hundreds of salmon, give reality to the old timers’ expression that “one could walk across streams on the backs of salmon.” I spent some time in awe of this sight, so stunned that I didn’t once wish for a fly rod in my hand. …well, maybe once.

The main part of town is a bit of a walk past what is probably one of the smallest immigration stations I’ve seen, the WP&YRR station and WP&YRR rotary snowplow #1. Downtown Skagway still has that small, frontier town feel, albeit with the obligatory stores focusing on cruise ship passengers (jewelry and souvenirs). If you ignore those tourist traps, there are some interesting local shops, including a yarn store that required a stop for the wife for a gander at qiviut (kee-vee-uh’ t) yarn. However, the price of this qiviut — the soft wool lying beneath the long coat of the Arctic muskox — made me wonder if it was laced with some of that Yukon gold (nearly $100 for 1 ounce!).

Skagway Brewing Co. appetizer.

But well within the budget, down near the end of 7th Street sat Skagway Brewing Co. Now, I’ve been scoffed at for usually refusing to drink, much less pay for, relatively flavorless beers. It’s a principle that serves me well and often leads to pleasant surprises. Skagway Brewing’s signature ale, Spruce Tip Blonde, was one such surprise.

We decided on lunch at the Skagway Brewing Pub, and started with an appetizer flight of the only-available-in-the-Pub beers: Prospector Pale, Chilkoot Trail IPA, Boom Town Brown, Blue Top Porter and the only outside beer, Alaskan Brewing’s Amber Ale. All were good, but absent from the flight was the Spruce Tip Blonde. Told by the waiter, of course, that Spruce Tip Blonde was worth a full glass, it would be the beverage accompanying some pretty awesome fish ‘n chips. Brewed with hand picked Sitka Spruce tree tips, Spruce Tip Blonde offers an experience that begins with an almost flowery aroma of spruce but tastes of a unique sweetness akin to a fruit and/or spice.

If you’re ever in Skagway, the Skagway Brewing Pub is worth a stop for lunch and beer. Or two.

Rotary snow plow #1 of the WP&YRR.

The steam engine of the WP&YRR at the dock.


The Picasa album with all the photos.


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few words, some pictures, more to come

We’re back after travelling from San Francisco to Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, Alaska, and back again in 10 days…leaving at the end of August and returning to the start of September.

I’d say our trip when by fast, but the ship rarely exceeded 21 knots and the days were packed with the history, wilderness and the people of Southeast Alaska.

There was amazement that two of our ports o’ call can only be accessed via plane or boat. Pink salmon crowded the rivers and brought out the bears. We tasted beer that can’t be found anywhere else.

Pictures for now; words later.

https://picasaweb.google.com/s/c/bin/slideshow.swf

(You can directly access the Picasa album, with captions, by clicking here.)