fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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cruising Alaska, part two: Ketchikan and surprise

I was reminded of my childhood when the ship began to dock the third morning of our Alaskan cruise. Years ago my sister and brother and I, still sleeping, would be packed into the car, and we’d wake us up numerous miles down the road. This time it was our captain announcing the successful mooring of the ship and clearance to disembark passengers.

Early morning over Ketchikan, Alaska.

Ketchikan greeted us with sunshine and colorful waterfront shops. The rest of the town huddled between mountains and the sea. Our half-day shore excursion would take us to visit the Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center, the nearby Totem Heritage Center, the Saxman Village and the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center.

Though it’s no secret that Ketchikan, as well as Juneau and Skagway, owes much of its financial survival to tourism, our guide/driver that morning exemplified the tourist-friendly attitude that would greet us during all of our on-shore travels.

The collection area for salmon returning to the Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery.

The Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center is within a relatively easy walk east of the dock. Our guide walked us through a town park to the entrance of center, next to a creek in which numerous pink salmon milled about. We were greeted by a docent and resident owl, and entered the eagle habitat. To be honest, I was hoping for something, well, a bit more. However, it did offer an up close look at two of these amazing birds, which haven’t been released into the wild due to injuries. A creek running through the small habitat allows them to hunt spawning salmon.

The Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery is just as small in keeping with its mission to ensure the survival of various salmon species rather than supply fish for a fishery. Its operation was well described by the docent, though the distraction of big salmon in a holding pen interfered with my hearing everything she had to say.

Perhaps more remarkable was the Tlingit and Haida totems, moved from islands throughout the Inside Passage and now housed a short walk away in the Totem Heritage Center. The unrestored appearance of the totems housed in the center — each 100-plus years old — lend a sense of history. Small, surrounding exhibits cover Tlingit and Haida history and traditions.

Totem in Saxman Village on a nice sunny Alaskan day.

We next visited Saxman Village, a tour highlighted by a carving demonstration and nearby totems. Of note is the Seward Shame totem built to shame the former U.S. Secretary of State for not repaying a Potlatch (a gift-giving festival) to the Tlingit people. While the color red is used to indicate shame, indicating stinginess, red also figures prominently on the nearby pole built out of respect for Abraham Lincoln* and commemorating the U.S. Revenue Cutter Lincoln in its role in helping two rival Tlingit clans establish peace.

Back in downtown Ketchikan, we were dropped off at the U.S. Forest Service’s Southeast Alaska Discovery Center. Worth a visit, the Discovery Center offers displays and information covering a wide swath of the area’s natural and human history, and might have offered a better starting point.

Lunch in Alaska is simple for me: various versions of halibut fish and chips, this time in view of Ketchikan’s Thomas Basin Harbor, at the south end of town.

We’d been warned that all three of our ports of call had been invaded by jewelers who typically started their businesses in other, more tropical cruise ship destinations. My wife, in fact, already wanted to look at a particular ring.

We oohed and ahhed along while strolling diamond row, picking up a few of the compulsory t-shirts along the way. Our last stop was to see “The Ring.”

I hadn’t been warned about the sales folks. They are smooth and slick. It all starts with an innocent question: “What do you think the price is?” Let’s just say it was too much, even with the initial offer of a discount, but it must have been apparent — in our eyes or maybe our body language — that we had no plans to buy. Another substantial discount raised my eyebrow.

Carver at work in Saxman Village. (A totem carved by a master carver can cost up to $4000 per linear foot.)

I’m terrible at picking out jewelry and recently began an early search for a suitable ring for our 10th anniversary, which is not too far off. I was having a heck of a time. But again, I went into a defensive huddle with my wife, shaking my head with such exaggeration that another offer was made. Earrings were thrown into the deal. The sales manager stepped up with calculator in hand. I’d even go so far as to say we had the original salesman sweating, just a bit. Another huddle, another offer, the incorporation of sales tax into the offered price, and a deal was struck.

I was hoping to see ice in Alaska, and I thought it would be in a glacier, but regardless of the profit earned on the sale, we walked back to the ship feeling we’d done okay.


* This one is different from the Lincoln Totem in the Alaska State Museum.

A photo slideshow, already playing. (I’ve added photos since last posting the album):

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

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


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cruising to Alaska, part one: getting up steam

There are a few notable things about taking a cruise that make me feel good: massages, a disconnection from everyday demands and the fact that it’s relatively certain I’ll be part of the younger crowd. Lump in the fact that your hotel room is hauled from port to port while that someone else does the driving, often while you’re asleep, and it’s a pretty sweet deal.

Fueling this allure of cruising is the old-school mode of conveyance, a reminder of less hurried days. The big ships today don’t move any faster than their counterparts of the early 1900s.*

One has to step away from the food, onboard boutiques, entertainment and the Internet café to truly experience this timelessness of travel by ship. My wife and I found ourselves relatively undisturbed during a long, afternoon walk on a lower deck, much of that time watching the ship’s prop wash disappear over the horizon.

Leaving San Francisco Bay

We embarked in San Francisco after a short ride from home, courtesy of the in-laws. One overriding factor in choosing this longer cruise — my dear wife will tell you I wasn’t initially convinced it was worth the extra cost — was that it didn’t require violation screening by the TSA or limits on luggage…we could’ve have taken a ferry across the bay, then walked from the San Francisco Ferry Building to the cruise terminal.

Checked in and familiar with our stateroom’s location on Aloha Deck (11), we familiarized ourselves with the ship courtesy a scavenger hunt. It was helpful to my waistline that our stateroom’s location would require going up or down at least two and often four or five flights of stairs to reach most destinations.

The weather was fantastic for our departure; a bluebird sky, sunshine and wisps of clouds over the bay…at least until we got to the Golden Gate Bridge. Very little of the bridge was visible, but no matter how little of the bridge we saw, it was from a unique perspective. With the ship headed out to an overcast sea, we unpacked, settled in and prepared for dinner. My wife was most excited that evening to receive her Princess Patter, the ship newsletter, which offers a list of shipboard activity the next day and a column written by various ship’s crew.

Our first two days would be at sea, something that’d be unremarkable without knowing that I’ve been prone to seasickness. While Sea Princess — with a length of 856 feet, beam 106 feet and gross tonnage of 77,000 tons — is big ship, 11-foot swells can give a slight pitch to the deck. My apprehension faded away the morning of the second day, when I seemed to have gotten my sea legs. Even so, I still find it a bit disconcerting to jump on a treadmill in the morning to see the sea go by in a direction perpendicular to the direction you’re walking.

That second day I planned to meet with the maître d’hôtel in the morning regarding our dining arrangements. Our original reservations provided for anytime/flexible dining, but before embarking we had requested a switch to traditional dining. The first evening we were reminded that anytime dining really isn’t that flexible, not being served until well after 6:30 p.m. Apparently I made the maître d happy. My request to change to traditional dining came without caveats and with a willingness to share a table with others. Yes, my wife and I dine well with others.

We filled that second day visiting the gym, learning the ship’s layout, confirming spa appointments and attending seminars; some informative, others part of the up-selling that comes with cruising.

During a visit to the cabin in the late afternoon it was learned that I’d be wearing long pants to dinner. We had been moved to the first seating (5:30 p.m.) in the traditional dining room. We didn’t know that fate had a surprise in store.

Sunset somewhere along the California coast…

We were seated at our table, with room for six, before anyone else. Eventually, a couple sat down with their daughter and son-in-law, and introductions commenced. Shortly, however, it grew clear that they had expected another daughter and her husband to occupy the seats now filled by us. Speculation that the daughter hadn’t been able to get her dining assignment changed was soon rendered moot when she appeared, revealing that she did secure a change to traditional dining but hadn’t been able to get an assignment to their table. With a little push from my wife and I, and agreement from the head waiter, the daughter accepted our offer to switch table assignments.

We were presented to our new tablemates, among whom, as luck would have it, was a gentleman my wife had come to know on cruisecritic.com. It quickly became clear we’d all get along when John commented that had he seen us coming, he’d have said “no” to new tablemates. We’d end up spending every dinner and many evenings with John and his wife Connie, and Gene and his wife Maydean.

Our third night was a special occasion: it was the first time in years I’d worn long pants, much less a suit formal night. Adhering to tradition, it was suit and tie for the men, a dress or nice pant suit for the women. Well, some of the men and some of the women. There was a mix of attire, with tuxedoes at the top, plenty of suits, a smattering of polo shirts and khakis, and others who just should’ve order room service in. (This is one of those times that I tend to show my age, expecting that honoring a tradition means making a real effort.)

That was also the evening that we began an eight-night tradition of evening entertainment courtesy of cabaret singer/pianist Sammy Goldstein.

With an excellent start to this cruise, I was looking forward to our first stop: Ketchikan, Alaska.


* There was a contest among ocean liners to capture the trans-Atlantic speed record that led to a top speed of 43 knots (held by the SS United States), but the line is now blurred between ocean liners and cruise ships, and most maintain a cruising speed closer to 20 knots. The only ship comparable to an ocean liner of yore is Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2, which has a top speed of 30 knots but typically cruises at 20 to 26 knots.