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Cruising Alaska - 2019

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

Cruising Alaska May 2019

We have avoided “cruises” for all these years mainly because they are counter to the type of traveling we do. We could not imagine being on a boat with 2,000-5,000 other passengers, being herded to destinations with significantly smaller permanent residents than most of the ships, and in most cases docking in these small towns with multiple Mega ships dropping off thousands of passengers. We ran across a similar situation several years ago while traveling in the VI. We took a day trip to St Thomas and encountered three massive cruise ships docked there and thousands of their passengers completely overwhelming the tiny town.

Alaska has always been on our list of must do travel destinations, but we just haven’t taken the time to put a non-cruise itinerary together to see this beautiful part of our country, not an easy task since most towns are only accessible by boat or plane. I had been looking at Nat Geo excursions for travel ideas and took a close look at their small ship cruise offerings including Alaska, then received an email from one of the travel sites promoting Windstar cruises in Alaska, a good friend had spoken highly of her Mediterranean cruise aboard one of their ships, so we looked further into what they offered. The Windstar Legend is a smaller ship holding approx. 200 passengers with a James Beard food service partnership and access to areas where the larger boats simply cannot maneuver. The experience was highly spoken of by previous travelers, so we decided to pull the trigger. Nervously we had booked our very first cruise.

I’ll share more later in this post about the ship, amenities and services but first here’s what our journey was like.

Day 1 May 21

Travel day today, departing Santa Barbara flying to Seattle then on to Anchorage. About 5.5 hours of uneventful flight time we arrived in Anchorage at about 9:30 pm. Anchorage is one hour behind pacific time, so we gained an hour of time in our life. This time of year, the sun is out most of the day in Anchorage with sunset at 10:57 pm and sunrise at 4:50 am. We took a quick Uber to our hotel, slumming a bit we stayed at the Comfort Inn ship creek mainly due to its close proximity to the Alaska Railroad station where we have a very early departure in the morning and a very brief night’s stay. The hotel wasn’t bad, and location was perfect.

After settling in, we walked up to the F street station on a recommend from our Uber driver for a quick bite. Our driver said it’s a place where locals go, and we needed to try the basket of fried Halibut. It was definitely a local’s place, packed and loud with food and drink being consumed in large quantities. Inside there is a bar on one side of the moderate space and an open kitchen bar on the other end. We sat at the kitchen bar/counter and watched the cook at work preparing hearty Alaskan dishes in large portions. The special of the day was a double pork chop with mashed potatoes and corn. We watched the cooks fry up the chops on the open grill and pour frozen corn right from the food service sized bag into the boiling water to cook. This dish seemed to be a favorite of the patrons as we saw many orders going out. A younger, rugged appearing gal plopped into the seat next to us, ordered the special and consumed the entire plate in minutes utilizing her own hunting knife she brought along to cut bite sized portions of the meat. We ordered the halibut and chips basket, Texas size instead of Alaska size as the latter was a huge portion. I think there is a statement here that the restaurant was making the Alaska is much greater than even Texas! The fish was very fresh and the fries fresh cut, quality was unexpected from this place.

After a few drinks and our Halibut & Shrimp basket, we walked back down to the hotel. Mind you that its now 12:30am and there is still enough light that we could easily navigate the long set of outdoor stairs down to ship creek where the hotel was located.

Day 2 May 22

Up at 5:00am this morning for our train trip to Seward where we were to board the ship for our 12 day cruise. Left the hotel at 5:45 for a dreary eyed short 5-minute walk to the station. Brisk and a bit overcast outside this morning the walk was a refreshing wake up. All checked in we awaited boarding

We boarded the Alaska Railroad for a 4-hour trip from Anchorage to Seward. We booked the Gold class ticket since these rail cars are domed with glass overhead down to the sides allowing for unobstructed views. There is also a small open aired deck out the back where you could hang out and take photos along the journey and most importantly our own bar and bartender for the entire trip. There is also a private dining area below where we were served a complimentary breakfast.

Beautiful scenery along the way from open flat tidal marsh and small towns to mountain peaks, glaciers and alpine lakes. As we passed through one small town, we saw one of the only small airstrips that ran adjacent to the track and right in the backyard of homes on the other side. The airstrip was grass not asphalt with many of the homes having their planes parked in their backyard ready to transport the homeowner. This takes waterfront or golf course homes to another level. Apparently, Alaska is home to the most licensed pilots which makes sense as most areas are only accessible by air or by sea. We saw Eagles, a black bear on a distant hillside and a moose running along the gravel bar of a river running through marshlands. This route followed the main road through most of the journey but eventually cut over the pass-through spectacular mountains, glaciers and lakes that would have been unseen if traveling the route by car. As we approached Seward, we once again rejoined the adjacent road into town and the station.

Once in Seward we dropped our bags with Windstar and took the shuttle to the small downtown to explore as boarding wouldn’t be available until after 1:00pm. Our smaller ship was the only one in port today which left the town very uncrowded. The town is very small and quaint. we walked around and had lunch at Seward brewing company. Not a lot to see here in town so we headed to board the ship around 3pm.

Our room was very nice and larger than expected although still a smaller cruise ship room.

Day 23 May 23

Rough seas overnight as we cruised west through open ocean north to the Kenai Fjords. Our first destination not visited by most other cruise lines we were all alone. We anchored right in front of a spectacular tide water glacier flowing from the massive Harding ice field early this morning with mesmerizing vistas in every direction from the ship. For our maiden excursion, an early morning zodiac ride is on tap, out to the face of the glacier. We dawned our rain pants and life vest provided by the ship, boarded our trusty boat and headed into the drizzly cool waters toward the spectacular scenery with our guide Alberto. As we approached the face of the glacier, we watched several “calving’s” of the ice and snow as they broke away from the glaciers face with loud cracking and a thunderous boom, ending with a huge splash as they met the sea waters below. We saw several sea otters and sea lions around the floating ice, mountain goats on the cliffs above, blue ice in the glacier and the floating chunks of ice. A wet zodiac ride in the light rain with a bulky, uncomfortable but necessary life jacket couldn’t overshadow the experience.

Back on the ship we soon disembarked on to our next destination

Day 4 May 24

At sea all day today, very rough, side to side motion from the large 10-12 ft swells. I got a little motion sick last night after going to the upper deck and seeing the horizon pitching side to side against the flat horizon of the sea. Kept my head low, in our room for most of the day today, fortunately no hurling just a little vertigo. Ended up being a great day overall to catch up on sleep. Poor Mary had to entertain herself, but I think she did ok exploring the ship and meeting some of the other interesting passengers.

Day 5 May 25

We arrived in Sitka this morning to sunny clear skies in the mid sixty’s, docking alongside a single smaller ship from National Geographic (about 50 passengers). Sitka was once the hub of the west coast. When San Francisco had fewer than 10 residents, Sitka was home to 800 Russians, Europeans, Tlingit’s, and Aleut’s.

Very happy to see land today, I was ready to get out and move following a full 24+ hrs. of pitch and yaw motion aboard the boat. Sitka is a very small town of approximately 9,000 full time resident and the location where the Alaska purchase was signed with Russia. For a mere $7.2 million, the US purchased the land from Russia who needed money to fund their Crimean war efforts against Britain, France and Turkey. Russia also feared that the Alaskan territory might easily be seized by the UK in case of war due to their proximity in Canada. Many US Citizens thought we were crazy to buy it because Russia had depleted almost to extinction what was thought to be the main resource at the time, Otters. Little did they know that shorty after the purchase gold would become the new economic driver of the state.

Once on land we walked along a beach front pathway that led us to the Sitka National Historical park where we hiked along the shore of the ocean and Indian river while viewing the totems that were placed there for preservation. We Visited the Sitka Historical Society museum to learn about the Alaska purchase and the native life here. Next, we stopped into historic St. Michael’s Cathedral the first Russian orthodox church in North America, which is the centerpiece of the town, since mom spent some time here a few years ago she had asked one of the parishioners to meet us there and show us around. Marina showed us around the small church and explained a few of the icons including the work that Father Sturgious and Gary did to hang the numerous icons in the building like museum pieces. We strolled down toward the fishing harbor passing the few shops in the town until we found our destination for lunch. Beak is a small restaurant/café in an old home with a small outdoor patio which was perfect for today’s weather. After lunch we spent a little more time walking the town and viewing the pretty bay and small boats entering and exiting the harbor

Back on the we departed around 6pm for our next destination, Inian Island and Icy Straight Point/Hoona

Day 6 May 26, 2019

Anchored as the solo ship this morning in an inlet near Inian Island. Fog rolling in and out today one-minute low visibility the next clear blue skies. We were wait listed for an island Zodiac tour, but it ended up being cancelled due to low visibility.

The ship departed around noon for scenic touring through the fjords and straights where we had many humpback siting’s along with sea lions and eagles.

Docked this afternoon along with the Queen Elizabeth (about 2,00 passenger’s) at Icy Straight Point/Hoonah to a beautiful sunny day. Icy Straight Point is a Cruise ship destination developed by the Huna towns people in order to generate revenue for the small population. The activity center provides numerous tours, hikes and the world’s largest ziprider. There are two large restaurants and numerous gift shops housed in an old cannery building re-purposed for tourism. Fortunately the QE II was boarding about an hour after our arrival so we didn’t feel the impact of their masses.

We walked through the facilities killing time before our bear search excursion later in the afternoon. We took the local shuttle over to the small village where the locals lived, not much to see here other than the weathered homes and small fishing harbor. Nearing time for our bear search excursion, we headed back the shuttle stop and waited with a few others from the QE II. We started to get a bit nervous as the shuttle hasn’t arrived yet after a long wait, we were approaching the departure time for our excursion and the QE II passengers were fast approaching their on-board time. One of the QE II passengers walked over to a small store to inquire about the shuttle and a friendly local volunteered to take them back to the dock area. We asked if we too could hitch a ride and jumped in the back of her pickup truck along with a few others that were waiting for the shuttle too. Once back at the main area we moved quickly to the activity center where the tours departed from. Our tour had already loaded the bus but had not left yet so we were able to get on. Very grateful to the friendly native who without hesitation allowed us to load up in her truck to get us all where we needed to go.

On the bus for the bear search tour we headed into the forest along logging roads toward our short hike along the Spasski River and Valley. Nearing the trail-head, we spotted a majestic large brown bear on the road in front of the bus. The large bear meandered slowly up the road, seemingly in no hurry to get to any specific destination, blocking our path causing us to move forward trailing him at his pace. Seeming annoyed with our presence, he kept looking back at us as in disgust that we were in his territory. Along his journey he dropped a large pile of bear scat almost as a message to us and scientific evidence that bears do Shit in the woods. There were 2 native safety scouts walking near and alongside the bear and our bus equipped with long wooden sticks and high-powered rifles should the bear get aggressive. They seemed to have a connection with the bear gently coaxing it to move forward. On a few occasions he meandered to the shoulder and grazed in the deep green growth along the road looking for a snack of his favorite Skunk Cabbage. Soon he disappeared into the forest, still tracked closely by one of the natives to ensure he didn’t back track in our direction. We off loaded from the bus and headed out on the boardwalk path into the forest through the muddy bog and into mature trees and the Spasski river. Arriving at the riverbank there were two decks built for observation where we were afforded a clear view of the river and meadows beyond. Looked like prime bear territory but no one in site today. Perhaps the absence of salmon this early in the year was an excuse for the bears to continue hibernation or to stay in the hills above to feast on the spring growth. After our short hike we re-boarded the bus and headed back to port and boarded our ship.

Soon after boarding we left Icy Straight Point for our next destination of Haines

Day 7 May 27, 2019

Smooth sailing overnight we anchored as the solo ship early this morning just off the town of Haines. We are getting spoiled by quiet ports and Solo destinations; this is not how we expected cruising to be. in unexpected sunny weather nearing a warm 70 degrees today, we boarded the ships tender from the sports deck for q quick ride to shore. Dubbed “The adventure capital of Alaska” due to it’s access to year around adventure and the gateway to the Yukon. A casual and quirky town filled with history, nature and native culture. Fort William H. Seward, a US army fort built in 1902 still stands proudly at watch just above the port.

We were the only ship in Haines today which makes for a more realistic experience of the towns everyday charm considering we are only about 200 on-board. Haines is one of the only towns in the area that is accessible by road, most are only accessible by air or sea. The road leading out of town connects to civilization near the Canadian BC border.

Our excursion this morning is a raft float down the Chilkat river and the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve where in season is host to the words largest gathering of Bald Eagles (3,000+ from Oct-Feb). On the shuttle ride to our departure point we saw a small brown bear cub running in the brush alongside of the road. Once in the raft we floated down river steered by our skilled guide who maneuvered the inflatable raft by oars through the river avoiding rocks, trees and shallow gravel bars along the way. The currents were strong but not enough to encounter significant white water. We viewed many bald eagles and large nests along the way, when the salmon are running this area becomes home for hundreds of bald eagles gorging themselves on the bounty of fresh salmon.

Following our morning excursion, we walked the small town, stopping into a few of the area highlights along the way. We found the Haines Brewing Company and stopped in expecting to have lunch, but they were a brewery only. We sampled a few of their creations including Spruce tip Ale which is a popular recipe among Alaskan brewers. The spruce tips are the spring buds from the Sitka Spruce. Said to be higher in vitamin C than oranges, the natives and early settlers consumed them to ward off scurvy. It’s also said that consuming the brew will help you with any digestive issues and cure any back up you may be experiencing. Didn’t experience this first hand, probably because I only had a sample portion. We stopped into Sarah J’s, a small coffee and sandwich shop near the visitors center for lunch then headed to the American Bald Eagle Foundation for a little enlightenment on the local wildlife and the Bald Eagle rescue program. They had a few wild eagles, an owl and two hawks in large enclosures while they recuperated from various trauma. Beautiful creatures to see up close but difficult to see them caged in and not out in their natural environment.

Next we ran across a local Port Chilkoot Distillery near the pier and tender back to our ship. The distillery was located a short walk up the hill in the old Seward fort buildings that they had lovingly restored. Small production samples and a great location to relax and enjoy their efforts. I bought a small bottle of their Whiskey to sneak on board.

Back on board were headed through the straights to our next destination Juneau

Day 8 May 28

Bucking the trend of sunny weather, we arrived in Juneau via the Gastineau channel this morning to mostly cloudy weather with a few light showers, but the sun made a few welcomed appearances on occasions. Still a gorgeous day but more typical of the weather we expected for the trip. Juneau, the state capital is a lush temperate rain forest and the most popular cruise port of call in Alaska and the only US capital that isn’t accessible by road.

Varying from our solitude of docking nearly solo, today we were joined by 6 Large cruise ships! We were forced to anchor just off the docks to allow room for the mega ships to utilize the docking facilities. They said the town would have over 10,000 passengers visit throughout the day. Exactly what we intended to avoid while cruising.

Fortunately, we had an excursion this morning that took us away from the bustle of the crowd in the small town that is equipped with plenty of jewelry stores and shops touting “authentic” Alaskan creations. Our expedition today was a photography tour including whale watching, a walk through the Trail of Time in the Mendenhall glacier rain forest and a view of the base of the glacier from the visitor’s center. Our guide for the day, Cheffy is a photographer (not a Chef) and very knowledgeable about the local environment. Following a short shuttle ride we boarded our well-equipped boat for the whale watching portion of today's expedition. The boat was perfect, small holding up to 25 passengers (we were only 10 today) with viewing platforms forward and aft and windows that opened like garage doors allowing the inside covered seating uninterrupted views. Great weather and calm waters while on board we quickly came across several siting’s including a long show put on by a mother and her calf frolicking, breaching, flippers in the air and overall tom foolery. It was beautiful to see them.

Next, we disembarked the boat and shuttled to the very crowded parking lot of the Mendenhall glacier counting more then 50 buses and shuttles ferrying the numerous cruise ship passengers to the glacier. Fortunately, our Trail of Time rain forest walk was not part of their schedule leaving the paths mostly clear for our viewing pleasure. Along the trail there were several markers placed over the years marking the location of the base of the glacier which has retreated greatly over time. At the end of the trail we stopped at a viewpoint where we could see the base of the glacier today and cascading Nugget falls. A short distance further we arrived at the not so serene visitors center, where we rejoined the throngs of fellow tourists. We quickly departed back to our shuttle.

Following the excursion, we were back in town and headed up Franklin street on a recommendation from our guide Cheffy for lunch. Arriving just outside of the main tourist zone we found a small food truck haven where Deck Hand Dave’s produces some great fish tacos. Cheffy said they had some of the best fish tacos living up to those he had experienced in LA.

Walking around the town a bit more we stopped into Hangar on the wharf a restaurant on the pier for an adult beverage and watched the seaplanes arrive and depart from the dock just below us. Five modern small planes that seat approx. 10 passengers were busy with tours today most likely due to the thousands of cruisers descending upon the small town.

We decided to hike up Basin rd. toward the Mt Robert’s Trail head and on to the Last Chance Mining museum. A little over 1.5 miles up hill on a small road leading to the mine we walked through lush forest and steep hillside overlooking the roaring Gold Creek below. The hike was a good stretch and workout for the day after little activity on the ship. We passed several other hikers presumably ship passengers longing for a hike as we were. Once we reached the mine, we saw several preserved pieces of machinery utilized in the process along with the story of the mine’s history. Once back down the hill we headed back to the ship.

Prior to our departure we watched two of the mega ships depart, slowly maneuvering their way out of the tight births clearly designed for smaller, less mega ships.

Weighed anchor and heading to our next destination, Tracy arm.

A little commentary on our journey so far. The ships passengers are mostly adults, early sixties to retired and older make up the majority with our age and younger making up the minority and no children. We have enjoyed meeting people on this trip and hearing their stories. Most are affluent or at least financially independent and well-traveled. Several have taken multiple Windstar trips and are hooked on the brand. One couple with 8 cruises on Windstar ships and the couple with the most 12. Marketta and Peter live in SF/Napa and Marin are in their 70’s Marketta is a wine maker, formerly in Languedoc France and Chateau Potelle on Mt Veeder in Napa but moved on after divorce but now owns her own winery Marketta Vineyards. Peter is an accomplished classical musician and conductor. Ginger and Scott Live in Moraga near the east bay. Carol and Dale are from Dallas in their early 70’s Dale was a former Air Force pilot and retired Pilot for American airlines. Dale has traveled many miles on his Harley. Just a few of the fun couples we have met. Early on I was a bit hesitant due to the age of the crowd, commenting to Mary that it would be nice to have a few more passenger our age and younger to add some energy to the ship but I have been impressed with the vitality and adventuress spirit most of the older passengers have shown.

Day 9 May 29

Awoke to another bright sunny day today, we have been blessed with great unexpected weather so far on this trip. We’re cruising Tracy Arm/Endicott Arm today, two beautifully carved glacial fords with the occasional large and small chunks of ice floating through the channel. Narrow enough that our smaller ship could navigate close in next to the Sawyer glacier but kept the larger ships from reaching this far in so we were Solo with the exception of a mid-sized ship following us in this morning only to turn around and leave before the Fjords narrowed, YEAH! We had the area mostly to ourselves for the day sans a couple of smaller personal boats including a small sailboat registered in Washington state. We awoke early to views that rival Yosemite with steep granite cliffs, snow capped peaks and long flowing waterfalls in nearly every view.

This morning we embarked on a 2 1/2-hour kayaking adventure led by the ship expedition crew. There were 12 of us in six tandem kayaks plus the two expedition leaders in their single crafts. They loaded us into zodiacs from the ship and motored to a small cove nearby where we transferred from zodiac directly into our boat for the paddle. Mary took the front and I took up the rear seat. We paddled slowly toward the face of South Sawyer glacier hugging the eastern coastline passing immense granite cliffs and stunning waterfalls that flowed from more than two thousand vertical feet to the sea below. The water was calm and very few chunks of ice floating on this side of the channel. It took us about 30 minutes of leisurely paddling to reach the front of the glacier where it meets the sea. The ice face here towered above approx. the height of a 20-story building. Immense pockets of blue ice and large fissures that appeared they would crack and release their massive amounts of condensed snow and ice at any moment... and they did! We witnessed a few “calving’s” of the ice which break away with an immense thundering sound, crashing into the water below. On the return paddle, our ship had motored farther into the channel closer to us providing a nice view of the glacier for the passengers remaining on the ship. We paddled along the opposite shore on the way back, this time encountering more floating ice from the glaciers previous calving that were floating out the channel with the tide. The ice moves around during the day due to tides and the currents caused by flow of fresh water into the sea from the numerous snow melt waterfalls cascading down the steep granite walls. The ship’s crew on board a zodiac surprised us with hot chocolate and cookies delivered right to our Kayaks along the journey, Mary properly described this as “luxury Kayaking”.