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ALASKA 

Anchorage
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Call us crazy but we actually chose the dead of winter for our first visit to Alaska and I'm glad we did!

I snagged a four day weekend from my radio job and off we went to Anchorage for Valentine's Day weekend.

Even though it was dark as we cruised high above Canada on the way the snowy mountains were clearly visible down below and quite an impressive site.

After landing we rented a car and headed to the Captain Cook Hotel in downtown Anchorage.  This is a wonderful hotel and since it was off season they upgraded us to a beautiful little suite that faced Mt. McKinley or as the Alaskan people call it Denali.  This big mountain tops out at 20,320 feet making it the tallest in North America.

Now being in the dead of winter you'd think the peak would be shrouded in clouds, right?  Not at all.  Each and every day we had a clear view of it from our hotel room and the sunsets turned it bright pink-orange. It was beautiful.  It was hard to believe that it was more than 100 miles away from Anchorage.

Fortunately the city was very much alive during our weekend visit mainly because they were enjoying the annual Anchorage Fur Rendezvous.  It's a huge, city-wide winter carnival with rides, fireworks, dog sled races and special cuisine.  Although we didn't get a chance to sample it, such interesting items as seal and other native species were cooked and enjoyed.  One highlight of the "Rondy" each year is the World Champion Dog Sled Race.  And during the last week of the festival, it's the Iditarod Race, a grueling 1,000 mile mush from Anchorage to Nome.  Ironically the year we visited, they had to start the race outside of Anchorage due to a lack of snow.  Go figure!  A lack of snow in Alaska!

It was very cold (highs probably around 15F and lows about -5F) but there wasn't much wind so it wasn't uncomfortable.  We watched the dog sled teams compete and it was very interesting to see the various contestants.  Some involved little kids with just a couple or three dogs pulling the sleds.  Other sleds had an adult with the full compliment.

One sunny day we ventured out toward Mt. McKinley figuring we'd get a better view if we got closer. Ironically the closer we got the worse the view became.  So we just enjoyed the snowy countryside and returned.

We also ventured down the highway toward Seward and the snow capped mountains were just breath taking.  Along the way we saw moose galore.  During the whole trip we counted 27 moose including some within the city limits of Anchorage.  One group consisted of seven of the stately animals just lounging around under trees.

There were plenty of bald eagles in the countryside along with other hawks.

We stopped to see the Portage Glacier on our little trek south from Anchorage and it was really pretty.  Along the way you pass by a place called Beluga Point.  During the summer as the highway traces the edge of Turnagain Arm beluga whales are easy to spot.

The Alaska Railroad should be part of your plan while visiting Anchorage.  During our winter visit, however, the schedule is limited and we didn't have time to give it a shot.

I found the people of Alaska "interesting."  They, for the most part, seemed like free spirits.  It takes a special kind of person to chuck it all and move to a place as isolated as Alaska.

We glanced briefly at the Alyeska Resort on our trip to the south and it was quite impressive.  In fact it was the talk of the town in Anchorage that weekend because it was hosting a bunch of celebrities including Pierce Brosnan.  There were people milling about outside the gates to the resort just waiting to see if they could get a glimpse of any of the stars!

We had some enjoyable dining experiences in the Anchorage area and one of our favorites was Simon and Seafort's Saloon and Grill.  This place was absolutely packed with locals and we had to wait about thirty minutes to get a table.  Our absolute favorite restaurant there was the Glacier Brewhouse.  The place is huge with beamed wood ceilings and great local seafood. We also enjoyed a nice meal at Sea Galley in Anchorage.

The other Alaskan cities we've visited came on a cruise up the famous inside passage.

Juneau
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Alaska's capital city is very hilly and teaming with tourists during the summer months when the cruise ships are in town, which is most of the time.  Sea planes land and take off nearly non-stop.  Gift shops are full of people looking for bargains.  With population of 30,000, Juneau is Alaska's third largest city (behind Anchorage, and Fairbanks) and has a nice home town feel to it.

There are plenty of things to see and do here even if you just have a few hours while your cruise ship is in port.  Many opt to take in the Alaska State Museum which is full of the history of Alaska and lots of exhibits.  Or perhaps you'd like to check out the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.  It's a small place packed with displays and artifacts. By the way, if their web site acts strange, just click on the map box that comes up and it'll take you to the site.

Other fun visits include the Mendenhall Glacier, Glacier Gardens, which is a rainforest, and the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery.  It's only three miles from the downtown area.

Beer nuts will want to visit the Alaskan Brewing Company.  A lot of people opt to go fishing for salmon or halibut and---of course---whale watching!  Juneau Sportfishing and Sightseeing can fix you up.

There are various mine tours including the Alaska-Gastineau Mill and Gold Mine Tour and the Last Chance Mining Museum and Historic Park.  If you're into visiting state capitols, check out Alaska's before you go here and then drop by in person when you arrive.

If you'd like to catch one of the many sea planes for an aerial tour, check with your cruise ship. Or just head to where you see them coming and going one after another right next to the cruise ship docks.  Wings Airways is the biggie here.

Restaurant Review

We only had time for one meal and that came at a place right at the sea plane terminal and cruise ship dock called The Hangar on the Wharf

Skagway
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Another destination popular with the mammoth cruise ships, this town was put on the map by the gold rush of 1898.  It's even smaller than Juneau and the entire downtown area is an easy walk.  There you'll find the crush of tourist shops selling everything from cheesy tee shirts that have the word "Alaska" all over them to art shops, jewelry stores, and many others.

As for things to do, the ever present sea planes are constantly taking off and landing here.  And we saw more helicopters lifting off here than at other destinations, too.   Often four or five would take off right after each other taking tourists on flightseeing trips.  To book a trip, visit Temsco Helicopters for more info.  The Klondike Gold Rush National Historic District is interesting to take in.  And really way out, old looking street cars take hoards of tourists on tours of this one horse town.  The company that operates them is the Skagway Street Car Company.  It's not cheap, though.  A two hour tour will set adults back $42.  Kids get by for a mere $20.

History buffs may want to check out Skagway Museum and Archives.  Many opt to take in the Klondike Gold Dredge Tours.  As with Juneau, fishing can be arranged, of course.

If there's one, single thing you probably should do while visiting Skagway is the White Pass and Yukon Route narrow-gauge railroad line.  It's billed as the "Scenic Railway of the World" and it does take passengers through some beautiful countryside.  Bear sightings are common.  Ditto for bald eagles.  There is more than one option and prices start at about $100 per passenger.  Cruise ship passengers should book these trips long before leaving home because these trains are extremely popular and fill up fast.

Restaurant Review

We only had a chance to dine once here (lunch) and we chose a highly recommended place by the locals called the Skagway Fish Company

Ketchikan
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Of all the small Alaskan towns we visited during our cruise, this was our favorite.  It had a fun and pioneer feel about it.  Plus, it just so happened that this was the only time the sun was out and it was pleasantly warm (68F) during our port visits so it put us in a better mood to begin with!  It, too, is a very small, water front town.

Cruise ships literally anchor up right in the middle of town and a sign greets folks saying "Welcome to Alaska's First City."  They use that slogan because this is the first stop that many cruise ships make on the way north.  In our case, it was the last stop heading south back to Vancouver, B.C.

We saw more bald eagles buzzing around overhead here than anywhere else in Alaska other than on another trip cruising around the outskirts of Anchorage.

Ketchikan is billed as the "salmon capital of the world" so if you're a fishing fan, this might be the best place to book your Alaskan fishing adventure.  Of the several companies that organizes fishing trips you might want to try Ketchikan Charter Boats.

It might be a good idea to make the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center your first stop in Ketchikan.  They've got plenty of information about things to see and do here.

Totem Poles are a big draw here and one place fans like to visit is the Totem Heritage Center.  Totem Pole fans may also want to take in Totem Bight State Historical Park and Saxman Native Village Totem Pole Park.

Another popular tourist draw here is the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.  You've probably seen similar competition over the years on the tube -- log rolling, log chopping, etc.

I had a brief mental trip down memory lane when ducks came rolling by.  No not mallards or geese, but motorized amphibious vehicles that take people on tours.  I hadn't seen a duck since childhood in the Dells in Wisconsin.  We didn't have a chance to ride on one, but they looked interesting.  Check 'em out here.

As with all Alaskan port towns, sea planes constantly come and go from Ketchikan and Alaska Seaplane Tours can get you soaring with the eagles.

As we left Ketchikan we passed by a pod of killer whales.  I counted at least 8 but there were probably 14 or 15 in the gang.  They weren't close enough to get a good shot, unfortunately.  And they were moving in the opposite direction of the ship.

Restaurant Review

Yep, same deal here on restaurants.  We had only one opportunity to catch a meal and we chose a place right on the touristy waterfront called Annabelle's Restaurant. 

Glacier Bay
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After Skagway and before Ketchikan, our ship cruised through Glacier Bay.  Prior to the visit, all our friends has cautioned us to be sure to wear sunglasses because all the glare on the beautiful water and off the glaciers was piercing to the eyes.  Well while sunglasses were not needed, warm coats and gloves were!  It was extremely cloudy, misty, foggy and dull during the day we visited.  Beautiful to be sure but muted due to the bad weather.  We entered Glacier Bay National Park around 7am and we were awakened in our cabin by the loud speaker outside.  The ship had picked up a National Park Ranger to narrate the sights we would be seeing.  Nice touch!  The hot chocolate brought around the deck also helped to warm us up!  The air temp was about 40 to 42F that morning, as I recall. 

The glaciers were beautiful, even on this cloudy, rainy, misty, foggy day.  One of them "calved" a couple of times.  That's when a big chunk of ice breaks off and smashes into the water.  You first see the ice break off and then hear the loud crack that sounds like a loud gun shot.  Pretty impressive stuff.

As we exited the park we saw humpback whales and sea otters.

Photos

ANCHORAGE
JUNEAU
SKAGWAY
KETCHIKAN
GLACIER BAY
VANCOUVER, B.C. & ABOARD M.S. STATENDAM

 

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