Tag Archives: Alaska

Kitschy but good

Someone on my Twitter list mentioned yesterday that she would soon be embarking on a trip to Alaska, and I immediately thought of the train ride Susanne and I took over in Skagway. At least four people told us to make sure we rode up and back on the old gold mining trail, so we booked our tickets well in advance of our cruise, and then we climbed on.

It was nothing short of amazing. The White Pass & Yukon Route train was a bit too modern to have jumped out of a steampunk novel, but it belched and groaned like a steam engine all the same, as it dragged us up 3,000 feet into the Canadian Yukon. We sat for much of the trip on the way up, but at the end the conductors moved the engine around, and our front car became the caboose. We didn’t miss the chance to stand on the end, marveling at the mountain ledges, miles and miles of the tallest evergreens I’ve seen in my life, and the detritus those thousands of Klondike miners left behind.

So it occurs to me that there are, in the quadrillions of tourist trap options available in the US, a few very choice gems that should get some fair due. They may be popular, they may be hyped, but they’re worth, say, wearing bright blue plastic ponchos. Here are a few favorites I want to mention:

The Maid of the MistNiagara Falls sounds like a great tourist destination, if it’s 1952. There are a lot of depressing buildings screaming out for fresh paint, and filled with plastic-wrapped souvenirs, but just follow the signs to this boat ride. I think the Maid of the Mist is more fun if you’ve gone to look at the falls from the top first, to help with a sense of perspective. It’s true that the Canadian side of the falls are more majestic; the US side is taller, but our neighbors to the north have the “horseshoe falls,” which I captured from the boat. No matter whether one takes the boat ride from the US or Canadian side, it will still travel into the heart of the falls. I couldn’t believe I was surrounded by hammering, plummeting water. As tall as the falls are around the Maid of the Mist, that’s how much water she’s sitting on—170 feet on both counts. You better wear the silly blue poncho.

Old Faithful at Yellowstone National ParkIt can be argued that my entire generation first learned about this geyser from Yogi Bear and Jellystone National Park. I’m happy that Susanne didn’t rend me limb from limb as I repeated my Yogi Bear impression as we wandered around the wilderness. It might not be the prettiest geyser there, it’s far from the most colorful, like the “paint pots” were, but it was shocking to witness, the smooth vapor all at once belching and hurrying out of the way of boiling white liquid. This is 3rd grade science fair to the 20th power. Once it’s done with its 5-minute show, take a walk on the rest of the geyser platform, and by the time that’s done, Old Faithful will be just about ready to have another conniption.

The Baltimore AquariumLess kitschy and more just plain overcrowded, the Baltimore Aquarium is organized by ecosystems, very accessible, and proportioned well. I don’t feel like I’m in a tiny building with smelly fish, and I don’t feel like there’s a lot of wasted space (I’m looking at you, new MoMA). Plus it has puffins, the globe’s friendliest, funniest bird species, in my humble opinion. There are dolphin shows, it’s true, but at least they’ve gone to some trouble to unpack how the animals are treated, and they have a fairly prestigious breeding program for bottlenose. That said, it is expensive, so try to get your hands on some coupons or group deals, because at more than $30 a ticket, the cost adds up fast. But the sharks and manta rays, inches away from the homo sapiens, are really not to be missed.

Have any kitschy touristy fun? Pipe up and add your own in the comments!

Catch it if you can

We spent our time on the Pacific hopping around to every function that the ship had to offer. Salsa dance class. A Wii bowling tournament. Big band concerts, large-screen showings of Star Trek and some Jennifer Aniston flick that looks like all the rest she’s made. Lots of time staring at the water, looking for whales. Many, many mohitos served on the Sun Deck. At some point our lower limbs acclimated to the water movement and we didn’t look like drunken sailors during fleet week anymore.

Getting off the ship and into port, however, was exciting for us. So it was with much anticipating that we drew into our berth at Skagway, a once-was gold mining town further up the Alaskan coast from Juneau. Skagway has a winter population of 700 and this doubles in size during the summer months, when the cruise lines bring their business. It was here that I first started noticing the signs, hung over a small portion of the shop entrances, that read “locally owned and operated.” What does that mean, I wondered. Why wouldn’t it be locally owned? Starbucks, maybe, would want to cart all of their supplies up here, but I was sure I wasn’t going to run into a Bloomingdale’s or Red Robin. As it turns out, the cruise lines have bought up most of the storefronts, which is why we saw so many jewelry outfits along the way. I don’t suppose they do much for the local communities, which in Alaska, don’t have a lot of sales or property tax income, most of the state revenue coming from the oil industry. So some of our native shopkeepers had a little chip on their shoulder, and if I were them, I might, too.

restored White Pass train

restored White Pass train

We had signed up earlier to take the White Pass train up from Skagway to the summit of the mountains, just over the border into Canada. This was the route that the gold miners had blasted out to make exploration easier. As we chugged our way up the 18 miles of rocky landscape, I took note of the near-vertical terrain. And then it hit me. These guys were crazy. I can’t imagine the desperation they must have felt to put up with what must have been absolutely horrendous conditions—white out blizzards, frostbite, inaccessible or absent supplies, inaccurate or nonexistent maps, hyper-competitive people. That surviving through years of this place seemed like a good idea was almost beyond my comprehension. I can’t even think of a metaphor for who these people are today, other than daredevils who jump off of city buildings or people who decide living in a broken down bus in the middle of nowhere is the life for them, but they’re not trying to make money out of those endeavors, it seems.

After we drew haltingly toward the summit, we passed the US Customs building, which was 6 miles away from the border. The border itself is barren of everything except rocks, the obelisk marking the actual crossover point, and the few green weeds that can handle the climate here. The Mounties are no more hardy; their customs office is 7 miles north of the marker. I suppose we’re two trusting nations. One person on the train with us remarked that we probably would put up with the elements if the neighboring country were Mexico. Wow, so much for the glory of the Yukon—we travelers today are jaded and cynical.

our train heading up to white pass

our train heading up to white pass

Up at the summit, we saw a quiet and pristine wilderness. It had taken two and a quarter hours to traverse 18 miles. A small creek snuck by the rails on the right, giving way to yellow and purple wildflowers. Maybe this site was a brute in winter, but it was a gentle lamb today. I wished we could have stayed a while, but as we were in Canada, nobody who wasn’t an employee was allowed off the train.

We could, however, go stand on the caboose. We’d climbed into the first car when we set out, but the engineers removed the engine and drove it down to the rear of the train for our return down the mountain. So now we could stand at the end and watch the world go by us, which we did. Wow, was that worth the $200 for our tickets. We gasped the first third of the trip back down.

The next day, we were in Ketchikan, known as the salmon capitol of the world. Come on, I thought. Everyone says they’re the capitol of something, but what does that really mean? Lots more tourist traps, I thought, and I might have gagged if Ketchikan were a place that sold 3,200 versions of jade jewlerly carved into whale tails. I had really seen enough of those.

Ketchikan harbor

Ketchikan harbor

They weren’t kidding, though. Ketchikan had every salmon in the world, fighting through its ocean inlet and streams. More gawking ensued. It was hard to appreciate the natural resource with 9,000 other ship passengers attempting to do the same, but we found some quiet corners that morning. Seeing these tiny pieces of Alaska only made me want to return. Maybe the gold rush is over, but it really had a lot of other riches that a person could get into.

We’re all at sea

Every day the ship prints out a list of all the goings on that passengers can attend—the “Princess Patter.” I of course, having a hard time remembering the name, just call it the pitter patter. I had no idea what to expect of these events before we boarded, this being our first cruise and all. Everything from learning ballroom dancing to bingo to lectures on buying diamonds, we giggled at some of the offerings and were genuinely interested in others. Always, they try to get you to buy a $6.75 drink at these things. We tried to map out a schedule for the day: start off at the gym, take a dip in one of the hot tubs, have lunch, go to a rumba class, get dressed up for formal night.


The gym didn’t go so well because all of the treadmills were closed due to a lecture on weight loss. This seemed like a mixed message to me, although perhaps the gym director didn’t want someone my size on the treadmill anyway because it would make working out seem hopeless to fat people. We went straight to the next goal on our itinerary, the hot tub. That was a relaxing experience until the boat hit some choppier water, and then the water inside the tub was splashing all over. Susanne said she was starting to feel like she was being thrown about at sea. We changed, and had lunch.

There are many, many options for eating at sea. Because there are two buffets open 24/7, if one wanted to eat all day and all night, they could achieve success. But the buffets are not filled with the foodstuffs I’d imagined. I guess I’d pictured piles of Alaskan king crab and other regional seafood, something like a fancy cafeteria. Instead it was more like the catering Susanne’s college prepares, complete with those perfectly round, kind of bland cookies for dessert. How can anyone make a bland chocolate chip cookie, anyhow?

The dining rooms serve much better fare, and Susanne has discovered a favorite dessert: the Love Boat Dream, a chocolate mousse (in the shape of a heart), over a chocolate brownie (in the shape of a heart), served with raspberry sauce (in the shape of a heart). It is demonstrated in the following picture.

shipboard desserts

We’ve walked around all of the ship now, save a room or two, and have gotten pretty familiar with where everything is, but the going is a little difficult for passengers. I’ve seen more than a few look frustrated and lost. In fact, of all the little annoyances we’ve encountered so far on this vacation, I’d say pushy passengers top my list.

First of all, they’re everywhere we go, except our cabin. There is simply nothing one can do without at least 38 other people being there, attempting to occupy the same physical space you are standing in. The elevator, the lecture on fruit carving, the spa giveaway bonanza—sometimes we’re so pressed up together I have to look around to make sure I’m not on a subway car heading to Foggy Bottom at rush hour. And many of them are just as rude as the day we checked in. I keep wanting to ask if they think their  bacon burger will taste so much better if they bite into it 30 seconds earlier because they skipped someone in line. Susanne is good at giving me those “settle down” looks though, which is good.

That’s not to say we haven’t met some jolly nice people on board, however. At one meal we sat with two older couples from New Jersey, who were unhappy with the matzoh ball soup at lunch.

“Mine is 100 times better,” she said, tasting the weak broth.

“Mine is 300 times better,” said her friend, after her bite.

I’m pretty sure she just said her matzoh ball soup is 200 times better than her friend’s, but I didn’t mention that. I just told them of course their soup is better than the boat’s soup, and they smiled, first at me, and then at Susanne, as if to say, Oh, he’s learning already, on your honeymoon, too. You’ll do just fine with him.

The day at sea was capped off with the first formal night of the week, so Susanne and I changed into our fanciest outfits: me in my tux and she in her wedding dress. Good thing it doesn’t look exactly like the typical wedding dress, so people weren’t thinking we were getting married there and then. We did have “Just Married” balloons outside our cabin, so there is that, I suppose. I feel a little like we’re lying, having gotten married last July, but this is our honeymoon, so close enough, I guess.

Everyone else was decked out in their finery, too, and Susanne remarked that maybe such a night is appealing because it’s fun to play dress up; we did look a little like extras on the set of Days of Our Lives. At one point we spied a few women who had little crinkled tinfoil doggie bags. One wore it like an edible bracelet. Susanne snapped a picture.

The waitstaff had been made aware of the honeymoon thing because we had a card to signal to them that this was a special night among nights. We were rewarded with our own little “special events” cake and a “happy honeymoon to you” song, sung to the tune of happy birthday to you. After three courses of dinner and dessert, we couldn’t even begin to eat cake, so we asked for a to go container, and were somewhat chagrined to see the waiter return with the cake in a tinfoil sculpture. Our very own cake bracelet.

All aboard

We woke up at a decent hour this morning, cramming everything into our bags and making sure our car was okay in the parking lot—we just couldn’t justify paying $20 a day for the port parking. I do have a Seattle friend whose car was stolen back in 2005, but the thief was kind enough to leave a note saying he’d return it later, which he did, complete with a few dollars in change to account for the gas he’d consumed. Let’s just say that’s not the way folks perform grand theft auto in our nation’s capitol.

After showering and making sure we had all of our 7,289 belongings, everything ranging from fold-up umbrellas to playing cards to extra underwear, we headed out for breakfast at the Portage Bay Café. This is a catering business-turned-series-of-three-restaurants that features organic and locally grown, sustainably farmed food. Their motto is “Eat like you give a damn.” A little arrogant, but I get the point. More interesting to us, if I’m being honest, was the challah bread French toast and the all-you-can-pile-on toppings bar. Two orders of French toast for us. Susanne also ordered a decaf latte and I a double skim mocha. Seattle really knows how to make a coffee drink—the latte was rich without being too acidic, and my mocha tasted just this side of sweet, which is how I like it. If I wanted super sugary, I’d ask for chocolate milk heated up. At the toppings bar we indeed piled up, but taking care to follow their instructions: take as much as you want, but eat what you take. I couldn’t bear, however, to eat the bland apple slices, and I’m really dismayed that in Washington State, they save the worst apples for the residents and send the tastiest ones out of state. The rest of the fruit—the strawberries, raspberries, peaches, and blackberries—were terrific, as was the lightly sweetened whipped cream, and the organic maple syrup had a nutty complexity of flavor that I’ve never before tasted. I’m kicking myself for forgetting to ask where it originated.

Leaving the port of Seattle

Leaving the port of Seattle

After eating too much we waddled back to the car and got whatever else we deemed should come on the cruise with us. I called a taxi service. It was at this point that I realized I’d forgotten to pack black dress socks, so I hoped I’d be able to purchase some on the ship. I really didn’t want to look like a schmuck in my gorgeous tuxedo, replete with white Russell crew socks.

The taxi driver picked us up and looked a little astonished at all the bags we were carrying. We never pack this heavy when we’re flying. All we needed was a steamer trunk. And geez, it would have been so easy to find 2 cubic inches of space for black dress socks.

Coming up to the pier, we saw the ship. It dwarfed everything else in the marina. We had an immediate moment of exhilaration, and next of a weird sense of pride that yeah, our boat is big! Our boat! Big big big! This was then replaced, as the taxi pulled over to drop us off, at irritation with our temporary floating neighbors, who were some of the most clueless humans walking I’ve ever seen. We dropped off our heavier bags and made our way to the long, winding line to show our passports and get on the boat. It was at this point that they asked us to fill out a “Health questionnaire.” Their concern for whether we had recent coughing, fevers, or diarrhea was not urgent enough that we couldn’t all be using the same pencils to fill out our forms, a rather magnificent and ironic way of spreading disease around the ship right at the start of our voyage.

Standing in line, I sang one line of the love boat theme to Susanne, since this was a Princess cruise, after all. Two women in front of us told me to sign up for karaoke night, and then basically warned Susanne that they might steal her man from her! They clearly do not know Susanne. Or me, for that matter.

We made our way onto the ship. Geez, it was big. We walked around, familiarizing ourselves with the layout, mostly of the hot tubs, bars, and eateries. The cigar bar really needs to be better ventilated, and casinos just depress us, so we checked out the other options. Somehow the shuffleboard court keeps eluding us, though we found the nicely appointed exercise room and the amazingly tacky nightclub, high up above the very stern of the ship. All of the furnishings in the “Skywalker’s Nightclub” revolve around stars, except one quarter of the seating, which is in a paisley pattern. I am trying to wrap my mind around why.

Finally we found the “boutiques” on board. Lots of clothing, and should you have forgotten your cufflinks, there are several to rent or purchase. Black dress socks, not so much. Right now my options are the following:

1. buy black shoe polish and permanently discolor my athletic socks
2. ask our steward if he can lend us some of his socks
3. break down and buy black pantyhose

Apparently I am the first person in the history of Princess Cruise Lines to leave behind his socks. And the first formal night is tomorrow, before we will have reached port in Juneau.

Touring the ship, we came upon the spa area. They told us excitedly that we could fill out a raffle ticket for a chance at winning a free spa treatment. Cruise newbies that we are, we picked up more tuberculosis-covered pencils and filled out little cards. Make sure to come back at 5:30, they said, smiling, and somewhere in the distance, I heard a siren song.

We were in good company. Something like 150 people crowded into the spa area to attend the raffle name-pulling, since one had to be present to win. As people flooded in, I started wondering if they were going to give us a one-hour seminar on time shares in Boca. No, just a lecture on all of the spa services, which ranged from the delightful—hot stone massage—to the more esoteric—homeopathic liquid movement to reduce edema. Slowly, the head of the fitness center pulled out raffle tickets, usually to the beat of loud, thumping techno music, and the people around us nearly drooled in anticipation. These folks would have assembled for a raffle on ice water. We left a little early, wanting to get out of there before 150 crazy-for-any-bargain people were ready to leave.

The ship does move slightly with the waves, but it’s got a pretty firm footing overall. We’ve noticed that the drinking lounges and bars seem to be over the places where the engines cause more vibration and noise—maybe the ship designers thought drunk people would notice the movement less. Whatever the reason, it’s fortunate that not all of the ship translates the rotation of the propellers into shuddery movement.

The Golden Princess at her berth

The Golden Princess at her berth

One other note: I think it’s just an awful idea to have an entire section of the ship’s library dedicated to maritime disasters. Really, I don’t want to read about the Titanic while I’m in the middle of the cold ocean. Hopefully I don’t have to explain why.

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