Tuesday, July 5, 2011

North to Alaska!!

LBeau and I recently returned from an Alaska cruise on Oceania Cruise Line's Regatta.  Mark another one off the bucket list.

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alaska 125 Sailing from Vancouver, BC, on Friday, we headed north through the Inside Passage Way and arrived in Ketchikan Sunday morning.  There we boarded a smaller boat for a pleasant cruise of the George Inlet where we helped hoist a couple of crab traps.  I was even brave enough to hold a crab for a special photo opportunity.

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alaska 156 Back at the George Inlet Lodge, we were treated to an all-you-could-eat crab feast.  It was some of the best eating we did on the entire trip.

There was even a contest to see which table could pile up the highest mound of crab shells.  We didn't win, but I think it was only because our tablemates were too neat and kept their shells on their plates.

Our next port was Wrangell, a small fishing village that's easy to explore on your own.  We visited a Tlingit clan house where we learned about the ravens and the eagles from four Tlingit women dressed in their native costumes.

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One of the main things I was looking forward to on our trip was a chance to see whales up close and personal.   Although several whale watching excursions were offered by the cruise line, we chose Whales and Rainforest Trails provided by Gastineau Guiding Company.  Turns out that we chose well.

Our group was small—only 16, and our guide, Diane, a biology teacher when school is in session, was outstanding.  The first part of the trip took us on a hike through the rainforest where Diane gave us lots of information about the native plants before leading us to a magnificent view of the Mendenhall Glacier.

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Next we boarded a small boat at Auke Bay Harbor for the whale watching portion of our adventure.  The whales were up to the task, and the lighthouse at Point Retreat made a beautiful backdrop for the breaching humpbacks and orcas.

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The orcas were so plentiful it was hard to count, and our boat captain maneuvered us all around the point for the best sightings.

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But by far the highlight of the day was watching the humpbacks form a bubble net to corral the fish before exploding to the surface for giant gulps of food.  It doesn't get better than this.

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alaska 402fixed alaska 410 At Hoonah we had another culinary adventure.  Dodie showed us how to filet and prepare halibut and salmon, which we grilled over an outdoor alder wood fire, while bald eagles soared overhead.  She also showed us how to prepare smoked salmon dip and salmon burgers and gave us the recipes to take home.

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alaska 429 At Skagway we traveled north by bus up the Klondike Highway with several stops along the way.  The sunny skies were perfect for photographing the scenery.  The bus trip took us north of Fraser, BC, for a stop at the Yukon Suspension Bridge, a pedestrian bridge across the Tutshi River Canyon.  The center of the swaying bridge was great for viewing the river below.


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Back in Fraser, we left our bus and boarded the White Pass Railroad for the return trip to Skagway.

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alaska 623 We decided that our day in Sitka would be a little more leisurely, so we opted for a two-hour nature hike and tour of the town.  Our first stop was the Alaska Raptor Center, followed by a hike through the Tongass National Forest in the Sitka National Historical Park.  Then we skirted the harbor, ending up at the Russian Orthodox Church.  LBeau and I got to go to the top of the bell tower and watch the bells played.  They were so loud that we definitely needed the headphones that our guide provided.

For the next two days, we cruised beautiful bays and fjords, getting close looks at some of Alaska's magnificent glaciers.  The first day took us close to the Hubbard Glacier at Disenchantment Bay.

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The second day took us into College Fjord, where all of the glaciers are named for Ivy League colleges, with the largest being Harvard Glacier.

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alaska 753 When we arrived in Seward, LBeau and I were glad for a chance to get back on shore.  Unfortunately, we had booked a five-hour Kenai Fjords cruise that turned out to be about twice as long as it needed to be.  We saw whales, sea lions, harbor seals, eagles, gulls and puffins (you'll have to trust me about the puffins, because my pictures are not very good), but the weather was cold and rainy and the water was rough.  Couple that with about 200 other passengers, all scrambling for the best views, and it was probably our least favorite excursion.

alaska 808 Homer was another "take it easy" day.  We took the free bus into town and walked from one drop-off point to the Pratt Museum.  They have a beautiful small botanical garden in front and some nice exhibits.  On the way, we passed this cute cafe but it was only open in the evening.

Our cruise ended in Anchorage, and since our flight didn't depart until almost 10 p.m., LBeau and I rented a car and first headed northeast on Highway 1, which turned out to be a pretty drive along the Matanuska River.

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Then we doubled back and headed northwest, stopping in Wasilla for lunch.  We could not see Russia from there, and I wouldn't recommend this drive unless you have time to travel as far north as Denali National Park.  We'll have to save that for another trip.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with this picture of an "almost" sunset.  Since our trip spanned the summer solstice, the days were quite long with sunsets around 11:30 p.m.  LBeau and I never quite managed to stay up that late.

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