Monday, July 4, 2016:
Tracy Arm Inlet and Juneau, Alaska:
We put our clocks back one hour before we went to bed last night as we would be arriving in Alaskan waters and crossing a time zone line at 2. 00 am. We also set our alarms for an early start as we were told to arrive in the Crow’s Nest—the highest Observation Deck on the ship—at the crack of dawn to spy whales. Not to be daunted by the hour, we were at our stations as planned at 6. 30 am to bag good seats.
Whale-Watching at Dawn in Frederick Sound:
At 6.30, there were not a lot of folks in situ, but as the half hour passed, the place got packed with cruise passengers and the Crow’s Nest became full. We had armed ourselves with hot chocolate and small pastries from the Café attached to the adjoining library and feeling quite content at that hour of the day, we trained our sights and our binoculars at the horizon and hoped to see whales.
The secret to whale watching is abundant patience. We were in Frederick Sound at this time—a fertile feeding ground for whales who eat for 22 hours of the day—who knew? Since they find rich food in these waters, there is good chance of spying them. Rick, our Cruise Director, told us what to look for—a head of mist rising above the water is a clue as the mist is left by spouting water issuing from the whale’s blowholes. Even while waiting, we had views of the mountains and the little islands that dot the Sound—so there was a lot of visual interest.
About twenty minutes later, we started to see the mist and within ten minutes, we were fully into whale-occupied territory. The spouting water was frequent and very often we saw the turns of the great mammals in the water. On at least two or three occasions, I saw their tails stick out of the water and then plunge swiftly back in. They were not too distant and in a couple of cases, we actually saw their backs glide through the shallow waters. It was a very rewarding sight and worth getting up early to spy. With humpback whales spotted, we are left with four of the other sea creature to see as part of the Big Five! (The others are Orca—or Killer—whales, sea lions, Dahl’s porpoises and otters).
Breakfast in the Lido:
It was time to go in search of breakfast for cruising through Tracy Arm would continue for about four hours. We made our way to the Lido and since I spied the Full English Breakfast offered with the kind of tenderloin English bacon I like and the fat sausages that the English call Bangers, I decided to have one of those—both the bacon and the sausage were very tasty indeed. We also go freshly squeezed orange juice as the decaff coffee on board is not the best at all. With breakfast accomplished, it was time to go out in search of a few ship board activities that would keep us happily occupied until we disembarked.
Culinary Demonstration featuring Baked Alaska:
Llew preferred to get back to our stateroom for a nap as he suddenly felt sleepy while I headed off to meet Alex who was demonstrating the making of Baked Alaska, the famous dessert that everybody loves but rarely makes at home. The chef happened to be Suraj who was originally from Goa. He took forever to whip up the egg whites (which made me wonder why he had not simply used a mixer as all of us would do at home!). The finished dessert was browned with a blow torch. The entire operation took about 20 minutes after which I headed off elsewhere.
Discovering the Klondike Gold Rush:
I was keen to find out a bit of history about the Klondike Gold Rush and when Cruise Director Nick made a presentation on it, I went off to listen to what he had to say. Sadly, he was nearing the end of it and I too suddenly felt very sleepy. It was time to return to my stateroom for a nap. About 20 minutes later, feeling very refreshed, we went off to Lido Deck to participate in the Great American BBQ being held to celebrate July the Fourth—as, of course, it was American Independence Day. With breakfast sitting quite heavy in my tummy, it was time to think about more food.
The Great American BBQ on Deck:
Long lines of other passengers, all determined to fuel up before disembarking and spending the day at Juneau, did not think so. With plates heaped with corn bread, bread rolls, the ubiquitous coleslaw and potato salads, baked potatoes with sour cream and chives and bacon, BBq-ed spare ribs, chicken, steak and lovely well-seasoned peppery salmon, they were heading to their pool side seats. Llew and I followed suit and found blueberry cobbler and red, white and blue cupcakes also offered for dessert. I could only take a very small sample size helping of a few things before it was time to head off to the Reception Desk to make arrangements to get off the ship for we had arrived at Juneau and the cruise terminus and its accompanying buildings could be easily spied across the narrow inlet of water.
Arrival at Juneau, Alaska’s Capital:
Our first day getting off the cruise liner saw most passengers wanting to race off and explore. And although tiny with the feel of a one-time prosperous frontier town, Juneau offered a whole lot to see and do. But, as it is also popular with cruising companies and offers only a limited number of berths for disembarkation, our ship was anchored a few meters off shore.
An Experience of Tendering:
As a result of our location, we needed to be ‘tendered’ ashore. This is the process by which passengers board small boats that then ferry them to the pier where they can disembark and begin exploration. It is not an easy task to get over 2000 passengers off a huge cruise liner and on to small boats—the allusions to the evacuation of the Titanic are inevitable. Fortunately for us, Christine, the Cruise Director, had offered to get us swiftly off the boat if we came to see her as soon as we were ready to get off. We took her up on her offer and were ferried over to land on the very first boat that moved away from the Nieuw Amsterdam to get us to Juneau. It took no more than ten minutes and was a very smooth operation as we joined about fifty passengers on board to make the crossing past another HAL boat in the water—the Westerdam.
Exploring Franklin Street:
One of the benefits of attending a number of the shipboard presentations the previous day, was becoming aware of the free ‘gifts’ offered by many of the jewelry stores that line the streets of Juneau. Most gifts take the form of charms which can be hung from a bracelet—and are, therefore, a sought-after perk. It also allows passengers to walk the length of Franklin Street, the busy shopping artery that leads to the bus terminus and to the Mount Roberts’ Tramway which passengers can ride to get way up high on a towering mountain that overlooks the city and provides bird-eye views. We did not think spending the $35 per head that it costs to get to the top was worthwhile.
Instead we marched into the souvenir shops to find a T-shirt for my brother, postcards and magnets—our usual fund of souvenirs—and to move on. It was interesting to note that almost all the jewelry stores are manned by Indians from India who make Juneau their home for just 3-4 months of the year (the summer cruise season) and then push off to the Caribbean Islands for the rest of the year. We entered into conversation with one of them who used to live not far away from my home town in Bombay. Their wares take the form of precious jewelry and semi-precious stones set into jewelry and once they provide you with the free charm, they turn their attention to other customers as soon as they sense that we are not the in the market to purchase.
Off to the Mendenhall Glacier:
Our main aim while in Juneau was to make the trip a few miles out of town to the Mendenhall Glacier which is the closest we will get to a glacier on this trip as we have not booked any of the pricey helicopter or floatplane rides that actually put cruise passengers on the glaciers themselves. Using Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor, I had discovered that the least expensive way to get to Mendenhall is by Juneau’s public transport bus that costs a mere $2 per passenger per trip. However, this bus does not get all the way to the glacier and passengers are required to walk the last one and a half mile of road leading to the venue.
The second alternative is to take one of two ‘shuttle’ bus services run by private operators from the bus terminus. One is called the Glacier Shuttle (aka the White Bus—which is the one we took), the other is called the Glacier Express (aka the Blue Bus). Both cost the same amount ($15 per person one way which makes it a pricey $30 round trip for a journey that lasts no more than 20 minutes each way). Still, it takes passengers to the very entrance of the little state park—so all said, it is the best bet.
We entered the Juneau Visitor Information Center for maps and advice and were directed to the bus ticket counters from where we purchased our bus tickets to the glacier and headed a few meters ahead to the bus stop to board the bus. This stretch of the city was simply crawling with cruise passengers and there was a bit of chaos all around as folks tried to find their private tour operators, the public bus stops and the tram terminus for the cable car ride up the mountain.
Bus Ride to Mendenhall Glacier:
All private bus operators are supposed to give a running commentary to the glacier and back. Ours, a young girl with little interest in her job except to see that passengers boarded the bus in a queue, said absolutely nothing except to warn us about bears and not getting too close to them. Once at the stop, we were pretty much on our way as we followed the throngs to the venue. The twenty minute bus journey is uninteresting but for the meadows filled with wild flowers that follow you throughout and the vistas of the mountains all around.
Exploring Mendenhall Glacier:
Juneau sits at the bottom of what is known as the Juneau Icefield and one of the features of the icefield is the Mendenhall Glacier. It has been in steady recession over the past century and as global warming has melted much of it, what is left behind are icy waterways filled with glacial water. You hike about ten minutes and arrive at the very nice but very crowded Visitors’ Center that offer maps, rest rooms and souvenirs. And then you have two options: you can walk about five minutes and arrive at a viewing point that offers good photo ops against the backdrop of the glacier (which is what we did first) or you can hike to Nuffy Falls which we did later—or you can do both.
The glacier is not as impressive as the many we have seen in other parts of the world on our travels (the Columbia Icefield in the Canadian Rockies is vast and amazing and you can easily walk all over it; the Fox Glacier in New Zealand near Haas was incredible in its size and the fact that you can easily hike over it without spending a small fortune on helicopters or floatplanes). Still, the lovely bright blue that we spied at Mendenhall’s base (caused by moraine or debris that has accumulated over centuries) was a first-time sight for us and it was lovely.
Once we took our pictures, however, it was time to decide whether or not take the mile-long hike to Nuffy Falls—a 45 minute round trip. Since we had time on our hands, we went—not really knowing what to expect. It turned out to be the most fun part of our day.
Hiking to Nuffy Falls:
The hikers’ path to Nuffy Falls is very well marked and very well-traveled. There were scores of other walkers for company—of different sizes and ages—and they all coped well. Along the way, you pass by an abundance of wild flowers: large white daisies, purple hollyhock lookalikes, loads of unripe berry bushes. The air is cool and bracing but after a while you will find that you do not need a parka even though you are in close proximity to a glacier (a fleece is enough). About 20 minutes later, you arrive at the Falls and they are truly a spectacular sight. This is because this is the closest I have ever got to a waterfall—you are literally within a couple of feet of the tumbling water and can reach out and touch it. Needless to say, the water was ice cold. The blue base of the glacier is only a few feet away—so there are lots of good photo ops. But the place is constantly mobbed and that takes away some of the sense of being secluded in a pristine wilderness. Still, it was a fully worthwhile hike and easily recommended.
Return to Juneau and the Ship:
We followed passengers on the reverse journey to try to find the bus stop that took us back to Juneau. By this time, it was about 4.30 and the early tourist excitement had calmed down in the city. We spent about hour or so looking into a few more shops and landmark establishments such as the Red Dog Saloon that was once a prospector’s favorite haunt before we decided to get back to the ship. Once again, we were tendered across in a little boat and checked back into our ship.
Evening on Board:
For some reason—and probably because we had done two really good hikes in bracing mountain air—both Llew and I were hungry. But since we had 8.00 pm reservations at Canaletto, the specialty Italian restaurant on board, we decided to try just a little of the Alaskan food being offered in the Lido. I tried the Alaskan Seafood Chowder which was delicious and the Gold Diggers’s Chilli—both of which were great—together with the Alaskan beers on sale. Alaska has some nice brewing companies that use mountain glacial waters to brew their liquors and I was keen to taste a couple while on the trip.
Time to Dress for Dinner at Canaletto:
Back in our staterooms, we had enough time to dress for dinner and make our way upstairs again. I had tried to get a later dinner slot but all were taken. The concept at Canaletto is that of sharing and after ordering drinks (Chianti for Llew, a margarita for me), we looked at the menu. We decided to share two of the small plates (veal and sage polpettino which were meat balls in a delectable sauce—we got four which made it perfect for sharing) and the Vermouth Clams that were served in a very tasty broth dotted with chorizo sausage. Our appetizers were superb but not surprisingly, we already felt full. Still, we soldiered on towards pasta and decided to order two for sharing and to forgo a taste of the Large plates as we simply would have no room. We chose the Shrimp Papardelle which came with three tiger shrimp in a lemon infused cream sauce—very rich and very good, but we could only eat a little as we also had the special of the day—the lasagna made with chicken, beef and veal. It was also really good, but with just a few bites of the two really splendid dishes, we had had enough. It was time to order the lightest of desserts and we got the gelato—pistachio for Llew, gianduja (chocolate hazelnut) for me—both of which were splendid. We both felt really bad that our capacity is so small as neither of us did justice to the truly delicious offerings put before us.
Evening at the Piano Bar:
I would have preferred to call it a day at that point, but Llew was keen to get to the Piano Bar to listen to Jimmy Maddox belt out a few numbers as it was Elvis Night and the baby boomers were there in full force. We had a lovely one hour listening to a truly talented man who combines the skills of a pianist, singer, story teller and entertainer quite effortlessly into a one man show.
As our ship slowly pulled out of Juneau, Jimmy regaled us with stories about The King as well as sing-along numbers that had our feet tapping, heads shaking and lips moving. A truly lovely end to a very eventful day.