Our holidays are seldom restful. Though filled with as much wonder and experience as we can manage, our jam-packed wanderings leave little room for true relaxation. In the last four years my wife and I have driven Toronto to St. John’s and every province in between, built stairs in Lima and hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, camped along the Oregon Coast, and gone on several brief but busy excursions in between. Each has been an amazing yet tiring adventure.
This time we opted for a more laid back vacation with an Alaskan cruise on board the Norwegian Jewel. For a change our itinerary would be set for us, we would only have to check in to a single room, and food and entertainment would be provided for us all along the way. It would be a very different vacation from the kind we have been used to, but we decided to give it a try. After boarding in Seattle along with my wife’s parents we sailed off toward shores unknown to us, which would turn out to keep us quite active after all.
Before we could start exploring Alaska we would have to get there. The first night and entire day that followed were spent out on the water, making our way in the direction of the Alaska Panhandle. This allowed us to thoroughly sample the many crevices of our ship, while overindulging in cheap martinis and buffet cuisine. By the time we docked at our first stop we were beyond well-fed and rested.
The pier in Ketchikan was bathed in fog as we arrived and took our first steps on Alaskan ground. Walking alongside Ketchikan Creek, its waters dark with throngs of salmon heading home to spawn, we made our way to the Totem Heritage Center. Inside we perused displays of elaborately carved totem poles recovered from Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian settlements, along with various tools and crafts of those cultures.
Leaving there we came by more totem poles as we trekked past Married Man’s Trail, a route once used by brothel clients to flee police raids. We ended up at Creek Street, former red light district for such action, and walked along its boardwalk path now lined with shops and restaurants.
As the mist dissipated with the afternoon sun, we ventured through a tunnel to the other side of town. Finding some rocks to sit upon beside the sea, we watched float planes lift into sunny skies past tug boats drifting by, while a sea otter poked its head up near the shore to pay us a visit. The day soon faded and so did our time on shore, so we meandered back to the ship for a night of rest in preparation for our next day’s excursion.
We arose early the next morning to witness the ship’s passage into Tracy Arm. With steaming coffees in our gloved hands, we emerged onto the deck to find ourselves walled high on both sides by peaks of stone, while the water below shined a reflection of the sky. Our vessel squeezed gently through the fjord, skillfully maneuvering past small islands and densely glistening ice floes. A final bend took us near to Sawyer Glacier, nestled huge and blue between the mountains.
The boat turned back the way it came, and by mid afternoon we had docked in Juneau. Instantly we set off on a mission to find Alaskan king crab. This was easily accomplished a short distance along the wharf, where we came upon Tracy’s King Crab Shack built upon the water. Though not myself a crab aficionado even I enjoyed a taste, and was assured by the rest of my group that it was exceptionally delicious.
Our hunger satiated it was time then to satisfy our thirst. A quest to quench it led us to a storefront for the Alaskan Brewing Company, whose beer we had taken a liking to in the bars and restaurants of our cruise ship. We signed up for brewery tour and were soon picked up in a van by guide Jedidiah. He treated us to a brief city tour along the way, pointing out landmarks and offering interesting facts of the state’s capital.
At our destination we were treated to a company history along with a selection of its beverages, the Alaskan Smoked Porter being a particular favourite of ours. Afterwards we were shuttled through a golden Northern sunset back downtown, where we shared another round of Alaskan ales with some locals at the Triangle Club. From there we ventured to the sawdust covered floors of the more thematic Red Dog Saloon for one last round before retiring to our cabins for the night.
By morning our Juneau port was left behind us, replaced by that of Skagway. Stepping ashore there was like revisiting a scene straight out of the Klondike Gold Rush. The restored Broadway street gave us a firsthand glimpse of a town rife with booze, gunfire, prostitution, and the overwhelming lust for riches.
In the vein of prospectors from the late 1800s we headed towards the Yukon ourselves, though with the advantage of bus transportation instead of by horse or on foot. Frontier Excursions & Adventures took us into northern British Columbia and from there into Canada’s most western territory, through rocky landscapes lined with waterfalls, teal lakes, and wind-bent trees turning yellow with the coming fall. Returning later to Alaska and our ship we set assail, catching a hilarious performance by comedian Bud Andersen before catching some sleep.
When we awoke the ship was rocking, and it rocked all day long. Despite such instability, that evening in the Jewel’s theatre the incredible Cirque de Bijoux put on a musical show of acrobatic finesse, performing balanced feats of extreme strength and flexibility. Its members danced, sang, twirled, contorted, and lifted one another hanging from above by hoops or twists of ribbon. The show was received with well-earned emphatic applause, after which the ship’s crew came onstage to give a send-off to those of us soon to be ending our stay aboard.
The sea had settled down the next afternoon as we eased back into Canada and docked at Victoria. Right away we caught a cab to Oak Bay Marina Coffee Shop, host to our wedding reception last summer. Our visit then had been spent celebrating drunk and dancing on the deck. This time we sat sipping lattes surrounded by boats for sale, while in the parking lot local program HeroWork was kicking off an apartment renovation project for the benefit of homeless children. Its convoy of sponsors and decorated vehicles rolled out honking and we left too, catching a bus downtown for a walk along the waterfront as the sun set on the last night of our cruise.
The sun did inevitably rise again and in Vancouver we departed one last time with feelings mixed. Our picturesque week of cruising had certainly delivered the high level of fun and relaxation we anticipated, but we could not shed a feeling of invasiveness as our ship’s throngs of passengers flooded every shore that we arrived upon. After a week spent largely at sea it also felt quite good to stay on steady ground, choosing for ourselves where to go and when to be there. Our next major vacation is sure to involve more of the self-directed roaming and shuffling of accommodations that we’re used to, together or in a small group instead of as part of a mass of thousands of tourists.
Though we may not cruise again soon, it sure had been a memorable voyage this time. Beyond my dreams, within my reach, it was nice to see Alaska.
– Cory Magnus Stumpf