Sunday, July 13, 2008

Alaska Vacation 2007

Alaska 2007 ~ Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan, Victoria (Canada)
Calving, Flutes, Haunted Castles and Cruise

Before we left Louisiana, Greg asked me again about the Alaska book I put together for the trip. He teased me, because the book included not only the flight schedules and NCL boarding info but also maps to each of the ports, deck plans on the ship, things to pack, information on the excursions, health concerns to be aware of while on a cruise ship, etc. I wanted to be thorough in my research and maybe it was a bit much?

But what really made him laugh was when he saw the luggage ticket for NCL. OK, so maybe I shouldn't have put that in the book and let everyone print out their own. After his humor settled down, he did ask if we needed to cut this out and attach to our luggage. I asked Dad about the luggage tickets and he said, "No, the representative at NCL would give us labels."

The flight to Denver went smoothly, as did the arrival to Seattle, Washington. The instructions read that "an NCL representative would meet you in the baggage claims area," as if the person would be right there when you get your luggage. Not quite so. At one end of the baggage claim is where Greg hunted down the representative.

She was a young girl and when we said we didn't have tags, flustered, she handed us green labels and ordered, "Just put your name and cabin number on them." We did so, rushing to fill out the forms. Greg even put one on his carry on bag. We were instructed to go to door 00 for the shuttle to the NCL Pearl, which was at the complete opposite end of the building!

Through all of this, Greg was great with how quickly he scouted out the people we had to meet and question. I was good at organizing the plans, book, etc, but with a 3am wake up call, my brain was on stun or sleep mode, whereas, Greg went into action.

Thank goodness for his alertness, because he noticed the tag on the carry on bag read, "Norwegian Star" and not "Pearl." When he showed me, I felt my heart sink. We were about to go on the Pearl and our luggage was on a bus to the Star?! I pictured a week without everything we packed; it wasn't pretty.

Greg tracked down Joan, a lady who seemed more in charge of the procedure. He explained our situation and she immediately got on her walkie-talkie to correct the matter. Joan tried to reassure us with, "This happens from time to time." The good news was that the Star left already and our luggage was on the bus with the Pearl drop off. Before just leaving the luggage, they would check the cabin number to see if it belonged on our ship, but there was always that chance that it might not come on board.

Embarkation from that point was painless. There was a line to verify ID, another to pay and receive your NCL card (used to get into the cabin and leave/board the ship at each port). The lines weren't too long and moved quickly. Before we walked the gangway, we had to go through security with the metal detector. The officers were saying, "You don't have to take off your shoes. Please, do NOT take off your shoes, for the love of God." It was funny how everyone went into automatic with the shoes.

With plenty of time before the Pearl left Seattle and our rooms not ready, we went to the Garden Cafe for lunch. It seemed a maze of rooms and levels, everything was colorful and cheerful. The Garden Cafe was buffet style and Rob found a spinach lasagna that was delicious. For a second helping, he said, "They may not have it later and it's really good." I bet he savors that serving, because it was the only day it was at the restaurant.

In the meantime, my stomach was still tense with worrying over the luggage. I was on the path of convincing myself, "It's OK. If our luggage doesn't arrive, I have a credit card and will get new clothes. It'll be a funny experience to talk about in the future." It was a somewhat comforting thought.

Whereas I mulled it over in my mind, Greg took action. He went in search of luggage control after the meal and came back saying the luggage should be delivered by 2pm. If by 7pm it wasn't delivered, he knew where to go back. An announcement was given that the Staterooms were ready and we could see luggage waiting in front of a lot of doors, but none of ours!

An alarm of 7 short, high-pitched buzzers and 1 very long slightly lower tone announced the mandatory Muster Drill. (I wonder that they didn't have any flashing lights for someone with a hearing disability?) As we donned the bright orange life jackets, a slight claustrophobic feeling came over me while walking down the stairways.

We went into the Stardust Theater, a round theater that could hold approximately 600 people with stadium seating and a huge peacock adorning the theater's curtain. Those bulky PFD (personal floating device) did nothing for fashion, but I thought it was neat how a whistle was attached to each one. Greg got a couple of laughs when he said out loud, "I guess it wouldn't be good timing to bring up Titanic!"

The Muster Drill informed us that there were enough evacuation boats for 5 times the population on board. Greg said it was more likely 3 times, but even still, those are better odds.

When we returned to the cabin, our hopes weren't met, still no luggage. The Captain knocked on our doors and didn't seem pleased that ours hadn't arrived yet. 30 minutes after the Captain’s appearance, our luggage reached its destination! Talk about a major relief and I didn't mind laughing when Greg teased me that the one thing he questioned me about the book, I messed up on (the tags).

* Cabin Amenities *

Now, with the luggage unpacked (Plenty of storage space, by the way), I could appreciate the cabin. * Thank you, Mom & Dad, for the balcony mini-suite! * There truly is no other way to go on a cruise but to have a balcony (approx 6 x 10 in dimension). It makes the room larger, you can open the door at night for the cool, clean, crisp air and bundle up to snuggle together outside. Inside, there was plenty of room, with a queen bed and a sofa that opened up to a queen.

Though we didn't have all the nifty channels you'll find in most hotels, the flat screen TV offered a selection of movies and information about the ship. The furniture was cherry wood and included a desk, along with a lighted magnifying mirror and hairdryer. There were two curtains in the room of deep, rich mahogany hue, one for the balcony and the other to divide the suite sections.

I was glad we bought an outlet, because there was only one plug available. (Something I researched prior to going on the cruise.) I also hung up the clear shoe rack. This was another suggestion that was offered from an avid cruiser when I read about their travels. It was a great way to place various papers and small toiletries. You can see the items quickly and it keeps everything organized. I might consider using it for other vacations.

The bathroom was spacious. The right side was a privacy toilet area. The sink was in the middle and the tub was slightly bigger than standard size with a sliding door. Shampoo and bath gel were in wall-hanging containers.

Greg said the only thing he didn't like was the violent toilet. It flushed alright. You had to push a button and at first it sounds like it was a lion or bear growling and then this lurch of water was the animal leaping forward! It was a sound to wake the other person during a night time nature's call! Otherwise, the room was very quiet when you closed the balcony doors, no engines heard, etc. And in case you wondered, the water pressure in the shower was great and we always had plenty of hot water.

Picture is Greg sleeping on the balcony.

* Touring the Pearl *

We left our cabin to take a tour of the ship. Oh, it felt confusing with levels and directions and all sorts of things to stop you in your tracks. The first day is a bit disorienting with all the restaurants, activities and such. Overwhelming comes to mind. But we followed the fish ~ another thing I learned prior to the trip, the fish on the carpet swim forward, towards the front of the ship. Our cabins were located port side.

Some information of what was on the ship, there is a walking path along the outside on Deck 7. It goes all the way around. On the outside walls, sections are decorated to let you know what is on the inside, to help you get your bearings, but the best part was the Alaskan scenery! You could walk for hours and not mind given the natural beauty and brisk air. The pearl also had pools, hot tubs (which some actually braved in the cold Alaska climate), rock climbing wall, 4 bowling alleys, tennis courts and a casino.

* Restaurants *

The restaurants were on various levels and opened at different times (each day in fact, which I found slightly odd). There was never a shortage of where you could go, with even a 24-hour restaurant, the Blue Lagoon, for "comfort food." (Though Greg said it felt a little weird to sit at a restaurant with linen table clothes, waiters in black ties and being served hot dogs and chicken fingers!)

The Garden Cafe buffet was a popular place with a bunch of options. I thought it was decent, but I heard some complaints that the food wasn't up to par. One thing Greg and I definitely agree on, the Garden Cafe was the place for breakfast. You could tell the chefs how you wanted the omelet cooked and it always came out delicious.

We ended up enjoying our meals in the "Great Outdoors" restaurant, which was an extension of the Cafe, but outside and at the very back of the ship and far less crowded than the stuffy Garden Cafe section. (That's where I caught a fantastic sunset picture)

Overall, both Dad and Greg rated Food on the Pearl as a 6 out of 10. I might have been a little more generous with an 8 out of 10.

For me the biggest disappointment was the Summer Palace. It was very ornate, something that could have modeled out of the Titanic with large chandeliers, beautiful flower arrangements, statues, ceilings painted with cherubs and chariots. However, the four-course meal left a lot to be desired. I noticed a trend that the main dishes were decent (I mostly ate fish, so I suppose I opted for simpler, easier things to make), but the other courses were bland, even by my standards.

Some of the best restaurants included: Mambo's with a Mexican cuisine, with murals of mambo dancers in their fluid style and grace. (Greg pointed out that the painted eyes look like aliens because they were all solid gray in color.) We ordered a dish for two called "II Popo" and it came out on a guitar shaped platter. The top of the shape was where an iron rod went up and then curved over the platter and hanging at the end was an iron ball with spikes on it. The chicken, beef, mushrooms, bell peppers and tomatoes were on the spikes and you had to use tongs to remove it from the hot iron. It was a delicious meal, including the fresh salsa (which had cucumbers in it, giving coolness to the spicy flavor).

Cagney's was the place for steaks, decorated in an old western theme, including cow skin patterns on the back of the chairs.. Both Greg and I ordered the Cajun blackened rib-eye, which we enjoyed. (However, Greg said the green onions on his potato, well, something was "wrong with them." Again, it's the side items that come in to question.)

Now the seating arrangements? Oh my.. Dad was a little late in joining us, but when he sat down and said with a perplexed look, "My feet don't touch the floor" the rest of us cracked up laughing! The earlier conversation was a lengthy talk about how large the chairs were. I know I'm short, but right then I felt like I was Alice and drank the potion that made me smaller. Mom even approached the waiter about the chairs and she agreed, saying, "Unfortunately, this is what we were given to use."

(I should mention that all of the restaurants had window views of Alaska, quite a feeling to have incredible surroundings!) Truth be told, there wasn't a restaurant with a "bad view." The ship was extremely well designed. And though it was confusing at first, by the end of the second day, with a copy of the ship design by each elevator and corner, you couldn't get lost. And if you were turned around, just follow the fish!

I'll return to two other restaurants, but for now will talk about the actual days and events.

* Passage Going to Juneau *

The first night we left it was rough. And when I say "rough" I mean.. R O U G H. I had motion sickness, as did Dad. Not the type that has you hanging over the porcelain bowl, but close enough. Mine was the kind where if I lifted my head from the pillow, I felt a strong dizziness. I ended up staying in bed until 2pm when the waters started to calm (and that's after taking Dramamine and wearing motion sickness wristbands). Greg said he watched the television at night and it showed 15-27 foot swells.

I could believe it, just from the feeling of staying in bed. It was a weird sensation, the feeling of being weightless combined with the extreme opposite of your body being pressed down into the mattress, like someone was under the bed, pulling you down into it. I imagined all of my internal organs snapping and separating from the pressure, that's how intense it felt. And I thought, "Oh my God, if this is what it's going to be like for the rest of the trip, I'm in so much trouble!" Thankfully, it was only that night! But what an experience!

Greg said it was an experience too, one that he enjoyed. The opposite end of the spectrum, he wanted to be tied to the front of the ship's bow and take on the full force of the wind and waves. Mom and Rob seemed to handle it well and Rob and Greg even played some Ping-Pong that morning, though it ended up being more of a water sport because when the ball would go off the table it would roll onto the wet floor. The ship was moving so much that when the ball went under a table, they waited for the roll of the ship to send the ball back!

After a very late lunch and feeling better, except when Greg told me to look at the window and run past it. We were facing the opposite direction of the way the ship was going, it was a wicked feeling!

We decided to go in search of the forbidden door, the one that lead out to the bow of the ship, the point where the Captain looks out upon. It was supposed to be open to the public, we thought. I knew it was on Deck 8, but the only one that it could have been was "crew only" marked. Someone in the elevators said the same thing, that was definitely the door that we sought. Rob came with us and we knew it was the right place when we heard the howling of the wind in the hallway.

Glancing on either side and Rob standing guard, Greg pushed open the door. We saw a small passage that went down without steps but rather a slope with black stripes to walk on and then, another door. Excitement giggled up in me as we took the chance, I mean, hey, what would they do? Toss us overboard? We weren't supposed to be there, so oppps, we opened the second door and out into the bow we saw. Greg had his video camera and he swung it around the top. I could just picture the Captain looking down and seeing this hand slowly spanning around and saying, "What in the Heck was that?" We didn't stay long, just enough to peek outside and know we did something naughty.

That night, I went to sleep early, but Greg attended the Second City performance in the Stardust Theater. He said it was a fun comedy with audience participation. The actors would say something like "It wasn't so bad, but his father was a . . . . " The audience would shout out various occupations and the actors had to fill in the blanks and change the skit accordingly. Sounds like it was fun!

* Juneau Port *

On Tuesday, we arrived in Juneau. Juneau is a scenic place, with snowcapped peaks of Mt Juneau and Mt Roberts in sight. It's known as the "Gateway to the Glaciers."

I woke Greg at 4:30am, so unlike me! And the night before, I told him, "Don't wake me up early." Hehe. One thing about Alaska, there is only 4 hours of night and even then, it's not really dark. The days are long, but mostly overcast. We were fortunate for some sunny days (and no rain at all!), but when the sun came out, the locals made a BIG production over it, like it was a rare gift. I personally think if I didn't see the sun that often it would be depressing. The thought reminded me of a story I read when I was a little girl, how there was a planet where the sun would only come out once a year. It makes me wonder how many things we take for granted in various parts of the world.

That morning, after waking Greg up so early, we went to the Garden Cafe for breakfast. There, we met a nice couple. Kathy was a retired teacher and looking forward to opening a shop with her sister and Charlie was a teacher. Greg said that he thought Kathy was probably asked to retire, he said, "She just seemed that type that would be asked to leave." While we were there, we saw the "puffs" of whales. Greg wanted to return to our Stateroom for the video camera and take pictures from our balcony.

Whale puffs, a misty exhalation, hanging in the cold air, as if dropped into the lake rather than spouted out from below. It was a tease, in waiting for the raising of their flukes, or tails, in preparation for a deeper dive.

We watched and watched and then I heard Greg say, "The whales are over there!" We took more pictures of the puffs, then suddenly, we could see the back of the whale (later to learn it was a humpback whale). Then, we were given the flipper! I can't explain the excitement of seeing the whale tail! It's graceful and fun at the same time.

We thought this was the only whale tail we caught on video, because we didn't see any more after that, but.... while Greg and I were in the Seattle airport, we looked at the video footage and wouldn't you know ~ he caught 2 other smaller flippers that we didn't even realize were there! What a delightful surprise!

We met up with Mom, Dad and Rob to go on our first excursion, Mendenhall City Tour in Juneau. I thought it was interesting to learn that Juneau is the only state capital that is "land locked." As our bus driver said, "there are three ways to get into Juneau: by boat, by plane and by birth canal."

Our tour started by taking us to the Juneau Museum, where we enjoyed the Eskimo culture from baskets woven from fine strips, decorative masks, arrows and snowshoes, various climate garb, plus tools and a birch bark canoe.

I particularly liked one mask that was bright with one eye larger than the other and the face totally askew. It looked like a Picasso painting!

One "eww" factor in the Museum (and why is it that we often find fascination in the "eww" factors?) was a jacket of sorts that the Eskimos made out of ..... the guts of animals... Ewww.. Talk about a fashion faux pas? Not that I'm into such, but that takes... errrr, guts??

Before reaching the museum, the bus driver, Tom, told us how the borough of Juneau (i.e. parish or county) moved an art sculpture that was in the center of town to the outside of the museum. He said we would "know why" when we saw it.... the locals called the sculpture the "green urinal." I took of picture of Rob and Greg next to it, Greg imitating the given nickname!

Tom was an amusing driver, teaching us how to remember the 5 different kinds of salmon. You can count them by your fingers:

1) Thumb - Chum Salmon
2) Pointer Finger - you can poke someone with this finger, hence Sockeye Salmon
3) Middle Finger - it is the crown, highest point of the fingers, thus King Salmon
4) Ring Finger - gold band and if there's gold, then there's Silver Salmon
5) Pinkie Finger - Pink Salmon

From there we went to a salmon fishery. Outside we saw where the baby salmon were spawned, but the area was being cleaned out after a recent release of harvested salmon.

Inside of the building there was a touch tank. I never realized how pretty Alaskan King Crabs are with their red, almost dark burgundy color and spiky body. It was said that the true red king crab is the most prized species of crab in the world. That there is just one major harvest of red king crab in Alaska and the season sometimes will last only 4-5 days.

Back on the bus, Tom told another anecdote about a conniver called Smith. He gathered an audience and told them, "If you buy my soap for 5 dollars, you will find money up to 50 dollars!" The audience was skeptical and shouted, "Why would you sell soap and not make a profit? We don't believe you!" But Smith had people planted in the audience and money planted in just a few bars of soap.

He pretended to call upon "strangers" in the audience, "Go ahead, pick a bar of soap!" One of his conspirators went for the bar with a 5 dollar bill wrapped around it, another fellow schemer picked up the 10 dollar soap and the third collaborator located the 50 dollar one. The audience went wild with trying to buy the bars, but never was another dollar to be found in the soap. And so he got his name, Soapy Smith.

The Glacier Garden Rainforest was our next stop. I loved the upside down trees and hanging baskets of fuschia and other bright colors. From what I gather, the area where we toured was where a landslide came down the mountain. With its tremendous force, it uprooted everything, leaving an ugly scar. Years later, the current owner, Steve, purchased some of the land and started to reclaim the once beautiful area. He landscaped all of the flowers and waterfalls, even a heart-shaped pond with pink and red flowers on the edges.

Are you curious about the upside down trees? It seems that Steve bought a big machine to operate the land and one day he got into an accident with it. When the arms of the machine were up in the air, it gave a vision to Steve of the tree roots up in the air. From there, he decided to take the fallen trees, put them upside down and use the roots to combine with other natural ingredients and turn it into a carriage for the various plants. The upside down trees look like ladies in Easter bonnets!

As lovely as it was, the only irritating factor (other than the huge Alaskan mosquitoes!) was the first tour guide. He was a young, wanna be California surfer, with "dude" as his quote line and a baseball cap on side-ways. But I could ignore his California dreaming for the rainbow flowers around us!

It was clear the owner put a lot of love into the property and it was a lovely introduction into the Tongass National Forest, (Tongass stands for "People of the Ocean") where we gathered in golf carts up the steep rainforest path. The tour guide, on the way through the lush rainforest, was great. He was informative and stopped to show us various layers of growth from the lichen, mosses and ferns to how the dirt level on the ground is very shallow. The shell rock underneath the dirt does not allow for tree roots to run deep and instead, the roots disperse out like a web, interlocking with each other. The guide called it the "buddy system," which I thought was cute. It was on the way to the top that we saw Eagles making circles, which Greg captured on video.

On the way back down, we saw some skunk cabbage, learning how the bears, when they come out of hibernation, eat the skunk cabbage as a laxative; a very smelly situation, I would imagine! A side note, there was a black bear sighting where we were dropped off by the bus, but nobody told us. We asked our guide what they did if a bear came in proximity of tour groups. He responded, "We scare them away. We make a lot of noise, wave our hands and say "Ska Bear Ska" The bear, if it’s a black one, usually will leave." We learned that black bears only get to about 5 feet tall, to which Greg added, "It would get as tall as Aleta."

We all came away with some lovely pictures and someone (ahem, cough) came away with a piece of Alaska. Mom asked Greg to grab one of the rocks so she could bring it back to show her children at school. He even cleaned it in some water, but Mom dropped it in the mud and everyone around us laughed as Greg made a comment. She tucked it in her purse just in time before the tour guide returned!

The last part of the excursion was to Mendenhall Glacier. We took a slightly deviated walk from the bus group and ended up along the shore of Mendenhall Glacier. What a beautiful sight! Ice was floating where it must have calved. The same turquoise blue color was seen on the glacier as well, like a jewel being hugged by the mountains. I’ve heard some people describe the color as "Windex blue."

It was fascinating to see such, because after all, when I open my freezer door, the ice is transparent with no noticeable color. From what I gathered on the information at the Mendenhall Center, the blue ice has to do with the amount of light absorbed by a transparent body increasing with its thickness. The cracks appear bluer because they are shady; their color is not diluted by white sunlight reflected from the surface. It takes a certain thickness of pure ice to absorb the light.

Compressed by its own weight into crystals, ice refracts all colors, but blue. You can stare at it for hours, as if looking into the soul of the ice, so intense that it beckons you to lose yourself in it…

I truly enjoyed going to the level of the water lapping onto land. There was one small piece of ice, not too far from shore. Mom said, "Greg, can you reach that ice?" I snapped a quick shot as he did so, but it was a little too far away and the water just a tad too cold to venture forth!

I’d definitely say the excursion saved the best for last. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed the other stops in Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier was a beauty. Greg shared that this glacier is the most visited glacier in the world. Truly, it’s a sight, with the shape, the closeness you can walk to it, the waterfall along the side and the ice in the lake ~ lovely!

When we return to the Pearl, we went to La Cucina Restaurant, an Italian style. I loved the d├ęcor with its hanging purple and white vines to the quaint pots and plates on shelves. Greg tried to move one pot, to find out it was glued tight to the shelf. It sounds like a solid idea, given the potential of ocean swells! The Caesar salad was good and the lightly baked fish on some type of Italian cornmeal with a wine sauce was excellent, but the cart appetizers… yuck! That almost made me as "sick" as the first night on the ship. Hehe. Greg said he enjoyed his minestrone soup and pizza, but I think Rob and my parents were a little disappointed with the Land and Sea meal.

* Skagway Port *

The next day we arrived in the Skagway port. Ugh, I have to get it out of my system, the bus driver was H O R R I B L E – Braun. He had a rotten sense of dry humor that after a while, the group didn’t even attempt to laugh at. And his monotone voice literally put me to sleep on the drive back.

He drove us to Canada and there were so many shots, I wanted to ask him to pull over, but he was on a mission. Braun made a big to-do about having all ID and birth certificates ready for Canada customs and that you do not even take out your camera or video when going through customs. From that point, we were allowed to board the old fashioned styled coach.

The end of the train was empty, so we opted to go to those cars, offering plenty of room to spread out and go side to side as the scenery rolled by. Rob and I spent a good deal of time on the outside of the car, snapping pictures and enjoying the soft rock of the train.

I can’t imagine the madness, the greed that must have driven people to traverse that rough terrain in search of gold!

The narrow gauge railroad was built in 1898, during the Klondike Gold Rush. It was considered an impossible task but it was literally blasted through coastal mountains in only 26 months.

The 10 million-dollar project was the product of British financing, American engineering and Canadian contracting.

When I looked directly down from the window, at times all I saw was land VERY far beneath. Someone with a fear of heights might have felt a dizzy sensation, but I breathed in the space. The scenery was incredible and I had to marvel at the engineering prowess of the railroad builders to think that they constructed tunnels, switchbacks and hanging trestles up the steep mountain pass.

I remember the guide talking about how the Canadian Police insisted that each Klondiker must bring a year worth of supplies with them before they were allowed to go to the Yukon. The White Pass Trail out of Skagway was steep, but could accommodate pack horses. Over 3,000 pack animals were killed on this trail, which was nicknamed "dead horse trail."

The railroad ran until 1982 when world metal prices dropped so much that all the mines shut down and the railroad was left with virtually no traffic to haul, thus it shut down too. But in 1988, the railway started excursion service as cruise ships began to ply Alaskan waters. I imagine the railroad is making more now than it ever did as a freight hauler!

One exciting event was when we were coming down the mountain, still seeing snow on the ground, but greenery started to bloom… and "There," the guide said, "On your left is a Black Bear!" It was our first sighting of a black bear, as he moseyed up the mountain. Greg caught it on video, which I’m tickled about.

I also thought the wedding veil falls, three of them, lace like water paths were lovely and the overall peacefulness of the area made you want to stay on the train ride for a much longer duration.

We ended up back in Skagway ~ America, where our bus driver took us to Liarsville. I have to admit that I didn’t have high hopes for this particular outing, but was pleasantly surprised.

(One note ~ right before we parked, we had our second black bear sighting! He ran right in front of our bus – it was cute and quite healthy looking! I think the chicken and salmon bake tempted him just a tad much.)

Liarsville is "tourist contrived" as Greg said, but even so we loved the rustic feel and seeing antique items. Everything was outdoors, from the chicken and salmon delights, which the salmon was delicious! (including sides of baked beans, pasta, coleslaw, cornbread and blueberry cake) to the comedy act (which included a funny poem read and enactment, along with a touch of history) to the panning for gold (Greg came back with a couple of flecks, not enough to cover the trip, but hey, it wasn’t fool’s gold!)

Our last bus stop was to the Red Onion Saloon, the red light home of Alaska. The front is the back and the back is the front, this happened when the building was moved but placed backwards on the street. Instead of moving it around, they cut the front and back and exchanged them. Greg said, "I could have done without the w----house tour." I won’t disagree with him.

We did some shopping in Skagway, but for the most part, we were tired from the day’s events. Later that night, Greg and I went to see the "Sea Legs" show in the Stardust Theater. I didn’t care for the guy singing, but the lady was great. Though the dancers were good, I couldn’t help but to compare them to the Rockettes and, well, there’s no comparison. The part I liked the best was the guy doing acrobats in the air on a ring and the lady acrobat in the air with only 2 long strips of silky material. Both were graceful and daring; they made the show worthy of attending!

Afterwards, Greg took me to the area where they were doing Kareokee. The room was pretty cool in dim lights and instead of chairs, you sat in beds. I SO wanted Greg to sing; he has a great voice and excellent rhythm, but he said the list was too long. I think he described it best as we listened to the singers, "It’s like having a front row seat to American Idol."

* Glacier Bay *

Glacier Bay, the morning of waking up early to cotton ball clouds hugging the midsections of mountains. From jagged edges to rounded shapes, glaciers chiseled and sculpted mountains and left valleys in the wake. To see ice in the Glacier Bay, to see it in that state and so many glaciers in one area (there are sixteen tidewater glaciers spilling out of the mountains), is to know it's elegant substance. Snow is the pearl necklace, but a glacier is the dress.

Greg and I went to the upper levels outside on the ship to get some pictures and had a picture taken of us from the crew, as did Mom and Dad. We spent a good amount of time there, until Mom said, "We would actually be closer to this glacier if we were in our room." Which is true, we were on the 11th deck and looked eye level on a private balcony, so we headed back. The glaciers shift and change, to see one glacier today will look different tomorrow. We were witness to such changes.

We stood like statues, waiting with anticipation. Greg said, "I have to change the tape on the video, watch it calve while I can't video it!"

Within the time that we were there, 5 calvings took place just on one glacier alone! Greg has them on video, which I'm grateful for, as my camera wasn't quick enough to capture the falling ice. (Well, one picture shows just a tiny piece of the ice falling.)

But the best part was the awesome "white thunder," the calving of a new berg as the extreme weight and pressure of the glacier pushes another tower of ice into the sea. First there is a grinding sound and your eyes dart back and forth over the glacier to see where it's coming from. Then the cracking followed by a deep rolling, rumbling voice, like thunder across the sky submits before you see the calving parts fall. It was awesome!

At first we thought the pieces falling were small, but when you saw the little bitsy specks of white and realized those were birds and compared it to the falling ice... well, those ice pieces were about the size of a big truck! You don't realize the size until you take into account that the glaciers are huge. Gargantuan. But the pictures cannot do it justice and to think... this is only the edge. How many miles has it traveled? Greg said, "It's difficult to imagine ice moving."

I loved the surface along the side of some glaciers, were it carried the crushed rock along and created dirt band character. It was the passage of advance seen in the dark lines, picking up the remnants of Mother Nature's digestion. Those lines were the palm readings of the ice; the glaciers constantly do a face-lift on the earth with giant hands. The blue veins of its form seen when the ice calved, some outcropping edges as if laminated in frozen time, in defiance of the climate heat and change.

Towards the bottom of one glacier three sections of water gushed out in a brown hue, kicking up sediment. The birds must have found a lot of food there, because they certainly flocked in droves to the movement. Chiseled ice, floating shelves where eagles perched, not big enough to be called icebergs, were scattered on calm slate sea like broken glass on a dance floor. The water itself had an almost milky blue look, with frozen ice and minerals washed down from the glaciers, so fine the grains can't sink, coating the water in an iridescent look. It's unreal.

The Pearl sliced through the water, but our passing left no trace. The ice filled in the footprints of our path. It's an awesome sight, the mark of history where mighty glaciers pulverized everything in their path and to this day still claim any trodden track one hoped to make.

I cannot leave this memory alone without a poem, for the beauty of Alaska is poetic. God's frozen tears...

Under mother-of-pearl sky
with swirls of clouds
Sunshine, sweet and tantalize
pours down white
mountain peeks and dare
to warm the veil
that it may drift and

bride wears snow pearls
a turquoise soul
cupped in valleys and
emerald lakes, with
gentle rain forest

white thunder
sounds in trumpet cheers
not a whisper ripples
but secret spirits lift
tresses in the wind

to expose the eyes
there are blues and then
there is blue
that magical hue
the shade of azure,
ice-encrusted dreams

name her
~ Alyeska*

(* The early Aleuts called Alaska ~ Alyeska*)

To end the day, Greg and I went to the Comedy Magic show in the Theater. It was audience participation, the magician was entertaining with an "imaginary deck of cards." He asked a man from the audience, "Do you see this deck of cards." There was nothing in his hands. The audience laughed, but the guy replied, "Yes, I do." The magician said, "Oh you do, huh? Here, catch the deck!" The guy acted as those he caught something in the air.

The magician then instructed, "Could you ask that lady in the other row to pick a card?" When the guy went over to her, the magician laughed, "You might want to take the cards out of the box first!" We all chuckled as the guy worked with the air and played like he was showing the lady a deck of cards. The magician smiled and said, "OK, thanks for being a good sport, could you toss me the deck back?" The guy acted like he was doing so and the magician exclaimed, "Couldn't you have put it back in the box first!" Things of this nature as well as lovely ladies being carved and disappearing ~ a well-performed magical show made it a success and entertaining.

As the guy was doing the tricks, Greg would whisper to me how each was done. He said, "I'm sorry if I'm spoiling it for you." Not in the least, because I was able to see the trick and then find out the "how" of it, which is just as interesting!

* Ketchikan Port *

Where the Pearl docked, Ketchikan was a picturesque town of homes nestled in the mountainside. It had an antiquated appeal to it and I looked forward to our shopping time. Ketchikan is known for rainy days with 162 inches of rain a year and called the wettest town on the North American continent, but our luck was shining on.

I was interested in seeing Tanzanite and Ammolite, as I already had Rainbow Topaz in my collection of gemstones. Tanzanite was a bright blue and purple hue, but Ammolite was altogether different. When Greg and I walked up to the jewelry, the saleslady said, "Oh! You both have striking eyes; his are so blue and your's are so brown. It’s a great combination." (I think so too!)

It is here at the same store that Mom bought a ring with the centerpiece of Ammolite, a unique and rare Canadian gemstone. More than 70 million years ago a hard-shelled squid like marine animal roamed the seas until they suddenly became extinct. When the Inland Sea receded ammonites were found in Canada. The shells were layered then covered with silt and volcanic ash, which were crushed and compacted. Ammolite was born of such elemental movement and pressure; it's a fossil of an ammonite and rivals the famous black opal for rainbow color and fire if it is grade AA.

Though I did not buy any Ammolite, I did find a different treasure. Greg pointed me in the direction of a Russian store. The saleslady there was from Russia and very pretty. She showed me the Matroeshka dolls, which I absolutely loved! They are made of wood, hand painted and are dolls within dolls within dolls. The one I bought is a lady in blue holding a cat and she opens up to a total of 5 Matroeshka dolls!

The guys stayed with us for a while through the jewelry infested shops and haggling sales people, but eventually they decided to head back to the ship. Mom and I went forth and found a small shop. I loved the name of it, "Cedar Chest" and thought it would hold some good buys. I was happy to learn a local Alaskan owned the shop. The girl who helped us was Mari, one of the relatives to the owner and she showed us all sorts of great souvenirs to bring home. I had enough to put in my curio to represent the bear, eagles and whale we saw. It was at a different store, though, that I bought the crystal Swarvorski bear. I thought it was cute that he had a salmon in his mouth!

We arrived back before the all aboard time. During our shopping spree, Greg had finished his laundry and so I decided go to Deck 10 as well. I wasn't used to the small machines and had to laugh at myself when I saw too many suds! I didn't feel so bad when one of the other ladies said, "That's OK, I put too much detergent in as well, but mine was much worse. The suds were coming out of the machine and on to the floor!" I couldn't complain; the machine use was free and it saved having to do laundry when we got home. (and the free machines beat the 20 "special" for guest laundry, trust me, guest services don't advertise the availability of having machines onboard!) Besides, the laundry room is a great place to talk to other cruisers.

One lady highly recommended the Mediterranean cruise, saying it was unbelievable, even better than Alaska. Another man said he was disappointed with the food, but also added he was Mexican and used to stronger flavors. One lady came in with a bunch of children's clothing and said NCL Pearl was great for her because with three kids the childcare was only 5 dollars if she wanted to visit the ports. The time frame the childcare was available was longer than other ships, so she had greatly flexibility with when she wanted do different events.

I heard mixed reviews on the "freestyle" dining. Some loved it because they didn't have to dress up if they didn't want to and didn't like the idea of assigned seating. Others liked the assigned seating of Non-freestyle cruise ships, because their waiter became very attentive to their likes, etc. and you would meet the same people each night. (I guess it wouldn't be a good thing if you didn't like the same people and the problem with non-freestyle is that you had to be in your seat by a very specific time.)

I thought the rest of the evening would be simple, but our dining experience at Le Bistro's proved otherwise. Mom, Dad and Rob went there the night before and said it was a great experience, so they made reservations for the five of us.

Le Bistro's is a French cuisine and the restaurant was lovely with dark colors, French decor and paintings of ladies in tight-fitted dresses with draping sleeves. The dinner plates were so ornate (with a pretty butterfly in the middle) that I would have bought a set if NCL sold it.

Unfortunately, we didn't have the same waiter as my parents and brother did the other night. Quite the opposite, in fact! Even Greg mentioned the waitress and her not-so-pleasant attitude. At one point the waitress slammed down the utensils when she served Mom. Rob and I both noticed and it was the last straw for Mom. She wanted to immediately say something about the service, but we convinced her to wait until after the meal was over. The appetizers were served and I enjoyed the mussels, though it was an effort to part them from the shell. I have to admit the soup was very tasty.

Then, the restaurant manager stopped to ask how everything was and Mom couldn't help the truth, "Not so good.." He questioned this and much to the chagrin of everyone else, Mom proceeded to say what happened. Her voice was kept low going through the verbal and physical reenactment. Our mortified expressions weren't because Mom was telling the manager, but rather because the waitress was right behind Mom, with a scowl across her face that aged her many years! I cringed to see the look from the waitress and kept my eyes lowered.

Maybe Mom was right to say it when she did, because the manager was quick to respond. We were immediately given a new waitress. She was from the Philippines, a lovely woman with a great sense of humor. At one point she served all of the main dishes with the silver tops covering the food. The manager and another waitress stood by each of us to lift the tops, but before they did so, our new waitress looked at Dad and said, "This will be Chicken Nuggets for you." Knowing he had ordered steak, everyone laughed. Greg's quick retort was, "I don't know about you, but where we come from chickens don't have nuggets!" Dad busted out laughing. It was exactly what we needed to lighten the mood from the previous waitress.

Afterwards, the manager, our waitress and another one circled the table with hands on the silver tops. The manager exclaimed, "As the French do!" They counted to three in French, "un, deux, trois" and lifted the tops all at once! It was a cute production.

(Mom told me how the night before when it was just the three of them and the silver tops were over the dishes, Rob reached out to take off the lid, but the waiter cried out, "No, No! First, I must get help!" They were surprised and wondered what he meant by this. It seems the French like to have all of the silver tops lifted at the same time and the waiter didn't want Rob to do his by himself! She told me the story before we dined there, so I was careful to resist the temptation of the silver lid!)

My order was the same as Dad, rib and filet, both of which melted in your mouth. And the desert, chocolate mouse, my gosh, was the best chocolate I have ever tried!

Before we left and after excessive apologies, the manager gave Mom a complimentary bottle of white wine. She took it with her on the way out. When we left the restaurant, Mom and I went to the ladies room.

When we came back out, Rob had left to go back to his room, but Dad and Greg were still there. Mom had asked Dad to hold the bottle of wine, but he didn't have it with him any more. Greg and Dad teased Mom about not having the bottle and neither of them did, then Greg said, "We gave it to a homeless, jobless waitress." Mom laughed so hard I think she would have peed in her pants if she hadn't just come from the bathroom! Come to find out, Rob took the wine back to their Stateroom.

I'm glad that I had desert at Le Bistro's and that it was so delicious, because our next stop was to the Garden Cafe to see the Chocolate Buffet. Greg didn't eat any of the chocolate mouse because it wasn't sugar free and he was happy to find sugar free deserts at the buffet. I went to see and take pictures of the chocolate sculptures, from dragons and castles to the NCL Pearl and flowers in a wheelbarrow. There were also 2 ice sculptures, phoenix and swan, both lovely (and large!) It was great to go there and not feel the desire to over indulge on a chocolate spree, but rather enjoy the art!

Greg did mention a couple of times that he didn't like how the restaurants don't cater to people who might have seafood allergies or are diabetic. The menus in some restaurants were limiting and I felt bad for him.

That night we could hear Mom, Dad's and Rob's laughter through the wall. They invited us over for a glass of wine, but we didn't try any until the next morning, just a sip (had a fruity flavor, not bad!). Greg said that night, "Your Mom is proud of her spoils!" I had to smile!

* Room Service *

Before coming to the last port, I want to mention Michael and Rowena, in charge of our guest services. It didn't matter what time of the day we would change the dial on the outside of our door to either "Make Up Cabin" or "Turn Down Cabin," they were quick to take care of the needs.

Every night, they left us towel animals (in the shape of two swans facing forming a heart in the center, another night there was an elephant face, the next was a seal and also a lobster - each night, I eagerly looked forward to what they would make for us). The service also included leaving chocolate mints and Freestyle Daily, which told you about the port for the following day and times for the restaurants as well as any entertainment on board.

They did a wonderful job and we were glad to leave them a generous thank you, bills wrapped in small chocolates and neat stainless steel tools that curved into a circle and had various pocket knife abilities too. Michael seemed particularly fond of the gift and I thought it was a cool thing that Greg gave both of them!

* Victoria Port *

Victoria, Canada was our last port for the trip. Our driver, John, said there were 12,000 baskets of flowers just in downtown Victoria alone. He said the city is known for:

1) Flower Beds
2) Newlyweds
3) Nearly Deads

Newlyweds love to get married there, but it's so expensive that the population is in its prime (a lot are "old money") and few with children. In fact, they recently closed an elementary school and only have one left that is open.

Each neighbor watches the other, checks out the lawns and tries to one up on the landscape. It seems they are a bit.... hmm... snobby, but with good reason. It is bountiful in visual scenery. Every home that you looked at could have come straight out of a painting. Even the buck and doe meandering in the lawn of one home looked perfect and yes, they were real!

Greg asked if these ritzy homeowners minded tour buses coming through the neighborhood. The driver said, "Yes, in fact the community rule is fences cannot be higher than 4 feet. One neighbor took another to court because the hedge was 9 feet tall. The judge said it was OK, because a hedge is not a fence." There were plenty of hedges going high for privacy purposes!

Greg told me that he thought our driver was a failed real-estate agent, because John knew too much about the cost of homes and details of such. For instance, there was a lengthy tale about a lady who decided to plant flowers and vegetables, because she wanted to escape the high taxes. The court then issued a law that farmland is not allowed in the Victoria area.

Another story was when one neighbor sued another neighbor over a tree house. The man built the tree house for his children, made of siding, floors, roof, etc. The neighbor claimed that the tree house was a second home on the property and it wasn't allowed. The judge declared it was OK, because the tree house didn't have a cement slab! Good grief, what neighbors to have.

At the end of our tour we drove through China town, but by then it was dark. The streetlights were shaped like Chinese lanterns and the street signs are in red with a decorative oriental script. It was neat to see the open market for foods and a place I would like to spend more time for another visit.

Victoria is lovely at night, with the Federal building strewn with 3,333 lights, as if a permanent Christmas decoration for the city.

The main tour attraction was the Craigdarroch Castle. It wasn't really a castle. It was built to be a home to a Scotsman, his wife and 10 children. It looks like a castle though. The Scotsman worked in the coal market and he made his fortune of 22 million that way. But he was never accepted by the "old money" Victorian dwellers. Sadly, he died 1 year before the house was completed.

To get to the castle, we had to walk up a steep hill and inside the home there were 4 flights with 86 steps up and 84 steps down (for the steps down we went through the narrow and steeper servants area). I'm happy to say we made it all the way up to the tower! Going through the homes, the dimly lit shadows and antiques, it felt like a haunted house. I've been to plantation homes and never had that emotion. This castle gave me an eerie feeling, as if it consumed the negative energy of the original maker.

One thing I did buy in the castle gift shop is a small fragrance bottle. It is lavender and has flowers on the side. I thought it was the essence of Victoria, classy, Victorian, flowers and a little pricey.

That night, returning to the ship, we went to the Great Outdoors restaurant for a barbecue. Rob said the food tasted like cardboard, but I enjoyed the baked potato!

When I asked what everyone thought of the trip, Greg said he would give the over all experience about the trip, the ship, the excursions, the sights in Alaska - everything a 10, but the food on the ship would still get a 6. Dad said about the same and Rob said that he thought the ship was the best part of it. Mom said she loved everything about Alaska and it would be difficult to capture with words as well as pictures.

Our flight home was a little trying, given it was delayed by 3 hours. We put the time to good use with a walk through the airport and looking at the various stores. It was a long day getting home and when we did arrive in New Orleans, our luggage wasn't on our plane. It wasn't on the second plane to arrive behind us either, rather it was on the last one home. Greg and I stood in line for a cab and shared one with two other people, because we wouldn't be able to fit in Rob's car and Rob thought his car had been towed because it wasn't there, but they were in the wrong area. Needless to say, it was a comedy of errors that you can laugh at now. But absolutely none of this reflected the vacation in Alaska, as I hope you can tell from my journal!

I've often thought of Alaska as the cousin you never see but always hear stories about. Then you meet that cousin and you're a little shy at first, but after a few hours, it's like you've known each other forever. I feel like I've made a new friend with that beautiful state.

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