Port of Call-Skagway

24 10 2012

Port of Call-Skagway

Stroll the preserved wooden boardwalks and restored historic buildings in Skagway and imagine yourself a part of the 20,000 prospectors who made the city the base for their quest for gold. Skagway was one of the starting points for miners seeking their fortune in the Klondike. Since the Canadian government required each prospector to bring 1 ton of provisions to survive winter, imagine the logistics hub Skagway once was.  One of the most popular attractions for Skagway is the narrow gauge White Pass and Yukon Railroad which was completed just as gold production fell. The city  has attractions to fit interests from historic to active.

White Pass and Yukon Railroad

Photo via Dreamstime.com, Cecvoffman

The terrain from Skagway to Carcross is so challenging, the construction of the White Pass and Yukon route required 450 tons of explosives and earned a place as an International Civil Engineering Landmark, along with the Eiffel Tower, Panama Canal and the Statue of Liberty. Ride in fully restored cars (the oldest four were built in 1881) pulled by vintage diesel engines over 20 miles of steep grades, and cliff hanging curves to climb the 3000 feet to the White Pass summit. The route retraces the original White Pass summit trek, offering a magnificent vista of mountains, glaciers, gorges, waterfalls, tunnels, trestles and  gold rush sites. The train agent is your historic guide, entertaining you with captivating tales of Gold Rush history. Various combinations of train ride are possible, round trip train ride, train up and bus back, bus up and train back. Variations of the train ride also include gold panning, dog sledding, and riding a bike back down the summit.

Skagway, AK

The famous Red Onion, former upscale brothel, now Bar/Restaurant

History lovers can envision what Skagway was like when it was the gateway to the Yukon. Historical tours of Skagway can be done self-guided, guided by one of the Madams from the Red Onion Saloon, or by tour car. Once an exclusive bordello, the Red Onion Saloon is now a bar/restaurant and a member of the Historic Registry.

Many wildlife excursions leave from Skagway. If seeing a bear is on your list of things to do, your best odds for a sighting is in Haines, a 40 minute fast ferry ride from Skagway. The Chilkoot Lake area teems with bears and bald eagles beginning in mid July as salmon begin their spawning runs.  Kayak on the Chilkoot Lake or raft in the Chilkat Mountains. Nearby Haines is the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, so eagle lovers will want it on their list.

Photography fans can choose excursions specifically designed to provide photo opportunities and advice. Adventure lovers have many opportunities to enjoy their favorite pursuits. Since the ports in the Inner Passage offer similar adventures, it is possible to raft in one port, hike in another, and bike, horseback ride or fish in the next. Skagway offers scenery, history, active days, train rides, bus tours, and wildlife. Your choices range from walking off the ship and self touring the town to flight seeing by float plane. Enjoy your day!

Port of Call: Juneau

21 10 2012

Mendenhall GlacierPort of Call: Juneau

Juneau is the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park. The city nestles in a valley, between the Gastineau Channel and the towering Coast Mountains. It is completely land locked by the Juneau Icefield to the east. No roads lead to Juneau, you can only get there by air or sea. Juneau’s proximity to mountains, glaciers, and the ocean offer some unique opportunities for activities. If you have every wanted to stand on a glacier, Juneau is the place to make that dream come true.

The Mendenhall Glacier and Juneau Icefield, the Tongass National Forest, and the Gastineau Channel delight scenery lovers. Adventure lovers can choose from a bounty of choices: kayak in the Channel or on a glacier lake, hike, dogsled, raft, flightsee or fish. History lovers can enjoy the downtown Victorian houses and St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church.

The easy accessibility of the Mendenhall Glacier makes it one of the top attractions for Juneau. There is a range of options for experiencing the glacier. The basic experience is to ride a bus to the visitor’s center and view the glacier from the overlook. Adventure lovers have many more options on the glacier; you can hike up to the glacier; you can hike or even ice climb on the glacier; you can kayak in the glacial lake; you can ride a helicopter to land on Mendenhall or one of the other glaciers in the area. The ultimate experiences are a helicopter tour and dog sled ride or flight seeing glaciers in an Alaskan bush plane. If the more exotic adventures call to you, book early or you will be disappointed! They are popular and do fill up.

Orca whales feed in the inside passage from April to November, so you are almost guaranteed seeing a whale on your cruise. Whale watching tours from Juneau range from kayak tours to zodiacs to tour boats. It is possible to combine a tour of the Mendenhall Glacier with a whale watch tour to capture two of the quintessential Juneau experiences.

Gastineau ChannelIf fishing is your passion, your choices include fishing for salmon while enjoying views of the incredible scenery. Commonly seen on boat trips are views of Humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, harbor seals, porcupines, eagles, salmon, or even black bears. (Keep your binoculars handy as the ship cruises into and out of Juneau) For the more adventurous, fly a floatplane to your fishing destination and be rewarded with a lifetime of unforgettable landscapes.

If you find yourself with some extra time before the ship sails, the Mt. Roberts Tramway is an easy walk from the cruise pier. The Tramway will take you to the top of Mt. Roberts, where you can enjoy the extraordinary views of the Chilkat Mountains, Stephens Passage and downtown Juneau. Trams run about every 10 minutes and the ride to the top takes about 6 minutes.

Outdoor adventure choices are almost too many to list, ride the tram to the top of Mt. Roberts and ride a bike down, hike a glacier, raft, kayak, or fish. Since there is so much to see and do in Juneau, you will probably want a combination tour. The problem is deciding what to leave behind!

Celebrity Millennium refurbishment

16 07 2012

We were excited to experience the recent refurbishment of Celebrity Millennium, so jumped at the opportunity to ride along on the repositioning along the West Coast to its summer home in Vancouver. The ship had just finished adding the popular Solstice features like Qsine and Cellar Masters. A repositioning cruise, where a ship is moving from one market to another is one of the exceptional bargains in cruising.


The Celebrity brand identity is Modern Luxury and the theme is reflected by the modern subdued decor in the ship. No Vegas glitz and mirrors here. Luxury is featured in the food, wine and service. A growing theme in cruise ships is offering cabins with a unique level of experiences. Celebrity offers this in the Aqua Class® veranda cabins. Aqua Class® guests have unlimited access to the Aqua Spa® Relaxation Room and Persian Garden, along with seating in Blu, the restaurant exclusive to Aqua Class® guests.


We found much to like on the ship. There are plenty of quiet corners to relax and read on sea days. Our favorite hangout was Cafe Al Bacio, the coffee shop and Gelateria. We were able to really enjoy because of another of our favorite features for Celebrity, the All Inclusive Beverage Package. For $44 per person per day (plus 15% gratuity) we got unlimited glasses of premium teas, specialty coffee and glasses of wine and cocktails up to $8 in value. Since our wine and coffee tab can normally exceed our cruise fare, this was a great deal for us. Also offered is the premium package for $54 a day, which we will try on our next Celebrity cruise.


Qsine, the specialty restaurant on deck 11 was one of the top 5 dining experiences of our life. It is a must do experience for foodies! In addition to the unique, mind blowing flavor combinations and creative presentations, we got to enjoy sailing out under the Golden Gate Bridge while we had our meal. A priceless experience.


Cellar Masters features self service dispensers of premium wines. No need to wait for a wine tasting to enjoy an extra special wine. While I would never buy a bottle of Opus One, I would share a glass. The wine selection offers enjoyable quality wine with prices and wines from moderate to exceptional.


We had been wanting to go to San Francisco for months, and are glad we did so by ship. San Francisco is an ideal cruise port. While we were in San Francisco, we enjoyed a view from our balcony that was better than any offered by the expensive hotels downtown. Considering the per day cruise price that included the ride under the Bridge, meals and a room with an awesome view, we got a great deal!  Between walking and cable cars, it is easy to enjoy much of The City by the Bay in a day.


We walked up to the North Beach area and then went to the Ferry Building to enjoy a plate of oysters at Hog Island Oysters. Shore excursions are offered for San Francisco.  Napa and Sonoma shore excursions are also offered for wine lovers. I can see the difficult decision for passengers not from the West Coast. Spring is a beautiful time to be in the Napa area, the vineyards are every bit as picturesque as Italy or France.


One of the signature entertainment features for Celebrity is an a cappella singing group. This group along with a chamber group, a piano player and a classical guitarist rotated through the ship’s public areas during the day and evenings. We rarely enjoy the evening entertainment in the theater, usually opting for the smaller venues. The night we did go to the theater, we found it large enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to see that performance.




Which Cruise line is right for me?

14 03 2012

You’ve decided to find out what cruising is all about. You have friends or relatives who now mostly take cruises for vacation and you like the fact that your hotel will take you to your destination, while feeding and entertaining you. But there are so many cruise lines, how do you decide which one to take??


Cruise lines have personalities and there is at least one that will match your personality and lifestyle. Cruise lines target specific demographics. The industry term for value cruise lines is Contemporary.  If you like vacations in Vegas, traveling with the family and are younger, Carnival’s fun value package will be for you. Carnival has Early Saver prices for those who plan ahead, so think 5 to six months out for your vacation! Do not underestimate Carnival, they have excellent food, and are more than party ships. Carnival does an excellent job of providing value for the cruise dollar!


Don’t like to color between the lines, and don’t want to be told when or where to go to dinner? Norwegian Cruise Line has the resort feel at sea, and is the “ non conformist” cruise line. Also good for families, Norwegian will often offer discounts for seniors, military and teachers. The newer Norwegian ships are moving out of the value level up to the premium level, with suites and higher prices. Entertainment ranges from improv comedy from Second City to the Blue Man Group.


At the higher end of the value lines is Royal Caribbean. It’s two larger ships, Oasis and Allure are destination resorts. If you have family and the Disney prices scare you, look at Royal Caribbean. The kids programs are excellent, with programs divided by two year increments. If you are active, and sports minded, you fit the keys for Royal Caribbean.


The next step up is the Premium category. Celebrity is modern, smart luxury. Luxury at a value price. If you appreciate world class cuisine, and a higher level of service, you will appreciate the hip quality of Celebrity. The high staff to guest ratio means you will be pampered more than on the contemporary lines.


Azamara is the sister company to Celebrity and offers smaller ships. In addition to the intimacy of a smaller ship, Azamara is all about the destination. Stays in port might be two days and the smaller ships can go where the larger ships cannot. Azamara would be at the value end of the small ship experience. Ages tend to be in the 40-50 range because you will be hanging out with people making $200,000 a year plus.


Princess sets the standard for Premium cruise lines in my opinion. Princess is the Consummate Host, offering Comfortable elegance in their ships, and sailing to 330 ports in the world.  The Princess Alaska cruise and cruise/tour program is consistently one of the best in the industry. Princess allows you to “Escape Completely” on your vacation. You will have an intimate feel on a large ship, with entertainment and excellent dining and educational opportunities.


Holland America is Princess’s sister company and offers medium sized ships with a traditional feel. If your brands are Fairmont Hotels, Lexus and Ralph Lauren, Holland America is for you. The wide teak decks and marine artifacts appeal to lovers of tradition and the classics. Holland America has an excellent kids program, so is an excellent choice for multi-generational vacations. Holland America offers a package that satisfies cultural and sight seekers, romantics, relaxers and extended family vacations.


Straddling Premium and Luxury is Cunard, the true ocean going vessels designed for ocean crossings. The Grills level is at the Luxury level and the entire experience is more formal than most cruise lines. Appealing to worldly sophisticated travelers who enjoy an affluent life style, Cunard presents the opportunity to “dress up” and be pampered with luxury. For travelers with the time, it is often less expensive to sail on Cunard than fly economy to Europe, and with a much nicer experience!


Disney fulfills the Disney affinity for both kids and adults, although if you are not a big Disney fan, you may not enjoy the cruise as much as the kids. Staterooms are 25% larger than the industry standard. A Disney cruise is the ultimate family vacation. if you plan to sail at spring break of other popular times, try to plan a year in advance for best cabin selection. For Disney fans, the ships are often also a Honeymoon destination.


Also straddling the Premium/Luxury line is Oceania. Fellow guests will be, on average, 50+, have a higher education and have an income of $150k+. Like the luxury level, the experience is more all inclusive, no extra charge for specialty dining, or specialty coffees. You can buy a wine package for $49 per day. Foodies will love Oceania. The older ships have 700 passengers and the new ones 1000. An attraction is the fact that Oceania calls on the most desired ports in the world. One of the attractive promotions for Oceania is their 2 for 1 air promotion. Watch for it.


Seabourn fits the Luxury and small ship category. The older ships have just 104 suites and while they do not have verandahs, the ships offer an exceptional level of service. The newer ships have 225 suites, many with verandahs. Seabourn targets the retired rich and the working wealthy CEO. If you expect to be wowed on your vacation, Seabourn can do it. A true luxury level experience, only the shore excursions are extra. Ports are unique destinations that the smaller ships can access.


If you plan to sail in a suite, the best luxury value in my opinion is Regent, even the shore excursions are included. Included is air, pre hotel, alcohol, shore excursions and gratuities . The ships are smaller and do not offer the level of entertainment found on the larger ships. If you like the 4 Seasons, Regent fits your life. If you love entertainment, go to Crystal.


Silversea caters to an international clientele at the luxury level. The ships are elegant and intimate with an almost one to one crew to guest ratio. Being at the luxury level, all is included. The ships are all suites with 85% private verandahs. If you desire luxury on the way to your destination, Silversea will make you happy.


If you want a luxury level cruise and the entertainment and dancing you can only find on a larger ship, Crystal Cruises with their “large” 900-1000 passenger ships will fill your need. Fellow cruisers will on average have been on several cruises and are there for the destination. The 89% return rate says it all about how satisfied they were. The brand pillars for Crystal are: Service, Space, Quality, Choices.   


The questions to ask yourself before a vacation are: do I want to get away and just relax, or am I looking for a destination that will give me an experience. Do you want an active vacation with thrilling activities like zip lining, or soaking up sun and reading. Do you want to experience other cultures, view historical architecture, sample regional cuisine?


Does the sound of only unpacking once while the ship moves you to port to port in an overview of the area appeal to you? Talk to your travel agent who can find the sailings that meet your meets at the best price through the ability to leverage the agencies’ pricing abilities. Cruises can be complicated and dealing with a travel agent rather than a discounting boiler room will give you someone to go to for answers to your questions.




Low tech is sometimes the best

26 01 2012

Since the Panamanians have taken over the canal, they have increased the efficiency of the operation. When the new addition is completed in 2014, the revenue from the canal will lift Panama to a First World country. Despite the modernization of operations, the function of connecting a ship to the tugs that hold the ship in place is still accomplished in a low tech solution. Two guys row lines out to the ship which are used to bring the lines from the tugs to the ship. Then they row back to the lock. Sometimes simple is best.

The year in travel 2011

31 12 2011

This is my fun post for the year, mentally going back and experiencing once again our year of travel. It is almost cliché to say that travel changes us. While I am in a new destination or even revisiting one of our favorites, I enjoy the sensations, the new smells, sights and mental impressions.

When we visit a bucket list destination, I am always amazed at how different it is to be there compared to my vision of what it would be like. As we are blessed to travel more, even my broader perspective does not prevent me from having too narrow an expectation of new destinations. Almost being on sensory overload in a new destination is one my delights in travel.

I can’t help but visualize the history of a destination. It produces an almost surrealistic experience, living today while visualizing the past. This year while I walked  the streets of the North End of Boston I pictured the lives of hundreds of years of residents while walking through today’s Farmers Market with the seasonal fresh produce and elbow to elbow shoppers. I stood at the main gate in the wall of Old San Juan Puerto Rico, one of the oldest cities in the Hemisphere and visualized  the sailing ships and crush of goods being loaded and off loaded from the ships, while listening to the leaf blower cleaning the walk for today’s tourists.

Travel broadens our perspective, teaching us that we are all more alike than different. I guess I should have know that Panama and Costa Rica were thriving countries where the education system works and the illiteracy rate is in the single digits, unlike our functional illiteracy of 30+%. The number one export of Costa Rica is not bananas, but micro processors. The expansion of the Panama Canal will make Panama a First World country, but it is already a regional banking hub with a skyline that puts most US cities to shame. Does your city have a Trump building?

It always amazes me that the lingering memories of a place are not necessarily the ones that stood out when you were there. I love old forts and I remember the forts of Old San Juan. They have two that are easy walking distance in Old San Juan, along with the iconic Sea Wall with the sentry towers. Along with the beaches, one of the icons of the Caribbean are the stone sentry towers where individual guards stood watch for pirates and invading fleets. I do remember the forts, but mostly I remember experiencing Sunday when families go to fly kites on the lawn outside San Felipe Fort.

Latin cultures value family and friends and the neighborhood plazas are the magnet that collects neighbors. We felt safer walking the streets of Old San Juan at night than we ever have in Main Land cities. (Puerto Rico is part of the United States). Night time is a time for friends, families and neighbors to collect in plazas, to recap the day and enjoy each other’s company. Enjoy the evening in Old San Juan, stop in a local bar and enjoy the ambience.

The food in Old San Juan was world class. From the best ceviche we have ever had  (the combination ceviche plate at Aguaviva)  to the fusion cuisine of Marmalades, the food alone makes us want to return to Puerto Rico for a week long stay. If you are there, be sure to try the regional plantain specialty-tostones. http://www.seepuertorico.com

Our Caribbean cruise was in company with three other cruise ships that had the same itinerary as us, so each port saw us arrive as two of about 9000 cruise visitors for that day. Despite that, in many ports there still seemed to be 10 cab drivers for each cruise passenger. The poverty is not as bad as Jamaica, but it makes me feel blessed that I do not have to try to get someone into my cab or sell tee shirts on a Caribbean island.

My recommendation for Caribbean cruise ports is to plan an activity on the island. We found San Juan the only town worth walking into. I get nervous about being back to the ship on time, so prefer using a tour operator. A good guide will also teach you much about your destination, and give a local’s perspective.

Tour guides in Costa Rica and Panama are trained. It is a profession. The good ones will also speak several languages to set themselves apart from their peers. Costa Rica has a better developed tourist infrastructure, with major operators showcasing the natural reserves that keep the country a premier green destination. http://www.visitcostarica.com  Panama’s premier focus is the canal, but our tour of Panama city was one of my favorite city tours. The old city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so the facades offer some great photo ops.

I would recommend a transit of the Panama Canal as a bucket list activity for even the most jaded traveler. It is an engineering masterpiece and was accomplished with the cutting edge of engineering and technology for the time. It was the first major use of electricity and gave a small company called General Electric it’s start. The canal expansion is scheduled for completion in  2014, at which time larger cruise ships should create more competition. While you can do a half transit of the canal from Fort Lauderdale, only the full transit will give you an idea of the astounding amount of material and construction required to construct the canal.

So you ask how did my travels change me? I have a new and greater world view, recognizing that while I wasn’t paying attention, what I considered Third World Countries have become First World Countries, with governments that still function to provide a better life for the country. I realized that we are all more alike than different, that people in Latin countries still value hospitality and sociability, and that the people you meet are more interesting than any story you may read (another post for later).

I learned that travel can be an addiction, the more you get, the more you want.

Via con Dios this next year


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 44 other followers