Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Wine and River Cruising

I’ve always thought that wine and cruising made a great combination. Even if a glass of wine (or two) isn’t part of your daily routine at home, it’s easy to get into the habit while cruising on the Mediterranean or the European rivers. Whether you’re admiring the lush Rhône Valley vineyards from your perch on the Sun deck or enjoying the vineyard-rich, UNESCO-designated Wachau Valley while savoring a Sacher Torte in the dining room, you will undoubtedly find yourself in the mood to sip a glass of wine while cruising in these renowned wine-growing regions.

However, if you’re more serious about your wine, there are European wine-themed river cruises. In 2011, Avalon Waterways will be offering four of them:

The Blue Danube Discovery Wine River Cruise from Budapest to Prague on the Avalon Tranquility, July 15-27 and from Prague to Budapest on the Avalon Tranquility, October 27-November 6.  You will participate in a wine tasting excursion in Budapest or Prague and visit a Wachau wine cellar in Melk.  While onboard, you will attend an Austrian sweet wine lecture and tasting and enjoy a food and wine pairing gala dinner. Do you know the difference between an Austrian Grüner Veltliner and a German Riesling Spälese? It is one of  the many things you will learn on this cruise.

Windmills, Vineyards, & Paris Wine River Cruise from Paris to Amsterdam on the Avalon Luminary, October 3-15. You will explore the Moselle wine-growing region, visit the charming wine village of Bernkastel and taste several of the region’s varietals, attend fascinating lectures on French and German wines and enjoy a food and wine pairing gala dinner onboard.

Burgundy & Provence Wine River Cruise from Arles to Paris on the Avalon Scenery from October 31-November 10. You will tour a wine cellar in Beaune and have the opportunity to taste some of France’s famed Burgundy, Chardonnay and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. On board the Avalon Scenery, you will be treated to a Beaujolais wine tasting, a food and wine pairing dinner gala dinner and a wine and chocolate tasting.

Are you a member of a Wine Club? Do you have a favorite sommelier who knows his or her way around the wine regions in Europe? Then let me help you design your dream wine cruise. We’ve all heard of food and wine pairings. I think it’s time to do some cruise and wine pairings!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Culturally Rich Cruising Experiences on Azamara Club Cruises & Oceania Cruises

Azamara Journey-Norwegian Fjords
For those of you seasoned travelers who are looking for culturally rich cruising experiences on elegant, intimate mid-sized ships for less than $500 per person per day, take a long look at Azamara Club Cruises and Oceania Cruises.   Azamara Club Cruises owns two of the R-Ships from the former Renaissance Cruises fleet, Azamara Journey (formerly R.6) and Azamara Quest (formerly R.7) and Oceania Cruises owns three of them, Insignia (formerly R.1), Regatta (formerly R.2) and Nautica (formerly R.5).  In addition, Oceania Cruises is building Marina, which debuts in January 2011 and with 1,250 passengers, is almost twice as large as its other three ships.

Oceania Nautica - Halong Bay
Both of these distinctive cruise lines offer a sophisticated yet relaxed way to travel, five-star cuisine, comfortable accommodations with top-of-the-line amenities, country club environment, superb service, and rich, port-intensive itineraries.  In 2011, the Azamara Club Cruises fleet will overnight in 36 ports on four continents and the Oceania Cruises fleet will overnight in 36 ports on five continents.  Azamara Journey will spend two nights in Rio de Janeiro and St. Petersburg while Azamara Quest will spend two nights in Bangkok.  Insignia will spend two nights in St. Petersburg while Nautica will spend two nights in Rangoon (Yangon), Myanmar.

 As far as price is concerned, there isn't much difference between the two.  In November 2010, the cost per person per day in the lowest category Club Veranda Stateroom (V3) on a Mediterranean cruise in September 2011 on Azamara Journey or Azamara Quest is $397.52; the cost per person per day in the lowest category Veranda Stateroom (B2) on a Mediterranean cruise in September 2011 on Insignia or Nautica is $421.36 and on Marina is $433.17.
You might be wondering how you would choose one over the other.  Itinerary would probably be the most important factor.   However, Azamara Club Cruises includes boutique red and white wines with lunch and dinner; gratuities for housekeeping, dining and bar wait staff; and complimentary shuttle bus service in many ports.  Oceania Cruises includes complimentary seating in all specialty dining restaurants.  Oceania Cruises is also launching Marina in January 2011, which will include more spacious accommodations (a veranda stateroom on Marina is a roomy 282 square feet and has a bathtub).  Marina also offers the Bon Appétit Culinary Center and Artist Loft enrichment center.

Culturally Rich Cruising Experiences Aboard Azamara Club Cruise and Oceania Cruises is a more in-depth analysis of the difference between the two.  I would love to hear about your recent experiences on either one of them.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Should I Cruise or Should I Stay at an All-Inclusive Tropical Land-Based Resort?

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Cruise Holidays convention at El Dorado Royale in Riviera Maya, Mexico which is a very nice all-inclusive land-based resort south of Cancun.  Although our convention is normally held on a cruise ship, this year it was held on land, which gave me the opportunity to experience an all-inclusive resort for the first time.  Being an avid cruiser, I was initially disappointed that our convention would be held on land but started to get excited about it when I realized that staying at the El Dorado Royale would allow me to sample cruising's major competitior, the all-inclusive tropical land-based resort.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the expansive accommodations, beautiful grounds, extensive dining choices (the D'Italia Casitas Restaurant was especially good), and the friendly service of El Dorado Royale, I wouldn't trade it for a cruise.  To me, there is something particularly magical about sailing away in the sunset while bidding farewell to the crowd left behind on the pier and musing about adventures to come on faraway islands.

On a cruise, you have the opportunity to visit different places and if you happen to be cruising in the Caribbean, each island has a distinct personality and charm all its own.  It's easier to meet new and interesting people and swap stories with fellow travelers on a cruise because people who don't know each other are more likely to dine together.   And, if the weather is not to your liking at a particular destination, it's good to know that the cruise ship will be moving on to another, perhaps fairer port, the next day.

However, if you're going to a tropical paradise where there is much to explore and you need more than a day or if you just want to plop down on a beach chair and decompress for a week, a land-based resort might be a better choice for you.

In the meantime, I'll continue cruising.

More photos of El Dorado Royale

Friday, October 22, 2010

Cabaret Au Château

Steve and I attended the Cabaret Au Château at the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery in Woodinville last weekend.  It was a gala event sponsored by the Alliance Française de Seattle and it was the next best thing to being on a cruise in France. 

The evening began with a festive reception and silent auction featuring music by Danick.  As I sipped my bubbly apéritif, I enjoyed listening to the entertaining French conversations around me and after half a glass I was no longer reticient to speak some French of my own.  I did a better job speaking on this evening than I normally do in my French class on Thursday nights at Alliance Française so maybe I'll suggest to my instructor, Gwen Sauvage, that she bring a nice bottle of Chardonnay to the class.  It's amazing what a glass of wine will do to loosen the tongue.

One of the many reasons I enjoy France as much as I do is the way the French savor the whole dining experience.  I'm not just talking about the fabulous  French cuisine and the excellent wine; I admire how the French relax and take pleasure in eating, drinking and enjoying each other's company as if there were no tomorrow. 

This evening's delicious meal and our interesting dinner companions brought the French joie-de-vivre out in us.  The roasted chicken breast with proscuitto-sage stuffing and roasted shallot sauce melted in my mouth. And, I would not have traded the gingerbread cake with brandy sabayon, caramel sauce and warm apples for a rich chocolate dessert even though I'm a confirmed chocoholic.  The Chateau Ste. Michelle 2008 Muscat Canelli was a particularly good choice with the gingerbread cake.   During dinner, we had the pleasure of listening to Rouge, with vocalist Janet Rayor bringing French music to life at each of our tables.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Voyage to Remember

For the past few weeks, I've been asking my friends, family, colleagues and clients to post a photo on my Cruise Holidays Facebook page of their most memorable vacation.  To encourage them to take the time to do this, I've been offering a $25 onboard credit on the next cruise they book with me.  One of the most interesting responses I received was from Carole Casper, former owner of Cruise Holidays of Seattle.

Carole's most memorable cruise was with Theo Fabergé on the Silver Whisper's "Baltic Reflections" inaugural voyage, July 27- August 7, 2001.  Just being on this voyage would be remarkable but it turns out that Carole was instrumental in bringing Theo Fabergé on board and designing Silversea's Romanovs Remembered package, a rare opportunity for guests to experience the hidden wonders of St. Petersburg and receive a limited edition, commemorative Silver Whisper Egg designed by Mr.Fabergé.

 I asked Carole if she knew Theo Fabergé before Silver Whisper's inaugural voyage and she said, "No, I didn't know him but my Slavic heritage encouraged my love for all things Russian.  I've admired his family's eggs for my entire life so I just started online trying to find him."  Carole not only found him but introduced him to Silversea because she thought a Theo Fabergé Egg and a special tour of St. Petersburg would be a perfect fit for the Silver Whisper's inaugural voyage.  Silversea executives obviously agreed with her and commissioned Mr. Fabergé to design a numbered, limited edition "Egg" to celebrate the inaugural season of the line's newest ship.  Carole developed the ideas for the tour program in St. Petersburg with the help of recognized Russian imperial art historian Lynette G. Proler.

I need to take a page from Carole's book.  I'm an avid francophile and a member of Alliance Française, where I'm working hard to improve my French.   And I love culturally rich cruising experiences.   I have group space on Uniworld's Grand France river cruise from Paris to Arles on September 18 - October 2, 2011 and although this will be a wonderful cruise, it doesn't include any exclusive experiences designed by "yours truly."  I'm just going to have to let my imagination run free -- do you think a glass of fine French wine would help?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

River Cruising: A Unique Way to See Many Places in Our Beautiful World

I love river cruising because it combines the best of ocean cruising and land tours. You unpack once and your floating boutique hotel takes you into the heart of both bustling cities and charming villages while you sit back and enjoy the picturesque scenery along the way.

Ocean cruising certainly has its advantages. Since the ships are much larger, more activities, entertainment and dining options are available on board. But as discerning cruisers have discovered, more isn’t necessarily better. If you’re more interested in delving into the history and culture of the fascinating regions you’re visiting than being entertained on board, a river cruise is ideal. Unlike most ocean cruise ships, river cruise ships overnight in many ports of call giving you the opportunity to explore the area by day and to experience the night life. Think about Amsterdam; its personality changes as the sun goes down. If your ship sails at 5:00pm, you just might miss the most vibrant element of a city’s DNA.

If you’ve been on a lot of land tours, I can assure you the river cruise ship is a lot more comfortable than the roomiest of motor coaches. And you won’t have to pack your bags and put them out the door for pickup by some ungodly early hour every morning because on a river cruise you unpack only once.

In Europe, you can take an unforgettable journey across the heart of Europe from the North Sea to the Black sea on three historic rivers: the Rhine, the Main and the Danube. If you’re a connoisseur of everything French, you can experience all of France by cruising on the Seine, Saône and Rhône rivers. You can also travel Europe’s spectacular UNESCO World Heritage-designated river valley through Portugal and Spain on the Douro River.

Discover the rich history and traditions along the imperial waterways of Russia including the Neva, Svir and Volga Rivers. Explore China’s mighty Yangtze River as you sail through the most impressive stretch of the river featuring the Qutang Gorge, Wu Gorge and Xiling Gorge, collectively known as the Three Gorges. Journey along the Nile River in Egypt and experience incredible sights that include ancient temples, tombs and local villages.

River cruises are now offered by leading river cruise providers on the exotic Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam where temples, trade routes and fishing villages in the river’s path are untouched by time.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Touring Anchorage with Good Friends

Our 13-day Alaska adventure ended in Anchorage, where Steve and I were lucky to have the opportunity to connect with old friends whom we hadn't seen in 16 years. Tim and Sharon Jackson have lived in Anchorage for a number of years so we felt privileged to have them personally show us around. Shortly after we arrived at the Anchorage train station after an eight hour ride from Denali, Tim and Sharon took us to the Crow's Nest at the Captain Cook Hotel for a glass of wine or two or more -- frankly I can't remember since we were having such a great time catching up. From the Crow's Nest, we enjoyed a panoramic view of Anchorage. Although Anchorage is Alaska's largest city with a population of 280,000, it isn't very big and you can get the whole lay of the land from the Crow's Nest.

A few days before we arrived in Anchorage, Tim had asked me if there was anything we particularly wanted to see in Anchorage. Since Steve had been craving for really fresh grilled halibut ever since we arrived in Alaska and hadn't yet had any, I told Tim that we were on a quest for halibut. The next day, after taking us on a brief tour of downtown Anchorage and Earthquake Park, Tim and Sharon took us to the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood. Since Tim and Sharon used to work at the Alyeska Resort, everyone knew them there and we were treated like family. And Steve finally got his fresh halibut. Misson accomplished!

Alyeska Resort is Alaska's most luxurious property. The grounds are gorgeous and populated with some of the largest flowers I have ever seen. But then everything is bigger in Alaska, right? After lunch, we took the tram to the Seven Glaciers Restaurant, Alyeska's Four Diamond restaurant which Tim used to manage. We got our very own private tour of the restaurant (it wasn't open for lunch) and I enjoyed hearing Tim's stories about what it takes to get and maintain the AAA Four Diamond Award. On a clear day, one can see seven glaciers from the restaurant. Since we didn't have a clear day we didn't see the seven glaciers but still managed to take a few good pictures through the patchy fog.

Our trip to Alaska had it all -- stunning glaciers, majestic mountains, wildlife sightings, inspirational moments and a visit with old friends. I know I'll be back!

More photos of Anchorage

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Historic Alaska Railroad

The Alaska Railroad is the most comfortable way to travel by land in Alaska, especially in Holland America's dome rail cars from which we got magnificent views of the stunning scenery gliding by. Given that we spent a total of 12 hours on the train (4 hours from Fairbanks to Denali and 8 hours from Denali to Anchorage), I was really happy about the wide reclining seats and ample legroom. One advantage of the train over the motorcoach is that you have the opportunity to get up and walk around which greatly decreases the size of the flat spot on your butt from sitting all day. Another advantage is the domed rail cars will allow you to not only look out but up as well; given how dramatic the landscape can be in Alaska, you really need to be able to look up as well as out in order to appreciate it. The beverage service is excellent so you can have a drink while soaking up the scenery.

I was also impressed with the dining car and the food. For breakfast I had the opportunity to try reindeer sausage which was lean (compared to pork sausage) and tasty. I also found the crab cakes surprisingly good. The dining car is directly below the domed rail car where we were seated and meals were done in two shifts in order to accommodate everybody in the rail car.

Our train conductors were amusing and would point out interesting sites along the way. One of the most intriguing landmarks was Clear at milepost 392.9, about 78 miles south of Fairbanks. Clear was originally a railroad station known as Clear Site. Now it is one of the world's three early warning ballistic missile sites (others are in England and Greenland). The 125 Air Force personnel receive overseas pay and are not allowed to have families on the base because of top security status.

The train conductors could also tell a good tale or two. When the railroad was officially completed on July 15, 1923, President Warren Harding drove the golden spike at Nenana to commemorate the event. Interesting enough, President Harding's wife and mistress both accompanied him on his trip to Alaska. A few days later, President Harding died in San Francisco and there was a lot of speculation about whether his wife killed him because she was tired of him playing around on her. Our train conductor told us that while he was telling this story to a group of passengers, one of them promptly informed him that she was President Harding's granddaughter. Although the conductor was a little embarrassed about telling this sordid tale in her presence, he did ask her if there was any truth to the story. She promptly replied, "You bet, Granny offed him."

At any rate, if you're planning to travel into Alaska's heartland, take the train! Although it can't stop on a dime to allow passengers to take photos of wildlife, it does have an outdoor viewing platform. Besides, I only saw one moose from the train and it was very fleeting. If you've got your heart set on viewing wildlife, take the Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali National Park. Even there, there are no guarantees but your chances are a lot better. Go with the flow and keep in mind that wildlife do not make appointments with tourists.

Photos taken on and from the train

Monday, September 13, 2010

Denali National Park and Preserve

Until the 11th day of our Alaska cruisetour when we took the Tundra Wilderness Tour to Denali National Park and Preserve, we hadn't had the opportunity to see any living big game. We saw the stuffed versions at the Wildlife Display Museum at the Westmark Inn in Beaver Creek and at the Denali Visitor Center but there's nothing like the real thing. At this point in our trip, you might say we felt 'wildlife' deprived. We had all hoped to spot some big game along the road or railroad tracks as we traveled through the Yukon Territory and Alaska but it didn't happen. At one point we thought we had spotted a black bear on the highway but were vastly disappointed when it turned out to be just a "Canis lupis familiaris" or dog.

At around 2:30pm on August 3, our group of 40 hopped on the Tundra Wilderness Tour bus, which you might find a bit tight if you're particularly tall or large. Only a single road goes into Denali which leads 93 miles into the wilderness and private vehicles are only allowed on the first 15 miles in order to reduce congestion and preserve the natural resources of the park. Park service buses and commercial outfitters, however, make trips as far back as the lodgings at Kantishna at the end of the road and they carry 350,000 visitors each summer.

River White, our bus driver and trained interpretive naturalist, promised he would stop on a dime for wildlife sightings and he didn't let us down! We saw Dall sheep grazing on a steep cliff face, grizzlies feasting on soapberries (in a single day, the grizzly can eat 200,000 soapberries!), caribou roaming in the tundra and one lone moose. One caribou seemed to be blissfully unaware of the bears in a feeding frenzy below him. I thought we were very lucky to see all of these beautiful animals in one trip because believe it or not, they don't make appointments with tourists!

The National Park Service offers the following three tours of Denali:
  • The Denali Natural History Tour, a 4 1/2 to 5 hour tour 17 miles into the park

  • The Tundra Wilderness Tour, a 7 to 8 hour tour that generally goes 53 miles into the park; however, because Denali (Mt. McKinley) was visible on our tour, albeit barely, we were able to go another eight miles down the road to Stony Hill Overlook

  • Kantishna Experience, a 12 to 14 hour journey to the end of the road

The Kantishna Experience would be wonderful but a 12 to 14 hour journey in the tour bus would be a bit much. If you decide to go to Kantishna, you should seriously consider spending the night there.

More photos of Denali National Park and Preserve

A video of Mama grizzly and her cub:

Thursday, September 9, 2010

There's Gold in Them Thar Hills!

August 1 was a day jam-packed with a lot of truly Alaskan activities. As much I enjoyed my visit to Rika's Roadhouse in Delta Junction, my peek at the Trans Alaska Pipeline, and the Alaska Salmon Bake and Palace Theatre at Pioneer Park, my afternoon visit to the authentic Gold Dredge No. 8 and the El Dorado Gold Mine nine miles north of Fairbanks was the most memorable.

Our visit to Gold Dredge No. 8 began auspiciously with a hearty miner's lunch of stew and biscuits. I had worked up an appetite just thinking about gold panning and was happy to sit down to a meal. I was even happier when I was offered a dish of gold nugget ice cream, a yummy flavor made with sweet cream, caramel and toffee.

After lunch we toured the dredge. Between 1928 and 1959, 7.5 million ounces of gold were extracted from this five-deck dredge which functioned as a gigantic mechanical gold pan. So if it takes many tons of ore to produce a single ounce of gold, can you imagine how much ore was processed through this dredge over 31 years? I don't know the answer and judging by the look of the innards of the dredge, a whole lot of dirt passed through there.

We then boarded the El Dorado Gold Mine Train out to the mine where we would seek our fortune. Our conductor, Earl Hughes, provided lively commentary about this land and the lifestyle of rural Alaskan families. Along the way we saw a small miner's operation similar to those which dotted the landscape during the gold rush and traveled through a short permafrost tunnel where we saw the kinds of mineral and rock formations in which gold was most likely to be found. I'm sure glad I entered this tunnel riding a train rather than riding down in an open permafrost shaft in a tailing bucket!

At the gold camp we were met by husband and wife mining team Dexter (pictured at left) and Lynette "Yukon Yonda" Clark, who looked like they could have been plucked right out of the gold rush era one hundred years ago. They were very funny as they demonstrated prospecting, panning and placer/sluice mining. About 99.9% of recovered gold is in the form of dust, called 'fines'; a mere 1/10th of 1% is in the form of nuggets. Yukon Yonda was wearing a gold nugget necklace and to show us how a nugget is defined she dropped her gold nugget in the pan and it went 'plink'. She explained that a nugget is a piece of natural gold large enough to make a 'plink' when dropped in the pan.

At the end of the demonstration we were all given a poke of dirt and a pan to try our luck. Would I or would I not hit 'pay dirt'? There is a real technique to gold panning and I needed all the help I could get. I wasn't jiggling my pan aggressively enough because I was afraid I would lose the gold with the dirt. Lucky for me I received a little help from an experienced staff member. Unluckily, Steve and I together only collected 42 specks or 'fines' of gold. Oh how I had wanted to hear that 'plink' in the pan! We had our gold weighed and our total take was worth $18. I guess I won't be giving up my Cruise Diva position any time soon.

More photos of our golden adventure and sites in and around Fairbanks

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

You've Got to Expect the Unexpected in Alaska!

In Alaska, just about anything can happen. During our trip, it happened that the Taylor Highway, which is a 160 mile gravel road that links Eagle with the Alaska Highway near Tok, wasn't quite ready for a motorcoach full of wild travel agents. In July, heavy rain storms had washed out parts of the Taylor Highway and at the beginning of August, commercial vehicles were still not allowed to travel over it.

The initial plan was to get aboard the Yukon Queen II in Dawson City and cruise 100 miles along the Yukon River to Eagle. From Eagle, we were to travel by motorcoach along the Taylor Highway to Tok. The new plan was to hop on a plane at the Dawson Airport which Holland America had chartered to fly us from Dawson City to Beaver Creek. From Beaver Creek, we would travel by motorcoach to Tok. Although I was sorry to miss the trip on the Yukon River, I wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of sitting in a motorcoach for 160 miles on a mostly gravel road. So, I was happy with the change in plans and looking forward to the airplane ride.

Upon arriving at the Dawson City Airport, all 40 of us proceeded to board a Hawker Siddeley 748, an older plane of the turbo-prop variety which looked as though it could have been the plane in Casa Blanca which Rick makes Ilsa board telling her that she would regret it if she stayed, "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life." In reality, the Hawker Siddeley 748 isn't that old as it was designed in the late 1950s as a replacement for the DC-3 and is noted for taking off and landing on short runways.

The service on this short 45 minute flight was unbelievable. Our flight attendant was friendly, attentive and served us complimentary juice and snacks that rivaled anything the major airlines serve these days. And she actually appeared to like her job. What a concept!

During the flight, there wasn't much opportunity to take many good photos as the windows were too small and there was too much glare. However, I did manage to take a relatively good one of the braided White River.

I was happy that the Hawker Siddeley 748 was built for short takeoff and landings because the gravel runway at Beaver Creek Airport was only 3,745 feet long. Given that landing and taxiing to the tarmac (there is no gate) were uneventful, I was surprised to see that one of the tires was flat after I got off the plane. As I said, you've got to expect the unexpected in Alaska (and the Yukon, too).

Monday, September 6, 2010

Even a Long Ride in a Motorcoach Can Be Amusing

I know the Yukon Territory and Alaska are large land masses but I didn't appreciate how much ground we would cover on our trip until we were actually doing it. The two longest stretches that we covered by motorcoach (motorcoach, not bus) were from Whitehorse to Dawson City, Yukon (340 miles) and from Tok to Fairbanks, Alaska (206 miles). Even if the motorcoach is comfortable, the only memorable impression I generally have after a long trip in one of them is a flat spot on my butt. This trip was different because of our engaging and fun-loving tour leaders: Adam Johnson, Mike Harris, Jeannie Robertson and Micha Pauza.

Adam Johnson was our Tour Director who was incredibly organized, always had a smile on his face and was bound and determined that we not get bored. On one of our long stretches in the motorcoach, he decided that we should all participate in the Moose Migration Exercise. All forty of us were given a piece of paper and asked to write our name at the top of it. He then asked us to draw the body of a moose -- just the body, nothing more. We were then told to pass our paper to the person behind us. Adam then requested that we draw the front legs on the moose and pass the paper to the person behind us. This went on for a while and we were all doing just fine until he asked us to draw the dewlap on the moose. The what??? It was hilarious to see how many different versions of dewlap this crowd came up with. The finale was when we had to write a poem about our moose. Needless to say, we drew some pretty odd-looking moose and at the end of this exercise I was laughing so hard my sides were about to burst. To give you an idea, take a look at Colleen's Moose and Steve's Moose. My moose has both udders and antlers --- go figure!

Mike Harris was our driver/guide and had some interesting stories to tell about Alaska. I was particularly amused by his tale about dressing up in a moose costume because he wanted to be sure his guests actually saw some wildlife in Alaska. There are many more men than women in Alaska and Mike warned the women that although the odds are good, the goods are odd in Alaska. There are two seasons in Alaska: winter and construction. Did you know that if you split Alaska into three states at low tide, Texas would be the fourth largest state in the union? While in Canada, Mike entertained us with a song by The Arrogant Worms called Rocks and Trees.

Jeannie Robertson and Micha Pauza did a wonderful job telling us about all of the interesting Alaska cruisetours that Holland America offers. They are 10 to 20 days long, include a 3 to 7 day cruise, showcase different areas of the Yukon and Alaska and include accommodations from remote Alaskan lodges to luxury resorts. After taking this trip, I'm convinced that Holland America offers a cruisetour for everybody and that people will really miss a big part of Alaska's heart and soul if they choose to take the cruise only.

Here is photo that was taken by one of our guides at the Alaska/Yukon Territory border:

Answers to two questions I know are on your mind:

1. What's the difference between a motorcoach and a bus? A motorcoach has a bathroom. I used it only once and by chance I happened to choose a moment when we were bumping along on one of the roughest sections of the Alaska Highway. Let me just say that it was one heck of a wild ride back there in the toilette.

2: Dewlap: A long, round flap of skin and hair that hangs from a moose's neck.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Vast Yukon Territory

At 186,600 square miles, the Yukon Territory is almost twice as large as the United Kingdom, yet its population is only 35,000. Although I never saw any bears or moose in the Yukon Territory, I was told that there is one bear and two moose for every person living there. On the morning of July 29, we were bound from Whitehorse to Dawson City, a distance of 340 miles, on the North Klondike Highway on a comfortable motorcoach owned by Holland America Line.

Along the way, our sharp-eyed and entertaining driver/guide, Mike Harris, spotted a bald eagle on a tree and came to a sudden stop to allow all of us to snap a picture. Shortly after that we stopped at the Braeburn Lodge, where some of us indulged in the largest cinnamon rolls I've ever seen. If you're ever there and dare to try one of their monster buns, ask for them to be served warm with butter. We also stopped at Five Finger Rapids, the most dangerous part of the Yukon River. The deadly Five Finger Rapids were named for the four rock islands that split the river into five dangerous channels and many Klondike Gold Rush stampeders lost their lives when their makeshift boats hit these treacherous rapids in 1898. However, on this beautiful summer day in 2010, the Five Finger Rapids didn't present us with any obstacles as we jockeyed for position to take a great photo. Later in the afternoon we stopped at Moose Creek Lodge for a short break. Population of Moose Creek: 2 great guys and gals and 3 friendly dogs.

We were lucky to have two days in Dawson City as it gave Steve and I the opportunity to hike in Tombstone Territorial Park and to attend the bi-annual Moosehide Gathering. Although we wanted to see wildlife in Tombstone Territorial Park, it was a beautiful walk despite the fact that we didn't see any animals. Our guide was knowledgeable about the flora and customs of The Yukon's First Nations people. They were a very resourceful people who were familiar with the medicinal qualities of plants, understood that moose scat could be used to kindle a fire and used the super absorbent sphagnum moss as diapers for their infants. Our guide told us that they compared quaking aspen to a woman's tongue. Gold was of no practical use to The Yukon's First Nations people so they must have been particularly bewildered by the disease known as "gold fever."

During the Klondike Gold Rush, the First Nations people of the area were disregarded as their land, culture, and way of life were a hindrance to those seeking riches. As thousands flocked to the area and overran Tr'ochëk, a First Nation fishing camp where Dawson City was founded, Chief Isaac, then the leader of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, made arrangements for his people to move five kilometers downriver to a settlement named Moosehide. Today, Moosehide remains a place of rest and refuge for the descendants of these displaced people and it was where Steve and I attended the bi-annual Moosehide Gathering.

Although the Moosehide Gathering is primarily a celebration of the heritage of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, everybody is invited to the party. Steve and I made our way to the boat ramp and were given a short ride downstream to Moosehide where the people were friendly and the salmon was delicious. During dinner, we met Mabel, a First Nations woman who was from the town of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Mabel was visiting Moosehide to research her family tree. She told us that her mother was often asked by the local radio station to tell stories about days gone by. I wish I had remembered to ask Mabel why her people compared a quaking aspen to a woman's tongue. I bet it would have been a good story.

Compared to southeastern Alaska, which is teeming with tourists, the Yukon Territory is an undiscovered gem with a hugh personality. Dawson City still bustles with the rebellious and wild spirit of the gold rush, and thanks to its designation as a National Historic Site in the early 1960s, its boardwalk-lined streets and historic buildings remain largely unchanged.

When I asked how cold it gets in Dawson City during the winter, a local replied, "Cold enough for your spit to freeze before it hits the ground."

More photos of the Yukon Territory

Thursday, August 26, 2010

All Aboard the White Pass Scenic Railroad

One of the most popular shore excursions from Skagway is a trip on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, known as "The Scenic Railway of the World" and "The Railway Built of Gold." After taking the 67 mile rail journey from Skagway to Carcross, Yukon Territory, I can honestly say that this is one shore excursion you don't want to miss if the weather is halfway decent. If it's raining and foggy, you won't see much. But we got lucky with the weather.

It was fascinating to travel back in time to the days of the gold rush on this legendary narrow gauge steam train. As we traveled, our train conductor relayed some interesting tales of lust for gold. Historians estimate that 100,000 left their homes and started for the Klondike in 1897 and 1898. They were in such a hurry they earned the sobriquet, "The Stampeders." Of the 100,000 brave souls who went for broke, only 30,000 to 40,000 actually reached the gold fields of the Klondike. Four thousand prospectors found the gold but only a few hundred struck it rich.

The ordeal that the stampeders endured to get to the gold fields was harrowing. Once they reached Skagway, they had to choose between The White Pass or the Chilkoot Trail to get over the Coast Range. Either way, they were required by the Northwest Mounted Police to be fully equipped to spend a year in the great north. Dried foods and medicines, picks and shovels, sleds and stoves amounted to a ton of goods for each person and it all had to be packed in relays over mountain passes in the dead of winter. And God help them if they fell off the trail. The lucky ones somehow managed to get back on after waiting for hours for a break in the trail and the not-so-fortunate were buried by snow. Remnants of the trail are shown in the photo to the right. The poet Robert Service wrote:
Never will I forget it, there on the mountain face.
Antlike, men with their burdens, clinging in icy space.
All I can say is I was very happy to be going over the White Pass by train effortlessly gliding over deep gorges and along sheer cliffs while admiring some gorgeous scenery.

Once they got over the White Pass and reached Bennett Lake, the stampeders then had to hammer together a fleet of over 7,000 boats to take them through five sets of seething rapids that punctuated the final 600 miles through a series of lakes and rivers to Dawson City. I swore the next time I found myself on a seemingly unbearable plane ride across the Atlantic I would think about the grit and determination of the stampeders, ask for another glass of wine and just grin and bear it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Colorful Skagway

Skagway was the most colorful town that we visited in Alaska with an interesting rough-and-tumble history. Legend has it that Captain William Moore was the man who purchased the land in 1887 that would later become the famous gold rush town of Skagway. Gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896 and by 1897, the first boatland of prospectors landed in Skagway. By October 1897, Skagway had grown to a fair-sized town with well-laid out streets, buildings with "false fronts," stores, saloons, gambling houses, houses of "negotiable affection" and a population of 20,000. By 1900, its population had shrunk to 3,117. Today, its population is 850 in the winter, 3,000 in the summer and 700,000 cruise passengers visiting between May and September. I didn't count the number of jewelry stores in town but there were a lot. It is an interesting site to behold four large cruise ships in port.

During our morning bus tour, we heard a lot about the con man Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith and how he and his gang of thugs reigned over Skagway during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 and 1898. Soapy, Miss Belle Davenport and her "soiled doves," Alice and Molly were the colorful characters you could find hanging out at Jeff's Parlor during those wild times. Steve and I were rather intrigued by the story so we decided to go to the stage production, "The Days of '98 Show" which was featured at Eagles Hall at 6th & Broadway. At the show, we relived the days of saloons, dance halls, shootouts, lynch mobs, floozies and Can Can girls and it was fun.

It was absolutely hilarious when Squirrel-Tooth Alice and Molly Phewclothes came down into the audience and chose my dear Steve as their prize. My shy and unassuming Steve was made to go upstairs with the lovely ladies where he put on a garish dressing gown and was brought back on stage to be fawned over and kissed. I actually wondered whether they taught him anything new. For his efforts, Steve was awarded Soapy Smith's Whorehouse Achievement Award for Service Above and Beyond the Call of the Wild.

All kidding aside, Steve and I did enjoy the free walking tour of the Skagway Historic District which was guided by a ranger from the Klondike National Historical Park Service. She was obviously proud of the National Park Service's achievement in preserving many of the buildings from the gold rush period. I could just imagine myself being there giving Soapy Smith a very hard time.

More photos of Skagway

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tracy Arm Fjord and the Sawyer Glacier

Large cruise ships have many advantages but they often can't access sites that smaller ships can more easily navigate. Holland America Line's ms Zuiderdam is a beautiful ship but was too big to take us to Sawyer Glacier, a spectacular glacier that lies at the end of Tracy Arm. Therefore, Steve and I decided to sign up for the Tracy Arm Fjord & Glacier Explorer shore excursion on which we would board a 150-passenger catamaran that pulled up alongside the ms Zuiderdam.

We entered Tracy Arm Fjord in the early morning and were welcomed by steep mountain walls that rise up dramatically from the water to 7,000 feet. The landscape was carved by the power of ice, a dynamic process that continues to this day. Although Tracy Arm Fjord is 32 miles long, I believe that the ms Zuiderdam could travel only about 10 miles to the section known as the "big bend," a dramatic 90-degree turn in the fjord's course from north to east. It was at this point that Steve and I debarked the ms Zuiderdam and boarded the 150-passenger catamaran that allowed us to have a close up and personal experience with the Sawyer Glacier. Thank God I bundled up with ski jacket, gloves, scarf and hat because it was cold.

The Sawyer Glacier is 200 feet wide, awe-inspiring and lustrous blue. Although we were 1/4 mile from the glacier's face I felt like I could reach out and touch it. The captain of our ship turned the catamaran continuously so that everyone aboard had the opportunity to view it in all of its majesty. We admired the glacier for around 45 minutes and during that time it calved four times. We heard the distinctive crackle of ice breaking followed by a splashy display. Wow!

Our guides repeatedly told us how lucky we were that the sun was out as it had been a particularly challenging summer as far as weather is concerned. Most of the time, Tracy Arm Fjord is overcast if not raining and it would be difficult to see how truly dramatic this near-vertical landscape is if clouds were covering the tops of the mountains. To truly appreciate the magnificence of Tracy Arm Fjord you must view it from the deck instead of from inside the ship but if it's pouring rain it won't nearly be as much fun as it was in the sunshine.

We also got the opportunity to see harbor seals sunbathing on the ice floes without a care in the world; the ice floes are havens from shore predators and whales are rarely seen inside Tracy Arm. Speaking of whales, we spotted some humpback whales in Stephens Passage on our way to Juneau where we re-boarded the ms Zuiderdam.

More photos of Tracy Arm Fjord and Sawyer Glacier

Below is a video of Sawyer glacier calving:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Alaska Bound on Holland America Line's ms Zuiderdam

Our 13-day cruisetour to Alaska actually began on the Amtrak Cascades in Seattle, which was a very comfortable four-hour ride to Vancouver. We were seated on the left side of the train which gave us a great view of the water. For $118.50, Steve and I sat in business class where we had wider seats with more legroom and priority boarding and detraining. Another advantage is that we had a coupon for $3 off any menu item and were in the car next to the dining car. Anybody who knows me understands that food is never very far from my mind. Business class only cost $36 more for the two of us and was definitely worth it.

From the Vancouver train station, we hopped in a taxi to Canada Place to board the ms Zuiderdam and the embarkation process was very smooth. After boarding any cruise ship, I make it a point to go on the ship tour if it's offered because I often discover some "secret" cozy corner of the ship where I can view the passing scenery in relative peace and quiet. This time, I learned that there is an iPod tour of the works of art aboard the ms Zuiderdam available to passengers. I also learned that Holland America no longer provides trays at the buffet in order to decrease the amount of food wasted.

Departing Canada Place and cruising under the Lions Gate Bridge is magnificent on a sunny day. I enjoyed watching Vancouver's skyline recede in the distance as sea planes landed near us.

Since this was a 13-day cruisetour that included only three days aboard the ms Zuiderdam, I didn't have much time to really get to know her. Being the foodies we are, Steve and I try every dining venue available. On our first night, we dined at the Pinnacle Grill, Holland America's elegant alternative restaurant which costs $20 per person and is worth every penny. We savored our filet mignon which was prepared to perfection (rare in our case). The icing on the cake was the chocolate soufflé with Grand Marnier sauce. Given that it was the first night of the cruise we practically had the Pinnacle Grill to ourselves.

On our second night, we enjoyed lamb at the Vista Dining Room. On our third and final evening aboard the ms Zuiderdam we went to the Caneletto Restaurant, which is located inside the Lido Restaurant and offers Italian cuisine. Although the Caneletto has the ambiance of an Italian trattoria and was very charming, the white fish we had was disappointing. The best part of the meal was the interesting conversation we had with the Ukrainian couple seated next to us and another opportunity to watch a seaplane land -- this time in Juneau.

On board, I purchased a book called The Alaska Cruise Handbook by Joe Upton. It is a great read and includes a 22" x 34" illustrated map of the routes of the major cruise lines. Many of the cruise lines, including Holland America, use Joe Upton's numerical navigation system to announce their position while cruising. It's better if you read it before your Alaska cruise rather than after you return home as Joe Upton gives a lot of tips about the beautiful sites you will see and when you will see them. If you know ahead of time, you can stake a great position on deck.

More photos of the ms Zuiderdam on the way to Alaska

Friday, August 13, 2010

My Breathtaking Glacier Landing on Denali

I recently returned from a 13-day cruisetour in Alaska where I had many adventures. But the one I'm most likely to be talking about for the rest of my life is my breathtaking glacier landing on Denali.

Our plane was a robust de Havilland Turbo Beaver on wheel skis operated by Fly Denali, Inc. (http://www.flydenali.com/) that looked like it could handle the rigorous flying conditions of the Alaska wilderness. Since I am a licensed private pilot, I was happy to be ushered into the co-pilot seat.

Shortly after we took off, I could see the magnificent Denali looming in the distance. It was hard to believe that it was over 65 miles away. Our pilot, Bruce Minter, gave us many opportunities to take photos of Denali as he turned the plane so that everyone could get the perfect angle on “The High One.” We were flying at 12,000 feet as we approached the South Peak of Denali and I was awestruck by the gorgeous scenery—, rugged peaks, dancing clouds, sheer cliffs decorated with flowing bands of snow and gorges on which glaciers seemed to drift restlessly.

After several minutes of skirting the clouds looking for an opening to Ruth Glacier, Bruce decided to look for an opening to Eldridge Glacier, our alternative landing site. This didn’t look promising either and after consulting with other pilots flying around Denali, he decided to approach Ruth Glacier from a different direction. Bruce was bound and determined to give us the glacier landing we were all longing for and to do it safely. Throughout all of this maneuvering I was struck by how calm it was in the Alaska Range. Given my experience flying in the Sierras around Lake Tahoe where I often encountered turbulence, I was surprised at how smoothly we cruised in this mountainous terrain.

As we descended under the clouds on approach to landing on Ruth Glacier, which is located on the south side of Denali, I felt like we were on the dark side of the moon. Bruce told us that one of his prior passengers had compared it to Jurassic Park and the description seemed to fit. It was a cool 40ºF when we exited the plane into the deep snow. Even with the snow boots that Fly Denali had provided us, it was difficult to walk steadily or gracefully. Nobody cared as we were all giddy about just being there.

More photos of my flight to Denali

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I've been wanting to visit Montreal for a long time and finally did last month when I attended the Rotary International Conference. At last I got the opportunity to practice my French without going to France! Given my passion for cruising, it's unusual that I would stay in a hotel for more than a few days at a time, but my weeklong stay at the Marriott Chateau Champlain was very nice. It was very well located downtown (Centre Ville) as I could easily walk to Vieux-Montreal, the charming old section of town and to the Rotary conference events at the Palais des Congrès and Centre Bell.

During our first day there, Steve and I walked around Vieux-Montreal and had lunch at a sidewalk cafe on the Place Jacques-Cartier. The food wasn't great but the ambience was unbeatable for people watching and enjoying the street musicians. I didn't know what to expect in Montreal as I had heard that the Québécois could be downright snooty towards Americans. But I can now honestly tell you that this is dated information as Steve and I felt warmly welcomed wherever we went in Montreal. As long as you stay in areas frequented by tourists you don't need to worry about speaking French. Go 30 miles east however and it's a different story. Although I didn't need to speak French, I practiced it at every opportunity and as long as the Québécois slowed it down a little, I could understand much of what was being said.

I was pleasantly surprised when people approached me to ask a question in French and I was thrilled when I could actually answer in French. Perhaps I fit in better in Montreal than I do in Europe; when people approach me anywhere in Europe they always speak English so I figured I must just look like a typical American tourist.

At long last I saw Cirque du Soleil -- in their birthplace no less! Cirque du Soleil got started in Montreal in 1984 with a group of 20 performers and now has over 1,000 artists who perform all over the world. The show that we saw was called Totem, which traces the fascinating journey of the human species from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly. I was amazed at the dazzling costumes and awestruck by the sheer talent of the performers. My two favorite acts involved a man and woman who came about as close to making love on a trapeze as two people could in front of a large crowd and the five Chinese ladies on unicycles who juggled metal bowls with their feet and caught them on their head. I wondered how they managed to learn this trick.

The next day Steve and I boarded "le bateau mouche" to catch a view of Montreal from the St. Lawrence River. Although the literal translation of "bateau mouche" is fly boat, the name comes from the fact that they were originally manufactured in boatyards situated in the Mouche area of Lyon. Do you suppose this area was known for its flies? It is an open excursion boat that offers a great view of the surroundings. We sat on the top deck, had a tasty lunch and enjoyed the company of a couple who was from a town on the other side of the Pont Jacques-Cartier. Although we passed the Iberville Passenger Terminal, there were no cruise ships docked.

For the next few days, Steve explored more of Montreal while I attended the Rotary International Conference with 17,341 other Rotarians from all over the world. When he welcomed us, Gérald Tremblay, the mayor of Montreal said that the Rotary conference was the most important gathering in Montreal's history. The conference was not only inspiring but entertaining as well. It was wonderful to hear Greg Mortenson, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Central Asia Institute and author of Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace....One School at a Time, talk about his success in building schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I enjoyed Dolly Parton, whose Imagination Library has distributed 25 million books to children in need. She is a very personable and funny lady who doesn't know how long it takes to do her hair in the morning because she is never there.

On our last night in Montreal, Steve and I had some of the best Chilean Sea Bass we've ever tasted at the Firegrill Restaurant & Bar on Stanley Street. Up to that point, I had been somewhat disappointed in our meals in Montreal -- they weren't bad but they weren't great either. The portion was generous and the fish was moist and delicious.

More photos of Montreal