By Perry Montoya. Photos by Brandi and Perry Montoya
Try as I may, I continue to travel to storied, picturesque geographical locations in this world expecting to be so overly captivated by the visual and sensory beauty that little else sinks in. Yet, true to form, Alaska’s unsurpassed beauty could only be eclipsed by the people met and friends made while there. Included herein is a list of stops made, excursions took, and, more importantly, the people who made those stays worth repeating. All destinations were made possible via the luxurious and unequaled Holland America Cruise Lines. First we chose to cruise Alaska; then, following tips and reviews, we were drawn to Holland’s upscale offering www.hollandamerica.com/cruise-destinations/alaska. Those offerings were as follows:
Don’t go to Juneau without first checking in with their visitor’s bureau: www.traveljuneau.com. Indeed, order their visitor’s guide. I’ve traveled the world and find their guide to be one of the most informative and enjoyable I’ve ever perused. Want to feel like you have family in Alaska? Then you have to spend a few hours with Midgi and one of her Juneau Foodie tours www.juneaufoodtours.com. Midgi is like a long lost sister whose soul desire seems to be a family reunion involving her apparent three loves: fun-loving people, phenomenal food and all things Alaska. While Midgi varies in her restaurant stops, each are sure to impress. Whether it’s Tracy’s for fresh-caught Alaskan crab, Deckhand Dave’s (for the first of my epic fish-and-chips-trip-long comparison challenge), or a “Hog Wing” at McGivneys, Juneau is for foodies! While in Juneau, take time to learn of the indigenous Tlingit (said “Kling it”) people. We chose the tram ride to the top of Mount Roberts and, along with taking in the sprawling beauty below, paused to view the short yet informative movie (in the theatre atop the mountain) on the history of the Tlingit and neighboring people’s. Also while in Juneau, don’t miss the short, affordable venture out to Mendenhall Glacier www.traveljuneau.com/things-to-do/glacier-sightseeing/mendenhall-glacier/.
We hopped a cab for four and paid less than $40 each way for the group. A trip to the glacier can include small hikes, kayaking, helicopter rides, guided ranger tours and the list goes on and on. Juneau truly didn’t disappoint as the first stop on this cruise-cation and we look forward to a speedy return to this haven in the panhandle of Alaska’s Tongass Forest.
No Alaskan cruise is complete without a pass through Glacier Bay National Park. With limited numbers of cruise ships allowed in each day, rangers can be seen water taxiing to the ship as we entered the park. Once onboard, rangers emcee a host of events and announcements (e.g. sightings of wildlife and glacier vistas) on through the arrival and the ship’s eventual full 360 degree rotation at several of the various glaciers. For us, the venture all the way into the Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers was possibly the highlight of the outdoor experience on this trip. The waters ranged from teal to silky blue and reflected the shoreline and mountainous backdrop like no picture can do justice.
We’ll return to another Alaskan cruise, but not without a stop in Glacier Bay.
Sitka is perhaps one of the most accessible tourist cities available to travelers. Period. Save the excursion on this stop and see the surroundings your own way. We chose to cover some ground on bikes (renting through the reasonably priced Yellow Jersey Cycle Shop http://www.yellowjerseycycles.com) and counted it money well spent. Our bikes took us to Ashmo’s food truck for yet another fish and chip comparison, around town for some affordable shopping, and well into the bulk of the city’s offerings. Sitka is where Russia meets the U.S. Here it’s common to see Russian Nesting Doll stores, Russian Orthodox cathedrals and even “held over” Russian folks aside western civilization. Indeed all things Sitka seem in touch with their antiquated roots. We stopped at Grandma Tillies Bakery www.grandmatilliesbakery.com where we delighted in Grandma Tillie’s and Grandma Alpha’s baked goods, as recipes have been well preserved by their granddaughters Kris and Valerie. We pedaled out past Tillies to the Sitka National Historic Park and watched salmon teem in the river while bald eagles swooped in overhead. Our self-guided jaunt through the Sitka forest was replete with flora, fauna and fun. All agreed that we needed more time in this port and we’ll be back for sure.
Icy Strait Point
This quick island hop was as delightful as it was unexpected. Holland America had made a stop here before and, with ample time, arranged an unplanned port here yet again for a few hours. This stop is both high adventure and historical. The high adventure begins with a zip line like no other. On what was a typical rainy, misty and grey day we found it a kick to watch the adventurous as they rode side by side (six at a time) on the 5,000+ foot long, 1,300+ foot drop of the ZipRider as it peeked through the clouds. Locals tout this ride as the “world’s largest zip line”. Apparently, we haven’t been the only travelers to take note: www.travelchannel.com/videos/ziprider-at-icy-strait-point-0211008.
Hoonah (on Icy Strait Point) is also a noted landmark in the Alaskan story. For the first half of the twentieth century, Hoonah was filled with fisherman, brim with packing plant workers, and produced more cans of salmon than seemingly feasible (over two million cans in 1914 alone.) While there we wandered thought the remnants of the cannery and enjoyed the museum’s attention to story and detail. Eateries and gift shops abound in this port as well. Icy Strait Point was surely worth the quick stop.
Hands down, the best bang for your buck in Ketchikan is with the Ketchikan Kayak Co. www.ketchikankayakco.com. Devon Bittner, its owner, is a man’s man. His vision and drive rival his charisma and character. And Ryan Deininger, one of his right hand men, has more passion for life than almost anyone I’ve ever met. Not to forget Amanda (our third capable and affable guide). Don’t believe me? Google “Orcas at the Office” and watch Devin at “work” (watch all 2:05 of the video, but things get particularly interesting at about one minute in). A day on the water with these folks does more than log an epic kayak trip into one’s travelogue; time with these professionals pumps life into the soul. Even with a full day of rain (Ketchikan is proud of its OVER TWELVE FEET of rain per year), with ample training and the right gear, we were primed for a loop around a small island in Knudsen Cove (a secluded and well-weather area outside of town). Salmon leaped around our kayaks and eagles soared overhead to their nest and guides pointed out sea stars along lush sheer coastal ledges.
This was Alaska as one would expect to find it. We ended our kayak tour with hot cider and locally preserved smoked salmon (the kind I’ve since searched for relentlessly to no avail.) After a day in the bay, the Alaska Fish House was calling https://exclusivealaska.com/our-restaurant. The AK Sampler (Cod, salmon and halibut fish and chips) was the perfect end to my Ketchikan experience. This place is a foodie’s fast fav. You know a true foodie when he/she has the prospect of “free food” on the cruise ship just 500 feet away and yet they can’t bring themselves not to indulge and relish in the local fare. I’ll not soon forget this crown to my fish and chips caper that had lasted throughout the trip, and I can’t wait to go back to fish and eat with Baranof Fishing Excursions https://exclusivealaska.com/fishing-excursions and The Fish House.
If you’ve read my work, you know I tend to gush over gardens. Who knew I’d have a flare for flora? This trip was a chance to return to where that love began – the Pacific Northwest. No visit to Victoria is complete without paying homage to Butchart Gardens: www.butchartgardens.com.
We found that the best bet, in order to get there on time comfortably and with just the right amount of local-shared detail was with CVS www.cvstours.com and/or Grayline Tours www.grayline.com/tours/vancouver/victoria-and-butchart-gardens-tour-5905_21_12130_274/. We worked with both to make it to the twilight tour in the gardens. As a boy, I’d spent the better part of many days in these amazing gardens; this cruise stop would be short and sweet in more ways than one. While daytime in Butchart Gardens is eye candy extraordinaire, twilight is rich in both sights and smells. Indeed, nighttime is for noses in this garden of roses (and much, much more.) In fact, we rounded out the stay with Lavender ice cream at their creamery and took in a mini-concert at their Concert Lawn Stage (concerts are included in the price of entry). Not a single of our senses was left wanting and we look forward to bringing friends and family back here for many years to come.
With the ship’s return to our embarkation/debarkation city of Seattle – with airport to port transportation made easy and affordable there by Seattle Shuttle http://seattleshuttle.net/ – we found ourselves wishing for the week to begin again. Entertainment on the ship had been enjoyable. Highlights onboard included the America’s Test Kitchen experience, BB King’s Blues Club, a BBC Earth experience – with live musicians playing the soundtrack to a quality nature film, Billboard onboard, and Lincoln Center Stage performances as well. Food had been exceptional (in buffet options, in quick eats like pizza, burgers and hot dogs, and in restaurant options like the Pinnacle Grill – for surf and turf done right.) The service onboard had been superb; we truly felt at home from start to finish. Our inaugural Holland America experience solidified our certainty of cruising with them again soon. In all, we were left in awe and since seem to be dreaming of the days til we return again to breathtaking Alaska.