Category Archives: Alaska

Alyeska: Year-Round Sightseeing & Winter Snow-Sliding

Resort near Anchorage offers lifts, slopes & views

Alyeska Mountain Resort, less than an hour from Anchorage, is a compelling summer and winter destination. In summer, it is a part of one of the classic shore itineraries for many of the 300,000 or so passengers whose cruises begin or end in Anchorage. Some spend the night at the resort hotel at the bottom of the mountain, and almost all ride the tram to the 2,300-foot level, which looks a lot like Colorado at 12,000 feet. The lodge at the top station of the tram provides splendid panoramo views of the jagged Chugach and Kenai Ranges. Looking a the view, taking photos or videas, getting a bite to eat or buying a souvenir.

The endless mountainscapte around Alyeska. Look carefully to see the upper terminally for the tram.

In winter the tram is the main lift hauling skiers and snowboarders from just outside the hotel. From the top, it is possible to ski several super-steep trails to the bottom (in snow years that are more generous than this one, anyway) or drop into a magnificent double bowl that holds most of Alyeska’s skiable terrain. The resort officially offers 1,400 skiable acres, but lean snow and ferocious winds earlier in the week mean that , not a lot is skiable right now. Off-piste conditions are frankly miserable right now (the hike-to upper slopes are not even open). I’ve been to Alyeska when the snow was abundant and it skied bigger than statistics indicate, but right now,,the skiing is limited to the groomed runs. That includes the runs at the original ski area from the original base part-way around the mountain, the terrain park and the Moose Meadows cross-country trails.

But in a large sense, it doesn’t matter, because the area is so spectacular. The ride between Anchorage and the resort is mid-blowing in its beauty. The highway skirts Turnagain Arm, which has the world’s second-highest tide. At this tie or year, chunks of ice, slabs of ice and slush islands ride the water up and down with the tides. I passed it en route back to Anchorage for an afternoon at an annual Charlotte Jensen Native Arts Market improbably in a shopping mall and a visir to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in the other direction near Portage.

The views from Alyeska are sensational — mountains after mountains after mountains. In summer. the glaciers are well defined from the rock. In winter, it is a jagged-peak world of endless white. And skiing or no skiing, sidetrips or no sidetrips, that fabulous scenery, that very Alaska-ness alone makes a visit worthwwhile.

New Small-Ship Brand to Cruise Alaska Waters

Allen Marine Tours launches Alaskan Dream Cruises

Allen Marine Tours,  a Native-owned family business that has been offering day cruises on the pristine waters of the Inside Passage for more than 40 years, has purchased three ships from defunct CruiseWest and launched a new brand, Alaskan Dream Cruises, to operate them. Two ships will begin service in May 2011 with eight-day, seven-night itineraries from a home port in Sitka, and a third ship will initially be available for private groups and charters. In addition to luxury amenities and artwork to enjoy, here are the basics about the ships.

  • The Alaskan Dream accommodates just 40 passengers for an intimate Inside Passage cruise experience. Four classes (standard through luxury suites) of cabins featuring extra-large viewing windows, TV with DVD player, all the standard amenities, and luxurious artwork and furnishings.  Four classes of guest cabins are available ranging from standard to luxury suites. This ship with its catamaran hull was built by the Nichols Brothers on Whidbey Island, Washington, specifically to operate in Southeast Alaskan waters. She offers the luxury and amenities of a larger ship and is faster than the average tour boat class vessel, cruising comfortably at 14 nautical miles per hour.  A large, partially covered area on the third deck allows 360 degree view of wildlife and scenery. 
  • The Admiralty Dream and the Baranof Dream are similar, each carrying 78 passengers in three classes of cabins on three decks — all with picture windows.  Three classes of guest cabins are available. She at a comfortable 9 nautical miles per hour providing with opportunities for seeing both wildlife encounters and the magnificent Alaskan Inside Passage scenery. Viewing areas are well designed and numerous, including the bow area, the Forward Viewing Lounge and an aft viewing area. (Above left, one of the 79-passenger vessels as she appeared as a CruiseWest ship.)

Allen Marine Tours operate small vessels for day cruises from the ports of Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka using vessels custom-built in our own shipyard in Sitka. The new Alaskan Dream Cruises is the next step for the company, which seems ideally suited to operating small cruise ships in the waters they know best. Alaskan Dream Cruises expects to begin accepting reservations in mid-November.  Cruise prices begin at $4,500 per person, double occupancy with a single supplement available, including meals (or course) and “included shore excursions.”

AlaskaTransportation News

Alaska travel representatives met with travel met media & shared news

Alaska is one of my favorite places. I’ve been from Southeast (Juneau, Wrangell, Petersburg, Ketchikan, Skagway, Haines, Sitka) to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. I’ve been there is summer (glorious weather, abundant wildflowers, sport fishing, hiking) and in winter (fabulous skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, dogsledding). The cities and towns are enticing year-round. Here are some recent and upcoming developments in transportation that are of interest to Alaska visitors:

Transportation (Cruise Ships, Ferries, Trains)

Alaska Marine Highway
– The ferries remain the best way for thrifty independent travelers to explore the coat. Eleven ferries travel on 3,500 miles of sea lanes between Bellingham, Washington, to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. Ferries accommodate vehicles (including RVs), motorcycles, bicycles and kayaks. Reserve for vehicles and staterooms, but foot passengers can just walk on. They’re welcome to pitch a tent on the back deck and eat their own food.

Alaska Railroad – A self-propelled railcar, the Chugach Explorer, entered service earlier this year on the Glacier Discovery Route between Whitier and Trail Creek. The railroad partnered with the Forest Service for ranger-guided hikes on the Spencer Glacier Trail, a whistle stop on the route. It is efficient, quiet and emits for fewer pollutants than conventional locomotives. During 2009, the railroad has been offering a free one-day Adventure Class train trip to anyone turning 50 during the year. Perhaps, it or a similar promotion will be available in 2010 — but meanwhile, if you celebrated the big 5-0 in ’09 and will be in Alaska, grab your free ticket.

American Safari Cruises – In 2010, seven-day sailings to/from Juneau on intimate 12-, to 36-passenger yachts include two days in Glacier Bay. Guests can sea kayak or zodiac to explore the shore, opportunities not offered to big-ship cruises passengers. The first of two larger (but not much larger) vessels enters service in 2011 under the brand, InnerSea Discoveries.

Cruise West
– The “Spirit of Oceanus” won’t be sailing Alaskan waters in 2010, because this small ship embarks on The Voyages of the Great Explorers, a round-the-world cruise on March 6, 2010.

Gray Line Alaska – Sixty-year-old operator of sightseeing programs operates more than 200 motorcoaches, 10 railcars and two day boats now has new packages that include overnights in Princess Lodges.

Holland America – In 2010, the line’s “Amsterdam” sails a regular 14-day Seattle-Anchorage itinerary that includes the new (to Holland America) ports of Homer and Kodiak Island.

Princess Cruises – For 2010, new Family Fun Cruisetour, a 12-night cruise + land package with pricing discounted for entire families, not just additional passengers sharing the cabin. Land portion includes two nights in Fairbanks, two just outside of Denali National Parks.

Seldovia Bay Ferry
– New ferry at the southern end of the gorgeous Kenai Peninsula linking the artsy town of Homer with Seldovia, a seldom-visited (until 2010), roadless village where the Seldovia Village Tribe has a new museum. Also, abundant birding, hiking and a historic Russian Orthodox Church. Fare: adult $59, $29.59 ages 12 and under roundtrip, including a look at the Gull Island Bird Sanctuary, where some 16,000 seabirds nest.

Where to Watch Wild Weather

The Weather Channel stormwatcher picked 10 spots; I have an 11th

If you’ve ever seen a tornado, you’ve watched wild weather. Those who were in Miami for Hurricane Andrew, in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina or on Galveston Island for Hurricane Ike certainly witnessed devastatingly wild weather, as did those in the path of assorted tsunamis, typhoons and earthquakes. If you want to experience wild weather, check out The Weather Channel‘s stormtracker’s Jim Cantore list of 10 vacation destinations for experiencing “wacky weather.” He added suggestions of the best (therefore least wild and wacky) times to go there, but I’m not including those here. After all, if you’re seeking wild weather, you don’t want mild weather — and I have one of my own to add (photo at right, and my suggestion below).

Cantore’s Top 10 Wild Weather Destinations

  • Death Valley, California – The hottest, driest and lowest-elevation spot in North America; 760-786-3200
  • Breaux Bridge, Louisiana – Cantore was there during Hurricane Gustav and watched the storm roll in over the Delta; 888-565-5939
  • Dangriga Town, Belize – Hurricanes and tropical storms can wallop the coast of this Central American town; 800-624-0686
  • International Falls, Minnesota -Nicknamed “the icebox of America,” this is the coldest town the continental United States; 800-325-5766. Just last year, Fraser, Colorado, was vying for the title, and everything in the lower 48 pales beside places inland in Alaska. think Fairbanks.
  • Gulf Coast, Mississippi – Cantore cited Hurricane Katrina as an example of the coast’s brutal wather phenomena; 888-467-4853
  • Sydney, Australia – “Vast Australia experiences weather ranging from snowstorms to sandstorms, said Cantore, but singled out Sydney for its “phenomenal dust storms”; 310-695-3200
  • Killington, Vermont -“Mountains on one side and the coastline on the other,” said Cantore, described as a native Vermonter. I wonder why he picked Killington. How about Sugarloaf, Maine, of Mont Ste.-Anne, Quebec, like Killington, ski mountains that rise above the surrounding countryside; 802-773-4181
  • Big Island of Hawaii, Hawaii – Cantore cited thick clouds atop snow-capped Mauna Kea, but he didn’t mention the fumes that blow from Kilauea, a volcano that has been erupting and producing lava flows since January 3, 1983; 800-464-2924
  • Crater Lake, Oregon – Cantore mentions “snow [that] can cover the landscape from October through June in some areas,” but that’s no big deal for us Coloradans. He also mentiones that “the coastal region of Oregon can get more than 100 inches of rain annually, which in higher elevations translates to a lot of snow — as much as 16 feet at times.” The Sierra Nevada range is similar; 541-594-3000
  • Barrow, Alaska – Cantore says that temperatures in the country’s northernmost city average temperature is 10 degrees plus 64 days without sun, 907-852-5211

No. 11 from Claire

How could a stormwatcher ignore the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where the storm-watching season stretches from November through Feburary. Hotels and resorts in and between the hamlets of Tofino and Ucluelet offer storm-watching packages for guests who really want to experience wild Pacific storms. The photo above comes for the Wickaninnish Inn; 250-725-3100.

Do You Have a 12th to Add?

Let me here from you. Leave a comment with your suggestions.

Glaciers Up Close and Personal

Article about Argentina’s Perito Moreno Glacier stirs up my own memories of a hike down Switerland’s Great Aletsch Glacier (left).

A Touch of the Arctic in Argentina, ” a front-page feature about an Argentine glacier in today’s Denver Post (originally published in Newsday), set off a torrent of memories. The headline writer’s cavalier use of the word “Arctic” to describe the Magellanic region of Patagonia, a whole lot closer to the Antarctic than the Arctic zone, notwithstanding, I was taken by writer Ann Givens’ tale of being stranded (air traffic control issues with domestic flights) in inland town of El Calafate. It is located near Lago Argentino, an enormous lake at the Argentine-Chilean border fed by Andean snow and ice, and Givens and her husband made the most of the situation by visiting Perito Moreno Glacier.

Givens wrote, “There are glaciers all over the world, of course, ranging from Africa to New Zealand. But there are a few things that make the Moreno glacier unique, as we learned from our English-speaking tour guide. The first is its accessibility: You can get to it by car, without hiking for miles through ice and snow or traveling for days on an ice-breaking boat. Second, the Moreno Glacier is dynamic, meaning that it is constantly forming at one end, while it is breaking off into the water at the other at the same rate.”

Regarding her first point, Perito Moreno is far from unique. Numerous compelling glaciers are easy to reach. Just think about Juneau, Alaska’s drive-to Mendenhall Glacier and fly-to Juneau Icefield, the Columbia Icefield right off the route between Banff and Jasper, and numerous Alpine glaciers that you can reach by cable car from a resort town in the valley below are among those that come to mind. Ice breaking boat? Some but not even most Antarctic trips are by icebreaker, but otherwise, visitors can get close to numerous tidewater glaciers there and elsewhere on everything from a cruise ship to a Zodiac. Mountain glaciers like Perito Moreno are reached in other and often easy ways.

Regarding her second point, at the present time, Perito Moreno not unique either, but it is definitely unusual. It is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is not retreating, which also makes it a worthy pilgrimage site. In any event, Grimes’ description of their two-hour guided hike on the glacier captured her thrill.

“We were each outfitted with crampons, cleats for climbing on ice and
snow,” she wrote. “From the inside, the glacier’s terrain is beautiful: icy
hills and valleys, separated by deep crevasses and tiny streams of bright blue
water formed by newly melted ice. The walking wasn’t easy, and our guides were
there to help us over some frighteningly deep canyons, and down some steep
grades. People who had been smart enough to bring water bottles filled them up
in the glacial streams, and the rest of us sucked on small chunks of
million-year-old ice, a surprisingly delicious treat, which we were assured was
perfectly safe.

“After a couple of hours, we came over a peak and saw our guides ahead of
us, standing around a table that had been set up on the ice. On the table was a
glass of scotch for each of us, each with a chunk of glacier ice in it, and a
bowl full of chocolate truffles. Standing on a glacier near the southern tip of
Argentina, it seemed to me a delicious indulgence. My husband and I beamed at
each other and clinked our glasses.”

It might seem like quibbling on my part to note that one doesn’t hike “inside” a glacier, but rather “on” a glacier. Only in Alpine resorts where man-made caves are carved into the heads of large glaciers does one actually enter inside one. A glacial maze, if indeed the group was led through one, might feel like being inside the ice. But maybe that’s just envious me writing, because I too would like to see this rare glacier that is not shrinking even when those around it are.

Chilling drinks with glacial ice is a popular feature following a tourist experience to or near various glaciers, it seems especially in South America. I enjoyed a pisco sour on a sightseeing boat called the “Lady Grey II” that motors to the foot of the Grey Glacier in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, close as the condor flies to the Perito Moreno Glacier. It is also an easy-access glacier. You can drive to the Hosteria Grey and board a boat to the foot of the glacier that feeds the lake.

Switzerland’s Great Aletsch Glacier: One Great Hike

Of the several glacier experiences I’ve had — Antarctica, South America, Alaska, the Alps and even on the top of Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa — the most epic glacier by far was a hike down Switzerland’s Great Aletsch Glacier 2004. We rode the train from Kleine Scheidegg through the Eiger to a saddle called the Jungfraujoch, with its mammoth structure holding the train station, numerous restaurants, viewing platforms, a humongous gift shop and an observatory.

From there, we walked through a short tunnel and stepped onto the glacier. With veteran guide Bernhard Stuckey, we roped up and hiked more than 10 miles (of the the glacier’s approximate 14 1/2-mile length) with an overnight at the Konkordia Hut perched high on a cliff above the shrinking glacier. The “hut” is not an Appalachian Mountain Club-style lean-to but a substantial stone structure built to house, shelter and feed hikers, touring skiers and climbers. You can see it poking out above the sloping rock shoulder of the cliff in the bottom photo, which was taken from the surface of the glacier.

We climbed up a series of ladders and zigzagging metal steps bolted into the rock from the glacier to but. The view from the terrace next to the hut was beyond breathtaking. Below was the vast Great Aletsch Glacier, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. We looked right down at the Konkordia Platz, an amazing confluence of the glacier we hiked down and side glaciers that meet right there. It is surrealistic to gaze at his scene of rock-rimmed, ice-filled valleys where human evidences seem very far away — even though we had left the Jungfraujoch just a few hours earlier and though the hutkeepers were just inside, preparing hot meals and pouring wine and beer for hungry, thirsty trekkers.

While the glacier surface at the beginning of our route was covered soft snow that became mushy in the afternoon snow and did not require crampons, as we approached the hut (two bottom images) the snow began to give over to crust. The second day, we were on ice, and we did need crampons. When we left the hut, we descended to the crenelated surface of the glacier, put on our crampons and kept on hiking. The farther down we went, the rougher the glacier surface and the more crevasses we encountered. We left the glacier and climbed up big rocky surface, unbuckled our crampons and followed a long trail through alpine meadows to the village of Bettmeralp.

Whenever I read about hiking on glaciers, standing on glaciers, looking at glaciers or making a drink with glacial ice, I want to be there too. So thanks, Ann Givens, for sharing your experience and resurrecting memories of some of my own.

Majestic Line Joins Cruise Line Trade Association

The Cruise Lines International Association has just announced that Majestic America Line has joined, becoming the 22nd cruise line on the CLIA roster. I’m not sure whether any cause and effect is in play here, but just a few weeks ago, a Majestic ship called the Empress of the North ran aground near Juneau — the fourth mishap for that particular vessel in considerably less than four years. I really have to wonder whether the line decided that membership in the cruise industry’s trade association might, to coin a phrase, calm the waters of its image.

Cruise Ship Runs Aground in Alaska

The Empress of the North is a 223-passenger cruise ship owned by Majestic America Line, but its history has been less than majestic. For the fourth time since it was launched, it had an accident — this time hitting Hanus Rock at the southern end of Icy Strait, less than 60 miles from Juneau. The 206 passengers on board were evacuated early this morning by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Alaska State Ferry and several dozen volunteer rescue boats.

Majestic America is the rebranding of the combined American West Steamboat Company and Delta Queen riverboats, and now claims to be “the largest river and coastal cruising company in the United States.” In fact, the 360-foot Majestic Queen was rebuilt to look more like a riverboat than a cruise ship. There’s even a decorative paddlewheel at the stern. Bizarre!

This imperially named ship with the weird cultural cross-fertilization (a Mississippi riverboat in appearance gliding through Alaskan waters!) has sailed under a cloud since it was launched. According to KOMO-TV in Seattle, where the ship was built and is based, this is the fourth time it has hit something or run aground since it began service in 2003. According to the station:

  • In October of 2003, the Empress of the North hit a navigation lock at the Ice Harbor dam on the Snake River.
  • In November of 2003, it ran aground on the Oregon side of the Columbia River near The Dalles.
  • In March of 2006 it grounded on a sand bar in the Columbia near Washougal.
  • In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that the ship failed an inspection in February, and the agency is reportedly investigating what caused 26 passengers and seven crew members to get sick during a five-day Columbia River cruise in March.

This time, according to reports, the ship ran aground, took on water and suffered a breached oil tank, but somehow oil did not pollute the sea. It listed about 10 degrees but stabilized before continuing to Juneau under its own power with a Coast Guard escort. The weather was rainy and the glacier-fed water was a chilly 40 to 50 degrees.

P.S. added to this post later in the evening:
The following press release (with no individual person’s contact information) appeared later on the Majestic America Line website:

2101 4th Avenue, Suite 1150, Seattle, WA 98121 Phone: 206.292.9606

Revised Statement
3:30 p.m. PDT
May 14, 2007

Majestic America Line has announced that all of the passengers and crew of
Empress of the North have been safely transferred to Juneau following a
grounding incident in Southeast Alaska at 1:40 am local time today (May 14,
2007). The passengers and some crew members arrived in Juneau aboard the
Alaska state ferry, Columbia, at approximately noon today local time where
they were met by company representatives.

Passengers will be accommodated locally before boarding homeward
flights. Essential members of the crew stayed aboard Empress of the North,
which arrived under her own power in Juneau a short time ago. She is now
undergoing a thorough assessment and investigation of the incident.

No injuries were reported during the incident.

Empress of the North was on the second day of a seven day cruise of
Alaska’s Inside Passage roundtrip from Juneau that departed on Saturday, May
12. According to David Giersdorf, President “The safety and comfort of our
guests is our number one priority. We are continuing to take all measures to
ensure that all of their needs are met in as a result of this situation. We
are working closely with all regulatory authorities to undertake a full
investigation and assess the condition of the vessel.”

“In addition, we would like to thank the U.S. Coast Guard for their exceptional response and support in this incident We are indeed fortunate that we have such dedicated professionals protecting America’s coastlines and waterways. We also want to express our gratitude to the vessels and crew members who assisted with the transfer of guests off the Empress of the North, as well as the Alaska Marine Highway system for supplying the Columbia and her officers and crew for transporting our guests back to Juneau. The cooperation and support from all parties involved has been exemplary.”