(Part II of a report on a Silversea Alaska cruise)
The Silver Shadow, the ship on which my wife and I sailed for a nine-day Alaska Inland Passage cruise with the Silversea line, nudged little by little toward a huge glacier. Captain Ignazzio Tatulli brought the vessel amazingly close, after he had chosen that waterway path because the one originally chosen was deemed too dangerous due to breakaway ice flows. His “backup plan,” he called this alternate. It was an exciting choice, as with the ship positioned so close, we could see how imposing the glacier was and even watch chunks of ice falling in a first-hand example pertaining to global warming and fears of its eventual effect. A large number of seals were in the area, some resting on the floating ice. We remained quite a while until the captain deftly and slowly turned the ship around in the narrow passage.
Seeing glaciers is one of the high points of such a communing-with-nature cruise, which began after we boarded the Silver Shadow in Vancouver, British Columbia. For example, in a side trip after we docked in Juneau, we visited the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, from which we were able to get a fine view of that glacier, as well as see photos showing the retreat of the ice that had taken place over the years.
For Easterners, Alaska has an almost mythical status. It didn’t become a state until 1959. It stands apart from other more typical states, as does Hawaii. Historically, the Russians blundered when they sold ultimately valuable Alaska to the United States in 1867 for a relative pittance, $7.2 million. Ethnically, the state is important, for its native inhabitants go far back in history and culture, one of the other aspects one learns about when stopping at the various ports of call. Such cruises have earned popularity during recent years. Everyone to whom I had spoken raved about the experience, and we found their enthusiasm justified. Ports visited by the Silver Shadow were Ketchikan, Sitka, Skagway, Juneau, and then in British Columbia, the charming Victoria.
The key to getting the most out of such a venture is choosing the right side trips. Silversea makes it easy, with its listing of a wide variety of possibilities. Passengers are advised to book ahead, but the shipboard staff at the Tour Desk takes reservations until the previous day, assuming still available space. Many side tours at each of the ports are offered, some of which are quite glamorous and, as might be expected, more expensive than others.
Take your pick. At Ketchikan, you could opt for a lumberjack show, a fishing expedition, seeing fjords by floatplane, a bear watch or simply sightseeing by a horse-drawn trolley. A Misty Fjords and Wilderness Explorer boat trip to observe the beautiful scenery along the way was an excellent chance to get up close to breathtaking natural surroundings, including waterfalls. One striking moment occurred when we suddenly spotted a rarely seen black mother bear and her two cubs scampering along the shore.
En route there were opportunities for whale watching. Getting a chance to see bald eagles, perched in their tree nests or up close, was an unusual treat. An interesting visit at Sitka was to the Alaska Raptor Center, a non-profit institution where injured eagles that have been rescued are brought to be mended so that they can go back to their natural habitat. We saw impressive eagles in cages but also in a room where a young attendant held one up while he talked about that particular bird and the species. Through a window we could observe an eagle getting an examination, as if in a doctor’s office. During a walk through town we passed a sideshow that attracted a crowd, and watched a huge eagle in captivity. When the bird expanded its wings and screeched the effect was formidable. Among other options at Sitka were a sea otter and wildlife exploration tour, a salmon fishing trip and a kayak adventure.
In our quest to learn something about gold rush history, we joined a walking tour in Skagway. A knowledgeable ranger with the gift of the gab informed us about the area and the legendary figures who made headlines in the lawless era due to the rush to find gold and the inevitable greed. He showed us various historical buildings, and at the visitors center from which the tour started there were reproductions of a 1908 newspaper reporting the famous gun battle in which City Engineer F. H. Reid shot and killed robber Soapy Smith. It was hardly objective reporting. The article began “The best days work that was ever done for Skaguay [spelled that way then] was done yesterday evening…”
Since we eat lots of salmon at home, cultivated and wild, we were particularly interested to visit a hatchery in Juneau, where salmon are raised. We walked along the areas in which the stages of the process are carried out. When the salmon are deemed ready, they are released into the sea. After spawning, we were told, the salmon use their remarkable sense of smell to find their way back to the hatchery to die.
When the Silver Shadow reached each port, there were options for morning or afternoon trips, as well as all-day excursions. Following are just a few of the listings and their relative costs per person. The tabs indicate that when taking a cruise, one should count on significant add-ons, depending on how much one intends to see and experience. Consider the following--just a sampling of possibilities we were offered:
At Ketchikan: Misty Fjords by Floatplane, $245; Neets Bay Bear Watch, $335; Alaska Bear Adventure by plane, $335, Rainforest Wildlife Sanctuary, $84.
At Sitka: Historic Sitka and Alaska Raptor Center, $62; Sea Otter and Wildlife Exploration, $119; Wilderness Sea Kayak Adventure, $109; Sitka Salmon Fishing, $205; Sitka Bike and Hike Adventure, $79.
At Skagway: Glacier Point Wilderness Safari, $239; Glacier Country Flightseeing, $232; Ice Field Flightseeing and Dog Sledding, $465; Glacier Discovery by Helicopter, $275; Alaska Sled Dog and Musher’s Camp, $114.
At Juneau: Mendenhall Glacier Explorer, $39, Helicopter Glacier Walkabout, $349, Pilot’s Choice Exploration, $388; Dog Sledding on Mendenhall Glacier Reached by Helicopter, $525; Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest, $129, Taku Glacier Lodge Flight and Feast, $275.
After leaving Alaska, we had an opportunity to see Victoria, British Columbia, where one could amble about to get the feel of the city or take a sightseeing tour. A must is a visit to the renowned and spectacular Butchart Gardens, where a great variety of flowers and plants have bloomed for more than 100 years.
For further information about Silversea Alaska cruises or other trips offered by this line, go to www.silversea.com.