INDEPENDENT ALASKA TRAVEL
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My account of a 2 week Holland America Panama Canal Cruise aboard the M/S Statendam. Ports: San Diego, Puerto Vallarta, Hultulco, Puerto Chiapias, Puerto Quetzal (Guatemala) Canal Zone, Panama, Cartegena, Columbia and Ft. Lauderdale
It had been a good 25 years since my last cruise experience so time to update and refresh impressions and experiences. Here’s the account:
Cruise lines economy of scale boggles the mind. They manage enormous passenger volumes with dazzling efficiency.
Boarding Holland America’s M/S Statendam in San Diego requires only a brief check-in before you’re in your cabin but missing is the old-fashioned festive feeling of embarkation to far away places recalled 30 years ago boarding this ship’s namesake, the S.S. Statendam.
This Statendam was built about 1993 and carries about 1,300 passengers. It had an extensive re-fit in 2010.
The ship functions effortlessly. East Asian staff, universally cheerful and helpful tend to the mostly age 60+ passengers with kind attention.
The Statendam has a beautiful library with an extensive collection and a librarian. Adjacent, in the Explorer’s lounge, are globes and maps useful for studying your route. On hot afternoons, the open-air pool aft seems more inviting than the “Lido” amidships but both are popular.
Dining options begin at the Lido buffet. Mornings, the made-to-order omelet station is popular enough to cause jostling among late risers. A machine makes fresh orange juice and the pecan Danish are always the first to go. Lido lunches are a little less memorable.
Evening brings more choice. The main dining room, included in your cruise fare or the Italian themed “Canaletto” or “Pinnacle” which are extra cost options. Sampling Canaletto one evening, just partitioned from the Lido finds the lighting a little bright for dinner conversation but the food is good and the deserts excellent. Pinnacle Grill offers a elegant décor with a very superior dining experience. There is tableside preparation of delicious food from an outstanding wait staff. It’s well worth the extra cost.
At his welcome reception the Captain is droll and suave. He introduces all major staff and makes pleasant jokes. Entertainment follows and the main stage is lavish. The Asian staff wears white gloves, tails and pours champagne. Passenger dress at this “formal” event ranges from dinner jackets and sequins to shorts worn with suspenders.
More than a few people aboard are taking this trip back-to-back. Florida--San Diego and return. 30 days for around $2,000. Poolside, more than few people mention these 30 day cruises are cheaper living than most senior housing.
Nowadays cruise passengers are savvy. Waiting to re-board a tour bus there’s a short conversation about cruise line “demographics”-(a term formerly used only in marketing meetings). At dinner, conversation turns to the best use of internet-booked frequent flier air miles for cheap flights home.
Cabins are funny things. Years ago I booked customers in a category “B” stateroom at the far stern of this ship, one of only two aboard with a “wrap-around” veranda. They had ocean views both aft and to the side. I was so excited I called later to see how it went. “How was the cabin?” I asked. “Well” the gentleman drawled, “It’s a little far away from everything.” Lesson: Everybody’s on board for different reasons.
Today on an excellent shore excursion in Puerto Vallarta, young people working for “Outdoor Adventures” a shore excursion vendor take obvious delight in their jobs cheerfully entertaining and watching over older tourists on a cruise boat to an exquisite snorkeling bay then guide them carefully on a hike through a secluded village to see a beautiful waterfall. Returning, they joyfully entertain while serving drinks and lunch. The cruise actuaries impose their requirements: a guide carries a first aid kit, everybody has walkie-talkies, and everybody wears a life jacket. But also, everybody has a great time.
The Mexican government put a lot of money into Hualtulco building a cruise ship dock to accommodate two mega-ships. The swimming beaches—teeming with fish are just at the end of the pier. The port ends up being a sleepy winner.
There’s less to do in Puerto Chiapas. The isthmus city of Tapachula is a $10 round trip bus ride away or tours are offered to local Mayan ruins.
The stop in Guatemala brings the shore excursion, “Antigua on your own” a tremendous value with a bus ride, through magnificent cane and coffee fields overrun with flowers then a couple hours to look around Antigua, a UNESCO world heritage site, overflowing with historic landmarks, interesting shopping and spellbinding vistas of the encircling volcanoes. I’d toyed with the idea of taking the expensive ($599 p.p.) flight to the Mayan ruins at Tikal on the other side of the country but a comment overheard at the shore excursion stopped me. “There’s never enough time.”
If you pick a cruise for the ports of call, I suggest adding up total in-port hours and comparing that ratio to the overall cruise duration. Destinations such as Alaska tend to have higher in-port time while trans-ocean or Panama Canal cruises tend to have less. On this, we spend about 10% of the time in ports—not including the day in the Panama Canal.
In Panama, an historian is brought aboard to narrate the transit of the Panama Canal. She has a thorough knowledge of the history and construction of this amazing site. Doors of the locks, 400 tons each and now 100 years old, are still the biggest in the world.
The Captain opens up the bow allowing passengers full access to all decks while a closed circuit TV broadcasts into cabins. For those so interested, the Panama Canal makes this whole cruise worthwhile.
imported item produced with low cost overseas labor.
The last, mostly forgettable port is Cartagena, Columbia “setting your toe in South America” as the debonair captain puts it. The old town has a fort with a “pirates of the Caribbean” feel to it but the tour guide gives a long winded and tedious narration making it huge relief to get back to the ship and sail for Florida.
In the 30 years between sailing the Caribbean on the last Statendam and this one cruising has gone from a pastime of the affluent to a leisure mega-industry. It’s shed some of it’s glamor but kept several very nice things. The sea still gets excitingly rough at night, the promenade still has comfortable teakwood deckchairs and the Indonesian crew is ever cheerful and smiling.
November 14, 2012
Here's the new tour with pricing for 2013:
Whether you fly, ferry or cruise to get to Anchorage this 9 day independent tour is econimical with an exciting mix of transportation and scenic beauty.
$1,499 per person, double
Upgrade to Goldstar on Alaska Railroad: $190 per person
You can begin or end in Seward for $100 extra
Day 1-Saturday Driving distance: 127 Miles
Pick up your AVIS car this morning in Anchorage and drive south along the Seward Highway passing Potters Marsh waterfowl sanctuary. Continue along magnificent Turnagain Arm then detour into charming Girdwood and Mt. Alyeska ski resort. Portage Glacier Lake and visitor center are the next stop along the way. There’s an optional sightseeing trip across the lake to see the glacier—purchase tickets at the visitor center. Cross Turnagain Pass to Seward where you overnight.
Take the narrated 6 hour, Kenai Fjords cruise today. The cruise offers an excellent opportunity to see birdlife, whales, otters and seals. Return to Seward this afternoon. Overnight in Seward. (Lunch included.)
Day 3-Monday Driving distance: 90 miles
Return north today to the Whittier Tunnel. The Anton Anderson tunnel is the longest shared rail and highway tunnel in North America. It was constructed during World War II to make Whittier the port city for Anchorage. Cars drive single file on the rail tracks. After arriving in Whittier, board the Alaska Ferry and watch for Orca whales and otters while you sail across travel across magnificent Prince William Sound to Valdez. A US Forest Service ranger offer interesting commentary on this trip. Overnight in Valdez.
Depart 2:15 pm Arrive 8:00 pm (schedule varies)
Day 4-Tuesday Driving distance 105 miles
Depart this morning for the short drive to Copper Center. Pass through the Keystone Canyon and cross spectacular Thompson Pass. The balance of the day is free in Copper Center to see the Wrangell St. Elias National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site. Overnight in Copper Center.
Day 5-Wednesday Driving distance 259 miles
Drive north to Fairbanks today along the Richardson Highway. Weather permitting, views of the Wrangell Mountains are superb. Overnight in Fairbanks.
The day is free in Fairbanks. Recommended is a visit to the University of Alaska Museum or the optional trip on the Riverboat Discover. Overnight in Fairbanks.
Return your rental car to the AVIS office this morning at the Fairbanks airport and take the shuttle to the Alaska Railroad depot. The Alaska Railroad train has comfortable seating with picture windows in all coaches as well as access to the dome car. You will see the spectacular Nenana River Gorge before arriving at Denali Park. Overnight in Denali Park.
Depart 8:15 am Arrive 12:15 pm
The day is free in Denali Park for the shuttle bus trip for wildlife viewing. Weather permitting, views of Mt. McKinley (Denali) are spectacular. Return to your lodgings at the park entrance this evening. Overnight in Denali.
After a morning free in Denali Park board the Alaska Railroad for the trip back to Anchorage. Much of the afternoon, the train follows the Susitna River network which allows opportunity to watch for bear and moose.
Depart 12:25 pm Arrive 8:00 pm
October 24, 2012
Here’s a great bear viewing itinerary:
Customers from abroad are very interesting in seeing the Bears gathering at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. In addition, they’re birders. Combining the two interest is easy in Southwest Alaska. They will visit Denali National Park before the trip to the Aleutians. Here’s their itinerary:
Day 1-Tuesday-September 3
Board the Alaska Ferry in Homer this evening for the trip out the Aleutian chain. Overnight on board the ferry.
Depart: 10:30 pm Arrive: --:--
Day 2-Wednesday-September 4
The ferry calls in Kodiak today. Recommended is a visit to the Baranof Museum location very near the ferry terminal. Overnight on board the ferry.
Otters near the ferry terminal
Day 3-Thursday-September 5
Late in the day the ferry calls at Sand Point. Overnight on board.
Day 4-Friday-September 6
Ports of call today are King Cove, Cold Bay and False Pass. Overnight on board the ferry.
Day 5-Saturday-September 7
There is a port call in Akutan early this morning, then the ship docks in Dutch Harbor. During the stop over there is time to see some of Dutch Harbor and Unalaska Island. Reboard the ferry for the return trip. Overnight on board.
Day 6-Sunday-September 8
Visits in Cold Bay, King Cove and False Pass today. Overnight on board
Day 7-Monday-September 9
The ferry is at sea today. Overnight on board.
Day 8-Tuesday-September 10
After a call in Kodiak, the ferry returns to Homer later today. Fly to Anchorage this evening. Overnight in Anchorage
Depart --:- Arrive 5:00 pm
Day 9-Wednesday-September 11
Board the flight from Anchorage to King Salmon today for the connection to the float plane to Brooks Lodge. Overnight at Brooks Lodge.
Float plane to Katmai
Bear viewing on the van tour to the Katmai Valley
Brooks Lodge Cabin
Day 10-Thursday-September 12
The full day ranger-led van tour to the “Valley of 10,000 smokes is today. Return to Brooks Lodge this evening to overnight.
Day 11-Friday-September 13
After a morning free for bear viewing, return to Anchorage this afternoon. Overnight in Anchorage.
The Aleutian trip runs about $2,100 for two people including a four berth cabin with full facilities. Katmai trip runs about $2,300 for two nights including all transportation from Anchorage. Meals for both trips are additional.
The great thing about their trip is they will go completely off the beaten tourism path and see parts of Alaska most visitors won’t see.
October 16 , 2012
Customers from abroad wanted a low-cost itinerary Vancouver, BC to Anchorage, Alaska using the ferry. If you’re willing to travel on the Alaska Ferry without cabin arrangements and stay shore side in modest B & B’s or hostels you can keep costs low and see a lot of Alaska.
(Hostels and small B & B’s usually require you to book direct. Often credit cards are not accepted and booking terms can be stricter that a traditional hotel.)
You can sleep in chaise lounge chairs indoors or outdoors on the ferry. They’ll allow you to pitch a tent on the deck.
Here’s the itinerary—ferry arrival and departure times vary
Make your way from Vancouver, BC to Bellingham, Washington—about 55 miles by Amtrak, Greyhound, or Quick Shuttle today. Board the Alaska Ferry this evening and sail north. Overnight on board the ferry.
Ferry departs: 6 PM
The ferry is at sea along the inside passage. You will sail past the Queen Charlotte Islands. Overnight on board the ferry.
Arrive in Ketchikan, Alaska early today. You have the rest of this day to see the points of interest. Recommended is the village of Saxman, the Totem Heritage Center and the fish hatchery. Depending on schedule, the ferry to Sitka will leave after midnight tonight.
After boarding the ferry very early this morning the ferry will call at the ports of Wrangell and Petersburg this morning. The transit of the “Wrangell Narrows” between the two Alaskan fishing towns is considered one of the high points of the inside passage trip and never visited by the large cruise ships. Overnight on board the ferry.
Arrive in Sitka early this morning. The balance of the day is free for seeing the many historical sights. Most are easy walking distance. Overnight in Sitka
Take the fast ferry over to Juneau this afternoon. This part of the inside passage, called “peril strait” is also very scenic. Overnight in Juneau.
The day is free for seeing the Capitol of Alaska. Recommended is a visit to Mendenhall Glacier and the Alaska State Museum. Overnight in Juneau.
Camping on the deck of the ferry
Take the ferry north along the Lynn Canal to Skagway today. You’ll see glaciers from the deck of the ferry. Overnight in Skagway.
Saturday—125 miles driving
The morning is free for the White Pass and Yukon Railroad trip. Pick up your AVIS car this afternoon and drive north 125 miles to Whitehorse, Yukon. Overnight in Whitehorse.
Sunday—about 290 miles driving
Drive north along the Alaska Highway. At Haines Junction, visit the headquarters of Kluane National Park. Overnight in Beaver Creek, Alaska.
Somewhere along the Alaska Highway
Monday-about 310 miles driving
Continue into Fairbanks along the Alaska Highway via the towns of Tok, and Delta Junction, Alaska. Overnight in Fairbanks.
The day is free for seeing Fairbanks or taking an optional trip north of the Arctic Circle. The University of Alaska Museum is highly recommended. Overnight in Fairbanks.
Board the Alaska Railroad this morning for the trip south to Denali National Park. The afternoon is free in the park for one of the interesting programs offered by the park rangers. Overnight in Denali Park.
There is a full day free in Denali for one of the excellent shuttle trips into the park. Box lunches are available at several places because there are no restaurants or food service on the route. Return to your lodgings at the park entrance this afternoon. Overnight in Denali.
After a morning free in Denali, board the Alaska Railroad for the trip south to Anchorage. You will arrive about 8:15. If your schedule is tight, there are departing flights from Anchorage to Seattle and points south around midnight.
Cost for two:
$85 AlaskaPass booking fee
$879 15 day Alaskapass, travelpass
-300 AVIS credit for two
$650 Estimate for TOTAL cost of AVIS car rental including drop fee in Fairbanks, rental and taxes. Insurance and fuel additional.
$2,193 for two
This includes Alaska Ferry, White Pass summit excursion, credit for AVIS car and Alaska Railroad “adventure class” service, Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage
Lodging estimate will vary depending on type. $150/night double for hotels, considerably less for hostels.October 12, 2012
This in from the Anchorage Daily News
October 12, 2012
The Alaska Sealife Center is in Seward—just about 120 miles south of Anchorage accessible by excellent highway or daily service on the Alaska Railroad. It’s a must visit when in Seward.
Orphaned walruses cared for at Alaska Sealife Center. Read more here
The Alaska Ferry
October 10, 2012
The Alaska ferry is not comparable to a cruise ship. It’s appeal includes the fact that calls are made in out of the way ports and passengers include Alaskan residents who use the ferry as their “marine highway”.
Employees aboard the Alaska ferry are also Alaskan residents most have worked many years aboard the ferries and have interesting stories to tell.
Cost for two people and a 4 berth outside cabin with full facilities was $2,400. (Meals are extra.)
Here’s the 6 day itinerary which includes many out of the way stops not visited by the cruise ships:
Depart Bellingham, Washington at 6 PM
The ferry sails north past Bella Bella, British Columbia and the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Mid-day vessel call in Ketchikan. Transit the Wrangell Narrows later this day.
Mid-day vessel call in Juneau (Auke Bay).
Morning stop in Yakutat.
Mid-day stop in Whittier with afternoon stop in Chenega Bay
Morning stop in Kodiak then evening arrival in Homer, Alaska
From Homer, customers rented a car and drove north along the Kenai Penninsula to see Seward then continued along Turnagain Arm to return the car in Anchorage for the return flight home.
Here’s a short video about the ferry system:
Comments from previous travelers:
I went ashore every stop. Some were only two hours so it was a hike up the hill to look at the train display in one, a hike to the local church, etc. One of the stops was at 6am; travelers have to realize it is for the convenience of loading travelers and goods.
The ferry has a notebook at the purser's counter that describes the sights of each port. The ferry landing is often a distance away from downtown so a brisk walk is needed. The Juneau dock was a 20 min. taxi ride and over $30 so we rode in with a vanload.
Ketchikan,Kodiak and Juneau were my fav stops. Other passengers went to the M. Glacier in Juneau; we went to the museum with a large area of native and wildlife displays. In Ketchikan I watched salmon working their way up a creek to spawn just 10 min. from the ferry! Kodiak had my favorite native museum of the ALetuik (sp).
The cruise ships are so big they can't go up the passages we did. Scenery is amazing with the highest coastal mtn. range in the US--clobbering ice fields and glaciers regularly. Whale sightings are common for a number of days of the trip and the staff would give us advance notice.