Tag Archive | "Alaska"

Traveling Alaska’s Marine Highway by Ferry

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The Malaspina is one of the largest vessels in the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The Malaspina is one of the largest vessels in the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Story & photos by Julie Snyder

As if on cue, the glacier emitted a deep rumble and then calved an enormous slab of blue ice into the waters of Tracy Arm. We’d slowly dodged icebergs, bergy bits (small icebergs) and growlers (even smaller) for several hours before coming face to face with the frigid beauty of Sawyer Glacier and witnessing the dazzling performance.

This is why we had come to Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage—for the drama and beauty of nature—and nature didn’t let us down.

A network of waterways through an island maze on the Pacific Coast of the U.S. and Canada, the Inside Passage extends from Puget Sound in northwest Washington to Skagway, Alaska. The Alaska stretch weaves through the 300-mile long Alexander Archipelago, home to more than 1,100 islands separated from the thickly forested mainland by deep, often narrow channels.

John Muir was full of platitudes for our destination after he first visited in 1879. In his book, “Travels in Alaska,” he said “No excursion that I know of may be made into any other American wilderness where so marvelous an abundance of noble, newborn scenery is so charmingly brought to view as on the trip through the Alexander Archipelago.”

Though Southeast Alaska is only an appendage to a giant fist of a state, the region is not without natural superlatives, among them Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the U.S. with 17 million acres; and the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Icefield, fifth largest in the western hemisphere and home to the popular Mendenhall Glacier.

There are several ways to explore the Alaskan panhandle—on enormous cruise ships with thousands of passengers, on small ships with 10-to-100 travelers, on a private craft or via an Alaska Marine Highway System ferry, the regional travel lifeline. Our journey was instigated by a friend who suggested we join her on a small-ship cruise, but after checking out the itinerary and cost, we decided to see more and spend less by designing our own two-week ferry journey.

AMHS Lifeline
Fifty-three years ago, the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) launched regular ferry service in the Inside Passage, a godsend to isolated coastal communities carved out of the wilderness. Service soon expanded to other parts of Alaska where the rugged terrain limits a land-based road system. Today 30 communities are served along 3,500 miles of coastline by a fleet of 11 ships. The AMHS is the only marine route to be lauded as a National Scenic Byway.

As the travel planner for a late May adventure with my husband, sister and brother-in-law, I created an itinerary before the 2016 ferry schedule was released. Alas, the schedule designers and I were not in sync and it took considerable rearranging to accommodate our interests with the ferry schedule. After the fact, we all agreed that the itinerary was perfect and with the exception of one more day in Glacier Bay (nixed by the schedule), we wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Creek Street in Ketchikan, where “both men and salmon came upstream to spawn” when it was a red-light district.

Creek Street in Ketchikan, where “both men and salmon came upstream to spawn” when it was a red-light district.

Ketchikan
First stop, Ketchikan, gateway to the Inside Passage. Hugging the southwest shore of Revillagigedo Island, Ketchikan began life as a salmon cannery site in 1885. Fishing, mining and logging have all contributed to the community’s development though it’s been tourism—especially from cruise ship passengers—that has played the largest role in the its fortunes.

A welcoming (if a bit hard- edged) community, Ketchikan is described as “31 miles long and never more than 10 blocks wide”—that’s about all the adjacent wilderness will allow. The only way in or out is by water or air. We arrived by the latter, a flight from Seattle to Ketchikan International Airport on Gravina Island, then took to the former in the form of a 5-minute ferry transfer across the Tongass Narrows to Ketchikan. Now that the notorious “Bridge to Nowhere” projects appears permanently scrapped, the ferry is the only airport shuttle in town.

The community of 8,000 clusters around the main harbor, then spreads out in both directions along the waterfront, with structures built on stilts over the water and up steep slopes accessed by winding wooden staircases. As unique as the architecture were the locals we met while riding the bus and sipping Alaskan Brewing Company IPA at a popular restaurant, Bar Harbor. A collection of long-timers and recent arrivals, they were without exception proud of their town and the lifestyle it offered—150 average inches of annual rain nothwithstanding.

Among our favorite experiences in Ketchikan: Creek Street, an antique boardwalk constructed on pilings over Ketchikan Creek and originally the town’s red-light district where signage proclaimed that “both men and salmon come upstream to spawn”; Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, which affords an excellent introduction to the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes, early inhabitants of Southeast Alaska whose cultural and artistic heritage are still very evident. Though we didn’t make the trip, local intelligence rated Misty Fjords National Monument as a spectacular adventure, particularly if one boats out and flies back.

Native American totem poles—stately, often whimsical, symbols of commemoration, legend and lineage hand carved from western red cedar—were a fascinating fixture of the landscape throughout our journey. Ketchikan boasts 80, the world’s largest collection, and is home to Totem Bight State Historical Park (my personal favorite), Saxman Native Village and the Totem Heritage Center.

Colorful Native American totem poles decorate landscapes in communities throughout the Inside Passage.

Colorful Native American totem poles decorate landscapes in communities throughout the Inside Passage.

On Board the Malaspina
One couldn’t miss the Malaspina, our ferry to Skagway, when it docked in front of our hotel.  One of three sister ships that made up the original AMHS fleet in 1963, the sturdy vessel is 408 feet long and accommodates 450 passengers and about 100 vehicles.

We were anxious to get aboard and explore what was to be our home for 27 hours. The four-bunk cabin with bath and shower we had reserved was cozy but comfortable and a window kept claustrophobia at bay. We staked claim to a table in the forward lounge so we could play cards while taking in the view. Once underway, passengers moved about the boat, walking laps around the deck, taking a meal in the dining room, watching movies in the theater and just savoring the panorama.

It was smooth sailing, because, as John Muir explained in “Travels in Alaska,” “The ordinary discomforts of a sea voyage are not felt, for nearly all the whole way is on inland waters that are about as waveless as rivers and lakes.”

We’d heard that large ferries had an upper deck that permitted camping, and sure enough, we discovered a bevy of tents and lounge chairs strewn with sleeping bags. Covered but open air, the deck had heat lamps to ward off the marine chill. Sadly, passengers wishing to sip a beer while watching for wildlife are out of luck—Alaska budget cuts resulted in the closure of the popular ferry lounges in early 2015. Travelers with reserved cabins can imbibe there but there’s not room for much of a party.

The scenery was mesmerizing—dense forest marching down to the shoreline, snow topped peaks, islands everywhere. Muir again: “So numerous are the islands that they seem to have been sown broadcast; long tapering vistas between the largest of them open in every direction.”

Binoculars at the ready, we scanned the calm water for whales, the mountainsides for bears and tall trees for what looked like white golf balls amid the branches but which were actually bald eagles. Whenever wildlife was spotted, the news rippled through the ship and there was a collective dash outside to the deck.

The ferry docked in Wrangell, founded by the Russians in 1834 as a fur-trading settlement, and we had an hour to wander the lanes lined with flower-festooned cottages. Today fishing and tourism keep the community afloat. Visitors in July and August can catch the show at Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory when bears fish for salmon in Anan Creek, with the largest pink salmon run in Southeast Alaska.

Departing Wrangell, we were in for a show of our own—the Wrangell Narrows, a 22-mile tidal waterway notorious for challenging even the finest navigators. Sixty-five navigational markers help guide the way, yet “recorded incidents … have occurred at the rate of nearly one every ¼ mile.” We were captivated by the shoreline, which felt nearly close enough to touch, but relieved when we docked at Petersburg, alas too far from town to deboard.

We snoozed and the ship cruised, docking in Juneau just after 3 am. By the time it departed for Skagway an hour later it was starting to get light so we had coffee (the espresso machine spent more time out of service than in) on deck and watched the sunrise.

A bald eagle soars above an enormous iceberg floating in Tracy Arm.

A bald eagle soars above an enormous iceberg floating in Tracy Arm.

Food, Lodging, Et Al
A few words about topics of universal interest to travelers: food, weather, shopping, lodging and local transit:

  • As delicious as we found the scenery throughout our journey, the cuisine—not so much. Meals were quite pricey—not surprising since all goods must be shipped or flown in—but rarely memorable. Ferry dining room fare was hit-or-miss and lines often long. Our best meals were in pubs frequented by locals.
  • The weather gods were with us but can be fickle so be prepared. We traveled the last two weeks in May and skirted the rain until our last night in Sitka and savored a number of sunny days in the 60s. Casual clothes and multiple layers served us well on land and sea.
  • Though not big shoppers, we do look for authentic finds when traveling—but discovering unique works by local craftsmen was a challenge, so prevalent are the jewelry shops reminiscent of a Caribbean port of call. A shopkeeper in Sitka introduced us to Northwest Pewter and we took home several handsome pieces. Look for “Made in Alaska” stickers, which certifies that at least 51% of the product was made in Alaska.
  • The hotel selection is somewhat limited, perhaps because so many visitors arrive by and stay on cruise ships. In Ketchikan and Juneau, we found the Best Westerns to be serviceable and both happily shuttled guests to attractions and restaurants. Westmark hotels are a good bet in Skagway and Sitka. If the choice was between hotel amenities and access to attractions, we chose the latter.
  • Communities are compact and so we walked nearly everywhere. When a destination was deemed too far to hoof it, we jumped on the local buses. Hotels were generous with shuttles around town and to ferry terminals. We rented a car one day in Juneau simply so we could cover more ground in our limited time in this spread-out community.

Nearing the end of our overnight voyage, we cruised leisurely up the Lynn Canal, the deepest fjord in North America (outside Greenland), unaware that we would soon forsake the peaceful Coast Mountain wilderness for a crush of cruise ships. The Malaspina may be one of the, largest vessels in the Alaska ferry system, but it was dwarfed by the three towering ships we encountered in the Skagway Harbor. A fourth joined the fleet later that day and we found ourselves part of dubious history—the first time more than 10,000 cruise passengers descended on Skagway in a day.

The front of the Skagway Visitor Center is paneled in driftwood.

The front of the Skagway Visitor Center is paneled in driftwood.

Skagway
Inhabited by Tlingit people from prehistoric times, Skagway became a boom town in the late 1800s when gold was discovered in the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon Territory. Hopeful prospectors flocked to the settlement, where they collected supplies for the 500-mile trek to the gold fields. In 1898, with a population of nearly 10,000, Skagway was the largest community in Alaska. Today, the permanent population is just over a 1,000, doubling during summer months to support the influx of tourists.

The visitor center at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is well worth a stop if, like me, you can’t get enough of Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild,” part of which takes place in Skagway. To experience some of the terrain the hardy miners traveled on foot, we boarded a vintage rail car on the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad for an excursion to the White Pass summit. A marvel of tunnels, trestles, bridges and cliff-hanging turns with views of glaciers, gorges, waterfalls and mountain vistas, the railway is, not surprisingly, an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. My favorite view, however, was a six-foot narrow, rocky patch of trail acknowledged by a small sign that says “Trail of 98.”

Back in Skagway, we took to side streets to avoid the throng that populated the boardwalks on Broadway, the town’s historic main street and found refuge at the Skagway Brewing Company. We’d been tipped off that this cheery pub was local favorite and it quickly became ours as well, with an excellent sockeye salmon salad, some of the best carrot cake I’ve had anywhere and a new favorite brew, Spruce Tip Blonde Ale. And yes, it is brewed with local spruce tips, some of which are picked by locals in exchange for free beer.

Just around the corner on 7th Avenue, the Skagway Museum showcases Yukon and Alaska native artifacts in the first stone building in Alaska, shared with City Hall. We toasted our goodbyes to Skagway at another pub, the Red Onion Saloon, which operated one of the most famous local bordellos during the Gold Rush and, with wait staff in period costumes, still offers a naughty charm.

Haines
We boarded the Haines Skagway Fast Ferry for a 45-minute ride partway back down the Lynn Canal to Haines, population 2,500, where we were greeted by only one, smaller cruise ship and the stunning Takinsha Mountains backdrop. The area was settled originally by the Tlingit tribe, who still maintain a strong cultural presence. The actual town of Haines developed around a mission school built in the 1880s to educate native children, and prospered through natural resources of gold and fish. Fort Seward was built in Haines in 1902, a display of Army strength in Alaska that became a training and staging area for troops headed to combat in the Aleutian Islands during World War II.

We took advantage of another crisp, dry day to float through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve with Andy Hedden, owner of Haines Rafting Company.  We were too early for the “Fall Congregations” (October-February) when the salmon run attracts more than 3,000 eagles to this 34-year-old preserve created to protect and perpetuate the world’s largest concentration of Bald Eagles. But multiple eagle sightings and stunning scenery as we drifted beneath lofty mountains, hanging glaciers and thick forests made for a most memorable adventure.

Juneau
Juneau—state capital and largest city on our itinerary with 30,000 residents—spreads for miles along a long, narrow sliver of coast. Though settled centuries earlier by the Tlingit, gold put Juneau on the map as a town in 1880. During the next 60 years, Juneau was home to three of the world’s largest gold mines. Pleasure travel by boat to Juneau dates back to Gold Rush days, and mining and tourism still are major contributors to the local economy, along with fishing and government.

We launched our tour of downtown Juneau with a 45-minute Trolley Tour that—though a bit kitschy—took us to parts of the city that we wouldn’t have gotten to on foot, and across Gastineau Channel to Douglas Island, home to remnants of the Treadwell gold mine, Eaglecrest Ski Area and about 20 percent of Juneau area residents. On foot, we wandered into the Red Dog Saloon where the gun that Wyatt Earp left behind is displayed behind the bar, the Sealaska Heritage Institute, a treasure trove of native art and culture, and Rainy Retreat Books, a friendly new, used and rare book shop.

The highlight of our Juneau stopover was actually several hours south, a cruise to Tracy Arm fjord aboard the 65-foot Captain Cook, arranged through Adventure Bound Alaska. Sheer rock walls, steep, verdant cliffs and endless waterfalls rimmed our voyage 20 miles deep into the narrow waterway. Floating in the turquoise water, ice floes from small-house-to-dog-house size made navigation challenging, but our skilled captain piloted us safely to the foot of Sawyer Glacier—the most beautiful of our entire Alaska journey—just in time for it to calve. On the return trip, we spotted seals sunbathing on icebergs and a pod of leaping humpback whales escorted us back to the harbor. A perfect day.

On our last day in the Juneau area, we rented a car to view the rapidly receding Mendenhall Glacier, a finger of the massive Juneau Icefield accessorized by a beautiful iceberg-dotted lake and thundering waterfall. Then we drove “out the road,” as the locals say, to hike in Point Bridget State Park, where post-glacial rebound has lifted the landscape, and wander around Shrine of St. Therese, a lovely lakeside retreat center.

Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm fjord calved on cue for the passengers on the Captain Cook.

Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm fjord calved on cue for the passengers on the Captain Cook.

Glacier Bay
Four hours by ferry from Juneau, on the more compact Le Comte this time, landed us in the town of Gustavus—basically a four-way intersection with a few shops and galleries, and our entrée to Glacier Bay National Park. We rambled from the ferry terminal to Glacier Bay Lodge, the only hotel in the National Park, in a repurposed school bus. Set on the shore of Barlett’s Cove, the Lodge was a cozy home for our stay, with beach walking and rainforest hiking right out the door. The low-hanging clouds lifted soon after our arrival for a spectacular panorama of the Fairweather Mountain peaks.

John Muir’s 1879 expedition to Glacier Bay and his discovery of Muir Glacier set the stage for turn-of-the-century tourism here. Though most of the region’s glaciers have receded greatly since Muir’s time, there remains much beauty to behold.

A day-long wildlife cruise on Glacier Bay introduced us to tufted puffins, brown bears, mountain goats, sea lions, sea otters and humpback whales and several impressive glaciers, including the magnificent Margerie, one of the few glaciers that’s still actually growing. Our foray up John Hopkins Inlet to view its glacier was restricted because it was seal pupping season and the head of the inlet is a popular birthing spot. Similar attention to the habits of Glacier Bay wildlife is evidenced by “slow zones” where vessels are required to drop their speed because of the frequent presence of humpback whales.

Not surprisingly, we shared the far end of the bay with a cruise ship and for once, we were glad for the encounter—viewing the ship in front of the Margerie Glacier put the snow field’s immensity in perspective. Park regulations limit the number of cruise ships in the bay to two a day to minimize environmental impact. The enormity of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve—3.3 million acres of mountains, glaciers, forests and waterways—made us feel quite alone, and frankly, insignificant.

Our rich wilderness day was enriched even further by a contingent of Huna Tlingit children, for whom the boat trip and an overnight at Glacier Bay was the culmination of a nature project on the region. Between traditional songs and dances, they approached us to share some of what they’d learned. We were completely charmed.

The Sitka skyline showcases its Russian heritage.

The Sitka skyline showcases its Russian heritage.

Sitka
Sitka, an overnight ferry journey from Juneau, was our final destination. Aboard the Le Comte, we dozed in lounge chairs, waking up to a misty dawn as the ship navigated the narrow Neva Strait. The sun was barely up when we were greeted at the dock by the cheerful driver of a local tour bus, who treated us to tidbits about her town on the drive to our hotel. Who knew that James Michener lived there while writing “Alaska?” And that the Sitka City and Borough encompasses 4,710 square miles, making it the largest city in the U.S?

Arranged along a protected bay on Baranof Island with less than 20 miles of road, Sitka pays homage to the Tlingit and Russian cultures that shaped its history with a skyline marked by totems and onion-shaped domes. The community was called “New Archangel” by its Russian settlers in the early 1800s until the U.S. purchased “Seward’s Folly” in 1867. To the north massive Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano, keeps watch over the community of 9,000.

Since we arrived too early to check into our hotel, we dropped our bags and headed off on foot to the Alaska Raptor Center, a 17-acre sanctuary, education and research facility on the Indian River where each year 100-to-200 injured bald eagles and other raptors receive medical treatment. Lucky birds—including owls and hawks as well as eagles—are rehabilitated and released; also lucky are those not fit for the wild who receive lifetime sanctuary. In the Flight Training Center, we spied on eagles convalescing and conditioning in natural surroundings until it’s time to again to take wing.

We did our museum due-diligence at several worth the visit (Sheldon Jackson Museum; Russian Bishop’s House; St. Michael’s Cathedral), but it was more of Sitka’s wildlife that made the biggest impression. At Fortress of the Bear, we watched coastal brown bears and a trio of orphaned black bear cubs frolic, swim and nosh in safe but close proximity. The long-term goal of the Fortress is to pioneer a pilot rehabilitation program for the state of Alaska to eventually be able to return bears to the wild. With no such program in place, the current residents are among the lucky few to have been rescued and given sanctuary.

With our Alaskan adventure winding down, we savored a last rainforest hike and totem viewing in the Sitka National Historical Park, which commemorates the 1804 battle site between the resident Tlingit people and invading Russian traders. The park visitor center affords the chance to watch and chat with native craftspeople at work. Shopping in Sitka—especially for Southeast Alaskan crafts—was the best of the trip. One shop owner proudly told me that only two stores along the main street were not locally owned.

Over the last meal of our Inside Passage adventure, served by the charismatic Ramon (on whom, we’re told, the character of the same name in the Sandra Bullock movie “The Proposal” is based), we marveled—at how easy and comfortable it had been to travel by ferry, at the incredible beauty of the scenery, and the genuine warmth of the local people. Our weather fortunes did turn that evening with a downpour, but our early morning flight took off into a rainbow. Nature never let us down.

 

Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.

Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.

Alaska in Winter? Five Outdoorsy Reasons Why, Where, and When

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The Iditarod

An Iditarod competitor and team at the ceremonial start in Anchorage

 

Story & photos By Melissa Coleman

“Alaska, take back your winter,” has been a common complaint in the lower 48 this winter and last. “Gladly,” the snow-starved Alaskans reply.

Winter, after all, is what Alaska is known for, and when much of the fun happens. Especially March. March is when days return from the near constant darkness of December to a respectable, often sunny and bright 10-12 hours. It’s also the occasion of some of the state’s most celebrated events, plus great skiing and aurora borealis viewing. Herein, six March highlights from a winter trip to Anchorage and Fairbanks.

1) Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

Why: The Last Great Race on Earth makes pretty much anyone’s life seem easy by comparison. Competitors must thrive on cold, adversity, and sleep deprivation as they travel nearly 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome on the back of a dog sled, and in the paw prints of Balto and the heroic 1925 journey to save Nome from an outbreak of diphtheria. It seems like everyone in the state helps with the race or comes out to cheer on one of the 60-some dog teams. Five- and four-time winners Rick Swenson, Susan Butcher, and Martin Buser hold celebrity status in the state, and beyond, as do many of their dogs.

Where: Everyone lines the streets for the Iditarod (iditarod.com) ceremonial start in Anchorage to watch teams dash one-by-one down the snow-covered track on Fourth Street for a 12-mile warm-up to Campbell Creek. The next day’s official start is usually in Willow, but this year due to lack of snow, it will be in Fairbanks on Monday, March 9.

When: The ceremonial start is always on the first Saturday in March, which means the 43rd annual Iditarod begins Saturday, March 7, 2015, with winners reaching the finish line eight or nine days later, and the awards banquet in Nome on Sunday, March 22.

 

Fan shot with Dallas Seavey, before he became the 2014 Iditarod champion.

Fan shot with Dallas Seavey, before he became the 2014 Iditarod champion.

 

2) Dogsled Tours

Why: Dog mushing in Alaska is like baseball in the rest of the country, and anyone can give it a try with one of the many outfitters in the state. 2012 and 2014 Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey hosts rides with Salmon Berry Tours on a network of trails along the frozen lakes and tundra surrounding his kennel in Willow, about a two-hour drive from Anchorage. The dogs and guides are friendly and hard working and you can both ride aboard or drive a tag-along sled before returning to a hearty bag lunch (for large groups only) in the warming yurt. Similar adventures can be found with Leslie Goodwin-Williams at Paws for Adventure Sled Dog Tours on the outskirts of Fairbanks, and overnight expeditions are available with both outfitters.

Where: Salmon Berry Tours (salmonberrytours.com) will pick you up at your Anchorage location and drive you to Willow, and Paws for Adventure (pawsforadventure.com) is a 20-minute drive from downtown Fairbanks.

When: Tours operate from November to March or April, depending on snow coverage.

a3

View from Alyeska’s Upper Bowl, looking out to the Cook Inlet.

 

3) Alyeska Resort

Why: With a record of nearly 24 feet of snow falling in one month, Alyeska Resort is known for acres of deep and steep, as well as open and treeless intermediate terrain. Girdwood is also known as home to Olympic skier Tommy Moe and the sprawling chateau-style Hotel Alyeska, boasting eight floors, 304 rooms, and four dining options. Girdwood is the launching off point for many backcountry adventures, from snowmobiling to the glaciers and heli-skiing the Chugach, to backcountry and Nordic skiing with or without a guide. Fuel up at the Bake Shop for breakfast, Sitzmark Bar & Grill for lunch and après ski, and Jack Sprat for dinner.

Where: Located on the Cook Inlet in the Chugach Mountain range, Girdwood and Alyeska Resort (alyeskaresort.com) are a 45 minute drive from Anchorage. The Bake Shop (thebakeshop.com), Sitzmark Bar & Grill (thesitzmark.com), and Jack Sprat (jacksprat.net) are all within close proximity to the resort.

When: Lifts run from the mid-November to mid-April, with night skiing Thursday to Saturday from January to March. Days are short from November to mid February, but exceed 10 hours in March. Note for early risers: lifts open relatively late at 10:30 a.m.

Microbrews at Silver Gulch Brewing and Bottling Co. T-shirt slogan: “Fairbanks, where the people are unusual, and the beer is unusually good.”

Microbrews at Silver Gulch Brewing and Bottling Co. T-shirt slogan: “Fairbanks, where the people are unusual, and the beer is unusually good.”

4) Aurora Borealis Lodge

Why: Fairbanks is located under the aurora oval, which means it’s far enough north that there’s a good chance you’ll see the aurora borealis, or northern lights, at the Aurora Borealis Lodge, and certainly a lot of Japanese tourists. Myth has it the Japanese believe conceiving a child under the aurora brings good luck, but others say the rumor was popularized by an episode of Northern Exposure. Either way, the lodge is well situated for viewing this extraordinary phenomenon, located on top of a mountain 70 miles from Chena Hot Springs (another popular viewing destination) with a north-facing deck and large picture windows in the common room. Reserve ahead to stay in the two-bedroom chalet with private viewing deck or the four rooms in the main lodge with viewing windows (in case you want to the give the myth a shot). If the sky is overcast, call it a night and hit the Silver Gulch Brewing and Bottling Co. brewpub on the way back to Fairbanks.

Where: You can fly, drive, or take a train from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Aurora Borealis Lodge (auroracabin.com) is located on Cleary Summit 20 miles north of the city. Silver Gulch Brewing and Bottling Co. (silvergulch.com) is 11 miles from the lodge on Old Steese Highway.

When: The lodge is open from the end of August to end of March, with as much as 20-hours of night—which means more viewing time—from November to end of January.

In-flight view of the wilderness around the Arctic Circle.

In-flight view of the wilderness around the Arctic Circle.

 

5) Artic Circle

Why: If you’ve made it to Fairbanks at the 64th parallel, you might as well go the distance across the Arctic Circle at the 66th and visit Coldfoot Camp, about an hour by twin-engine plane with Northern Alaska Tour Company. Bonuses include expansive views of the white peaks and wide river valleys in the Yukon Flats and Kanuti national wildlife refuges and the Brooks Range. Coldfoot is a no-frills base for workers on the nearby Alaska Pipeline and the “male-female odds might be good, but the goods are odd,” as they say in these parts. Diversions include dog sledding, and if you stay the night, aurora borealis viewing. You also get a very official certificate upon returning to Fairbanks stating that you successfully crossed the Arctic Circle—which also means you survived the flight.

Where: Northern Alaska Tour Company (northernalaska.com) is based at the small-plane area of Fairbanks International Airport on University Avenue, and Coldfoot Camp is a 250-mile, six and a half hour drive north of Fairbanks (coldfootcamp.com).

When: Flights operate year round. Expect 24-hour dark on the winter solstice, December 21-22, and 24-hour light on the summer solstice, June 20-21.

 

 

Melissa Coleman is the author of This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak, a New York Times bestseller and Indie Next Pick for May 2011. It was a People’s Pick in People Magazine, excerpted in O, The Oprah Magazine, and a nonfiction finalist for the New England Book Award and Maine Literary Award. Melissa is a columnist for Maine Home + Design magazine and organizes the Super Famous Writers Series at The Telling Room, a Portland writing center for children and young adults. She lives in Maine with her husband and twin daughters and can be found at www.melissacoleman.com

Melissa Coleman has written for publications including the New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, and National Geographic Traveler. She is the author of This Life is In Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres and a Family’s Heartbreak, a New York Times bestselling memoir and finalist for the New England Book Award, about growing up during the 1970s back-to-the-land movement. She lives in Maine and can be found at melissacoleman.com.

When the Going was Good: Our 30 Favorite Trips in 2013

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departure-sign

The incredible team that puts together Everett Potter’s Travel Report every week is a well-traveled bunch. So asking our contributors about their favorite travel moment in 2013 produced joy, angst and lengthy answers, as well as the inevitable,  “Just one?”

Herewith are some highlights from our travels in 2013.

F8

BRAZIL

Riding a horse out of dense Brazilian rain forest and into a clearing where the Atlantic came into shimmering view, during a modified version of the horseback-and-hiking trek between two of my all-time favorite hotels, Fazenda Catucaba and Pousada Picinguaba. I was with the owner on a scouting mission for what will eventually become a two-day trip from the mountains to the sea (he’s hoping to get it going next year), with stops for gourmet picnics with the fazenda’s homemade cheese and breads and a night of glamping in a safari-style campsite, though virgin UNESCO-protected forests so untouched that we walked much of the way behind state park guides wielding machetes to break a path. – Ann Abel

 

f9

CHICAGO


I’d never really thought of going to one of the country’s biggest cities to unwind by a pool until last winter. My husband, daughter and I wanted to fly off to a beach for a relaxing winter getaway, but her UChicago break was too short. Our solution: we booked a mini-suite at the Four Seasons Chicago and promised ourselves we wouldn’t let the fact that all of Chicago was at our doorstep entice us to get into urban mode. Happily we kept our promise. The hotel’s Roman-columned pool, with a huge Jacuzzi and light streaming in through the skylight and floor-to-ceiling window wall let us forget how cold the Chicago winter was. We ventured out once to walk to one of the museums and take a shopping stroll down Michigan Avenue. But mostly our weekend consisted of lazing on the lounge chairs, swimming in the warm pool, and sipping cool drinks in the graciously-sized Jacuzzi. Oh yes, and enjoying room service. Pina colada anyone? – Geri Bain

 

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NYC

By far it was taking my first solo trip with my son to New York City. For his birthday if there was anywhere he could go in the world, where would it be? “New York City,” he said and pointed to it on the map next to his bunk bed. “It’s my favorite place in the universe.” We spent one epic day and night in the city — stayed at the fun and funky Ace Hotel in Midtown (“What’s a record?” he asked while playing with the turntable), hit the NYPL’s Children’s Literature Exhibit, the Nathan Sawaya Lego Art exhibit, rode the subways (“Better than a rollercoaster!”) and had a fancy dinner downtown at Chef Ryan Hardy’s Charlie Bird. And to celebrate the big day? An appearance in the Today Show crowd, a stroll through the Lego Store at Rockefeller Center, lunch and gelato at Eataly and “The Lion King” on Broadway. Even the train rides in and out of the city were a hit. More importantly we got to share our love of travel, discovery, food, people and art  together! – Amiee White Beazley 

 

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CANADA CRUISE

Just back from my best travel experience this year–sailing out of my home port, New York City at night (a thrill!) and cruising up the Atlantic coast to Canada on Regent’s Navigator.  All of the stops were fun–Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Saguenay, Quebec and Montreal, but the real surprise was visiting familiar close-to-home places like Newport and Bar Harbor that I’ve loved on land but found a treat seen from a new perspective, as ports of call.  – Eleanor Berman

 

F11

FLANDERS

Out on the road, every year has its special moments.  The Belgian province of Flanders, just beyond the center of Ypres, is where some of World War I’s bloodiest fighting occurred and where many events of the Great World War I Centenary will be celebrated in 2014.  Standing in Essex Farm Cemetery, beside the mossy bunker of the medical station where Lt. Col. John McCrae, a doctor, penned his poem, “In Flanders Fields,” I gazed out at the lines of headstones and could almost see those long-ago battlefields and hear his famous words: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the headstones, row on row.”  – Monique Burns

 

F 1

COLORADO

My best travel story of 2013 was staying up Little Woody Creek Valley with a recently-sited mountain lion, in a guest house once visited by Margaret Thatcher. The former Prime Minister happened to die while I was staying there, so each time I went for a walk, I imagined the mountain lion might appear and I’d suddenly find myself having tea with the Iron Lady in the ever after. – Melissa Coleman

 

F12

MONTEREY, CA

One of the most memorable moments of our family trip to Northern California last summer took place during a guided sea kayaking tour of Monterey Bay. Just at a spot where the winds got strong and paddling got a little rough, a rollicking band of sea lions and harbor seals swarmed around us and started clowning around for what seemed to be our amusement.  Seals were playfully nudging our kayaks and diving in between us.  Sea lions pups were leaping out of the water and striking funny poses midair.  It was hard to take our eyes off of them.  Talk about the greatest show on earth! -Jessica Genova

 

F13

PERU

The Andean Explorer, PeruRail’s luxury train service between Cuzco and Puno, is the greatest surface transportation trip I have ever taken in Latin America — and certainly the best choice for traveling to or from Lake Titicaca. The journey is not short — a full day, in fact — but the 10 hours go by quickly. One reason is the excellent entertainment: two different bands and dance troupes, featuring music and folklore from both the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the Andean plateau, perform in the morning and afternoon. A leisurely lunch consisting of regional specialties is included in the train fare, as is afternoon tea. Following lunch, the talented bartender in the observation car gives lessons in mixing Peru’s classic cocktail, the pisco sour. The scenic highlight of the journey — best enjoyed from the open-air rear car — is watching the sunset over Lake Titicaca, framed by the majestic peaks of the Bolivian Andes.  The staff provides friendly and attentive service throughout the journey; and given the international make-up of the train’s passengers, there are many opportunities to strike up interesting conversations with fellow travelers from many different countries. Cuzco and Machu Picchu are deservedly the leading tourist attractions in this part of the world; but Lake Titicaca — the highest navigable body of water in the world, and home to the fascinating people who live on the lake’s artificial floating islands — is a very worthwhile excursion. Especially since getting there is now half the fun. – Buzzy Gordon

 

F14

BRAZIL

Return to Brazil – from the toucans flying overhead, monkeys rustling the trees and up-close mists of Iguazu falls from our base at the newish Orient Express Cataratas – to the chic cobblestone streets, stylish boutiques, great dining and fabulous beaches of Buzios – to the always touristy but for a very good reason Christo in Rio, along with climbing up the base of Pao de Acucar / Sugarloaf Mtn. Bring on the Olympics and World Cup! – Cari Gray

 

F15

ALASKA

You’ve just marveled at Alaska’s great receding Mendenhall Glacier and have heeded the ranger’s suggestion to head to a nearby stream. Even forewarned, you’re still startled by the sight of the bear pushing purposefully through the high grass toward the shallow water.  As if scripted, she enters the stream. Snatches a slow moving, spawning salmon.  And drops it in the grass maybe 15 feet from your privileged perch on a fenced, raised boardwalk built expressly for this moment. Her two cubs join her, but get little of this catch, as the sow bites hungrily into the fish.  You’re so close that you hear the salmon bones crunching.  – John Grossmann

 

F16

MINNESOTA

Mall of America…where else can you ride a roller coaster, see a movie, eat in any one of 60 restaurants, witness a wedding in a Vegas-style marriage chapel, shop for Chanel, buy naughty lingerie or a hockey stick and have any part of your body pierced? Minneapolis itself was an eye-opening experience for this admitted New York City snob.  – Shari Hartford

 

F2

HONOLULU

While checking out the Saturday Farmer’s Market at Kapi’olani Community College in Honolulu, my husband and I ventured up to the hillside cactus and succulent garden on the campus. Pretty wonderful we thought. And then we discovered the “po.e.tree,” a virtual tree of poems written by visitors and clipped onto a hodgepodge of branches. (See if you can find mine in the pic.) Best part, though, was spotting Moriso Teraoka, a 100th Infantry Battalion Vet who founded the garden in ’88 with a donation of plants and still helps to maintain it with a battalion of volunteers (that’s him hiking up the stairs). Sweet guy for such a prickly project. – Linda Hayes

 

F17

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA

I’m not one for life-sized, wax replicas of historical figures. But in the Yusupov Palace on the Moika River in St. Petersburg, the waxen likenesses of the men who attempted the murder of Rasputin– and of the infamous Siberian “Mad Monk” himself at the end of the table–changed my mind. There, in the dark and creaky basement, the aristocracy will give the huge, fire-eyed peasant poison enough to kill a horse….but not, it turned out, to kill him. Instead, the seemingly indestructible mystic will undergo one of the most bizarre and protracted demises in history. It’s a mesmerizing and memorable stage set. – Dalma Heyn 

 

F3

THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

Floreana was the highlight of our family trip to Ecuador. Spent one perfect day viewing century-old tortoises, dining at a ranch with descendants of the island’s first settlers, and then snorkeling by ourselves with mega-sized sea turtles and none-too-shy sea lions. -Steve Jermanok

 

F18

AMSTERDAM

My Best 2013 Travel Moment was witnessing, firsthand, the power of travel to heal. In June, still reeling from the death of my mother and difficult ongoing divorce negotiations, I went to Amsterdam to do two stories for EPTR. Just being airborne gave my spirits a lift; experiencing a healing Watsu spa treatment gave me the first chance to unexpectedly be in touch with my mourning and the gifts of my mother’s life. New vistas, new energy, new perspective and new hope for the future sound like a lot of baggage to put onto a four-day trip, but that’s what happened. Travel expands and travel can help the healing process. I discovered that, and am grateful for it. – Mary Alice Kellogg

 

F19

LONDON

I rented an attic apartment atop a house in the Kilburn section of northwest London for two weeks – very basic, but light-filled, quiet and equipped with a small kitchen and bath – and spent my days writing, looking at art, and walking, walking, walking as I discovered areas and aspects of the city that, despite having visited nearly a dozen times before, were previously unknown to me. It was, far and away, the most enjoyable travel experience of my life. – Marc Kristal

 

F20

MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN, CA

Last April, the ski writers association held its 50th anniversary meeting at Mammoth Mountain, in California. The day I arrived it seemed like spring and I was concerned about having enough snow. O me of little faith! The first morning, I awoke and discovered that a storm overnight had covered the mountain and our base area with a blanket of new snow. We skied joyfully the next few days (though it was a tad windy!) On one particular day, I skied with a retired ski writer who spends many of her days in Vermont. She was not just beautiful to watch; she was swift. I had trouble keeping up with her. When I asked how old she was, she said in a conspiratorial voice: “I’m 84, but I don’t want people to know.” I replied: “You’re my hero!” – Grace Lichtenstein

 

F21

THE LOIRE VALLEY

Even though I’ve lived in Paris for years, I hadn’t done a long, comprehensive trip of the Loire Valley chateaux in many years, so it was a huge pleasure to rediscover their magnificence during a week-long trip this past May, the perfect time for visiting this part of France. I especially loved Chenonceau for its fairy-tale elegance and Villandry for its magnificent gardens and history–it was restored by a passionate couple–Joachim Carvallo, a Spanish nobleman, and Anne Coleman, a Pennsylvania steel heiress, who met while studying medicine in Paris. Other great finds were the Restaurant Olivier Arlot in Montbazon and the superb wines of the Domaine de la Taille aux Loups by winemaker Jacky Blot in Montlouis. – Alec Lobrano

 

F22

PRAGUE

I expected to be overwhelmed by Prague’s wealth of baroque, art nouveau, and gothic buildings. But I was speechless when I discovered cubist architecture unique to the Czech Republic. In 1911, Joseph Gočár designed the Herbst department store, now the landmark House of the Black Madonna and the Grand Café Orient where I had a cubist donut. Those prismatic architectural forms also welcomed me, a privileged houseguest, to my friends’ flat. – Julie Maris/Semel

 

F6

RAROTONGA

We’re on Rarotonga, a reef-ringed isle in the middle of the South Pacific. Rarotonga has palm trees and beaches and tropical fish, but it’s best known for its church singing. We go to church. The singing is magnificent; harmonies that start with a couple of men in a back pew, then ascend through the pews and climax with the choir. I’m floored with the beauty. That’s the first revelation. The second comes when I notice what one of the choir ladies is doing during the sermon. Happily, Effin Older caught the moment with her Canon. – Jules Older & Effin Older

 

F23

SPAIN

Tapas crawl in San Sebastian, spiritual heart of Spanish tapas culture. – Larry Olmsted

 

F7

SANTA FE

The highlight for 2013 has to be our July visit to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. This colorful gathering of some 150 artisans from all over the world–Korea, Israel, Mexico, Tajikistan, you name it–lets market-goers get up close and personal with the men and women who bring their wares and sell them on the spot. So you’re free to strike up a conversation with a woman from the Ok Pop Tok weaving collective in Laos, or a wood carver from Mexico who’s been proclaimed a national living treasure. One day we attended a lecture and demonstration of Tuvan throat singing, which turned out to be both fascinating and remarkably moving. (Quick: Can you find Tuva on a map?). Even better, the artisans are given the tools to return home and work in their villages to build solid businesses from their traditional crafts. All in all, we look forward to making it an annual pilgrimage.  – Tom Passavant & Karen Glenn (photo)

 

Photo1(1)

KAUAI

The view over Hanalei Bay on the north shore of Kauai must be one of the wondrous in the world, a backdrop of rugged mountains that form the Napali Coast, a dragons’ back covered in green. This is where my wife, daughter and I went on a short voyage on a handmade sailing canoe, crafted and captained by a local guy named Trevor Cabell. Trevor took us snorkeling among 250 pound sea turtles and provided commentary on a 60-something local surfing legend as the guy caught the biggest wave of the day, 50 yards from where we floated. Then Trevor hoisted sail and off we went on a thrill ride across the waves racing into Hanalei Bay. With the extraordinary green background, it was not hard to imagine Polynesians sailing the Pacific and approaching this same shore. Covered in salt spray, we seemed to be  flying over the breaking waves, as Trevor guided the outrigger using his paddle as a tiller. When the canoe finally touched the beach, I realized that what felt like a journey had been merely a two hour trip on the Bay. That’s when you know that the going is good. – Everett Potter

 

Oscar Wilde sculpture

DUBLIN

An unexpected breath of joy in colored stone: A leafy retreat in Dublin’s Merrion Square shelters a beloved memorial to Oscar Wilde, nonchalantly lounging on a massive boulder in a natty green jacket with quilted red lapels and cuffs, looking at his long-time childhood home across the street at 1 Merrion Sq. Nearby, Wilde witticisms, graffiti-like, cover two black obelisks, to wit, “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” – Joan Scobey

 

F24

NYC

New York City — where I’ve lived twice in my adult lifetime—once again welcomed me like an old friend in 2013. My husband, Joe, and I explored Manhattan from stem to stern, including a tour of the historic aircraft carrier Intrepid at Pier 86, a stroll along the Highline elevated park and a preview of the poignant and powerful 9/11 Memorial.  We made a delicious detour to Chef Mario Batali’s Eataly, browsed the beautiful book collection at Rizzoli and meandered through Central Park on perfect fall days. You can go home again, even if just for a holiday. – Julie Snyder

 

F25

JAMAICA

My most memorable travel moment of the year was rafting in Port Antonio, Jamaica. A “captain” on the log raft beside us was coaxed into singing the “Banana Boat Song (Day O),” a traditional Jamaican folk song made popular by Harry Belafonte.  The gentle soft crooning combined with the murmuring sound of the mini rapids of the river was soothing. (At least until the person next to me decided to sing along.)  – Gerrie Summers

 

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OREGON

I was on a ski trip to Oregon’s Mt. Bachelor last March. The nearest hotel was about 20 miles away in the town of Bend. I didn’t relish the idea of driving that far every day to get to the slopes, but then I didn’t know the highway ran straight through the Deschutes National Forest. Massive rocks, towering trees, and sweeping vistas at every turn. Hope to do again soon. – Bill Triplett

 

F5

AMSTERDAM

Best  Moment:  Standing with my wife in late July afternoon sunshine looking at our new home in an old canal house on Amsterdam’s Herengracht Canal. – Richard West

 

F27

SAN JUAN, PR

Paddle boarding with my bride — this was our 25th anniversary celebration — in Condado Lagoon, San Juan. Manatees with Ben Turpin mustaches (Note to 16th-century sailors: You really thought they were mermaids?) kept rising to the surface, where they lingered so we could get a good look at them. From there we went to Roberto Trevino’s Bar Gitano, a tapas bar in the Condado. Who knew they’d have soshito peppers sauteed in olive oil and salt? We polished them off and then drank way too much, but what the hell, great food + a great lady. – Ed Wetschler

 

F28

PARK CITY, UTAH

This June, I finally understood what local say about Park City, Utah – you come for winter, you stay for summer. I discovered the wonders of mountain biking on terrain I’ve skied so many years. And I dined on Main Street with 2,300 others one summer’s night to experience the resort’s fine cuisine. – David McKay Wilson

Steve Jermanok’s Active Travels: Canadian Rockies & Alaska by Rail & Sea

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Explore Canada and Alaska by rial

Explore Canada and Alaska by rial

Vacations by Rail, the Chicago-based travel company, has just announced a phenomenal 16-day vacation that combines train travel on arguably the best train in North America, Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer, with an Alaskan cruise on Holland America, ending with an Alaskan railroad jaunt from Anchorage to Denali National Park. Coined the Rocky Mountaineer and Alaska by Sea and Land package, board the Rocky Mountaineer and get ready for a soul-stirring train ride through the snowcapped peaks and cobalt blue glacial waters of the Canadian Rockies. You have two days in Vancouver before you board the ms Zaandam for a weeklong cruse on Alaska’s Inside Passage, stopping at Juneau, Skagway, and Glacier Bay before arriving in Anchorage. Spend a day and night in town, before taking your last train on to Denali, home to 20,157-foot Mount McKinley, and your final destination of Fairbanks. 2013 departures are available May 21, June 18, July 16, and August 13 and 27 and prices start at $3,579 per person based on double occupancy.

 

steveSteve Jermanok As a columnist for National Geographic Adventure, adventure travel expert at Budget Travel, and regular contributor on outdoor recreation for OutsideMen’s JournalHealth, and Sierra, Steve Jermanok has written more than 1,000 articles on the outdoors.He’s also authored or co-authored 11 books, including Outside Magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England and Men’s Journal’s The Great Life. His latest book is Go Now! Put Your Life on Pause and See the World. He’s currently an adventure travel expert at Away.com and blogs daily at  Active Travels.

Smart Deals: Angling Unlimited

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Catching king salmon with Angling Unlimited in Sitka, Alaska.

Catching king salmon with Angling Unlimited in Sitka, Alaska.

 

What’s the Deal: An early season fishing offer from Angling Unlimited, the premier charter fishing company in Sitka, Alaska. This is prime time for king salmon and halibuts.

Details:  Travel to Sitka and fish with Angling Unlimited between May 23 and May 31, 2013, and get 20% off. Or fish with them between June 1 and June 8 and receive 10% off.

What’s Included:

  • Full days of fishing with experienced, licensed captain and crew
  • Lodging at Sitka Rock Waterfront Suites
  • Complimentary car
  • Breakfast and lunch each fishing day
  • Transportation to and from Sitka’s airport
  • Transportation to and from your lodging to our boats
  • Top quality tackle from Penn, Shimano and G.Loomis
  • Rain gear and boats
  • Highest quality fish processing: vacuum sealed, flash frozen, and boxed to airline specifications
  • Gift CD that includes all photos taken by your group during fishing

Fine Print:Prices for 3 days fishing / 4 nights lodging start at $1,876.00 (which includes 20% discount)

Booking: Visit www.anglingunlimited.com or call (800) 297-3380

 

 

 

Active Travels: Cruise Alaska with AdventureSmith Explorations

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By Steve Jermanok

Adventure cruising might sound like an oxymoron, but more and more cruise lines are jumping on the active lifestyle bandwagon as the demand grows. A younger clientele and athletic baby boomers have helped transform an industry best known for its all-you-can-eat buffets and cozy chaise lounge chairs to one where a weeklong itinerary might include sea kayaking, biking, hiking, scuba diving, ziplining, and rock climbing. Leading the way is Todd Smith and his small ship cruises at AdventureSmith Explorations. New next summer in Alaska is the Glacier Country Cruise, with a full slate of sea kayaking, hiking, and paddleboarding options. It’s the best of both worlds, because after a day of adventure, you’ll get to return to the 86-passenger yacht and relax in the hot tubs, get a massage, or down a glass of wine from their extensive wine list. Then there’s the Glacier Bay and Islands excursion that is run by members of the Tlingit Kaagwaantaan Clan and focuses on First Nations culture and indigenous flora and fauna. You’ll never think of cruising in the same way again.

 

  Steve Jermanok As a columnist for National Geographic Adventure, adventure travel expert at Budget Travel, and regular contributor on outdoor recreation for Outside, Men’s Journal, Health, and Sierra, Steve Jermanok has written more than 1,000 articles on the outdoors.He’s also authored or co-authored 11 books, including Outside Magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England and Men’s Journal’s The Great Life. His latest book is Go Now! Put Your Life on Pause and See the World. He’s currently an adventure travel expert at Away.com and blogs daily at Active Travels.

Smart Deals: Alaskan Fishing with Angling Unlimited in Sitka, AK

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Grandparent & Grandkids with Angling Unlimited, Sitka, Alaska

 

Smart Deals: Angling Unlimited, the premier charter fishing company in Sitka, Alaska, offers “Bonding Across the Generations” to bring grandparents and their grandkids together. On the water, Angling Unlimited’s experts will teach kids important foundational skills for fishing including leader and knot tying, and using electronics and GPS. The captains and crew will host an evening reception each day to go over the day’s action and lessons, answer questions and help the kids refine their newfound skills.

“The waters outside of Sitka are prime for peak silver salmon in late August making it a perfect time to take kids fishing,” said Angling Unlimited co-owner Captain Tom Ohaus. “The silver action keeps them interested in between bites from king salmon, halibut, rockfish and lingcod.”

What’s the Deal: The package starts on August 24, 2011 and guests will spend the next three days fishing and learning. Departure from Sitka is on the August 28, 2011. Price, including lodging, breakfast and lunch, transportation to and from the airport is $1,750 per person.

Details: Visit www.anglingunlimited.com or call (800) 297-3380

The Interview: Tom Ohaus of Angling Unlimited, Sitka, Alaska

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Tom Ohaus in Sitka, Alaska

Interviewed by Everett Potter

Tom Ohaus likes to fish. I’ve know this since we were in college together, and used to surf cast along the beaches of Cape Cod as dawn broke. We were in pursuit of bluefish and stripers and sometimes, I’d catch one. But for every one that I caught, Tom would catch five or 10. Fishing, you might say, was in his blood.

It still is. While many things have changed in the ensuing decades, one thing has not: Tom’s utter obsession with fishing. While my interest in hook and line pursuits is fly fishing in Maine or Colorado or Wyoming when I get a chance (read: not often enough), Tom went in the opposite direction. He earned a B.S. in Fisheries Biology from the University of Washington. He became a columnist for Saltwater Sportsman, and angled his way from the Northeast to the Northwest, and then south all the way to Patagonia. He started Angling Unlimited in the Northwest back in 1987 with wife Linda Mae as partner, growing it into one of the premier sport fishing companies in Alaska. He sits on the board of Long Live the Kings, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization committed to restoring wild salmon and steelhead to the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

A day at work? The setting is the waters off Sitka, Alaska, the big game is king salmon, and accommodations are in suites on the water. The fishing is done on one of eight custom-designed 28-foot Almar boats, guided by a well-honed group of captains who seem to be as focused and obsessed as he is. Well, almost. When Tom is not running the show in Alaska during the May to September season, he can be found at his home on the southern coast of Massachusetts, eagerly scanning the fishing grounds between his coastal home and the Elizabeth Islands and Martha’s Vineyard.

Everett Potter: What do people take away from the experience — apart from fish — when they spend a few days with Angling Unlimited?

Tom Ohaus: They take away countless stories of exciting fish, multiple hookups, and crazy action on the boat. I believe part of my job as a captain is to create moments of controlled chaos. Nothing in my job beats choreographing four anglers with four big king salmon on at the same time. Our customers take away the sights of the natural world in motion — feeding whales, bellowing sea lions, puffins diving on baitfish, albatross sitting behind the anchored boat as you wait for the halibut to bite, bears walking the shoreline, and the endless rolling of the ocean into a wilderness shoreline. They take away comradery with friends and family, as well as the relationships they form with their captain, deckhand, and hostess. Many of our guests have a decade or more of visiting Angling Unlimited under their belts and the relationship feels like extended family. They also take away three or four days of relief from traffic jams, deadlines, stress, 24/7 responsibilities, and immersion in the man made world. It’s a valuable counterbalance to modern life.

Catch of the Day in Sitka.

EP: Are these considered to be the prime waters for king salmon?

TO: I’m convinced it’s the best salt water king salmon fishing in the world — and I’ve looked around a fair bit. You can catch kings out of Sitka any month of the year, but the main season runs from May until at least the second week in August. The numbers of kings during the peak season in June are sometimes astronomical, with anglers hooking and releasing eight or 10 kings per person per day. The size ranges from 15 to 65 pounds with most fish between 20 and 30 pounds. These are ocean bright fish and, in my opinion, the best fighting cold water sport fish in the world. They are also one of the best tasting and most healthful fish to eat anywhere on the planet.

EP: Tell me about the origins of Angling Unlimited – I know you started in Washington State and then moved on up to Alaska. Why was that?

TO: Angling Unlimited started in 1988. We fished out of Neah Bay, Washington from May through August and out of Seattle the rest of the year. It was a good business, but resource issues, particularly problems with salmon, forced shorter and shorter seasons. By 1992, our last season in Washington, we didn’t end up with enough days in either the salmon or halibut season to make a living. Also, the seasons were quota based, meaning the fishing closed as soon as we hit the quota. This led to uncertainty for clients booking trips. Would fishing be open on the dates they selected? One couldn’t say. That was marketing poison, so we headed north.

Halibut caught off Sitka with Angling Unlimited.

EP: Why Sitka? What is it about the waters?

TO: Sitka offered two very attractive features — infrastructure and fantastic fishing. Clients can fly directly to Sitka from Seattle on an Alaska Airlines 737. The non-stop is 2 hours. Once they arrive, they find a charming seaside community, hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, liquor stores, and nearly all the amenities of the modern world. The waters near Sitka are a real sweet spot in the North Pacific. We enjoy a very fertile ocean as evidenced by the large numbers of feeding humpback whales, sea lions, myriad sea birds, and huge schools of salmon. We have protected inside water and wide open ocean — we haven’t canceled a day of fishing for years because there is always a protected place that holds the promise of good fishing. The weather, albeit damp, is pretty user friendly — never too hot, seldom cold, and not particularly windy throughout our season. And the fishing is consistent at a high level like no where else I’ve ever fished. Nobody wants to hear “you should have been here yesterday”. All the traveling angler has is today, and that works nearly all the time in Sitka.

EP: How would you characterize Angling Unlimited’s approach to a fishing vacation?

TO: Our approach begins with taking care of all the details from the time our customers land in Sitka until they leave. We meet them at the airport, help them claim their baggage, check them into our lodging, write the licenses, provide rain gear, give them a car, and take them fishing each day. We deliver them back to the airport with whatever fish they’ve kept already vacuum sealed in meal size portions and hard frozen. We help them check in and make sure they get on the plane. We have a German sense of time — which means on time, every time. Our standard departure time for fishing is 5 AM, which means the customers are picked up by our van at 4:45, arrive at the marina at 4:50, walk down the ramp, board the boat, stow their gear and are underway at 5 AM, not 5:05 AM. We’ve been fishing a long time and know there are uncertainties attached to the sport. We can’t control the weather or which way the fish decide to swim each day and how far. We can control the quality and maintenance of our tackle and our boats. We can control how hard we work, our customer service attitude, our fishing skills, and our drive to find fish for our customers. That’s really the game in a nutshell — perfect what’s under your control and adapt in the most effective ways possible to handle that which isn’t in our control.

A fine catch off Sitka.

EP: What sets you apart from the other charter companies in Sitka or other towns on the Inside Passage?

TO: We are set apart by a more global understanding of sportfishing. Too many companies see dead fish in a box as the end product. We see the experience, the opportunity to interact with a salt water wilderness as our product. Yes, our customers catch and keep some fish. Yes, we have the finest facilities for processing that fish and sending it home for the enjoyment of our customers. Still, what ends up in the freezer is a by product of the truly unique and challenging experience of light tackle fishing on a stretch of magnificent, unspoiled coast that abounds with wildlife. We are also set apart by our staff. We don’t think friendliness and customer service are anything you can fake. Our people are highly trained to do their job effectively and efficiently, but we carefully screen who we hire for their attitude. They are friendly, care for the needs of the customer, and genuine.

EP: Who are you competing with – is it other sport fishing outfits or are you really after the same crowd that might be doing a biking, hiking or kayaking adventure vacation?

TO: We are competing with other sport fishing outfits primarily. Some of our clients have other outdoor interests but most are focused on fishing. Our competition is global. There are sport fishing outfitters all over the planet and our customers are increasingly aware of that.

EP: How experienced are the sports who go out with Angling Unlimited. Are these people obsessive fishermen or are there neophytes as well?

TO: We have a wide range of anglers visiting us from the obsessive to the neophyte. Our job is to be good enough to satisfy the most obsessive well traveled angler — that begins world class fishing in the local waters. It means providing the kind of tackle that impresses the discriminating angler and understanding that these people know their options include a lot more than Angling Unlimited in Sitka. We also need to be able to read the skill level of our anglers and provide the neophyte with all the instruction, from A to Z, that they need for a successful trip. Our typical customer knows something about fishing and wants three or four days of concentrated thrills — they don’t have time to fish for weeks hoping for a few good days. Given that over 80% of our bookings are either repeat or word of mouth, we appear to be satisfying the needs of fishermen of all levels of experience.

A king salmon.

 

 

EP: How about fly fishing?

TO: We do have salt water fly fishing rods and are more than willing to give that a go. It’s not easy to catch Pacific salmon on the fly in salt water both because they cruise deep and they like spinning shining herring more than flies. That said, our customers catch coho (silver) salmon on the fly nearly every year. We have a standing offer of a free trip for the first person to hook and land a legal size king salmon on a fly according to International Game Fish Association (IGFA) rules.

EP: What does the future look like for these fish and for the sport fishing business in Alaska?

TO: The future for salmon looks relatively stable. The king salmon we catch originate in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. These runs are, for the most part, recovered from the lows that drove us from Washington State in 1993. The coho (silver) salmon runs originate in Alaska and, for the most part, are in excellent shape. Halibut are on at the end of a downward cycle and we are currently fishing under very strict regulations. The commercial and sport quotas in Southeast Alaska have been cut by 2.5 million pounds in 2011 as part of a rebuilding effort. Such reductions will deliver excellent halibut fishing this year and ensure a more bountiful future. The price we pay for the rebuilding is the maximum size limit of 37 inches for halibut this coming season. Catch and release fishing for big halibut should be about as good as it gets because far fewer of these monsters will be harvested. As for hanging that big halibut up on the hook at the dock, consider foregoing that opportunity an investment in your halibut future.

EP: How many days are you on the water every year?

TO: Roughly 150 days on the water — 80 to 100 in Alaska, 50 or 60 back East and a dozen more somewhere else like bonefishing in the Bahamas or steelhead fishing in Washington.

EP: And Tom, what’s on your short list for places you’d love to go fishing someday, when time allows?

TO: I’d love to return to South America to fish for trout. I dream of the Seychelles for a tropical trip — bonefish in particular. I’d like to fish western Alaska in the fall for big rainbow trout. And, perhaps because it’s somewhere on the other side of the big Pacific from us and shares many of the same fish as Alaska, I’d like to fish the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. So many fishing places, so little time.

For more information, contact Angling Unlimited. Three day, four-night packages, which include fishing, lodging, breakfast and lunch daily, and airport transfers start at $2,275 per person, based on double occupancy. Shoulder season rates for the same package are $1,820, per person, based on double occupancy.

Alaska’s Inside Passage with Holland America

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Alaska: Where the Good Life Meets the Wild Life

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Holland America's Zuiderdam in Alaska

by Ian Keown

Veteran cruisers who have circumnavigated the atolls of Polynesia and slithered on the ice of Antarctica often scoff at Southeastern Alaska (“the waters are too calm,” “you’re never out of sight of land,” and so on) but one family on a graduation cruise revels in the mix of whales, huskies and Gold Rush relics with piano bars, fine dining and Bulgari china

Some corners of this globe seem to have been carved out expressly for cruising.  Southeast Alaska is one of them, a land of fjord-pierced, glacier-gouged, peak-encircled landscapes.  Most of the people who live there depend on ferryboats and floatplanes to reach the outside world and bring in supplies (when Wal-Mart opened a store in Ketchikan, the stock sold out the first day and it took a week to restock) so just about the only way, short of adventure kayaking, for vacationers to explore is by cruise ship.

The Keown family (myself, my wife Susan and my daughter Shanna) is far from being novice cruisers but we were excited about the opportunity to explore what was for us a new corner of the globe, impressed by the sheer variety of diversions – and the opportunity to introduce Shanna to the culture of the native Tlingits and relics of Gold Rush days.  The trip was originally planned as a reward for Shanna, who had recently graduated cum laude from an exacting college; but with cruise values being so appealing these days my wife Susan and I decided to go along too, making it a sort of family-graduation gift in return for four years of  late-night calls for editing aid and morale boosting.  We settled on an Inside Passage” cruise with Holland America, a manageable seven days round trip from Vancouver north top Glacier Bay National Park aboard the 1,900-passenger Zuiderdam.

At times, the Inland Passage weaves through channels so narrow you wonder how a ship this size — 936 feet stem to stern, 106 feet at its widest point — can maneuver between all those rocks and islets without scraping the gleaming black paint off its hull, past lighthouses and higgledy-piggledy fishing harbors, past freighters and the ubiquitous float planes landing and taking off in every direction.  It seems almost like being on a train rolling slowly and smoothly through the countryside, and at times we felt like voyeurs rather than voyagers, snooping into other folks’ down-to-earth, hardscrabble lives with their unkempt yards and utilitarian architecture.  But beyond these sea-girt smallholdings and townships, beyond these endless miles of mountains flanked with Western hemlock and Sitka spruce lie millions of acres of raw nature (Tsongas National Forest, the largest in the U.S., alone covers 17 million acres), and by the time we reach the virtually un-peopled vastness of Glacier Bay with no fewer than tidewater glaciers, 3.3 million acres and the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Captain Werner Zimmer parked Zuiderdam a quarter of a mile offshore from Lamplugh Glacier for several hours one sunny morning so that we could lounge on deck chairs, transfixed by the 10,000-year-old majesty of  the St.Elia Mountains, while a National Parks ranger brought us up to speed on isostatic rebound and other geological minutiae.

Holland America's ships still feature a classic promenade deck, such as this one on board the Zuiderdam

 

Every hour, every bend brings us dramatic, primordial panoramas.   Among the plusses of a modern cruise ship like Zuiderdam are the multiple opportunities for enjoying the passing panoramas from so many vantage points, even indoors.  No peeking through portholes here.  The floor-to-ceiling, forward-facing windows of the ship’s gym let guests survey the entire seascape of islets, lighthouses, marinas and fishing boats, and Susan and Shanna spotted whales from their treadmills while your reporter was exercising in a more traditional manner, pacing Zuiderdam’s capacious promenade deck (Holland America, bless ‘em, with a long heritage of transoceanic voyages, still believes in proper promenades that go all the way round their ships). From our dining table, we could keep track of lonesome bears scrounging for lunch along rock-strewn shores while we dined off almond-crusted salmon served on Bulgari china. Sitting on our private balcony we were surprised one day by a pair of puffins serenely hitching a ride on a mini ice floe the size of a breakfast tray, their own version of a cruise ship.  And during a “Walk for the Cure” (nine times around the promenade deck) Susan and Shanna caught sight of frolicking orcas.

Ah, yes – the whales.  “There are five times as many whales in these parts than there were when I first came here 25 years ago,” our knowledgeable captain tells us one evening over cocktails. He is trying to reassure a group of nature-loving passengers that even with all the seagoing traffic and cruise ships the whales are seemingly unperturbed. “It would be very hard to come into contact with a whale, they tend to keep their distance.”

The literature that appears on our beds each evening is sprinkled with place names like Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau that conjure up chilly visions of Yukon and Klondike, of boisterous bars and grizzled prospectors.  Sure enough, when we go ashore there’s plenty of gold but we quickly discover it’s not in them thar hills but in them thar fancy boo-teeks  (even the Skagway Starbucks has a jewelry store in one corner), alongside diamonds and Tanzanite, designer watches and fancy jewelry.  The merchandise bears an uncanny likeness to what you find at cruise ports throughout the Caribbean and, sure enough, many of these boutiques shutter up in October and ship their stock back to St.Croix or St.Maarten).

Sea kayaking off Ketchikan

Beyond the boutiques and the reconstituted saloons and bordellos (known in these parts as “houses of negotiable affection”, we were informed by sassy costumed guides with whiplash, wisecracking delivery a la Palin), Holland America passengers are almost overwhelmed by more than one hundred sightseeing options.  Browse and you’ll find everything from reenactments of Gold Rush days to rides on a historic railroad, from museums of Tlingit totem poles to mountain gold mines to flight-seeing trips on helicopters or float planes.  Susan and Shanna loved their mornings paddling a canoe around an eagle preserve and riding mountain bikes through a rain forest; our afternoon visit to a musher’s camp brought us snout-to-snout with 16 yapping, yelping, biting-at-the-bit huskies — a memorable encounter even although the “sleds” turned out to be modified golf carts on a dirt path (but this was, after all, August and the locals were as impatient as the huskies with the 60-degree heat wave).

These shore excursions, more varied than usual, sparked scores of breathless conversations when our fellow passengers returned to the embracing bonhomie of Zuiderdam.  I often hear people say: ”I wouldn’t want to be on a ship with so many passengers” (just over 2,100 on this voyage, since many other parents were doubling up with their children, some of them also celebrating graduations of one sort or another) but a ship as grand as Zuiderdam has plenty of quiet corners — in fact, it’s passenger/deck space ratio is better than most.  True, you might have to wait for an hour to sign up for tours if you don’t book in advance and, true too, things can become scrum-like negotiating a food-laden tray in the Lido Restaurant at breakfast; but if you book your tours in advance by computer there’s no need to stand in line or if you head for the main dining room rather than the self-service Lido, you practically have your pick of the tables.  In the evening, three dining rooms and occasional buffets around the pool spread the passengers around.  We were often struck by the fact that whenever we wanted a quiet corner to cozy up for am after-dinner chat with new friends, we could always settle into the under-utilized Explorers Lounge or the Ocean Bar and enjoy the music of a string quartet or jazz trio.

Zuiderdam in Tracey Arm

 

Those veteran world cruisers probably get one thing right: the seas along these cruising grounds are too calm and therefore perfect for first-timers and families; give me the bucking North Atlantic any time but 2,017 nautical miles later we decided that our graduation cruise was one of our most intriguing, most scenic, most varied and most convivial vacations ever, a perfect blend of the good life and the wildlife in America’s accessible northern wilderness.

Holland America (877-932-4259) features no fewer than 76 seven-night Inland Passage and Glacier Bay cruises in 2011, fares beginning at $799 per person double occupancy, from May 2 through September 22.

 

Ian Keown is currently a contributing writer for Caribbean Travel & Life over the past 30-odd years his byline has appeared in Travel & Leisure (8 as a contributing editor), Gourmet (5 as contributing editor), Diversion (5 as contributing columnist), Departures, ForbesFYI, San Francisco Examiner, Worth and Opera.

His guidebooks include his own series of lovers’ guides: Guide to France for Loving Couples, Very Special Places: A Lover’s Guide to America, European Hideaways and Caribbean Hideaways (which the Miami Herald called “the bible.”.   He is the recipient of the first Marcia Vickery Award for Travel Writing and the first Anguilla 40 Award for in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions to Anguilla Tourism.

 

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