Back in the late 80s, a bunch of us marketing guys from Hawaii qualified for a TV advertising incentive prize that my wife, Sally Ann, and I thoroughly enjoyed: We flew to Miami, Florida, then spent seven days and six nights on a new Carnival ship cruising the Western Caribbean with ports of call at Cozumel, Mexico [beautiful, clear water]; Georgetown, Grand Cayman [beautiful sugar-sand beaches and clear-water snorkeling]; and Ocho Rios, Jamaica-mon [the Gray’s River Falls State Park is unforgettable] — plus the opportunity to look around Miami a little bit, go airboating in the Everglades [very noisy — something you don’t realize from CSI Miami and other movies; but fun and fascinating to see all the fish, turtles and gators] and even drive down to the upper Keys. The trip was great…and whetted our appetite to take another cruise some day.
Over the next few years as we thought about it, cruising the Inside Passage from Washington to Alaska seemed to be on everybody’s list as one of the best. We were definitely interested since neither of us had ever been to Alaska; and when (now retired) Professor Dale Hammond suggested we consider the “poor man’s cruise” to Alaska, it sounded like “high adventure” — a hallmark Sally and I often try for in our family vacations:
What is the “poor man’s cruise” to Alaska? The Alaska State Ferry, or more correctly the Alaska Marine Highway System, pretty much follows the same route as the luxury liners up the Inside Passage, but at a fraction of the cost — and, of course, a lot less luxury. Because the geography of Alaska in general precludes much of the Interstate Highway system than the rest of the U.S. uses (even Hawaii has H-1, H-2 and H-3 “Interstate” highways on Oahu), federal and state funds that would otherwise have gone into a larger road system is spent providing ferry service between Bellingham, Washington (State) and various ports along the Inside Passage, and even across the Gulf of Alaska as far as the Aleutians during the summer months — weather permitting, and assuming the ferries are literally ship-shape (delays and break-downs are not uncommon).
We settled on a 2.5-day/3 night trip in early June from Bellingham, Washington, to Juneau — with all the beautiful Inside Passage scenery you can imagine, several stops along the way, and even a couple of docents who provided free lectures about some of the things we were seeing, culture and history of the region.
I’ve forgotten how much it cost, but I remember it was less than $300 for the two of us at the time. Like everything else, however, those prices have gone up considerably since then: A check of the 2009 tariff shows the same route now costs $326 each, one way (and a car or a small truck up to about $900 each way). Many passengers brought vehicles (including trucks and campers — some fully loaded), which were driven into the hold, and even pets — which were restricted to the hold but their ownerss were allowed to go down there several times a day to take care of them.
Dr. Hammond also suggested we book as much as six months in advance to take advantage of the 40 or so tiny cabins with miniature private bathrooms that the ferry offered; otherwise some very hardy passengers chose to pitch tents on the fantail (by duck-taping the edges to the metal deck), while others used reclining chairs, or even pitched sleeping bag on wider floor spaces (I didn’t mean “poor man’s cruise” for nothing). There was a small but full-service cafeteria on board where meals could be purchased, but a number of passengers brought ice chests with all of their own food. There were also showers in the public bathrooms, and for $1.50 back then a passenger could rent a “shower kit” from the purser.
We wanted to make our reservations early, but at the time I was working for Hawaii Reserves, Inc. (HRI in Laie), and my boss didn’t approve my vacation request until just two or three months before we were supposed to leave. By then we were wait-listed for a cabin, and told to contact the purser when we boarded.
We flew into Seattle and spent time checking out Pike Street market, the Space Needle, and so forth. We also hit the spectacular REI sports store to make sure we were equipped for any cold weather, even though it was late Spring in Alaska: We already had fairly decent jackets, but I ended up buying hats and gloves for us.
We caught a shuttle bus from SEA-TAC International Airport for the approximately 90-mile drive to the Bellingham ferry terminal; and were disappointed but not surprised when the the purser told us we were seventh on the wait-list for cabins, but to please check back each morning because some passengers were getting off before Juneau.
No luck for the first two nights, which we spent sleeping on the floor: Remember, I mentioned “high adventure.” By the third night, however, one of the cabins opened up, which was much better. The Inside Passage was generally smooth sailing, so to speak, with very little wave action. The scenery was spectacular, the lectures were interesting, the food decent, and there were also TV and videos. I also brought a thick book to read, while watching the Inside Passage slip astern. And, on an important note, we were very glad we bought the hat and gloves, because standing outside on the decks was freezing cold whenever any wind at all blew — which was almost all the time: I can’t imagine how the people who had “pitched” their tents on the fantail handled it, but that’s from a Hawaii resident perspective.
Juneau was a most interesting place, with its drive-by Mendenhall Glacier and long, deep harbor filled with small sea-planes. Five large luxury cruise liners also lined the main dock — towering six-or-more stories above us while hundreds of passengers joined the throng of tourists. We went whale watching twice [saw plenty, plus some seals, but the gray water threw us off a little], each way passing the fish processing ship where college kids and others spend their summers cleaning fish all day long. We also took the tram ride up Mt. Roberts and watched a Native Alaskan show up there; and in an earlier blog entry I mentioned we discovered great fresh fish and chips near the cruise ship dock.
From Juneau we flew on to Anchorage where the midnight sun made it hard to sleep at night. The next morning we walked around the center of town, sampling barbecued reindeer sticks and, of course, eating fresh salmon [Sally] and halibut [me] for lunch at one of the best-known outdoor restaurants. The daytime weather was beautiful, but when we later went back for dinner one evening, we were glad to sit closer to one of the space heaters they also had set up outside. We also enjoyed the Alaska Native Heritage Center, which is analogous to the Polynesian Cultural Center.
At the advice of friends, we rode the train up to Denali National Park, which took the better part of the day. Having ridden quite a few trains as a kid, this part of the adventure was actually too slow for me — it seemed like we saw too many trees lining the rails, but others seemed to enjoy it. However, I was quite amazed to see how the buses met the train at Denali and conveyed everyone to their respective hotels. That afternoon we took a flying tour around the top of Denali, impressed with the numerous glaciers hanging from the 20,320-foot mountain and catching the summit of Mt. McKinley [Denali in Native Alaskan] cloud-free.
The next day we took a memorable wildlife tour, where everybody boarded these large, robust buses that took us as far along the road into the park as they could drive. In addition to the spetacular scenery along the way, we were thrilled to see caribou, wild fox, and grizzley bears.
That afternoon, we returned to Anchorage on a shuttle bus; but I wished we had driven ourselves as I would have liked to explore some of the small communities and sights along the way. In short, our Alaska adventure was definitely memorable and I would like to go back again . . . but I don’t plan to take the poor man’s cruise again.