Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hey, I didn't say WHICH Wednesday.

So... the Alaska vacation.

We left right after I got out of work on Friday (July 25 -- yes, I'm late updating), and drove through to the beautiful Sofitel San Francisco Bay. Sofitel's luxury hotels are something special; elegant, funky, and fun decor (sorry, didn't get any pictures of the public areas), an excellent restaurant, an inviting bar, and rooms of quiet, classy comfort. It felt like James Bond should be checking in alongside us: that kind of glamorous, sophisticated background. As tired as we were, and as stick-in-the-mud as we usually are, we opted to spend a little time in the bar relaxing and drinking mostly virgin drinks before we went to bed.

I tried an "Angel Fresh" cocktail and I have to report that it is delicious -- mint-muddled cucumber juice, lime, tequila, and simple syrup. It does have a bit of "the liquid at the bottom of a bowl of tabbouleh" cachet, but I don't mind. Yum anyway.

Here's a picture of part of the beautiful room we stayed in, anyway.

The next morning, we drove to San Francisco to the harbor. The (auto and foot) traffic was horrible and we didn't know why until we noticed that it was the Festival of Sail or some such. Once we checked onto the Dawn Princess, we had a painless wait in our stateroom while we sipped gigantic virgin daiquiris (mmm, sour, caloric slurpee! Yum!) and watched sailboats and seagulls.

The trip out of the bay was beautiful -- sailboats and crazy sailboarders, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, inquisitive seagulls and eagerness. Here are a few pictures:

And then onward to our first stop, Victoria, Canada. We enjoyed our first sea day with a "couples massage" (which was no, not a euphemism for anything sketchy, but a really relaxing hour plus with two very gifted masseuses, side-by-side). OMG OMG OMG couples massage! You could have poured me into an appropriately sized vessel by the time Portia and Krizza got done liquefying our muscles. We drifted through a drowsily romantic day feeling like we'd eloped or somehow otherwise stolen away, from lazy massage to lazy enjoying the sights (Dall porpoises and sharks!) to a formal dinner together (and through the windows, humpback whales!) I can count the formal dates we have had together in our 20 years of marriage plus over four years of going steady on one hand, maybe barely both. And I don't mind. But he cleans up pretty. Witness the formality:

And the next day, on to lovely Victoria. It is a beautiful, charming city with fascinating, bloodthirsty, frontier history and -- rather to my surprise -- a magnificent but now somewhat reduced Chinatown. Our shore excursion in Victoria took us to the astonishingly pretty and even more astonishingly overcrowded Butchart Gardens for a picnic and a stroll amongst the flowers (and ugly Americans, ugly Canadians, ugly Europeans, ugly Chinese, and probably uglyfromeveryplaces). I will restrain myself from posting a million close ups of fountains and flowers, but here are a couple pictures to show you the gardens (and us living it up in a rare moment of ardently defended semi-privacy -- that park is SERIOUSLY crowded).

From there, we went to Craigdarroch "Castle" -- a crazy-person mansion like unto Hearst Castle -- but it was downright depressing after the beauty of the gardens. I'm not going to treat you to pictures. It has a fascinating history and our tour guide, Norman, was delightful and we were really weary and it had a LOT of stairs.

From Victoria, we went on to a very rough sea day -- we fell asleep early and slept hard. For those who haven't done a cruise, please be aware that the experience is 65% floating "Home Town Buffet," 20% Branson, Missouri, 10% Mall of the Americas, and 5% your prom. At least the at sea part is. The ports and/or shore excursions are really the reason to go... that, and the luxurious, almost-never-otherwise-experienced freedom from communication with the outside world. If you need a romantic getaway and your definition of "romantic" can be stretched to include dining with strangers, living in a shimmying hotel, and eating too much decent food prepared for the masses (and not always well matched from one dish to another... there seems to be no logic), this is definitely for you.

Next port was Ketchikan -- jewel-beautiful, nestled in emerald hills. Unfortunately, the cruise ships have converted it into what I can only think of as a brothel for gemstones: like every other Alaskan port, it is impoverished by the departure of resource-exploiting trade and has been colonized bizarrely by luxury shops (almost exclusively jewelry) and outlets for cheap crap for the rest of us. An intensely terrifying driver muttering about "Sasquaaaaaaatch" took us to our shore excursion destination: a rainforest walk and wildlife tour. It's called a rainforest for good reason; the return driver, a lunatic ex-pat Texan, told us that the weather forecast went "if you can see the top of the mountain, it's going to rain. If you can't, it's raining." We had a marvelous tour and saw dozens of bald eagles, a couple of black bears, a couple of kingfishers, and several ravens.

Back on the ship, several small disasters that piqued our curiosity: people stuck on the elevator, a hazmat team breaking into a sealed cabin on our floor, a "code Alpha" that had security, medical, and bridge crew running at full speed through the halls. I still have no idea what any of these turned out to be.

The next day, we had a magnificent "photo safari" at Juneau. With a photographer giving us tips on how to use our cameras (see some of the blurry pictures above, haha), we hiked to see spawning salmon in a creek, the glorious Mendenhall glacier, trees, eagles, and lupines -- all in the drizzling rain. Then we went aboard a small boat to whale watch, and were enchanted to be surrounded by humpback whales for quite a while. Humpback whales are 40-60 feet long and weigh about a ton a foot, by the way... so think of that when you consider being surrounded by whales in a small boat! Both of us think the trip helped our camera skills -- thank you, David -- and here are some of the pictures:

On August 1st we went on the best tour of all in beautiful Haines, Alaska (we got there by ferry from Skagway, which is a picturesque small town surrounded by valleys and inhabited by jewelry stores and tourist crap). This was a tour of an eagle preserve with a wonderful, sincerely enthusiastic, beautiful young tour guide named Luck. Captain Luck is half-Tlingit and the operation is family run, warm, loving, and satisfying, from the cozy jackets, lap blankets, earmuffs, and gloves they urge you to take with you to the delicious hot dog and vegetarian chili feast (fresh cut flowers on the tables!) at the end of the jet boat tour. Eagles, moose, a Mallard hen and her ducklings, mergansers, swallows, kingfishers, and other creatures were tucked here and there into pristine and exquisite landscape. Here I got my one and only bite from the "state bird" (the mosquito) ... on my EARLOBE. Granted that there weren't many mosquitoes this year, but mosquitos love me. I assume that my homemade bug repellent worked, as I applied it everywhere but the ears... so, go home perfumer and mad scientist. Here are just a few images from that wonderful tour.

The next day, we spent a completely lazy day enjoying room service pizza and lazing around in bed. We rose early and watched what has to be the prettiest scenery in the world as our ship nosed slowly up the Tracy Arm Fjord amidst all of the icebergs, until we could see the Sawyer Glacier (I'm no expert and I forget which one... one of the Twin Sawyers). Blue, blue ice on some of the bergs -- because they are so dense that they refract light differently. Wow. Amazing, and exactly why I wanted to go to Alaska. We got farther than expected, farther indeed than any other ship that year I think, and because of our close proximity to the bridge, Pat and I could hear the navigator softly advising the Captain about the more dangerous looking bergs. Quietly thrilling. And spectacular. Again, just a few pictures, and it could be dozens or scores and still do no justice:

I just realized that I haven't talked about our friendly and wonderful co-passengers, or the (sometimes unintentional) hilarity of the shows, or the complete awesomeness of "piano man" Tom Franek -- if you ever see this, hi Tom, LOVE your show, you created so much happiness around you, and drew in such disparate and jaded people into your audience and got them having fun. But there's little I can do except tell you that I maybe never want to hear "Sweet Caroline" again, and tell you it was a giddy blur of entertainment taken at a civilized sleepy pace. We had an amazing trip. We had a delightful time.

* Pictures selected almost at random from a huge array... and most of them because the camera was oriented so that I don't have to rotate the picture to upload it. I know, lazy of me. But it's lazy or never, as things so often are with me. Love you guys.

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