The wilds of Alaska (part 2)

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Photo by Bob & Sandy Nesoff
Photo by Bob & Sandy Nesoff

One of the more exciting tour opportunities off Celebrity cruise ships is a motorcycle ride deep into the Alaskan wilderness. A motorcycle endorsement on a driver's license is a requirement and although much of the road is paved, it still goes into the wilds with the opportunity to see bears, wolves and eagles. The ride goes rain or shine.

For adventure buffs there really isn’t much left to explore on this planet and it’s too early for true space tourism. Of course there are some jungles in Africa and South America, but for real luxury while sampling the “wilds,” try Alaska.

The 50th state is so huge that there was a standing joke about an argument between a Texan and Alaskan. The Alaskan finally said: “If you’re not quiet, we’ll split our state in two and make Texas the third largest in the country.”

That pretty much tells it all. There are cities–Juneau, Anchorage–and little hamlets too numerous to name. Much of the state is reachable only by air or water as there is no comprehensive highway system. The old Alcan Highway brings many visitors up north, but the best way to sample both luxury and wild territory is by cruise ship out of Seattle.

We were on board the Celebrity Infinity, one of the nicer ships we’ve sailed on and had just left the Hubbard Glacier headed for Ketchikan up the Inside Passage. The water was rife with small icebergs that had calved from glaciers kissing the edge of the continent and then floating southward. None of the ones we saw would have posed any major threat to the Titanic, but it was interesting to observe the shapes as they were carved by the flowing water.

Passengers on Celebrity can afford themselves the opportunity to pick and reserve shore excursions online before sailing or while on board the ship at the guest services office. The variety of options available is staggering and ranged from a motorcycle tour (for those with the proper license) inland with sightings of bear and other native fauna.

This time out we opted for a float plane trip to the Misty Fjords. The accommodations were somewhat less than Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic and it was a bit humid, but the sights from the window were spectacular. There were numerous glaciers and running rivers, mountains and valleys and an explicit view of why it is so easy to become lost in the never-ending wilderness.

Deplaning from the aircraft in the fjord, passengers clambered aboard a more comfortable boat that took off at a speed that made the float plane look like a balsa model aircraft.

If the fjords looked amazing from the air, they were absolutely incredible as the speed boat literally flew over the water, slowing down for a better view and photographs of waterfalls that had been little more than dry gulches until the rains came earlier that day.

There were seals in the water and on rocks, eagles coasting overhead like feathered gliders and a variety of animals and birds that were incomparable anywhere else.

The speed boat skimmed the water and rounded the islands from the fjords back to Ketchikan depositing passengers only yards from the center of town…or what passed as the center of a town.

Ketchikan is a small village that still hasn’t found its way into the modern world with the possible exception of the tourist-centric shops that line the waterfront. Tourists are a major portion of income here for the year-round residents and those who head south as soon as the chilled air comes in over the mountains.

Even the tourist traps have as unique an assortment of souvenirs as can be found at any port, anywhere in the world. They range from ivory carved walruses to Indian and Eskimo jackets and the furred boots called mukluks. You can even purchase (for about $300 or more) a very unusual item that could be the talk of your Friday night poker or canasta game…an oosick.

And you’d be the only one in your town who knew what an oosick was.

They come carved and mounted on stands or by themselves. They look like a bone club or a femur. In actuality (are you ready?) an oosick is a walrus penis. That’s right. You heard us. We got ours from a friend in the area who picked it up at a garage sale for $10. Now we own the only walrus penis on our block.

From Ketchikan the Celebrity Infinity heads for Juneau, capital city of Alaska and former home of its former governor, Sara Palin. Interestingly most Alaskans change the subject when you try to talk about her so stick to learning about Alaska and forget local politics.

A quick shuttle ride from the waterfront brought us to a small airfield at the edge of Juneau and following a quick safety talk, we boarded a helicopter for the ride to the Mendenhall Glacier. If the scenery was spectacular on the way to the Misty Fjords, it was doubly so here.

Participants were taken for a walk on the glacier, an experience you’ll never forget. The only souvenir we brought back from the Mendenhall was a small rock that had taken several thousand years to reach this point from the mountain pass where it had been chipped off.

There were deep crevices, ice with a deep blue hue and huge spires of ice that towered over everything. When it is time to return to the helicopter it is with the feeling of “I’m not ready to go yet.”

As warm and comfortable as it was in town and on the Infinity, it was cold on the glacier.  Remember, you are standing on a block of ice hundreds of feet thick. That’s akin to locking yourself in a home freezer for a while. Bring along a warm jacket, or as we did, purchase one on board ship or in town.  It was a great investment.

It was with some regret that we watched the Infinity sail southward through the Inside Passage on the way to Victoria, BC.  Not that there was anything wrong with Canada, but the ice fields had a magnetic pull on your heart.

Check the ship’s tour desk for options in Victoria, but we strongly recommend the bus ride through the beautiful city with a stop at Buchart Gardens, one of the most beautiful spots in North America.

All good things must come to an end and the return to Seattle left most of the passengers wanting more…and more than a handful checking in with Celebrity to book another round.