All Aboard!

Whittier-Tunnel-01

My last post ended with the anticipation of the bus ride through the Whittier Tunnel, the only passageway between us and the Coral Princess. Like it or not, we had no choice but to go through it no matter how intimated we might feel. Sitting still as statues, the other passengers and I looked straight ahead throughout the entire two and one half miles. If anyone spoke at all, it was in whispered tones, but for the most part, we were quiet, our eyes straining for a glimpse of light at the end.

I almost laughed with relief when I finally saw the light.

shipinharbor

The bus emerged from the tunnel and took a curving road to the left. There she sat in the harbor, the Coral Princess. As the driver parked the bus, I looked to the mountains to my right and saw what appeared to be apartments. Later, the woman checked our passports told me that’s where most of the town’s residents resided. Most of the time, she said, that was about 200 people. Now, however, approximately 400 people lived there, many of whom would leave after the last tour of the season: ours.

The baggage handling was a snap and was efficiently taken care of by Princess employees. The passengers stood in line for about twenty minutes, and then we were out the door and walking up the gangplank. Once inside the ship, I noticed a man to our left taking pictures of all who came aboard, including us. We gave him tired smiles and then went in search of our room on the Baja Deck, Room 626.

Happy with our home for the next week, we went exploring and oohed and aahed every few minutes—er, seconds. There were several restaurants, a variety of stores, a casino, a theatre, a lounge, a bar, an outdoor movie screen on the top deck, hot tubs, a library, and plenty of other attractions. I knew right away that none of us would have occasion to say, “I’m bored.”

That evening, we had dinner in the Bayou Café, and our primary server was a delightful young woman from Macedonia. Pleasant and outgoing, her most frequent expression was an Italian one: “Mama Mia!” She and her two assistants made our first dining experience one to remember. Very attentive, they made certain everything was just right.

The menu was extensive, and although two of us ate salmon (after all, we were in Alaska), the others of our party sampled a variety of entrees. One of the men at our table enjoyed his shrimp cocktail so much that he ordered two. After all, he reasoned, we had paid for everything ahead of time. Not even the most disciplined among us could resist dessert. From tiramisu to shortbread and tarts to mousse, there was something delectable to suit even the pickiest of palates.

As we walked back to our cabins, we chatted about what the following day would bring. We knew we’d be at sea throughout the night, and much of our conversation revolved around the anticipation of that experience. About that time, we heard a loudspeaker reminding everyone to report to a “muster station” to learn what to do in case of an emergency.

The muster station experience brought reality home: You are traveling on a huge ship with hundreds of other people. Look around you! If something goes wrong, these are the people you’ll be sinking with!

From Talkeetna to Anchorage

I’m going to remember these moments for the rest of my life, I thought as I finished my last walk in McKinley National Park.  Around midmorning we left on the bus and headed for a little town called Talkeetna where we were scheduled to catch a train to Anchorage. The station was tiny, but it had a beautiful red, white, and blue flag hanging from the front of it. Colorful against the gray sky, it begged for attention, and I obliged by taking a picture of the stars and stripes.

The train ride was long, but nice…exciting too. Mile after mile after mile, the train sped through the wild, and we soaked in as much beauty as our human eyes would allow. Many travelers ate lunch, but most settled for snacks. According to fellow passengers, the food choices were fairly extensive, and the service was good.

The scenery was breathtaking. Trees, especially the tall, straight pines and yellow willows flew by on every side. There were rivers and gravel bars and hills—everything but people. Occasionally, we glimpsed some small structures, probably work-related buildings, but no houses. How do people travel about in this wild country? I wondered.

After a couple of hours, probably closer to three, the conductor announced that soon we’d go through Wasilla, the childhood home of Sarah Palin, and arrive in Anchorage shortly afterwards. Soon we slowed down to ease through an overcast and chilly Wasilla, and he pointed out Palin’s home on our left. The house was nice but unpretentious, and I wondered about her childhood and how the geography and landscape had affected her psyche.

Palin lives in Arizona now, a totally different environment. Now she sees desert sagebrush instead of taiga forest, sun instead of misty fog. She never has to worry about permafrost or grizzlies these days, and she can probably leave her coat and gloves behind even on the coldest of winter days. Without ever having met her, I know that as beautiful as Arizona is, there are days when SP misses her native state.

There were stores, restaurants, and homes along the way, and I realized that in Wasilla, the citizens had everything we have in Camden—everything necessary for survival, that is. I didn’t spy any oaks, dogwoods, or  palmettos, but there were schools, churches, and grocery stores evident all along the ride. When the Princess train pulled into the station, everything around us looked gray: the sky, the concrete, the busses—everything. Like good soldiers, we disembarked from the train and climbed aboard a bus that would transport us into our hotel in Anchorage, the Captain Cook.

After freshening up a tad, many travelers, including us, ate dinner in one of the hotel restaurants, Fletcher’s. The food was delicious, and our conversation was not only about our afternoon train experiences but also about the next day’s agenda. Tonight would be the last night we’d spend on land, and by that same hour the next day, we’d be on the ship waiting to set sail.

Our time in Anchorage was brief, and if my husband hadn’t been willing to walk to a small diner for breakfast the next morning, our only real contact with the largest of Alaska’s cities would have been too negligible to even count—kind of like having a short layover in Reno and announcing to friends that you had once visited that gambling mecca.

As it was, we sauntered down 5th Avenue for a view of the coastline and a short stroll along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. After walking back up the steep hill, we walked a few blocks until we found the perfect diner, one that served both locals and tourists alike. The service was good, the food was tasty, and the view of downtown Anchorage through the huge front windows was great.

Scuttling back up the street, we made it back to the Captain Cook just minutes before the bus arrived, the one that would take us out of Anchorage and towards the sea and our ship.

Striking It Rich at Gold Dredge 8

I’m wearing my gold-filled pendant on its delicate silver chain today. Yes, you read correctly—gold-filled pendant. There are flecks, not nuggets, in the tiny round pendant, but still, the jewelry is special because of the memories it conjures up, memories of a cool, overcast afternoon in the 49th state.

We’d spent the morning on the Chena River, and lunch behind us, we clambered aboard the tour bus to head towards our next excursion. Before the afternoon ended, we’d have walked beneath the Alaska Pipeline, also referred to as TAPS (Trans Alaska Pipeline System), and panned for gold. The girls would be taking home some gold-filled treasures. When I say “girls,” I’m referring to pretty much every female on the excursion.

As soon as we disembarked and headed towards the Pipeline, we could see that the people already assembled were paying rapt attention to the speaker. Dressed in black from his hat to his boots, the presenter shared a number of facts with his listeners, including the tidbit that the Pipeline provides revenue to help operate schools and that Alaska citizens receive a check from its profits each year. Designed to move oil from Alaska’s north slope to Valdez, the 800-mile Pipeline is a marvel of construction.

Next we got on an open-sided train that was a replica of the Tanana Valley Railroad. While we waited for the train to get going, a musician entertained us by playing the guitar and playing “Ring of Fire.” Within a few moments, the train rolled down the tracks to Gold Dredge 8, a popular and historical attraction, where we learned how the dredge worked the gold fields. According to the literature, Gold Dredge 8 extracted millions of ounces of gold from the frozen Alaskan ground and today serves as a monument to the miners who built Fairbanks.

After a presentation on the history of Gold Dredge 8, we piled off the train and were handed small bags of what appeared to be dirt. Little did we know there would be actually smithereens of gold hidden in the dirt. Friendly employees clad in plaid shirts gave the gold diggers (us) a demonstration of exactly how to pan for gold by using the warm water in the troughs in front of us. After striking it rich, we deposited our tiny nuggets into a plastic receptacle and headed to the huge rustic building close by.

The building contained a number of gift shops and a jewelry kiosk (?) set up to measure our gold. Delighted to learn that we had enough specks to preserve in a pendant, most of the women walked over to one of the gift shops to check out our options. Choices included pendants and earrings of various sizes and designs. I chose a “plain Jane” version, but my traveling buddies got something a little more embellished.

While wandering in and out of the various shops, most people sipped on complimentary hot chocolate, coffee, or water as they munched on delicious freshly baked cookies. My personal favorite was chocolate oatmeal raisin.

Fortified by our snacks, we boarded the railway car and listened to a gentleman play the fiddle and sing “You Are My Sunshine.” Many of us joined in the singing, and I knew that I’d always recall that beautiful afternoon just “a singing” beside Gold Dredge 8. Seeing the staff lined up with smiles and goodbye waves added the perfect ending to the afternoon.

Back at the lodge, eight of us later met for salmon chowder, cheeseburgers, and meatloaf. To be honest, the food was mediocre to be so expensive. My chowder was thick, muddy, and lukewarm (even after it was reheated). My husband still talks about his $4.50 scoop of chocolate ice cream and is planning a trip to Cold Stone Creamery in Myrtle Beach ASAP.

Everyone hit the sack early that night, excited with the knowledge that we’d be heading to Denali the next morning.