Is this really a state? one is likely to exclaim upon arriving at this massive mountain range that calls itself Alaska. Flying over, thirty thousand feet in the air over the Canadian Rockies, snowy mountain peaks emerge and often I saw a huge mountain and thought, Is that the highest peak in North America? Definitely not, as the next mountain was even larger and whiter and more impressive.
Landed, in an hotel shuttle from the airport, I was on-the-verge-of-awestruck. There's a certain US-born familiarity in any US city, even one called Anchorage, Alaska, that is, according to a sign, 5433 air miles from Miami, Florida (home, unfortunately). So, as we drove through "downtown" Anchorage, I saw familiar names: Hilton, Burger King, Starbucks, and felt more at ease. This was not some alien country ... or so I thought.
The air was cool, not cold - as you might imagine - just cool. Almost bright. Sunlight lasts almost twenty hours a day in the summer here in the Mid-Alaska and instead of baking the air like the hot sun does in Florida, here winds from the mountains come and sweep softly across the valley. The city of Anchorage is hilly, full mostly of shops and restaurants. We quickly dragged ourselves to a brew pub on that first night and I had my own personal first taste of Alaska: beer. A tangy, sun-colored brew that rightly deserves the name, Gold Rush, and a sweet Pale Ale that tasted like summer.
Next day we were up before 6 to catch a morning train to Seward, Alaska, and the beginning of our cruise. This turned out to be an early highlight. The Alaskan railroad is an old institution, up to the 80's, it was the only federally run railroad in the country. Finally, the US Government sold it to the state of Alaska and it retains a wonderful charm: part transportation, part sightseeing. Alaskan citizens sleep peacefully in the nearby seats while wide-eyed children like Shawn and I stare out at the windows and snap dozens and dozens of pictures of the incredible scenery rushing past. We saw wildlife, some glaciers, and lots and lots of mountains, all of which had us squirming in our seats and wanting more.
Seward, Alaska, was not impressive. The proof, as I say, is in the tourist traps. We hit the Sea Life Center because I'm a sucker for aquariums (and beer) and quickly boarded what became our home away home for seven long, full days: The MS Ryndam (that's Mother Ship - i.e. carries smaller ships).
You know those scenes from the first episodes of The Real World when the kids get to their swank new pad and they run around and scream and go, WOW. Well, it was sort of like that. Much tamer. And with better music. The boat was empty at this early hour so we had the run of it. We walked and took in the internal sights. A lot to see! Leaping dolphins at the apex of a pool flanked by hot tubs, a beautiful three-story mermaid fountain, a large theater, huge open decks, small mini-decks, walkarounds, tenders, halls with large windows, lounges with smaller windows, bars with stages, a nightclub, sports fields and courts, ping-pong tables!, boutique lounges for the richer people, the massive two-deck Rotterdam Dining Hall, the spa.
As you can tell, this was my first cruise. And I was mightily impressed. Not just with the design of everything, the luxury of it, the cleaness of it, the courteousness of the crew, but especially the food! It was lunchtime when we boarded the boat and so we walked up to the buffet restaurant, the Lido, to find it empty save a few lounging crew members. Still, the buffet was stocked. Asian food, Italian food, main entrees that looked like dinner. We started our cruise very well. Ate, drank coffee, and then sat outside on the deck for the first time. (Aside: Time is such a vaporous thing on vacation. Reality is full of "work-time", "lunch-time," "evening-time" all these labeled sections of life. On vacation, there is no labels. It was as if Time was open and we could spend hours sitting on one spot, staring at the still or dynamic scenery, just breathing it in. And we did.)
Later that night, we left port, sailed off into the evening light, too early for a sunset, but not fast enough for me, eager for what's to come.
More to follow.
First round of pictures found here.