After a long, grueling election season, I think we could all use a little escape, don’t you? How about we talk about something we can all agree is awesome? (America’s natural wonders! Duh.) How about we tell you about our trip to Alaska this summer?
When we set out to identify the optimal Woks of Life 2016 “corporate retreat,” we were looking for something epic. At this point, you all know that we’ve criss-crossed across Europe and China, but my and Sarah’s last trip to California had us craving more of that “purple mountains majesty and amber waves of grain” vibe.
And what with the National Park Service celebrating their 100th birthday this year, it only feels fitting that we continue to celebrate the invaluable work that they do to protect the best and brightest corners of the country.
Enter Alaska. We’re probably–no DEFINITELY–late to the party, but Alaska is beautiful and epic. Snow-capped mountains, ice, tundra, lakes, rivers, craggy cliffs, stretches of wildflowers, crisp clarified sunlight, and deep moody woods–all hiding in plain sight in the 49th state.
Of course, in an ideal world, we’d say sayonara to our plebeian lives and traverse Alaska over the course of a few weeks or months in a car (or RV with an Alaska RV rental perhaps), but time is of the essence these days, so we settled for a cruise ship instead. We would depart from Vancouver, head to Ketchikan, followed by Juneau, then Skagway.
From there we’d go through Glacier Bay and College Fjord, stop through Whittier, take in Denali, and finish the trip in Fairbanks. Cruising is always a bit of an “adventure,” let’s say–destinations aside–but more on that later.
When we touched down in Vancouver, the first thing we noticed was ASIANS. ASIANS EVERYWHERE. Signs in the airport were in English, French, and CHINESE. Funnily enough, many of Hong Kong’s most successful real estate developers led the charge in Vancouver, which means it eerily resembles Hong Kong, and there’s a strong, thriving Asian community of Chinese as well as Japanese and Korean residents.
Which means, plenty of delicious Asian noms. We treated ourselves to lovingly-made dim sum (freshly made fish tofu, anyone?)–increasingly a rarity in even the most hallowed dim sum houses of New York’s Chinatown. We also made sure to sample some sushi and perfect beef curry over rice; and an epic bowl of pork jowl ramen. Pork jowls, folks–it may just be the new bacon.
In the midst of our shameless culinary decadence, though, we managed to see Capilano Suspension Bridge Park.
The suspension bridge itself was old, crazily long, and scarily wobbly, but more impressive was the labyrinth of bridges and walkways that crisscrossed through the woods of the park itself. It was very rainy and wet, but also wonderfully surreal and otherworldly.
Given that we were at the whim of our cruise provider, we also took a rather dinky bus tour through the city, but there were still some epic views of the city to be had, notably from Prospect Point and Vancouver Lookout.
After two and a half days in Vancouver, we boarded the ship and were off!
When one gets on a boat, there are certain tradeoffs one makes. First, there are the people you’re with. They are, in a word–elderly. Sarah and I were easily included in the handful of youngest guests on the ship, and when I’d walk by in my flip-flops with my ombre bed head, I’d notice old couples looking at me in that “ah, we were young and crazy too once” kind of way.
Importantly, there are also the mechanics of being on a boat. For example, the rooms. I myself enjoyed the pleasant rocking of the boat while sleeping, but the parental units were less than thrilled. There’s the boat itself. You pick up all the silly names surprisingly fast (“Wanna go to Horizon Court? Sure, but let’s go to the Princess Theater first.”).
Then there are the surprising ways in which you think that you couldn’t possibly be on a boat. Mountains of food spring up out of nowhere multiple times a day with astounding regularity. At first, you’re thrilled! Perhaps your skinny jeans are gasping for air in the corner, but life is good. There are some things that the chefs on board just slay at–for example, we had the most amazing chicken tikka masala. Improbable? Completely. But who cares, you’re on vacation, right?
Then, you get in a few days and you start to realize…Hm, this clam chowder kind of seems like it was thickened with last night’s mashed potatoes instead of cream…Interesting, this bread pudding looks suspiciously like yesterday’s rejected toast tray…Odd, do I detect bits of the sad meatballs from the lunch buffet in this chili? And the crab and shrimp pasta bake is looking a lot like the leftovers from the Seafood Extravaganza…
As you might be able to tell, this very, very, very quickly became my favorite, most entertaining game to play on the ship. In all fairness, they did a great job of minimizing waste, which we definitely approved of. But it got to a point where Sarah was yelling at me at the dinner table (and/or the mid-afternoon second lunch table) for harshing her buffet buzz, as I dissected the likely composition of the day’s soup.
After acclimating to life on ship, we arrived in our first port of call in the wee hours of the morning. Luckily, Sarah basically stayed on an East Coast timezone schedule, so she was awake at 5 in the morning to take these photos.
Ketchikan is a popular port for cruises, well-known for its totem poles, but more importantly for Misty Fjords National Monument.
We got off the ship, promptly decided to skip the wood carvings, and bought tickets for a flightseeing tour of Misty Fjords.
We climbed into a little float plane that definitely looked like a veteran of many flights before ours, and our trusty pilot, Trevor, guided the plane along the inlet and up into the air.
While we moved through clouds and mist, Trevor regaled us with stories of his and his buddies’ “wild” nights down at the Moose Lodge–yes, it is a real place. We have documentation.
Flightseeing always seemed a bit like an unnecessary indulgence to me, but it truly was the best way to see the fjords.
We landed in the middle of an alpine lake, and took in the quiet and the amazingly fresh, clean air.
And to take photos in the cockpit, because how often are you standing in the vicinity of a parked float plane?
(Note the Starbucks cup in the cup holder. Even Alaskans haven’t managed to escape the grande caramel macchiato.)
We also checked in on a shrimp pot that had been placed out there by another pilot. Which, incidentally, was empty.
Flying back, we got a great view of New Eddystone Rock, which is at the top of an underwater volcano. This is when we decide that we are falling hard for Alaska.
From Ketchikan, we headed over to Juneau, the state’s capital, to see Mendenhall Glacier, nestled in Tongass National Forest, where we got our first views of shiver-inducing, icy blue glacial water.
The sound of the waterfall of glacial melt crashing into the shoreline was pretty phenomenal, and it’s humbling to contemplate the years and years that it took for the glacier to form.
Sadly, the glacier has retreated significantly over the years, with melting accelerating more recently. That lake that you see in front of the glacier? That DIDN’T EXIST a generation ago. I won’t badger you with my environmentalist zeal, but it was a sobering moment to see firsthand how our way of life impacts what was once seemingly an untouchable natural monument.
The trails surrounding the glacier, while small, were also great for a little sightseeing. We even spied a handful of salmon heading upstream to spawn!
Once we were back in downtown Juneau, we also took the opportunity to pick up a few souvenirs–namely, delicious, delicious smoked, canned salmon.
When in Alaska, you eat salmon. And then you eat some more salmon. And then you watch the salmon spawn as you walk through trails and towns. And then you think about how much salmon you’ve eaten. And then you go back for more.
Our next stop was Skagway.
After crushing disappointment over a sold out kayaking tour of Lake Bernard, we settle for a bus tour and the train ride through White Pass and the old Yukon Route. We burn some time wading through the endless sea of jewelry shops and souvenir outlets–par for the course in most of the tourist towns of Alaska–until our tour guide picks us up.
Our guide, Tomas, like many of the seasonal guides and workers in Alaska, is a high school teacher from Chicago who spends his summers in Alaska, unplugging from the world (NO cellphone. Craziness.), and enjoying the scenery.
While going from sitting on a boat to sitting on a bus was less than stellar, we captured some great views in the drive up the mountains to the train station.
A little drink of glacial water to wet your whistle? Don’t mind if I do…
Tomas drops us off at Lake Bernard, which is stunning and jaw-droppingly amazing. The water is a wonderfully transparent aquamarine color, flanked by low mountains. We kick ourselves once again for not moving faster on that kayaking tour…
From there, we hop on the train, which will take us back down the pass.
As we wind our way around cliffsides and through fields of wildflowers, it’s a sight to behold.
We chug along over wonderfully stalwart old bridges…
The blur of colors and sunlight refracting off every surface is hard to convey in words and pictures alone, but again, Alaska–we most definitely love you.
Next week, we’ll cover the second leg of our Alaska trip–Glacier Bay, College Fjord, Whittier, Denali, and Fairbanks! Stay tuned. (UPDATE: Part 2 is here!)