Alaska and a whole lot more…

Nick and ChristineHi, we are Nick and Christine Snowdon, two ex Travel Professionals, ex Travel Educationalists, and now Travel Bloggers. We enjoy searching out both new and traditional destinations on which to spend our retirement fund. Over the last 10 years we have travelled to over 50 destinations on 4 Continents and are loving it.

Christine had always wanted to see a glacier and so we decided to devise a trip to incorporate at least one!

Iceland, Seattle, the Alaskan Inner Passage and Vancouver

How long do you think it would take to fly from Manchester to Reykjavik? Three hours, four hours? Well not having considered the journey before, we were surprised to find it takes less time to get from Manchester to Iceland than it does from Manchester to Malaga! We checked out the Icelandair routes and found you could have a stop over in Reykjavik for up to 7 nights at no extra cost and fly from Heathrow, Manchester or Glasgow. As well as that you could fly onward to Seattle and come home via Vancouver. Our trip was starting to take shape.

First Stop, Iceland

Be prepared, even though Iceland is becoming more and more popular, it is not a cheap destination. As long as you are prepared to pay £8.50 for a pint of beer you’ll be fine. We stayed in the popular and well-placed Hotel Fron. It was clean, comfortable and and well priced and included a decent breakfast.

Things to do in Iceland: A quick mooch around the Centre of Reykjavik

Time was limited on the afternoon of our arrival, but the weather was kind to us and so a quick stroll around the environs of the hotel, to get our bearings was the obvious thing to do. We strolled to the waterfront and the local park and saw statues of the founding fathers of Iceland and the odd Troll! We made a quick visit to the very impressive modern Parish Church (Hallgrimskirkja, the largest in Iceland) stark, but quite beautiful.

Things to do in Iceland: Visit the Blue Lagoon

One “must do” thing on a short visit to Iceland is to visit the Blue Lagoon, a natu-ral geothermal Spa in a lava field about a 40 minute drive south of Reykjavik. We would recommend that you book a time slot in the UK before you travel as it gets extremely busy. However the system to check you in was very efficient and the staff were friendly. Try out the silica face mask whilst getting a drink at the bar in the pool.

Things to do in Iceland: Drive the Golden Circle

We hired a car for the three days we were in Iceland, but if you want to experience the Golden Circle you can find numerous arranged tours to take you there. The Circle involves three main attractions.
A meeting-point of the continental plates of North America and Europe which incidentally, was the site of the ancient Icelandic Parliament (Þingvellir).

An impressive Geyser at Geyser (the word geyser was named after this place). And the majestic Waterfall at a place called Gullfoss. Each of the three places had something to offer and the scenery on the rest of the drive was stunning in so many ways.

Waterfall at Gullfoss

Next Stop: Seattle

The flight from Reykjavik to Seattle was just over 7 hours and soon passed with movies to watch and books to read and fantastic scenery to view, including the magnificent Alaskan Mount Rainier. On the final approach to the airport you see the vast spread of the Boeing Factory (which you can visit if you want to), but Seattle is also a significant centre for some other enterprises including Starbucks, Microsoft and Amazon.

The hotels on First Avenue were expensive, so we chose to stay on the same avenue, but in an apartment block called Harbour Steps, at two thirds of the price and with the added bonus of all the extra space that an apartment brings.

Things to do in Seattle: Get on down to the Seattle Space Center.

The centre boasted a number of attractions including the Space Needle (with a lift to the top for the view, but as we had just had a panoramic view of the city from our flight in, we decided not to bother). Where we did visit, which was quite unique, was Chihuly Gardens and Glass, an attraction dedicated to the local glass sculptor, Dale Chihuly. It’s not something we would normally be attracted to, however we were glad we went.

Things to do in Seattle: Visit the Olympic Sculpture Park

Just a short walk from the Space Centre you will find the Olympic Sculpture Park, and as well as the statues on display you will experience some great views of Elliot Bay, the boating Marinas and the large Pier buildings, now mainly offering food and wine and many and varied purchasing experiences.

Things to do in Seattle: Take in the Seattle Art Museum

Not only will you find a huge animated sculpture outside the front door of the Museum you will, inside, be regaled by one of the most eclectic selections of artwork we have seen.

The range of artwork travels from Jasper Johns (one of our favourite artists) to Aboriginal Art, via huge suspended tree shaped sculptures to Alaskan Indian masks and clothing. With lots more besides. We were fortunate to visit on a day when a voluntary contribution was all that was required for entry. This Museum, the Olympic Sculpture Park (free entry) and an The Asian Art Museum (closed when we were there) have common ownership.

Things to do in Seattle: Visit Pike Place Market and the Piers

Pike Place, SeattleWhilst you are out and about, don’t forget to visit the bustling Pike Place Market, a large busy place loaded with an eclectic mix of fish stalls, work from local artists, flower stalls and some eateries.

You will also find plenty of places to eat down on the Waterfront on the Piers. There are a variety of restaurants offering a broad choice of food and keep your eyes peeled to take in one of the local breweries and Craft Beer establishments.

Our favourite breakfast eatery was one called The Book Store on First Avenue.

Things to do in Seattle: Get down to Occidental and Pioneer Squares

This area is the oldest and most historic part of Seattle, where the original settlers built their wooden huts. Whilst it has come on a lot since the 1850’s it still offers the oldest buildings and a laid back atmosphere.

If you are interested in the Klondike and the Gold Rush (as we were, because that was going to be the next leg of our journey) there is a great little museum, provided by the National Parks Service, on the junction of 2nd Avenue South and South Jackson Street, which gives you a fascinating set of films and exhibits giving an insight into an extraordinary time in American history.

Next Stop: The Cruise

Now we have never really thought of ourselves as cruising people and were planning to save those delights until later on in life. However, having wanted to visit Alaska, and particularly the Inner Passage, we did some research and came to the conclusion that because there weren’t any road or rail links to a lot of the places we wanted to experience, and flying would be unwieldy, then we would take a ship.

With the benefit of hindsight it proved to be a great choice. You take from your cruise what you want and participate only as much as you want to in the many and varied entertainments that were offered. The balcony cabin provided everything you would expect of a good quality hotel. The food was plentiful and of excellent quality, but we would advise that if you enjoy your wine with dinner and the odd chilled beer then it is definitely worth investing in the drinks package and prepay for gratuities otherwise you are charged an extra 17%.

The itinerary suited us well and included stops at Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria, as well as a cruise up Tracy Arm Fjord and the chance of seeing whales throughout the voyage!

The Cruise: Ketchikan

It was a damp day in Ketchikan, but that just added to the atmosphere – well after all, this is Alaska in September. We were welcomed by a statue of the Bald Eagle, which has been the National Emblem of the USA for a long time, they are plentiful in this part of the World so you should catch site of one here or there. You may even see one if you take time out to do the interesting Ketchikan Town Walking Tour.

Ketchikan has been well known for a variety of things, mainly its logging and fishing industries. Currently it houses a small Totem Pole Museum and Creek Street known for its fast moving river where, each year, thousands of Salmon come “home” to spawn. Creek Street is also famous being the town’s Red Light District, well not any more, but there was a thriving industry in the late 19th Century which was supplemented by the influx of thousands of gold prospectors on their way to the Klondike.

The Cruise: The Glacier

The next part of the cruise was possibly our favourite bit. We were told the previous night the we would be travelling up Tracy Arm Fjord  to see the Sawyer glaciers and to be up at 06.00 to enjoy the trip. We awoke early ready to witness the spectacle, but were dismayed when we heard from the Captain that it was too misty to navigate the Tracy Arn Fjord.

However he had an alternative up his sleeve.

We would travel up the Endicott Arm to see the Dawes Glacier. Well if this was second best I can’t imagine what Tracy Arm must be like? We sailed slowly up the 20 mile long Fjord, with the occasional commentary from Brent Nixon, an onboard Naturalist, who gave us fascinating and entertaining information. The Captain reached the far end of the fjord and performed a 360 degree manoeuvre so we all got the best view. What an experience!

Dawes Glacier

The Cruise: Juneau

By 13.30 we were in the ships theatre preparing for a departure on a booked excursion to see another glacier a few miles from Juneau. The Medenhall Glacier was quite majestic and was as different again from our early morning experience at the Dawes Glacier. Everything was much more open and there was a large waterfall adjacent to the glacier and dropping down into the bay. The Visitors Centre is well worth some of your time and included the latest news on local Brown Bear sitings!

Juneau is the Capital of Alaska and can only be accessed by sea or air. It was the first place in Alaska to experience the gold rush which started in 1880, making it a bit of a unique place. There are a number of excursions one could take here, from dog sledding on the glacier to light aircraft and helicopter tours over the glacier, or a trip up the cable car to look back down onto the town. The excursions weren’t cheap, but if that is what floats your boat, then go for it.

Once we had returned to town from the glacier we spent a couple of hours exploring and checking out the retail opportunities, of which there were many. You wouldn’t believe how many different Brown Bear T Shirts you could buy.

The Cruise: Skagway or Icy Strait Point?

One of the disappointments of the cruise (which was in no way the fault of the Cruise Line) was that we heard from the Captain that there had been a rockfall in Skagway, which had covered the port railway lines and spread onto the Cruise docking area and so a visit there was not going to be possible. This meant we would not be able to travel on the train journey we had booked, which would have climbed the White Pass and followed the trail of the Klondikers in their quest for gold.

However we docked at Icy Strait Point instead. In many ways this was the antithesis of Ketchikan and Juneau and the focus was on the natural Alaska. Don’t get us wrong, you could still book a sea plane ride or find some souvenirs to buy, it was just that the atmosphere here was more laid back. Here you got a bit more of a feeling of the local industries of fishing and canning and the wide open spaces. We took a shuttle bus to the old Alaskan Village of Hoonah and strolled the one and a half miles back to the ship. Once back on board and enjoying a coffee, we enjoyed watching some Orca Killer Whales in the bay, and flying around was the ubiquitous Bald Eagle.

Coming towards the end of the cruise and on the final few miles into Vancouver there occurred something you can’t book, pay for or choose to go and see, but it made your experience of the Inner Passage more than worthwhile. We had seen quite a few sitings of whales from the boat but nothing was going to prepare us for what was to come.

The Captain’s voice came clearly over the speakers to inform us that the ships sonar, and other ships in the area had informed him that in the next few minutes we would be surrounded by a pod of 150 Humpback Whales, which would pass on both sides of the ship. Well you didn’t know where to look for the best view – there were whales spouting, surfacing, diving and generally just enjoying them-selves. We are sorry that there are no photos of this event but when you are privi-leged to see such a sight you just want to absorb the experience!

Final Stop: Vancouver

Well, what a place to finish. Vancouver is a delight to the eye and full of places to go and things to see.

Our approach to the harbour was “interesting” as there were only a matter of feet between the ships superstructure and the Lions Gate Bridge. The captain went very slowly!

Things to do in Vancouver: Visit Stanley Park

There are, in Stanley Park, so many things to see and do we can’t list them all here. Suffice to say that it is one of the great Urban Parks of the World including large areas of West Coast Rainforest with both natural and man made attractions within its boundaries.

We walked along man made and forest trails taking in views of the city and a rather spooky enclosure which had housed a number of Polar Bears when there had been a zoo in the park. It was kind of eerie! If you like cycling then Stanley Park is made for you.

Things to do in Vancouver: Take a boat to Granville Island

We took one of the cute little False Creek Ferry boats from the Beach Avenue stop to Granville Island, a bustling area full of markets, places to eat, boutiques, galleries, its own Brewery, plus things to interest the kids (big and little).

Here we also saw one of the six large scale artworks which were to be found around the city. This particular one was undertaken by Brazilian twins Gustavo and Otávio Pandolfo and involved the painting of Cement Silos.

Things to do in Vancouver: Visit Gastown

We took a good walk from our hotel on English Bay Beach down to Gastown, the oldest part of Vancouver.

Gastown was named after an adventurous Englishman from Hull, who was nicknamed Gassy Jack because of the long monologues which he inflicted on any-one who stood still long enough to listen. We were also entertained by a Steam Clock which “blew” Westminster Chimes!

But by far the strangest thing we saw was a procession of about 200 motorcyclists which drove by on the narrow streets, much to the amusement of passers by. However that was not the only unusual thing – they were nearly all neatly dressed in jackets and ties.

Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride

It was only on our return to the UK that we found out that they were part of an International “Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride”, an effort to raise funds and awareness for men’s health, particularly for prostate cancer research.

Things to do in Vancouver: Walk along the Waterfront

Not far from Gastown you can pick up the Waterfront Road and enjoy the views across the water to Stanley Park. At Canada Place we stopped to admire another of the six installations erected in the city. This one looked like a lego version of an Orca whale and was pretty impressive.

Vancouver's Waterfront Orca

2010 Winter Olympic Cauldron, VancouverWe also passed the 2010 Winter Olympic Cauldron, with its five flame holders and a large sign celebrating Canada’s 150th Birthday. There are lots of things to see on the Waterfront – Cruise Ships and Sea Planes arriving and leaving and, if you want, you can just sit in one of the outdoor cafe’s and people watch.

Things to do in Vancouver: Enjoy the Hospitality

We stayed on English Bay Beach and were surrounded by a variety of places to eat and drink.

For Breakfast it’s always worth looking for an establishment with a queue of potential customers. The Red Umbrella (alright there is no queue there in the photo but it was taken in the afternoon!) was our favourite place, offering as many breakfast combos as we had seen. In the evenings the setting of the Cactus Club right beside the sea, along with delicious food, made it one of our favourites.

We also had our last dinner at The Boathouse on English Bay Beach. The service was friendly, the views were great and we enjoyed the overall experience.

Now I’m a bit of a sucker for Ice Cream and there was a great Ice Cream Store just around the corner, serving nothing else but ice cream. Winner.

Beer too is one of our favourites after a good day exploring, and Vancouver, like Seattle, had a plethora of small breweries and craft beers. It was impossible to taste them all, but I think we did try our best.

Our overall impression of Vancouver was of a city with a happy heart. People were friendly and there was a lot to see and do in the four days we enjoyed there.

We left Vancouver for home on an Icelandair flight, via Reykjavik, with fond memories of all of our trip.

We seem to have packed a lot of experiences into 19 days, but without feeling rushed or that we had missed a lot. Preparation is a fun and important part of any trip and this was no exception. We try not to overload our schedule and cherrypick our experiences. It is important to get home with a feeling of – that was just enough, but we can’t wait to get the next one planned.

The next adventure is now evolving…

So where to next?