Sunday, July 17, 2016

Highlight of an Alaskan Cruise--Glorious Glacier Bay

Wednesday, July 6, 2016: Cruising in Glacier Bay
Whale-Watching at the Crack of Dawn:
            Today was meant to offer the highlight sights of our entire cruise. And by the end of the day, we realized why it is considered a privilege to be able to set eyes on these parts of our planet. But to begin at the beginning...
            We set our phone alarms for 5. 30 am as the Cruise Director had informed us that chances of whale sightings were best just before we entered Glacier Bay—about 5. 30 am! Naturally, we took him at his word and by the time we reached the Crow’s Nest as the Explorations Deck is called, there were about thirty people ahead of us scanning the waters. Initially there was not much to report but we did see some rather cheeky sea otters—brown bodies bobbing up and down and identified by shiny button noses. After a fairly long time, when most people had given up, we saw a few ‘spouts’ in the far distance—these are made by whales blowing water out through their blowholes. A little movement was visible in the water—we saw what looked like black fins and tails—but, even with binoculars, they were too far off.
And then, just when I thought how disappointing it was how little wild life and marine life we were spotting on this trip, there came a gigantic Orca (Killer) whale almost slapping against the side of our ship.  I kid you not! It was literally just three feet from our ship and directly in the water below us when it made a graceful turn, exposed its back and fin above the water line and then plunged below exposing fully its huge forked tail. It was such an awesome sight to behold—especially after I had quite given up on spotting anything that remotely resembled a whale. Needless to say, it felt worth completely worthwhile to have woken up at that hour to see what we did.
Picking up Park Rangers Mid-stream:
            Whale-watching apart, however, the sea surrounding Glacier Bay was stunning to say the least. Dotted with green-draped islands, it offers opportunities for some serious wild life watching if one has good eyes or a good pair of binoculars. We, however, saw none. At about 6. 15, we began to see a boat in the distance—we thought it was a whale-watcher, but as it neared closer to us, we made the happy discovery that it was the commuter vehicle used by the US Park Rangers who began their journey in it from Gustavus (pronounced Gus-tay-vus) in order to meet our ship which they would board and on which they would remain for the entire day. It was really cool to see the three of them—interestingly all women—well-clad against the cold in bright red coats. We waved to them from the Crow’s Nest and got some good pictures of their craft. We did not see the manner in which they are hauled up into our ship on the Starboard (right) side. Apparently, our ship brings its speed down to just a few knots in order to lower a rope ladder along the side of the ship. The rangers then climb up it and into the ship. Sure beats a cup of coffee to wake you up in the morning! One of their colleagues then sails away in the boat with the intention of returning to the same spot in the evening to take them back to Gustavus. A few minutes later, two of the rangers came to the Crow’s Nest. They would spend the rest of the day with us providing us with the kind of expert commentary that would guide us through the area.
            The US National Parks Service has declared the entire Glacier Bay region a National Park. Thanks to the efforts of the naturalist John Muir, who is mainly associated with Yosemite National Park, the US government was persuaded to take this area on as a protected region. This means that it is maintained as ‘wilderness’ and because the only way to get to these parts is by boat, only very few people on this earth have had the privilege of seeing the area. Because the whale populations in these parts apparently dwindled quite suddenly, environmentalists petitioned for the banning of cruise liners in Glacier Bay. The cruise companies, however, appealed and, finally, a happy compromise was reached. Only two cruise liners per day are allowed in Glacier Bay. So we were really honored to have the opportunity to survey this part of the world in our Holland-American cruise-liner. Campers are allowed to spend time here but there are no camp sites, no running water, no facilities of any sort. If you wish to camp in this area, you pitch tent wherever you please and use the wilderness for bathing and toilet facilities. We were amazed not just to see a few people on one of the beaches but to actually find two of them kayaking in the Bay—I mean how cool is that???
Exploring Glacier Bay:
We spent most of our morning in the Crow’s Nest—it was one of the best places to be as it is an enclosed area that is temperature controlled and one can hear the experts provide their commentary which turned our attention to the map of the area and the route that our ship would take as it wove its way through a network of islands to the glaciers that give this bay its name. Ice-draped mountains were all around us by this time and you get a sense of actually being in Alaska although it is the middle of summer and the warmest time of year in these parts.
I nipped downstairs to get breakfast up for the two of us: waffles with strawberry compote and whipped cream for me, a bagel with cream cheese for Llew together with assorted pastries—all washed down by hot chocolate and coffee. Filled with this lovely repast, we trained our eyes on the topography as it unfolded before us. In front of us was another cruise ship and as we followed the exact same route, our ship literally inched forward. This allowed for a lot of photo opportunities as the glaciers came into view. At one point, the ranger pointed out a herd of white mountain goats—a nanny with her kids—on the mountain in the Starboard side; but we could barely discern them as tiny white spots.
Our exploration of Glacier Bay continued as Reid Glacier and Lamplugh Glacier came into sight. These are basically great rivers of ice the tops of which are almost entirely black or grey as a result of the debris (called moraine) that has been picked up along the way. The faces of the glaciers, however, are tinged blue and you understand where the shade ‘ice-blue’ gets its name! A half hour later, our ship made a left turn into Johns Hopkins Inlet and we were able to see Johns Hopkins Glacier come into focus. This glacier is the only one that is increasing in size—the others are steadily regressing as a result of global warming. We took a bunch of pictures but I was constantly aware of feeling sorry that there was so little wildlife in evidence. I had, at the very least, hoped to see a couple of bald eagles on this trip for birds and animals have the run of this land here and are masters of all they survey.
Margery Glacier—The Biggest Highlight:
            It was not long before we arrived at the big kahuna—Margery Glacier. Being the highlight, they save the best for last. It is a massive ice river that runs down to the sea and as the ship inched closer and closer to it, we realized that the best way to view it and to get the best pictures would be to leave the Crow’s Nest and get down to the deck when glass would not inhibit our viewing of the sight.
            And that was what we did. It was cold on the deck and Holland-America had thoughtfully provided cups of warming Dutch Pea Soup for everyone on board—a wonderful tradition that I hope they will retain. Just when I started to feel peckish, along came the soup. It could not have been more welcome.
            Fueled up well for more viewing, we went down to the third floor and when we emerged on the deck, we found just a few people there—certainly not as many as I expected. Perhaps the bulk of them had already taken their pictures and left. For Llew and me, it was a marvelous opportunity not just to get some nice pictures of the glacier itself, but to pose against it as well. And finally, after we had taken the mandatory pictures, we could actually gaze upon the giant glacier surrounded by ice-encrusted mountains and take in the wonder of the region—the dead silence of it all, the bird life (loads of sea gulls in the water) and the glare of snowy light as it bounced off the white and ice-blue face of the glacier that appeared in some parts like giant stalagmites reaching for the air above.
When Glaciers Start Calving:
                I was disappointed that it was not warm enough for us to see some of the ‘calvin the glacier—the name given to the process by which giant chunks break off the main glacier and fall into the sea. The fact that the water around the glacier was filled with ice floes ought to have indicated to me that we were likely to see it happen—but I had given up hope.
Imagine our delight then when we heard what sounded like a gun shot—a great big crack. And a few minutes later, a great chunk of ice detached itself from the side of the glacier and fell with a wobble into the sea with a huge high splash. Luckily, my camera was ready and since its journey down to the water was slow, I got a decent enough shot. It was a true sight for sore eyes—we actually saw the process of ‘calving’. A few minutes later, we heard the rumbling roaring sound of the glacier again as it proceeded to fling another chunk of ice into the sea. And we realized then why the ranger had told us that if we had not yet gone outside, we ought to—as the sound that the glaciers make are as awesome as the sight of them.  It was a truly splendid morning spent really well as our ship made a full circular turn at Margery Glacier to allow passengers on every side of the ship to take in the absolute beauty of it. We realized then why this is the highlight of any cruise to Alaska. It was a sight that would remain in my memory for all time.
            A little later, as it was rather cold on the deck, we went back to our staterooms. Our early rising had made each of us feel a little woozy but by noon, we were at the Lido Deck as the ship began its slow retreat out of the Bay. There were still lots of opportunities to take pictures but at the end of the day all we wanted was to drink in the sights of the mountains, the islands and the sea and we ended up doing just that.        
Lunch on the Lido Deck:
            Everyone seemed to have become really hungry by the act of glacier-watching for the Lido was packed. There were loads of choices on hand and I settled for soup (Ketchikan Green Chile and Corn Chowder) as I needed some warming up, a plate of small Middle Eastern nibbles and a bowl of spaghetti that I had custom-made for me Carbonara-style with bacon and mushrooms. Llew settled for a plate of roast meats.
Ranger Presentation in the Showroom:
            At 1.00 pm, feeling fully sated, we made our way to the theater to listen to Ranger Faye make her presentation on Glacier Bay and although she used Powerpoint and some really good slides to make it interesting, I have to say that I dozed off through most of it. Early morning risings and too many late nights have begun to take their toll on me and I am often finding it impossible to keep my eyes open. Still, I was quite pleased with the few bits and pieces I caught and as we trooped out of the theater at 2. 00 pm, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at leisure.
An Afternoon of Leisure:
            Llew chose to take a long and much-needed nap. As usual, I was content with a 20 minute shut-eye after which I donned my sneakers and began a two mile walk around the deck. There were a lot of other walkers doing the rounds, so I had plenty of company. After I had walked three miles or nine rounds of the deck, it was close to 5.00 pm when Mass was about to be celebrated. I joined Llew in our stateroom as we swiftly got ready and set off for Mass which, I was surprised to see was attended by at least 30 people. Mass and Communion done, we went back to our stateroom to get into our bathing suits for a nice long relaxing soak in the hot tub on the Lido Deck. This was the first time during this cruise that we found the time for a hot soak—on our previous cruise to the Baltic, we were in the hot tub after each day’s sightseeing in a different European capital.
Gala Night on Board:
            Half an hour later, we returned to our stateroom to shower, shampoo and get ready for our formal Gala Night on board. I love these formal (dress-up) nights as it is a great pleasure to see everyone in their grand attire—males in jackets and ties and women in strapless gowns and their highest heels. We went to the Manhattan Dining Hall at 7.00 pm and were happily seated almost immediately—so much better than getting there at 8.00 pm and having to wait for half an hour for a table. It happened to be Lobster Night—so we were excited.
            To our good luck, we were placed at a table for four and were quite pleased by the company of Bob and Mary who had just joined our ship in Skagway having done the land part of the Alaska cruise first. They made very interesting company as they were very seasoned travelers. We were awed to discover that they have been traveling together since their retirement in 1993 and have undertaken a minimum of two big trips per year—sometimes three. Having done this for 23 years, they have seen most parts of the world (except Israel and India) and made really entertaining company. Llew and I would dearly wish to follow in their footsteps—Inshallah!
            Dinner was as good as the posted menu promised it would be. Both Llew and I started with the Shrimp Cocktail—which was different from the British version which is usually lettuce dressed with a Marie-Rose sauce with shrimp placed on the top of cocktail glasses. In this case, the undressed lettuce was placed in cocktail glasses, four large shrimp were draped on the side of the glass and a tiny ceramic container of a cocktail glass was served to be used as a dipping sauce for the shrimp which were also accompanied by a wedge of lemon. Although different, it was delicious. Both Llew and I also chose a salad for our second course—Caramelized apples, pears and shallots were served in a balsamic-vinaigrette over greens (nice enough). For our main, no marks for guessing that we both close the Surf and Turf—Lobster Tail with Filet Mignon accompanied by roasted carrots and a green spinach pilaf. It was very good indeed and we both enjoyed the dish. Finally, for dessert, I had the Flourless Chocolate Cake served with a raspberry sauce and whipped cream—Llew ordered it too—that Chef Suraj, during his cookery demo, had said was his favorite dessert on board. It was great, I have to say. The texture was incredible. It was rich and super creamy and the quality of the dark chocolate used was so good that I could tell from the taste that it was a superior grade.
Evening in the Crow’s Nest with Piano Man Jimmy:             
            Our companions said goodbye to us at the end of their meal and we decided to get to the Crow’s Nest where Piano Man Jimmy Maddox had been moved for an evening of hits from Around the World. Once again, we were regaled by the multiplicity of his talents as pianist, singer, raconteur. The songs he played were well-known hits and with a large number of people joining in both in the singing and taking spontaneously to the floor, we had a really great evening. At 11.00 pm, we finally decided to get back to our stateroom and call it a night.
            It had been a day of immense sights and sounds and we were certainly enjoying our travels and all the wonders it was slowly revealing to us.     
Until tomorrow…                    

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