Walking Safari: Day One

We walked single-file out of the Camp Tena Tena just after dawn on a Sunday morning. There were six of us. In the lead, Chris carried the rifle, followed by Braston our guide. I came next, then my daughter, Catherine, my sister Carolyn, and finally Bishod, guide in training. To walk the savannah, down, up and over empty oxbow lakes, and then step into the cool shade of a grove of ebony — it’s like that. You feel Africa close.

Elephant in South Luangwa National Park
In her hills and hollows, in her wrinkles, perhaps . . . there is the topography of the whole earth. African Elephant. Photograph, Ann Fisher

We walked single-file out of the Camp Tena Tena just after dawn on a Sunday morning. There were six of us. In the lead, Chris carried the rifle, followed by Braston our guide. I came next, then my daughter, Catherine, my sister Carolyn, and finally Bishod, guide in training.

Imagine stretching out your hands and running them over the face of the elephant there, just there in the picture, above.

Feel the smooth tusks, and let your fingers run up across the wide variety of skin, craggy with wrinkles. Hear her breath, and let her ruffle your hair with her trunk. Smell the grassiness of the twigs and leaves she chews.

To walk the savannah, down, up and over empty oxbow lakes, and then step into the cool shade of a grove of ebony — it’s like that. You feel Africa close.

The word safari means an expedition to observe or hunt animals in their natural habitat. “Safari” entered the English language in 1869, from Swahili,  but was originally from the Arabic term safara, meaning to travel. To walk in the bush, to be with the animals on foot is the truest experience of the phrase, “to be on safari.”

We walked from 6:30 until about 10:45 in the morning, when we walked into Luangwa Bush Camp. This temporary, true camp rotates between four camp sites.

Luangwa Bush Camp walking safari Robin Pope Safaris
We stopped for a tea break each morning, and Bishod would prepare tea or coffee for all of us. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

We met our guide Braston at breakfast that morning, and he covered the basics: we walk single file, always single file, with Chris on the lead with the rifle. If there is anything, we hold still, maintain the line.

Was I afraid? That first morning, I admit that I was uncomfortable. I’d just met Braston, Chris, and Bishod, and here we were walking into the bush with them. The night before we’d seen a pride of lions.

We’d barely been walking twenty minutes when we surprised a hippo who then went crashing through the thicket, right past us, to get away. We all froze, just as instructed.

It was wonderful.

Hyena South Luangwa National Park Zambia
The hyena waits, listening, sifting the air for smells, for clues there may be a kill to find, to steal. Photograph, Ann Fisher
Crocodile feeds on hippo carcass
The day before we started our walking safari, I was looking at the geese with my camera when suddenly a crocodile lunged out of the water to feed on the hippo.

We walked around one of the many lagoons, this one where we’d seen  a croc feeding on a dead hippo the day before. The smell of decay was strong and sweet, the body still almost completely intact.

The hippo was too far out in the water for the lion and hyena to get to, and the crocs would not really be able to break into the carcass until decay advances further, softening the tissue.

Rounding the side of another lagoon, we spotted a hyena, walked along near the den — she trotted off, but stayed close. Hyena in different parts of Africa behave differently. In some places, hyenas hunt like other predators.

Hyena Poop
No, they aren’t ping pong balls — it’s hyena poop, white as snow from all the bones they eat. Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.

In South Luangwa, food is plentiful, and the hyena act as scavengers — and rarely take a kill themselves.

Part of a walking safari is tracking — learning about animals and spoor — and quite surprisingly for us, hyena poop is white! They consume so much calcium as they eat bone that the stuff stands out like it’s lit from within, it’s so bright.

Baby Giraffe South Luangwa National Park Zambia
When we first came upon the tower of giraffes, this baby sprinted towards the safety of its mom. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
a Tower of Giraffes
We settled in for tea, and the giraffes returned their focus to breakfasting on leaves. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

We spent thirty minutes or so watching a tower of giraffes — yes, learning the British collective words for animals, great fun! Braston suggested it was time to take a break and have some tea, and we found a spot very close to our long-necked friends. Morning tea and giraffes — what could be better?

Chris walked around several of the bushes in our immediate vicinity, checking to be sure everything was safe, and Braston designated one for our latrine needs. Yes, if you’re going to walk in the bush on a remote African safari, you’re going to poop in the bush, just like the hyena :-).

Crocodile tracks South Luangwa National Park Zambia
The arrows point out the drag line of the crocodile’s tail, the sweeping scratch marks of its claws, and the close-up shows the scale pattern in the tracks. Fascinating stuff!

Following tea, we spent close to another two hours walking, stopping to examine lion tracks, crocodile tracks — which consist of a tail dragging line and scaly foot prints, and porcupine tracks. Braston broke open aardvark dung to show the ant remains speckled inside of it. Our favorite animal path? The hippo highways — trails the hippos make in their nocturnal grazing forays into the bush, as they string necklaces of Nile cabbage out behind them.

Luangwa Bush Camp Tent, Robin Pope Safaris walking safari
Our first tent at Luangwa Bush Camp. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Around 10:30, we paused to watch a “business” of mongoose cross our trail before walking into our camp. After four hours out in the bush, it was lovely to walk to Luangwa Bush Camp (LBC) with everything set up and waiting for us. Braston showed us the layout — our tents, two pit latrines with comfy toilet seats, a bucket shower rig, and a full bar. All just for us. LBC maximum capacity is three tents, a total of six guests, but we had it all to ourselves.

Luangwa Bush Camp Robin Pope Safaris Walking Safari
Catherine reviews photographs — our view at this location? A large pod of hippos on the great Luangwa River. Alternate collective word for hippos: a “bloat” :-). Photographs, Ann Fisher.

Our wonderful young camp cook, Boniface, served lunch at 11:30 on a table looking out on the hippos, and afterwards it was time for siesta.

Catherine sacked out in our tent, finding the beds very comfy — mattresses on the floor of the tent, made up with soft cotton sheets and coverlet. I settled in one of the camp chairs to write and watch the hippo family, who had decided that the morning standing in the river had quite exhausted all of them. It was time for a pod-wide afternoon sunbath-nap combo.

I was working on an account of the day in my journal, when I was surprised to hear an extraordinarily loud snoring. I looked at the hippos, but then realized it was coming from behind me. It was Catherine!

Hippos nap on the river beach of the Luangwa
Siesta for all! The hippos snooze away the warm middle of the day. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Following our afternoon tea we walked back out of camp to explore further. Just before sunset, Isaac met us with the Range Rover at the agreed location near the lagoon. We watched the sun go down, and the lovely fingernail moon begin to show itself, and enjoyed our world of bird song and frogs, and the whooshing blow of a hippo surfacing. It was a good time to be quiet, enjoy our wine, and watch the evening come.

Sunset on a lagoon in South Luangwa National Park
Sunset on the lagoon – magical time. Photograph, Ann Fisher
Female Leopard Luangwa National Park Zambia
Beautiful female leopard on the hunt. Photograph, Cat Gassiot.

When we finally clambered up into the Rover, it was time for a bit of night game-driving. I remember saying to Carolyn, “the day has been perfect. It doesn’t make any difference to me if we see nothing at all.”

The day had one more gift for us, a female leopard on the hunt. We stayed with her only briefly.

We were tired and it was time for everyone to go their own way.

Our first day of the walking safari had been perfect, and we arrived back in camp to find it full of warm kerosene light, and Boniface with dinner nearly ready.

Dinner in Luangwa Bush Camp
Cat, Carolyn, and Braston talk about the day while we wait for dinner. Photograph, Ann Fisher

This is the second in a series of posts reviewing our safari in Zambia. We spent 12 days with Robin Pope Safaris: 8 days on game drives at Tena Tena, Nsefu, and Luangwa River camp.

Read the first installment of safari series here, Our African Safari in Zambia:

 

Our African Safari in Zambia

Male Leopard in South Luangwa National Park.
Male leopard in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. We spent more than an hour one morning with him and his mate. We were the only people there. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

So, you want to go on safari in Africa. But where?

To say that the continent is vast is a gross understatement. Africa holds more than 20 percent of the Earth’s total land mass. Only Asia outstrips it in size, at 30 percent. In comparison, North America is third, with 16 percent, while Europe is sixth, with just under 7 percent of the world’s land.

Kenya, the Serengeti, the Masai Mara, Mount Kilamanjaro, and Victoria Falls rate as some best-known parts of the continent, but it also makes them some of the most heavily traveled.

I knew one thing.

I did NOT want to spend the money to go to Africa and feel like I was on some domestic game drive in the United States.

ten vehicles and tourists follow a lion in Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania.
Ngorongoro crater, Tanzania. A herd of cars and tourists follow a lion. This is NOT WHAT I WANTED! Photograph from Shutterstock.

Choosing Zambia and Robin Pope Safaris

I was fortunate to know a couple who have traveled many, many times to multiple parts of Africa. Bob and Andrea both recommended we look at Robin Pope Safaris in Zambia for our first trip. I’d subscribed to Robin Pope’s It’s Monday Newsletter several years ago, and have been regularly entertained with their photographs and stories.

Getting our business wasn’t a slam dunk for Robin Pope though — whenever I go someplace new, I do a LOT of research.

Yellow baboon mother and baby near a lagoon, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.
Yellow baboon mother and baby spend the late afternoon with their troop near a lagoon. Photograph, Ann Fisher

When my sister and I started discussing this safari trip we did homework on Abercrombie and Kent, Tauck, Smithsonian Journeys, National Geographic travel, and several African safari operators, one of which was Robin Pope. We read about Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Zambia.

In the end, we chose to book with Robin Pope based on the kind of experience we wanted to have: high end, very small and personal groups, and the kinds of animals we were likely to see — and — for what we found to be competitive price, based on the level of service and accommodations.

If you are thinking about a safari, I’d recommend the same process. Do some reading, watch documentaries of different parts of Africa, make a list of animals that are must-sees for you, choose several potential countries that match your desires, and then dig into the range of tours that are out there. Decide on your budget and trip length. See what fits with your budget and your priorities — and as we all know, this is a very individual thing. Several of our camp hosts also recommended reading the web forum Safari Talk as a much better place to read safari reviews than Trip Advisor.

If you’re looking for the best safari companies in Africa, it’s not unusual that Americans look for either American or at least European tour companies, just out of a sense of comfort. The reality, though, is that you’re going to find the best safaris through local operators — and that’s what the big companies are doing. They put together experiences with local companies, repackage them, and charge you a higher price.

This blog article is the second post of a five part series on our experience on safari in Zambia, and I shall do my best to give you a complete overview of our trip. The first part of the series was Preparing for an African Safari.

Zambia is a landlocked country in southern Africa. Once a colony of the United Kingdom known as Northern Rhodesia, Zambia gained its independence in 1964. Image: Harve Pino, 123RF Stock Photos.

Our Safari Itinerary

Robin Pope  has a list of standard safari packages that should please a wide range of plans. You’ll find thirty-five different options that give lots of combinations — time in the South Luangwa National Park, visits to Victoria Falls, combination safari-beach getaways, and special focuses like honeymoon or family-oriented safaris. They put together a custom itinerary for us. We decided we wanted to stay in the South Luangwa National Park for our entire trip — to focus completely on maximum time with the animals there.

Our itinerary:

The RPS camps each have an outstanding video that will give you a very accurate view of the feel of that camp. You’ll find it on the right on each camp page — see the red arrow.



Our first camp — Tena Tena

Our first home in Zambia was Tena Tena, the flagship camp of the Robin Pope company. Roughly translated, it means “temporary home.”

We arrived around 7:00 p.m. from the small airport in Mfuwe, and were greeted  by our camp hostess, Shannon, with warm cloths to clean off the dust from the road. We stopped at our tents before heading to the bar for a drink and orientation. Of course, it was completely dark. June is winter in Zambia, and the sun goes down around 5:20. We saw our tent-rooms by lamp-light and then one of the night watchmen walked us over to the bar.

Your home at Tena Tena. Photo courtesy of Robin Pope.
Your home at Tena Tena. Photo courtesy of Robin Pope.

Daily Schedule:

  • 5:30 a.m. Wake up knock at your tent flap 🙂
  • 5:45 a.m. Breakfast
  • 6:15 – 6:30 – Leave for morning game drive
  • 8:30 – 8:45 – Stop for morning tea
  • 10:30 Arrive back in camp
  • 11:30 a.m. Lunch
  • Siesta
  • 3:30 p.m. Tea
  • 4:00 p.m. Afternoon game drive
  • Stop at a beautiful location, enjoy sundowners
  • Night game drive
  • Arrive back in camp in time to freshen up, normally 7:15 – 7:30, and go for a drink
  • 8:00 p.m. Dinner

Tena is on the banks of the Luangwa River in an area with multiple hippo pods — and man, do they talk!

When we first arrived, there were so many LOUD noises. We were exhausted from two days of traveling, it was dark, and we were constantly thinking, “what is that?!” and “What was THAT??” The night was full of hippo calls, and then came the lion later, not long after we’d gone to bed.

Hippo Vocalization – hit play!

Frog in the Tena Tena bathroom
This little frog shared our bathroom at Tena Tena. Photograph, Ann Fisher

After one day, we were used to it, and the sounds became a normal part of life, no longer alarming.

We loved our tented homes at Tena Tena. The bathrooms are outdoors, surrounded by a wall that varies in height, and covered by a draped mesh top. There is a lot of space between the tents, and the brush around you creates plenty of privacy. You will have a few bathroom visitors: tree frogs and a preying mantis came to see us.

There are only six tents, which means that the camp has a maximum capacity of 12 people. Small, private, and personal are all good words to describe Tena Tena.

Bathrooms at Robin Pope Safaris Tena Tena camp
My sister, god bless her, captured the bathroom at Tena — wonderful experience, private, yet outdoors. You do need to be okay with a few visitors! You’re looking out of the tent at the sink area, then you can see the sink and the edge of the tent, and then the toilet. The shower is out there, of course, as well. Photographs, Carolyn Fisher.

The design work at Tena is stunning. Natural wood, bark intact, edges the undulating plaster walls. Fabric for bed covers and cushions is cotton or wool in natural colors of dusty greens, greys, creams accented with bright splashes of burnt orange or blue for contrast.

Each afternoon, guests gathered at the bar for tea before heading out on the afternoon game drive. Don’t worry coffee drinkers — which would be me! There’s plenty of good French press coffee as well! As we visited with other guests, our guides would prepare the kit for the game drive: the all important question, “What would you like for sundowners?”

My sister Carolyn and daughter Cat enjoy a cup of coffee before heading out on the afternoon game drive. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Stopping for mid-morning tea (or coffee) break. The Toyota Landcruisers used for the game drives were tough but comfortable.

If you have four people in your group, you will always have your own vehicle. There were three of us in our party, and over twelve days, we had other people join us on just four game drives. Almost all of the RPS game drive vehicles are roofless Toyota Landcruisers. The seats are comfortable, and always covered with a clean fleece blanket. Roofless vehicles — this is VERY important. No photographer wants to have a vehicle roof screwing up shots.

Animals that we saw on the Tena game drives: Many, many impala, puku, elephants, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, hyena, several types of mongoose, African water buffalo. So many different kinds of birds, I can’t list them all! Big cats: Lion — two evening sightings, and leopard — both by day and at night — this was in just two days of drives at Tena Tena. Over the whole twelve day trip, we saw lions and leopards many times over!

And the biggest thing of all, the most important thing to me, is what we didn’t see. We didn’t see many people, at all. It started in Africa for us: we have fallen in love with safaris — hopelessly, amazingly.

I’ll end here with a video overview of our time at Tena Tena. It was magical!

Nsefu pride of lions on a night game drive from the camp at Tena Tena. South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
On one of our night game drives at Tena Tena, we ran across six members of the Nsefu pride of lions. Amazing to be so close to these mighty cats! Photograph, Ann Fisher

This is the first in a multi-article series on our safari in Zambia. Find the second part, Walking Safari: Day One, here:

 




Redford’s Sundance

Mount Timpanagos shot from the Sundance Lift
Mount Timpanogos shot from Ray’s Lift at the Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

At the Crossroads of Art and Nature

My stay at the Sundance Resort in late September was full of crisp fall air and leaves turning golden yellow, orange, and red.

What a gorgeous time to be in Provo Canyon! Mount Timpanogos received a dusting of snow a couple of days before my arrival. The first afternoon was lightly rainy, but perfect for taking an umbrella walk and doing some writing.

I’ve been aware of the resort for a long time, and looked at visiting on several occasions, but never managed to make it happen. Now that I’ve finally been, I wonder — what took me so long?

I spent a long September weekend at Sundance Mountain Resort, hiking and taking photographs. The fall days were so lovely, and brought to mind the Stanley Horowitz quote: “Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all.”  My time there happened to coincide with the Harvest Market — a venue for great music, local artists, and good fun. What an idyllic retreat . . . the food was great, and I absolutely loved Sundance.

One of the cabins at the Sundance Mountain Resort. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
One of the cabins at the Sundance Mountain Resort. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Rooms and Suites

All of the accommodations at Sundance are in cabins and range in size from a standard rooms to lofts and suites. I really like that there isn’t a big lodge or hotel building. The cabins fit into the landscape, nestled among the trees. In fact, one of the things I like the best about Sundance is that it feels private, personal. Nothing about the resort is over-developed. 

I stayed in a standard room this time, which was very comfortable. It was was rustic, with rough pine paneling, luxurious bedding, and a well-designed bathroom. I walked back and forth from my cabin to Base  for meals and activities. It was great exercise. If you don’t want to walk or drive, it’s not a problem. There is a small fleet of Acura SUVs driven by staff that will take you back and forth.

There was really good  in-room coffee! What a nice surprise — ample Starbucks, with real cream. Oh, this is the way to my heart first thing in the morning.

Standard room at Sundance Mountain Resort
Standard room at Sundance Mountain Resort. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

One thing to be aware of — the cabins are built like regular homes, not hotels. What I mean is this – there isn’t commercial sound damping between the floors. You will hear the people in the room above you move around, take showers. This didn’t bother me — I’d stay in the same room again without a second thought.

If this is something you want to avoid, I would recommend booking a second floor room, or a loft configuration — I’d call Sundance and have a reservation specialist find a room or suite that will please you.
Other larger rooms configurations offered:

Standard Room Studio Room Sundance Suite
400 sq. ft. 500-600 sq. ft. 550-700 sq. ft.
Mountain Suite Mountain Loft
750-900 1,000 sq. ft.

Note: at the time of writing, there are not handicap accessible rooms at the Sundance Resort. The restaurants, store, and other public buildings are accessible.

Golden Aspens on the Loop Drive above Sundance. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Golden Aspens on the Loop Drive above Sundance. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Activities

You can have as much – or as little – activity as you would like while you’re at the Sundance Resort.

In the warmer weather, there’s hiking, mountain biking, and ziplining — you take Ray’s ski lift up and hop off for your chosen activity. Hiking and biking are divided along two sides of the mountains for safety. Then in the winter, you can go skiing, snowshoeing, or head to the Nordic Center.

If you’re looking for rest and revitalization, then The Spa at the Sundance Mountain Resort offers a full range of services: massages, facials, body treatments, manicures and pedicures, along with seasonal offerings.

I enjoyed taking the Alpine loop drive above Sundance that winds up over the summit. The road is narrow, but there are ample pull-outs for photo stops, or simply letting someone in a hurry get on their way.

Sundance Resort offers a variety of classes, including jewelry making, pottery, watercolor, and photography. I took a photography class, and my experience at the Sundance Art Studio was outstanding. I was the only student — something I did not expect. I’d call myself a serious amateur photographer. I expected to be sitting with a group of beginners — which would have been fine because I always learn something. But I didn’t have to do that. Annalisa took time to find out where I was with skills and looked at some of my photographs before setting an agenda for the lesson. She is a great teacher, and I’ll take class with her again when I’m back at Sundance.

The summer season at the Sundance Mountain Resort is the busiest in terms of number of events. In the summer of 2016 these were comprised of multiple music events, including performances by the Utah Orchestra, special food events, and Sundance Summer Theater performances. Sundance Summer theater is done in partnership with Utah Valley University, and the summer 2016 offerings were The Music Man and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. An example of special food events would be the supper club evenings that include lift tickets up to Bearclaw cabin, where participants have a gourmet dinner served outside surrounded by the Wasatch mountain range.

Coming up in October are the Halloween Lift Rides, along with film screenings. Later in November, a set of four Redford films will screen on consecutive Fridays. Then there is the Author series of talks. There are so many different activities over the course of the year, you’ll want to check the Sundance calendar to see what’s going the month you’re going to visit.

Save up to $500 when you book your flight +hotel!

Food

Sundance Mountain Resort does a great job with food in four different venues: The Tree Room, The Foundry Grill, The Owl Bar, and the Deli. I ate everywhere except the Deli during my stay at Sundance.

I had dinner in the Tree Room my second night – as the fine dining option, I simply had to try it. The restaurant is beautiful: rustic wood paneling, navajo rugs and native American artwork, white table cloths with soft lamp light. Entrees range from $28 to $48. My Tree Room Pepper Steak was outstanding. Tree Room Menu.

The Foundry Grill is Sundance’s less formal restaurant, but the ambiance is equally pleasing, and the food was just as good as the Tree Room. At lunch, the entrees range from $15 to $25 dollars, while in the evening $25 – $44, but you can still get salads or pizza for under twenty dollars. The Sunday buffet-style brunch at the Foundry is a big deal — and a big favorite with the locals. Brunch sells out most of the time, so be sure to make reservations. Honestly, and this is just a “me” thing – I preferred their regular breakfast. I am not a big buffet person, and this is absolutely not a knock on the Foundry Brunch, which has a gorgeous breakfast buffet. Foundry Lunch Menu. Foundry Dinner Menu. Foundry Breakfast Menu.


Briggs & Riley New Products
The Owl is my kind of bar, with great character, good people, and a selection of food drawn from from the Foundry’s menu. I liked the rough hewn log interior decorated with black and white images from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I was at the Owl each night for drinks, and had lunch there twice. The Owl Bar Menu.

There is also a Deli that serves things like breakfast tacos in the morning, sandwiches, and while I did not eat at the Deli — the food looked great.

Since the food and the atmosphere at the two Sundance restaurants, the Foundry and the Tree Room, are so good, locals come to eat regularly. If you want a table, you’d better make a reservation in advance, or you’ll be eating at the deli or hoping for a table at the Owl Bar — which is sometimes hard to come by.

People

What impressed me about Sundance, more than anything – it was the people. This started before my arrival. I made reservations about two weeks before I arrived. A day after I booked the weekend on the Sundance Resort web site, a received an email survey from the concierge to find out what I would like to do. Brenda followed up with a call about an hour later. This personal touch was the hallmark of my whole experience at Sundance. It’s not a large resort, so the staff really has time to treat guests as individuals.

People like working here. John, who waited on me numerous times at the Foundry, has worked for Sundance for over six years. Owl bartender J. Jaye has been with Sundance fourteen years, and told me she was a junior in terms of longevity. My photography instructor was the same — a fourteen plus year Sundance employee. John, J. Jaye, and Annalisa all talked about why they like working at Sundance. That speaks volumes. The company treats its people well, and that makes this is a great place to be – for guests as well.

Why Sundance?

There are certainly other mountain resorts in Utah, and for that matter, in many western states. So why choose Sundance?

Of course the resort is beautiful, but it’s so much more than that. Sundance has played an important role in film and storytelling in our country. Would we even have the Independent Film movement in the U.S. without Robert Redford and his Sundance? It’s impossible to say.

In my twenties I first became aware of Redford’s work in Indy film with the Belizaire the Cajun (1986). This little movie was about the part of the world I was from — but I didn’t know much about Cajuns — I grew up in New Orleans. The film launched me into reading about the Acadians.

I had never heard the term Independent Film before this. It’s when I started to understand how hard, how nearly impossible it was for films that didn’t interest the big studios — to get made and get to an audience.

In a Hollywood Reporter article, Stephen Gallway writes, “Redford received a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and added $50,000 of his own money to create the nonprofit Sundance Institute in 1981, then launched the festival in Park City three years later. Even Redford’s agent at the time, Freddie Fields, thought he was crazy. “I said, ‘I want to do this. You’re not going to stop me,’ ” recalls Redford. ” ‘I’ll only give it three years. If it doesn’t work, I’m not going to beat a dead horse.’ And in the third year, it started to happen.””

In a Roger Ebert interview from 2003, Redford discusses the first years of the Sundance Film Festival. “We had 30 or 40 films, in two theaters. I was standing in the street outside the Egyptian Theater, handing out brochures like a street hawker, trying to talk people into coming inside. I saw David Putnam, who was running Columbia at that time, and gave him the pitch. He went in, saw Jim McBride’s ‘The Big Easy,’ and bought it. That was the first film bought at Sundance.”

Redford answers questions during a press conference to open the 2007 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
Robert Redford answers questions during a press conference to open the 2007 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Photograph by GEORGE FREY, Alamy Stock Photo.

“The lab has been, maybe, the best of all of it. The festival is great, it went way beyond my expectations, but the festival is about showcasing work.”

“The lab is the heart and soul of Sundance. That’s where things get developed. That’s where new people come in that wouldn’t have a chance. Then we work with them. Then we bring my colleagues in, the screenwriters, actors, directors.” (Vanity Fair, 2016).

Some of the films that have come from the Sundance Lab work are Reservoir Dogs (1991), Boys Don’t Cry (1997), and Maria Full of Grace (2002).

In a 2013 BBC interview for the Sundance London Film Festival, Redford was asked why he thought independent film was so critical to the industry. Redford responded, “I think because of the value of the independent voice. There’s nothing wrong with the big blockbusters. That’s the wonderful thing about the industry; it accommodates all kinds of film. I don’t think it should only focus on one kind. By increasing the independent film, for me it was increasing the opportunities for audiences to have more of a choice in the marketplace.”

Jeremiah Johnson poster, 1972 film by Sydney Pollack, starring Robert Redford.
Jeremiah Johnson, 1972 film by Sydney Pollack, starring Robert Redford.

I’m booked to head back to Sundance in November to see the screening of Jeremiah Johnson. This will be a treat because it’s been many years since I’ve watched it. It’s possible that without Redford’s experience making the film, and then the fight to get it released, we might not have Sundance — Jeremiah Johnson gave him firsthand experience with the frustrations of making and launching a project that wasn’t the studio’s idea.

So, yes. There are many other mountain resorts you might visit in America. But none of them are Sundance. I don’t have big, important money to donate to the Institute. But I sure can choose to spend some of my vacation dollars supporting a place I find meaningful.

Listening to Redford talk about Sundance will give you an understanding of what he thinks, that it’s “a place where I could meld my two loves: nature and art.” The Story of Sundance Mountain Resort.

Allan Houser’s bronze sculpture, “Prayer Song,” in front of the Rehearsal Hall at Sundance. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Allan Houser’s bronze sculpture, “Prayer
Song,” in front of the Rehearsal Hall at Sundance. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

“To us Sundance is and always will be a dream. What you see, smell, taste and feel here is a dream being carefully nurtured. It is an area whose pledge is to people. What we offer in the form of art and culture, spirit and service is homegrown and available to all.”       – Robert Redford


Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

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Sources
When I started writing this blog posting, I wanted to finish with a bit on Redford and his impact in Indy film. I’d read his biography several years ago, but wanted to go through some more recent articles. And then I couldn’t quit reading. So, I’m sharing — great reads and listens. Enjoy!

JFK Library. “A Conversation with Robert Redford.” YouTube. YouTube, 22 Sept. 2014. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.

“BRANDING VIDEO: “Sundance Vision” for Robert Redford’s Sundance.” YouTube. YouTube, 2011. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.

Callan, Michael Feeney. Robert Redford: The Biography. New York: Vintage, 2012. Print.

Carliss, Richard. “Robert Redford: Our Man from Sundance | Film Society of Lincoln Center.” Film Society of Lincoln Center. N.p., 27 Apr. 2015. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

Coates, Kristen. “Becoming Sundance: The Development of America’s Premiere Film Festival.” The Film Stage. The Film Stage, 11 June 2010. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

Dowd, Maureen. “The Sun-Dried Kid.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 9 Oct. 2013. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.

Ebert, Roger. “Redford Reflects on Indie Films, Political Climate | Festivals & Awards | Roger Ebert.” All Content. N.p., 19 Jan. 2003. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

Galloway, Stephen. “Robert Redford at 77: More Acting, a Possible Exit From Sundance and Poignant Regret.” The Hollywood Reporter. N.p., 15 Jan. 2014. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.

Luscombe, Belinda. “Heroes of the Environment.” Time. Time Inc., 17 Oct. 2007. Web. 01 Oct. 2016.

News, BBC. “Robert Redford on Independent Film – BBC News.” BBC News. N.p., 24 Apr. 2013. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

Raab, Scott. “Free at Last: The Robert Redford Story.” Esquire. N.p., 13 Mar. 2013. Web. 01 Oct. 2016.

Redford, Robert. The Outlaw Trail. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978. Print.

Scott, Mike. “As ‘Belizaire the Cajun’ Gets a 25th-anniversary Re-release, Director Recalls Its Unlikely Road to Release.” NOLA.com. Times Picayune, 2 Apr. 2011. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

Smith, Krista. “Catching up with Robert Redford at Sundance, Talking Barbra, the 70s, and the Future of Indie Film.” HWD. N.p., 30 Jan. 2016. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

Wise, Damon. “Sundance 2015: Robert Redford Talks Change but Not Retiring.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 23 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.


Expedia.com

Inside Passage Alaska, Minus the Cruise Ship

Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Yes, you can see coastal Alaska WITHOUT a cruise ship. This is a review of my 2016 vacation using the Alaska Marine Highway to travel to different towns along the Inside Passage in Alaska.

Three years ago, I took an Alaskan cruise from Seattle on the Celebrity Solstice and had a great time. Ever since, I’ve wanted to return to the Inside Passage. The Inside Passage weaves through the islands of the Pacific Coast of North America — the islands act as a buffer, protecting ships from the rough waters of the open ocean. The passage starts in Seattle, follows the coast of British Columbia, and then winds through the Alaskan Panhandle.

I considered taking another cruise, but I couldn’t find one that included the towns I wanted to see – not all on the same trip. It’s frustrating. Alaskan cruises from Seattle typically make just three ports of call in Alaska. Enter the Alaska Marine Highway – which is what the Alaskan ferry system is called. The towns along the Inside Passage are largely inaccessible by car, but you certainly don’t need a cruise ship to get around. Ferries, small planes, and Alaska Air are the ways locals get around.

It’s hot in Houston in the summer, and the Inside Passage sounded like just the ticket. What follows is an in-depth look at my 2016 trip around Alaska’s Inside Passage, using ferries — without a cruise ship.

Expedia.com

The ferry Matanuska in Auke Bay outside of Juneau.
The ferry Matanuska in Auke Bay outside of Juneau.
While not posh, the cabin was very clean, had a private bathroom with a shower, and the bed was comfortable. I arrived in Skagway rested, and ready for the day's adventure.
While utilitarian, the cabin was very clean, had a private bathroom with a shower, and the bed was comfortable. I arrived in Skagway rested, and ready for the day’s adventure.

Alaska Marine Highway

I used the Alaska Marine Highway to get from Juneau to Skagway, then Skagway to Haines, and finally Haines to Sitka. It is possible to take the Marine Highway all the way from Seattle (Bellingham), but that is a three day trip one way. I chose to fly into Juneau and out of Sitka, and found very reasonable fares with Alaska Air.

Two of my ferry trips were overnight: Juneau/Skagway and Haines/Sitka.

What do I think about the Alaskan Marine Highway? It’s pretty damned cool. For the overnight trips on the ferries Matanuska and Columbia I had cabins. The cabins onboard the ferries in Alaska are rudimentary, but very clean, and the beds and pillows were comfortable.

I’ve had several friends ask what the Alaskan ferries cost. Here’s what I spent using the Marine Highway to get around:

Trip Ferry Adult Fare 2 Berth Cabin Total Cost Time
Juneau to Skagway Matanuska $57 $77 $134 7.5 hours
Skagway to Haines Le Conte $32 $32 1 hour
Haines to Sitka Columbia $80 $106 $186 15.5 hours

Current fares for passengers and vehicles on the Alaska Marine Highway.

Beautiful morning water from the ferry Columbia as we headed into Sitka. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Morning light on the water from the ferry Columbia as we headed into Sitka. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

There are cafeterias onboard all the ferries, and the Columbia also has a full-service dining room. I found the food to be  solid, but nothing special. Oh, and in a boneheaded move in 2015, Alaska closed the cocktail lounges on all of its ferries. If you would like to have drink, bring it on with you. You are only supposed to drink in your own cabin, but if you have a covered cup and are discreet, I doubt there would be a problem if you had a drink and watched the amazing scenery.

Two of my three ferry trips ran late by an hour. These ferries carry many vehicles: regular cars and trucks, motor homes, and commercial trucks. It takes time to load and unload. Add fog, and it’s is not unusual for a ferry to run a bit late.

Alaska Ferry Route Map
Alaska Ferry Route Map.

Next trip, I plan to use “fast ferries” between Juneau, Haines and Skagway, and save the Alaskan Marine Highway for longer hauls. Fast ferry service is provided by private companies for passengers only — you can bring bicycles and pets, but no vehicles. Here are links: The Haines Skagway Fast Ferry and Alaska Fjordlines. Cost is 2 – 3 times more than the state ferries, but it cuts travel time in half.

Use the “Search Sailings” tool on the Alaska Marine Highway site to figure out when ferry service is available between you desired stops. Clicking the image above will take you to the Alaska Marine Highway site.

What about flying, you ask? When the weather is good, small air services are a great way to get around. When it’s foggy, the small planes are grounded. I would use them for flightseeing, but not transport. The risk of screwing up a trip is too great. Alaska Air is another option.

On this journey, I wanted to embrace the Alaska Marine Highway system. I enjoyed it. Booking passage on the ferries is easy, but takes a little planning because the ferry schedule differs depending on the town. Between Skagway, Haines and Juneau, its daily. To many other towns, ferries do not run everyday.

The easiest way to plan your Alaska ferry adventure, start by looking at the Alaskan ferry system map  is to do a “Sailing Search” for your desired Inside Passage towns. The search returns ferry arrival dates closest to when you want to go. Get out your trip dates, your desired itinerary, and make notes about when it’s possible to travel between the various towns. It’s important to have a booking portal, like Expedia open at the same time, to look at hotel availability.

The flying salmon -- love the plane art on Alaska Air!
The flying salmon — love the plane art on Alaska Air!

Alaska Air

Even when there is poor visibility, Alaska Air can still fly. As you plan your Inside Passage trip, explore their schedule and fares. It could be a smart alternative to the ferry. Alaska Air flies the following Inside Passage towns, and of course to many other towns and cities in the state.

Inside Passage Towns: Glacier Bay/Gustavus Ketchikan Juneau Sitka Wrangell

Air service into Gustavus is limited. At this time, Alaska Air only flies there on Saturdays in the summer time. This trip was my first experience with Alaska Air, and it was great. I look forward to flying with them again.

Juneau

I flew into Juneau on Alaska Air in early August 2016, checked into my B&B, and immediately headed out on a whale watching tour with Dolphin Jet Boat Tours. Light mist and low clouds, but after nearly 100 degrees in Houston, it was heaven. I was a lazy photographer that afternoon, just relaxed and watched, but we did see plenty of whales — two different groups, one with a dozen whales engaged in bubble net feeding. I thought the Dolphin Jet Boat folks did a good job, but I would have preferred a smaller boat with fewer people.

Humpback whale. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Humpback whale. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
The garden at Beachside Villas, right on the water. I enjoyed watching the cruise ships come and go.
The garden at Beachside Villas, right on the water. I enjoyed watching the cruise ships come and go.

The Beachside Villa  on Douglas Island is a lovely bed and breakfast right on the water, just across from the city of Juneau. Susan the innkeeper acted as concierge for me. A couple of weeks before my arrival, she made arrangements for the whale watching, a full day excursion to Tracy Arm Fjord, and a flight to Taku Lodge for a big salmon roast. Susan is a kind and thoughtful hostess, and the room was very comfortable — super bed. One caveat: there are a LOT of stairs; the building hangs on the side of steep hill — hence the great views, but you need to be physically fit. Taxi drivers helped with the luggage, so I didn’t find the stairs a problem.

You will need taxis into town. I liked the quiet nature of the location, and the taxi service was reliable. If you want to walk right out of your hotel and wander around town, then you might want to make a different lodging choice.

Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm Fjords. Click on this to go to Google maps. Tracy Arm is north of Endicott, and it's much more twisted and winding -- hence more picturesque.
Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm Fjords. Click on this to go to Google maps. Tracy Arm is north of Endicott, and it’s much more twisted and winding — hence more picturesque.

When I was in Juneau three years ago, there were two large cruise ships in port. This year, there were three to four big ones in every day. Wow! Juneau has a population of 31,000. Four big cruise ships: adds 16,000 0r more people!

So you are asking: should I go to Juneau? With so many tourists? YES. Why? Great whale watching, excursions to Tracy Arm Fjord, and the two glaciers near Juneau: Mendenhall Glacier, and Sawyer Glacier (in Tracy Arm). Fly out adventures doing many things. Sea kayaking. I would say this — once you are out doing these things — you aren’t around the bajillion people on those ships. Tracy Arm Fjord may be one of the most stunning places I have ever been in my life.

Harbor seal near Sawyer Glacier. I do have a good camera, so this is certainly zoomed in -- but imagine how far away you would be on a 4,000 passenger ship, 5 to 10 stories above the animals?
Harbor seal near Sawyer Glacier. I do have a good camera, so this is certainly zoomed in — but imagine how far away you would be on a 4,000 passenger ship, 5 to 10 stories above the animals? Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Cruise ships advertise that they will take you to Tracy Arm. Guess what? Quite often they can’t get in because there is too much ice for a large ship to get close to Sawyer Glacier.

The night before, there will likely be an announcement on your ship — something about icebergs.  Our ship did this three years ago, and from talking to people in Juneau, it’s pretty common.  So the cruise ships go to Endicott Arm instead, and while lovely, Tracy Arm is the better of the two, because it is more winding — presenting more interesting photographic opportunities.

Tracy Arm Fjord

Adventure Bound took me to Tracy Arm, and it was an amazing day. The Captain Cook left Juneau around 8:00 AM with another boat, Endeavor. Each vessel carried around 45 people. It was very foggy, and at one point I could barely see 50 feet in front of the boat. Thank goodness for radar. As we neared the opening to Tracy Arm Fjord around 10:00 AM, the fog began lifting. We reached the terminal end of Tracy Arm, Sawyer Glacier, around noon. Along the way, our captain motored close to shore on the lookout for bear and other wildlife.

As we approached Sawyer Glacier, the boats progressed slowly, pushing through pieces of ice. Then engines off, we floated. For 45 minutes we watched and listened. Crack, then quiet. CRACK!! Whooshing splashes, often huge sounds, as the glacier calved.

Cloud breaks allowed beams of light to touch here and there. Sunlight hit the top of Sawyer Glacier, and oh, what an amazing world is ours!

We returned to Juneau around 6:00 PM. On the way, we stopped for whales. While it was a long day, I loved it — and I will do it again when I return to Juneau.

On my last day in town, the float plane trip to Taku Glacier Lodge for a salmon roast was canceled — too foggy for the small planes to fly. Instead, I had lunch in town at a hip, upscale restaurant called Salt, which bills itself as “modern Alaskan cuisine” (liked it, and I’d go back), and then retreated to the Beachside Villa to write and edit photos.

One view from the Beachside Villas, on Douglas Island, across from Juneau.
One view from the Beachside Villas, on Douglas Island, across from Juneau.

Other places I ate in Juneau were the Red Dog Saloon and McGivney’s Sports Bar and Grill. The Red Dog Saloon is a tourist trap. Locals will go in and drink after the cruise crowds have left for the day, but the kitchen quits serving super early. Why? The food is not great, and the locals know it. McGivney’s was fine. It’s not that interesting, but they served very good King Crab for $26 bucks — much less than I’d pay for it later in Skagway. Salt was higher end, creative, and had a solid wine menu – particularly for Juneau; it is the only restaurant I’d make a point of returning to on my next trip.

Once of the great things about seeing Alaska without a cruise ship is that even in busy ports of call, the cruise ships pack up and leave — and you have the town all to yourself and the local population.

Save up to $500 when you book your flight +hotel!

When the goldrush started, the two routes into the Klondike were White Pass, outside Skagway (top image) and Chilkoot Pass, outside Dyea.
When the goldrush started, the two routes into the Klondike were White Pass, outside Skagway (top image) and Chilkoot Pass, outside Dyea.

Skagway

Arrived in Skagway a little after 6:00 in the morning, dumped my luggage at my hotel, and headed off of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway up to Lake Bennett and Carcross in the Yukon.

Skagway calls itself the gateway to the Klondike. To get to the gold fields, prospectors either hiked over the White Pass at Skagway, or Chilkoot Pass near Dyea. Canadian officials required prospectors to bring a year’s worth of supplies with them — so each man hauled nearly a ton of goods over one of the passes.

The White Pass and Yukon Route railway was completed in 1900, replacing the Chilkoot and White Pass trails as main ways into the Yukon. I spent the day with the WP&YR — and had a fabulous time. I did the Bennett Lake excursion, the full day with a box lunch. Two thumbs up. For those who would like to ride the narrow gage railroad, but think a full day would be too much, there is the Summit Excursion that lasts about three hours.

The morning started socked in — with low visibility, but once we cleared the summit, the weather turned sunny with dramatic clouds.

What about Skagway as a town? Frankly, it looks Disneyfied. The buildings really are largely original, but have a new feeling because the cruise business has  over-restored many of them. Broadway is the main street. Strolling Broadway feels like walking into the gift store after a ride at Disney World.

Cruise ship looms at the end of Broadway in Skagway.
Cruise ship looms at the end of Broadway in Skagway.

I stayed at the Westmark Inn (owned by Holland America cruise line). It was a motel: clean, with comfortable beds, well-managed, but nothing special. It’s staffed by a college-aged crew. They are enthusiastic and did a solid job. The restaurant served a good buffet, and their barista makes lattes and espresso with Starbucks coffee. The Westmark does have a shuttle for ferry terminal pick-ups and drop-offs. Wifi warning: my room was across the street from the main building, and I did not have wifi access there.

Northern Exposure, a quirky TV show about a Jewish doctor who gets stuck in a small Alaskan town.
Northern Exposure, a quirky TV show about a Jewish doctor who gets stuck in a small Alaskan town.

Haines

After an hour long trip from Skagway, I arrived in Haines. The ferry terminal is 4 – 5 miles out of town, so I planned to take a taxi to the Aspen Hotel. Um, right.  You remember Northern Exposure? I felt liked I’d been dropped into an episode.

I approached an employee inside the ferry terminal. “Hello, I’m not getting cell service, and I need to call a cab to get into town.”

“We don’t have taxis in Haines.”

“Okay, so how do people get into town?”

“Bed and breakfasts generally do pick-ups. Where are you staying – I’ll call them for you.”

“The Aspen Hotel.”

“Oh, they don’t have a shuttle.”

“So, how do I get there?”

“You could walk.”

“What? Like five miles with a suitcase?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of a  problem.”

She then walked outside and asked this seemingly random man in an old Toyota Land Cruiser if he would give me a lift to my hotel. A minute later I was on my way into town thinking about how I was too old to be hitchhiking.

As it turned out, the gentleman was a engineer with the Marine Highway, and of course someone the lady knew. I couldn’t have been luckier — he not only brought me to town, he gave me a tour, pointed out the best and worst restaurants, and gave me his contact info in case I needed help while I was in town. The kindness of strangers . . .

The site of Fort Seward, officers' quarters across the parade ground. All are now privately owned.
The site of Fort Seward, officers’ quarters across the parade ground. All are now privately owned.

I liked Haines — a lot. More than Juneau, and way more than Skagway. Why? It’s real. It’s small. And okay, perhaps comparing Haines to Cicely, Alaska (the fictitious town where Northern Exposure took place), isn’t quite fair — Cicely had a population of 200, and Haines has 1,713. But frankly, the comparison feels valid to me.

One large cruise ship visits Haines, and only one day a week (Holland America on Wednesdays, in case you like to avoid it). The residents of Haines are friendly, and there are several very good restaurants, a local brewery, as well as an amazing distillery. I also want to assure you that there is good cell phone service in Haines — just not outside of town. The Chilkat Eagle Preserve is here: 400 Bald Eagles call it home all year round, and once a year, in November, that number swells to 4,000 during the late chum salmon run. — Oh, I would love to come back for that! It’s also a great place to sightseeing flights into Glacier Bay National Park.

The U.S. established Fort Seward in Haines in 1902 during a period of border disagreements between Canada and America Fort Seward was the only U.S. military site in Alaska during World War II, and it was deactivated in 1945. The buildings were saved by a group of five WWII veterans who bought the 85 buildings and 400 acres. The area is now an art colony, with galleries and accommodations for travelers. My favorite restaurants in Haines are all located on or near Fort Seward, so I would choose to stay in this part of Haines the next time.

Salmon bisque with homemade sour dough bread at the Pilot Light in Haines -- my favorite meal of the trip -- and that's comparing it to some amazing king crab and outstanding steaks.
Salmon bisque with homemade sour dough bread at the Pilot Light in Haines — my favorite meal of the trip — and that’s comparing it to some amazing king crab and outstanding steaks.

I ate in four different restaurants while in Haines. My favorite meal was the salmon bisque at the Pilot Light, but I also enjoyed Fireweed (building was originally the quartermaster’s at Fort Seward)  and the restaurant at the Halsingland hotel — which is in another one of the historic Fort Seward buildings.

The other place I have to mention is the Port Chilkoot Distillery. What gorgeous bourbon! They have a tasting room next to the Fireweed restaurant, and part of the Fort Seward complex. You can have cocktails in the Port Chilkoot tasting room, and then choose go to Fireweed, Pilotlight, or the Commander’s Room at Halsingland Hotel. On my second night in Haines, I went to the Port Chilkoot Distillery for a drink, and encountered an informal memorial gathering for someone who had recently passed away, and had a wonderful time visiting with a number of Haines residents. What great people . . . it’s easy to see why many folks return to here every summer.

Port Chilkoot Distillery makes amazing bourbon and gin, as well as vodka, rye, and absinthe. Their tasting room is right next to the Fireweed restaurant.
Port Chilkoot Distillery makes amazing bourbon and gin, as well as vodka, rye, and absinthe. Their tasting room is right next to the Fireweed restaurant. Click on the image to head over to the Port Chilkoot website.

While I was in Haines, I used Chilkat Guides to do a raft float in the Chilkat Eagle Preserve.  While the weather wasn’t wonderful, the rafting was great, and we saw 15 – 20 eagles — along with a coastal brown bear who came charging towards us on the river bank — quite exciting. I also did glacier flight-seeing with Mountain Flying Service run by Paul Swanstrom and his wife Amy. Paul is the pilot and Amy handles customers. What a great team they are! My first flight was canceled due to weather, but the next morning we managed an hour flight in the 1956 DeHavilland Beaver. My initial plan had been to do Flight #3 — but the weather would only allow the shortest of the flights they offer. Ah, well . . . I’m already planning to return to Haines next summer.

I stayed at the Aspen Hotel, which is new and comfortable, has good wifi, but doesn’t have much personality. Given my transportation problem, the next time I come, I’ll be looking for a bed and breakfast with ferry pick-up service. The first place I would start is with the Fort Seward Condos — officers’ quarters on the parade grounds. Annette Smith is the innkeeper, and I was fortunate to meet her at a dinner party given by Audrey Burns and Tresham Gregg  while I was in Haines. The next evening, I also met travelers who were staying at the Fort Seward condos; they were highly complimentary of their accommodations, and they visit Haines every summer. In case there is no availability there, here is a listing of bed and breakfasts on the official Haines website. Tresham Gregg and his sister Annette Smith grew up in one of the officer’s houses on Fort Seward and have wonderful tales to tell. Gregg is respected local artist, his carving work is beautiful and available in his gallery, The Sea Wolf, which is in the Trapper’s Cabin on the Fort Seward parade ground.

Staying at the Aspen Hotel meant 1.5 mile round-trip walk to dinner in the Fort Seward part of town. This wasn’t a problem for me — I needed the exercise. For someone with mobility problems, rental cars are available — Avis operates out of the Halsingland Hotel.


Sitka National Historical Park has a beautiful totem poles on a walk through the woods
Sitka National Historical Park has totem poles on  a beautiful walk through the woods.

Sitka

My final stop was Sitka. I arrived around lunch after a comfortable trip on the ferry Columbia. Hey, there’s taxi service in Sitka!

The Tlingit people settled in Sitka over 10,000 years ago and were in control of the area until Russian settlers with the Russian-American Company arrived in 1799. The Tlingits didn’t give up without a fight, and succeeded in driving the Russians out of the area in 1802. In 1804, Alexander Baranov returned and permanently wrested control of Sitka from the Tlingit, naming the settlement New Archangel. It became the capital of Russian America. On October 18, 1867, the USA’s purchase of Alaska from Russia was signed in Sitka.

Female pink salmon fights here way up the Indian River in Sitka.
Female pink salmon fights her way up the Indian River in Sitka.

Sitka has a population of 8,863 and offers travelers a variety of attractions and activities. I was only here for two nights, and I could easily have spent another day or two.

Like Haines, Sitka is only visited by one major cruise line — Holland America. The smaller Oceana Regatta was also in town during my visit. Sitka doesn’t feel overwhelmed by cruise tourists like Skagway and Juneau do.

I enjoyed walking in the Sitka National Historical Park (free admission); there are paths through the woods with totem poles. Very beautiful place. The Indian River runs through the park, and while I was there the pink salmon and dog salmon were running — the river was full of them. What a treat to see these amazing fish!

My final day in Alaska, the weather was gorgeous and I had a great morning wildlife tour with Gallant Adventures. Paul Davis is the owner/captain of this company, and my experience could not have been better. He has a small boat and only takes five passengers — it’s SO wonderful not to be crowded by forty or more people when shooting pictures. We saw so many humpback whales that I lost count. Stellar sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, bald eagles, and a coastal brown bear — it was an amazing morning.


Briggs & Riley New Products
I stayed at the Westmark Hotel in Sitka, which is really a hotel, not a motel like the Westmark in Skagway. I had a pleasant stay; the room and bed were very comfortable, the restaurant was good, and I would return to the Westmark on my next trip.

Parting Thoughts

Alaska is one of the most beautiful parts of America. The cruise industry spends big bucks to make itself synonymous with the idea of the Alaskan vacation, and while cruises are wonderful, it’s easy to see Alaska on your own. The upside to a cruise is unpacking only once — one of the things I love about cruising. The downside is that you will see more of the ship than you will of Alaska. On this trip, I found seeing Alaska without a cruise ship to be a really fun alternative. If you have questions about anything, feel free to contact me.

On my next Alaskan trip, I’m thinking about Gustavus (to see Glacier Bay National Park), Haines and Sitka.

I invite you to share your thoughts and Alaskan experiences in the comment section below. . .

Humpbacks near Sitka. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Humpbacks near Sitka. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

Thank you for visiting! 

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Onboard the Royal Clipper

Royal Clipper near Soufriere, St. Lucia
Royal Clipper near Soufriere, St. Lucia. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

I sailed for two weeks on the Royal Clipper to the Windward and the Grenadine Islands.

I boarded the ship in Barbados, only scheduled for a single week. Then I fell in love with this tall ship. Four days into the trip, I placed a call to my travel agent and arranged to stay.

I’m not sure I can pay a higher compliment to a vacation.

I’ve been on half a dozen cruises in the last five years, all on larger cruise lines. Why did I choose Star Clippers for this trip? I’ve spent time sailing on 45 to 60 foot Hunter and Beneteau yachts on vacations and really enjoyed the experience.

The Royal Clipper caught my eye several years ago. How could she not? As the largest fully-rigged true sailing ship in the world, well — yes, I’ve wanted to sail on her. Secondly, I love the Southern Caribbean, so the chance to visit some of the smaller islands I had not seen was intriguing. Third, I was planning to do this trip solo, and I had a feeling it would be a good fit. I was correct.

Royal Clipper near St. Kitts in the Windward Islands
The Royal Clipper sails near St. Kitts. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Royal Clipper Sail Away
Sailing away on the Royal Clipper is an event. Photograph by Ann Fisher.

Why is the Royal Clipper so Special?

Trying to answer this question almost puts me at a loss for words. The ship is so very beautiful.

Being on her under sail with no engines running . . . well. It’s enough to make a grown woman cry. And I did.

Traveling on a real clipper ship is different from the other cruise or sailing experiences that I’ve had. The big cruise ships are like enormous floating hotels.

This is elemental. This is time travel to another era, at least in the calmest way possible — I have to grin thinking about how 21st century people would actually handle being on a clipper ship from 1905 . . .

Each week, weather permitting, passengers will take tenders out to motor around the ship as she sets sail. Both weeks it was a beautiful experience. The first week, we were in St. Kitts, and the second, our ship sailed past the Pitons in St. Lucia as we were out photographing her.

Royal Clipper sails past the Pitons of St. Lucia
The Royal Clipper sets sail near the Pitons in St. Lucia. Photograph by Ann Fisher.

Cruising on any of the Star Clipper ships will present you with opportunities to do things like climb the rigging up to first crow’s nest, or my favorite, hang out in the netting under the bowsprit. Sailing on a tall ship in the Caribbean is a wonderful experience.

A poem and other thoughts inspired by my time on this wonderful ship are here:  The Lightness of Being.

Ann Fisher on bowsprit net of the Royal Clipper
I loved this — this net, sometimes referred to as the widow’s net.

Royal Clipper Cruise Review

Here is a full review of my January 2016 cruise on the flagship of the Star Clipper line.

Royal Clipper in Marigot Bay St. Lucia
The Royal Clipper anchored in Marigot Bay on St. Lucia. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Ports and Excursions

What’s it like traveling on a tall ship? One of the most wonderful parts of cruising with Star Clippers is dropping anchor in small bays. Often, there were only sailboats and motor yachts.

If you are accustomed to large ships, this is going to be different. This clipper ship is typically not in port for as long as larger cruise ships are. Additionally, you will not know what the mooring times will be before you board the ship, which means you can’t make private excursion arrangements before your vacation.

Before I got onboard, the inability to make excursion plans ahead of time bothered me.

Then once I was there I realized, with this kind of cruise, it really wasn’t necessary. Many of the stops you have a choice of taking a tender to the marina or to a beach. The ship has snorkeling equipment I borrowed and kept with me, and there was often great snorkeling just off the beaches.

Shadowfax Catamaran in Grenada. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Shadowfax Catamaran in Grenada. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

I did take two ship sponsored excursions each week, and they were well done. Swimming with the rays in Antigua was fun. A benefit of the small ship is that it was a small group that went on the excursion — no feeling of being crowded, and we all have plenty of time with the rays.

I particularly liked the Shadowfax sailing excursion in Grenada which included snorkeling and a grilled lobster lunch on the beach. Ever seen the hugely over-crowded catamaran trips go out of port? — and they look just awful, don’t they. I have to compliment the excursion planner with Star Clippers — the group from our ship was well-sized. We all had good space on the cat, and it was a highly enjoyable day.

Hummingbird in Balata Gardens in Martinique
A hummingbird in the Balata Gardens in Martinique on a shore excursion from the Royal Clipper. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Balata Gardens in Martinique was very special. Fort de France in Martinique is the only place the Royal Clipper actually docked during the two weeks I was on the ship, and it is docked only for the morning. Having a port where the ship docks is important for potential re-provisioning. The first week, I simply wandered into Fort de France. I didn’t care for the city at all. I would strongly recommend a shore excursion here because the island of Martinique is very beautiful and getting away from town is the only way to appreciate it. Since the ship is in port for so few hours, doing something independently is not feasible.

Mango Souffle at Ti Kaz La restaurant
The mango souffle at Ti Kaz La in Les Saintes. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

My favorite island the first week was Terre de Haut in Les Saintes. Charming village, perfect for wandering and a little shopping. We had a great lunch at Ti Kaz La, lovely bistro on the waterfront that I would highly recommend. If you would like to have lunch, make a reservation by contacting them on their website, or simply go directly there when you get off the tender and have them add your reservation. Once you get off the tender at the marina, Ti Kaz La will be to your right several blocks down the street that is closest to the water.

Union Island, the Grenadines
Union Island in the Grenadines. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

On the second week, I really enjoyed Union Island in the Grenadines. We dropped anchor in a quiet bay, the tender landed directly on a perfect beach. The water was quiet, and there were schools of silvery fish and nice snorkeling. Lovely beach bar with live reggae. It doesn’t get much better.

Water Taxi from Soufriere
Taking a water taxi from Soufriere to the beautiful beach between the Pitons. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Docking in Soufriere on St. Lucia is great because you are a fifteen minute water taxi ride from one of the most picturesque beaches in the Caribbean — Jalousie Beach, the white sand beach that lies between the two Pitons. Two hotels share the beach, and there is a great restaurant — very happy to serve you just drinks, if you so desire. Good snorkeling along the right side, as you are on the beach and face the sea.

Advice for Booking Excursions

After you book your trip, you will get a .pdf document describing all of the excursions. The best shore excursions will depend on you and your preferences. Take the time to read through it, and decide which ones suit you. You will not be able to sign up for the excursions until you are on the ship. Once you have checked in onboard proceed directly to the excursion area to sign up for the ones that interest you – particularly if there are a small number of people who can go. Many of the most popular ones that have limited spots will fill very quickly.

Bike for rent in Terre de Haut, Iles de Saintes
Terre de Haut, Les Saintes Photograph, Ann Fisher.

General advice about your ports, regardless of itinerary

Read about your ports of call before your trip. The satellite internet service on the ship is slow, so doing homework once your are on the ship is not so easy. (Tip: the internet is the fastest early in the morning. I had to do some work on the ship, and I had no problem early before breakfast started). If you have some knowledge of your ports, then you will easily be able to choose whether it’s best to do an excursion, wander the town, or simply head to the beach on the tender.

Will I be seasick on the Royal Clipper?

How does it feel to be on a tall ship compared to a large cruise ship? You may be asking, “will I feel sick?” This is a valid concern. The Royal Clipper does have the stabilizers she still moves MUCH more than bigger ships. You will feel the ocean. It’s what she is meant to do; it is part of sailing. I have had some seasickness on smaller vessels in the Gulf of Mexico. I brought plenty of Dramamine, and I took it proactively. I had no problems.

I found the motion of the ship and the water exhilarating.

I loved the feeling of rocking in my bed at night. I loved that I could hear the water. On the nights that the clipper had to cross open ocean, coming and going back to Barbados, there is more motion at night. It did wake me up several times, simply because the motion of the ship would change. It did not worry me in any way, I would snuggle back into my pillow and think of the ship and the waves.

Accessibility: Please be aware that there are multiple staircases in the ship and there are no elevators. Additionally, the ship moves with the water. You need to be able to climb stairs, and you need to be steady on your feet.

Passengers

Who were my fellow passengers?

Climbing the mast on the Royal Clipper
Climbing the rigging on the Royal Clipper. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Over my two weeks, I would say that a very large percentage were British and Americans, in nearly equal numbers. There were also many Germans and a few Canadians. Add a few Swiss, a Swede or two, throw in a couple of Irishmen and stir. A recipe for a multi-national experience. I really liked this about the ship. Age, you ask? They were predominantly from their mid-forties to mid-seventies.

The exceptions? A 93 year old lady who was with a yacht club from Connecticut. Let’s call her Rose. I was fortunate enough to sit next to her one evening. She’d been married three times, had a wicked sense of humor, and had sailed her own sailboat up to perhaps ten years ago. Then the second week there were some thirty-something newly weds. Most seemed to be fifty to sixty-five, in varying degrees of fitness, and very interested in the ship.

There were no children when I was onboard. Could you bring the kids? If you have mature, very well-behaved children, it could work — but only if you are invested in keeping them occupied. There are no children’s programs, and this ship is not designed for them. Noisy children dashing around the decks and the dining room would not endear you to your fellow passengers. My advice? Leave the kids at home and embrace some time with yourself and your significant other.

Category 3 cabin on Royal Clipper
Category 3 cabin on the Royal Clipper.

Cabin

Compared to staterooms on a large cruise ship, the cabins on the Royal Clipper are small. I had two different cabins since my second week stay was a last minute impulse.

I had two Category 3 staterooms (150 square feet), room 206 the first week, and room 201 the second week. Once I unpacked my luggage, it was easy to store my 26 inch tall rolling suitcase under my bed on Royal Clipper — the standard thing do do in all ships. The bathroom is all white marble, and very nice; it is as large as most bathrooms I’ve had in standard balcony cabins on large cruise lines. We had ports of call every day of both itineraries, and I was only in my room to sleep, shower and change clothes. I was traveling solo, and for one person the cabins were perfect.

Royal Clipper Deck Plan
Royal Clipper Deck Plan. Click to enlarge.

For two people, the cabins I had would be small, but workable. One note I would make is that cabin 206 was wider than cabin 201. Have a look at it here in the Royal Clipper Deck Plan, and you can see that as the ship tapers towards the bow, the cabins would have to be smaller.

If you really want more space, then consider the larger cabins. The Category 1 rooms are 205 square feet, and the Deluxe Outside Suites are 215 square feet, plus a verandah. The largest are two Owner’s Suites at 355 square feet, plus verandah. Looking at the virtual tours of the different cabins on the ship will help answer space questions. I met two sets of friends over the two weeks who were in luxury cabins and were very happy with them.

After trips on sailing yachts, I thought the cabins on the Royal Clipper were large for a sailing ship. The experience of being on this tall ship is simply nothing like a standard cruise. And for all of the wonderful things that this means, having a smaller cabin seemed a small trade-off. So when you start thinking about your cabin and the clipper ship, remember, think yacht, not CRUISE SHIP.

Electricity is European 220 volt, which most passengers knew. The warning I would give you is that standard American converters are chunky, boxy by nature — and due to the recessed electrical plugs — those chunky converters would NOT fit. I had a Bestek 200 watt International Travel converter with multiple charging ports which worked fine. In fact, I charged many friends’ iPads and cameras over the two weeks. Hey, maybe that’s how I made so many friends :).

Dining Room of the Royal Clipper
The dining room on the Royal Clipper. Photograph from Alamy stock photos.

Food

The food was very good on the Royal Clipper. Dinner was full service each evening. There was always a selection of four entrees, one of which was a vegetarian dish, and additionally, there was always a pasta. Each evening you also had a choice of two starters, and there was always a soup, a salad and a sorbet, in addition to a selection of three desserts.

How many stars would I give it?

Well, ask the Michelin people how many times they give three stars . . .  what, is it 26 in the entire world? So someone who gives a meal a five star rating, wouldn’t it — shouldn’t it be that rare? I’m pretty picky. I’ve eaten at some of the finest restaurants in the world.

So you ask me how many stars out of a five star rating would I give the food? Three. And that is high praise from me. Chef Devon from Jamaica produced consistently very fine food, out of a very small galley, for 200 or more people at a time. I think he rocks!

So truthfully, the food here is as good as any cruise ship I’ve been on, and some nights it was even better.

Breakfast and lunch were buffets; at breakfast there were omelettes and fresh eggs cooked to order. The buffet offerings were designed to appeal to a broad variety of tastes, and they were well done.

Dinner service begins at 7:30. It is open seating, but be aware, while they say you can come at any point over the two hour period that dinner is being served . . . almost everyone is seated by 8:00.

I liked the open seating. I had dinner with many different couples and groups over the two weeks, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I really like people, so it was perfect. The second week, a British couple adopted me, so I had a steady home.

And I almost forgot . . . there are three extra meals, just in case the regular three aren’t enough :-). There is an early-bird continental breakfast, an afternoon snack, and then a midnight snack. The afternoon “snack” is an incredibly lovely offering served in the Tropical Bar. It’s afternoon tea for the British passengers.

Crew

I think very highly of Star Clipper’s crew members.

My cabin steward, Dennis, was efficient and very thoughtful. When I arranged to stay the second week, the entire crew seemed to know it by the next morning. Muslim, who was in charge of the housekeeping staff, came to find me. “Ms. Ann, you do not need to pack your things. Dennis will move everything to your new cabin for you.” All I could think was, oh, poor Dennis. So we compromised. I packed all of my small things, and then he moved my suitcase and the hanging clothes.

The ship’s master was Captain Mariusz Szalek from Poland. The first officer was from Italy, and the engineer from Russia. The bosun was from India. Common language on the ship among the crew was English. Captain Mariusz, while absolutely focused on sailing and taking care of the ship, was also quick to smile and very gracious with the passengers. Allen Littell wrote a fine article about Szalek sailing the Star Clipper in French Polynesia.

Captain Mariusz Szalek and mate Marco work to bring the Royal Clipper back into Barbados. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Captain Mariusz Szalek and mate Marco work to bring the Royal Clipper back into Barbados. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

One big difference between the two weeks was we had two different Cruise Directors. The second week, our cruise director, Monja did a fine job.

The first week was not so good. Then our Cruise director was a young German woman who frequently came across as overly authoritarian and it was a topic of conversation among both the English and German speaking guests. Significant additional training would be necessary to get this young lady to a place where she could represent the Star Clipper line in this particular position. Being cruise director takes an inordinate amount of patience. One must have the capacity to smile, regardless of how many times one has answered the same question. Other than the captain, the cruise director is the most public face of the company to every passenger on the ship. Based on a training consultant I saw onboard the first week, I am sure this problem will be rectified.

Both the bar staff and the waitstaff did fine jobs. They were highly professional, personable and often funny. They made the time onboard the ship very pleasant.

Entertainment

There was a single entertainer onboard. Gabor played the piano, the guitar, sang, and acted as DJ for dancing evenings. One night each week, a steel band was brought onboard. Each week there was a talent show with a mixture of crew and passenger offerings. I would call it “good fun.” I went one week, and chose to go up with an after dinner drink and wander the deck the second week.

The stars and the ship were the best after-dinner thing going. Who could ask for more?

Conclusion

If any of the things I have said speak to you, then you will love sailing on this ship. I can hardly wait to return.

Star Clipper raises sail Black and white image
The Star Clipper sailed with us near Dominica one morning. Photograph by Ann Fisher.

Update on Cruise Review, Spring 2017

How to find the Best Prices for a Cruise on Star Clipper’s Royal Clipper

I’ve had a dozen people contact me over the last year to ask how to find the best prices for a cruise on Royal Clipper.

We all have our favorite methods for finding good prices on flights and hotels. For cruises, I favor the Vacations to Go site, where I regularly troll for good prices on cruise lines I like — and prices on Star Clippers are no exception.

I search on Vacations to Go two different ways, one — simply searching Star Clippers cruises, and the other — searching for Single Supplement deals (found under Singles Discounts).

Screenshot from the Vacations to Go site, taken April 27, 2017, showing no single supplement cruises on Star Clipper's cruises.
Screenshot from the Vacations to Go site, taken April 27, 2017, showing no single supplement cruises on Star Clipper’s cruises.

As of today (April 27, 2017), I see three Star Clippers cruises with no single supplements charges. Since I often travel solo, this is often a good deal for me. Will these deals be there tomorrow? No way of knowing. They’re deals on cruises launching VERY soon — and obviously, Star Clippers is trying to fill those cabins.

I do know this — following prices does help you know when you are seeing a good deal. Having flexibility about when you are going to take your vacation helps tremendously. Most of my life, I have not had that option — I had to take vacation at certain times of the year. And frankly, I rarely managed to get a bargain.

A great time of the year to shop for good cruise prices is always January – March.

If you work with a particular travel agent, I’d contact that person and have them watch prices on Star Clippers cruises. You could still check Vacations to Go periodically, and call your travel agent if you see a deal — they’ll probably be able to match it.

Additionally, I recommend familiarizing yourself with information on cruises by visiting the Star Clipper site. It’s a great way to do homework on their standard prices and cabin categories.

I’ve taken three cruises with Star Clippers: on the Royal Clipper in June of 2016, to the Mediterranean and the Adriatic: For the Love of Tall Ships. And then in October 2016, I boarded Star Flyer for a trip across the Atlantic, and you’ll find that article here: Crossing the Atlantic on a Tall Ship.

Photograph of Royal Clipper
Article about my voyage on Royal Clipper in the Mediterranean.

Article about my westbound Atlantic crossing on Star Flyer.
Article about my westbound Atlantic crossing on Star Flyer.

If you have questions you would like to ask me about my experiences on Star Clipper’s cruises, please feel free to send me a message via my Contact page. I’ve talked with two different couples in the last few months — sometimes it’s nice to chat with someone who has done a trip before deciding whether it’s for you.


Ann in Castolon in Big Bend National Park. Photograph, Jim Stevens

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Ann Fisher