Yesterday, The North American Travel Journalist Association announced its 2017 Award Winners for excellence in Travel Journalism.
I am very honored to have been awarded a Gold Award in Travel Series, Online Publication for my three article series on Zambia, a Bronze Award in Cruises, Online Publication for Crossing the Atlantic on a Tall Ship, and then also placed as a Finalist in Travel Series, Online Publication for my series on the road trip to New Mexico.
I am very honored to have been awarded a Gold Award in Travel Series, Online Publication for my three article series on Zambia, a Bronze Award in Cruises, Online Publication for Crossing the Atlantic on a Tall Ship, and then also placed as a Finalist in Travel Series, Online Publication for my series on the road trip to New Mexico.
Gold Award, Travel Series Online: my series on our safari in Zambia
A three part series covering our safari in Zambia. My daughter Catherine had just graduated from high school, and we joined my sister for a trip of a life time — our first safari in Africa. My two favorite posts cover our walking safari, an experience I can hardly wait to repeat.
Our African Safari in Zambia
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. How we chose Zambia and a description of the beginning of our safari. Link to Our African Safari in Zambia.
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. Link to Safari: Day One.
Hippo Highways: Day Two of our Walking Safari
After a light breakfast and some coffee, we left for our second day of walking.
Why do three women from Texas love Hippo Highways? Because in Africa, even flat isn’t flat! Link to Hippo Highways.
Bronze Award, Cruises Online: my article on the Atlantic crossing on Star Flyer
Crossing the Atlantic on a Tall Ship
And so it begins . . . I am on Star Flyer as she heads out into the Atlantic making for Barbados and winter in the Caribbean.
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a tall ship is the stuff of dreams. Rope and cable thrumming in the breeze, the crack of a sail filling with wind: these are sounds old in human time — these sounds lie deep within our collective consciousness. Link to Crossing the Atlantic on a Tall Ship.
Finalist, Travel Series Online: my series on road tripping in New Mexico
A series on a road trip from the coastal plains of Texas to Santa Fe and Ghost Ranch, a discussion of Route 66 and the great American Road Trip, meeting a quirky old man in Santa Fe, losing my heart at Ghost Ranch, and discovering Georgia O’Keefe.
Road Trip to New Mexico
One of my best friends is living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for several months to complete a project — and I thought, what a perfect excuse for a road trip! “I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road. Link to Road Trip to New Mexico.
Embracing Santa Fe
Each time I return to New Mexico, my affection for this state grows . . .
Doc looked like he came straight out of central casting. Film order: we need a quirky old man to play a part in a Coen brothers film set it Santa Fe. Link to Embracing Santa Fe.
In the great wide open places, I can see the forever. The sky enfolds you, and then you are inside it. Whatever small place you came from is no more because you are part of that sky and the big beyond, and the rest isn’t important.
When the Spanish first rode into this valley in northern New Mexico, they called it Piedre Lumbre — the shining stone. Link to Ghost Ranch.
A gallery of photographs from a Windstar cruise on the Wind Surf Yacht: the Yachtsman’s Caribbean itinerary out of St. Maarten.
Photographs from my cruise on Windstar’s Wind Surf. What a lovely itinerary! We embarked in St. Maarten, then dropped anchor in Falmouth, Antigua. Afterwards, we went on to the British Virgin Islands for short hops to Soper’s Hole on Tortola, Great Harbour on Jost Van Dyke, and then to Virgin Gorda. Our final stop was Gustavia in St. Barths before returning to St. Maarten.
How is St. Maarten post hurricane? Both airports are operational and over 60 flights a day are landing on the island. According to a New York Times article published on February 2, 2018, “300 hotel rooms are currently available to book on the island’s French side; before Irma, that number was 1,700. At least 10 more hotels are scheduled to reopen before the end of the year.”
The article continues, “On the Dutch side of the island, around 80 percent of the restaurants are open, and 1,600 hotel rooms are available to book; before the hurricane, 4,115 rooms were available.” Full article here: St Martin Starts a Comeback.
If you look at Windstar’s itineraries, they are sailing to many ports the Caribbean, out of Barbados, San Juan, Puerto Rico, — but will return to St. Maarten in December 2018.
When the Independence of the Seas returned to Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale on Saturday, Royal Caribbean confirmed a large outbreak of norovirus on the ship. Instead of having fun in the sun, only two days into the trip many passengers began falling ill, struck by severe gastrointestinal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea.
When the Independence of the Seas returned to Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale on Saturday, Royal Caribbean confirmed a large outbreak of norovirus on the ship.
The Royal Caribbean cruise began its five-day cruise on Monday, December 11, 2017. Independence of the Seas is one of the largest cruise ships in the world, with the capacity to carry 4,370 passengers, along with a crew of 1,360. Instead of having fun in the sun, only two days into the trip many passengers began falling ill, struck by severe gastrointestinal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. On Thursday, Royal Caribbean officially announced the outbreak and began its virus-mitigating protocol.
While the Royal Caribbean company stated that only 220 passengers came down with the virus, passengers interviewed by Local 10 News in Miami reported far more passengers were affected, but that the small medical crew onboard Independence of the Seas were so overwhelmed that many people simply stayed in their cabins as they tried to recover. Passenger Victoria Nolan, who became ill with the virus, told Local 10 News that passengers were throwing up in the elevators as they headed toward the ship’s medical facility. Many waited for hours to see anyone.
This is the second outbreak of norovirus on Royal Caribbean ships in December 2017. The Associated Press reported that more than 200 people became ill on Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas on a two week cruise from Singapore to Sydney. Five were hospitalized upon disembarkation in Australia.
What is Norovirus?
It is a highly contagious virus that is spread by contaminated food, infected people, or surfaces that have been contaminated by feces, vomit, or contaminated food. According to the CDC, norovirus is responsible for more than 20 million illnesses a year in the United States alone, and more than two-thirds of all cases of gastroenteritis. Norovirus causes as many as 800 deaths a year in this country. It is highly infectious, and it is difficult to kill.
“Norovirus is named for Norwalk, Ohio, where the first confirmed outbreak was recorded, in 1968. People sometimes refer to a norovirus infection as “stomach flu,” even though the virus is not related to influenza.” — Live Science
Symptoms include abdominal cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, loose watery stools, low grade fever, and general malaise.
How contagious is norovirus? According to infectious disease expert Robert Frenck, MD, people can shed up to 1 billion viral particles in each gram of stool. How much does it take to infect someone? As little as 1,000 viral particles. This is why it spreads so quickly in closed environments like cruise ships.
Tips for Avoiding Norovirus
Rather obviously, the best way not to become ill is to avoid contact with norovirus. Past that, regular, religious practice of these habits will help avoid becoming ill:
Wash your hands with soap and water for MORE THAN 20 SECONDS. Regularly! And if you are on a cruise ship — do it more often than you do normally.
DO NOT count on hand sanitizer! It doesn’t kill norovirus (see below).
Avoid people displaying symptoms of norovirus.
If a ship is having a norovirus outbreak, avoid eating at the buffet restaurant. This is where you touch more things that MANY people have touched.
Use bleach to sanitize. Consider bringing rubber gloves and Clorox wipes with bleach on your cruise — obviously be careful with bleach arounds clothes. That way if a family member becomes ill, you can try to prevent the spread on bathroom surfaces, door, cabinet, and drawer handles.
Alcohol hand sanitizers will help kill many types of viruses and germs, such as the common cold or influenza, which is great — BUT IT DOESN’T KILL NOROVIRUS! A 2011 study by the CDC showed that long-term care facilities that relied on alcohol hand sanitizer as the primary way to clean hands, showed a six-time higher outbreaks of norovirus than facilities that used hand washing with soap and water.
Common mistakes when washing hands: not washing long enough, not thoroughly cleaning under fingernails, not drying thoroughly, and only washing after using the bathroom. Germs and viruses hide in nooks and crevices of your hands — pay attention and be thorough. Dry your hands completely — paper towels are better than electric dryers which blow water around and people often don’t use until their hands are REALLY dry. Wash your hands FREQUENTLY during the day, not just after using the bathroom.
Should you avoid going on cruises because of norovirus? No. Remember that this is a common virus all over the United States and throughout the world. You can catch it anywhere. Cruise ships are tremendously more pro-active about sanitization and prevention than most hotels and public buildings. Jeff Fornay, chief of the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program, which oversees health and sanitation aboard ships that visit U.S. ports, stated in an interview with Cruise Critic, “it is perfectly safe to go on cruise ships. The standard by which they (cruise lines) are held for sanitation is the highest in the world.”
According to the CDC: “From 2008 to 2014, 74 million passengers sailed on cruise ships in the Vessel Sanitation Program’s jurisdiction. Only 129,678 passengers met the program’s case definition for acute gastrointestinal illness and only a small proportion of those cases (1 in 10) were part of a norovirus outbreak.” This would mean that less than .002% of cruise ship passengers in this time frame were diagnosed with any type of gastrointestinal illness.
So, go enjoy your cruise, but be your own best friend when keeping yourself and your family healthy!
Updated December 27, 2017: Royal Caribbean now states that 332 of the 5,447 passengers and crew on the December 11, 2017, Independence of the Seas cruise became ill with norovirus.
Private yachts flock to the smaller British Virgin Islands and St. Barth’s. There’s a reason for this: they are home to some of the most beautiful beaches and water in the Caribbean. Floating in crystalline water and watching the clouds pass overhead is deeply relaxing. I’ve just returned from St. Martin and a week-long cruise on Windstar’s Wind Surf on their Yachtsman’s Caribbean itinerary. It was perfect.
Private yachts flock to the smaller British Virgin Islands and St. Barth’s. There’s a reason for this: they are home to some of the most beautiful beaches and water in the Caribbean. Floating in crystalline water and watching the clouds pass overhead is deeply relaxing.
I’ve just returned from St. Martin and a week-long cruise on Windstar’s Wind Surf on their Yachtsman’s Caribbean itinerary. It was perfect.
We spent seven days in small harbors the big ships cannot get to — how nice to be so spoiled!
On the larger islands of Antigua and Tortola, the ship dropped anchor in Falmouth and Soper’s Hole — far from the madding crowd at the cruise terminals.
At Jost Van Dyke, Virgin Gorda, and St. Barth’s there were only yachts and sailboats.
I loved this itinerary – very destination focused! We had one day at sea, then every day afterwards, it was a short hop to the next island.
On Jost Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda we moored the night before the main day on those islands — making it possible to go ashore for supper. When I’ve been on sailing trips, this is just what we’ve done — it allows people stay onboard or go ashore to experience the evening. After all, it’s vacation! It should be about the freedom to make personal choices instead of being regimented.
I had a wonderful trip, and came away very impressed with Windstar as a company. The ship is beautiful, and the crew is outstanding. Windstar is in a sweet spot in the cruise industry — small ship cruising, up-market from the big lines, but significantly less expensive than the ultra-luxury lines.
Windstar carted home the awards this last year! After my cruise onboard Wind Surf, it’s easy to understand why.
I had such a great time on Wind Surf, and I’m excited about Windstar. I think the quality of the itineraries, the food, the ships, and the service, at their price point is outstanding.
It was lovely to return to the yacht each day, clean up and head out to the Compass Rose Bar on the stern of Wind Surf to have a cocktail and watch the sun go down. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Wind Surf’s Yachtsman’s Caribbean Itinerary and Excursions
If you’re looking for a cruise review of the Wind Surf cruise ship (or sometimes people are searching for Windstar Windsurf because they think the ship’s name is one word), I’ve given a detailed account of my trip in the Caribbean below.
I chose this itinerary because I’ve always wanted to visit Jost Van Dyke and the coral atoll of Anegada — and while Wind Surf did not moor there, I could visit it on an excursion.
Whenever I go on a cruise, I mix excursion and non-excursion days.
I did things on my own in English Harbour Antigua, White Bay Jost Van Dyke, lunch in St. Barth’s, then I took three Windstar excursions in Tortola, Virgin Gorda, and back in St. Martin.
This was my fourth visit to Antigua, and my two snorkeling excursions on previous cruises were underwhelming. I’ve always found Lord Nelson interesting, and since Wind Surf anchored at Falmouth, the Nelson Dockyards were a short, ten minute walk away.
The British began using English Harbour in the 17th century because it offered protection to British warships from hurricanes.
The dockyard was developed in the 18th century to spare the navy the expense of sailing to the American colonies for refitting ships.
The buildings date from 1725 – 1745, and the dockyard most significant period of activity and importance was 1775 to 1810. With the end of the Napoleonic wars, it diminished in importance. English Harbour was too narrow to accommodate steamships, and in 1889, the navy left and the yard was closed.
In 1784, Captain Horatio Nelson was stationed at English Harbour for several years. He was very unpopular with the Antiguans for enforcing the Navigation Act that prevented trade between British islands and America. The feeling was mutual, and regularly expressed in his letters back to Britain, “English Harbour I hate the sight of.”
The Nelson Dockyard has been beautifully restored, and I had a great time exploring it.
Soper’s Hole, Tortola: Snorkeling at Norman Island
Initially, I was concerned with the size of the Windstar group for this trip – over twenty people. It ended up being fine, because they put us on a boat that could have carried twice that number — so it was spacious for the group and not overcrowded. Yes, I would have preferred a smaller boat with fewer people.
The snorkeling at Norman Island was outstanding. I saw more different species of fish at our two snorkeling spots than I’ve ever seen together at one time in the Caribbean. A long time ago, I had a 110 gallon marine aquarium, so I’m able to identify many kinds of fish — and I was in fish heaven that morning. A big deal at Norman Island is to swim into one of the caves, but I had no interest. I just hung with the fishes. I loved watching the tiny fairy basslets and the blennies. And I swam along with an entire school of blue tangs. I would have stayed with the fish all day . . .
It may be time for me to learn to dive.
Fish I saw that morning: sergeant majors, a variety of parrot fish, blue tangs, royal grammas, blennies, jewel damsel fish, small angel fish, blue stripe, yellow stripe jack fish, pipe cleaner fish, fan coral, yellow tail snapper, surgeon fish, cleaning goby, four eye butterfly fish, French grunts, a variety of wrasses, squirrel fish, feather duster worms, black spiny sea urchins. *** Please! Be mindful that you use reef-safe sunscreen especially when you snorkel, dive, or go anywhere near the the ocean. We need to quit using products with oxybenzone, a major culprit in bleaching coral.
Since Wind Surf moored at Soper’s Hole, we were closer to Norman Island than the excursions coming from the big ships docked at the cruise terminal in Road Town. Our early morning snorkeling trip got us to Norman Island before it was busy.
Just as the noodle people arrived, we headed back to Soper’s Hole to hit Pusser’s for conch fritters and a Pain Killer.
Great Harbour, Jost Van Dyke
Ahh, what a fine day it was. Two new friends from the Wind Surf came with me, and we headed to the beach at White Bay on Jost Van Dyke.
White Bay Beach is where the famous Soggy Dollar bar is — and the taxi dropped us off there without even asking. The three of us took a look around and decided to ditch Soggy Dollar.
WAY too crowded. Not what we were looking for . . . After a nice wander down the beach away from everyone, we found One Love. No one there.
Now this is what I’m talking about . . .
I spent the day lounging and swimming and lounging and swimming and drinking Carib beer and swimming and dozing. The lobster quesadillas were perfect finger food. And One Love makes a fine, I mean a super fine Pain Killer.
As the day wore on, we were joined by a catamaran, a sailboat, and at least one motor yacht; the occupants would jump off and swim over for some lunch at One Love. It was pretty perfect.
I didn’t want to leave.
I think in my mind I may still be sitting on a lounge chair up under one of the sea grape trees . . .
Virgin Gorda: Escape to Anegada Excursion
I heart Anegada.
This excursion was marked as strenuous, and it lived up to its description. For the Escape to Anegada excursion, two pontoon speedboats picked up the fourteen passengers directly from Wind Surf, and we were off!!
Traveling at speeds ranging from 19 knots to 30 knots, we flew over the water on our thirty minute trip out to the low-slung island of Anegada. I LOVED it! It was an exhilarating, kick-ass ride!
One of the passengers was unhappy with the excursion because she hadn’t read the description, so I’ll say it again here: it’s a rough, fast ride. You sit astride the seats — it it feels like riding a fast horse. And yes, you are going to get wet. Probably soaked at one point or another. If this doesn’t sound like fun, pick another experience! Don’t complain to the cruise director that this wasn’t your cup of tea.
Transportation met us at the dock at Anegada and transferred us to the Anegada Beach Club.
Anegada: pristine beach. No people. NO PEOPLE!! Amazing water and the sound of distant breakers hitting the reef. Patches of sea grass and Queen Conchs munching their way along the bottom. Little palapa-like sun shades with loungers.
My only complaint– we had only one hour on the beach. This needs to be longer — it should be a two hour beach break. I could have skipped the trip out to see the flamingos and the pile of dead conchs. When you get to a spot this perfect, why in the world rush to leave it?
But — I’ll be back. I was intrigued with the posh tent accommodations at the Anegada Beach Club, and staying here is now on my bucket list. Thank you, Windstar, for getting me out to this beautiful, remote place!
Our high-speed ride took us directly to the Beach Barbecue that Windstar had set up in Virgin Gorda. After a good lunch and another swim, I spent some time relaxing under a seagrape tree.
And then it was time to head back to Wind Surf.
Gustavia, Saint Barthélemy
St. Barth’s lived up to its reputation of being lovely and pricey: the yacht-styles of the rich and famous. Being a little over-sunned, and frankly still tired from Anegada and the swimming at Virgin Gorda the day before, I was looking for something low key. I wandered the town and had a lovely lunch with one of my ship mates. It was the end of a wonderful week with Windstar cruises Windsurf.
St. Martin and the America’s Cup Racing Yachts
When we disembarked back in St. Martin, I took one final excursion — the America’s Cup Regatta. Very exciting! I would love to do this again — and will, when I’m in St. Martin the next time. This is another active, strenuous excursion, and was so much fun!
This is a regatta with three twelve meter yachts that all competed in the America’s Cup races in the 1980’s.
Our group of fourteen people crewed the Canada II in a race against the Stars and Stripes and True North. I started out in a primary grinder position which I managed for the first two legs of the race before pooping out — the young guys grinding with me were too fast, so I move forward for the final leg.
The Wind Surf Yacht
Wind Surf was built in 1990 at the French shipyard Societe Nouvelle des Ateliers et Chantiers du Havre, and most recently refurbished in 2012. She originally sailed for Club Med Cruises (as Club Med I), and was then purchased by Windstar in 1997.
When Wind Surf was refurbished, they created thirty suites on Deck 3 by combining two regular staterooms. Because of this, all the suites have two bathrooms, in addition to a bedroom area and sitting area. There are no verandahs on Wind Surf, and all cabins have porthole windows, in keeping with the style of the yacht.
I really like the upscale, clean look of the interior design choices that were made for Wind Surf when she was updated.
LENGTH: 535 feet (162 meters) at waterline; 617 feet (187meters) including bowsprit
DRAFT: 16.5 feet (5 meters)
TONNAGE: 14,745 gross registered tons (grt)
BEAM: 66 feet (20 meters)
SAILS: 7 triangular, self-furling, computer-operated sails with 26,881 square feet (or 2,600 square meters) of Dacron surface area
MASTS: 5 at 221 feet (67.5 meters)
ENGINES: 4 diesel electric generating sets, 2 electrical propulsion motor
SPEED: 10 to 12 knots with engines only; up to 15 knots wind and engine assisted
Care to go for a swim? In addition to the pool and hot tubs on the stern, when the Wind Surf is moored, the Watersport Platform lowers down and you can take a dip in the ocean, go paddle boarding, or try your hand at wind surfing off the back of the yacht.
But are you sailing?
On this cruise, there was not much of a sailing sensation on Wind Surf. Part of it was the itinerary. We made short hops, island to island, so the ship wasn’t going far on most days. This is one reason I chose this cruise.
Also, I didn’t expect to feel like I was sailing; when you look at the size of Wind Surf versus the square feet of sail — in my opinion, this just isn’t what this ship is about — on Wind Surf it’s about the overall cruise experience versus sailing.
This is a positive thing for someone who likes to see the sails, but perhaps doesn’t have the sea legs or stomach to handle a windjammer or clipper ship.
If you are wanting more of a sailing experience, I’d try Windstar’s two smaller yachts — Wind Star or Wind Spirit. These two ships have a gross tonnage of 5,300 – 5,700, and 21,500 square feet of sail — smaller, lighter and more likely to give you a feeling of flying before the wind.
My Wind Surf cabin was lovely. I had stateroom #205 which was 188 square feet (18 square meters). The design was very clean and modern; storage was ample and well thought out. There were two long closets, one of which held the safe,plenty of drawers and cubbies, a fully stocked minibar, and a narrow drawer with hard liquor selection.
The bathroom was as roomy as standard ship bathrooms get, and well appointed: granite counter top, plenty of storage, and nothing looked worn or dirty. I was particularly pleased with Windstar’s L’Occitane en Provence amenity line — I loved the soap and lotion.
I’ve included the Wind Surf deck plan (click above image to enlarge) which has the sizes and configurations of all the cabin types.
My cabin had a DVD player and stereo that could several connection options so that you could play music from an iPod or phone. There were outlets for both 110 volt and 220 volt plugs. Room service was available continuously. I only used it once for coffee early in the morning, but the waiter was right there – johnny-on-the-spot.
My steward was considerate and quick to smile; he gave exemplary service. My ice bucket and glass bottles of filtered water were always full, the minibar restocked. Oh, and of course a zoo of towel animals appeared over the course of the week.
Thank you, Fauzi!
The Wind Surf Experience
My fellow passengers on this cruise were almost all either American or Canadian. I did see one couple from France.
Windstar really shines in the service arena. I found all of their crew attentive, happy, and quick to help. Many knew my name within the first twenty-four hours. With 201 crew to a passenger capacity of 310, the ratio is nearly 2 crew for every 3 passengers. This is so important. It allows Windstar to provide a high standard of service without wearing out their staff.
Wind Surf has everything you might need onboard. The Wind Spa offers full spa services, as well as hair and nail salon services.
The cruise director gave the most thorough port talks I’ve ever heard — with PowerPoints: an overview of the local history, followed by points of interest, favorite cuisine and drinks, and possible things to do. It wasn’t a shopping advertisement for stores the cruise line is paid to promote! How refreshing!
The two bands provided our onboard entertainment were both talented, and for those wanting some dancing and nightlife after dinner, the main lounge is the place to be.
Breakfast is served in the open-air Veranda restaurant on the upper deck, weather permitting. Passenger have a choice of the buffet, an omelette/egg station, or ordering from the menu.
The regular dining room onboard Wind Surf is AmphorA, and then there are two specialty restaurants: Candles and Stella Bistro. At AmphorA, the chef’s menu changes each evening, although there are standard favorites (like steak) that are always available.
In the evening, the Veranda restaurant transforms into Candles, with a steakhouse themed menu. Having dinner under the stars on this beautiful yacht was very special. Stella Bistro, Wind Surf’s French restaurant is also located on the top deck, just behind Veranda area. There is no additional charge for dining in the specialty restaurants, always a nice thing.
Each week, Windstar is famous for putting on their Deck Barbecue. It’s all chefs, cooks, and waitstaff on deck to pull this off, and it was impressive!
And so it begins . . . I am on Star Flyer as she heads out into the Atlantic making for Barbados and winter in the Caribbean. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a tall ship is the stuff of dreams. Rope and cable thrumming in the breeze, the crack of a sail filling with wind: these are sounds old in human time — these sounds lie deep within our collective consciousness.
And so it begins . . . I am on Star Flyer as she heads out into the Atlantic making for Barbados and winter in the Caribbean.
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a tall ship is the stuff of dreams. Rope and cable thrumming in the breeze, the crack of a sail filling with wind: these are sounds old in human time — these sounds lie deep within our collective consciousness.
Star Flyer is a barquantine with four masts, and the first of the Star Clipper’s tall ships.
A group of 129 like-minded people boarded Star Flyer, either in Malaga, Spain, or Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, for the Trans-Atlantic sailing. This voyage attracts a different sort of passenger, and a surprising number return for the Atlantic crossing many times over.
A true tall ship. A BIG ocean. Sunrises and sunsets. Stars. The Milky Way. Endless water.
It is a voyage into our past, a voyage into ourselves. The thirteen days at sea give the time and the quiet to internalize the sounds of the ship, to think. At night, standing on the bridge of the ship looking forward, all is dark. I am surrounded by stars and the sound of wind, canvas, and water. That bright swath of sky — The Milky Way — is resplendent with no other light to distract.
What color is the sea? How many shades of blue exist?
At dawn today, the sky turns a powdery bare-blue. Grey clouds edged with pink light add a subtle contrast.
Later, a silvery light breaks a deep blue swell — the shimmering of a dolphin’s skin during a short, curving leap.
In a circle we move, dragging the horizon with us, re-describing it as the day passes on.
Sometimes the ocean is a blue-black velvet. At other times, a sapphire.
Then the sun turns the ocean a golden yellow and white of reflected thunderheads — and only the horizon line remains blue — a thin ribbon of cobalt.
A Little Weather
The first night out of La Gomera, I wake at 3:00 a.m. to large swells rolling me back and forth in my bed and the sound of unsecured items being tossed to the floor. Folks with cabins near the dining room hear crashing china.
Northeast ofus near the Strait of Gibraltar, a large low pressure system has formed suddenly. It causes 12 meter seas near Madeira, and 5 – 6 meter (16.5 to 19.5 foot) seas for us. At sunrise, the crew strings lines along both sides the upper deck of the Flyer, as well as in the open Tropical Bar — we need them to keep our balance as the ship moves with the waves.
I find the whole thing exhilarating. I’m spending a lot of time in the open Tropical bar, and some up on the top deck. The 5 – 6 meter seas don’t frighten me — but they require me to watch my step. As a big wave rolls under the ship, one side of the deck tips deeply downward, then slants back to the other side in equal measure. When this happens, you’d better hang on to something, or you’ll go sliding across the ship.
Throw off the bow lines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, dream, discover. — Mark Twain
In a glint of sunlight, the sea produces a momentary rainbow on a wave’s edge. The ocean sucks and swells, a lacy froth – a crest – and she roils on, building here, falling there. She lifts the ship high on a swell, then pulls us down — holding us close and dear, before sending us up again.
For these two days, I am in the society of people who feel the same way about the waves. However, when the sea flattens out after nearly 60 hours, we are all thankful. Thankful and tired. The constant rolling means balancing each step and being sure to hold on always. Showers are difficult to impossible — too much movement to risk it. Every meal is spent holding onto the table, the plate, and the glass with only two hands.
There is the sun, there is the sea, there is me.
On the fourth day, the Atlantic relaxes into a flat mirror, and the population of the ship increases. I realize that nearly a third of the passengers never left their cabins during the rough period.
Too much of a good thing?
Yes, it is calm, but there is little wind. The sails hang slack, and then there is a great, cracking THWOMP as they fill, catching the wind and holding before losing it again. Then another crack a minute later. The sea is a flat shield set with silver stones. Inscrutable. Endless.
While we are not becalmed, I start to understand the doldrums. The water glints diamond hard, and we are making less than two knots with the sails. Captain Sergey turns the engines back on.
The sounds of the ship are the sounds of a workshop. A saw, then a hammer striking wood. The smell of sawdust and varnish. The whir of the industrial sewing machine. A chisel chinging on a bit of swimming pool rust. The rustling of a fisherman’s sail, bustled together by six seamen before it’s hoisted into position.
The storm damaged the main staysail badly that first evening, ripping it all along the bottom seam. The sail repair advances slowly, a work in progress for at least ten days. Now and again the Captain and first officer stand looking at the ruined sail with the sailmaker — along with the huge new sections of Dacron that have been cut to size. The sailmaker kneels and measures with the sail tacked into the deck for cutting.
The two most magical events of the day, every day. I’m sharing “Seattle Bill” Palmer’s series of of sunrise/sunset images:
Star Flyer Sunrise-Sunset Series 1. Photograph, Bill Palmer.
Star Flyer Sunrise-Sunset Series 2. Photograph, Bill Palmer.
Star Flyer Sunrise-Sunset Series 10. Photograph, Bill Palmer.
Star Flyer Sunrise-Sunset Series 9
Star Flyer Sunrise-Sunset Series 5. Photograph, Bill Palmer.
Star Flyer Sunrise-Sunset Series 7 Photograph, Bill Palmer.
For those of you considering an Atlantic crossing with Star Clippers, here is a review of the more practical aspects of my westbound Trans-Atlantic cruise on the Star Flyer in the fall of 2016.
I was onboard Star Flyer for three weeks. The first week was a cruise from Malaga, Spain to Las Palmas. The second two weeks were the Trans-Atlantic portion of the trip, going from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, to Bridgetown, Barbados. This way, passengers may choose either a longer or shorter Trans-Atlantic experience.
So, is thirteen days at sea boring?
I had never been this many days at sea with no ports of call, and honestly, I wasn’t sure how I would feel. I figured I would know halfway into the trip. The answer for me, was no — I wasn’t bored at all. I found it deeply relaxing. I brought things to read, movies on my iPad, photos to edit in Lightroom. The ship has a library and a substantial DVD collection as well.
The cruise director and her sports team staff prepared a schedule of activities each day, so truthfully, passengers could be as “busy” or relaxed as they wanted to be. Star Flyer also had a special yoga instructor on for the crossing. Typically, there were two yoga classes each day, as well as two or three other fitness offerings. Four or five days out of La Gomera, it was warm enough to take a dip in the pool and lounge on the deck.
And — mast climbing anyone?
Some of the activities I participated in were the Olympic Games, the daily trivia quiz, and Captain’s story time, a navigation class on the bridge, and a star class after dinner. Oh, and the first-time Atlantic crossing baptism.
Olympic Games: four teams, five days, three events per afternoon. It was great, silly fun!
One thing to note: generally, the ship would have had wifi internet access; however, the storm near the Canary Islands knocked out the ship’s wifi, and we were without internet access for the crossing. Important communication could still be handled through the purser’s office. Honestly, I enjoyed being unplugged.
Worried about Being Seasick?
If you are thinking of taking a cruise on the Star Flyer clipper ship, being seasick is a real concern for many people. I was not sick — but then I did take Dramamine proactively, particularly on the couple days during the bad weather. After being on Royal Clipper for two cruises this year, I felt confidant that I could handle the Atlantic Crossing.
My advice is this. If you get seasick really easily, this is probably not for you.
However, if you simply haven’t done much (or any) sailing, but you are really captivated by the idea of taking a voyage on one of these beautiful ships, try a week long cruise in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean to see how you feel.
Star Clippers has even scheduled several three night cruises out of Venice specifically for people who would like to try sailing on one of their tall ships but aren’t ready to commit to seven or more days.
Another thing to be aware of: due to the size of the ship, there are no elevators. You need to be capable of climbing stairs in both calm and rough weather.
On most Star Clipper cruises, 50% to 60% of passengers are repeat customers. On this trip, of the 129 people aboard, 92 had sailed with Star Clippers before — so over 71%. Most of the ship attended the Captain’s champagne reception for repeat passengers.
On this voyage, the passengers were predominantly American, British or German. There were several French couples as well.
More than half of the passengers had also crossed the Atlantic before, but there were many of us were first timers. Jane, originally Canadian, now from Colombia, came out of a deep love of the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brien. After reading the twenty books in the series, crossing the Atlantic was a compulsion for Jane. She simply had to experience it on a tall ship.
Then there were many passengers who had made the crossing many times. There was Spanish Bill, also known as William the Conqueror (there were four Bills on the ship, so they each got a nickname based on their home). Spanish Bill is actually British, but now lives in Spain. Years ago, Spanish Bill had built a 35 foot sailboat in his backyard in England; then he and his wife sailed her back and forth across the Atlantic several times.
Seattle Bill, very introspective, thoughtful, captured every sunrise and sunset. He served in the US Navy in the 1970’s and loves the Atlantic crossing, which he has made several times now on both Star Flyer and Royal Clipper. He was kind enough to share his series of sunrises and sunsets, which you will find above.
I think very highly of the Star Clipper crews. I’ve spent almost seven weeks on their ships this year, and the people who work for this company are one of Star Clipper’s great strengths.
Many of the crew members have made their careers with the company. On my three cruises with Star Clippers, I have found the crew members to be highly skilled, very professional, and genuinely warm people. They are a big part of what makes passengers continue to return to the Star Clipper ships.
Star Flyer versus Royal Clipper
Many of Star Flyer’s Trans-Atlantic passengers fiercely prefer either Star Flyer or Star Clipper to their bigger sister, the square-rigged Royal Clipper.
Why? Star Flyer heels over further — this enhances the feeling of sailing. Captain Sergey laughed at people who thought this meant that Star Flyer sailed better than the Royal — he thought this was silly. I will say this though. Sailors like to feel the ship move, and I think Star Flyer and Star Clipper attract more hard-core sailing people, and I really liked this aspect of my fellow passengers on this trip.
36,000 square feet
56,000 square feet
4 masts, 16 Sails
5 masts, 42 sails
The standard cabins on Star Flyer and Royal Clipper are so similar that the minor differences aren’t worth discussing, but it is important to note that the cabins are smaller than cabins on large cruise ships.
I found my cabin on Star Flyer to be roomy and comfortable, with plenty of storage. However, Royal Clipper does have a group of cabins with private balconies, while Star Flyer does not — this can be a deal breaker for some passengers.
Additional differences: Royal Clipper has a small fitness center and two massage rooms. Star Flyer and Star Clipper do not have fitness centers. Massages are given in tent on a very private part of the Sun Deck. Royal Clipper has a marina platform that opens on the stern of the ship. Passengers can swim or windsurf off the back of the boat when she is moored. Star Flyer and Star Clipper do not have marina platforms. Royal Clipper has taller ceilings in the dining room, which makes it somewhat more quiet because the noise isn’t as compressed.
When the ships are sailing directly in front of the wind, Royal Clipper is faster. She can make 14 to 16 knots, while Star Flyer and Star Clipper have a top speed of 8 to 9 knots. However — and this is a BIG one: Star Flyer and Star Clipper can sail much closer to the wind than Royal Clipper can. This means they can sail more under more varied wind conditions than Royal Clipper without resorting to the engine.
All of the Star Clipper ships have bow thrusters and anti-roll tanks. However, Star Flyer and Star Clipper do roll more in rough seas than Royal Clipper, which is larger and more stable feeling. This might be a consideration for someone concerned about seasickness.
Look – I loved both Star Flyer and Royal Clipper, equally. I can’t tell you I have a favorite. They each have different strengths, and I’d be back on either ship in a heartbeat.
Note: food on both Star Flyer and Royal Clipper was very good. I wrote about the food on Royal Clipper at length in my first article on the Royal Clipper, and everything I had to say there pertains to the food on Star Flyer as well.
If you are interested in reading further about the ships, or looking at upcoming sailings, you’ll find Star Clippers website here.
Ports of Call
I boarded Star Flyer in Malaga, and spent the week visiting Tangier, Morocco, Cadiz, Spain, Funchal, Portugal, before winding up in Las Palmas, Grand Canaria, where the Transatlantic crossing segment of my trip truly began.
Las Palmas is, of course, an appropriate place to begin the Atlantic journey, following in the footsteps of Christopher Columbus. As part of my tour of the island, I visited Casa de Colon (The Columbus House) — really the mayor’s house where Columbus stayed before continuing to San Sebastian in La Gomera. One interesting note. There was a model of the ship La Nina — that ship was approximately 50 feet in length. Star Flyer: 360 feet. As small as Star Flyer seems next to large cruise ships, she would have dwarfed the ships in the Columbus fleet.
Las Palmas is large and fairly urban. I found the old section of the city interesting, but over all I was not captivated by Gran Canaria. It is of course, an important port for the ship — capable of resupplying the Star Flyer before its fourteen day crossing to Barbados.
Columbus House in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Cross section of the ship La Nina at the Columbus house in Las Palmas. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Model of the ship La Nina, Columbus House. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
La Gomera, one of the smaller Canary islands, was our last port before beginning the voyage to Barbados. Columbus stayed a month on the island of La Gomera, doing final outfitting of his little fleet, laying in supplies. It was his final stop before his 1492 voyage.
While Grand Canaria did not captivate me, La Gomera did — and in a big way. La Gomera has micro-climates from one side of the island to the other. I loved the stark differences between the misty laurel rainforests, and the arid, sun-baked southern point where San Sebastian lies. It’s easy to see why Unesco has declared it a world heritage site. One of the unique rock formations on La Gomera is the Roque de Agando, a volcanic plug — very dramatic and beautiful part of the island.
Rainbow sailing into La Gomera. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Roque de Agando (Agando Rock), La Gomera. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Laurel Rainforest, Garajonay National Park, La Gomera. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Would I make the Atlantic Crossing again? Yes. It simply was not like anything else. It was beautiful, and it spoke to my soul.
I have written about my two other trips with Star Clippers on the Royal Clipper in 2016, in both the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. You will find those articles here:
Thank you for visiting!
I’m writing and traveling full-time now, and if you like my work, please subscribe to my blog via email.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We got close to Sawyer Glacier, and spent about 45 minutes floating there, watching it calve. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Foggy start to the morning, as we headed toward Tracy Arm Fjord. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
We saw at least seven bears. This is an American Black Bear. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Bald Eagle perched on an iceberg. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Leaving Sawyer Glacier behind. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Stunning views throughout Tracy Arm. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rounding the lake near the White Pass summit.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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 Servicerun 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.
Bald Eagle on the Chilkat River. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Rafting down the Chilkat river. No rapids, so easy to photograph the eagles.
Bald Eagle. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
1956 DeHavilland Beaver. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Rainbow Glacier. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Glacial run-off. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
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.
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.
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.
Humpback whale near Sitka. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Stellar sea lion looks us over. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Harbor Seals. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
I saw so many whale this morning, I lost count! Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Cute and fuzzy, but not so little. Male sea otters weigh 60 – 70 lbs. and are about the size of a labrador retriever. Photograph, Ann Fisher
Salad bar anyone? Coastal brown bear eating her greens. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
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.
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. . .
Thank you for visiting!
I’m writing and traveling full-time now, and if you like my work, please subscribe to my blog via email.