Steam creeps slowly up the vintage parlor car's windows. Cold air outside collides with air inside that's heated by a wood-burning stove and the breath of a dozen tourists. We tug thin jackets and college-pride sweatshirts a little tighter. Sleeves come in handy to clear peepholes. • We're chugging up a narrow gauge track toward White Pass Summit, 2,865 feet. It's only 20 miles from Skagway's tangle of T-shirt shops, but it feels farther. There are fewer people, for one. On the east side of the train are the coastal mountains of Tongass National Forest, and on the other is a deep ravine leading to the Skagway River. From the west bank and up, way up, the Klondike Highway flutters like a ribbon. I make a mental note to drive that road into Yukon Territory someday. • We're on the same path fortune-hunters traveled toward British Columbia's goldfields in the late 1800s, except many were on foot and guiding horses laden with provisions. Near the summit, we pass the remnants of the Trail of '98 (that's 1898) and marvel at the gall and grit that drove men along this precarious route. There's snow on the ground now and it's June.
Mist settles around the train, which is just as well because it's spooky looking down. Can the century-old tracks hold us?
A mother-daughter duo from Chicago distract us from thoughts of death so far from home. We almost missed the trip because you wouldn't get up, says Mom. I'm not talking to you anymore, huffs grown daughter. She teeters down the pitching aisle and plops in front of me. Father announces that this is his first and last shore excursion with the family.
And so it goes when you're experiencing the beauty of Alaska with 2,800 travel companions. There are times, as when you're crunching across the impressive Mendenhall Glacier, that you can't believe your good luck being here. Grand beauty stretches in 360-degree Technicolor demanding that you live in the moment. Every superlative you have to offer is inadequate.
By ship, the glaciers dazzle us and we root for a dramatic ice splash into the sea. It's called calving, but we never see it happen. A pod of killer whales, some making whoopee, cavort in Auke Bay, making up for the mute glaciers. They entertain whale-watchers for nearly 45 minutes.
Just as quickly as the tableau moves in to enchant you, the landscape changes. You're standing in a crowded buffet holding a tray heavy with food you shouldn't eat. There's not a seat to be had.
Nature and a dinner show
For seven days in June we sailed Alaska's Inside Passage and Glacier Bay on the Norwegian Pearl, a lovely floating city with every amenity a cruiser could want. Plus a bowling alley. Leaving from Seattle, the Pearl stopped at Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria, British Columbia. Collectively, there were more than 150 shore excursions of varying prices available to passengers. It seemed like there were at least that many things to do on board.
The popularity of Alaskan cruises continues to grow, with a big jolt of interest coming from Sen. John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin, the state's governor, as his running mate. I might have paid more attention to the statehouse in Juneau had my crystal ball been working better. I do remember commenting on how small the Capitol was and how remote the city seemed. Juneau recently got a Wal-Mart and its first Starbucks.
Alaskan cruises have long been a favorite among adults, but in the last few years more families have caught the Inside Passage bug. Having done the Caribbean thing, said Pearl hotel director Michael Klieverik, families are seeking new experiences. On our sailing, 485 passengers were 18 years old or younger. Klieverik says that rivals the number of children on Caribbean cruises, typically more attractive to snorkel-loving kids. The Alaskan cruise season generally covers summer vacation, which makes it, timing-wise, perfect for family getaways.
The game room was filled in the evenings with families playing cards and other board games, among them Monopoly and Scrabble. The sports deck with the fabulous view was rarely empty. As long as the sun was shining — and it shined a lot — little kids and big teenagers played basketball and soccer side by side. We were on board for the summer solstice and the sun didn't set until 10:30 p.m. It popped back up by 4 a.m. Our internal clocks were as haywire as our appetites. Access to a soft-serve ice cream machine 24/7 will do that to you.
Food is a major attraction on any cruise ship. Tales of overflowing buffets are true. You can eat a lot and often. I feared someone would get trampled the night of the Chocoholic Buffet. Our stateroom was just a staircase away from the action, so we grabbed what we could and scampered back to safe haven.
Norwegian has done away with assigned dinner seatings, so passengers have more control over when they eat. There are two main dining rooms and a couple of buffets, along with a handful of specialty restaurants where passengers pay a cover charge from $10 to $20 per person and order off a menu. We liked the Asian restaurants best and found the extra money worth it to have a guaranteed seat.
Funny thing about "Freestyle Cruising." Passengers can eat whenever they want, but everyone still wants their meals at 8 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. We learned to avoid those times.
Time for Guitar Hero, dear
I grew quite fond of the soft bing-bong that came frequently over the ship's loudspeaker. I knew what was coming and it tickled me every time.
"This is Paul Scally, your cruise DIE-wreck-tore," said the oh-so British voice. It wasn't the accent that made me laugh, but rather the Robin Leach intonation. This may have been our only chance to pretend we were on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. In another life, Scally is a standup comedian, and he was pretty darn funny as the host of a Newlywed Game-type show and other silly diversions. He even made us laugh at the disembarkation talk. Yes, we went. As much of a hurry as everyone is to board the ship on Day One, they all appear just as eager to get off on Day Seven.
(To calm frazzled nerves of passengers, Norwegian offers a glass of champagne or orange juice after they clear final security. Cheers! Vacation has begun for real.)
Several times a day, Scally told us of happenings around the ship. Margarita and guacamole tasting in Mambo's. Trivia competition at the Whiskey Bar. The Nylons performing in the Stardust Theater. Karaoke at the Spinnaker Lounge. Bingo, spinning, dancing and rock-climbing. And my favorite, to watch anyway, Guitar Hero on the ginormous screen in the Crystal Atrium. (The video game was a big hit with kids who remarkably never miss a note of ZZ Top and Cream songs made popular long before they were born.)
Every cruise ship has a gym and a spa. The view is what makes them special on an Alaskan cruise. I felt mighty superior when I was able to tell the guy on the treadmill next to me to keep his eyes at 1 o'clock. I knew from my whale-watching excursion that the spray from the humpback whale appeared before the giant mammal. Sure enough, the whale soon surfaced. That nature show kept me going for another mile.
We were in Ketchikan the morning I got a pedicure. With everyone else on shore, the spa was deserted and I sat back and stared out the floor-to-ceiling window. The city was on the other side of the ship and I contemplated on the serene harbor. Occasionally a float plane took off or landed. I hardly noticed the bright pink polish dripping onto my toes.
But I did think about a lot of other things. Mainly, the notion of Alaska and cruising. I enjoyed the trip, but I wondered about the authenticity of the experience. A line from John Sayles' Sunshine State rattled around my head. "Ah. Nature on a leash," says Alan King, playing a real estate tycoon in the movie about overdevelopment in Florida, while teeing off on a highway median.
That's this, I thought. On an Alaskan cruise you see lots of nature and get to experience it in short, organized bursts. And because we had such, thankfully, calm seas, we had to remind ourselves we were sailing. Even the ocean seemed to adhere to a schedule.
To balance the grandeur of the surroundings with the insulated, pampering nature of the ship, you need to spend some money to get off it. Out in a kayak or up in a helicopter. On a whale-watching boat or ziplining through a canopy of trees. Even the cornball stage show and panning for gold in Skagway provides some enlightenment. Yes, it's still organized fun, but you'll experience buffet-less, karaoke-bereft Alaska. At least for a few hours.
The cold thaws
Occasionally during the week, I saw the arguing mother and daughter on the ship. On the last day of the cruise, they were perched together on an oversized chaise near the pool. It was too cold for all but the bravest, or tipsiest, passengers to swim, but not chilly enough to preclude having an umbrella drink. It was a cruise, after all. They were holding fanciful cocktails.
The Chicago pair was laughing, and Dad stood nearby, having survived what had promised to be a bumpy ride. We should do this again, one of them said.
Again, indeed. There's no law against taking a dream trip twice.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.