Thursday, June 25, 2015
On the pier in Ketchikan, Alaska, there’s a very noticeable installation located adjacent to the second berth, directly across from the splashy sign hung over the spot where Front and Mission Streets intersect. The sign proclaims that Ketchikan is “The Salmon Capital of the World”, but the device mounted to the side of the Ketchikan Visitor’s Bureau building indicates Ketchikan is famous for something besides salmon: its annual rainfall.
The city of Ketchikan gets about 150 inches (3,810 mm) of rain each year, and in recent years it has been flirting with the 200 inch (5080 mm) mark. To put that in perspective, Vancouver’s average annual rainfall is but 43.98 inches (1117.2 mm), and Seattle gets even less, at 38 inches, or 965.2 mm. Seattle’s rainforest climate is well-documented, and Vancouver’s wintery rainfall earns it the nickname “Wetcouver” despite the fact that Ketchikan gets three times the rainfall of Vancouver on an average year.
So, it is perhaps no surprise that when Princess Cruises’ Star Princess came alongside this morning, it wasn’t just raining: it was absolutely pouring. Joining the rain in an atmospheric menage-a-trois was a strong, gusting wind that rushed along the Tongass Narrows and slammed into the ship from the stern quarter, racing through the streets and bringing sheets of rain down on the city that reminded me of footage of hurricanes in Florida during the summer months. Add to that the damp, chilling temperatures that barely broke 50°F (10°C), and getting off the warm Star Princess began to look less and less appealing.
And yet, I was scheduled to do a very easy excursion today: a trip across the street to the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. At $35 per person, it’s very affordable and very family-friendly. It also happens to be very fun; rather than descending into corniness (which, okay, it flirts with on occasion), it’s actually a very interesting spectacle and gives some insight into the raw skills required by the men that actually had to clear forests in Alaska.
Although it takes place in an outdoor amphitheatre, guests sit under a covered roof partition that is also equipped with overhead heaters that really do their job: after about five minutes there, I was already peeling my coat off despite the torrential rain that continued to fall, off and on, on the performers.
Princess, however, offers a multitude of things to do in Ketchikan, and I particularly like their new excursion options selected in conjunction with Animal Planet and Discovery Channel. These excursions are packed with fun, but they’re also very educational as well. One of the most intriguing excursions (a Discovery Exclusive) is an Alaskan Wilderness Survival tour. It’s an adventure that drops you on an island for a few hours with an experienced wilderness instructor, who will lead you into the old-growth forest where you’ll learn how to build a shelter, collect food, and make a fire.
Given the weather, though, I had no problems returning to the Star Princess at her berth directly across from Salmon Landing to spend a cozy afternoon onboard, watching the rain slam against the windows of the public rooms. I did venture out on the balcony long enough to watch the 2006-built Crown Princess glide past us in the mid-afternoon, bound for Seattle. I’ve enjoyed many wonderful voyages on that ship, first to Canada and New England in 2007 and again to Iceland and Norway in 2009.
Speaking of Crown Princess, our dinner destination tonight was first introduced aboard her back when she set sail in 2006. A steakhouse at heart, the Crown Grill has become one of Princess Cruises’ staple specialty restaurants, and the vast majority of the fleet has now been retrofitted with it.
Featuring soft lighting accented with cherry woods and healthy doses of dark marble and etched glass, the Crown Grill has a suitably supperclub feel to it. It’s cozy and intimate, though still big enough that it can seat 160 people at any given time. You’d be wise to make a reservation before dining here; it’s a popular restaurant that tends to fill up quickly throughout the voyage, particularly on formal nights. The good news is that you can make a reservation anytime between 5:30 and 10:00 p.m., though check the daily Princess Patter for exact times.
To start, I had the bisque. I am a sucker for bisque of any kind, though the Black and Blue Onion Soup was also vying for my attention. I’ve had it before on past trips; infused with fresh thyme and Jack Daniels, it’s one of the better onion soups I’ve had on any ship.
Every detail at the Crown Grill has been well-thought-out, right down to the selection of gourmet salts that are presented with your steak. There’s Hawaiian Black Salt that has been infused with charcoal and has a suitably campfire-like taste to it. The Smoked Applewood Salt has a lingering hint of the Pacific Northwest rolled into a salt (if you can call it such a thing!), while the Himalayan Mountain Pink Salt boasts the most surprising of flavours: it tastes almost fresh. According to the menu, Himalayan Mountain Pink Salt is traditionally utilised to remove toxins from the body. Either way, these salt combinations dramatically alter the taste of your steak to your liking.
My steak was just as succulent as I remember it being on past trips aboard Crown Princess. For bigger appetites there’s the Kansas City Strip bone-in sirloin that clocks in at 16 ounces. You can pick your choice of side; I chose to have the grilled asparagus and a baked potato.
It’s worth noting that you don’t have to like steak to eat here. The Crown Grill has a wide selection of seafood, including lobster tails, a mussel pot, and grilled tiger prawns.
But as we dined in comfort in the Crown Grill, we learned of some disturbing news: a small Cessna airplane taking cruise ship passengers from another line docked with us today on a flightseeing excursion had disappeared and crashed into the mountains on its return to Ketchikan. The group I was dining with checked their phones; many of us had messages from friends and family asking if we were okay.
The jovial mood that had permeated the room just seconds before evaporated. I swirled my wine around in my glass and picked blankly at my food. I looked out the windows, at the cyan-blue skies visible beyond the promenade deck as Star Princess sailed south and left the Tongass Narrows and headed for the Inside Passage that would take us back to Vancouver.
On another ship in Ketchikan, guests are coming to grips with the fact that some of their fellow shipmates aren’t coming back. Crew have the unenviable task of emptying staterooms of personal belongings and contacting next-of-kin.
I don’t mind admitting this affected me. I lost my appetite and pushed my food away. I wondered how I would react if I was on that plane. I love travel. I know there are inherent risks in certain activities, but there are risks in life, too. I decided if it was my time to go, I’d rather go doing something I love to do. Travel is that thing.
We had a wine and chocolate tasting scheduled at Vines after dinner, and I did manage to go. I am glad I did, too: the wines were exquisite and the chocolate pairings (cheese, in my case – the chocolates had nuts in them) – were phenomenal.
My mood improved over the hour we sat there, chatting and laughing and drinking wine. I realized it’s little moments like this that life is really about: people genuinely enjoying each other’s company.
And being appreciative for every second of it.
|Day 1 & 2||Anchorage & Mt. McKinley|
|Day 3||Denali National Park|
|Day 4||Double Denali|
|Day 5||Boarding the Star Princess|
|Day 6||Hubbard Glacier|
|Day 7||Glacier Bay|