Tuesday 23 August 2022 – For reasons which will become clear, this will be a fairly brief post, somewhat hastily cobbled together. I hope you enjoy the photos, though.
The day started well, in that we were up promptly, breakfasted, checked out of the hotel and in for our private charter flight, a small float plane, from Victoria to the Farewell Harbour Lodge. For a while, though, it all fell apart. The lass behind the check-in desk at Harbour Air told us that there would be a delay. It wasn’t quite clear why for a while, but eventually we understood the situation. Cloud and fog made flying in to Farewell Harbour too dangerous in the view of the Harbour Air despatcher, who was therefore unwilling to send a plane to us in Victoria unless the situation at the far end cleared. We were advised to wait and see whether the weather and the forecast changed. New forecasts came in every hour, and each one indicated that visibility would still be a problem.
Naturally, we started pondering alternatives, but the raw truth is that we needed to get somewhere over 500km away to an island in the Johnstone Strait, so flagging down a cab or seeking a bus ride wasn’t really an option. Even driving to the nearest place on Vancouver Island whence we could catch a water taxi looked too difficult.
Despite the best efforts of BT, whose circuitry detected a crisis and therefore implemented a cap on Jane’s phone, we managed to contact Discover Holidays, who are looking after us whilst we’re in Canada. Fortunately, Jane got through to a lady called Sarah, who had worked on developing our itinerary with the heroic Brendan at NATS, so we didn’t have to waste time explaining the problem to her. The idea of a driver was mooted, but then all of a sudden, a plan came into being which was to fly us as near to Farewell Harbour as the weather allowed (e.g. Campbell River) and take a water taxi from there. So we got our plane after all.
We climbed in, buckled up and the pilot taxied out past the air traffic control tower
(because Victoria Harbour is unique in Canada because it actually has a runway marked in the harbour), and off we went. Conditions were pretty clear, so here are some of the photos we managed to garner as we went:
Victoria Harbour, with the breakwater we walked around yesterday at the top of the picture;
evidence of some fairly drastic logging;
several views showing what a big slab of land Vancouver Island is;
a couple of arty attempts on my part;
a photo by Jane of Campbell River (meaning – yippee! – it had cleared and we were carrying on all the way to our proper destination);
coming down towards our landing and skimming along just below the clouds; and finally
arrival at Farewell Harbour Lodge, where we found out a couple of interesting nuggets. Firstly, the pilot of our plane (a De Havilland Beaver – I was going to call this post “Nice Beaver” but Jane gave me One Of Her Looks) was named, appropriately, Dakota; and secondly, Tim, the proprietor of the lodge, could take the credit for us arriving, as it was his suggestion that we fly as far as the weather allowed, and he was pretty sure it would clear, as indeed it did.
It was, thus, with considerable relief that we arrived at the lodge (which looks great and seems very well-organised)
only some five hours late and just in time to get a beer in as Tim gave us the indoctrination spiel. A key fact that emerged from this is that tomorrow will be an early start, hence my brevity. I am being brief. Yes, I am.
We actually peered round the back of our cabin and found where they park the boats, as well as this scene
which is documentary proof that you can indeed have your kayak and heat it. Thank you. Thank you for listening to my joke.
A delicious dinner was at 7, after which we got a very interesting talk on humpback whales from a lady called Vicky, and so it’s now quite late – at least relative to the 0530 alarm we’ll need if we are to join in tomorrow’s excursion to seek grizzly bears and other fauna. So I hope you’ll excuse me whilst I get to bed to try to get some sleep. Come back tomorrow and find out if we made it.
Sunday 14 August 2022 – Another eventful day beckoned, which meant, you guessed it, an earlyish start, for we had to be out and about by 0845 with our tourist faces on. The weather forecast was once again uncertain about whether it would rain, and the view at breakfast supported that uncertainty.
It was cool, but we were still able to sit outside for breakfast which was pleasant. We decided that we would laugh in the face of the prospect of rain, mainly because we would be spending almost all of our tourist minutes under cover: the morning was a train ride, the afternoon a trolleybus.
Rather conveniently, because Silversea had managed to get a good parking spot for the ship, the railway came to us, rather than us having to be ferried to it. A short walk took us to our train
and what seemed like a slightly longer walk took us to a carriage which we picked randomly. As carriages go, it was fine, but (from a photographer’s perspective) we should have taken a carriage near the rear of the train for maximum cute “here’s the train going round a bend” photo potential. And once we were in a carriage and a kindly gent dressed as a ticket inspector had, erm, inspected our tickets, we were enjoined not to move carriages, so we had to make do with where we were.
Where we were was towards the front of a train that would take us along the White Pass and Yukon Route. This is a railway that in its entirety goes to Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory in Canada. We would not be going that far today – simply climbing nearly 3,000 feet to the White Pass summit, looping round and coming back down again, a distance of around 40 miles in total. The Silversea blurb described it as a scenic railroad journey, so I had high hopes of being able to take photos of some, you know, like, scenery and that.
The railway has a huge historic influence on the origins of Skagway, all bound up in the 1896 Yukon Gold Rush. Skagway (we learned later, as you’ll find out if you keep reading) has unique attributes – the furthest north deep sea port, and a convenient notch in the surrounding mountains to make access a fraction less than impossible. There had been two routes from Skagway to the Canadian Klondike: the ridiculously steep Chilkoot Trail and the longer but flatter White Pass. The founder of Skagway, William Moore, discovered the White Pass and busily set about creating an infrastructure to exploit support the hopefuls who would rush there in their tens of thousands in the – faint as reality demonstrated – hope of getting rich. Part of that was getting a railway built; this started in 1898 and it took just over two years to build the route. For many years after the gold rush it was used to carry ore and concentrates to the deep sea port of Skagway, and then, after a period of disuse, it was reinvented as the tourist attraction it is today.
It is scenic, but in the early part of the journey those damned trees tend to get in the way of the view. Inside the carriages, a (rather stilted) commentary is broadcast, including alerts for things to look out for. However, the best place to be to take actual photographs is standing on the platform outside the compartment, where you can’t hear the commentary. So I spent practically the whole journey standing outside on the carriage platform, which was a bit chilly. I missed a few decent shots on the way up; but since the way down is simply the reverse, I made some mental notes of things I wanted to capture if possible on the return journey. There were gaps in the trees to capture the odd scene, though
(that’s Skagway in the distance – you can tell by the cruise ships) and Jane did a great job of passing on alerts from the narrator to give me the best chance of catching decent scenes.
Bridal Veil waterfall
a bridge higher up on the railway – looks dangerously flimsy to me.
Regrowth after a landslide, or glacial erosion
Going over the “flimsy” bridge.
A steel bridge, in use until 1969 and once the tallest cantilever bridge in the world.
Eventually, we reached the border with Canada, marked with an obelisk and the flags of each nation
and we looped around and headed back down again – stopping, somewhat bizarrely, for customs purposes when we reached the US border.
I caught some video on the way down
and also this scene, which was one I missed on the way up and wanted to be sure to capture.
The train duly delivered us back to the ship, where we snatched a swift lunch before heading out for Phase II of the day – a Street Car tour of Skagway.
Our driver and guide was Anna,
who was clearly a larger-than-life character and had a robust delivery to match, full of historical nuggets and pungent comment. She took us around Skagway, which is a very attractive little town, telling us stories about the buildings we passed;
the church, for example, was the first granite building in Alaska.
She took us to an overview point to give us a, erm, overview of the town
before taking us to the Gold Rush Cemetery, where many who died during the gold rush years are buried.
Two key characters in the development of Skagway were the villain, Jefferson Smith, who got the nickname “Soapy” by conning customers with bars of soap, and the hero, Frank Reid, who killed Smith. Actually Reid was a thief and murderer on the run, but that seems to have been forgotten because he was the cause of Smith’s death, as part of which, he himself was killed. Anna, as one might expect, milked this strange and sorry saga for all it’s worth.
Anna ended the tour back in town, which gave us the opportunity to go for a quick walk around it taking better photos of this attractive place than can be easily done from inside a bus. There are many colourful timber buildings, especially on Broadway along which the railway used to run
including the Skaguay News above, which used to publish the news regularly, once every month. (The original name of the town was Skagua, meaning “that windy place” in the Tlingit tongue, and the name has since been anglicised). There was the odd occasional mural or other quirky item,
an extraordinary rotary snowplough for clearing the railway,
and a statue of Skookum Jim, a Tlingit native, and Captain William Moore, representing their discovery and mapping of the White Pass.
This brought us back to the ship for its 4pm departure for our next port of call, Sitka. We’re due to go on a hike and much scenery is promised in the blurb about it. Therefore, in theory, there should be some lovely photos to look through tomorrow to distract you from my commentary. You’ll just have to check in to find out, won’t you?
Tuesday 9 August 2022 – If you’ve read yesterday’s installment you’ll know that we reached Heathrow with no problem beyond the usual apprehension that bedevils us in the quiet time before the taxi arrives for major travel. The rest of Phase 1 of the journey – getting out of the UK and into Vancouver – was generally very agreeable and entirely crash-free. The Air Canada plane was, I think, quite new and certainly spiffy, with little touch screens for doing everything: selecting in-flight entertainment, controlling the aircon, configuring the seat.
The choice of in-flight entertainment movies was very impressive. I didn’t count the total offering of films, but I reckon it must have been around 100 – new releases, classics and cult offerings. My normal choice is to for escapist rubbish, typically out of the Marvel stable, but I noticed something that really took my fancy, standing out because it was first in the list due its name – A Hard Day’s Night. I wonder if there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know that this is a Beatles film? It’s not a classic, but the songs in it are classic early Beatles numbers from 1964. The nostalgic sentimentalist urges which lurk embarrassingly close to the surface within me immediately settled on this as the first film to watch.
(The Beatles LP that featured the film’s songs was the first 12″ LP that I ever bought. It was expensive – 32/6d, or £1.63 in modern currency – and I treasured it. Until I gave it away, that is. I think my brother took it off my hands when I decided that I was only interested in classical music, which was in turn before I became a fan of prog rock before turning back to classical music. Musically, I’m just a tart.)
(Another parenthetical note. 32/6d is nearly 97 Mars Bars – they cost 4d in those days if memory serves. Today, a Mars Bar is 65p, meaning that the equivalent cost to me, a 12-year-old was just a whisker under £63. Never let it be said that LPs are expensive these days.)
I actually went to see the original Hard Day’s Night film in the cinema, and, on watching it again, realised how much about it I had forgotten. It’s a Richard Lester musical comedy film, and so its credentials are reasonably good. Although it doesn’t stand up to today’s cinematography in any way, I hugely enjoyed watching it; a wonderful burst of nostalgia, both musically and otherwise as I was reminded of the songs and successfully recognised some peripheral actors in the film whom I wouldn’t have expected to see. I’m particularly proud to have identified a young Robin Ray, who had just a tiny cameo.
Culturally, the rest of the flight was a basket case as I went back to escapist rubbish which seemed mainly to feature Benedict Cumberbatch being American and Strange. I managed to squeeze 3.98 films into the journey, with just the climactic 15 minutes of The Batman unwatched due to the plane having come to a halt outside the Vancouver terminal (see later). Jane tried to persuade me out of the intellectual doldrums of these films to make sure I’d seen some of the scenery as we approached Vancouver. We both had a go at taking photos of the view, which was excellent. But, again, see later.
Jane also got some good shots as we got closer to Vancouver itself.
Once landed, we then needed to get ourselves to the airport hotel, a Fairmont. The process was smooth and largely stress-free. The airport has a plethora of electronic passport gates which worked well, and also allowed us to assert that we were free of the Dreaded Lurgy; there was a final check by a border guard and then all we had to do was to hand over our ArriveCAN receipt and find our bags. There are many, many carousels at Vancouver airport and one has to walk past quite a few before finding a screen telling you where to look. We found our carousel and only had to do a few minutes of The Carousel Stare Thing before Jane’s bag came out. Having invested in baggage trackers, I was a bit concerned about where my tracker was telling me it was, which was still at Heathrow. However, it turned out that it was teasing me, as the bag turned up just a couple of minutes later.
Finding the hotel was a process which had a promising start, as there were signs, but the navigation grew a bit more challenging as we debouched into a huge arrivals terminal now devoid of any hotel-related guidance. We (i.e. Jane – I have my male pride to think of, here) asked someone and were pointed in the right direction which turned out to be up another level at the other end of the not minuscule terminal building – another non-trivial walk for my poor backpack-oppressed shoulders – and were soon checking in. Easy as it was, the process carried with it one disappointment, albeit a relatively minor one. Fairmont is part of the Accor hotel group, and, for reasons lost in the mists of time, I have a loyalty membership; since the vast majority of the hotels on our holiday are Fairmonts, I’d fondly imagined building up a huge reservoir of loyalty points as we went. This turned out to be illusory as the nice check-in chap told us that you need to book the hotels as an individual to accrue points. Since all ours were travel agent bookings, these didn’t count. Sigh 😒. Still, we got free WiFi, so it’s not an entirely lost cause.
From then on, the day proceeded exactly in line with my previous experiences of air travel to west-coast America: feeling a little tired and a little hungry despite being fed twice on the plane; heading to the bar for a snack and a drink;
after said drink and snack at the bar – a good one, incidentally – suddenly feeling very tired; going to bed earlyish and falling asleep immediately; waking up at 3am and finding it difficult to get back to sleep.
However, we both managed to get a reasonable quantity of sleep in a very comfortable and well-organised room. We took breakfast in the hotel. It was table service only, so no browsing of the buffet for healthy items, and food choices that were rather too complex for my jetlag-ravaged brain. In the end, we had a good, substantial breakfast before heading off to hand our bags over to the tender mercies of the international baggage transfer system.
Air Canada recommended we get checked in some three hours before the flight to Anchorage, so we were in plenty of time at a very quiet check-in area. Bag deposit was easy, if conducted through more checkpoints than I’m used to, and we eventually found the Maple Leaf lounge in the terminal building. At this point, we realised we’d made a tactical error, in that we could have had a perfectly decent breakfast in the airport lounge and saved ourselves the $100 that breakfast had cost us. Reading my brother’s blog of his Canadian odyssey had set my expectations that things in Canada were expensive. The reality still stings a bit, though.
And finally, the North! To Alaska! part of the journey was a really pleasurable, nay unique, experience. We were cordially greeted by the cabin steward, a very agreeable chap called Hugh Chetwynd, who did a superb job of swift and efficient service for all his (#smug) business class customers whilst keeping up an engaging stream of cheerful conversation. One nugget he vouchsafed as we were awaiting departure was that the view during the trip should be excellent, as they were expecting clear conditions and flying up along the west coast. Rather delightfully, there was a spare window seat available on the other side of the plane, so I moved from my usual aisle seat and both Jane and I were able to get the benefit, and got some great photos from each side of the plane.
The view was sensational! When we were in Jordan, a tea stop above Petra advertised itself as having the best view in the world, but, frankly, what we saw knocked that into a cocked hat. Here’s a taster.
I don’t believe I’ve ever been been fortunate enough to take as many worthwhile photos as I managed on this flight, all the way from Vancouver to Juneau, before the weather closed in and clouds obscured the view.
Whilst I was busy taking photos from one side of the plane, Jane was equally busy on the other side, so we have a vast number of excellent images. I won’t bore you with the photos here, but you can see them in this separate post, which is a treasure trove for anyone who is interested in aerial photos of lakes and mountains.
Excellent service, wonderful aerial photos and free no-extra-charge gin & tonic – what a heady combination!
Once the clouds obscured the view, since the same films were on offer today as on yesterday’s flight, I was then free to catch up on the final 2% of the film I had failed to watch to the end – The Batman. It was very much in line with the rest of the film – too dark to see what was happening most of the time, lines muttered in voices too hoarse to understand what was going on and plotted in such a manner that the first two drawbacks made the whole thing an incomprehensible mess. But I’d nothing better to do and nowhere else to go, so I got a sort of grim sense of closure out of wasting those extra few minutes of my life.
When we arrived at Anchorage it became apparent that the passport check that we’d undergone in Vancouver represented the international border with the USA, because we simply walked out to the baggage carousels with no further checks. It took a few minutes for the bags to arrive which we spent in amiable travel bragging with a couple who had been seated behind us in the plane; they were very obviously very well-travelled and we are polite people, so we let them win; the upside is that we got a couple of excellent tips for when we travel to the antipodes.
Whilst we were awaiting our bags, the driver who had been booked to take us into town joined us by the carousel and so once we’d picked them up we were swiftly off for the 15-minute drive to the Hilton Anchorage hotel, which will be our home for the next two nights. The weather was cool – just about 13°C, and slightly drizzly – but we’re optimistic that it will be dry tomorrow.
Our most important task is to arrange for pre-cruise Covid tests, theoretically available just down the road from the hotel. Our cruise line, Silversea, runs (at least on paper) a desk in the hotel lobby and so we hope to get firm guidance about testing there. Once tested, we hope to take a trolleybus tour of Anchorage to get some kind of idea about the place. That will be the subject of tomorrow’s entry, so do please come back and join me there.