It’s the people, not the places . . .

It’s good to get away, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter where the journey takes us; it’s the break from routine that’s important.

This time, though, it was all about the place. My husband and I, as those who know us (and those of you who read the previous post) know, spent the better part of a summer in Alaska 13 years ago. We traveled the Marine Highway of Southeast Alaska and numerous watery byways that led us to out-of-the-way villages and secluded coves. We went north to Skagway and Haines, west to Glacier Bay and Sitka, spent delightful days in Hoonah and Petersburg and bobbed gently “on the hook” with only stars and lapping waves for company. We visited Juneau, the capital, several times, and we had good times in Ketchikan, Alaska’s “first city.”

At the end of August we returned to the 49th state, arriving in Anchorage on a Friday evening to spend a few hours prior to embarking the next day on a seven-day voyage aboard Golden Princess. The trip would take us past impressive Hubbard Glacier and into Glacier Bay before visiting Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan on a journey slated to end in Vancouver, British Columbia, the following Saturday morning.

It was not a trip we spent a lot of time planning. It was, in fact, a snap decision, made with a “why not” attitude, but with low expectations. We sandwiched it in between short trips to other destinations during August.

Some initial observations:

What we experienced surprised us. We were less than enamored by Anchorage, home to fully 40 percent, if not more, of Alaska’s residents. But, to be fair, we spent only a few hours there and during our brief visit we encountered delightful people. The city, however, is not pretty, apart from its surroundings.

Our appreciation for the spectacular natural beauty of Alaska emerged fully intact. Looking down on the Anchorage area from our airplane and seeing snow-capped distant peaks towering above the clouds was duly impressive. The water and the coastal vistas are incredible and the vast land seems to extend forever.

And the flowers — before I visited Alaska, I would not have believed there were flowers in what I considered a cold and desolate place. How wrong I was. They were — and still are — everywhere. Wild flowers and flowers in public parks; flowers on window sills and in shops, flowers filling huge municipal planters; flowers in airports and on the docks. Wildflowers along the highway. Gorgeous, colorful flowers. Everywhere!

On Saturday, we boarded a bus for the short drive to Whittier, a year-round deep-water port at the head of Prince William Sound. The trip allowed us a glimpse of white Beluga whales in the waters of Turnagain Arm and a herd of Dall sheep navigating a craggy bluff on the other side of the highway.

It’s exciting, to be sure, to wear jackets and knit caps in August, even if we did have to don rain gear as well. We visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to see wood bison and musk ox, wolves and porcupines, bear and moose, deer and foxes.

We continued on through the engineering marvel of a tunnel that gives the only land access to Whittier. It is shared (on a one-way basis) by passenger vehicles, buses, trucks and the train!

A floating city . . .

Once aboard, we began to settle in to the life of a floating city with 2,600 other people — not difficult, actually, with the wealth of activities and the pleasant mix of public and private spaces. Every day seems a celebration on board a modern cruise ship.

What we knew we would miss was the feeling of being close to the water — the sound of the waves, the experience of cold fingers and blasts of wind as we dropped anchor or secured the lines of our vessel to the metal cleats of well-worn wooden docks. We missed the camaraderie we felt with fishing boat captains as they put away their gear after a long day; and we missed the hot coffee and good conversation that was always available in cluttered dockmasters’ offices.

We also missed seeing whale spouts and fish jumping just above the swells, gulls and eagles trailing fishing boats and circling above small docks, the occasional family of sea otters looking for refuge in a marina, and eye-level contact with those splashing waves and floating chunks of ice. Looking down on the water from a deck 70 or more feet above it, or searching for native wildlife through binoculars and behind protective glass has nowhere near the same effect.

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What we enjoyed was the companionship of other passengers, especially our delightful dinner tablemates, talking with fellow travelers from not only other states, but from Australia and New Zealand, from Germany and England, from Mexico and from Asia. We appreciated the perfectly prepared fresh fish and seafood that was offered at every meal, the smiling service of bartenders and waiters, the helpfulness of the crew, the variety of outdoor deck space from which to view changing vistas of glaciers and icebergs, mountains and clouds.

We were blessed with sunshine for at least a part of every day, somewhat unusual for this part of Alaska.

We also appreciated having the assistance of other eyes to help spot whales and otters, eagles, bears, seals and porpoises. And, yes, we did spot some, although we yearned to see more! The ship reverberated with a chorus of delight for each occurrence. We were thrilled once again to visit Glacier Bay. The naturalists and Park Rangers who came aboard were interesting and knowledgeable. It was a learning experience, and it was good to have their input.

We heard the “thunder” of glaciers as they calved, and realized anew that listening to the natural sounds of Alaska is mesmerizing.

‘Tis the season . . .

We could have done without the proliferation of t-shirt and key chain shops, furriers and jewelry stores, harborside kiosks and lines of tour buses and waiting guides. But then we realized that they were very much a part of port life 13 years ago as well.

As Alaska residents acknowledge, the season is short and it’s tourism that turns the wheels of commerce in the ports of Southeast Alaska. Life after October settles back into familiar patterns and the majesty of the land becomes once again the personal domain of those who call Alaska home.

Travel is enlightening in many ways. But it’s not the places; it’s the people one meets.

We sought out those people on this trip. And we were rewarded tenfold! Friendly residents are more than willing to talk about their lives, their cities, their families and their experiences. As always, we were fascinated to learn about daily life as it is lived outside the pages of guidebooks.

We always asked for local recommendations for food. In Anchorage, we were directed to a popular local brew pub, and were immediately befriended by a local resident only too willing to share his views on everything from oil drilling to recreational cannabis, from the Northern Lights to politics. The next morning we had cafe au lait and warm croissants at the charming Paris Cafe, a short stroll from our hotel.

In Skagway, there was a wait at “the best place in town to eat,” but the wait was worth it — and we were notified by text message when our table was ready. Skagway may be small and remote, but there’s no shortage of technology! WP_20180821_12_44_28_ProWe were rewarded with perfectly prepared fish, crispy chips and superb local brew.

We took a short bus ride to White Pass, following the path traversed by miners with gold fever, and snapped photos at the border between the United States and Canada, “Gateway to the Klondike.” We walked around Skagway for just a short time before retreating back to our ship as it began to rain. Skagway has changed little, but with four cruise ships in town, it was crowded!

That afternoon, before slipping lines and heading south to Juneau, a program by “real Alaskan” Steve Hites, one of the 1,057 full-time Skagway residents, was a highlight of the trip. Accompanied by guitar and harmonica, the 64-year-old songwriter, storyteller and tour operator charmed listeners with a 40-minute history of “his” Alaska, and the small town he knows so well.

In Juneau and Ketchikan, once again we asked for local food tips and were given the names of two eateries slightly beyond the tourist mainstream. At both, The Flight Deck in Juneau, and again in Ketchikan at The Dirty Dungee, we devoured fresh-caught Dungeness crab, and couldn’t have been happier!

About traveling to Alaska . . .

My heartfelt advice to anyone considering an Alaska cruise?

GO!

My husband and I realize that we were privileged to be able to experience the state as we did — on our own — and that trip will remain in our hearts as a unique experience.

We remember how small we felt while on our boat, especially one morning in Juneau as we awoke to the presence of a massive cruise ship snuggled against the dock directly in front of our vessel.

101_0747As luck would have it, on this trip Golden Princess occupied that slip, and we wondered if the private yacht owners felt as dwarfed as we had that long ago morning.

The allure of Alaska has not diminished for us. We shared the excitement of first-time visitors on this cruise. And we understand clearly the sentiments of those who return again and again. There are many ways to travel to this unique state, from “big-ship” cruises to private vessels, land-sea combos, fly-in fishing or sightseeing trips and active expedition cruises. The Alaska State Ferry runs north from Bellingham, Wash., year round, the the Al-Can Highway provides an unparalleled opportunity for those who love road trips. There are summer work opportunities for college students, and the tourist industry brings part-time residents every season. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for visiting Alaska.

Absolutely, go to experience the place — the stunning scenery with majestic peaks and pristine water, the wilderness, the waterfalls and the icy blue glaciers. Look for wildlife, of course, and marvel when you spot a whale or a group of bears on shore, eagles in the trees, or otters in the sea. Eat your fill of freshly-caught fish and seafood. Snap Selfies. Take tours. Buy trinkets.

But go especially to meet the people! Dinner companions often become lasting friends. At the very least, casual encounters with shopkeepers, restaurant servers, tour guides, ship’s staff, and the people you stop to talk with on the street linger as lasting reminders of the trip  even when memories of specific sights begin to fade.

Cruising is invariably a pleasure, no matter what the ports.  And Alaska still lives up to its moniker as the American “last frontier.” It’s a big adventure!

So, yes, go to Alaska!   

Will we return? Perhaps not. But we would not hesitate to do so. It’s that good!

 

Portovenere: Poetry in any language

My husband and I hadn’t really intended to be in Portovenere. We were driving through Italy with no particular destination in mind. At a small gas station in the port of Genoa, we stopped to ask general directions to the waterfront, with every intention of finding a charming out-of-the way inn along the way, perhaps one with a view of the harbor and a trattoria within walking distance.

We had no timetable. It was chilly. It was the end of January, not the height of tourist season along the Mediterranean coast. The prospect of a good glass of red wine, a simple pasta and a comfortable bed beckoned. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The station attendant pointed — Portovenere, he repeated — along with a rapid stream of Italian, most of which was lost on us. “Portovenere, Portovenere, Portovenere. . . ,” accompanied by hand waving, curliques in the air, motor sounds, big smiles and, once again the repeated word: “Portovenere!”

It was decided. We pulled out the map, pinpointed the location and the route, smiled at our benefactor and trip planner, and were off to Portovenere.

What a Delight!

The little city is nestled into the craggy cliffs that line the sea; it has all the charm and colorful beauty of better-known Cinque Terre villages. Along with them, Portovenere is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. They are all magnificent. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Portovenere is ancient, and it retains the homey aura of a small fishing village, with terraced hillsides above.

Perhaps it was just because we arrived at dusk during a very slow season, but everyone we met, from the hotel desk clerk to local workers on their way to the trattoria, greeted us cordially and made us feel like long-lost friends.

The feeling was not diminished the next day, nor the next. We stayed on, enchanted by everyday life in this beautiful village. We walked the streets, sauntered along the docks, ventured up the steep, hillside cliffs when we felt like it. We breathed deeply of the fresh seaside air, and looked out on the waters of the Med, but felt no need to take the sightseeing boat to the nearby trio of islands that are major tourist destinations.

Familiar Comforts

The truth is that Portovenere wrapped us in the comfort of normal lifestyle, at a point in our three-week trip when we had tired of tourism. In some ways, it felt like going homeOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We sipped aperitivos at the local bar, and watched local television with residents relaxing after work, and then we ambled down the street to enjoy fresh seafood, good wine and spirited, if awkward conversation with other diners in the sparsely-occupied room. I’ve forgotten the dishes and the details, but the warmth of the experience, and the certainty that it was a good one, remain. I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but I like to think it is still there, awaiting my return.

It’s a fanciful thought, I know, appropriate in some odd way for this Thanksgiving week. Going home for Thanksgiving is deeply ingrained in our consciousness, whether that trip is to Grandma’s house or simply a gathering that brings family and friends together for shared experience, wherever it may be.

Special Places and Times

That first and only visit to Portovenere was more than a decade ago and it still stands out in my memory as one of those places I would return to on short notice! That’s what I have been thinking about this week — the prospect of revisiting favorite spots across the globe, an irresistible urge to experience old delights once again. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pisa is on the list, and Assisi, along with Carrara, where Michelangelo found his stone. The tops of the mountains shine white in the distance, chipped away over the centuries to expose the shining white cores. Counter tops are still quarried here, some of them by old methods. It’s quite an experience to drive to the summit of a marble mountain!

There are other places, too, to revisit, most of them not the subject of travel guides and magazine articles. But that’s what makes travel special, isn’t it? Finding those places that speak to the soul is not something a traveler plans.

If it happens, it’s hard to deny. Portovenere is like that.

Savor the Good Times

In my mind, I can picture my return, just as I picture returning to my former home city of Santa Fe this year for a large family Thanksgiving.

May all of you find a special place in the heart this Thanksgiving. Maybe we can all search out those delightful spaces and places at other times of year as well.

If it’s impossible to return home in a physical sense, however, at least make a point to revisit those special places periodically in spirit. Savor those experiences.