Monday, August 21, 2017

Alaska: Seward and Kenai Fjords

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It was Thursday, which meant Week 1 of our trip had elapsed and it was time for the long drive from Denali National Park to Seward. We'd have to go back the way we came, pass through Anchorage, and travel onward down the Seward Highway to get to our destination. Without stopping it could have been a 6.5 hour trip. For us it was closer to 8 hours. While Lee did all the driving the rest of us napped or did something on iPads to pass the time.

We returned to the city of Wasilla around lunch time. Laura had found that the Krazy Moose Sub Shop was highly rated on TripAdvisor so we decided this would be our lunch spot. The sandwiches were huge and delicious. Their condiment/hot sauce bar had more choices than your typical grocery store. After lunch we headed over to Walmart to buy additional luggage. Each couple shared one large suitcase and supplemented with duffles or backpacks to ensure all our bags would fit the trunk. We jammed everything into packing cubes and our suitcase was starting to show stress. We figured a small bag would help eliminate the strain on our suitcase once we got on the cruise ship Saturday.

After passing through Anchorage we were on a road we hadn't traveled. The Seward Highway was scenic with almost constant views of mountains or rivers. On several occasions we saw bald eagles on beaches and rocks looking for their next meal.

We arrived at our new hotel, the Harbor 360 Hotel, a few minutes before 4pm. The hotel was on the harbor overlooking many boats and mountains. A few restaurants and shops were nearby while the main downtown was a little over one mile away. With a population of ~2,000 it seemed like there were more boats than people in Seward.

We took an outing into town that led us to the Seward Brewing Company. The hostess gave us a choice of two seating locations - upstairs for a pizza menu or downstairs for sandwiches and entrees. Holly and Dave weren't hungry yet so the rest of the group chose downstairs. We enjoyed the creative space and the variety of beers made in-house and guest taps. The other 4 people in our group said the food was very good.

We had dinner close to the hotel at Ray's Waterfront. The place was packed with a good mix of tourist and locals. We lucked into some prime bar seats and enjoyed selections from their great beer and cocktail menu. We ended up splitting a jerk scallop appetizer and each had a halibut entree. We were excited to have some fresh seafood and Seward is a location where a lot of halibut is sourced. We had an excellent meal and ended up returning the next night with the rest of our group.


Friday: Another early wake-up! We enjoyed a Hampton-Inn style breakfast at our hotel before walking a few buildings over to the Kenai Fjords Tour office. Today we were taking a 6-hour boat tour of the Kenai Fjords National Park. Even though we were on line to board the boat early we did not score seating on the upper deck of the large catamaran. Our team ended up at a six-top booth near the windows on the lower deck. We made our way outside to hold our ground at the bow for the best views.

30 seconds after leaving port we were watching two otters play and saw a bald eagle. As we left the no-wake zone and picked up speed it became apparent we were going to freeze. We took turns going inside to suit-up in rain pants to dampen the breeze. They sold cute thermal mugs onboard for $8 that allowed for unlimited coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or soda. $48 later we were a little more comfortable.

Our tour was the yellow path on the map below. A lot of our day would be spent taking in the beauty of the fjords (mountains carved by glaciers) and looking at several glaciers. Along the way we were hoping to luck into wildlife - especially whales. Our weather for the day was mostly overcast with a few bits of sun here-and-there. Before reaching the Holgate Glacier we spent some time watching stellar sea lions perched on rocks. Many were branded for tracking purposes.
Map from Kenai Fjords Tour Company
The closest we got to mountain goats

We spent a lot of time at the Holgate Glacier. A LOT. The captain rotated the boat several times to give everyone a view and the crew brought pieces of icebergs into the boat so we could see the difference between glacial ice and ice from our freezers. It was pretty interesting to see that glaciers actually do give off a blue coloring.

Two smaller glaciers were located next to the Holgate Glacier

We found a few minutes of sunlight as we continued our tour of the fjords. Occasionally we lucked into seeing humpback whales and some puffins that would actually stay still long enough for a photo.

Really bad photo but it's a mother otter with her baby resting on her while they float

The final half hour of the tour was the most exciting. Right in Resurrection Bay (where the harbor is based) a hunchback was feeding and showing its head quite often.

Kenai Fjords Tours took great care of us and we all enjoyed the outing. Arriving in port around 2:30 gave us plenty of time to do some other activities. We walked over to the National Park Visitor Center to watch their short film and buy shirts and stickers. Then we walked back to the hotel and drank the excess beers we had collected along the way. We got to watch an otter snacking on some fish while seagulls tried to get their share.

After enjoying beverages we took a short drive over to the Exit Glacier. This is where we had two brushes with death involving a moose (slightly exaggerating). The six of us were pretty isolated on the trail. As we approached a curve near the river a moose with her two babies came out of the river and ran straight in front of us. She must have heard us and made a break for it while not knowing our specific location. It was a close call. Of course she did the same thing to us 5 minutes later.

Along the Exit Glacier trail were markers of where the glacier ended during various years. The glacier has receded quite a bit in the last 100 years.



The next morning we had to return to Anchorage and drop off the rental car. The land portion of our trip would soon be over and the cruise portion would begin. On our way to Anchorage we stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This non-profit organization saves and rehabilitates distressed wildlife and gives them a home since most of them can't be released back into the wild. We saw several bears, caribou, deer, wood bison (a particular species thought to be extinct) and other animals. It was an interesting place to spend 90 minutes in a very pretty setting.

After our lunch at an airport bar we boarded our shuttle bus that would bring us back the way we came in order to go to Whittier - the location of our ship. We (Holly and Dave) have never taken a cruise and we were dreading it. It just seemed like an experience we would not enjoy. Our travel companions (cruise veterans and fans) were probably getting sick of our pre-cruise whining. It didn't help our mental state to know once we boarded the ship we would be trapped like rats for the next 65 hours (first two days were at-sea). Stay tuned....

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