The Witty Traveler’s Guide To Cruising Antarctica

Ah, the joys of summer. Never ending sunshine. Balmy temperatures in the twenties & thirties. The refreshing feel of gale-force winds upon your skin. Such are the perks of spending a summer (i.e. winter for the northern hemisphere) visiting the White Continent. Antarctica, duly nicknamed not so much for its demographics as for the fact that everything is covered in snow and ice, is seeing more visitors than ever before. With the addition of mainstream cruise lines offering visits to this remote wonderland, even people who don’t earn six figures a year can afford passage onboard. For many world travelers that big white spot at the bottom of the map is the last place left to go to complete the continental circuit. But is it worth the time, money and windburn to get there? What can you expect to see?

Blue Iceberg, Near Elephant Island, Antarctica
Blue Iceberg, Near Elephant Island, Antarctica

First, let me say that you will not be seeing any polar bears. If for some reason you do, immediately inform the captain that he’s drifted into the wrong hemisphere, yet be polite, as you wouldn’t want him to leave you with the bears. That said, what you will see as far as wildlife goes are whales, albatross, seals and literally thousands of cute little penguins of all sorts swimming, standing around, and in some cases, marching.

 

Gypsy Cove, Stanley, Falkland Islands
Gypsy Cove, Stanley, Falkland Islands

Most cruises leave from the Argentinean ports of Ushuaia or Buenos Aires, which are worthy destinations in themselves if you don’t mind being surrounded by good-looking people. Expeditions departing from the latter generally stop at the charming yet mostly-desolate Falkland Islands—or Islas Malvinas depending on which side of the conflict you’re inclined to support. Here you can take in starkly beautiful desert–like scenery, several penguin colonies, and perhaps the southernmost pub offering fish and chips.

The Overwhelmingly British Flavor of Port Stanley, Falkland Islands
The Overwhelmingly British Flavor of Port Stanley, Falkland Islands

 

From the tip of South America it is about a day’s voyage across the Drake Passage—notorious for its rough seas. Seasickness medicine and/or an iron stomach will likely come in handy here if you’ve brought them. Before stopping at Antarctica proper, you will probably first cruise or visit the South Shetland Islands, including Elephant Island made famous by Ernest Shackleton and his crew. One look at the dreary landscape and you’ll think they were actually sane in attempting to pull off their amazing journey toward rescue.

 

At these latitudes a scan of the horizon will likely yield some stunning views of distinctly-shaped icebergs, ranging from the slushy ‘bergy bits’ that could have run off from anyone’s driveway, to the mammoth tabular bergs that boast dimensions—with no exaggeration—roughly equal to those of Queens, N.Y. No need to fear visions of the Titanic, as bergs of that size are quite easy to see and even more easily avoided. The same cannot be said of Queens.

Across the Bransfield Strait lies the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, which rises northward like a cold bony finger. Most cruises will navigate the iceberg-riddled passages of the Gerlache Strait and Neumaier Channel, formed by a line of mountainous islands running parallel to the equally-mountainous coastline. Here the icebergs are predominantly glacial in origin. The bluer the berg the denser it is, and appropriately, the more photogenic it is as well. On the many ice floes drifting by you are likely to find sleeping Weddell seals or Gentoo penguins preening themselves as they float on by, rather undisturbed by your presence. As you stare up at the thousand-foot plus cliffs on each side and breath in the crisp, freezing summer air, there will be no doubt that you are truly in one of the last places on earth you’d ever think to be.

Gentoo Penguins in a queue, Gerlache Strait, Antarctica
Gentoo Penguins in a queue, Gerlache Strait, Antarctica

 

The only habitations on the continent are research stations manned by scientists and students from a rainbow coalition of your major developed nations. By all accounts they get along quite well, and I imagine national and racial boundaries blur when you’re huddled together in a building while outside its 200 below. Smaller ships usually offer guests the chance to alight onshore at certain facilities, allowing an in-depth look at Antarctic life and the people crazy enough to live it.

 

If you’re considering an Antarctic cruise, the following are some practical tips. First, dress warmly and in layers. Wind is constantly a factor here, and those balmy temperatures in the twenties can drop quickly with the wind chill. Also, sun block is highly recommended, not only for the sun, but for the strong reflection of the ice and snow. Seeing as this is a summer vacation that should be a no-brainer.

 

As was mentioned earlier, sea conditions can change surprisingly fast, so some motion sickness medicine is a wise investment even if you never use it. Also, a camera with a substantial zoom—preferably in the 200-400 mm. range—can transform that picture of the iceberg with little black spots into the showcase of your album when the black spots are revealed as cute little penguins posing just for you.

 

No doubt about it, a trip to Antarctica is a travel highlight anyone who has the means should not miss. With a little money, time, and sense of adventure, you can experience one of the last true frontiers on earth in a style and comfort far above the early explorers who clued us in to its existence. But if your idea of a summer vacation is lying on a beach somewhere with your feet in the water, you’re better off staying in Northern Hemisphere. I’m sure the polar bears will appreciate the company.

The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Interior Alaska

Far away from the cruise ships and gluttonous masses, the expansive ‘interior’ of Alaska beckons with the promise of natural vistas and wildlife viewing. For many this means boarding a motor coach or luxury train to be led by the hand through the wilderness. Yet for those who prefer their nature a little less prepackaged and own a valid driver’s license, the interior of Alaska is quite a playground to romp around in.

Anchorage is the gateway to the region and a convenient base should you want to take in the coastal scenery of the nearby Kenai Peninsula. One really nice thing about interior Alaska is that there aren’t many roads other than a few highways, gravel routes and the odd driveway. If you find yourself on the wrong road all you have to do is take the other one. Just be sure to gas up when possible, as distances between habitations can be great. Brace yourself for higher gas prices than what you’re probably used to paying (unless you’re from Europe), as even though oil is one of the state’s major exports along with salmon, souvenir fleece jackets and vice presidential candidates, there is no real bargain here. Considering the distances involved, it just might be time to take out that second mortgage.

Heading east out of Anchorage you will soon enter the Matanuska Valley where the scenery becomes increasingly picturesque. At about the two-hour mark I highly recommend taking the opportunity to visit the Matanuska Glacier up close.

Stopping to reflect on the Matanuska Glacier
Stopping to reflect on the Matanuska Glacier

You’ll have to pay to drive up to the glacier, as it is only accessible via private land owned by a strong believer in capitalism. There will be a marked trail across the rocky moraine terminating at a sign emphatically warning of the dangers of going past that point, such as the risk of death, injury, and a curse upon seven generations of those that do. So once you get past there it will be an amazing experience trying to sure-footedly navigate the undulating ridges of ice intersected by squiggly rivers of intensely blue melt-water. There are guided excursions that provide the proper equipment and direction, but we’re trying to stay away from ‘packaged’ aren’t we? So what if you sprain your ankle, slip to your death or summon cosmic backlash on your great, great, grandchildren?

At the terminus of the Glenn Highway is the enormous Wrangell/St. Elias National Park. At the tiny visitor’s center there’s a really great movie about all the places in the park that are completely inaccessible to travelers without their own private helicopter, which is approximately 97%. While the mountain views are impressive, you’ll either have to take a long, harrowing drive to the offbeat town of McCarthy or a flight-seeing tour in a small aircraft to really appreciate the scope of this national park the size of Switzerland boasting the majority of Alaska’s highest peaks.

From the Wrangell/St. Elias area, follow the Richardson Highway north along the fabled Alaska Pipeline toward Fairbanks. In Fairbanks you will once again be reacquainted with the trappings of civilization, such as fast food restaurants and traffic lights. It is also here that anyone planning to take the lonely ride up the infamous Dalton Highway to the shores of the Arctic Ocean would make a right turn and head north.

Heading back south toward Anchorage on the Parks Highway, you will pass a cluster of grandiose lodges, quirky restaurants, and kitschy souvenir shops that look like they’ve followed the cruise passengers from the coast. This is the sure-fire indication that you’ve reached one of America’s finest natural treasures—Denali National Park. This unspoiled alpine gem is accessible by only one unpaved road, which itself is only open to park buses and those belonging to the many tour operators in the region.

Once again there will be the temptation to hop aboard that shiny, comfy-looking motor coach. Don’t give in! You didn’t risk life and limb on the Matanuska Glacier just to watch nature from a bus full of septuagenarians. Rather, arrange passage on one of the park service buses.

Taking a Break-Denali Style
Taking a Break-Denali Style

Not only is it less expensive, but you will also have the option get on or off as you please. So if there is a particular mountain view, clump of trees, or Arctic squirrel that catches your interest, feel free to ask the driver to pull over. Tickets are priced according to where you intend to turn around with Wonder Lake and Eielson Visitors Center the preferred destinations.

Of course, most people come to Denali hoping to see the park’s namesake mountain. Most people also leave somewhat disappointed, as ‘The Great One’ generally prefers to sulk behind its own private mass of clouds. Regardless, wildlife abounds with excellent chances to see foxes, caribou, Dall Sheep, and plenty of bears. Park bus drivers generally double as tour guides, and the long journey back and forth, while exhausting even if you don’t get out to tramp about, will likely be very informative.

Young Grizzly, Denali National Park, Alaska, USA
Young Grizzly, Denali National Park, Alaska, USA

So what should you know about interior Alaska if you’re planning just such a trip? First, it is worthwhile remembering that for wildlife viewing, long hours of sunlight, and temperatures that won’t result in frostbite, it would be best to visit in the narrow summer season. While prices are lower in the shoulder months of May and September, the weather can be iffy, the foliage not yet in bloom, and the animals either just emerging from hibernation or just getting ready to.

It is also worth noting that generally speaking, accommodations—along with food, activities, and the aforementioned gas—tend to be quite pricey. Considering the quarter-year window they actually get visitors, it’s hard to begrudge the Alaskans for trying to make a living, though it may be hard to explain this to your accountant. Tell him to deduct your glacier-related health expenses to make up the difference.

A ramble through the playground of Alaska’s interior will no doubt be a memorable experience for nature lovers, adrenaline junkies, and warning sign defying people everywhere. Just be sure to gas up, pad your bank account and bring your camera. Your great, great, grandchildren are going to want to see this—that is, if they aren’t already cursed.

Phuket-Paradise Restored

Ever since December of 2004, the mention of Phuket, Thailand inevitably conjures images of the devastating tsunami that snuffed out the lives of over 200 thousand people in Southeast Asia. While the magnitude of that event cannot be understated, it does, however tarnish a little secret I found out firsthand: The place would be an excellent stand-in for Paradise.

My own visit occurred a year and a half before the tragedy, when the name Phuket would draw more looks of confusion than sympathy. Pronounced Poo-get (as opposed to its more humorous phonetic pronunciation) this faraway resort island encapsulates everything a tropical destination should be. With a rugged jungle-clad interior and sleepy fishing villages on one side, it seemed at first glance to be just another rural outpost. But on approaching the western shore, it became readily apparent that the party was already in high gear and there was a virtual buffet of all sorts of activities.

Most of the action takes place along the three main beaches: Kata, Karon, and bustling Patong.

Idyllic Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand
Idyllic Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand

Hotels range from luxurious spa resorts to tiny seaside hostels, though excellent accommodations can be had from around just $30 a night. The beaches are powder soft, and the few dollars to rent a chair and umbrella are a wise investment. Most of the restaurants are run by European ex-pats, which means that the food is authentic and you’ll always be able to catch your favorite football match in any one of the numerous bars and pubs. The tourists are almost exclusively from Europe—particularly Scandinavia, and to be honest, the only time I saw another American was when I looked in the mirror. This never posed a problem, and the abundant use of English made my stay all the more enjoyable.

A big advantage of Phuket is that it is an excellent base of operations for the fascinating attractions that surround it. Divers will love the soft corals and big fish to be found around the lovely Similan Islands, or the intriguing near-vertical Phi Phi Islands made famous as the film location for the movie The Beach, starring Leonardo Di Caprio. Nearby is world-renowned Phang-Nga Bay, with its towering karsts and turquoise waters made famous by James Bond himself. And to the north is Khao Sok National Park, a lush rain forest setting offering jungle cruises and the chance to take it all in on the back of an elephant—one of Thailand’s most beloved symbols.

Rafting Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Rafting Khao Sok National Park, Thailand

Sure, to get there takes at least one full day of air travel, and technically, if you go any further you’ll start to come back, but all that effort will pale in comparison to the paradise you will find. In my opinion, Phuket is the best all-around tropical destination I have ever visited in terms of value, scenery, and things to do. Maybe the Europeans were right not to let us on this magnificent secret after all. The last thing paradise needs is a crowd.

The Witty Traveler’s Guide To Cruising Alaska

It seems that everybody and their grandmother has either cruised, or wants to cruise the scenic coastline of Alaska. Each summer a growing armada of cruise ships disgorge tens of thousands of passengers—many of which are in fact people’s grandmothers—into various ports of call along the southeastern arm of the 49th state. That fact alone may scare off potential travelers who come to Alaska to commune with nature and escape the crowds. Well, fear not. With a landmass greater than California, Texas, and Montana combined, getting away from the crowds—grandmothers and all—is not so hard if you know what to expect going in.

 

The vast majority of Alaska’s northbound visitors begin their journey from either Seattle or Vancouver, where they are herded onboard their waiting ships. After a muster drill and the first buffet, most ships start by winding their way through the Inside Passage, making their first port of call on the town of Ketchikan. Creek Street, KetchikanThe proud residents of this hillside settlement have dubbed themselves “Alaska’s First City” a reference to the fact that this is usually the first piece of Alaskan soil that visitors set foot on. Personally, I think this is just because there’s no one else around to contest it. Nearby is the Misty Fjords National Monument—a dramatic inlet of pristine wilderness. Getting there involves either a boat or a seaplane, and the high price tag of such an excursion ensures that you won’t be contending with the masses for this up-close view of nature untouched.

 

For those who don’t mind the aforementioned masses, guests will have fun browsing through historic Creek Street—a collection of vintage buildings propped up on stilts where souvenir shops have replaced brothels as the primary source of income. Shopping for souvenirs here is both easy and reasonably priced, and if you miss out on doing it in one port, don’t be alarmed. I’m convinced that all the stores pack up their goods and move to the next port overnight. Which now brings us to Juneau, the state capital. You could meander about town, but one of the star attractions is just a short bus ride away at the Mendenhall Glacier, situated at the source of the Mendenhall River, which is nestled in the—you guessed it—Mendenhall Valley.

Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau
Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau

 

The glacier, valley, river, et al are the essence of what people come to Alaska to see. You can hike, tromp, stroll, and mosey until your heart’s content, all while taking in the gorgeous alpine scenery made famous in movies, documentaries, and cruise brochures everywhere. By the time your stay here is over, you will have some great additions to your photo album to go along with the burning sensation in your calves.

 

The next stop on the itinerary for most is the frontier-style town of Skagway. Once again the charms of villainy and prostitution are softened and packaged for the masses, and you could spend the whole day revisiting the shops you missed back in Ketchikan. For those wanting more of a natural connection, I highly recommend a trip into the nearby Yukon, easily accessible via an overpriced train ride brimming with grandmothers or a cheap rental car.

The Yukon sign

Getting to the Yukon in a rental car is remarkably simple with some stunning scenery along the way. Entry into Canada requires a passport and a drive through the aptly named White Pass. From there it is a short ride through British Columbia to the majestic scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities lingering just behind the giant Yukon sign, welcoming you to an even more northwestern territory than the adjacent Northwest Territories.

 

Once you’ve got your land-based activities done, most ships pull into Glacier Bay National Park for scenic cruising of its namesake glaciers. Again, the natural splendor is sure to delight even the most jaded traveler, and it’s great to get a sense of the tremendous scale when other ships pass these cascading mountains of ice looking like sleek, white rubber duckies in comparison.

 

Col Fjord
College Fjord

While some ships turn around at this point, a sizeable fleet will make the crossing of the Gulf of Alaska and file their way into Prince William Sound and stunning College Fjord.  This waterway of ice floes and the telltale ripples of otters is home to an amazing array of glaciers, some nineteen in all, each bearing the name of an Ivy League school. Whether this has drawn the ire of less-prestigiously named glaciers in the area remains to be seen, but the overall effect is quite impressive. At the very least the whales, bears and bald eagles seem to like it.

 

It is at this point that guests must disembark at either Seward or Whittier for the trip to Anchorage or an excursion into the larger interior playground of Alaska. I’ll cover that in another article but for those considering a cruise, the following is some practical information you’ll find helpful, amusing or both.

 

Many people have accused Alaskan residents of being a bit quirky, to which I reply, “A bit?” Alaska has the distinction of being the only state where men outnumber women, leading to a clever saying devised by Alaskan women to describe their prospects: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” If you have trouble remembering it, don’t worry—you can always pick up a t-shirt emblazoned with the saying at one of the souvenir shops that follow you around. If at some point it feels like you’ve strayed into a lost episode of Northern Exposure, just embrace it as part of the cultural experience.

 

Another factor to consider are the costs involved. Prices are definitely higher than you’ll find in the lower 48. Put it this way: At one point I saw signs touting a $1.50 store—a near 50% increase over the 99 cents stores back home. Food and transportation costs too are higher than average. If it makes you feel any better, you can revel in the fact that by the time you pay off your credit card bill those same merchants will either be buried under snow, enveloped in darkness, and/or withstanding a 5000 below wind-chill.

 

Armed with this precursory information, should you venture to the northernmost, westernmost, and easternmost state in the union, you should be able to keep the crowds at bay and enjoy your time taking in the majesty of what is otherwise a very un-crowded place. And if there are still a little too many other people around as you heed the call of nature, at least you can shop your disappointment away in a souvenir shop—there’s sure to be one right around the corner. Just be sure and say hello to my grandmother while you’re there.