By Bill Mason
This year, I decided to switch up my summer vacation plans and do something I’d never done before: a cruise of Alaska’s Pacific coast. A week of fishing, helicopters and shuffleboard on the open sea with my friend Mark, this would be a real man’s vacation. A getaway from the full-throttle pace of New York.
I’d never taken a cruise before, and I’ll admit I was skeptical at first. But from the moment our flight arrived in Vancouver, the staff of the Celebrity Cruise Line was ready to take care of everything. By the time we arrived in the cabin – a spacious two-bedroom suite with a veranda overlooking the stern of the boat – the food was going, the drinks were going and the message was clear: just go relax, start your vacation.
Getting into vacation mode took a bit of getting used to, but I quickly found my sea legs and started to explore. We’d be at sea for two days before reaching Juneau, our first port-of-call.
From the casino to the basketball courts, there was so much to do aboard the Mercury, that I almost forgot I was on a boat with nearly 2,000 other passengers. And of course, like any good cruise, there was always a meal being served. I decided to do the real Alaskan thing and take the opportunity to overdose on fresh seafood at the ship’s Manhattan restaurant: shrimp, grilled halibut, flounder stuffed with crabmeat and crayfish, seafood risotto, salmon, lobster. We got to know those at the tables around us, and the attentive staff got to know us, anticipating our every need. Eagerly, we awaited our first stop, Juneau.
Like the rest of the trip, Juneau was full of surprises. We had planned for real adventure – a helicopter ride to the top of a glacier where we would
try our hands at dog sledding.
I was thrilled to death for the entire
45-minute flight to the Norris Glacier. Listening to the pilot on my headset while snapping pictures of the utter wilderness out the window, I couldn’t help but feel like I was living out a movie. I never thought I’d see a place where nobody’s ever even walked, where no man’s ever been.
After a while, we could see little specks on the horizon, and we knew we were getting close. Closer still, the specks turned into what looked liked a football field of dogs, 220 of them and their plastic igloo doghouses.
We were paired up with our dogs, which looked nothing like the Siberian huskies I’d imagined, but more like mutts right out of the pound. Built for running. Our guides showed us the ropes, and the dogs led the way.
Mush! Rushing through the vast wilderness, I had the time of my life, but I don’t expect to win the
Iditarod any time soon.
Back on land, we explored Juneau, which is Alaska’s capital city (not Anchorage as many people expect). In search of a little northern exposure, we headed out past the five-block main drag. Immediately, the gift shops took on a more authentic vibe,
with signs boasting, “Still Owned by an Alaskan Family.”
McDonalds and Subway franchises had already invaded, but we were determined to find the real deal and fill our bellies. The Red Dog was local, and from the sawdust on the floor to the stuffed fish on the wall, it felt like exactly where I was supposed to be. For our next stop, we headed to the Original Alaskan Hotel, where our bartender – a Long Island expat – served up the Alaskan Brewery Company’s Alaskan Amber, ice cold, of course.
In the summer, the sun rarely sets on Alaska, but come nightfall, it was back to
the boat for some much-needed refueling. Then it was a short trip to our second land excursion, Skagway, an old gold-rush town on the Yukon railway.
Our Juneau adventure had turned me into a helicopter junkie, so in Skagway I jumped on the chance to take to the skies in the Glacier Discovery helicopter tour. We rushed past four enormous ice cubes, this time with a little bumpier ride. When we landed, two guys have never so felt so good. Filled with adrenaline, we got caught up in the natural beauty, hiking and drinking in the fresh glacial water. We felt dwarfed by nature, watching falling chunks of ice and rock, as big as a house. We were deep in the abyss, where nobody was but us.
The adventure left some room for a first-hand lesson in ecology and global warming. Our guide explained that the Caribbean-blue water was caused by the reflection of deep ice, centuries old. Photographs showed where the ice had once been, and seeing how it had retreated I wondered if my future grandchildren would ever be able to experience this.
Then it was back to the boat for a close encounter with the mammoth Hubbard Glacier. Looking out over the bow of the boat the view from the captain’s lounge was overwhelming – a skyscraper skyline made entirely of ice.
Our next stop was Ketchikan, where among the totem poles we set out for a fishing trip aboard an aluminum skiff – the Exclusive Skiff Tour. Our local guide, Alonso, was an expert, and permits in hand, off we went in the little motorboat to experience Alaskan fishing the real way. Before we knew it, out lines were heavy with China rockfish and tiger rockfish, beautiful black-striped fish, yellow and orange. Our catches didn’t impress the guide, but to this New Yorker, a 6-pound catch wasn’t small. It wouldn’t fit on my plate and it wouldn’t fit in my fish tank. Proud, we posed for pictures.
Our guide knew the area’s islands inside out and took us to the perfect spot to get up close to nature. Bald eagles swooped from trees. Seals swam along side the boat. Then, all of a sudden I heard, “Whoosh!” Only inches (or at least what seemed like inches) away from our boat, a humpback whale broke the water’s surface.
After our wildlife close call, it was time to board the ship for our final excursion, sailing aboard the Mercury through the Inside Passage, a slit between two glaciers. As the boat headed along, we were surrounded by ice. The journey would take two days, and I decided to take advantage of all the Mercury had to offer.
Now, it was time for another adventurous first for me – a trip to the Aqua spa. I was wrapped in seaweed and tinfoil and kneaded into relaxation. As my stress melted away, I thought, I could get used to this.
This summer, the revamped Mercury makes its first journey to Oceania for a cruise around New Zealand and Australia. Who knows, maybe next year
I’ll be kayaking the coast of Melbourne, Australia or cycling through the forests
of New Zealand.