Alaska Cruise – Skagway AK

We were up early this morning too…to catch yet another sunrise.  Those are addictive!!

However….The fog rolled in earlier today…then turned into rain.

Today we were in Skagway….the jumping off point for the Klondike Highway.  The town itself is part of the Klondike Nat’l Historical Park – complete with a Visitor Center, museum, and Ranger-led tours/activities, etc….

Our plan for today would include driving (I’ll explain why we chose rental car over train in a bit…) the Klondike Hwy stopping frequently – and going as far as Emerald Lake, then returning to Skagway to explore the Nat’l Park.  As is our custom, we would cram as much as we possibly could into our 13 hrs in port… (we arrived in port 5:30am, but that was a mite TOO early to get off the ship…especially with the rain. …and we were enjoying sunrises anyway. )  We got off the ship about 7:45.     

Donned in our down coats, hats, AND a raincoat over everything we walked the 6 blocks (actually, we ran…) to Avis where our rental car was.

Here we go…odometer is set to ‘zero’ to match up with my Murray’s Guide and we’re heading out of town.

Murray’s Guide is a mile-marker guide of the Klondike Highway.   It can be purchased online (download) for $5 and with that purchase, you get a discount at Yukon Suspension Bridge and Tutshi Sled Dog Tours.  If those are part of your plan, it’s DEFINTELY worth $5 for the Guide.  HOWEVER, the author has also put on the website a FREE version.  It’s more compact, but we didn’t think we’d have time to tour those discounted locations so this ‘free’ version was enough for us.  As with the Treadwell Mine guide yesterday, I copy/pasted this to a document and edited it down to manageable size – from 8 pages down to 4.  Avis also sent me an abbreviated mile-by-mile guide several weeks before our trip and I added parts of that to my ‘edited’ version as well… I ended up with a pretty comprehensive guide….   That, along with a simple 1 page map from a brochure I received in the mail was all we needed for our day. (There’s not much chance of getting ‘lost’ on the Klondike Hwy as there’s really only 1 highway with a few spur roads…but  don’t expect to rely on GPS…   There’s very little if any data connection a few miles out of Skagway)

Driving the Klondike Highway:

The first stop I had ‘planned’ was Gold Rush Cemetary and the trail head to Lower Reid Falls.  It was still raining pretty heavily as we drove by that pull off so we decided to catch that on our way BACK…

From there, we just kept an eye on the odometer and constantly referred to my printed guide.  There were many pullouts –  everything from waterfalls to rivers to lakes to the William Moore asymmetrical bridge…and multiple historic sites about the Klondike gold rush and trails or Venus Mine.  The views were spectacular and the Murray’s Guide gave us information about what we were seeing.

We crossed into Canada around M15….which means the “Welcome to Alaska” sign was on the opposite side of the road.  I knew we needed to get our photo THEN….and I was right.  When we came back that way, there were buses, shuttles and cars lined up with many people waiting for their chance at a photo with the sign. 

We didn’t actually go through Canadian Customs until M22.  This was a pretty painless stop…they asked us why we were there, and when we told them we were cruise ship passengers, they waved us through…  I guess there’s not much chance of cruise passengers over-staying their welcome.  NOTE:  YOU MUST HAVE PASSPORTS FOR THIS DAY’S DRIVE….TO GET INTO CANADA!!!!  (This is one worth writing down – IN RED…to make sure you remember!! haha) 

This is the Thompson River  (approx M20) and the WP&YR Railroad.  I had hoped to be here when the train crossed, but didn’t know exactly HOW to ‘plan’ for that.  How lucky were we??    🙂  

Many recommend the WP&YR  as a “Must Do” activity in Skagway. It sounds wonderful in all the descriptions…and everyone who does it raves about it.  However, that was not what we chose to do.  In our ‘shopping’ for a way to see the Klondike, we realized that our desire was to be able to stop, see, gaze,  all on our own ‘schedule’.  The only way to do that is with a rental car.  

All the ‘train excursions’ (there are several ways to do it…train round trip…train/bus combination, shuttles or vans, etc…) don’t stop at all…no time for ‘gazing’ or ‘enjoying’.    That…plus the fact that our rental car for the day driving all the way to Emerald Lake was the cost of ONE train ticket to ONLY go to Carcross, was enough for us to know that car rental was the best choice for us.

The road follows the Tutshi River then Tutshi Lake for 10 miles.  The fireweed (that we learned about a couple of days ago from the Naturalist on board) is showing the ending of summer…

Tutshi Lake

Tutshi Lake

 

The “Welcome to the Yukon” sign is at M50.  We took THAT picture on the route TO Carcross as well.  – All the pullouts were much busier in the afternoon so I advise to take any photos you want in the morning!!  

 

Bove Island and Tagish Lake….one of the highlights of the drive… Bove Island & Tagish LakeM59

 

When we arrived at Carcross, we decided to go on past it…to our furthest point, Emerald Lake…and work our way back.  That turned out to be a good decision because not more than 20 min. after we got back to Carcross and parked, the train arrived.  Seeing it steam into town was quite exciting!  🙂 🙂

Carcross Desert - Klondike Hwy

 

Carcross Desert 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emerald Lake  Emerald Lake M 73

 

Carcross:

Carcross is 66 miles from Skagway.  Going on to Emerald Lake made our drive 75 miles (one way) that day.  We really didn’t want to go any further than that as there is a potential for fog….dense enough to limit visibility to 5 ft.  That could make the drive back to Skagway long and dangerous.  We didn’t want to risk that happening….  Also, the ‘word on the street’ is that there’s really nothing past Emerald Lake spectacular enough to warrant the extra time, drive and ‘risk’.

Carcross is a small town on the Klondike Highway.  It has built up to accommodate the tourists coming to town by the droves.  There is a school, Post Office,  General Store, etc…and even a Hotel  and city pool.    The place we HAD to find was the Sourdough Bakery. She was selling her cinnamon rolls for half price by the time we arrived…Thankfully, she accepted USD as that was all we had (This IS Canada…)  

We watched the train come into the station…stepped into a few shops and had a bite of lunch…followed of course, by that delectable  cinnamon roll.  🙂

After that, it was time to head back to Skagway….the Nat’l Park museum, Vis. Center et al would close at 5:30.  🙂

We got some pretty good photos on our drive back…with better light, less fog.  In fact….several of the photos I’ve posted above were actually taken on this drive back to Skagway.

We got back to town about 4 pm and headed straight to the Visitor Center.

Klondike Gold Rush Nat’l Historic Park:

The entire town of Skagway is part of the Nat’l Park system.  In addition to the Visitor Center/museum, etc…there are several houses and historical buildings open for tours.  Unfortunately, they closed at 5:30 and we ran out of time so didn’t get to go in them.   We started at the Visitor Center…then went into the museum next door.   It was very small…but gave a pretty good overview of the gold rush, miners and the Chilkoot Trail.  After watching the film, the Nat’l Park service buildings were closing so we just walked around town a little bit…darted into the Red Onion Saloon for a quick look, then decided to drive over to Dyea and walk a bit of the Chilkoot Trail before re-boarding the ship.

The Chilkoot Trail is the trail the minors took to get to the gold fields – it’s 33 miles long, but we like to walk trails like this…for just a little way to say we’ve ‘done it’.   🙂  Dyea was about 6-7 miles east of Skagway but not long after we turned onto Dyea Road, it turned to gravel.  Gravel roads were forbidden by Avis Car Rental.  We debated what to do, (hmm….)  but finally decided we’d better just turn around.  On the way back we stopped at a scenic pullout – for views of Skagway and the harbor….and of course, our ship.    IMG_6853The Star Princess was at Railroad Dock Forward.  That’s the furthest dock in this photo.

After returning to town and returning the rental car, we got back on the ship.  It had been a wonderful day…but very full and we were exhausted!!!!

We had not planned to eat in the Dining Room that night  as we didn’t ‘plan’ to be back on the ship that early.  But since we’d missed a night there when we stayed out to see whales on Ketchikan day, we decided to make up for it tonight.  🙂

What a GOOD decision this was!!!  Crab legs and Crème Brule were on the menu!!

After dinner, we just relaxed, unpacked our day packs, etc…and turned our sites on tomorrow.  Tomorrow we’d be in Glacier Bay.  We were due to pick up the Nat’l Park Rangers at 6:15…but the Naturalist had told us to be out by 5:30am…It would be ANOTHER very early day as we saw “All Things Alaska”.

Nope….no time for entertainment…or art sales…or MUTS (Movies Under the Stars).  The Finale for the Voice of the Ocean was tonight….we missed that one too….  We were busy every minute with “Alaska”…and if we weren’t ‘busy’, we were exhausted from all the ‘busy-ness’.  It was time for bed!   🙂

 

Budget:

The cruise lines and tour companies offer as many options for going up the Klondike Hwy as there are people to buy them. There are tours that take the train round trip, bus one way and train the other.  Shuttles…vans…either with or without a train trip one way.  They have tours that include gold panning…or lunch….stops at dog sledding, Fraser or Bennett….and on and on.  The options are somewhat overwhelming.

Prices for these range from $45pp for the basics of a trip to M14…. to $229pp for round trip train to Carcross.  However…NONE of them go all the way to Emerald Lake that I could tell.

We rented a car for $125 + fuel for the day…   We were able to go not only PAST Carcross to Emerald Lake and Carcross Desert, but stop as we wished throughout the day…and before returning the car, drive up to that scenic overlook for views of Skagway.

Yeah…I’m a huge cheerleader for the “renting a car” option.  🙂

Advertisements

Alaska Cruise: Juneau AK

This is on Caribbean Princess, but the Terrace pool is basically the same on all Grand Class ships

 

We were up early and out at the Terrace Pool (aft) to see the sunrise again this morning.  At 6 am it was beautiful…by 7:30 the fog had rolled in and you couldn’t see 5 ft off the side of the ship.  Have I said it before??  At this time of year, the fog MAY roll in around 7-7:30am…to see the ‘beautiful stuff’, you have to be up before the fog.

 

 

 

 

Juneau:  Juneau is the capital of Alaska…and one of the things that makes it so unique is that it is ONLY accessible via air…or water.  There is a highway going through Juneau…it goes 37 miles, then ends. There’s an airport…with LOTS of floatplanes…and of course, the Alaska Ferry provides transportation for many…but you can’t drive TO Juneau.

We docked at Franklin St. Dock. (where Princess docks most frequently)  It’s not the ‘closest’ one to town but is still  within walking distance (if not mobility challenged).  We disembarked at 8 and walked to Mt Roberts Tramway…about 6-7 blocks??  We had purchased our Tramway tickets through Princess with our On Board Credit (part of the 3-For-Free from Princess when we booked).

Mt Robert’s Tramway:  The “official word” from many tourists about the tramway is to not go up if it’s cloudy or foggy…however, because the ticket would allow us unlimited trips all day long, we decided to go ahead and purchase it.  Once at the top we were ABOVE the fog…and had a rather nice view.  By arriving there early, we avoided many of the crowds that LINED UP later in the day – and we didn’t have to vie for window space for photos (the windows ‘swing’ open btw…)  There is an extensive trail system at the top and we walked a small bit of it…far enough to got some great views of Juneau and the harbor (with our ship in it) below but then came down off the mountain…we had many things to see and do – No time to waste!

photo taken from the trail – Mt Roberts Tramway

 

This is Juneau (on the left),  the Douglas Island Bridge crossing the Gastineau Channel…and Douglas on the right…  (where Treadwell Mine is)

 

 

 

When we got off the mountain, we transported to AJ Dock and Juneau Rental Cars.  Juneau Rental Cars rents older model, higher mileage cars…for FAR less than the name brand companies in town.  An additional benefit to renting from them was ‘location’.  This summer, the hotel that housed the downtown offices for  ‘another namebrand company’  was closed for remodel.  All reservations defaulted to the airport.  Getting there would involve either a city bus ride (time consuming BOTH ways) or taxi (quite expensive…) That’s when I found Juneau Rental Cars. Once I solved the problem of how to get to them (if there’s a ship at AJ Dock, there will be a shuttle from the Vis. Ctr ) our decision was made. From AJ Dock, it’s a 1 block walk to the office. We had no trouble with our ‘older model, higher mileage’ car.  It got us where we needed to go…and did so at a very good rate.

First Stop:  Mendenhall Glacier – about 12 miles out of town. The Visitor Center had large viewing windows…exhibits and a film.  There are several hikes, but the two we took were Photo Point Trail and Nugget Falls Trail.

img_6659.jpg

 

Photo Point Trail (.3 mi one way) gave us a straight on view of both Falls and Glacier.

 

 

 

Nugget Falls Trail  (1 mi  one way) is a spur off of the Photo Point Trail- and provided an  ‘up close and personal ‘ view of the falls with the glacier behind.  It’s possible to get all the way UP to the water (if you choose???)  We didn’t get quite that close….  🙂

 

On the drive back to town on Egan Hwy, we stopped for lunch.  We passed several local diners, but were a little apprehensive about stopping someplace without knowing anything about it…so we just opted for  McDonalds.   That was fine though…fast food and wi-fi. 🙂

Then, it was on to DIPAC McCauley Salmon Hatchery.  (DIPAC)  A tour had just begun as we arrived and we were instructed to join them in process.  I wish we had waited for the next tour as we missed some good information joining that way…

The guide took us through the life cycle of the salmon from hatching to release, showing us all the tanks and describing how the salmon are cared for at each stage.  There are self-explanatory exhibits along the way as well…and viewing from above the tanks and ladder – or viewing windows to see below the water.  Quite a bit of what we learned today ‘explained’ what we saw yesterday in Ketchikan.   It was a good stop…

Inside the building, there were a few exhibits – and a touch tank.  Though the touch tank was more geared to kids, the guide invited us all over to ‘touch’.  🙂  I found out that the ‘spikes’ on these creatures are actually all for ‘show’….they’re soft even though quite ominous ‘looking’.

 

Next Stop:  Crossing Douglas Island Bridge (10th Street)  to Douglas Island..and the Treadwell Mine.

Treadwell Mine is (was) the largest gold mine of all time – producing $70 million in gold 1883-1917.  Then in 1917 after a particularly high tide, within 3 1/2 hrs, the sides caved in and approx. 3 million tons of seawater filled the mines…all but destroying the operation there.  (a few mines further away stayed open until 1922 but it was never the operation it had been)   There is now a Historical trail – with numbered markers denoting point of interest,  foundations, stamp mills, vaults, and even a few shells of buildings through the area.  Full descriptions of the markers can be found at:  http://www.juneau.org/parkrec/facilities/documents/TreadBroch1.pdf    Not knowing if I’d be able to access info on my phone, I copied/pasted this info into a document then edited it down to a manageable size (it was 11 pages when I started…3 pgs when I finished)…and brought it.  I was SO glad I had done that as there were no brochures/pamphlets to explain anything we were seeing.  NOTE: The one thing I failed to keep in my edited version was the map of the area.  I assumed the path and markers would be self-explanatory. The paths intertwined and the map would have been helpful.

We were basically alone on this peaceful trail….other than locals walking their dogs.  This isn’t a top tourist attraction like Mendenhall….which is part of the reason we enjoyed it so.  🙂

Our original plan for the evening was to go BACK up Mt Robert’s Tramway (the ticket offers unlimited rides that day) to photograph the area in the evening light.  However, we decided we’d rather get back on the ship to see/hear Libby Riddles (first female Iditarod Champion…).  We returned the rental, transported back to the main square…walked the 6 blocks to the ship and got on board.

Libby Riddles Presentation was at 7 pm that evening.   I was a little surprised to see how many were there considering that “All Aboard” wasn’t until 8:45.

She is quite an interesting lady…left home at 16 to come to Alaska…got her GED (she hadn’t yet graduated high school), lived among the natives for 6 yrs, and learned how to breed  and train her own dogs.  She went on to win the Iditarod (first female to do so)  in 1985.  She is a primary presenter for Princess cruises – boards all of their ships in Juneau to meet and talk with passengers about mushing, the dogs, the Iditarod…and to autograph her books.  It’s truly a ‘must see’ on any Princess cruise (imho)

The remainder of our evening was getting a bite to eat…and winding down the day -and preparing for tomorrow.  We went back to our stateroom, unpacked and repacked our day bag for tomorrow, watched sail away and read about sites and wonders tomorrow in Skagway in our Alaska Cruise Companion

Budget:  Princess Excursions to do what we did today:

  • Mendenhall Glacier  – $45 pp.
  • Mendenhall WITH the Hatchery and Glacier Gardens (a botanical garden) was $85pp.
  • There were a few private excursion companies offering shuttles to Mendenhall for $30pp.  The best I can tell, those can change year to year as companies ‘come and go’….  Prices seem to stay pretty consistent.
  • Mt Roberts Tramway tickets were the same price either from the cruise line or at the Tramway gate….   We purchased ours from PCL and used our OBC (On Board Credit) so for us, they were ‘basically free’ …

There are no excursions to Treadwell Mine.

Transportation Costs: (for Do It Yourself tours):

  • Taxi to Mendenhall:  $35 each way
  • Public Transit $2pp each trip:  This past season, Capital Transit (Blue/White Bus)  dropped visitors off 1.5 mi from the Mendenhall Vis. Ctr and you had to walk that distance there and back.  (I have not been able to find that information recently- perhaps because tourist season is over and there’s no info for next year yet ??)  Public Transit goes to Douglas Island and ‘close’ to Treadwell Mine – drops off .5 mi from the Mine/Trail area.

Our rental car FOR THE DAY was $60 + fuel.  We could go anywhere or to as many places as we chose.  (and it was nice to have a place to stash day bag, coats/jackets, etc…and not have to carry them everywhere we went).  Transportation to pick up and drop off the car was free.

 

 

Alaskan Cruise: Ketchikan, AK

Today started very early….out on our balcony watching the ship come into port.

The sail into Ketchikan is something to see…We were scheduled to arrive at 6:30 but the Naturalist told us yesterday it would actually be 5:30.  We were out by 5:29  🙂   The lights of the sleepy little town against the backdrop of the mountains created quite a picturesque scene!!

IMG_6532

After breakfast (at the back of Horizon Court of course)  we gathered our things and got off the ship – as soon as they opened up the gangway!

Ketchikan gets on average 340 day of rain/year. Our forecast today according to the Princess Patters was sunny with light clouds, high of 66.  Yes…we were there on one of the 25 ‘dry days’.  🙂

Ketchikan has TWO Claims to Fame:  Salmon Capital of the World…and  World’s Largest Collection of Totem Poles.  There’s also the Tongass Trading Company with it’s FABULOUS jackets, raincoats, & hoodies at incredible prices…if there’s time…

Our plans today would encompass BOTH of Ketchikan’s highlights.  We would take the city bus to Totem Bight State Park to see the totem poles, then come back to town to walk Creek Street and see the salmon.  (hopefully leaving just enough time for a quick run into Tongass Trading Co…)

Finding the ‘right’ place to catch the ‘right’ bus to go north of town proved to be somewhat challenging…but with a few questions (and a few wrong answers… haha) we finally found it.   When the bus driver let us off, he told us when to be back to catch the returning bus (buses only run every hour so catching that returning bus would be QUITE IMPORTANT!!!)

There were 3 options for seeing totem poles that day;  we chose Totem Bight because of their authentic restored poles…and their scenic location on the waterfront. At the entrance, we received a brochure with a map and descriptions/story behind each pole.  Then…there’s the Clan House – Now…everything I’d read previously said that only those on official tours were allowed into the Clan House.IMG_6555 However, the woman at the gate told us that if there was a tour inside there, to just go in.  If anyone said anything to us, to reply “The lady at the gate said it was ok if we enter…”  When we got to the Clan House, there was a IMG_6560tour group there.  We went in quietly and no one said anything to us.

I liked being on our own, though.  We went at our own pace, read the brochure for information, and only joined a group when we wanted to. (Within half an hour there were 5-6 tour groups there)  It DID seem that  a lot of the guides were telling little stories or antidotes…which was usually when we’d leave the group.  🙂

 

We kept an eye on the time and were  back at the bus stop 10 min. before the bus was due to arrive  (we couldn’t take any chances on missing the bus).

 

 

Back in Ketchikan, the driver dropped us off near Creek Street and we headed to  “Married Man’s Trail”…

Creek Street is on the National Register of Historic Places….and it is teeming with salmon from late summer through Sept. (different varieties).  We not only saw the salmon…but had a ‘chance’ of seeing other wildlife that might come to see the salmon as well – bears, eagles, etc…  We walked up the stairstep trail –  “Married Man’s Trail” all the way to the top – where the salmon ladder was.  This trail was a back-path through the trees…used by married men in the days of the Gold Rush to  visit “ladies of the evening”…Yeah, the history of the gold rush towns could be a little ‘sorted’.  Walking the trail now is just a picturesque way to see the town and salmon… (In case you don’t really want to share all the ‘other’ details about the trail with the children…hehe!)

IMG_6565

 

 

This DID involve a lot of stairs (fyi for those with mobility issues) …

But we saw the salmon…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and the ladder…

Salmon Ladder – Ketchikan AK

 

 

 

 

 

unfortunately, no bears or eagles….

 

 

At the final portion…quite steep and swift,  we actually found ourselves watching their struggle and ‘rooting’ for them…cheering them on.  🙂 🙂  They’re such determined and resilient little guys!!!

Before getting back on the ship, we made a quick stop at one of the Tongass Trading Company  stores. There are actually FIVE of these – each a little different catering to different shoppers/preferences.  Even though I THOUGHT we’d get jackets or raincoats, we ended up both opting for ‘Alaska’ hoodies….thick, good quality…for $20 each!!

Boarding the ship today was a longer line than I’ve ever experienced in port before.

Now…this WAS a very short port day (6:30-2)…so everyone (3000+) were trying to get back on the ship at basically the same time.   The process took 45min-1hr.

Once we were finally back on board, we grabbed a bite to eat and headed to the 3rd naturalist presentation:  “Experiencing Alaska’s Awe Inspiring Flora”.  This was one title we were a little unsure of…so we sat on the end of a row in case we wanted to make a quiet exit.

CC license – as they were not this fully in bloom in late Aug…  🙂

Well…wouldn’t you know it.  It was just as interesting as the last 2.  🙂  We stayed the entire time!

 

Of particular interest to us was the information about the Fireweed.  This flower begins to bloom in the Spring ..and blooms from the bottom up.  At the height of summer, the blooms have reached the top.  Then…as summer wanes, the blooms begin to die from the top down. When all the blooms are gone, Summer is over…  You can ‘read’ the season in the Fireweed.


 

 

After this information, we were much more attuned to the Fireweed – especially as we drove the Klondike Highway from Skagway in a few days.

CC license

The OTHER news we got from the Naturalist this afternoon was:  We were sailing through prime humpback whale territory – starting at 5:30 today.  She would be on the bridge offering commentary….and we were invited to be out on Deck 15 forward (directly below the Bridge) to (hopefully) see whales.

We had originally planned to eat in the MDR that evening…but those plans were immediately changed. We were going to see WHALES!!!

Here’s the Most Amazing Part!  While we were out there…we heard a lady squeal…and  turned around just in time to see a whale breech!!  YES!!!  REALLY!!!  Sandra Schempp (our Naturalist) said that was really unusual for this time of year.  The whales were still feeding and they usually practice their ‘breeching’ AFTER that (when they’re full and ready to start the ‘flirting’ process…. 🙂    Of course, it all happened too quick to get a photo…I don’t know that anyone got one…but I promise!!  It happened!!!!  🙂

TidBit of Info:  A whale’s tail is how he is identified.  Each one is different and unique…much like our fingerprints…

We stayed out on the deck until probably 7:30…then got a bit of dinner in the buffet and went back to the cabin to prepare for tomorrow.  It would be a LONG port day and we wanted to get off the ship as soon as we could.

There WERE many activities happening on the ship this evening.  I’m sure there were many passengers who were enjoying those things…Princess wouldn’t continue to plan them if someone wasn’t attending…but we were kept SO busy learning about Alaska…and seeing Alaska…and spotting whales (and seeing them breech) in Alaska.  We just didn’t have time for anything else.

 

Budget (and Savings) Today:  Ketchikan CAN be a rather inexpensive place to visit as it lends itself very easily to exploration on your own…

Cruise ship Excursions vs. Doing It On Your Own:

  • Totem Bight:  Princess charges $47 pp for their excursion;  We got there and back on the city bus for a total of $4 pp…plus the $5pp admission to the park.
  • Princess offered Whale Watching excursions out of Juneau for $160-$190 per person…  We saw whales…even one BREECHING out on Deck 15 forward of the ship this evening…for FREE
  • Princess included Creek Street in several of their excursions, but there’s no way to put a price on that portion as it was ‘included’ with other things… But this is just a stair step path….there’s no charge for walking it.   Just find it and start climbing.  🙂

Next:  Alaska Cruise:  Juneau

Alaska Cruise: Our 1st Sea Day -and Sea Days in Alaska with PrincessCruises

We chose Princess BECAUSE of the Alaska related programs they  offer….  and the main time frame for most of those programs/activities is………

SEA DAYS!!!

There is a naturalist on board all Alaskan sailings…and coupled with the book Alaska Cruise Companion, written by a former Princess Naturalist, Rachel Cartwright, makes for a VERY informative cruise experience.

Alaska Cruise Companion is available from Amazon, but we chose to purchase ours on board.  While it WOULD have been nice to have had it while planning, one of the great gems of the book is the removable map in the back.  I didn’t want to risk getting a used copy that was missing that map…  We also had On Board Credit to pay for it…which was nice…

I brought magnets for posting my map, etc… on the stateroom wall…and here’s what my ‘display’ looked like.  (Did you know walls in cruise cabins are metal?)   On the left is our schedule for the entire trip – flights, port times, rental car & shuttle reservation times,  evening meal plans  (helpful when planning what clothes to bring) ~All things Schedule Related

The clip below that was for tickets, on board event invitations, etc…  On the right side, I clipped a card with medical information in case of emergencies. (easy access)   The clear plastic bag came from the dentist (haha) and contained pens, pencil & sharpener, highlighters, my giant paper clip, etc….  Below that is a little find I made at the Dollar Tree.  It’s a magnetic box.  I brought my magnets, magnetic clips, paperclips etc… in that.  It was easily accessible there on the wall.  I LOVED this display…    I mean seriously…I took a picture of it!!!  haha!  

One More Thing:

They DO have entertainment on Alaskan cruises (actually ALL cruises)detailed in Princess Patters.  20171003_120436.jpgThey DO have trivia and game shows.  They have seminars on acupuncture…or reducing wrinkles…or flattening your stomach or shopping in port.  They even have golf challenges, table tennis tournaments, been bag toss challenges.  As far as the ‘regular cruise ship sea day activites’, this Alaskan cruise had them all.

BUT….

BUT…..

There’s SO much to see and do and learn about Alaska, that we just didn’t have time for those sorts of things.  So as you read about what we did, you won’t find any of those things listed.  I just don’t want anyone to think it’s because we didn’t have those choices.  It’s because we didn’t MAKE those choices.

We stayed busy….EVERY MINUTE…..but our busy-ness centered around “All Things Alaska”: Naturalist presentations, wildlife sessions out on deck with the naturalist, photo seminars to learn the complexities of glacier photography, Iditarod champions and Nat’l Park Ranger talks.

Our First Sea Day:

Sunrise on the Inside Passage

Our first morning started VERY early as we entered the Inside Passage…I was awake by 4:30 or 5 am.  We were out on the back deck by 5:30am…and caught  this beautiful sunrise.

I DID notice an interesting phenomenon about the sunrises though.  We were up at the back of the ship every morning by 5:30-6 am and saw not only THIS sunrise but others just as spectacular. However…by 7:30 each morning, the fog had rolled in…and totally engulfed the ship.  At that point, we couldn’t see more than 5 ft. off the side.  Usually, that was about the time many others were just stirring.  I couldn’t help but wonder…did my fellow cruisers think that Alaska was just ‘foggy’?  If they didn’t see anything until post-7:30…all they saw was fog in the mornings!

Before I leave the subject of “sunrises”, it must be noted that the reason we were able to see sunrises at 6 am was because we were cruising in late Aug.  In July, that sunrise may happen as early as 4 am…  Further north, the sun may never actually ‘set’…so therefore, can’t officially ‘rise’.  Some of what we experienced in sunrises/sunsets was totally because of the time of year.

After breakfast, it was time for the first of five Naturalist Lectures by the Naturalist on board.  (Princess cruises have a naturalist on board all of their Alaskan sailings)  This lecture was titled “Discovering the Inhabitants of Alaska’s Coastal Waters”.    In this first lecture, she talked about the wildlife we could expect to see in the waters of the Inside Passage – whales, sea lions, porpoises, and of course, the sea otter.  When this lecture ended, my husband and I looked at each other and said (almost simultaneously….) “We shouldn’t miss another lecture this woman gives!!”  There was SO MUCH information packed into those 45 min…in such an interesting way – with slides and illustrations…We were hooked!!!

After the presentation, she was outside the Theater to answer questions and explain the many displays she had out there…one of which was the same map we had…only with HER extra markings based on recent siting’s.  This woman truly went ‘above and beyond’ in our opinion!!

We DID spend a little time out there with her…but not long – because at 10:15 was ‘Coffee with the Captain’.  Now…this is not something I would normally EVER consider doing.  On most cruises we’ve been on, we never even learned the Captain’s name…much less considered devoting any of our time to meeting him.  But this cruise was different. The captain on our ship is well known throughout the Princess family…among frequent Princess cruisers.  He is dearly loved by all…and we were actually LOOKING FORWARD to meeting him.  Strange…I KNOW!!  🙂  We got down to the Piazza in time to get a fairly decent seat for this wildly popular event.  (I TOLD you this was a dearly loved Captain in the Princess fleet!!!)

The format for this session was an interview by the Cruise Director…  They discussed his career, his years with Princess, the ‘steps’ to becoming a Cruise ship Captain, how things run on the bridge – who does what, etc…   At the end was a time for Q&A…..it was a VERY enjoyable 45 min.   (Our photos of this didn’t turn out or I’d share them here….Ugh!)

Afterwards, we lined up for photos (taken by the ship…so I CANT share here…)  with him…and to get an autograph.  Of course, because I carried my copy of  Alaska Cruise Companion everywhere I went on ship, he autographed THAT for me!!   🙂 🙂

We probably would never do ‘Coffee with the Captain’ again on any other ship…but on THIS cruise…with THIS Captain, we did..and I’m so glad!!

After all of that excitement, it was time for lunch…

Pub Lunch:  Princess offers a rather unique experience on some Sea Days.  They open up the Crown Grill (a specialty restaurant) for a complementary Pub Lunch.  (We don’t choose to eat in the specialty restaurants on a cruise…With so many ‘included’ dining venues, we just don’t feel the need to spend extra to eat somewhere else)  We’ve known about this Pub Lunch for some time, but have never been able to fit it into our schedule.  Today we did.

The menu is very limited…only 5 entrees.  Today, we ordered 3 of them (on the encouragement of our waiter)  two that we knew we’d like…then a 3rd – Bangers and Mash just to ‘try’.  It wasn’t bad…My husband actually ended up ‘trading in’ his meal for that and eating it all.  🙂  But…the ‘winner’ on this lunch was the bread pudding!!  DIVINE!!!!

Our first activity of the afternoon was a Walk Around Photo Seminar dealing with ‘light’ and the challenges involved in photographing the WHITE glaciers…and the blue ice we would find in College Fjord.  My husband has recently taken an interest in photography so while I found a comfy spot to spend some quality time with my Alaska book, he went to this Walk Around.  He came back very excited about what he had learned…but we only had a few minutes to talk – as it was almost time for the next Naturalist Presentation

“Enjoying the Wonders of the Alaskan Wildlife” was the topic of this lecture – at 3:15 in the Theater.  This, too, did not disappoint.  In this session, she concentrated on wildlife on land – bears, moose, eagles…and of course, the ever elusive puffin.  By this time, I knew to take pen and paper to these presentations.  She gave times to be out on deck or in your balcony to see certain wildlife…hints and tips for viewing/finding in addition to the map I had on my stateroom wall.  Her slides of these animals were QUITE amazing as well.  We could hardly wait to get out of there to begin looking….

Tonight was the first of two formal nights on this cruise….and we found a way to not only be out on the balcony scouting out some of the wildlife the Naturalist told us to look for, but also get dressed for formal night…and formal night photos…

The photos began at 5:30 on Decks 5, 6 & 7…   Princess does a VERY GOOD job with their photo backgrounds – classy and not cheezy.  🙂 🙂    The Amethyst Trio (violins and piano) accompanied us as we walked around posing for our photos – created a very pleasant atmosphere.

After sitting for quite a few photos, we headed to the dining room.  Tonight, our orders were the Shrimp Danielle and Cornish Hen.  Being formal night, they had the bananas foster and one of MY FAVORITES, the gourmandises!!!

There were a lot of activities going on around the ship that night…and had it not been for our very early morning this morning…and our very early morningIMG_6517 tomorrow (and a short port time necessitating a quick exit off the ship)    we might have checked out some of those things.  But there really wasn’t time for that. (and I REALLY needed to get those heels OFF ha!! ) We just went back to our stateroom and watched an INCREDIBLE sunset from our balcony…then set the alarm for 5am (to catch another sunrise) and went to bed.

Next: Alaska Cruise: Ketchikan

IMG_6520

Alaska Cruise on Star Princess

I’ve never written a ‘trip diary’ on my blog before…but with our recent Alaskan Adventure, I’ve decided to try that.

I won’t forget my ‘roots’ in Budget in Travel Planning though.  I’m still ALL about budgeting…that didn’t change with this cruise/trip.  I’ll throw in bits and pieces of my discoveries about budget here in the diary…then write a FULL set of posts concentrating on the aspects of planning and budgeting later….because there ARE ways to save money (and I have a few planning tips to throw in along the way as well) for cruising or vacationing in Alaska.

Stay tuned…

 

Alaska Or Bust!

We booked the Voyage of the Glaciers-NB on the Star Princess. (Princess Cruise Line)  We booked it about 11 months in advance so had a good selection of cabins.  Our choice was an interior cabin because Alaskan cruises can be a little pricey.  HOWEVER…..about 2 months before our cruise, we got that exciting little email…the UPSELL offer.  That’s where the cruise line offers their more expensive cabin categories to those who have already booked the cruise… (the ‘up’sell) to open up their lower priced inventory in hopes of attracting NEW bookings from NEW customers.  It worked.. both for them…and for us.  We got a Balcony cabin for just a few hundred dollars more…and our price was still $600 LESS than balconies booked from the website that day.

So….we had a balcony cabin for Alaska!!!   AT a discount!!

Now to my Diary  🙂

First Day:

Our flight left at 7 am – went through DFW and arrived in Vancouver BC around noon – this was, of course, after a 4 1/2 hr flight from DFW,  so our ‘body clocks’ felt like it was later than that.

We found Vancouver to be a very tourist friendly city.  They HAVE to be as they get an influx of THOUSANDS of cruise passengers on a daily basis…not to mention the ‘non’ cruise passengers…..  🙂  Their customs process at the airport runs very smoothly…as long as there are only 1 or 2 ships in port (Three-ship days are a LOT more chaotic….)  Ours was a 2-ship day.  Customs at the airport is in a HUGE area – rows of self-serve kiosks – and room to accomodate HUNDREDS at a time!!  We were run through there a little like cattle, but there were many people to direct us where to go, what to do next, etc…  The process ran a little like ‘organized’ chaos….   I don’t mean that to be a negative comment at all.  It ran smoothly (‘organized’)  to be so crowded, busy, noisy….with so many intersecting lines of tourists (the ‘chaos’ part).  Yep…”organized chaos”!  haha!!

Our hotel for the evening, Accent Inn, had an airport shuttle…and across the street from the ‘loading and unloading’ zone and taxis was an area set up for calling and waiting for those shuttle pick ups…..under the green awning.  There was a courtesy phone  programmed with hotel numbers and codes so we didn’t have to bring/look up hotel numbers (Nice!!).  We made our call and our shuttle arrived within 10 min.

We were on our way!!

Accent Inn – Richmond BC

Accent Inn was an older property but very well maintained…fresh paint, remodeled kitchen and bathroom (did I mention that each room had a full kitchen?)  I had booked it about 8-9 months before.  In checking the prices a month before we arrived, I found prices had risen 30%. Booking early saved us about $50USD that night.

 

First Bit of Budget Advice:  Book hotels and rental cars early.  I found that very few prices went down…most went UP the closer we got to our travel date…

In addition to that airport shuttle, our hotel also provided shuttle service to Bridgeport Station (SkyTrain).  That opened up many possibilities for sightseeing without having to get a taxi (which would run about $35 CAD from our hotel to downtown)  as well as answered the question of  How do we get to the Pier for our cruise?  Richmond is quite a distance from downtown and the sightseeing that many people want to do. With free transport to a SkyTrain station, we could go anywhere we wanted to go…just for the price of SkyTrain fare.  SkyTrain offers a single fare ticket (best choice for us on this trip) OR a DayPass (would be great for spending several days in town)

What Can You Do with 24 Hrs. in Vancouver?

We didn’t have time (or the energy)  to do nearly all we would have liked to do… But here’s just a few things to get someone started with their own research.  So much depends on what a person LIKES to do so just take this list as a springboard to find what YOU want to do with your time in Vancouver.

  • Stanley Park :  1000 acres – In Stanley park there’s an Aquarium, totem poles, horse drawn carriages hiking trails, scenic views of the inlet, beaches, gardens, a train…and more
  • Seawall Walk:  This is a paved trail between Stanley Park and Canada Place (the pier) with wonderful views of the inlet, marina, et al .
  • Granville Island:  Farmers Market/Public market; shopping
  • False Creek Ferry:  transport between Granville Island, Yaletown, Science World and the Maritime Museum to name just a few….
  • Capilano Suspension Bridge capbridge.com

    Gastown Steam Clock
    Vancouver BC

  • Vancouver Lookout Tower at Harbour Center
  • Gastown Steam Clock:  goes off every 15 min.
  • Neighborhoods/shopping districts to explore – Gastown, Robson Street, Chinatown
  • Olympic Cauldron from the  2010 Olympics  (kind of interesting for those of us old enough to have watched the 2010 Olympics  )
  • There are several tours, trolleys, buses etc…that will whisk visitors off to many sites around the city.  The one I considered (though we didn’t do) was the HoHoTrolley (Hop On Hop Off Trolley)  If we return for another cruise someday, this will probably be on ‘our list’.

 

Embarkation Day is Finally Here!!!

The next morning, after a 5 am breakfast at the IHop next door, (our bodies hadn’t totally adjusted to Vancouver time yet…) we caught the hotel shuttle to Bridgeport station, took SkyTrain to Waterfront Station, then walked the few blocks to the pier.  We dropped off our luggage at the terminal and went back out into Vancouver.  We weren’t sailing until 4:30…I wanted to be heading to the terminal by 1:00 or so…which gave us several hours to sightsee in Vancouver.

Our sightseeing choices for this morning were the Vancouver Lookout Tower, Gastown and the Gastown Steam clock, the Waterfront station area, and possibly the Olympic Cauldron before boarding the Star Princess.

When we came out of the terminal after dropping off luggage, we headed in the direction of the Vancouver Lookout Tower.  En route, we met up with one of the many Tourist guides in town…standing on the street corners, identified by their shirts and hats and ready to assist tourists as needed.  This gentleman told us that if we went back to the Visitor Center, we could buy our Lookout Tower ticket for $4 less.  It was only about 2 blocks so we decided to do that.  In actuality, the discount was $5 pp CAD which translates into about $6 USD…  x 2 – Totally worth the 2 block walk.  While down in that area, we were very close to the Olympic Cauldron.

img_6352.jpg

Olympic Cauldron 2010 Olympics

This was just on our “might if we have time” list, but since we were right there, we walked over.

Lookout Tower
Vancouver BC

 

 

 

 

 

After that, we headed to the Lookout Tower.

The view atop this Tower was quite impressive.  Not only did we get some great views of the city, the inlet, Stanley Park and Lion’s Gate Bridge but some GREAT photos of our ship, Star Princess waiting for us at Canada Place!!!  🙂

Now the date was Aug. 26….and as luck would have it, Vancouver was unseasonably HOT that day…temps near 90.  The Lookout Tower either didn’t have a/c…or it wasn’t able to handle the load of the temps because it got VERY uncomfotable up there very quickly.  I would have liked to have spent a little longer, but we reached the point where the heat was a little much…so we went back down.  If I’m ever back in Vancouver I would like to go up the Tower again and spend more leisurely time there.

Our next stop took us to Gastown – and the Gastown Steam clock.  It was 11:50 am when we arrived, so a crowd was already beginning to gather.  The crowd grew VERY FAST over the next 10 minutes and at noon, the clock went off for a rather LARGE group.  This video is from 2016 – and not mine…  but the clock (and the tune) are the same….  🙂

Credit:  Ken Lane: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVKyiOGmHZHXI6EvQLzbY1A/featured

After this ‘performance’, it was time to head back toward Canada Place.  We wanted to get something to drink, possibly spend a little bit of time at Waterfront Center and walking around/through Canada place before we boarded the ship.

Boarding the Star Princess went very smoothly.  Our luggage was already taken care of…quite possibly already aboard by now.  We just had to go through Princess check in, Customs, all the necessary photo stops and ID photo stops and we’d be on board.

That whole process only took a little over an hour!!!  We were ON THE SHIP!!!

Princess always has cabins ready when you board (not the case with all cruise lines) so we were able to drop off our carry on bags which we had been carrying around Vancouver all morning.  We walked around the ship a bit, grabbed a bite to eat, got Muster Drill over with….then finally staked out our vantage point for Sail Away.  Within a few minutes of Sail Away we’d be going under Lions Gate Bridge, and we wanted to be as high up on the ship as possible. That was Deck 15 Forward…and that’s where we headed.

 

 

Our Last Look at Vancouver

Sail Away was indeed marvelous.  The Star Princess BACKED out of the pier at Canada Place.  We waved good-bye to all those who had come to see us off (more than I expected, actually) and set our sites forward… Lion’s Gate Bridge!!

HAL’s Niuew Amsterdam left the pier first. We followed them under the bridge and for the rest of the evening

 

going under Lion’s Gate Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And….there’s a guy who films ships leaving Vancouver ….and posts them on YouTube…This is our ship…our sailing….leaving Vancouver.  I’m on Deck 15…above the Bridge…but you can’t really see me  🙂 🙂


20171003_120436.jpg

After Sail away, it was time to see what the Princess Patters had to say (Patters is the Daily Schedule that Princess gives each passenger outlining all that is going on on the ship.)

 

The first thing we KNEW we wanted to do was purchase our copy of Alaska Cruise Companionwp-1506452154430.jpgThis was written by a former Princess Cruises Naturalist, Rachel Cartwright,  who sailed Alaska 1998-2005 on PCL ships.  Her book has become the guidebook for all PCL cruises to Alaska.  The Patters refers to it every day.  The Captain refers to it in his PA announcements. The naturalist refers to it in her presentations…and any passenger who wants to learn…and see as much as possible on their Alaskan Cruise refers to it often during the cruise.  Yes…we fell among that number.  🙂 An Added Bonus in the Book was the pullout fold out map of our route – with labels of where to see certain wildlife – whales, sea lions, bears, moose, etc…  I put it on the wall with magnets – and we referred to it OFTEN throughout our cruise.

After spending about an hour out on Deck 15 watching Vancouver Island go by…it was time to dress for dinner.  We had chosen Anytime Dining for this cruise (Meaning, we could go anytime during the regular dining room hours)  This worked best for this Alaskan cruise as we had several late port days or evening scenic cruising…and a lot of shipboard activities (Naturalist lectures or Alaskan programs).  We didn’t want to be tied down to a specific dining room schedule.

Dining in the Main Dining rooms is always a wonderful experience.  Menus on Princess have more of a European influence to them… We enjoy this ‘change’ from our regular cuisine 🙂  I’ve only had one item in my cruises with Princess that I actually sent back…and that was due to personal preference…not because the food was ‘bad’.   Tonight, we ordered the Hazelnut Crusted Salmon with Maple Syrup Glaze and the Prime Rib… with of course, the shrimp cocktail  and a salad as appetizers. (I don’t know that I’ve EVER had a Dining Room meal on any cruise when I DIDN’T order the shrimp….)

Our Favorite Viewing Area…and the ‘Secret Door’:

Our Favorite place to view sunrises…and have solitude in the early mornings was Deck 12 Aft.  There’s actually a door (affectionately referred to by many as the ‘secret door’) at the back of Deck 12 Port Side….  it goes out to the Terrace Pool on Deck 12.  This is just one deck below the Horizon Court buffet…so used this door for our sunrise viewing every morning…and could grab a cup of coffee while never being far away from the next changing light over the water…  🙂

 

 

The Budget:  These 2 days were fairly budget minded  (as long as you don’t count the over-all cost of the cruise…haha)  but with that, I HAVE to mention our balcony upsell at a $600 savings….    Then…We booked early and got a good price on the hotel, utilized discounts in Vancouver…or saw things that were totally free.  We transported downtown via the hotel shuttle to Bridgeport and the SkyTrain rather than a $35 taxi…and we had On Board Credit (a credit put on our account by Princess when we booked our cruise)  to purchase our Alaska Cruise Companion book…    The budget was looking good!  🙂

Next: Our First SeaDay

Galveston, Texas

We’ve been ‘through’ Galveston several times to embark on cruises, but our stays were only 1 night pre-cruise. Every time, we would say “We need to plan a STAY here….”

Now, South Texas Gulf Coast in the heat of the summer is only enjoyable if you’re in the water, (imho) however, early Fall can be quite pleasant. That’s when we made our visit.  🙂

Accommodations:  Travel in Sept enabled us to avoid the congestion of ‘vacation season’ and find some good rates. A kitchen was a necessity (I need to cook the majority of our meals).  Galveston has a few hotels with kitchenettes but they were pricey.  On my  favorite condo site(s) – VRBO and Home Away I found a HUGE inventory from which to choose.

Our Condo complex – right across the street from the beach

There are no truly ‘beachfront’ condos or hotels in Galveston (the actual town) as Seawall Blvd runs along the beach.  Hotels, et al are across the street from the beach.  That’s really not a problem…just be aware.  Now, there are REAL beachfront homes (no condos/hotels)  further down the island outside of town.  On our trip, we preferred to stay in town.

We ended up in a unit that was ‘self-clean’ (No cleaning fee if WE clean kitchen & bathroom and sweep/mop/vacuum before checking out.  That’s it! )  If our cleaning met with their approval, there were no charges.  If it did not, we would be charged the $75 cleaning fee. I’m pretty picky about cleaning so this was not a problem.  (ok…I’m pretty sure it was cleaner when we left than when we arrived) Because the unit was very small, this took my husband and I about 30 min. Not only did I save about $200 on the rent (Many units in Galveston rent for MUCH MORE) but I saved the $75 cleaning fee.  The way I look at it, we got ‘paid’ $275 for 30 min. of work.  – not bad wages at all!!!

 

Beaches abound on Galveston Island and I’ll get to those in a minute.    First thing I suggest is a brief stop at the Galveston Visitor Center:  Here you’ll find not only information about what’s in the area, but also coupons for several attractions in town.  (and a few restaurants)

Parking:  Parking is always an issue on ‘islands’……and in Galveston, it’s NOT Cheap!!  The ONLY place you’ll find free parking is at the Visitor Center….and a TWO block section downtown with 2 hr parking. Those spots will be virtually impossible to get….  The remaining parking spots are part of the “Pay by Phone” system via an app  (PayByPhone.com  a secure site so I can’t link to it….)  Create an account, then input location from signs on each block and how much time you wish to ‘purchase’.  The app allows you to add time remotely, get online receipts and sends a text reminder when your time is almost expired.

Cash Parking Locations –  VERY limited

  • Downtown by The Strand, though these are a bit pricey,
  • In front of the Ocean Star Drilling museum – $1/half hour with a maximum of $5.

 

Bolivar Ferry:  This FREE ferry runs to Port Bolivar from the East end of the island every 20 minutes.  Because it’s an excellent place to see dolphins, many tourists just walk on and take the ferry over and back. We, however, took our car and spent the day in Port Bolivar.  The ferry was a pleasant experience  (air conditioned, restrooms, etc….).  Going in the off-season was great, though some report  wait times of up to 90 min. in the busy summer tourist season. If there in July, I suggest an EARLY start to the day.  🙂 Our wait (Sept) was about 20 min to board at the Galveston terminal…and no wait at all for the return trip.  It seems to be handled very well.

Bolivar Peninsula: Once over to Bolivar, we went to Ft Travis State Historic Park. I found the beach here nicer than what was available in Galveston – Not only was there no ‘fees’….but there are picnic areas with grills. We had just brought sandwiches for lunch, but I could envision a very nice beach day…with grilled hotdogs, sand, ocean….  It was almost deserted in Sept, but probably a pretty busy place in the summer.

While on the island, we found a shaved ice stand that had sugar-free syrups…and not just a limited number of flavors….   This lady offered to mix any flavor on her menu with Splenda.  We had to wait, but it was SO worth it to be able to choose from the FULL menu!!!  That NEVER happens!!!  🙂  She earned a ‘shout out’ from me.  🙂   J-Bird’s Shaved Ice.

169

Sunset over the SeaWall – Galveston, TX

Now…..to the

Beaches:  Since Galveston Island is an ‘island’, it’s surrounded by beaches…  🙂  (on the Gulf side….inlet side is industry…) Most of the public beaches have a user fee and/or parking charge.  Even at the State Park south of town,  entrance is free….after you pay to park. 🙂  However, driving out of Galveston, you will find signs marking “Beach Access”.  These are roads behind vacation homes where the public can access the beach for free. (yes, it’s public access unless otherwise posted)   Now, there are no facilities, no running water (other than ocean 🙂 ) or restrooms in these areas.  It’s just sand, ocean and flying insects (LOTS of those so bring repellant),  but it IS possible to get to the water without paying. You just ‘lose’ facilities.  Those areas would be crowded during tourist season (inhabitants from beach homes, et al) but in Sept. the homes were mostly empty as were the beaches in front of them…  We had a few hours on a secluded beach…well….except for the insects….  It was a nice afternoon.


OK….I know that most people don’t consider antebellum homes or museums when visiting Galveston Island, but…….  There is some INCREDIBLE history associated with the area.  For instance, did you know that Galveston was the “Wall Street of the U.S.” in the late 1800’s?  Did you know that some of the wealthiest families of that time lived here?  Did you know that after the hurricane of 1900 (which is to this day the deadliest disaster event in US history) they not only rebuilt the city…but RAISED it 17 feet (!!!!) and built the sea wall still there today.  This was an INCREDIBLE engineering feat for the early 1900’s.  Spending at least a portion of your time in the area exploring these homes…this history…is worth consideration.

078.jpgBishop’s Palace:  This is the home of Colonel Walter Gresham and is listed by the American Institute of Architects as one of the 100 most important buildings in America.  I have to say, I’ve been to a lot of homes – antebellum homes in Virginia and the Carolinas, The Biltmore (NC), Plantations in Mississippi and Alabama, etc…but this may possibly be the most beautiful home I’ve ever toured.  Admission is pricey, but the architecture and woodwork as well as the history made it WORTH the cost to us.   Coupon for $1 pp off admission (from the Visitor Center)  helps a little with the cost.

 

 

Museums:

  • 125.jpgRosenburg Musuem   This is a small and free museum on the 4th floor of the Rosenburg City Library.  It’s size makes it easily visited in 1-2 hrs. and actually  ‘manageable’ for children. It covers the history of the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the rebuilding of the city and SeaWall.  The Rosenburg Library is right across the street from the Visitor center so you can park there for free. (if you get there early enough to find a space)  We DID ask permission before leaving our car – just fyi. 

 

  • Ocean Star:  When oil prices plummeted and off-shore drilling became UNprofitable, Exxon-Mobile brought one of their rigs to shore to turn it into a museum.  This was such a treat as this is something we would NEVER normally be able to see.  We spent 2-3 hrs here and only left because we had tickets at Pier 21 and HAD to leave.

 

I could have stayed longer.  The website: Ocean Star Off-Shore Drilling Museum has a virtual tour for more information.

 

 

  • Pier 21 Films:  This theatre shows 3 different films about the area – It’s located about a block from Ocean Star Museum.  We chose “The Great Storm”  about the 1900 Hurricane – using a $1 coupon we picked up from one of the many brochure racks located around town.   They also validate parking for 2 hrs – allowing for time at the museum if you plan it just right.

 

There’s so much to do in the Galveston area – in ADDITION to “Fun in the Sun” – not to mention that Houston with all it has to offer (NASA Spaceport is in Webster….Great place!!) is just a little over an hour away…

Enjoy the beach and water in this Gulf Coast area…but don’t think that’s all there is.  🙂

 

Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam is a structural masterpiece…an engineering wonder…especially considering the fact that it was built in the 1930’s. (1931-1935 to be exact)   It’s a National Historical Landmark, a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, and one of America’s Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders.  Need another reason to visit?  It’s just really interesting.  🙂

The Dam is located 34 miles east of Las Vegas. Though we are not the ‘Vegas kind of people’, we planned a visit there (flights and accommodations are quite inexpensive)  just to see some of the things in the area – Hoover Dam,  Death Valley Nat’l Park and the canyons of southwest Utah.  The WEST rim of the Grand Canyon is also within a few hours’ drive, though we didn’t have time to venture that far on this trip.

SOMETHING TO NOTE:  Hoover Dam is NOT a part of the National Park system.  It is managed by the Dept. of the Interior – Bureau of Reclamation. That means that it will not be as economical as the Nat’l Parks are to visit, however, you have a lot of choices on HOW you visit which will determine the final cost.  “Seeing” the Dam is free;  touring will cost.

VISITING HOOVER DAM:

First Point:  EXPECT temperatures in Black Canyon (Hoover Dam) to be 10-15 degrees higher than they are in Las Vegas or the Lake Mead area.  Bring Water!!! 

Because Hoover Dam is a potential military target, there are security checkpoints.  The first checkpoint is on the highway leading to the Dam. They may or may not stop you to inspect INSIDE your car. Then, when entering the Visitor Center/Tour area, there is airport type security.  Bags are x-rayed and are subject to size restrictions. (listed online)  Lines for this can be long later in the day.  Arrive early!  🙂

A visit to Hoover Dam can be done several ways – at a variety of costs.  – The most economical way is to park in the free parking  on the Arizona side.  Walking across the bridge is a ‘significant’ walk, but certainly manageable for those in good health. There are outdoor exhibits on the Nevada side as well as an AIR CONDITIONED gift shop & café. 🙂  A drive further up the Arizona side of the Dam gives some great views/photo ops of the back side of the Dam.  Then, views of the front of the Dam are best from the O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge and pedestrian walkway on the Nevada side of the Dam.   These walks will give you a thorough view of the Dam (both front and back).  This plan involves a lot of walking, but for the able-bodied, it’s a fine way to see the Dam exterior and it’s all FREE.

For a more  ‘in-depth’ visit and more information, (and some cost)  there are tours available.

TICKET OPTIONS:  (prices current in 2015)

  • Visitor Center:  This ticket will give you admission to the museum detailing the building of the Dam and how it functions/produces electricity, an observation deck with views of the front of the Dam and a film on the history/building of the dam                                                                                                Cost:  $10 pp.

This is  included in the purchase of a tour (below) but can also be purchased alone.

  • Powerplant Tour: Includes the Visitor Center/observation deck/film (above) PLUS a tour of the power plant portion of the Dam.  They say the tour is 30 min…..but it’s really closer to 15-20 min.                                                      Cost:  $15 pp
 tunnels and passageways on the Dam Tour
  • Hoover Dam Tour: includes the 2 tickets above (Visitor Center/observation deck/film AND Powerplant tour)  PLUS a tour down inside the dam to see the tunnels and passageways.  They say this tour is 1 hour but really it’s 45 min.        Cost:  $30 pp

The two tours (Powerplant and Hoover Dam) are together for the first 20 min.  Then those with the Powerplant Tour wristbands are released to go back to the Visitor Center and those with the Dam tour wristbands continue on.   We took the Dam tour.

producing electricityTours are booked on a first-come-first-serve basis on the day of the tour only – no reservations.  There is no a/c on the Dam portion of the tour.  (There IS a/c on the Powerplant tour portion)  Therefore, an early morning tour is HIGHLY recommended!!  🙂  You will need to be IN LINE at the Visitor Center by 8:30- 8:45 ready to enter when it opens at 9 to get one of those early tours.  (possibly earlier on weekends….)

The last tour of the day is at 3 pm and they typically sell out by noon or 1 pm each day.

VIEW OF HOOVER DAM:

The road that actually goes over Hoover Dam (Hwy 172) was shown on our Rand McNally map to be a through road…but it is NOT!  About 1/2 mile up on the Arizona side, the road is blocked  (see google map below)  It’s still a GREAT road to take…wonderful photo ops with several pull-offs and of course, this is where all the free parking lots are.  There’s a larger parking lot with a nice viewing area at the top of this road.

Since you can NOT see the Dam while you are ON the Dam,  🙂 🙂 it is necessary to either go to the Visitor Center Observation deck, take the road on the Arizona side…or the O’Callaghan-Tillman bridge walkway (Hwy 93) to actually SEE the Dam.  That brings me to…….

THE BEST VIEW  – AND ITS FREE!

IMG_5778

O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge

Highway 93 and the O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge on the Nevada side gives the BEST view of the front of the Dam.  This is the new highway/bridge built over the Canyon to accommodate ‘serious traffic’ and to avert regular traffic away from the security areas and tourist spots.   Before this was built, it could take ‘regular traffic’ 5-6 hours to cross this bridge during the summer tourist season.  The wonderful thing for tourists is that  Highway 93 and the Bridge spans Black Canyon less than 1/4 mi. from the Dam — giving visitors an incredible view of the Dam.  It should be noted, however, that you canNOT see the Dam when driving over the bridge.

pedestrian walkway

pedestrian walkway

The side wall is too high.  You must park, get out and walk on the pedestrian walkway built alongside the bridge. The parking lot will accommodate a LOT of cars, and there are restrooms and a water fountain there as well.   The pathway leading up to the walkway has both stairs and handicap walkway.  It’s accessible to most.  DON’T miss this!!

 

 

 

 

THE BIGGEST PROBLEM YOU’LL ENCOUNTER – PARKING

There is a parking garage on the Nevada side for $10.  There is also paid parking on the Arizona side that contains some covered spots, but it’s not a garage. The website says this costs $19, but that is incorrect. It is $10 as well. The advantage to this lot, however, is location – it’s right next to the Dam so is a shorter walk for those only wanting to walk across. There is FREE parking on the Arizona side too, however, it is in various lots  #10 – #15 further up the side of the Canyon – that means walking…possibly quite a distance if you’re in lot #15.  NOTE:  These spots are basically gone by 10-10:30 a.m.  After the crowds arrive, you’ll only find a space if someone happens to leave as you are arriving….  There are SO many reasons to arrive early.  )

Walking Across the Dam:  This is an experience regardless of what else you opt to do…    NOTE:  Cars are NOT ALLOWED to stop on the Dam (security issues). Do not plan to stop the car to snap that photo or let out passengers.  The speed limit across the Dam is 15 mph (and they ARE patrolling this…be advised) There are restrooms and water fountains on this walk as well.  🙂  They’ve done everything they can to make this day in the desert surrounded by concrete as comfortable as possible for visitors.

TIPS:

  • NOTE:  Hoover Dam is in the desert….   Deserts are hot….and Dams are made of concrete.  Summer in the desert lasts from April to Oct.  It’s pleasantly ‘warm’ the rest of the year….
  • EXPECT temperatures in Black Canyon (location of Hoover Dam) to be 10-15 degrees higher than in the surrounding area.  PLAN for this!!!
  • FROZEN water bottles are great.  Place them on your neck to cool the entire body   (This really works!)   then when the ice melts (which it will do rather quickly) you have water to drink.  This was my ‘all-time best tip’ for travel in the desert areas.
  • If you’re planning to take a tour and are parking in the paid parking area, ASK  the garage attendant if they are doing the tours that day – before you pay to park.  We pulled into the garage and thankfully asked that question.  We found out that tours had been cancelled that day.  We were able to leave without parking or paying the $10.  We returned the next day when tours WERE running.  You don’t want to find out there are no tours AFTER you’ve paid to park.
  • That brings me to the next point.  The website says they conduct Dam tours 7 days/week. That statement is followed with a disclaimer that tours can be cancelled for any reason – issues with the Dam or generators, a high security alert….or if the tour guides just don’t show up to work that day.  (I know…. ugh ugh UGH!!!)  We were told (by a source that shall remain nameless…ha)  that often the tour guides don’t show up on Sundays…making the tour schedule either cancelled…or limited.  If you can plan your visit on a day OTHER than Sunday, you might not run into problems getting on a tour.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t do tours on Sundays. :/  I’m just sharing our experience…..  We came on Sunday and left because there were no tours.  We returned on Monday and had a tour.  🙂
  • Arrive early….for parking…for tours…for relief from desert heat.  The parking garage opens at 8 am;  Visitor Center opens at 9 am (but be in line by 8:30 if you want to purchase an early tour);  First tour is at 9:35 am.  We were one of the first 25 in line and were put on the 10:35 tour.  These sell fast!!  🙂

NOW TIME FOR MY OPINIONS ON ALL OF THIS:  (Skip if you don’t like ‘opinions’  ha)

  • First, the tours were great!  I highly recommend them.  The Dam is incredible; the tour guides are personable and interesting.  It’s a GREAT tour!
  • Second…the tours were too expensive for what we got in my opinion.  Now, I don’t regret it.   I’m glad we did it our first time there, but I doubt if we would take the tour on a second trip to the area.  We’d just walk across the Dam and be happy.  🙂
  • Third, the Visitor Center is very small.. There’s not a lot there, so $10 was, imho, a  pretty inflated price (I’ve been to a lot of museums and paid a variety of entrance fees.  I have a lot to compare it to)  However, (and PLEASE NOTE THIS) when combined with the Powerplant Tour which is $15, it becomes reasonably priced…For $5 more, you get the tour. That’s the Visitor Center, Observation Deck, the history film and the tour for $15.  That’s not a bad deal at all!  When it comes to paying $30 for the Dam Tour, that’s just a matter of personal preference and how detailed you want to go with your experience, however, we, being who we are, chose to do that.  🙂
 ONE LAST PARTING WORD:  BRING WATER!!!  This is the desert…You’re in a Canyon. It’s hot year-round but especially April-Oct.  Bring Water!!!  🙂

Zion National Park – SW Utah

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is located in SW Utah about an hour west/northwest of St. George, Utah.

https://goo.gl/maps/CpX6FW93Tmo

GETTING THERE:  Las Vegas is the closest and most economical airport for flying to Zion. Though St George has a Regional airport, the smaller airports are typically more expensive to fly in to.  Las Vegas is about a 2 hr drive from St. George.  We flew into Vegas and arrived around noon, got our rental car, had lunch and drove to St. George for the night.   St George has plenty of chain hotels as well as the Wal-Mart Supercenter. We made a trip into Walmart that evening for picnic supplies after we arrived.   Though it was a full day, it wasn’t difficult. The next morning, we had a 2 hr drive to the Park.  If you prefer staying closer to Zion, choices include Springdale, LaVerkin and Hurricane.  They have limited accommodation options…and prices will be a little higher.

Visiting Zion National Park:  The Park is in THREE sections with 4 different entrances/roads. The “Main” road  which most people consider “Zion National Park” is on highway 9 west of  Springdale. This road will be the busiest and most congested..  If you have the time to explore the other “less traveled” roads, you’ll find a more solitary, “connect with nature” experience.

THE SHUTTLE:  Private vehicles are only allowed up to Canyon Junction (the turn off to Mt Carmel Highway) except for those with confirmed reservations at the Lodge.  A shuttle takes visitors beyond that point. Shuttles run every 7-10 min during the summer so this is really not an inconvenience.  We were there in Sept and seemed to never wait more than 4-5 min. for the next shuttle – just long enough to pull out the water bottles or snack. 🙂  The shuttles are not air conditioned. In Sept, it did get a little warm in the afternoon.  I wonder how uncomfortable it would be during the summer months…  The windows open so there is airflow when the shuttle is moving. The greatest advantage though is that the shuttle gives the family’s driver the chance to enjoy the scenery rather than worrying about narrow twisting roads, traffic or pedestrians.  It also eliminates fender benders or rear end collisions that would totally shut down this narrow 2 lane road for ALL visitors.  It’s a ‘positive’ thing. 🙂

Zion National Park Map  – shows the roads, Visitor Center and guest areas as well as park features 

PARKING:  During the busy tourist season, parking at the shuttle embarkation point is at a premium.  The parking lots are usually full from 10 am-3 pm. Visitors who arrive at the park after the lots are full will be directed back to Springdale to park there and catch a shuttle into the park. This shuttle is FREE too…but inconvenient…imho.  🙂  Arrive early  (prior to 9 am) to (hopefully) avoid this happening to you. We got to the park by 8:30 and had no problem entering and finding a parking place at the Visitor center.  It was nice to beat the heat too!  I noticed that by afternoon, people were ‘illegally’ parking along the road – the VERY NARROW, twisting, 2 lane road….  Apparently, they didn’t turn away as many visitors at the gate as they should have….ha!  🙂

HIKING:
Hiking is the best way to see any National Park. Hikes are listed in the Park Newspaper given at the Park entrance – with information about each hike’s length, time required, elevation change (strenuous level) and difficulty level.  If you have any health concerns (diabetes, heart conditions, knee or back/hip issues, etc…)  consult this chart before starting any hike.  Actually, consult it even if you DON’T have any of these issues.  🙂  You always need to know what you’re getting in to.

One Note About This:  Our family has started many a hike that was 8 miles…10 miles…26 miles..with no intention of walking that far. We didn’t want to completely miss the beautiful vistas just because we couldn’t hike 26 miles.  We go as far as we want to, see some beautiful things, then turn around and go back.  I think many people may avoid those hikes because they’re intimidated by the “26 miles” number and miss out on wonderful vistas.  Don’t skip the “Rim” hikes. They’re beautiful!!

The ‘most popular ‘longer’ trails in Zion are Angels Landing (5.4 mi.) and The Narrows (9.4 mi).  Though they are spectacular, several rangers we spoke with said there are more beautiful breathtaking hikes in the park.  They BOTH recommended Observation Point Trial   Its one of those long hikes –  (8 miles) but as I stated above, you don’t have to go the entire length….just a portion of it.  And for those avid hikers, it’s only 2.5 mi. longer than Angels Landing (not significant to a seasoned hiker) and well worth the extra time and effort.

The Narrows (9 miles) is the ‘other’  popular hike in the park, but is NOT recommended for those with diabetes/neuropathy/circulation issues…OR for children.   About 60% of it involves wading (possibly knee to thigh deep)  through swift currents in the river.  These are too swift for children, and the amount of time spent with wet feet precludes it for those with circulatory issues.   The park newspaper and website gives more information advising those who DO choose to take this hike.  NEVER head out on The Narrows without checking with the Rangers at the Visitor Center!!!  This is important!!!!   (read my comments in red below) 

Now….you CAN take the beginning portion of this hike – up to the river crossing and canyon. (about 1.5 mi.)   We did that.  Then I looked ‘longingly’ into the Canyon.  I wanted so much to go further, but we fit into the category of those who should NOT take this so we just looked and ‘longed’.  🙂  We thoroughly enjoyed the portion that we hiked.

IMPORTANT:  Before setting out on any canyon hike, check with the rangers about weather conditions.  The day after we left the park, (YES…..the VERY next day…..) 6 seasoned, experienced hikers were killed by a flash flood in Keyhole Canyon.  These were not novices.  They were men in their 30’s…40’s…who had a great deal of hiking experience and skill.  It’s not always about the weather where you are.  Sometimes it’s about the weather 200 miles away. Rain from that distance can (and will)  SWIFTLY run INTO the canyons and cause a flash flood…all while the skies over Zion are blue and clear. The park rangers are watching the weather events at great distances to determine the risk of flashfloods in the canyon.  Do NOT just look at the sky and say “It’s clear; therefore we’re fine”.  CHECK with the Rangers! 

Last but not least….KNOW the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.  These are listed in the park newspaper you will receive at the entrance.  Read through these to be informed so you can take care of your family.

This park is beautiful and can be enjoyed at all times of the year, but like anything else, you MUST understand the dangers present in order to stay safe.

WHAT DO YOU TAKE ON A HIKE?

  • Backpack:   It doesn’t have to be an expensive hikers pack….  We used the kids school backpacks.  🙂
  • Water….  WATER!!!  WATER!!  This is SOOO important.  One gal/pp is the recommendation.  Because our hikes are usually short, we may only take a few bottles per person in the pack, but the rest is in our car.  I freeze these and place in plastic Walmart sacks 🙂 to keep everything else in the pack dry.  You can place the frozen water bottle on your neck to bring down body temperature. Then as the ice melts (which it will do rather quickly) it becomes water to drink.  🙂 🙂   Do NOT try to conserve your water throughout the day.  Drink It!  OFTEN!  Before you get thirsty.  Here’s another tidbit…Thirst is the body’s signal that it is ALREADY dehydrated.  Drink your water BEFORE you get thirsty.
  • Protein snacks (Sugar actually harms the muscles during strenuous activity)  We like to take almonds, cashews & peanuts. Protein bars (withOUT a coating that would melt) are nice too. 🙂  I make my own trail mix of nuts and dried fruits rather than buying the pre-packaged ones….those are rancid.  ha!!
  • ‘High water content’ fruit –   Fruit is what we crave in the heat.   Bananas, peaches, grapes, etc… are good, but apples or oranges travel better. Place these next to the frozen water bottles in your pack and they’ll stay cold for a while
  • Extra socks if there is a chance your feet will get wet (Talk to the Rangers at the Visitor center.)
  • Of course, cameras, etc… and binoculars.  That’s the ‘fun’ stuff.  🙂
  • Most of us rarely go anywhere without our cell phones, and certainly if your cell is your camera, you’ll have it along, but realize that you may or may not have service in Zion….especially on hikes. Use good judgement and don’t get yourself into unsafe situations thinking your cell phone will be there to call for help…..
  • Small flashlight – or headlamp just for emergencies.  Make it a small one…  Don’t add unnecessary weight to the backpack with this.  Obviously, for longer day hikes, a good flashlight with extra batteries is needed.
  • Trail map (for longer hikes). Shorter, more popular trails are paved and self-explanatory, so a map isn’t necessary. Again, rangers at the Visitor Center will tell you if this is necessary.
  • Last but not least:  LEAVE NO TRACE!  Pack out whatever you pack in…and No, there are no waste baskets on back country trails.  🙂  Leave what you find.  No collecting!  🙂

Bottom Line:  Rangers are your friend!  Utilize their knowledge and skill.  Talk to them…and listen & follow any advice they give.  🙂 

MEALTIME/DINING IN ZION:

Like most National Parks, dining areas are limited.  There is a restaurant and small cafe at the Zion Lodge but that’s all.  Most National park visitors bring a picnic lunch to avoid wasting time leaving the park to find something to eat. 🙂  (That’s another reason I wanted my car parked INSIDE Zion – to have easy access to my cooler and picnic lunch.)

OTHER ROADS INTO THE PARK

NOTE: The entrance fee to Zion covers ALL of the Park entrances for 7 days, but you MUST keep your receipt.  You can also purchase the America the Beautiful Nat’l Park pass for entrance into ALL National parks for 1 year (cost $80)  This is a good choice if you’re visiting several of the Utah Canyon Nat’l Parks. (there are 5)  After visiting 3 Nat’l Parks you break even on the cost of the pass…If you visit 4 parks (in Utah or elsewhere) during the year, you’ll save money with the Pass purchase.

MT. CARMEL HIGHWAY:

  • This road connects the South and East entrances.  It’s a 12 mi road (continuation of highway 9) and travels up steep switchbacks and through the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel.  The tunnel is quite an engineering Zion National Parkmasterpiece – it’s 1 mile long.  Traffic runs one way through there with park employees stopping and directing traffic.  Both times we went through, we never waited more than 5-10 min.  Large vehicles (RV’s) will have to be escorted through and that incurs a fee.  Check the website for details on this.  It’s a beautiful drive and worth it if you have the time!   🙂

KOLOB CANYONS ROAD

  • I LOVED this little section of the park!  It’s a 5 mi. road – right off of I-15 (Exit 40)  and is totally removed from everything down south…including the crowds!!!  🙂   You see vistas of the red rocks of Kolob Canyon and end at the Kolob Canyon viewpoint and  Timbercreek Overlook Trail (1 mi).
  • We spent about 2 hours driving this road because we like to stop and enjoy!   You COULD cover it in less time, but WHY would you want to?  🙂   There are only 3 hikes in this area – one of which is the La Verkin Creek Trail (14 mi) which crosses the  northern part of the park exiting on the east side. Again, this is one of those you could take partially then turn around.  There’s also a mule trail that looked interesting but alas, we did not have time for that.

Point to be noted:  Mules and horses always have the right of way in a Nat’l Park  🙂

KOLOB TERRACE ROAD

  • This is a steep 20 mi. road that is currently under construction. (Check the website for more information)   It begins in the town of Virgin and climbs north to the Aspen -covered plateaus of the higher elevations. I’m hoping to drive this on our next visit to Zion.  NOTE:  This road is NOT recommended for RV’s or vehicles pulling trailers.

As with all National Parks, visit the  U.S. National Parks website   National Parks – Zion   for complete information  – maps, shuttle schedules, camping/lodging info etc….

Hawaii Part 4 – Island Hopping

Island hopping (visiting more than one  Hawaiian island in a trip) will cost a little more money (unless you’re cruising).  However, for most visitors, the airfare to get to Hawaii is the most expensive part of the trip.  After that investment, you’ll probably want to see and do as much as you can on the islands – to get as much value from that airfare purchase as possible.  That means visiting more than one island.

23 Hawaii G12 213

View of Maui from Mokuele Airlines

Planning transportation for island hopping can be a little over-whelming at first.  However, with just a little time and research, it will all come together and you’ll find it’s DEFINITELY worth the effort.   THEN, en route, it requires patience –as there are bound to be bumps in the plan.  Just do you research, make a plan, then stay flexible and you’ll have a WONDERFUL trip.

 

What Are The Options for Inter-Island Travel?  :

  • By Air:  This is the most commonly used mode of transportation by visitors and residents.  Most of this blog will be devoted to that…in a moment…..
  • By Ferry:  Ferry service was a wonderful option ‘once upon a time’, however, it has fallen victim to EPA regulations/restrictions – and was discontinued to all but 2 islands in 2009. WORD OF CAUTION TO TRAVEL PLANNERS:   The Ferry Company’s website (Hawaii Superferry) is still up as a tribute and ‘eulogy’ to the company (there seems to be a lot of anger over it’s closing….) to remind people of what the EPA cost them. However, only in the ‘small print’ does the website say that their site is a ‘eulogy’;  their last ‘run’ was in 2008. There are schedules, prices, etc…that could lead unsuspecting readers to conclude they can show up and get on a ferry…  I understand their anger, but the website could really affect visitors’ travel plans…ugh!!  Don’t get caught up in that!!!

The ONLY operational  ferries leave from Lahaina Maui and go to the islands of  Lana’i or Molokai.  The Maui-Lana’i Expeditions ferry operates from Maui to Manele Bay Lana’i.  They also offer tour packages  – just fyi.  🙂    The Maui-Molokai Ferry operates from Maui to Kaunakakai Harbor, Molokai.

Please Note:   The channels between these islands can be pretty rough in the afternoon as the winds across the water strengthen.  Even those not typically prone to sea sickness may have problems – especially on the Maui-Molokai route.  Be prepared with sea sickness remedies or travel in the morning.

  • By Cruise Ship:  This, of course, requires the booking of a Hawaiian cruise.  🙂    I’ve never seen the islands this way, but the advantages are having transportation, accommodations, and food all planned/arranged.  That’s probably a nice way to see the islands though the disadvantage, as I see it, is the limited amount of time allowed on each island…    Of course, it’s all a matter of preference.  🙂

Inter-island flights

NOTE AS YOU’RE PLANNING:

  • Some islands have more than one airport. Be aware of this as you check fares to make sure you’re going where you want to go…and to make make sure you reserve the rental car at the right airport.  🙂   On the Big Island (Hawaii) Kona is almost always cheaper than Hilo.  On Maui, Kahului  is typically cheaper than Kapalua and DEFINITELY more convenient than Hana.  Recently, Maui’s OGG (Lahaina)  airport has become a secondary hub within Hawaii for flights to and from the Mainland. (secondary to Honolulu)
  • Flights to Kauai from any other island always include a stop/layover in Honolulu (HNL).  If possible, plan the islands in an order that allows you to take advantage of this rather than having an unnecessary layover.  🙂

IMGP1299Inter-island Air Travel Carriers

There are several airlines that “hop” from island to island:  Hawaiian Air, Island Air, Mokulele Airlines and Go! Airlines (Mesa).  On our recent trip over, we flew on 3 of these.  It seems that these companies come and go as quickly as you can snap your fingers…  However, here’s my “take” (and links) on the companies we used.

Hawaiian Airlines This airline is the flag carrier for Hawaii and has frequent flights to all the major islands.  They are more expensive than the smaller companies, and their baggage fees are significantly higher ($25/bag compared to $15-17 for the smaller airlines as of this writing) however, their more frequent flights, larger planes and more reliable aircraft makes them the preferred airline of many. Depending on your situation, that MAY be worth the extra money.

Go! Airlines (Operated by Mesa  )  Go! was once the second largest inter-island carrier in Hawaii.  They ran a fleet of smaller aircraft. They are no longer in business – something that seems to happen a lot with these small airlines in Hawaii.

We had a “story” about Go! Airlines back in 2013…It started out great, but ended with the cancelling of our connecting flight back to Honolulu that almost caused us to miss our flight home on United.

One More Note:  If you find yourself with a ticket on one of these smaller airlines that falls through for whatever reason, it’s VERY easy to book a last minute flight with Hawaiian Air.  How do I know this?  That’s exactly what we did that night of our flight back to the mainland…bought 2 tickets on Hawaiian Air, the cost of which, Mesa Go! Airlines reimbursed us for when we got home and contacted them.  Though our experience was a little ‘rattling’ at the time, it worked out fine.  We got on flights we needed and were reimbursed for additional costs incurred.

R.I. P. Mesa Go! Airlines

Mokulele AirlinesMokuele Airlines http://www.mokuleleairlines.com/

Mokuele formed as an offshoot of the merger with iGo and is ALSO operated  by Mesa. This very small airline flies to Oahu (2 airports), Maui (3 airports), Molokai (2 airports), Lana’i and The Big Island (2 airports) on Cessna aircraft.  🙂  Yes, they go to all the very small airports.

Do NOT let the size of these aircraft deter you.   Flying with them was actually a pleasant experience.  Their terminal is outdoors…It’s a pre-fab building covered by an awning.  There’s a restroom, vending machines and 15 chairs for passengers as they wait for their flight.  ha!! Mokulele Airlines Kona (When we arrived, I HAD to take this picture. 🙂 .)  We knocked on the door and someone came out of the office to check us in….  We not only weighed our checked bags, but we weighed ourselves while holding our carry ons to get a total weight on the aircraft.  (NOTE:  They have a policy that doesn’t allow passengers over 350 lbs to fly – it’s a weight issue on the aircraft…)  The pilot checked our boarding pass and told us our seat number before we walked across the runway to board.  He then boarded the plane with us and went over safety procedures. Everyone gets a window seat (wonderful when flying over the islands) because there are single seats on each side of the aircraft.  When we got off the plane, we walked around to wait for our luggage, then I took a quick picture with the pilot before we rolled our luggage off the runway.  I didn’t have a problem with any of that.  It was an “experience”.  I just took pictures.  🙂

20 Hawaii G12 210

Here are some of the wonderful views I got while flying over Maui…and into Kona:

15 Hawaii G12 205

I would fly with them again!!!

 

 

Island Air  This is an airline that was not flying at our last trip to Hawaii (As I mentioned above, these small airlines come and go…) but it seems to be a ‘big name’ now.  Obviously, I don’t have any personal experience with them, however, a quick online search for fares shows them to be cheaper with lower baggage fees.

Finding the Cheapest and Shortest Flights:   As I’ve said many times on this blog, explore all your options (airline websites AND travel brokers) before making a decision. We went from Oahu to Kona to Maui, then back to Oahu for our flight home- on  3 different inter-island airlines. I checked fares and flight times and made the decisions that were best for us on that day…   There’s no ‘right answer’…  You just have to find what works best for you.

Just Consider these things before making that decision…..

 My Thoughts: 

  • Don’t be afraid of these smaller airlines.  They ARE a savings over Hawaiian Air.  Do your research and be flexible and you can save some money.   however…..
  • Do NOT book with a smaller airline as your last flight if you need to make a connecting flight.  (i.e. you’re flying back to the Mainland)   In that case, book with Hawaiian Air.  Their frequent flight schedule won’t leave you stranded on the islands when you’re supposed to be flying home – You can catch a later flight if yours happens to be delayed.
  • When booking an inter-island flight to return for your connecting ocean flight, allow enough time for possible delays. This is NOT the time to try to squeeze every minute out of your vacation.  CONTINUATION OF OUR STORY ABOVE:  We were due to arrive in Honolulu at 6:30 and fly out at 10 pm.  With our last minute change/purchase of Hawaiian Air tickets, we barely made our connection.  Had we been more “squeezed” for time, we probably would not have made it.   We met another family who was in the same predicament as we..only their connecting flight was at 8:15.  I don’t know if they made their connection or not, but I’m assuming they didn’t as we didn’t make it back to Oahu until 8:30 and we took the first available flight on Hawaiian Airlines.  They just didn’t have enough time to make other arrangements.  Give yourself time to deal with unexpected situations.
  • Though you don’t have to book these flights MONTHS in advance as advised for most other flights, don’t wait too long.  As the airplanes fill up, the rates go up (Law of Supply and Demand….)   My experience is  that booking 3-5 weeks in advance in the Spring should secure fairly good rates…  Book At Least 6-8 wks in advance during the busier summer season.
  • Find out which Inter-island airlines have “agreements” with your airline for the flight home.  They each have their own agreements with different Major airlines   I found out AFTER we purchased our ‘extra’ tickets that Hawaiian Airlines has an “agreement” with United.  We were able to check our bags with Hawaiian Airlines in Maui and THEY transferred them to United in Honolulu for us.  That was such a relief with the changes and delays we dealt with.  Before that change, we were going to have to pick up bags at baggage claim in Honolulu, check in/re-check bags with United then go BACK through security.  With all the delays we dealt with, there just wouldn’t have been enough time to do that.  

Other articles in this series

Branson, MO Pt. 2: What To Do – Shows, Shopping and More

For Part 1 of this series:  Branson: Planning Your Trip

Shows:  The shows in Branson are family friendly;  as long as you choose something that fits your personal taste, you will be happy.  This is a list of the ones we have seen and liked….though NOT an exhaustive list of all the good shows.

  • Acrobats of China:  This is a good show, but don’t expect to find discounts for them.  They don’t exist!  Paying full price IS worth it.    www.acrobatsofchina.com
  • Baldknobbers:  www.baldknobbers.com  This is a family show – they claim to be the “First Branson Show”…along with the Presley’s;   It’s a country and folk music variety show.   I emphasize the words ‘country folk’ as this is NOT the modern country  music of the “stars”.  It’s a good show!  🙂
  • Presley’s: www.presleys.com  Claims to be the “First Branson Show”….along with Baldknobbers; There is a ‘friendly battle’ going on between these 2 families as to who was ‘first’.  They’re very similar – country and folk music variety show.
  • Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede Dinner and  Show  www.dixiestampede.com  VERY good meal and show about the story of the Civil War.
  • Jim Stafford: www.jimstafford.com   This is a classic Branson show….Jim is quite a talented guitarist and he plays quite a bit, but this is also a variety show with other acts.
  • Haygoods:  The Haygoods are a family who got their start at Silver Dollar City.  As their popularity grew they bought a theater on the 76 strip and have been voted Branson’s #1 Show for several years.  Tickets are reasonably priced and they have Family Passes that make it economical for families.  Highly recommended
  • Yakov Smirnoffwww.yakov.com  Yakov is from Russia  and does a comedy variety show.  He also has a dinner theater.
  • Photo Credit; Branson Conv. Ctr. CC Lic.

    Shoji Tabuchiwww.shoji.com   Excellent show, but don’t expect to find a discount or have this show included in any of the “free tickets” for attending a Timeshare presentation.  Shoji is a violinist and INCREDIBLE!

  • Twelve Irish Tenors:  If you love the harmonies, you’ll LOVE this show!!
  • Sight and Sound Theaterhttp://www.sight-sound.com/   This is Christian theater – Bible stories with incredible sets and live animals!!!  They have a continually changing fare, including  – Noah, Jonah, Moses et al –  and of course, the Christmas story every Nov/Dec.  (Our favorite is probably Noah and the Ark  🙂  )There is a backstage tour during the afternoon — a nice addition if you’re going to the show that evening.  🙂

NOTE:  Shows are the reason most people go to Branson…however, don’t think that’s all this town has to offer. If you’re not interested in shows…or if your budget just won’t allow for them, there are still MANY fun, family activities to keep everyone busy and happy while you’re there.


Other Things To Do:

Photo Credit: Party_of_Five on Flickr CC Lic.

  • Silver Dollar City: www.SilverDollarCity.com   LOVE IT!!!  There are discounts for admission to SDC; just look for them.  The added advantage to a day in Silver Dollar City is the number of shows in the park – all included in the price of your admission ticket.  If you enter the park after 3 pm, the next day is free.  This is a great way to plan your days there.  You can either have 1 1/2 days for the price of 1…or divide your visit into 2 partial days to suit the needs of young children or those with limited mobility or energy.   TIP:  I HIGHLY recommend the “grill meals” at Skillet Cookery. (pictured) The meal of veggies and meat are cooked on this 5′ grill. It’s the best meal in the park!!!   (imho) 🙂  This year, they are opening a new roller coaster that is the largest, wildest wooden coaster anywhere.  If your family likes these, it promises to be quite the experience.
  • Butterfly Place & Rainforest Adventurewww.butterflyplace.com   This is one of several around the country.  This is a good way to spend a few hours with the kids.  My kids really enjoyed it.  Coupons available; find them in the coupon booklets at hotels, restaurants, etc…
  • IMAX Theater:  www.Bransonimax.com  Shows run all day long, replaying on a regular schedule.   🙂  Buy tickets for the first show, then purchase tickets for a later show that day at half-price with your ticket stub.  Check the website for coupons for the IMAX and food items. This is a great activity if the day is cold or rainy.
  • Hollywood Wax Museum:
  • Ripley’s “Believe it or Notwww.ripleysbranson.com

    PHoto Credit; Louis CR Artist on Flickr CC Lic.

  • Branson Landing Cruise or Dinner Cruise:  This is fairly new, but looks to be a nice experience for a couple looking for a romantic evening.  We haven’t done this, but are wanting to on our next trip to town.
  • Mini-Golf:  Branson has quite a few mini-golf courses in every theme imaginable. This is a great family activity as the temps typically go down in the evenings.  This was often the highlight of our trip…we ‘bargained’ with the kids.  They tolerate our day of shopping (when they were young and didn’t yet appreciate a day of shopping. haha) and we’d take them to their choice of miniature golf that evening.  Of course, eventually, they appreciated a ‘Shop Til You Drop’ day and bargaining was no longer necessary, but that worked well during those ‘early years’.  🙂

Get Outta Town:  There are some wonderful activities just outside of town…in addition to Silver Dollar City (which is out-of-town too).   Check out the area around Table Rock Lake and Tanneycomo. There’s the regular lake activities and lake cruises and dinner cruises as well.


Photo Credit: Branson’s Best Reservations: http://branson-missouri.com/products/shopping/tanger-outlets

Outlet Shopping:  We often go to Branson in the Fall to do our Christmas shopping.  Bargains galore!!  When we first began going, there were 3 outlet malls.  Tanger is the only one left.  www.Tangeroutlet.com   They are extremely busy during ‘back to school’ shopping as well as the Christmas shopping season, so be prepared for crowds at those times.  Stop by the Lounge in the corner of the mall for a coupon book…free to AAA members; $5 for everyone else.  They will allow you to look through it before purchasing to see if you can get your $5 value from it.

Photo Credit: John Stone on Flickr CC Lic.

Branson Landing:   www.bransonlanding.com  This is the newest shopping mecca – an outdoor mall flanked by Bass Pro Shops and Belk.   It’s  NOT Outlet shopping but it’s very nice… make plans to spend a little time there.  NOTE:  The parking is quite a walk if you arrive late in the day.  There are shuttles to transport visitors – for a tip.  Nighttime is a GREAT time to go as well – especially during the Christmas season.  It’s beautifully decorated for the Holidays!!

Coupon Books:  Branson is the Place for Coupons.  Don’t go anywhere without at least looking to see if there’s one available!  🙂  The coupon books/brochures are at the entrances to most motels, restaurants and shopping areas. Pick up one of each (there is more than one company printing these) when you FIRST arrive in town so you have time to look through them before spending any money.  As I mentioned above,  the Tanger coupon book is available at the Tanger Lounge in the corner of the mall -$5 or free for AAA members. If you will do a LOT of shopping, this may save you some money even if you have to pay for it.