Sunday, July 3, 2016

Witness to Nature: Alaska!

Last month we took off on a major “trains, planes…” vacation: a visit to our 49th state: Alaska! Visiting Alaska has been on my husband’s vacation wish list for as long as I can remember. But until now, other destinations took precedence. Well, this was the year! 

A word of warning: this is a looooonnnnng post. Alaska is a big, beautiful state with a lot of ground to cover, and we saw only a fraction of it. So get a cup of coffee, maybe a cookie, and settle in. Come with me as I revisit our incredible Alaskan adventure. Thank you. :-)

We began in Juneau and to get the ball rolling right away, we took a flight-seeing plane over Taku Glacier (Juneau’s largest glacier) and Mendenhall Glacier, landing in the water at the Taku River Lodge (built in 1923). 
Mendenhall Glacier
Taku River Lodge

Oh, before I forget: we were there during Alaska's incredible 12-18 hours of daylight season! It's really something to almost NEVER see darkness. We went to bed when it was daylight and when we woke up it was daylight. Wonderful but weird.

The view of the glacier from the air was breathtaking. After a smooth landing in the water, the feasting began with wild King salmon grilled over alder wood. Our timing was spot-on as King salmon season was just beginning and you can bet we got our fill! At home whenever we have salmon, we always buy wild, but the salmon we enjoyed in Alaska was incomparable.

Another spectacular sight in Juneau was the ride up1800 feet via the Mt Roberts Tram with fabulous views of Juneau and Gastineau Channel. We took a short hike at the mountain top and visited Lady Baltimore, a bald eagle rescued several years ago and who now lives at the Juneau Raptor Center. Quite a sight to see a bald eagle up close! There were more bald eagle sightings to come but none like this.
The view from Mt  Roberts and Lady Baltimore

Next, we set out on a small ship cruise for 7 days, focusing on spectacular Glacier Bay National Park (GBNP), which comprises 3.3 million acres of mountains, glaciers, forests, and waterways. We spent a week aboard the Safari Explorer (part of Un-Cruise Adventures) sailing the magnificent bays and rivers of southeast Alaska. During nature hikes, kayak and skiff outings, throughout Icy Strait, Endicott Arm, and Fords Terror (to name a few) we were lucky to see eagles, humpbacks, orcas, otters, bears, mountain goats, Dall porpoise, puffins, sea lions, and harbor seals. To see these magnificent creatures in the wild was just amazing! 

Seeing the wildlife up close was incredible, but the majesty and beauty of the glaciers was breathtaking (you use that word a lot in Alaska). Many people had told us that the landscape is stunning (and it is), but you really cannot appreciate it until you see it for yourself. Pictures, no matter how good, do not capture it. To give you some idea of the size of these glaciers, the face of the Margerie Glacier in GBNP is a mile wide. And Dawes Glacier is 250 feet tall from the water level (and probably another 200 feet below the surface)! Further, you begin to understand why the native Alaskans (the Tlingit) revere this land. I found an overwhelming sense of peace and tranquility there, especially at Lamplugh Glacier, which the Tlingit believe has special spiritual qualities. In fact, they believe that this area is especially important to otters, and ships (no matter how small) cannot go beyond a certain point during the spring birthing season so as not to disturb these beautiful creatures.
Waterfalls galore in SE Alaska!
Dawes Glacier calving!

The latest in Alaska cruise wear!
Now let me tell you about life aboard the Explorer. This was not one of those mega-ships (no 3,000 vacationing companions for us, thank you). The Explorer welcomes 34-36 guests aboard (with a crew of 18). There is a relaxed ruggedness to the cruise. Rest assured no one is dressing up. You spend your days in jeans or convertible pants, hiking shoes, fleece jackets, and down vests. When out in the elements, waterproof boots, pants, jackets, wool hats, gloves, and (sometimes) long underwear are de rigueur. Nobody is vying for the “best dressed” award - the goal here is to stay warm and dry. 

The food on the boat was terrific. From the just-baked pastries every morning at 6:30 (so right up my alley), to delicious lunches, the very civilized cocktail hour at 5:30pm, and fabulous, creative dinners, the Explorer and Un-cruise easily won my vote. But one of my favorite rituals was the the greeting you received when coming back aboard the boat after a morning or afternoon of exploring. Our charming bartender, Silas, would meet returning explorers on the back deck with a thermos of a delicious “hot toddy.” One day it might be hot apple cider with (optional) Jameson’s. Another day,
Fabulous Rack of Lamb
Early riser treats!
hot cocoa with peppermint schnapps. 

Every morning, people would gather on the sun deck at 7am for yoga. I must tell you, beginning your day with these incredible mountains as the backdrop, was one of the highlights of the week. And just as the session ended, a steward would magically appear with a tray of hot green tea with honey and lemon. I’m telling you, a girl could get used to this!

The wonderful week aboard the Explorer ended all too soon. Our cruise was over, but not our vacation. 
After the cruise, we took an overnight trip on the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Seward, where we visited Seavey’s Sled Dog camp (and got to hold adorable three-week old sled dog pups!), hiked Exit Glacier, and viewed a salmon run. Seward is a cute little fishing village (or as the locals say, a drinking town with a fishing problem!) about 4 hours from Anchorage (via train). BTW: the Alaska Railroad is a terrific way to see the landscape. You can also opt for the dining car package (yes, a real old-time dining car with pretty good food) to make your trip a bit more fun. We spent a few hours at the Alaska Sea Life Center, viewing rescued otters, octopus, and a very playful harbor seal. 

The culinary gods were with us for our one dinner in Seward. Directly across the street from our hotel, was The Cookery and Oyster Bar. What a find this was! Innovative, delicious food with friendly, professional service; I tried to convince them to leave Seward and come to New Jersey! No dice… 

The Cookery and Oyster Grill, Seward
The executive chef/owner, Kevin Lane, has got it going on! Starting our evening with BLToast (fabulous house bacon, tomato jam, & arugula), and the House Rustic Bread (salted butter, sun-dried tomato pesto), we knew we had come to the right place. For our main courses, I had the incredible “Smoked Brisket Steak Au Jus” served with fingerling potato/cabbage hash and sweet/sour tomatoes. Barry had a special of delicate pan-seared Sable fish that was just outstanding. 

But it was the desserts at The Cookery that really blew us away. My husband has a world-class chocolate obsession. So of course, his choice was the Chocolate Charcuterie (dark chocolate “salami,” smooth “pate,” and crackers). OMG. Even I, not a chocolate-obsessed individual, could not get enough of this.

My dessert that evening was (are you ready?) Cream cheese ice cream, balsamic reduction, and strawberries. To put this in perspective, I LOVE ice cream. When presented with dessert options at a restaurant, if there’s homemade ice cream on the menu, that’s it, I’m done. This ice cream dish at The Cookery was probably the best ice cream I’ve ever had. Hands down. This may even beat some of the gelato I’ve had in Italy. No kidding. Do you live in Seward? Are you anywhere near Seward? Get yourself to The Cookery. Now. This was our best restaurant meal of the trip.

Mama & baby Moose
Bull Moose
Dall Sheep
After returning to Anchorage, we met up with friends who graciously offered to show us the beauty of their state, starting in Talkeetna. A rustic little town supposedly the inspiration for the TV show Northern Exposure (I could see the resemblance). While in Talkeetna, we stayed at the beautiful Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, with incredible, dead-on, gorgeous views of Mt Denali (formerly known as Mt McKinley). Wow. That’s all you can say about Denali. Magnificent also comes to mind. We were especially lucky to have unobstructed views of  the 20,310 foot Denali for almost two days. Our friends tell us this is very rare. Most days, Denali is shrouded in clouds and many people never get to see it at all. Denali is so high it has its own weather system (wow, again).

From Talkeetna, we headed north to Denali (Denali means “tall one” in the native Athabaskan language) National Park and Preserve. If you have not heard, 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, and Denali was the first park commemorated. It’s a good year to see YOUR national parks.

Chocolate Pot de Creme
Scallops with Crispy Prosciutto
Espresso Ice Cream
We had dinner on our one evening in the park at 229 Parks. Talk about in the middle of nowhere! Laura Cole, chef/owner, is a James Beard award nominee, and it shows. Housed in a beautiful log-cabin-type structure (built by the chef’s husband), with warm light streaming in and fresh flowers everywhere, the food is inventive and delicious. This restaurant is an oasis in a sea of not so great food options within Denali. My scallops with crisp prosciutto was a dream. Desserts were knock-outs, too. Our friends loved the Chocolate Pot de Creme, and true to form, I had the luscious Espresso ice cream. If you visit Denali National Park, and want a real treat, make a reservation at 229 Parks.

The next day it was time to see the park. One of the few ways to see a small part of the six million acres that is Denali, is via a NPS bus tour. They restrict personal vehicles to preserve and protect the precious wildlife that call Denali home. We took a six hour (yes, six hours) tour that slowly traverses the mostly unpaved roads (and sometimes scary, no-margin-for-error hairpin turns). It was long, but during that tour we saw moose (including a mother with babies), caribou, bear, Dall sheep, eagles, and countless other birds. 

What an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime trip this was! As one of our cruise expedition leaders described it, “Alaska: more eagles than bears, more bears than people.” Eagles dot almost every tree in Alaska, but you never lose that sense of awe every time you see one. And that’s the way it should be. 

All pictures copyright The Cook's Tour 2016. No reproduction or downloading without express permission.

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