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Sun, Fog, and a Brilliant Evening in Juneau
The deep-bass tone of the whistles aboard Holland America Line’s Zuiderdam echoed through the early-morning air as we sailed through the swirling fog en-route to Juneau, Alaska.
I began my morning with four laps around Zuiderdam’s teak-lined Promenade Deck, in search of both exercise and wildlife. At least I got one of the two; nature, it seems, was stilled into silence by the thick fog banks.
I also took part in the very brief galley tour offered this morning, which gave me a chance to see some of the “back-of-house” operations firsthand, which I always find fascinating.
After stopping just before 10:30am this morning at the mouth of Tracy Arm to allow passengers booked on the Tracy Arm and Sawyer Glacier Scenic Cruise to disembark and board their sightseeing ship, the Zuiderdam continued to make her way through the thick fog to Juneau, with sister-ship Westerdam running beside us nearly the entire way.
Then, something odd happened: we sailed right out of the fog as if it had been as solid and rigidly structured as a wall. Ahead of us, Juneau shone brightly under a brilliant-blue sky, bathed in sunlight.
Besides the floatplanes buzzing out ship as they took off from the harbour, I was entertained watching a small red helicopter make four circular passes above the Zuiderdam, the door open and a photographer sitting on the edge, snapping away furiously. Perhaps I’ll be able to spot myself in a future press photograph!
Which brings me to the best undiscovered viewing space onboard the Zuiderdam: the observation deck forward of the Gymnasium on Deck 9. But shhh! It’s a secret – don’t tell anyone!
Another thing I discovered last night that may benefit future cruisers attempting to use the Wi-Fi internet access: the signal seems to be far stronger in the ship’s public rooms than in the staterooms. In fact, I was able to post yesterday’s article and photos in just over 30 minutes; a far cry from the two-plus hours it took me Saturday night. Though hopefully none of you will have to do anything more strenuous than check your email while onboard!
The capital of Alaska, Juneau is located in the heat of the Tongass National Forest, a temperate rainforest that ranks among the largest in North America. Founded during the heyday of the Gold Rush in the latter half of the 1800’s, it’s estimated that there are more abandoned mine shafts and tunnels running underneath Mount Roberts than there are roads in the entire town!
These days, the new “gold rush” has been born in the tourism industry, with four ships including the Zuiderdam docked here, each of which carries no less than 2,000 guests for a rough total of 8,000 passengers descending upon this town of approximately 31,000 inhabitants in a single afternoon!
We tied up at the AJ Berth, also known as the most southerly berth, and the farthest away from the town centre. Shuttles were available for $3 per person roundtrip, cash only, exact change only – which I didn’t have. But, the weather was nice so I opted to walk into town. Here’s the lowdown: it’s a super-easy 30-minute walk each direction to go from the AJ Berth to the base of the Mount Roberts Tram, and from there Juneau can be explored very easily.
Juneau has a fantastic, complimentary city bus shuttle that performs a Downtown Loop that passengers can hop on and off of as they please. It’s just disappointing that same service couldn’t be extended to those passengers scheduled to dock at the AJ Berth.
From the icy chill of this morning’s fog, Juneau was bathed in sunshine and heat. I’d made it maybe five minutes from the ship when I had to peel off my coat; proof that not all Alaskan cruises are all rain and gloom!
I’ve been here three times before, and I always find myself both fascinated and perplexed by Juneau.
To start with, there’s some amazing local shops here that have some of the most intricately carved woodwork, jade work and artisan crafts I’ve seen anywhere in Alaska. Then – usually next door – they’ll have a shop that offers the usual T-Shirts, postcards, coffee mugs, and a veritable bevvy of chocolate-coated nuts marketed as “Deer Poop”, “Moose Poop”,“Polar Bear Poop”…well, you get the idea.
Never have I been somewhere where animal excrement was so-well marketed.
You could also opt to get your photo taken with a stuffed bear, or perhaps a cardboard cut-out of Alaska’s other famous native, Sarah Palin.
Feel free to groan at any time. I know I did. And yet, all of these stores are just packed to the rafters with people spending money hand-over-fist. So, much like my experiences in the Caribbean port of St. Thomas where I wonder privately if everyone has been stricken with some bizarre disease, I am clearly the exception here and not the rule.
I did, though, visit a shop that’s become something of a tradition for me: the Alaskan Fudge Shop. I’ve been coming here since 1998 for a brick of their deliciously sweet treats, and am always impressed at how well they mark their ingredients, noting which kinds of fudge have nuts and which are nut-free.
I also spent some time in two local bookstores, emerging with a hefty handful of titles on the Gold Rush and local shipwrecks. See? I told you I was the exception to the rule!
But I love the stores that boast local hand-crafted works of art, even if most of them are well out of my price-range. Though admittedly, if I had kids I’d probably be getting them the Moose Poop…
After a brilliant day spent in the unexpected sunshine wandering around Juneau, I made my way back to the Zuiderdam. I’m glad I did the walk; it was an enjoyable way to really experience more of the town than I have seen on past visits. I like to give Juneau a hard time, but I really do enjoy it here.
The benefits of sailing with Holland America were immediate upon my return: I had the ship to myself. Well, not quite, but the amount of space per passenger available onboard all HAL ships is quite generous to say the least. To top it off, the Zuiderdam’s friendly crew were waiting to welcome me back onboard. Regardless of whether it’s your first time with the line or your fifty-first, they really do go out of their way to make you feel comfortable and at home.
I also love the amount of live music onboard; it’s a feature that’s gradually disappearing from many ships and lines, but here onboard the Zuiderdam this evening, there’s no shortage of comfortable lounges featuring live acts to choose from.
In the Ocean Bar – where I am now – Ashley and the HALCats are performing from 7:00pm until 11:00pm. In the Piano Bar, pianist Bryan entertains from 9:00pm until 11:00pm. Classical music performed by Adagio can be heard in the Explorer’s Lounge on Deck 2 from 7:00pm until 11:00pm, and John Denver sound-alike Gary Lithgow is on the guitar in the Crow’s Nest from 5:00pm to 7:00pm, and again from 9:30pm until 11;30pm.
In addition to a gameshow, a comedy performance and “Name that Tune”, one of my favorite Holland America Line features is scheduled for 11:00pm tonight in the Vista Lounge: the Indonesian Crew Show. Here, Holland America gives the Zuiderdam’s talented Indonesian crew members their moment in the spotlight. These aren’t just the people who clean your stateroom, serve you breakfast or bring you your favorite drink with a smile; many of them are also supremely talented in ways that never cease to amaze and impress.
Before I began writing about my love of cruising three years ago, I’d already spent 30-plus days onboard HAL’s ships. As I sit here this evening, with the sun setting on the Zuiderdam and Juneau, it’s nice to see that the Holland America product has continued to evolve and change with the times, while still providing the same welcoming environment that got me hooked on the line nearly eight years ago.
Our Live Voyage Report from aboard Holland America Line’s Zuiderdam returns tomorrow as we spend the day in the Gold Rush town of Skagway, Alaska!
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