Day 1 – Embarking Safari Endeavour in Juneau

Un-Cruise Adventures' Safari Endeavour docked in Juneau, Alaska on August 31, 2014. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Un-Cruise Adventures’ Safari Endeavour docked in Juneau, Alaska on August 31, 2014. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Sunday, August 31, 2014

“You’re lucky you’re on the Un-Cruise,” my driver said as we drove through a darkened Juneau, Alaska just after 9 p.m. last night. “Tomorrow, there’ll be three or four of these big cruise ships in here. Floating 10-story casinos. They won’t see what you’ll see.”

I couldn’t debate him on that, though I did feel a bit obliged to stick up for my “big, floating 10-story casinos.” Still, he had a valid point: the whole purpose of my cruise on Un-Cruise Adventures’ Safari Endeavour, an 84-guest ship that measures a petit 232 feet in length, is to see and experience parts of Alaska that guests on the big cruise ships will simply sail right past.

Juneau, Alaska is a major port of call for large cruise ships - but it's also the starting point for numerous small-ship itineraries offered by Un-Cruise Adventures. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Juneau, Alaska is a major port of call for large cruise ships – but it’s also the starting point for numerous small-ship itineraries offered by Un-Cruise Adventures. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

My driver, Pat, continued as we drove down Franklin Street towards the Mount Roberts Tram before swinging around and heading up towards my digs for the night, the Westmark Baranof. “Come September 25, this whole place will look like a ghost town,” he said, referring to the inexplicable myriad of jewelry shops that line the street closest to the piers. “I mean, there’s a bamboo shop over there. You can come to Alaska and get ‘authentic’ Alaskan bamboo. It’s ridiculous.”

Again, I can’t debate him on that. The shop catering to the average cruise ship passenger is, quite frankly, nakedly embarrassing in terms of its lowest-common-denominator offerings, selling items that have nothing to do with the State and which are frequently not even made here. But then, that’s what I’ve always liked about Juneau: it’s a city of contrasts.

My home for the evening of August 30: a corner room at the Westmark Baranof hotel. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

My home for the evening of August 30: a corner room at the Westmark Baranof hotel. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

There's something from every decade in this hotel, which just celebrated it's 70th anniversary. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

There’s something from every decade in this hotel, which just celebrated it’s 70th anniversary. Still, it is comfortable and – for Juneau – one of the best hotels in town. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Consider this: Juneau is the State Capital of Alaska, which ironically has no access to the outside world outside of air and ship transportation. Half of the population resides farther north in Anchorage – which has road, rail, air and sea access – but Juneau’s 32,000 inhabitants were lucky enough to become residents in the capital city when Alaska was made an official state in 1959. In many ways, this is probably a good thing, as folks who live here can understand the isolation that many cities in Southeast Alaska experience.

I also like Juneau because it still has a bit of a hard edge to it. It hasn’t been “cleaned up” like Skagway has, and still retains more than a bit of its rugged Gold Rush-era atmosphere. The first time I came here, in 1998, one of the first things I saw were two grown men who exploded out of the door of a bar and promptly began beating the everloving snot out of each other, right in broad daylight. The bottom line: there’s some real characters here.

Sunday, August 31: the view from my room - and embarkation day! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Sunday, August 31: the view from my room – and embarkation day! Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

I flew in last night on Alaskan Airlines, which is quickly becoming my favorite U.S. carrier. From Vancouver, it was an easy commuter flight down to Seattle to connect to my direct flight to Juneau, though some flights make an intermediary stop in Ketchikan along the way. I like Alaskan Airlines because their planes are clean, their crews are friendly (are you listening, United?), and their Mileage Plan program rocks. It’s a good thing I like them, too, because they’re the only airline offering scheduled, year-round service to Juneau Airport.

Because of the unpredictable nature of air travel, I’d highly recommend flying in to any Un-Cruise sailing here in Alaska a day early. If you miss the ship, there’s not another port that you can just ‘hop onboard’ at. Unlike big cruise ships, Safari Endeavour won’t be seeing civilization again for another week.

Un-Cruise maintains a hospitality desk at the Westmark Baranof, making it convenient for overnight stays. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Un-Cruise maintains a hospitality desk at the Westmark Baranof, making it convenient for overnight stays. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Here in Juneau, Un-Cruise uses the Westmark Baranof for pre-and-post cruise hotel stays. Now, I’d walked by the Baranof several times on previous visits to Juneau, and it looked alright. Not great, just alright. Hotels in Alaska are…well, let’s be honest: they range from poor to average at best. Here’s why: during the summer months, they’re at peak occupancy. During the winter months, they may have a handful of guests if they don’t board up entirely. There’s just no need to make expensive renovations for five months that will be full-up anyhow; the cost-benefit just isn’t there.

I am, however, pleasantly surprised by the Baranof. Sure, the rooms, hallways and public spaces literally have something in them from almost every decade between now and the original opening of the hotel in 1939, but the hotel has been well-looked-after, and most importantly, the beds are super-comfortable.

There's also no shortage of nautical heritage here, like this fantastic model of Holland America's 1984 Noordam, which now operates for another line. Westmark Hotels are still a subsidiary of Holland America. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

There’s also no shortage of nautical heritage here, like this fantastic model of Holland America’s 1983 Noordam, which now operates for another line. Westmark Hotels are still a subsidiary of Holland America. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

My stay also wins brownie points for having a very cool lounge (The Bubble Lounge) that’s open late at night for snacks and drinks. I made good use of this last night, and noticed Cool Feature No.2: a huge model of Holland America Line’s 1983 Noordam just off the lobby. To this day, Westmark Hotels are still a subsidiary of Holland America Line.

Cool Feature No.3: the small café in the hotel that serves breakfast. It’s decorated like the year is 1986, and I nearly expected to see George, Elaine, Jerry and Kramer in a booth in the corner, but the food and service are excellent. They even make their own bread in-house, and guests who were clustered around the bar I was eating at were raving about the omelettes and French Toast. I had sourdough toast and oatmeal; try as I might, I just can’t handle the amount of food that comes with the typical American breakfast.

Out and about in Juneau on a typically rainy day. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Out and about in Juneau on a typically rainy day. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Now, if you’re ever wondering, “should I be a travel writer?” consider my post-breakfast morning. Prior to taking my first photos of the day in Juneau, I lost my lens cap. It fell out of my hands as I was taking it off my Nikon, and I stood paralyzed as it rolled down the hill on Franklin Street and slipped silently into the cracks of a storm sewer. Jackpot! If there had been a million dollars riding on that happening, it would have rolled off harmlessly to one side.

So, $6 later, I had a replacement lens cap fitted to my camera thanks to the nice people at Digital Express on Franklin Street. My joy, however, was tempered at lunch when I realized my watch was literally falling apart. It’s not a cheap watch, but when I looked down to check the time, the little knob that you use to adjust the time has completely fallen off. Again, jackpot. My watch is now forever stuck on Alaskan time. When you’re a travel writer, nothing lasts long.

The location of the clock marks the approximate spot where Joe Juneau set up shop in 1880. The Canadian prospector from Quebec would found Juneau along with Richard Harris. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

The location of the clock marks the approximate spot where Joe Juneau set up shop in 1880. The Canadian prospector from Quebec would found the town that bears his name along with Richard Harris. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

With a meeting time at the Un-Cruise hospitality area of the Westmark Baranof scheduled for 4:45p.m., I chose to spend the afternoon wandering around Juneau. I had lunch at Tracy’s Crab Shack, which is an absolute must-visit. I’ve never had better crab bisque in my life, and it pairs well with an Alaskan Amber Ale. After all the times I’ve been to Juneau in the past, I am embarrassed to say this was my first time there – but it won’t be my last.

Tracy's Crab Shack. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Tracy’s Crab Shack. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Lunch at Tracy's Crab Shack, on the pier between the first two cruise ship berths. Best crab bisque I've ever had. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Lunch at Tracy’s Crab Shack, on the pier between the first two cruise ship berths. Best crab bisque I’ve ever had. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

After a few trips to my favorite bookstores – and far too much money spent – I popped into the Triangle Club Bar for a pint of Alaskan Amber and a bit of Wi-Fi access. It will, after all, be a full week before I have internet back, and if I have to enjoy a pint of Alaska’s finest while I work, well, c’est la vie.

Our scheduled meeting time arrived before long, and the group of travellers from around the world that will spend the next week together aboard the Safari Endeavour all met at the Westmark Baranof. To get to the ship, we were presented with two choices: bus – or walk.

If you're looking for salty tales and cold drinks, I always like The Triangle Club Bar in Juneau - which, somewhat ironically, features a large selection of pictures of old shipwrecks. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

If you’re looking for salty tales and cold drinks, I always like The Triangle Club Bar in Juneau – which, somewhat ironically, features a large selection of pictures of old shipwrecks. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Now, I’d already been to photograph the Safari Endeavour early in the day, and I knew she was literally three blocks away, next to the A Dock where Holland America’s Zaandam was tied up. Despite the rain, I was thrilled when we were offered a walking option – and I clearly wasn’t alone. Over half of the entire ship – about 40 people – elected to walk through the drizzle down to the pier, while the other half took the coach.

Once I stepped onboard Safari Endeavour, I was personally shown to my Commander Stateroom on Deck 3 – and the differences between my last Un-Cruise experience aboard the Safari Voyager in Mexico’s Sea of Cortes became immediately apparent.

Click here to continue reading!

Our Live Voyage Report onboard Un-Cruise Adventures’ Safari Endeavour continues tomorrow as we arrive in Glacier Bay and cruise to Margerie Glacier! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.

 

One Response to Safari Endeavour Live Voyage Report – Day 1

  1. lisa says:

    I so enjoy reading your stores

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