Saturday, August 30, 2008
Canceled Trip to New Orleans due to Hurricane Gustav
Dang it. We had planned to go to New Orleans this weekend with a friend, but we just had to cancel our trip due to Hurricane Gustav. Bummer!
Oh well. At least we got all our money back from the hotel. They had some special cancelation policies in this case. Normally we would have owed them one night's worth.
BTW: Did you know that when I was little, I used to tell people my name was "Gustav" so they would feel sorry for me and give me candy? True story...
Posted @ 10:50 AM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com) -
Saturday, August 09, 2008
Skagway, the Klondike Gold Rush, Helicopters, and Dog Sledding
The first true port of call of our Alaska cruise - not counting the departure port of Whittier, and not counting any of the stops and "fly-buys" at various glaciers - was the tiny town of Skagway. Skagway is situated at the northernmost tip of the inner passage in south-east Alaska. (It took me a while to get used to the term "south-east Alaska"... after all, going on this cruise brings most folks about as far north and west as they have ever been, and then they end up in a place called "south-east").
The Klondike Gold Rush
Skagway's main claim to fame is having been the "gateway to the Klondike gold rush", and practically everything in Skagway that isn't a jewelry store is somehow related to those few years way back when. When gold was discovered in the Klondike area (which is actually in Canada, hundreds of miles from Skagway), news about it spread quickly (that is, within a year or so... we are talking about the 1800s here...) to places like Seattle and beyond. The overall financial and economic climate in the country at the time was such that just about anyone was immediately fascinated by this sole and unique opportunity to strike it rich, and thus was easily persuaded into risking just about everything for a chance to dig the precious metal out of heaps of mud. Apparently even Seattle's mayor resigned and ventured north.
Things weren't really easy though. Getting to the Klondike fields was difficult. The Canadian government proposed two alternate routes. One involved a lengthy trip by sea, all the way around western Alaska and into Anchorage, followed by a lengthy trip on land. Only a handful of men who attempted that approach ever made it through. The other option was to travel up the inner passage all the way to the end, which meant that you ended up either in Skagway or Dyea. From these places, you could then venture on by foot over some treacherous mountain passes to Lake Bennett. Depending on whether you started out in Skagway or Dyea, you would attempt one of two routes: The White Pass, a slightly longer track from Skagway later named Dead Horse Trail (so named due to the many pack animals that died up that path), or the slightly shorter, but incredibly steep Chilkoot Trail. Most people attempted this in the middle of the Alaskan winter in order to be ready to move towards the Klondike fields as soon as spring would set in. This would allow miners to arrive as early as possible and also at a time of year when the snow melt tended to wash down the most gold from the mountains.
This picture gives you an idea why it is called the "Dead Horse Trail".
Now as if this wasn't though enough already, it gets a bit worse: The Canadian (North West) Mounted Police ("Mounties") had seen such mad dashes for riches before and had realized, that it left most men unable to support themselves. Therefore, stampeders (which is what the men rushing in to dig for gold were called) had to bring enough food and supplies to support themselves for an entire year, or else they wouldn't be allowed to cross the border. This meant that each men had to bring about 1,500 pounds (some even say 1 metric ton) of goods, which meant that not only did they have to cross the mountains once, but most had to make around 40 round trips to get all their stuff moved, resulting in about a thousand miles those guys had to walk before they were allowed to cross the border into Canada. (All this may seem pretty harsh, but it apparently did prevent major starvation problems). One might think that this would have deterred most, but quite the contrary is the case. The line of men attempting the trek was such that one is tempted to call it a "3 month traffic jam".
That black line going up the mountain is a queue of people trying to cross the Chilkoot Pass with all their gear.
Even for those that made it this far, things didn't improve much. After all, several hundred miles of journey were still between the stampeders and the Klondike. The rest was on the Yukon river to the Klondike gold fields near Dawson City. That of course required a boat, which the men had to construct, starting by cutting down some trees for the wood. Few of them had ever built any boats before, so the typical "boat" must have been quite the contraption, with which they attempted to brave some serious rapids. Most of the stampeders that made it this far made it to the gold fields. But guess what: By now, a year and a half (or more) had gone by, and all the gold fields were already claimed, leaving most of the men with little opportunity. The Klondike gold fields were extremely rich, but only a very few struck it rich. Most of the men simply ended up earning a wage by working for those that had manage to make their claim early, or could afford to buy out another man's claim.
Skagway Then and Now
Skagway's role in the gold rush was simply that it was the point furthest north in the inner passage (together with Dyea), accessible by steam boat, making it an ideal starting point as far as the stampeders were concerned. This allowed Skagway to grow from a simple tent camp into a tent-town with fake wooden fronts to make the tents appear more like houses, to a town of real buildings with fake facades to make the buildings appear bigger. In fact, the town grew so fast that it soon was the biggest town in Alaska.
As you can imagine, Skagway didn't just attract gold miners, but there were merchants and dance hall girls and outlaws. The most successful con-man was an individual by the name of Jeff "Soapy" Smith, who ran all kinds of scams, from fake telegraph offices to fixed gambling and apparently quite violent stuff. He had apparently made such an impression on the town (before he was shot dead) that even today, a lot of the stuff you will hear around Skagway will include "Soapy".
We arrived in Skagway very early in the morning. We decided at the very beginning of our cruise (which is pretty much the latest possible point in time for such a decision, if you want a good chance at tours not being booked out) that we wanted to do a helicopter tour up to a glacier, to visit a dug musher's camp ("musher" is what you call a dog sled "operator"). However, that tour wasn't until 2pm, so we had plenty of time for a slow start and a hearty breakfast before we strolled into town with plenty of time to explore before our tour started.
Skagway today is a tourist attraction entirely based on the few years of the gold rush. You will see old buildings and saloons, which is all very entertaining in a way. I recommend you take a free tour operated by rangers, and generally stroll around the town. It is quite easy to do so, since most of the buildings have been rearranged (moved) to be in one general area that even Johnny Geezer can walk comfortably. Looking at most of the buildings is quite fun. I recommend you at least poke your head into the Red Onion Saloon and (former) brothel. (You can take a tour there. "$5 for 15 minutes... just like in the days of the gold rush", they say...).
The Red Onion Saloon.
However, be aware that what you are seeing is there for only one reason: Cruise ship tourists. You might get an entertaining glimpse of a condensed and glorified version of Skagway from back then, but you are not visiting an Alaskan town the way it is. If it wasn't for cruise ship tourists, Skagway would not exist today at all. (In fact, Dyea is not a town anymore today, since the fjord that used to be its port is to shallow for cruise ships to enter). It is a collection of jewelry and souvenir stores that have nothing to do with Alaska or Skagway, unless someone neglected to tell me that Soapy Smith was the founder of "Diamonds International". What you are seeing is an extension of the cruise ships and not something that is Alaskan. While I found myself somewhat amused by it all, I am also quite appalled by it all. Go to Skagway and have some fun, but be aware that what you are seeing is no more genuine Alaska, than a visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom provides a glimpse into Florida's wildlife.
The streets of Skagway today.
So we found ourselves strolling around the streets of Skagway (mainly "Broadway", actually). You can find tons of jewelry and souvenirs here. What is strangely missing are places to eat. I guess Johnny Geezer doesn't like to spend money on dining experience since that would mean missing out on the food provided on the cruise ship. So pretty much your only options are the Red Onion Saloon, which is always overrun and you have to wait forever, or a bar and grille (the name of which I forgot) which is pretty much a modern sports bar and seems strangely out of place. We ate there, and the food was terrible. So all in all, while it was fun for a few hours, I was glad when the time had come to go on our tour.
Helicopters and Dog Sleds
We had booked a tour that was a little more expensive than I had originally allocated for a single-day tour ($500), but in hindsight, going on this tour was one of the best decisions we ever made. We took off in a helicopter pretty much right from down town Skagway. There were 6 helicopters that took off all at once, but only ours and one other took the same route (with 6 passengers each).
Skagway helicopter port.
Our helicopter was just behind the other one, which gave us a great view of the other helicopter flying ahead of us, which to me, made things almost more impressive. Of course, just flying in a helicopter was an incredible experience (and a first for me, believe it or not). Flying over the fjord and passed the cruise ships, up into the forested mountains and then on to the snow covered mountains and glaciers, past an enormous ice fall. Seeing the other helicopter in front of us provided an intense sense of scale and made this one of the most impressive things I have experienced. (And being from Austria, it isn't all that easy to impress me with mountains, mind you).
Can you spot the leading helicopter flying across the ice fall?
After about 20 minutes in the air, we landed on top of a glacier at the dog musher's camp on Denver Glacier. There, a number of musher's (some with Iditarod experience) camp out with 290 dogs for several months. Flying into the camp and landing on the glacier (which had a good snow covering, hiding most of the crevasses) was a sight to behold.
Flying into the dog musher's camp.
Timing had worked out perfect for us. A somewhat foggy day in the morning had turned into a beautifully sunny afternoon. It couldn't have been better. We were greeted by "our musher" Olaf, who claimed he was from Fairbanks but was originally from Europe as we found out later. He had brought 30 of his dogs who we all met. They were incredibly friendly and the 10 of them we took out on a run were just incredibly excited to get to run. Before we took the sleds for a spin however, we aquatinted ourselves with the dogs who all had quite different personalities.
The dogs are very friendly and used to being handled.
We then sledded off, 2 sleds tied together, with Olaf steering the first one, and me pretend-steering the second one. Olaf was really in full control of both sleds, but just standing on the back of the sleds was a thrilling experience. And it wasn't hard at all, since all the hard work was done for us. Even Ellen gave it a go and was afterwards happy she had done it. We went around on the sled for maybe 20 minutes. Maybe more, but it sure seemed way too short when it ended. I found myself fascinated by dog sledding ("big surprise" some would say, since I always say I would like to own a dog if I had a different life style) and could easily envision myself picking it up as a hobby, if I lived in Alaska.
The sled in action with Olaf, our musher.
The visit to the musher's camp ended with a tour of the camp, and the most important part: A quick visit to the camp's puppies. Sled dogs are bred to be friendly, and the mushers apparently like it when people handle them to get the dogs accustomed to people. Here is one of the two puppies we spent some time with:
How's that for a puppy dog face?
The tour ended with a 10-15 minute helicopter flight back to Skagway, making for an interesting transition from one of Alaska's most traditional ways of travel, to one of the most modern. Once again, just the helicopter ride over the Alaskan wilderness would have made for a thrilling tour all by itself.
All in all, the day we spent in Skagway was fantastic. In terms of a once-in-a-life experience, it was probably one of my favorite things I have ever done. It was certainly well worth the $500, and possibly even quite a bit more. I would be hard-pressed to say whether I liked Glacier Bay or our dog sledding tour better. (And the same is true for our kayaking adventure, which I have yet to blog about). I guess all these things were awesome for different reasons and stand on their own as incredible things I will never forget. I even enjoyed the town of Skagway for what it was, despite being put off by the touristy fakeness of it all. Maybe once in a while, you can just be a tourist, can't you? Maybe.
This post belongs to a series of posts describing our cruise in Alaska (June 2008). The following is a list of all 6 posts in this series:
Posted @ 4:28 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org) -
Friday, August 08, 2008
Sailing the Fjords and Glaciers of Alaska
Now that I have blogged about the overall experience (and setup) of our cruise in Alaska, let's talk a bit more about some of the specific trips we made. Our cruise left from Whittier and sailed south-east, starting out with 2 days at sea, visiting some great glaciers, before we sailed down the "inside passage", all the way to Vancouver:
For me, this first part of the cruise was the main attraction. I simply wanted to see some of those gigantic tidewater glaciers "calve". Those are glaciers who reach all the way down from the mountain to the ocean. The face of the glacier is often 10,000 year old ice that got pushed down from all the way up the top of a mountain. As glaciers flow down slowly, the face gets pushed into the ocean where the ice mixes with salt water, causing it to break of bits and pieces. Often, these "bits" are quite large. As they break off, they form ice bergs (or "bergy-bits", which are the smaller variation of ice bergs that occur in the Pacific ocean). The process is loud and spectacular.
However, glaciers are also retreating, and there are fewer and fewer tide water glaciers left. Whether this is caused by global warming or not is a different story (my money is on "yes"), but either way, they are retreating no matter the reason. So seeing this was very high on my list.
Our cruise left from Whittier at around 9:30pm the first night (at bright daylight, I might add) and sailed to our first destination: College Fjord. College Fjord has a number of different glaciers, some tide water, some further up. And you guessed it, they are all named after universities. College Fjord is not very far from Whittier, so we arrived there at 6am. Not my preferred time, but it really didn't matter so much. We got up and watched in awe. The glaciers are spectacular, and sailing through waters full of small floating ice bergs (yes, they are really called "bergy-bits") isn't something you see every day. The most spectacular glacier here is Harvard Glacier:
A look at Harvard Glacier from the ship on an early morning of a gloomy day.
You do not see any glaciers calving here. There also is a limit as to how close the ship can get to the glacier itself. Nevertheless, it was well worth getting up early (and after all, we could go back to sleep at around 9am). We saw amazing scenery, several glaciers, and even quite a bit of wildlife on shore. We counted at least 2 or 3 bears. However, they were admittedly quite far in the distance.
The rest of day 1 was spent at sea. This was also the only day, where, for a brief period of time, we were out of the sight of land. Amazingly, the ocean was completely calm with maximum wave heights of less than 1 foot. Quite unusual, from what I understand.
The next day, we arrived in Glacier Bay. This was the part of the trip I looked forward to the most, and in hindsight, I can only recommend a cruise that includes Glacier Bay. We entered the bay at around 9am, and right away, we were rewarded with the sighting of several Humpback whales. Some even quite close to the ship (which at that point had to sail very slowly to protect the many whales in that area). Seeing your first Humpback whale relatively close is a sight you won't forget. I just stood there for at least an hour watching for whales and seals.
At around 1:30pm, after sailing past awesome scenery and several glaciers, we arrived at the main attraction: Margerie Glacier. This is about as amazing a tide water glacier you will ever see, and the ship stops right in front of it for about an hour (quite close too). The size of the glacier is just amazing. Its face is about a mile wide and reaches 250feet (almost 100 meters at the tallest parts) out of the water (another 100 feet are below the ocean's surface). The whole glacier is about 21 miles long (34km). The amazing aspect here is that you can just wait for the glacier to calve. Every few minutes, a piece will break off with a thunderous roar and a big splash. It is a peculiar experience. Most of the time is spent waiting for something to happen (camera at the ready), and then each "event" is over in just a few seconds, followed by half the ship saying "dang... I missed the photo opportunity!". But it is one of the most amazing natural sights I have ever seen. Right there, the whole trip would have been worth it!
At Glacier Bay, even very large ships like the Diamond Princess can get very very close to the calving glaciers. Is is a very very impressive sight that you surely won't forget.
Glacier ice is blue due to its compression over tens of thousands of years. In the middle of the picture, with the sun shining through, it is most apparent.
Looking back at Glacier Bay as we are sailing away on a gorgeous day.
The ship we were on (Diamond Princess) was a great vessel to see this from. Despite there being 2,600 passengers on board, we had no trouble finding a spot on deck that allowed us to witness everything comfortably. The captain did a great job at giving us enough time to enjoy the spectacle, and he turned the boat around, so absolutely everyone had the chance to see it. (And yes, there even was enough room for everyone to walk over to the other side once the ship turned and watch some more).
Of course, standing by the railing wasn't the only way to see the glacier. Some people used one of the ships many hot-tubs to watch everything in their bathing suits, with a cocktail in their hands. What a trip!
However, a word of warning is in order: Glaciers are frozen because temperatures are low! I had expected temperatures in the 50s, but with the wind chill, things can get very cold, and I ended up buying a hat, scarf, and gloves. Luckily, I had brought enough sweaters and a winter jacket. Nevertheless, it was rather cold (and having caught myself a serious cold the week before in Seattle didn't help either [Update: 6 weeks later it turned out that I actually had pneumonia... but hey! Can't let little details ruin a great trip, right? :-)]).
The rest of the day we spent traveling back out from Glacier Bay towards our first real stop. We watched tons of great scenery and saw quite a bit of wildlife. Bears, seals, whales, and eagles. You can expect to see them while you watch for them on deck, or you can see them from one of the ship's bars, or the dining rooms, or... well, you see them practically all the time! And that didn't change as we sailed on towards Skagway. That however shall be the story of my next post...
This post belongs to a series of posts describing our cruise in Alaska (June 2008). The following is a list of all 6 posts in this series:
Posted @ 1:07 PM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com) -
Thursday, August 07, 2008
Cruising in Alaska
I have always wanted to go to Alaska. I have also always known how I wanted to do it: Go for at least 2 weeks, cruise for 1 week, and travel around some interesting places the other. (And thanks to my Alaskan friend Don Kiely, I have a pretty good list of great stuff to do as well!). I have always wanted to go in late June, since the spring equinox is on June 21st, which makes for the longest day in the year. The problem has always been that I am usually extremely busy in the spring, with all the conferences and trade shows we go to, and even if the conferences are over by late June, we are so busy catching up with everything, we just don't have time to go.
The same thing happened again this year. However, we decided we didn't care. We have been talking about going to Alaska for 9 years now, and it never worked out, because we were just too busy that year. But you know what? That will probably be true for every year to come in the near future, so we decided we would see if we could make it work this year. And besides, we already hat to visit with Microsoft in June this year anyway, so we were already in Seattle. How much more convenient could it possibly get? Maybe, we reasoned, we could even find a cruise that left and arrived in Seattle.
We did however decided that we could only get away for a week. After all, we have also just been to Costa Rica. So the plan was to do the cruise this year, and then at some point in the (hopefully near) future, we would go back to Alaska and do some hiking and other adventures. Maybe the cruise would give us a way to see what kinds of things we liked the most, which would give us an extra chance to plan the second trip better anyway.
So it all became about finding the best possible cruise. I had a few things on my list that I really wanted to do. After all (as you know if you read some of my previous posts), I am not really a cruise fan. However, in Alaska, there are some things you can do on a cruise ship that would be very very difficult otherwise. For one, I wanted to see the glaciers "calve" (that is when pieces break off and fall into the ocean). That was probably the biggest selling point for me. After all, how much longer will we be able to see tide-water glaciers from ships the way things are going now? We soon realized that cruises that leave from Seattle or Vancouver spend a lot of time sailing up (and later down) the Canadian coast, but they barely reach the southernmost tip of Alaska. And they don't really go anywhere near the massive glaciers. No, that wasn't going to do it! I wanted a cruise that went to a major glacier, preferably Glacier Bay. With that in mind, we realized we had to either start or end the cruise at one of the ports near Anchorage, which left the ports of Whittier and Seaward as the obvious choices.
We finally settled on a cruise from Whittier with Princess Cruises. We booked it about 10 days before the cruise actually started, which is kinda crazy in a way. However, it worked out really well for us! We got an inside state room (no windows) for $589 per person! We considered getting a room with a balcony. This really appealed to me, because there is a ton of stuff to see on an Alaskan cruise, and I didn't want to spend all the time standing up on deck. However, a balcony cabin would have been close to $2,000 a person, and that just wasn't worth it to us. In hindsight, that was a good decision. While a balcony certainly would have been nice (our ship - the Diamond Princess - had very nice setups for balcony cabins), in the end, I really didn't see myself spending all that much time in the room anyway. If I did the same cruise again, I might be spend an extra $400-500 for a cabin with a balcony, at most. But I wouldn't have wanted to spend 3 times the regular price.
Of course, going out of Whittier also meant that we had to fly to Anchorage. An extra expense, you might think, but this wasn't really true in our case. We already had to fly from Houston to Eugene to Seattle and back (for business), which (as most 3-legged trips are) was a relatively pricey ticket already. Adding a 4th leg to Anchorage really didn't make any difference price-wise. So the core cruise cost us less than $600, for a 7-day cruise with all meals included. Drinks are extra, but I purchased a $29 all-you-can-drink soft drink promotion, which also was good for all the sit-down restaurants. (Sometimes, when you buy these promotions at cruises, they are good for bars and the swimming pool area and such, but not for the real meals, which is a rip-off!). So that all worked out very well. Of course, you will end up spending more for tours you take from the ship (I will blog separately about those), and you just gotta take those! What is the point of an Alaskan cruise, if you do not go to the glaciers, whales, or other wildlife? Still, all in all, the cruise wasn't very expensive for us. We met some other people on board that spend as much as $4,000 a person (not counting tours). I don't think I would have been very happy paying that. But for what we paid, this was an absolute bargain!
I was also very happy with the cruise we ended up picking. The Diamond Princess is an absolutely marvelous ship! Much more impressive and modern than the cruise to Mexico we did earlier this year. The ship holds over 2,600 guests and it was completely full, but to my surprise, most of the time, it felt like the ship was half empty. No lines for food or restaurants. Getting on and off the ship was as easy as walking in and out of a building with no wait whatsoever. Most of the time, we had one of the many hot-tubs to ourselves. When there were things to see outside, there was always enough room at the railings. The ship was just so darn big that you couldn't tell how many people were on board.
Of course, you have to be aware that if you do this type of cruise, you will be cruising with Johnny Geezer here. Not that there is anything wrong with it (and I apologize to all the old geezers reading this... but if you read my blog, you are, by definition, not an old geezer anyway), but it means that the nightclub (which would have otherwise been awesome) is going to be empty and deserted at 10pm (more than an hour before the sun goes down, mind you!) and the casino isn't faring much better. Johnny Geezer just doesn't like to party. Johnny also likes to eat early, which you can use to your advantage if you just eat a little later and you will get the bet tables right by the windows. It also means that most of the more adventurous tours will be available even if you book a bit later. So there are pros and cons to this. It's just something to be aware of.
And it's a bummer too, that young people do not go on these cruises more. After all, they are not all that expensive, comparatively speaking. And there is tons of stuff to do for young people. Probably more than for our friend Johnny. In fact, most of the tours are operated by college kids, because they are the ones that are into the more adventurous stuff. Plus, the ship would be great to party the (5-hour) night away! But nope. You will be playing bingo and watch song & dance shows, because that is what Johnny Geezer likes to do. Unless you bring your own friends and your own fun, that is.
So with all that in mind, we flew up to Anchorage, which was an experience in itself. We left Seattle Friday night at 9pm. Maybe even a bit later, because it was already completely dark when we left. As we flew north however, it got lighter and lighter, and as we arrived in Anchorage around midnight (1 hour time difference), it was light enough to read a book without a light. We spent that night in Anchorage. I was not very impressed by Anchorage overall. I have to admit that I didn't spend nearly enough time there to make a real statement, but everything I saw was run down and dirty. That includes the hotel we stayed in, which was pretty expensive at the same time (Best Western, I believe).
The next day, we traveled on a train down to Whittier. This was a somewhat scenic ride and we saw Eagles and other wildlife. Some people say they saw moose, but I missed that. Overall, the train ride was interesting and entertaining, and even though I normally hate trains, I would do this again and I would recommend it. After about 2 hours, we arrived in Whittier. We had originally looked for flights to Whittier but couldn't find an airport. As we arrived, it became pretty obvious why that was the case. Whittier is a small town. Very small. In fact, all the people in Whittier live in a single (!!) building! Think about this one for a moment. I mean, how would anyone meet anyone new? "I met someone really interesting on the 5th floor today..." just doesn't seem right.
The "town" of Whittier, as seen from the ship.
Anyway: We got off the train in Whittier and just walked across the street and straight onto the ship. We were among the first people on board. The boarding process was extremely straightforward. There was no line at all, so getting to our cabin was about as simple as checking into a hotel. We were off to the buffet and had gained 2 pounds before most of the people even arrived.
Our first glimpse of the "Diamond Princess" as we arrived with the train.
Talking about the buffet: The food on the ship was reasonably good, but it wasn't anywhere near as good as it was on the Carnival cruise. Buffet selection was limited (I thought), and also the sit-down meals were just OK. We had opted for the "any time dining" rather than the set times, which I really liked. However, the food quality was not what I had expected. Also, food-related service was not all that great. Waiters were reasonably nice, but not really outgoing. You always had to ask for a refill, and it always seemed to take forever for them to come around. I finished many a meal before I got my drink.
However, that is the only bad thing I have to say about the whole cruise. We left from Whittier and went straight into College Fjord. We then went on to Glacier Bay where we saw what we had to see: Glaciers calving. We also stopped in Skagway where we flew to a dog musher's camp in a helicopter. We went whale watching in Juneau, and we went kayaking in Ketchikan. Each and every one of those things would have made the trip worthwhile, and I would be hard pressed to tell you what my favorite thing was.
But all that, I will leave for other blog posts :-).
For now, let me just say, this this was an incredible trip. Definitely one of those "I want to do this once before I die" type of trips (and - as one of the comedians on board remarked - a lot of people on this trip barely made it in time, by the looks of it). I came away hugely impressed. I managed to check off several items from my bucket list, but I also added several new ones (resulting in a net-loss, some would argue, but that's OK). I am definitely planning to return to Alaska in the future, and I am now much more prepared to plan those trips. So in that regard, the trip has worked out exactly how I expected. In a lot of other ways, it way succeeded expectations...
This post belongs to a series of posts describing our cruise in Alaska (June 2008). The following is a list of all 6 posts in this series:
Posted @ 11:29 AM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org) -
Saturday, August 02, 2008
Adventure in Costa Rica: Quepos and a Hurricane Alma
Previously on "Adventure in Costa Rica": After an adventurous trip to, and jungle-hike in Corcovado National Park, and a great day of hiking and snorkeling on Caño Island, we took a much delayed jungle-flight from Palma Sur to Quepos for a more leaned back experience. (Click the following links for the first 3 posts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)
Corcovado National Park had been great and certainly a highlight of the trip. It is a great adventure for those who like to take active trips and have "experiences". For the next part of our trip, we had planned for a more relaxed stop in Quepos, one of the resort towns of Costa Rica. Bars, restaurants, and resort hotels dominate Quepos, although still in a fashion that is more environmentally friendly than I have seen anywhere else. The lush tropical rain forest overgrows just about everything unless it is actively cut away, and even then, most hotels and other buildings are built into the green mountainside at Quepos in a way that masks most man-made buildings, with lots of trees on all properties. Just about anywhere, you might end up with a monkey swinging overhead, or some tropical bird flying by.
We stayed at the "Si Como No" resort (loosely translated "Sure, why not?"). I haven't stayed at any other resorts in town, so I can't truly compare, but it seems that this is one of the nicer places to stay. We certainly enjoyed our stay. The rooms were nice, the food was good, and the view was excellent.
The view from the reception of the Si Como No resort.
Quepos may be more of a "standard" tourist resort, but it still has some eco-tourism to offer. In particular, the Manuel Antonio National Park is a must-see for everyone who comes to Quepos. Granted, after having seen Corcovado National Park, this seemed to be a more artificial affair. Expect wide and well worn paths with handrails and concrete stepping stones. So this isn't a true jungle experience, but nevertheless, it is worth seeing. You have to pay an entry fee to get in, but it is worth it, especially if you allow enough time to hike around the park. You could easily make this an all-day excursion. (You can pay for a local guide, but you probably won't need one). We saw various kinds of monkeys, lizards, mammals, birds, and (most entertaining of all), sloths. The later may be a little hard to spot at first (at least with monkeys, you can look for movement, but with sloths...) but with a little bit of patience, you will surely run into a fellow visitor who has spotted one and points it out to everyone else. Our first sighting of a sloth occurred after we sat under a tree on the beach for about 30 minutes. I laid back on my towel and looked up into the tree, and there it was! Sleeping right above our heads without us even noticing.
One of the beaches at Manuel Antonio National Park during a brief rain-break.
Unfortunately for us, this was also where the weather took a decided turn for the worse. Earlier in the day, we had tons of clouds and a slight drizzle, and that turned into a real downpour while we hiked through the park. We tried to find shelter under some trees at the beach, and it was easily warm enough to go swimming even. But still, it just wasn't quite the same as a nice, sunny day. Which was a real bummer, because some of the beaches in the park are plain awesome. Nice sandy bays with no rocks or corals in the water, lined by rugged coast lines at both ends of the bays. Palm trees grow out over the surf. Very picturesque, and well worth coming back to the park, even if you have no interest in hiking. (The beaches are also easy to get to without a long hike).
A sloth hanging upside-down in a tree, moving along at a pace that was quite out of this world. One would think a creature that comes down from the trees only once every 40 days for a "bio break" would be more in a hurry at that point...
The next day was even worse weather-wise. The word "downpour" does not do it justice. "Monsoon" is more like it. We still went down to the beach in Quepos, and I decided to hire one of the local surf-guides to take advantage of what seemed to be pretty nice (although not huge) waves. As it turned out however, the waves really packed a punch. They were extremely short and powerful, much beyond what I have seen in places like Oahu, Maui, or California. Unless you timed diving through the waves really carefully, waves might break into your back with enough force to make you fear you could snap your spine. Luckily, things weren't quite that bad, but about 20 minutes into my surf-adventure, my guide got mangled by a wave and was pushed to the bottom (which luckily was sandy rather than a coral reef) and dislocated his shoulder. I ended up having to help him out to the beach. I went back to surf a little more on my own, but the weather was so decidedly nasty at this point that is simply was no fun.
Ellen was waiting at the beach under a huge umbrella, but soaked nevertheless. At this point, most of the little merchant tents had closed down since nobody else was around anyway. We ended up eating at one of the few restaurants that were still open before we returned to the hotel.
While the hotel was really nice, it also was not made for indoor activities. As almost everything in Costa Rica, all the restaurants are basically outdoors. Some have roofs, but none have walls. The rooms were also nice, but made for relaxing rather than spending time in the room. The hotel's indoor entertainment offerings were sparse (there was a movie theater, I believe). The weather was so dreadful that we could hardly leave the room, which made for a really boring stay. The only thing we did that day was go out for dinner to the "Airplane Restaurant", a fancy place just down the street, built around an old American military cargo plane that was somehow involved in the "Iran-Contra Affair". It ended up being left at an Airport somewhere in Central America, before the owner of the restaurant bought it, brought it to Quepos, and build an entire restaurant around it from scratch. It makes for a pretty cool and nicely done place. The food was also good (which is true for almost every place we went to in Costa Rica... another place in Quepos I can recommend is "Ronny's Place". Have the fish-platter...).
As it turned out, the rain was not a matter of the rainy season anymore. We had actually gotten ourselves into a hurricane. The first named hurricane of the season in fact. Nice to meet you, "Alma". Luckily, Alma was more wet than wild, so wind-speed was not a major factor (at least where we were), but it rained so hard, that nearby areas flooded, including several bridges we needed to cross on our way to our next stop (lake Arenal, which features an active volcano as well as awesome windsurfing... I was really looking forward to this stop). We waited for a day, but things didn't seem to improve, so we had little choice but to end our Costa Rica trip early and cancel the third leg of our trip.
All that was left to do at this point was to get a ride back to San Jose as soon as the roads were passable. However, "passable" is a somewhat flexible term as we came to discover. On our way to San Jose, we saw not just flood damage from the 2 days before, but some severe actual flooding caused by some broken damns.
Even once the roads were "passable" again, after hurricane Alma, the trip was still somewhat of an adventure.
Large areas we had to pass through on the way to San Jose were flooded.
Many of the houses and neighborhoods we saw on our way out suffered a similar fate.
Needless to say that this must have been cause for some incredible human tragedies and suffering, as we saw many a home being flooded or covered in mud up to the windows. But to make matters worse, not only did we see neighborhoods flooded, but on top of it, there were 12 foot crocodiles swimming in the waters. Talk about a double-whammy!
When your house floods, and you think it couldn't possibly get any worse... you realize that there is more in the water than just bacteria...
So our trip to Costa Rica had ended on a somewhat sour note. Nevertheless, the trip was awesome, and we have seen many things and lived through many experiences we will never forgot. We certainly plan to return to Costa Rica. The country is incredibly rich in things that just need to be seen and experienced. The people there were among the most genuinely nice I have ever met. And the overall vibe of the place is very much to my liking. But next time, I will come a bit earlier in the year (March or April perhaps) to avoid the dreaded rainy season...
This post belongs to a series of posts describing our trip to Costa Rica (May 2008). The following is a list of all 4 posts in this series:
Posted @ 3:57 PM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com) -