As part of my ongoing quest to visit every county seat in the USA, I’ve faced a number of challenges due to geography. Hawaii was a bit tricky as each of the major islands is a separate county. Getting to some towns and cities in the Rocky Mountains would be almost impossible in the winter without special preparations such as tire chains. The boroughs (counties) in southeast Alaska pose an interesting problem. Much like Hawaii, it’s impossible to drive from one to another (unless one uses the Alaska Marine Highway System, aka ferry, which is time-consuming and can be expensive, especially if taking a car). Basically the only way to get from place to place is to fly… or go by cruise ship.
Between May and September there are plenty of cruises through the Inside Passage. A few leave out of Seattle. Most others start in Vancouver, B.C. Some return to their starting port, while others continue on to Seward or Whittier. Of course for the ships that end in those two Alaskan ports, they do roughly the same route in reverse. Check out the Marriott partner site Cruise with Points to learn more about where you can go on an Alaska cruise and how to earn Bonvoy points.
Having previously used that site for a cruise to Greece, I had no problem finding exactly what I wanted—an 8-day cruise from Vancouver to Seward on the Azamara Quest. For those unfamiliar with Azamara cruises, it might be worth googling. Here’s what I think is relevant. The ships hold about 700 guests. All tips are included in the price. Also included are beer, wine, and spirits, though you can purchase a ‘premium’ beverage package which upgrades you to ‘top-shelf’ booze. You will pay a bit more for the cruise, but not that much more when you factor in all the extras you have to pay for on other cruise lines.
After booking the cruise, all that I needed to do was to figure out how to get to Vancouver. As many of you know, I’m a big fan of Alaska Airlines. You might have seen my exuberant comments when they started nonstop service from my hometown airport (CMH) to Seattle. Checking prices both to SEA and YVR, I determined the best deal was to fly to Seattle and take Amtrak to Vancouver. With the cruise departing on a Friday evening, we grabbed a Thursday evening flight to SEA and, taking advantage of my Bonvoy Visa free night certificate, I booked a night at the Seattle Grand Sheraton. Combing my free night with a SNA, I ended up with a 22nd floor executive suite overlooking Elliott Bay (Puget Sound). The room was essentially two complete hotel rooms, each with its own bathroom. The second room (on the corner of the building) had been converted from a bedroom to a setting room with two couches, a couple chairs, and round dining table. By the time we arrived it was after midnight back home and I was ready for bed. Apologies for not taking any photographs. Believe me, the room was very nice.
Since we needed to be up for a 7:45 morning train, we turned in early. Just before 3am, I woke up. About 2 seconds later, I felt the building shake as a 4.6 earthquake, centered about 40 miles north of Seattle rumbled through the city. As earthquakes go, that’s not a very big one, and as it turns out, a lot of the city slept right through it. I went right back to sleep. We hit the lounge breakfast right as it opened at 6am so we could take the Link light rail to the Amtrak station, timing our arrival for 7:00. After checking luggage, we boarded the train and headed north right on time.
I found it slightly amusing that the sign had to specify the destination, but I suppose in the past some confused passengers going to Canada must have found themselves across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon when they disembarked in Vancouver, Washington.
The ride on the Amtrak Cascades through Everett, Bellingham, and into Canada was scheduled for 4 hours. Our trip took about 45 minutes longer than that due to a couple delays, one related to track maintenance, the other for maritime traffic crossing under the rail drawbridge across the Fraser River. A quick ride on Vancouver’s SkyTrain brought us right to the cruise ship port at Canada Place. In less than an hour from the time we got off the train, we had checked our luggage, cleared customs, and boarded our ship. Anyone heading to Alaska by cruise ship goes through US customs before boarding, and the process is extremely efficient. We grabbed a quick lunch aboard the ship before exploring. The ship is almost identical to the Azamara Pursuit on which I visited Greece last September, so I already knew my way around. A couple hours later we were on our way.
The view of the city as we departed was most impressive (as was the weather).
We spent the first evening and next full day at sea, arriving in Ketchikan, Alaska the following morning. That’s where the county collecting starts and where I’ll pick up the tale in the next installment.