Friday, December 30, 2011

Alaska Cruise Day 4: Skagway and the Safari

This article is long over due. Allie, her mother and father, and I went on an Alaskan Cruise in 2010. The cruise was fun and enjoyable. Day 4 was a visit to Skagway, Alaska.

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Swagway is a small town near the end of the Chikook Inlet. I think (don't quote me on this) that this was one of the Alaskan Gold Rush towns.

On this stop, Allie and I went on an excursion. It was called a safari, though I think any trek in Alaska might be considered the antithesis of "safari". Either way, it was an adventure. We were a part of a larger party that rode a ferry from Skagway to an outcropping of land about an hour's ride south. From there, we took a bus up to the camp in the rain forest. We geared up with rain gear and went for a hike through the forest. Finally, we arrived at a river where some canoes were ready. After rowing up river in the canoes, we reached the foot of a glacier. The glacier was very jagged. Most of the facing surfaces were pristine white, though part of one side had mixed with a recent avalanche for a granite-like appearance. The glacier made the cold day even cooler at its base. As we canoed around the melt pool, we noticed plenty of birds and fish.

Our safari guides had one thing on their mind. They didn't likely get paid much for spending their spring and summer at this outcropping of land between the bay and the glaciated mountains. To pass the time, they enjoy a local beverage. I forget the name, but it's a beer made from spruce tips. To augment their income, they collected spruce tips from the surrounding forest. When they return to town, they trade their spruce tips for the beer that is made from the spruce tips. The guides talked about this beer quite frequently.

When we turned to Skagway, Allie and I set out to find the bar that served this beer. It is at the end of the street directly down from where the cruise ship was docked. If you get a chance to go to Skagway, make sure you try to find this bar and have the spruce tip beer. It's not the best beer you'll ever have, but it is pretty darn good, and a great way to experience Skagway that most other people will easily miss.

Please see the full Alaska Cruise article list.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Second cross-country road trip of 2011: Day 8 (refuelling made hard and the moon made easy)

(I know this recounting is a bit late.) Day 8 of Allie's and my road trip across the USA was a drive home. This leg of our journey seemed to drag on, even though it wasn't the longest segment on our trip. Along the way, we found this rather humorous posting of a No Parking sign. Clearly, patrons of this gas station are willfully ignoring the posted instructions. Frankly, I'm not sure how one might fill up at a gas station without parking, especially since the motor is supposed to be turned off while refueling. Maybe the driver can have buddy pump the gas while he puts the car in neutral and pushes his car a few feet in one direction and then pushes back a few feet in the other until the gas tank is topped off? Upstate New York isn't quite as beautiful this time as it was the last time I travelled these lands. Fall had long passed its peak, and winter has not yet claimed the earth with snow. On a personally interesting point, while I was not driving, I had plenty of time on my hands, of course. The evening and twilight hours had passed. The moon was out and looking beautiful. I decided to try once again to take a detailed shot of the moon with my automatic camera. Successful execution of this operation has eluded me for 30 years. However, there's enough settings in my Canon Powershot to finally pull this off with a fair amount of success. Usually, when you try to take a photograph of the moon with a standard camera, all you get is a ball of light. This time, after some experimentation, I was actually able to capture some level of detail. Additionally, this photo is taken upward through the passenger side window in a moving car! It's not the best shot ever of the moon, but an achievement, nonetheless. Alas (yes, I actually used that word), we made it home in Massachusetts. This is our home now, not just my home. This is a point that will soon sink in for Allie, but I fear she's going to have a bit of homesickness coming on soon, just like me a few months prior. Toebzilla has been a bit unsettled on our entire road trip. However, today, he seemed to know something was different. He was less nervous. He seemed to know that this home wasn't just another hotel for one night. Time to unpack and recover from the trip.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Second cross-country road trip in 2011: Day 7 (Niagara Falls)

The relatively short drive from Columbus, OH to Niagara Falls, NY meant that we could take it easy. We got started late, yet still arrived in the Buffalo, NY area around 3PM or so. After dropping Toebzilla off at a local PetSmart, we checked into our hotel. (It was very dated, and not really worth saying much about.) Unfortunately, because it's winter and because we are now so far North, the Sun was going down too quickly for us to walk to the American side of Niagara Falls before nightfall. Allie was a little annoyed that I didn't bring my passport so that we could cross over to the Canada side (the fun side). Oh well, some other time. The Falls are huge and incredible. You can easily find the Falls by just following the massive and constant rise of water vapor into the sky. We had diner at The Dove Restaurant. By far, this was the best food we had on our entire road trip. It is an Italian restaurant with excellent and high quality dishes. The service is great. The pace is intentionally leisurely to provide a relaxing and enjoyable experience where you aren't rushed in and out. We wished we could've brought our leftovers with us, but as before, that's not practical on a road trip. If I'm ever in this area again, I would definitely dine here again. After picking up our little dog, we returned to the hotel. I think he's starting to get use to the travelling routine.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Second cross-country road trip in 2011: Day 6 (slow start, comments about various hotels)

Our sixth day of travel across America was marked by a late start. Though our trip from St. Louis, MO to Columbus, OH was one of the shorter drives, we didn't get into Columbus until 5PM or so. We didn't do much in Columbus. Actually, we didn't do anything other than get a meal at Chipotle and watch some TV in the motel, er "hotel" room. That's the problem when trying to plan ahead for a trip in cities that you don't know. Finding good hotels for a good price in a good area of town is very hard, even with online reviews.

Our hotel in Lake Havasu was spacious, but dingy.

The original hotel I booked in Albuquerque was in a very sketchy neighborhood, so we opted to cancel the reservation and stay at a Homewood Suites near the airport instead. Homewood is very nice and does accept pets, though for a very hefty fee of $100. The average (even at other nice hotels) was $25, so $100 is a bit over the top; particularly since you can just drop your dog off at the nearest Petsmart for about $30 overnight lodging, and that includes one-on-one human attention and a free meal. Note to Homewood, lower your pet fee!

The motel, er, again I mean "hotel" we stayed at in Oklahoma City, OK was also very sketchy and dingy.

The lesson I'm slowly learning is to stay away from the less expensive nationwide hotel brands that are in the big cities. Spend a little more to get a decent place, and try to pick towns that are a bit outside of the area, as smaller outlining towns tend to have higher quality versions of the nationwide hotel brands.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Second cross-country road trip in 2011: Day 5 (St. Louis)

Although the drive from Oklahoma to Missouri was fairly uneventful, we did take time to stretch our legs. Toebzilla was happy to be in Missouri, or maybe just happy to have plenty of green grass to take care of his business. We drove through the state all the way to St. Louis. Allie has never been to St. Louis before. My first time here was actually back in June of this same year. We dropped off Toebzilla at a nearby Petsmart to be sitted for a few hours while Allie and I had a date night to ourselves for the first time on this trip. We dined at Zia's on The Hill. Located in a quiet Italian neighborhood of St. Louis, simply called The Hill, this restaurant was a pleasant surprize. Eating almost nothing but junk food for most of our road trip, good Italian food was a welcome change from all the fast food we had been consuming throughout much of our journey. Overall, the food was very good. (See Yelp for my full review.) Our hotel was The Cheshire. This is a "British author themed" hotel with rustic atmosphere, yet modernized appeal within the rooms. The bonus is that this hotel is very pet friendly. They even provide Beggin' Strips, doggie bowls, doggie bed and other amenities for your dogs. (Only the Beggin' Strips is complimentary. Everything else should be treated as belonging to the room.) The Cheshire is a comfortable place to rest your head. The only drawback are the old style windows which let a lot of heat escape the room. This means you'll need to keep the heater running on cold evenings. That's not bad for the guess, per se, but it is wasteful when taking the entire hotel into account. Overall, I recommend staying here if you are in the St. Louis area. Allie, Toebzilla and I visited the Gateway Arch later in the evening. Though the weather was clear, the temperature was very cold. We took a few photos, then quickly left to return to our cosie hotel room.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Second cross-country road trip: Days 3 and 4

These two days was occupied by watching the landscape change from pine forests to sparsely sthrubbed desert, and from hills and mesas to nearly completely flat land. One surreal aspect of driving across America is the straight highways that extend off to the horizon.

We spent one night at a good hotel in Albuquerque, but a shady place in Oklahoma City. It's hard picking good places when you don't know the area.

In general, New Mexico is a beautiful state. Oklahoma is a state that does not really mirror that image presented in the movie by the same name.

The weather has been great. Day 3 had gorgeous and sunny skies, while day 4 had a very thin cloud layer for a pleasant break from the sun beating down on us all day as we drove.