A Cruise to Alaska Plus Much More
by Andrew Johnson
Photos by Lisa E. Johnson

This vacation was an actual family reunion, similar to a three course meal . . . Appetizer: San Francisco, Main course: a ten-day cruise to Alaska aboard the Sea Princess, and Dessert: San Diego . . . all accomplished in three weeks. Relatives from near, and as far away as Dubai (traveling 16 hours by plane over the North Pole), came to have this glorious sailing adventure and get-together. And what a time we had!

One of San Francisco’s Famous Cable Cars

First Course: San Francisco

Famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and those unique cable cars which actually do get one to various places in the city, San Francisco, with its panoramic views and numerous hills, is truly the “city by the bay.” One can agree with singer Tony Bennett who “left his heart in San Francisco.” The city has a strong sense of neighborhood, each having a distinct identity. We visited many of each area’s outstanding attractions. We were located not very far from Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf with its myriad of restaurants, shops, and so many exciting things to do.

We stayed at the Argonaut Hotel, a stone’s throw from the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory high up on a hill. The hotel has brick and wooden beams throughout the lobby, public places, and rooms (which are spacious and exude a warm feeling). On the outside, it occupies an entire block and is a plain brick building which looks like a factory; it was originally the Del Monte Tomato Sauce Cannery. This hotel actually had a free daily wine tasting at 5 PM in the lobby . . . very civilized indeed! And the staff was certainly the most professional and helpful group of individuals I have ever encountered.

Across the street from the hotel is the turnaround for the famous old cable cars which afforded us a thrilling ride through the heart of the city. We also rode the electric streetcars through San Francisco as well. Interesting to note that these were vehicles brought in from all over the world, some dating back to the 1920s. Cars were seen from various American cities (including good old Brooklyn) and from Australia, Switzerland, Italy, and a number of other countries. And they were all in good working order.

The Golden Gate Bridge observation area was a photographer’s dream, as one saw Alcatraz Prison, now a tourist attraction, plus the whole bridge close up. Twin Peaks atop a very high hill afforded us the view of the entire city, and what a view it was! An array of restaurants with delicious and well prepared food were there for our choosing, including Brazilian, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, French, Mexican, sea food, and a steak house. All sorts of water sports and various activities were also included in this all-inclusive package.   I took a tour of a local cigar factory, Don Lucas, which was informative and enjoyable. Those in the group were given a cigar to one’s specifications and smoked it as one went along. One meets many others on trips and this was no exception. Three young people from Belgium shared experiences with me as we rode to and from the factory. They were staying at another resort close by.

Riding the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad to Skagway
Second Course: the Cruise to Alaska
As one could expect from Princess, my favorite cruise line, the ship was all that one could want it to be. The Sea Princess seems to be the only ship of its fleet that has a ten-day Alaskan sailing. (All the others are seven days but with possible lodging stays in our 49th state.) A smaller ship by today’s standards of giant behemoths, it afforded a slightly more intimate feel. Sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge was another amazing experience.

Our first stop in Alaska was Juneau, with the magnificent viewing of Mendenhall Glacier, followed by a boat ride that took us whale watching. The humpback whale was seen in all its glory bubble netting (working in a group to forage for food). We easily were able to know where the group of whales was by the sea gulls that hovered overhead waiting to beat the whales to one of their fish as they came to the surface. Through the whale boat’s sonar, we were actually afforded the opportunity of hearing the “song of the whale,” where the leader was telling the others what to do to get the fish. We even saw a rare breach (a whale jumped completely into the air).

Our next stop was Skagway where we boarded a motor coach for trip into the Yukon Territory, following the path of the Klondike Gold Rush. Included was a stop at a dog sled camp where one could actually pet the pups and also the mountain goats which were there as well. But the highlight of the tour (and of Alaska itself) was the ride back to Skagway on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, the train built in 1898 to accommodate the gold rush. What an amazing and exhilarating experience! Finally, a stop in the town of Skagway itself for a beer at the Red Onion, a saloon and turn of the century brothel, was interesting due to its rustic memorabilia.


Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau

A recovering bald eagle at the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka
The weather, surprisingly for Alaska (as we had been told), was sunny and in the low 70s. Not knowing what to expect, we had carted around heavy layers of clothing which we never used while in port. The day traversing through Glacier Bay afforded such wondrous views of glaciers. It was quite cool sailing through this National Park and Preserve, but as we stood on deck we were amazed by the sights that unfolded before us.

Sitka, our third stop, showed us an all female dance group doing Russian folk dances in the costumes of the time when the city was a Russian town. St Michael’s Cathedral had wonders for the eyes to behold. The Cathedral was completely rebuilt after a fire in 1966 destroyed the original structure. Miraculously, most of the sacred icons and religious objects were saved by the townspeople and can be seen today. The Alaska Raptor Center, a bird sanctuary, afforded us a close-up view of bald eagles and other birds while they recover from accidents before being released. One bald eagle too badly injured to ever be let free is now a resident of the sanctuary, going out to visit schools and attend meetings.

Shamu at San Diego’s Sea World

Third Course: San Diego
On returning to San Francisco via our cruise ship, we immediately flew to San Diego to visit another relative we hadn’t seen in quite a while. Here we experienced more normal summer temperatures. We stayed at Estancia La Jolla Hotel and Spa, a sprawling site with a beautiful pool and Jacuzzi which we enjoyed greatly.
This city is not very far from the Mexican border so there’s a lot of “south of the border” influence, especially in historic Old Town with its flea market of Mexican goods. Coastal La Jolla has that cool Pacific breeze wafting in. Its hotels have been a haven for movie stars, especially the Victoria Hotel where we had lunch outdoors as two Mexican guitarists played beautiful music.

San Diego cannot be visited without a trip to Sea World. There, the trained world famous whale Shamu fascinated us with his many leaps, gyrations, and actually going on a platform to acknowledge the crowd with his tail flipping. It must be something to train a whale to perform in the manner he does. Many of the rows up front are designated soak zones where those seated in these locations will be splashed, and the people are very disappointed if they’re not. The dolphins also amazed us as they performed their feats of wonderment. All told, Sea World is a haven for marine life that shows how a great creator was able to put on earth these beautiful creatures of the deep. The entire day’s experience was astonishing.

Going to Del Mar Beach with its sun and surf put the closing punctuation on a dream trip come true.

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