Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

December 19, 2012

Alaskan cruise sails from fog into fjords


CNHI

In mid-August, I boarded Holland America’s ms Oosterdam after spending two sunny, rainless days in Seattle where the temperatures hovered in the mid-80s. At 4 p.m. the ship weighed anchor and set sail for Alaska. It would be a first time visit for me.

I spent a good three hours getting acquainted with the ship and skimmed one more time my seven-day, five-stop itinerary. Unfortunately, the good weather came to an abrupt halt when I woke the next morning to find that we were traveling through a rather dense mist, and I began making a list of things to keep me busy onboard on our "day at sea."

The late morning gallery tour proved interesting as a small group toured the compact area where 134 assorted chefs, cooks and service staff prepare the meals for as many as 1,850 passengers and another 800 crew members. The kitchen stats are staggering , starting with a dish washing area which can clean up to 5,000 plates an hour.

"The kitchen operates 24 hours a day," said the executive chef, leading us past four, 48 gallon soup kettles and up to the clam shell griddles, which can sear meat on both sides simultaneously with temperatures that can reach 500 degrees F.

At a follow-up session in the Culinary Arts Center, where food demos are given daily in a comfortable auditorium, I sat and watched a talented carver from Thailand create unbelievable figures out of things watermelon and eggplant.

In the Explorations Café, where I ordered a cappuccino and checked my email on a ship computer, passengers can check out a book, play chess, or simply sit in comfortable chairs and gaze out the window in search of whales and dolphins.

After dinner, I managed to catch the ship comedian’s rollicking show in Vista Lounge, then caught Miss Augie’s Sing-Along session in the Piano Bar and danced a bit to DJ Brett’s rock tunes in Northern Lights.

Day two promised my first look of a glacier at Tracy Arm, a long fjord-like appendage that snakes through a chain of high Alaskan cliffs. Trouble was the fog still lingered, and the captain awaited word whether it would lift enough for a safe passage. Nearly 48 hours on board and 750 miles after leaving Seattle and I still hadn’t gotten my first-ever look at our northern-most state.

Somewhat disappointed by the possibility that the Oosterdam would remain fog bound, I attended a talk on Alaska given by a travel guide, hoping at least to see photos of the Sawyer Glacier at the end of Tracy Arm. A veritable store house of information, the guide pointed out that five percent of Alaska is glacier-covered and that parts of the state can get as much as 100-inches of snow in winter.

"Although there are 2,000 glaciers in Alaska, 90 percent of them are retreating, partly by a process known as calving, whereby great chunks can split off and fall into the sea," she said.

Located about 45 miles south of Juneau, Tracy Arm is a 32-mile long appendage of the sea that cuts through cliffs as tall as 2,000 feet. While the average depth of the channel is 600-feet, in places it can get as deep as 1,200 feet.

Leaving the auditorium after the talk, I looked out the starboard windows only to see the sun shining through. Hurrying up to one of the top decks, I saw that we’d already begun our entrance into the passage with not a cloud in the sky or a wisp of left-over fog.

Jubilation set in as I got my first look at Alaska and a spectacular one at that. As the ship slowly glided through the fjord, I saw rocky cliffs, waterfalls and grassy areas mixed with conifers at the higher elevations. Exhilarating.

Here and there, berg bits floated by as we maneuvered our way inward. Sweeping around one particular curve, a collective gasp went up from the passengers. Looking ahead, I saw the massive glacier covering the steep descent from the hills to the sea. With no sound but the low hum of the ship’s engines, the mood was serene yet electrified by the excitement of our very first Alaskan adventure.

For more information on Holland America Line, phone 877-932-4259 or visit website hollandameric.com.

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Dave Zuchowski is a travel writer for CNHI News Service. Contact him at owlscribe@yahoo.com.