If you’ve never been to Alaska, you really should add it to your Bucket List. No, I couldn’t see Russia… even with binoculars. But, after being out of the travel loop for the better part of this decade, it was an awakening experience on many levels: air travel, airport security, cruise travel, Internet connectivity, national vs. local politics, tourist economics, American industry, and the world from the vantage point of a couple of upcoming fourth graders.
We began our voyage in Seattle after a day-long flight across the country from Charleston on American Airlines. I’ll think twice before ever flying with American again. What used to be one of the country’s best airlines is now one of its worst. Grumpy employees, lousy service, no complimentary food or snacks of any kind (even on a four hour flight), and $8 for a blanket (more like a tiny bed sheet) and pillow to endure a flight in a cabin which wasn’t much warmer than the inside of your refrigerator. Did we mention their checked baggage fees are tied for the highest in the industry. That’s the only honor that American rightly deserves IMHO.
Hadn’t been back to Seattle since high school days at Queen Anne over 40 years ago. What once was a thriving downtown high school with 2,800 of the city’s brightest kids is now a condominium. All the yuppies and elderly have taken over the downtown neighborhoods including Queen Anne Hill, and there are no kids at least of high school age to be found. Thanks to Microsoft, home prices were stratospheric. Against my better judgment, we stayed at the Sheraton Seattle downtown. I’ve always ranked Sheraton hotels just below Days Inn and Econolodge in the scheme of things. That’s changed. And for the better! The Sheraton Seattle was a first-class hotel with beautiful rooms, a vibrant lobby featuring free Wi-Fi with free Microsoft Surface devices everywhere, and loads of convention business. Still had to pay $10 a day for in-room Internet service, but that appears to be under review.
While there is a choice of cruise ships to Alaska, we picked Holland America’s 1300-passenger Rotterdam. One of the competitors sails out of Charleston during the winter and had three abrupt mid-week returns this winter due to alarming rates of illness. We chose to avoid that one. The good news with the Rotterdam: no reported illnesses on board, impeccable service, spacious suites and balconies, incredible food, great entertainment and a casino, numerous bars (also loaded with Microsoft Surface devices), and never a line waiting for anything. The only minuses would be nickel-and-diming for soft drinks (to the tune of $2.50 each) and industry-standard price gouging for Internet service ($100 for 4 hours of 3G-speed satellite service). Holland America actually is owned by Carnival Corporation, the same company that operates Carnival, Princess, Seabourn, and Cunard Cruise Lines among others.
The silver lining to the cruise was the newly-implemented direct airport transfer program coupled with two flights on Continental, an airline that was everything American wasn’t. Free meals, free snacks, and $6 to use a new 95-channel DirecTV system featuring first-run movies, your favorite TV shows, and free headphones (to keep). With Holland America’s pricey direct transfer program your bags are delivered to your final destination from your cabin on the ship, and Holland America delivers you to your gate via an off-site TSA check-in which is being pilot-tested at SeaTac airport this summer. Talk about a quantum improvement in customer service, this pilot TSA program was one of the highlights of our trip.
And then there’s Alaska. If you’ve never been to Juneau, the state capital, let’s just say it was an eye-opener. My dad grew up in Jonesboro, Georgia, a little town outside of Atlanta. Juneau looks to be about the same size downtown… except Atlanta isn’t next door. In fact, nothing is next door… except Russia (according to Alaska’s former governor). Did we mention there are only two ways to get to Juneau: by plane or by boat. No roads in or out! Just Main Street U.S.A. AT&T had Edge service in town with a download speed that rivaled 1200 baud modems. Pretty bad when you retreat to your ship to read your email via satellite dish. Does this not tell you something about the state capital of Alaska? And the principal industries: cruise ships and state government.
Suffice it to say that, unless you’ve been living in a cave with Osama, chances are you have grown beyond Juneau in almost any category of comparison. A shuttle bus parked close to the cruise ships advertised inexpensive transportation to Costco and WalMart. We skipped that adventure. Can’t help wondering why anyone would set their political compass based upon the "leadership skills" of someone governing (and abruptly quitting the job) in a place as isolated and uninhabited as the great state of Alaska. Think Afghanistan if you need a point of reference. That’s not to say we didn’t have a terrific time in Juneau. Keep reading. We should also mention there was (only) one bar in the city, the infamous Red Dog Saloon. As you would expect, it was loaded with tourists, overpriced beer, and the mandatory t-shirt store next door with bar memorabilia. And, yes, there’s a good reason why they don’t display the prices of the t-shirts. 🙂
There was a treat in Juneau, however. Wedged between two glaciers is an isolated dog sled camp that is only accessible by helicopter. They actually train many of the dogs for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race here. The helicopter tour and actually sledding with these dogs was the highlight of the trip and something you wouldn’t want to miss… despite the tour cost (slightly north of $500 per person).
Finally, we should mention that we chose to make this 10-day trip with nothing other than a 3G iPad in tow. Airport security was a breeze since TSA doesn’t treat an iPad as a computer with the associated knuckle drill. You can leave it in your carry-on bag. And, I’m delighted to report that the iPad met all of our technology needs including email, Twitter, photography support, remote access to our servers, and standard web access to manage a couple dozen of our web sites. Great news for travelers!
We’ll return to our local programming as soon as we get our clocks recalibrated to East Coast time.
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