Alaska 2019 – Part 1, Los Angeles to the Gulf of Alaska

Alaska was sending us off with fireworks and rain. Our entire week in the far north was unusually warm. But we were being escorted out of the state with abundant rain falling in front of a fiery orange and red sunset. The seas around us were lit up by lightning strikes followed by rolling thunder. Every time I looked out, the scene changed into something more wonderful.

I enjoyed this final scene, surrounded by family, on the rear observation deck of our Holland Cruise Ship, an ice cold Alaska Brewing company Kolsch in hand. It was the perfect end to a perfect week in the northwest.

Friday 21st

Our family vacation to Alaska started with the teachers in the family, Gretchen and Darwin. They signed us up for a week on the inland passage with Steve Spangler’s Science at Sea (SAS) program. We were able to muster most of the family this time.

The SAS program was separate from the cruise line activities, and only available to those enrolled in the program.

Our ship for the week was departing from Vancouver, so we booked seats on an Air Alaska flight heading north leaving LAX in the late afternoon. Although this is an international flight, it left from Air Canada’s terminal right next to United’s. No need to negotiate the crowds at the international terminal.

We got to the airport early enough to get our baggage checked and eat dinner before we all boarded. It was a pretty uneventful flight.

The plane landed around 9pm PDT, the sun still visible above the horizon as we turned towards the runway. I could see tugboats pulling barges in the evening light below us in Vancouver Harbor.

After getting our bearings inside the terminal, and retrieving our bags, we sought out the train terminal. There is a train that departs from the airport with stops downtown. We disembarked within a couple of blocks of the convention center hotel where we were spending the night.

We emerged from the underground train station to a busy Saturday night scene in downtown Vancouver. Axel and Gretchen got us oriented on the map and we quickly covered the short walk to the Pan Pacific Hotel. The hotel decided to upgrade our reservations and we ended up with rooms on the 11 floor overlooking the cruise ship docks and the customs tent.

Tired from the travel, we split up into our rooms, verified when the SAS program started in the morning, and hit the sack.

Saturday 22nd – In Vancouver

I woke up early, made coffee in the room, and carried over to the window where I captured the picture you see below. It was fun to watch all of the activity in the harbor. There was lot’s going in for such an early hour.

The ship on the left side of the picture with a black hull was to be our home for the next week. Her name was the Nieuw Amsterdam and is part of the Holland America Cruise Line fleet.

View of the Holland America Nieuw Amsterdam arriving at the Docks out our hotel window

Our schedule today was breakfast at 8am in the hotel conference rooms provided by the Science at Sea (SAS), followed by an introduction to the SAS program entertainingly provided by Steve Spangler himself. The introduction ran from 9am to 11:30am. After that we would board the ship at starting at noon. The ship was scheduled to leave the dock at 4:30 PM.

The breakfast buffet was great. The food was fresh, with something for everybody. Since I made it down before everyone else (almost always true), I filled up a plate with scrambled eggs, sausages, potatoes, and grilled tomatoes. Then, carrying the plate and a cup of coffee, I found a table, near one of the windows with a view of harbor and the stern of one of the Princess Line ships. Pretty soon, everyone was seated at the same table and we chatted with some other folks attending the SAS week. Breakfast was soon over and we moved to a small room filled with chairs, fronted with a small platform and podium.

Steve is an extremely entertaining speaker, and was fun to watch. If he was 10 years old you might call him hyperactive. He is always on the move, from one end of the platform to the other, telling us what we were going to see, and getting us engaged in the fun. He introduced us to his team, his wife, and one of the speakers we would see throughout the week, John Scheerens. John has lived in Alaska for 33 years, and is a naturalist and educator specializing in educational adventures in the northwest.

Steve Spangler

After the introduction, we were off to go through the drudgery of customs and boarding the ship. We said goodbye to our luggage which would meet us in our room later, and were sent to a very large space with chairs for us to sit in while we waited our turn to get through the formalities. We eventually made our way onto the gangway and into the ship. Our room number was 5149 and we soon found our stuff, fiddled around for awhile and then went out on deck to take in the sights. Axel, Megan, and Darwin were accommodated rooms adjacent to ours on the same deck.

The boat left the dock close to the planned 4:30 departure time, and we were on our way. After we left the docks we only had about an hour to explore before our 5:30 seating in the dining room. We had a table assigned to our little group for the duration of the trip (thanks SAS). Because we always had the same table, we also had the same wait staff each night which was really fun.

After dinner that night, I was a little restless, and around 10:30 pm I decided to roam the ship to see what the world around us looked like. I was already dressed in sweatpant shorts and a t-shirt for bed, but I went as I was, barefoot and all. I got a few strange looks from people, but in general the outside walking areas were quiet. It was a pretty night, the ship was passing through a relatively narrow passage, and the scenery was a good way to end a long day.

Sunday 23rd – at sea all day, Gulf of Alaska

Today was a day for the ship to travel north towards Juneau, the state capitol of Alaska. It was a day to get used to the rhythms of the ship. I got up early to share the early morning light with a cup of coffee, a pastry, and a view of Canada slipping past the ship. I did this most mornings while waiting for the rest of the family to get up.

Pre-breakfast on the aft Lido deck

The real breakfast was in the dining room and started at 7:30 am. For the rest of trip, we would gather outside the door until all were there, at which point they would seat us. They would not seat us before that. Something we got used to. Also hats were not allowed in the dining room and I was admonished the one time I forgot to take mine off.

Breakfast was always good with a full breakfast menu available. I usually had juice and coffee, followed by a yogurt and granola parfait, and that topped off with an egg and meat dish of some sort. I also was very fond of the grilled tomatoes that came with the main course. Life was good.

After breakfast we were on our own until noon. We took that opportunity to roam the ship and see what our home for the week was like. We went as far forward on the ship as we could and looked at the sights. The clouds off the bow today were spectacular.

Cool clouds off the bow

After that we went to a talk about the Iditarod and the dogs and people that make the race special. Next, Gretchen, Darwin, and I sat in on a talk by the America’s Test Kitchen about cooking salmon. I came away with some new ideas on cooking one of my favorite fish.

Next, was lunch. You can see a pattern here, there was never a lack of food available. Most days we ate onboard on the Lido deck. The variety was good and everybody found something to like. For some of us that was usually followed by some kind of dessert. The menu varied enough each day to keep lunch interesting.

Then it was off to a a conference room called the Hudson Room. This room was where all of the SAS activities onboard took place. Today, spent entirely onboard, the SAS program started at noon and went to 4:30 pm.

This was really a chance to get to know the SAS team and get an overview of the northwest coast. I don’t plan to go into detail on the SAS program. But the program was fun and engaging. Including some sleight of hand using “magic thumbs”. Steve Spangler soon showed us the trick behind the illusion and sent us all off with our magic thumbs to share.

John Scheerens

Today we covered the natural history of the northwest coast, the tides and currents of the north Pacific, and some of the geology of the area, including the importance of glaciers to the geography we were seeing around us. Those discussions were led by John Scheerens.

John’s talks were bookended by an introduction given by Steve Spangler, and an end of the day talk given by author, educator, and professional speaker, Mark Scharenbroich.

Mark Scharenbroich

Steve’s talk as fun and engaging, and included a bit of magic involving an illusion using small detachable “thumbs” with red led lights. Once the magic was revealed, the thumbs could be seen all over the ship as people played with them, and gave them away to crew members to play with. They continue to be a hit at our home back in Manhattan Beach.

Mark was an energetic and engaging speaker. His talk focused on the importance of being engaged in everyday life, and how that could affect our personal lives. This was a great way to end the program that day, and send us off to dinner with our new “thumbs”.

The adventure continues as we travel to Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan, and Home. See Parts 2, 3, 4, and 5 of the Alaska 2019 series



  1. This is fun! I feel like I am on the trip with you! Photography is great! Love the sun and cloud pictures.


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