Alaska Cruising MS Zaandam July 2018 Week 1

My wife and I had the privilege of taking a 2 week cruise along the coast of Alaska aboard Holland America’s MS Zaandam in July 2018. This was our fourth Alaskan cruise, and we’re already planning on our next trip to this incredible part of the world. Seems like no matter how much we see and do, there’s still plenty more to see and do. As always, Holland America’s crew took care of us and we were very comfortable and happy on board.

The Cruzin’

Our port of departure was Seattle, WA. We arrived the day before to ensure we didn’t miss the boat due to flight delays. Our flight arrived late at night so we stayed at a hotel near the airport. We slept in a bit the next morning, then used the hotel shuttle to return to the airport where we linked up with Holland America’s transfer bus to the port. Check in with Holland America was quick and efficient as usual and we were soon on board the Zaandam. This was our first cruise on this ship, so we spent the first hour of so learning the layout, and finding our cabin. Then, time for the first of many delicious and way too filling meals on board.

Shortly after leaving the dock and heading our to sea we made our way to the main dining room where we met the two other couples and one single travelers with whom we’d be sharing most of our evening meals with for the next two weeks. We are always nervous about meeting our assigned table mates for the first time. Will we be comfortable with them, or, as has happened in the past, will we need to find other dining options in order to avoid the table. Fortunately, as is usually the case, everyone came together extremely well, as if we were old friends meeting up again after a long hiatus. We spent Day 1 of the cruise at sea on our way from Seattle to Ketchikan. This gave us an opportunity to rest and recuperate from pour long flight to Seattle from the east coast.

Ketchikan Alaska

Misty Fjord

First port of call on our recent Alaskan cruise was Ketchikan, Alaska. This was our fourth visit to Ketchikan. Nevertheless, it was easy to find a great excursion we had not yet experienced; a four and a half hour boat trip to Misty Fjords National Monument. We were blessed with perfect weather, clear and cool, and we saw lots of beautiful scenery. The sights we enjoyed on this trip included an active bald eagle’s nest, a Tlingit pictograph, and New Eddystone Rock; an immense volcanic spire rising from the emerald sea. We also saw numerous float planes overhead carrying other tourists who chose to take a short aerial tour of Misty Fjords. While I am sure they had a memorial experience we were happy with our choice. I believe we saw more scenery and animals on our trip, and had the opportunity to take many more photographs.

Our tour boat, named the Wilderness Explorer, is operated by Allen Marine Tours. Allen Marine Tours is a family-owned business, and one of the oldest tour companies in Alaska. We would enjoy their cruise tours over and over again on this cruise at different ports of call.  The Wilderness Explorer, like all of Allen’s boats, was custom built in their shipyard in Sitka. Since we would be cruising near various wild animals in the water, Allen chose to power their boats with water jets instead of propellers. Attention to details, like the water jets, were evident throughout the boat and ensured a safe and comfortable cruise tours. The crew was well trained and dealt with the passengers in a courteous manner that helped make for a wonderful tour experience.

Tracy Arm Alaska

Perfect conditions to view the glacier

After leaving Ketchikan, we cruised Tracy Arm to view Sawyer Glacier. As we sailed through the night on our way to the entrance of Tracy Arm the fog closed in reducing visibility to about 50 yards. The ship’s fog horn serenaded us every two minutes all night long. We went to bed that night fearing we would not be able to see anything but fog the next day. However, as we approached Tracy Arm, the fog lifted and we had perfect weather for the rest of the day. This was our second trip into Tracy Arm, but we were wowed just as much as we were the first time.

Sawyer Glacier carved Tracy Arm, a narrow fjord, out of the surrounding rock by the over a period of hundreds of thousands of years. Tracy Arm is about 30 miles long and culminates at the face of South Sawyer Glacier. Towering mountains and cliffs as high as 3000 feet flank the channel. The depth of the fjord is about 600 feet in many places. The Captain took advantage of the clear weather to slowly navigate the ship very close to face of the glacier, much closer than we were able to get on our first visit. Other, smaller tour boats were able to get even closer. We spent about an hour watching the glacier and did see a few piecing calving off the glacier.

Juneau Alaska

Dog Sledding on Mendenhall Glacier

This was our fourth visit to Juneau, and we spent a long day in port. So long in fact, that we had time to take two tours. We took a helicopter up to the top of Mendenhall Glacier for a dog sledding excursion in the morning. We went on a whale watching tour in the evening. The dog sledding trip was a blast, and was the highlight of the entire cruise. The helicopter trip took about 20 minutes each way and the scenery was spectacular. Soon after we arrived on the glacier, a ten dog team with guide whisked we away on a circular tour around the dog camp. The dog were excited and love running and pulling the sled.  We had a great time and highly recommend this excursion. Absolutely unforgettable.

In the evening we boarded an Allen Marine Tour boat for whale watching. Unfortunately, the whales did not cooperate, so we didn’t see much. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable outing, and once again, the crew was friendly and helpful. Although some folks groused about the lack of significant whale activity, we did see a few, it’s important to remember that these are wild animals in their nature element. We weren’t at Sea World.

Icy Strait Point Alaska

Look Ma; People.

Our day in Icy Strait Point was very short. We arrived at 7am and departed at 2pm. Although this was our first visit to this port of call, it has claimed a spot on the top of our list of places we’ll return to sometime in the future. We decided to split up at this port. My wife took a cooking class, and I took a combination sea and land tour. My wife enjoyed her class, especially learning about how the locals not only survive Alaskan winters, but thrive. I had an unbelievable tour, witnessing humpback whales feeding using the bubble net technique and a breach, and getting within 30 feet of a Coastal Brown Bear sow with two cubs. One thing that makes this such a wonderful port is that it’s docking facility and on shore activities are small. So small, that it cannot accept large ships of more than one ship at a time. This fact, combined with the friendly people and and diversity of available excursions makes this a do not miss Alaskan port of call.

Anchorage Alaska

What a Train Ride

We spent Day 6 of our cruise at sea sailing around the Kenai Peninsula on our way to Anchorage. Once we arrived in Anchorage on Day 7 we took the Spencer Glacier – Grandview Train excursion. It was a long ten hour day, but well worth the time and money. We left Anchorage on board the train at 9:45am. We were assigned to Car B and Seat 15 C & D. Unfortunately, this put us at the front edge of a picture window that spanned two rows. This restricted our view and often forced us to move about the cabin or out to the tiny platform between cars to take good photos.

This is a regularly scheduled Alaskan Railroad itinerary, not a special tourist excursion. As such, it makes stops to allow passengers to get on and off at several stops along the way. Some tourists don’t like the time wasted at these stops, but, for us, it’s all part of the experience. Our journey took us along the shore of the Turnagain Arm, with stops at Girdwood and Portage before traveling through the tunnel to Whittier. After a short stay in Whitter, the train retraced its route to Portage, then went to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop and beyond through the Placer River Valley to the Grandview stop. The scenery was fantastic and we caught quick glimpses of wildlife as we rolled along to include a moose and a black bear.

The Boozing

We purchased the 8 bottle Cellar Number 2 Wine package which lasted us for the entire two week cruise. Our favorites from the package were the Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling and the Meiomi Pinot Noir. I purchased beer from time to time to accompany some meals, usually when we chose hamburgers for lunch. My go-to beer was the Alaskan Amber from the Alaskan Brewing Company. At one time or another while cruising Alaska I have tried all of the beers and ales from Alaskan Brewing Company, so I did not feel compelled to try anything besides the amber.

While we were in Juneau I stopped in at the Almalga Distillery and the Red Dog Saloon. The Almalga Distillery is a very small operation that makes a very nice gin using neutral grain spirits (NGS) purchased from a distillery in anchorage. Almalga cuts the proof of the the NGS by about half, then re-distills it along with a botanical basket to make their gin. The Red Dog is an iconic saloon that daytes back to the gold rush days. it serves good food and good drinks, and has a souvenir shop with a wide variety of Red Dog merchandise.

I’ll publish Week 2 of our Cruising and Boozing trip soon. Stay tuned.

 

Kentucky Thoroughbred and Bourbon Land Cruise May 2018

 

This was my third trip to visit Kentucky, and was significantly more fun than my first two. My first, in the summer of 1974 for six weeks, was to Fort Knox. I was 17 and at the mercy of two Army Drill Sergeants. The second, in the summer of 1992 and also to Fort Knox for six weeks, was much better since I was older and a Major, but still not a fun time. They say the third time is the charm, and, for me, this trip on the Bourbon Trail certainly was.

My wife and I have traveled extensively throughout the United States, and quite a bit around the world. Kentucky is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places we have been, filled with friendly and welcoming people. To say we had a great time is an understatement. While there we toured several horse and bourbon venues. The horses for my wife, the bourbon for me. We both enjoyed everywhere we toured. We are already planning a return visit in the not too distant future.

Horsing Around

Our base of operations for all but two nights was the Kentucky Horse Park Campground. This is a wonderful, well run facility, with 260 RV campsites. However, these sites only have power and water hook-ups. None have a sewer hook-up, so plan accordingly. They also offer RV sites with no hook-ups and primitive sites for tent campers. Campground amenities include a store, pool, bathhouses, and laundry. Everything was neat and clean, and even over the Memorial Day weekend, quiet at night.

Kentucky Horse Park

Statute of Man o' War at the Kentucky Horse Park
Statute of Man o’ War at the Kentucky Horse Park

We spent two days touring the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP), and could have spent more time there. In short, the KHP is Disneyland for horse people. The Parade of Breeds, offered twice a day, showcases various breeds from around the world. We were introduced to many breeds we had never seen before, including the Marwari. At the Hall of Champions show, also offered twice a day, we got up close and personal with retired champions such as Thoroughbreds Funny Cide, and Go for Gin, American Quarter Horse Be A Bono, Standardbred Trotter Mr. Muscleman, and Standardbred Pacers Staying Together, Won The West. We learned about draft horses and their harness at the Big Barn, and saw how Mounted Police train and operate at the Mounted Police Demonstration. We also toured the Saddlebred Museum and stopped at the numerous Memorials and Statues throughout the Park such as Man o’ War. Saturday night we watched Kentucky Spring Classic, FEI Open Jumper show, which brought in top tier competitors from around the world. The highlight however, was the International Museum of the Horse. We spent hours inside this well done museum, and could have spent even more time there. Going back is definitely on our to-do list.

Churchill Downs and Keeneland Race Tracks

Churchill Downs
Churchill Downs

No trip to Kentucky is complete without visiting at least one of these two magnificent thoroughbred racing venues, so we did both. We toured Churchill Downs visiting the paddock area and going trackside, and toured the Kentucky Derby Museum. Both are well worth the money. Keeneland wasn’t open for racing during our visits, but we were able to drive around the property and snap a few photos of this beautiful facility.

On the Bourbon Trail

Seeing and learning more about horses was wonderful, but the reason the Booze Cruzer was in Kentucky was … BOURBON. First stop, Moonshine University, yes gentle reader, there really is a Moonshine University.

Moonshine University – Executive Bourbon Steward Course

The Pot Still at Moonshine University
The Pot Still at Moonshine University

The the Executive Bourbon Steward Course is offered under the auspices of the Stave and Thief Society and in partnership with the Kentucky Distillers Association. This is an all-day course consisting of classroom instruction and hands-on opportunities in the university’s working distillery. As soon as I returned to our hotel room after class was over my wife asked me if I had a good time – yes I did – and if the day was worth the $500 tuition – yes it was. Yes, it was expensive, but I learned so much, and I’m sure the other 22 students did as well. The day’s coursework covered a deep dive into the Stave and Thief Society’s bourbon body of knowledge, the basics of distilling whiskey, and sensory training. I’ll provide many more details in future blog post.

Woodford Reserve Distillery – Corn to Cork Tour

Our guide, Stacy, shows us the deep color of Woodford Reserve straight from the barrel
Our guide, Stacy, shows us the deep color of Woodford Reserve straight from the barrel

I took the $30 Corn to Cork tour at Woodford Reserve. This was a very informative two hour tour that culminated in a tasting session back at the Visitor Center. This was without a doubt the most information filled tour of all the tours I took on this trip. The three gorgeous copper pot stills in the old stone still house are an impressive sight. Our guide, Stacy, was extremely knowledgeable and able to answer almost any technical or production question I posed. The only question she left unanswered concerned the production split between the Woodford Reserve Versailles facility and the Brown-Forman distillery in Louisville. In case you were not already aware, most of the distillate that ends up in a Woodford Reserve bottle comes from the Louisville facility. The highlight of the tour for me was the tasting since I had never sampled any Woodford Reserve product. I wasn’t overly impressed by the standard Woodford Reserve Bourbon, or their Rye whiskey. However, the Double Oaked Woodford Reserve Bourbon blew my socks off. Even my wife, who normally shuns whiskey, liked the Double Oaked. I’ll provide many more details on this tour in future blog post.

Maker’s Mark – Behind the Mark Tour

Maker's Mark Spirits Safes
Maker’s Mark Spirits Safes

At Maker’s Mark I opted for the $40 Beyond the Mark tour. I expected this would be a deep dive into the technical and production details of Marker’s Mark along the lines of the Woodford Reserve tour. Alas, it was little more than a standard consumer tour that lacked technical details and was more about marketing talking points. The only bonus was two commemorative Maker’s Mark wax dipped rock glasses. The highlight of the trip was tasting fresh off the still new make aka white dog from a dipper that the tour guide passed around. I’ll be providing more details on this tour in future blog post.

Jim Beam – Behind the Beam Tour

Fred Noe Speaks to our Group
Fred Noe Speaks to our Group

This tour is only offered a few time each year, and at $199 per person is downright expensive. However, Fred Noe the Master Distiller himself and his son and heir apparent Freddie Noe, spent about 2 1/2 hours with our group. The tour of the distillery, conducted by Jessica, the Trade and Hospitality Manager, was informative and extremely well done. Fred and Freddie Noe joined the group at the rickhouse. Both were down to earth, plain spoken, willing to share personal and business stories, and just plain fun to be around. Each guest on the tour came away with a bottle of bourbon signed by Fred and Freddie, and some of us purchased a second bottle which was also signed.

I learned a lot about the distillery, their product line, and their family. Really a great visit and well worth the money. I’ll be providing more details on this tour in future blog post.

Wild Turkey – Standard Consumer Tour

Master Distiller Jimmy Russell signs my bottle of Rare Breed
Master Distiller Jimmy Russell signs my bottle of Rare Breed

I hadn’t planned on touring Wild Turkey, but it was on our way home from touring historic Fort Boonesborough State Park, and we still had time to catch the last tour of the day. This tour is free for military, a nice touch that I really appreciated. The tour is your usual basic consumer tour, i.e., herd the tourists along from point to point, imparting marketing gems at each stop, with samples of three products at the end. No complaints, this tour achieves what it ought to do. The surprise bonus was the opportunity to meet Jimmy Russell, the Master Distiller, in the visitor center where he was signing bottles. Jimmy was accommodating to everyone who came to him with a bottle, signing and posing for photos. He seemed the genuinely enjoy interacting with everyone.

Buffalo Trace Distillery

Some of the many Buffalo Trace Products
Some of the many Buffalo Trace Products

Like Wild Turkey, this was a last minute addition to our itinerary, and we took the basic consumer tour. Buffalo Trace offers all of its tours free of charge, which combined with touring on a Saturday meant the place was packed with tourists eager to see the distillery and taste their products. We waited almost an hour after getting our tickets before our tour started. Our tasting was limited to two of the four products they offered, and was a cattle call at the bar affair. Not my cup of tea, or glass of bourbon, but the tour achieves what it ought to do, and the price cannot be beat.