Sunday, August 31, 2008

Vancouver 2nd day

We woke much refreshed after a good night sleep. Went down, picked up umbrellas, and walked to a Starbucks around the corner for some coffee and muffins. After that we hopped on the tour bus which took us to Stanley Park. This is a large park which occupies roughly a half of the downtown peninsula. The park maintains redwood rainforest that here before people started to chop them down for lamber, and also various trails and attractions.

Orca Sculpture, Stanley Park

The biggest attraction in the park is the Aquarium. We bought tickets for the Aquarium on the bus, and thus saved ourselves quite a bit of line outside. Inside the aquarium we saw three Baluga whales (white whales that live in the arctic seas). One of them had a baby whale earlier in the summer, and so we had a treat to see the mother and pup swimming along. Due to the popularity of the Beluga, we were allowed to get in in groups of 30, and then after 5 minutes continue to a second window and then again after 5 minutes to exit.

This whales are pretty goofy looking, and cute. Unfortunately, the water was full of stuff, as aparently the aqurium was being scrubbed by divers as we were there and so the floated all kind of algae.

Beluga whale

When we got out we could see how the same whales look from above the water.

Beluga whales coming up to breath

It was then 10 minutes before the dolphin show. So we went to get into position to watch them. The show was amazing with four dolphins that jumped, showed off their teeth, walked on their tails and did additional miracles.

Dolphin show

We continued to watch the display inside, including a talk with sea turtle and sharks. many types of fish, both natives to the area and from other parts of the world. Overall we had a great time.

When we went out of the Aquarium it was a beautiful day, and so we decided to take a small hike in Stanley Park. We walked along the short with a forest on one side and the sea and city view on the other.

Trees broken by a storm two years ago

Vancouver skyline, Stanley island

Roy walking the edge of the island

Roy and Lior strolling along

"A Woman from the Sea" (reminds us of the little mermaid)

Afterwards we hopped on the bus, and continued back to Robson st and went into the Vancouver Art Gallery. This is essentially a museum that mostly has contemporary art. To our delight there were two exhibitions that the kids liked. The first was on cartoons, and animation, and it
examined different trends and development of the media, with movies, cartoons, and even sculptures.

The next level up there was an exhibition on video games and how they developed. Aside from that there were two exhibition that were more "art".

We came out of the gallery and got some coffee. Then we did some window shopping and returned back to the hotel. We used laundry machines at the hotel, and packed our bags for flight the next day.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


We took off from Anchorage at 2:30am, and landed in Seattle at 7:10am. We then rushed to our terminal (taking two inter-terminal trains), and had time to go the bath room before taking a small plane from Seattle to Vancouver. We landed a bit after 8, got our bags, and headed to our hotel.
Our hotel was a suite hotel in a quiet side street off Davie st. which is a main shopping street. We got to the hotel, but as expected they didn't have a room ready. So instead, we left our bags and backpacks, lent two umbrellas and headed to the city. We started with a big breakfast on a place a block away on Davie st (the place was recommended by the receptionist at the hotel, and was indeed good).
The umbrella people
From there we decided to walk down to the water and take a water-bus to Granville island.
Water bus

This area is a small peninsula that used to be an industrial area, and now is mostly a collection of markets and boutique shops. We went around looking for exciting stuff. There was one place that was a workshop for big native-like wood sculptures.
Wood-work shop

At some stage the lack of sleep caused us all to feel very tired.

And so we started looking for coffee drinks. We found a nice organic cafe that also made ice-cream floats, and had a duck pond next to it.

Coffee --- read the labels...

Lior however, wanted milkshake, so we scoured the island searching for one, and finally found an ice cream stand in the food market that sold milkshake. Satisfied with our drinks, we were a little vitalized, but still not energetic. So we decided to go on the tourist bus that goes around town. We bought tickets and went on the bus. Initially we managed to get the last four seats, and so sat far apart from each other, but as the bus progressed we managed to regroup. The bus included taped descriptions of the areas we passed through, but the driver had much more commentary and was shouting (no microphone for him) as we went along.
We got off in Robson st, the main shopping street of the downtown area. We walked along it seeing shops of every kind. It was stricking the number of Starbucks along the street. There was one, at least, in each block. In one intersection there were two of them on opposite corners. Roy wanted to go to a book store, so found a large one (Chapters), and spent some time there. When we came out it early afternoon and there was a serious downpour. We opened the umbrellas,
and walking in pairs returned to the hotel.
By now they a room for us, so we went upstairs, showered, checked email, read and such. We were all pretty tired, but it was still too early to go to sleep. After much discussion we managed to get ourselves outside and walk a bit along Davie st. to see the shops. This neighborhood is less flashy than Robson. It is known for its local gay community which was apparent in some of store themes.
We ended up at a Chinese/Singaporean restaurant that was again recommended by the hotel stuff. It was a very nice place and was full of people. Although we thought we were not hungry, we did develop appetite as the food arrived (we didn't have lunch), and had a good time. We returned to the hotel and got some sleep at last.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The way back to Anchorage

Woke up late (planning a sleepless night tonight), breakfast, and then we started arranging the RV for the return. We collected all the things we didn't need anymore (BBQ, coals, matches, oil, salt & pepper, etc.) and left them at the camp office for people to pick up. We removed all the trash (amazing amount of flyers accumulated in the RV during this trip), sorted our stuff, packed what we could (most of the luggage were at the RV office), and cleaned the RV.

We probably spent more time then needed on cleaning (the instructions said to return it clean, and we did a real cleaning, although when we returned it we saw that they had professional cleaning staff). This process took most of the morning, and so we decided to skip the planned stop at Girdwood (where we could take a ski lift up the mountain to see the views).

We drove back toward Anchorage. Most of the road is just on the water along Turnaround Bay (or arm), which as you might remember a narrow bay with steep mountains on both sides. The road went through wet lands, and next to ghost forests (forests of trees that got submerged in sea water during the 64 earthquake and consequently died and got preserved, "pickled" as one of the guides put it).

Next to the Girdwood intersection we stopped at a large gas station where we filled gas, water, and proprane (first time we needed to, just to return it full) and dumped the waste. So now we were set to return the RV in pristine condition.

We continued along the Bay, where suddenly I noticed from the side of my eye movement in the water. There was a large group (pod?) of dolphins swimming parallel to us. There was no place to stop, so I continued for a while and then stopped, crossed the road to the water side and watched. This was a really large group and they paraded just in front of me. I shot about 150 pictures. However, later it turned on that the camera was left on manual focus mode and in my excitement I forgot that, and so most of these pictures are really blurry :-( But we have definite proof that we saw them....

Dolphins waving goodbye

At some point the road turned right and went inland, and we were in Anchorage. It took a bit of navigation to find the rental place (I forgot I had a paper with a detailed map to find them), but we made it at last. We signed for the RV, got our luggage and packed all of our stuff (which took more time than planned). According to the person in the counter, we did a bit more than 1300 miles.... (we prepaid for 1500, so we utilized it quite well).

We got the cub to take us to the airport. We tried to check in on the do-it-yourself kiosk and it told us it can't find our reservation. We thought it was due to us being very early (our flight was at 2am). We went to talk with the customer service agent, and she told us she can't find us either. After 20 minutes, including a phone call to Expedia, we managed to get things fixed and get our tickets, but it was very unpleasant initially. Since we couldn't check our luggage so early, we had to store them in luggage storage.

Storing our luggage, left us to consider our options. We didn't feel like going to downtown which we thoroughly explored. One of the people at the storage place suggested we go to a complex of restaurants, bars, and "amusement" places called WildBerry. They had a free shuttle, so we thought what the heck. We ordered the shuttle, and then got to a place that seemed very popular with the locals. We had a semi-reasonable dinner at restaurant that was a replica of an old gold mine.

Kids at dinner

After dinner went to visit a gift and candy store that had a 30 foot cascade of hot chocolate falls, strolled through a mini amusement park, and then settled at a sports bar where we played pool (snicker actually) and saw olympic diving competition on a huge screen. We were all terrible with the pool balls, and so three games took a long time.

Part of the chocolate falls

The bears did get us in the end....

Even scarier ones...

At 9:30 we took the shuttle back to the airport, read a bit, and then checked in the luggage, passed security, and then read again until boarding the plane at 2am.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Glacier Cruise (Whittier)

After breakfast we set out to Whittier. To get there we had again to go through the tunnel. In this direction this required paying a toll (the logic is that most people who go out of Whittier got in through the tunnel, unlike us the first time around). The tunnel opens up for cars in each direction once in an hour, so once we got there we had to wait (only 20 minutes). We were assigned to a large RV lane, and so all the smaller cars and vans got go before our lane was up to move.

Tunnel, this time longer exposure...

We got to Whittier. It was a nice day, not as sunny as our last visit, but there were patches of sunshine. There were all kind of people about, and much kayak activity. We watched a group of kayakers set off into the water.

Kayakers on Whittier Bay

We knew there is a cruise with a medium size boat at 11am, but wanted to check if there are smaller boats where we would have more personal attention. We didn't manage to find these, and so bought tickets for the 11am boat of the Prince Williams Sound Glacier Tour.

Map of the tour (we had the blue route)

Luckily for us the boat was only half full, which meant there where quite a few (70) people on it, but still there was room to move and we could find seats. The boat was similar in configuration to the one we took on the previous cruise in Seward.

Reflections (Whittier Harbor)

We got on the boat and settled down and waited for everyone to get on board. In the mean time the kids and me went to explore the outer deck.

Kids with hats

We set out of Whittier, and immediately stopped across the narrow bay to look at a big sea bird rookery. Here it was not on an island like the one we saw in Homer, but instead on an inaccessible vertical cliff that was bisected by a waterfall.

Kittywake rookery

Otherside of kittiwake rookery

On our way out of the bay we moved across the same ferry boat we took exactly a week ago. Here how it looks from the side.

Whittier-Valdez ferry

We then went out of the bay into the greater body of water in the Prince Williams Sound. We got served a light lunch which wasn't so good. The good news is that afterwards the cooking smells slowly dissipated. On the outer deck there was fierce cold wind, but the views were beautiful.

Islands (Prince Williams Sound)

From there we continued to a big island in the middle of the Prince Williams Sound that hosts a big salmon hatchery. This is a big operation that fertilizes salmon egges, grows the young and then release them to sea. When the fish return they are "harvested". This place deals with several species of salmon and collect several million fish a year. The water close to the hatchery the water was crowded with salmons, and we could see many fish jumping out of the water. As we watched these, a small water-plane took off just next to us.

Water-plane taking off

Our next destination was a formation of shallow rocks that serves as the home for sea-lions.

Sea-lion Rock

An otter

A fishing boat with a strange name....

The boat then passed through a narrow fjord that separates a island from the main land. On the map this passage looked like a narrow channel. In real life, it was narrow but not that scary. Apparently it is shallow and so harder to navigate than it seems.

Into the Esther Passage

Once we cross the passage we got a bay that contains many glaciers running into it. We crossed it and entered a sub-arm of the bay and got close to a glacier called Surprise Glacier. As we got closer to the glacier the water contained more and more ice. Although we spotted many otters throughout the cruise, here we started seeing groups of them sitting on small icebergs. The water became more and more slash like with a layer of small and larger ice pieces.

One otter

Many otters

The glacier face loomed above us. It was clear from the 300 meters away that this was a huge structure.

Surprise Glacier up close

The captain killed the engines and we stood on the boat railing listening to the glacier. Every few minutes we could hear load noises, like cracks or bangs from the glacier. Often we could see the spray of pieces of ice falling into the water. Several times we saw larger pieces fall resulting in a shower of smaller ice shards after them. The sounds these falls created reverberated through the air. While we watched all of these we could see a large group of otters and seals on the ice in front of us (it is warmer on the ice than in the water and it is less accessible to predators). There were many young otter pups that where rushed to further spots by their mothers upon seeing us.

Watching the glacier face...

Beware! Falling ice...

Otters and one seal

After about 25-30 minutes in front of the glacier we moved on and started to make our way back toward Whittier. When leaving the glacier, another moved in. This pictures give you a sense of the proportions....

When we were about half way the captain announced that has a "treat" for us and it seems that we have orca's in front of the boat. Yay!


Immediately the whole outer deck was full of people. We could see few of the orcas far away, but
one of them swam across the path of the boat, rising to the surface every two or three minutes.

A closer orca

This was a nice finish for the cruise.

Nir after seeing orcas

We landed back in Whittier, and strolled around "town" a bit more (a set of water-front shops) and then headed back across the tunnel. Tonight we searched for a camp with electricity and showers, and found one a bit further down the road.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ninilchik and Kenai

After spending three nights in the same place, we felt we exhausted Homer, and started to make our way up the peninsula coast. And so after breakfast, we set out.

Goodbye breakfast in Homer

Homer parting views

The idea was to head toward Kenai, which is the third big attraction area in the Peninsula. Our first intended stop was a big art gallery of some local artist. When we arrived it turns out that it opens late in Sunday, and we had more than an hour to wait, so we continued on.

Our next stop was the town of Ninilchik, a small village that dates back to the early day of white presence here. There is a nice russian church on top of the hill overlooking the original town, and a small picturesque collection of wooden houses below.

View of Ninilchik old town

The town today is known for salmon fishing in the two creeks that run through it, and for clamming. The beaches here are sandy and shallow, and so are perfect home for the local clam. To get it people go at the lowtide with shovels and dig the clams out.

We came at the middle of the tide cycle, and so the beach was quite deserted, except for some sea birds and ravens.

Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

We had a nice stroll along the beach searching for finds --- beachcombing is the proper term (which I like for its literal meaning). We found a lot of smooth river rocks (strange that English does not have a term for them), remains of fish (some of them pretty big), and cleaned out fish bones. It was nice to stroll along the beach and watch the birds fly around.


A Flock of Seagulls


Another Raven

After our beachcombing experience we continued north. We reached the main road that cut back toward Seward and Anchorage. Roughly at the intersection there is a road that leads to the Visitor Center of the Kenai Wildlife Refuge. This refuge covers much of the interior of the west part of the peninsula.

At the visitor center we saw movies about bear behavior, and a scary picture of moose after it was hit by a car (the moose was essentially on top of the car with its head breaking the rear window and its hips the front windshield). It turns out that road kills are major problem here (hundreds of accidents per year), especially during the winter, as the mooses cross the main highways quite a lot.

From the visitor center there was a nice short path that lead to a lake, so we did nice hike in the wood. To my disappointment we didn't find berries (there were fewer bushes and these were cleaned up). To Yael's relief we didn't encounter a bear, although we did see what we think are bear footprints on the muddy shores of the lake just next to the trail... The wildlife we did encounter were a squirl, a kind of local bird (aka as stupid chicken by the locals), and big dragonflies.

Lake in Wild Life Refuge

Energized by the hike and a midday snack, we continued our way to Kenai. Our first destination was the visitor center that has an adjoining museum of native craft. Yael was hoping to learn on techniques used by the natives in making their artifacts. We arrived at the visitor center and while I got suggestions about local activities Yael bought tickets to the museum. The museum was a big disappointment, to call it a museum is over-optimistic.

We decided to continue to the next attraction - the historic old town. We took the car and drove there. It turns out that the "old" town looks like a run-down neighborhood that has few old cabins that are close to hundred years old between newer buildings that look just as bad. There was no grace or interest in what we saw. We did stop at a look out point to see the beach, which was nice.

View from Beluga Point, Kenai

Sitting on a bench atop the beach in the afternoon we discussed our plans. We realized that this side of the peninsula does not have much to offer to people that are not fishing enthusiasts.

Where should we go next?

We considered our options as we had one more full day of vacation and wanted to have a nice finish. Yael suggested we return to Whittier and do one of the activities we skipped over when we passed through there. We got back into the RV and drove to the campground outside Whittier that we camped earlier.

Road to Whittier (note height of snow markers)

We got there rather late, had dinner and went to sleep.