One of the great dream jobs is planning cruise itineraries. What a sense of power deciding where a huge ship will go and how it will get there. Above and beyond the thrill of making such decisions is the onus of being sure the route you’ve chosen is feasible to sell. Will it be popular? Why?
Many companies choose to position several ships in Alaska for the summer season. It is a “cruiser friendly” destination for North Americans wishing to escape the heat in the Lower 48; and is rapidly becoming a “family friendly” destination accommodating more children’s programs for kids on summer break. But what happens in September when the wind starts to blow and the weather starts to change? Where do the ships go?
Most head back south to the warmer climes of Mexico and the Caribbean. But not all. The last cruise of the Alaskan season will be the first cruise of what Regent Seven Seas Cruises calls, “Asia-Pacific” – a broad circumnavigation of the Pacific Rim starting in Vancouver and ending in Los Angeles! I know because, I will be returning to the Seven Seas Mariner to take the ship from Whittier across to Tokyo via the Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea and Kamchatka Peninsula.
Here again, one would ask, why? Why would anyone want to sail across the North Pacific in what is essentially the beginning of fall – which is just as good as winter weather-wise in some places. For me, the reasons are many;
Archaeology – Sailing past the Aleutian Islands and across the Bering Sea, the ship touches the pre-historic area known as Beringia. Beringia formed the vast land bridge that was exposed thousands of years ago when sea levels were much lower. From the ship you can imagine how early man crossed this wide connection between Asia and the Americas following herds of game. Throughout this area archaeologists are busy with new finds including excavation of underwater sites that were previously part of a dry coast. Sailing along the Pacific Rim, the cultural continuity can still be seen in the contemporary indigenous people from the Tlingit to the Inu. It’s fascinating to note the similarities.
History – From the Kamchatka Peninsula, you can look back and see the Aleutian Islands arc northeast like stepping stones along a garden path. It is no wonder the Russians were the first Europeans to venture into what is now Alaska. From Petropavlosk, they easily jumped across the Bering Sea. Russian influence is very strongly felt in Kodiak and Dutch Harbor, in addition to Sitka – capital of Russian-America.
One cannot forget as well the historical significance of this area in World War II when the Japanese invaded and occupied the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska. This was the military theater for the staging of many key Pacific fleet battles.
People and Culture – What a wonderful mix it is to go from the familiarity of the United States, to the Western-most city in Russia, then down to explore the islands of Japan! I like nothing more than to wander through the local markets to see Russian vendors selling caviar by the bucketful and Japanese fisherman of Hakodate showing off their fresh catch of giant hairy crab!
Wildlife – Kodiak in September is prime bear watching opportunity as the giant brown bears congregate along the salmon streams. The Aleutians are a haven for marine mammals like otters, seals, sea lions and walrus; not to mention many species of whales not found in the SE part of the state. Over on Kamchatka, it is the big Russian bear browns that are king; but in the countryside you might also see herds of caribou, fox, and deer. Though Japan does not have much wilderness, animals still exist in close quarters with man. The official mascot of the island of Hokkaido is a petite red fox!
Geology – This part of the world is one of the most seismically active producing not only earthquakes that rock the Richter Scale but also volcanoes. The Aleutian Islands were formed by volcanic activity and contain some of the most active volcanoes in the world. Everyone knows that Japan shakes from time to time; and majestic Mt. Fuji is reminder of the islands’ volcanic past. But the biggest surprise for many is the phenomenal snow-clad volcanic peaks along the Kamchatka Peninsula. When you get there you must take a four-wheeled vehicle out to see this impressive landscape.
This truly is a part of the world that time forgot. Part of its beauty comes from still being so remote. As the ship eases down the coast the cities progressively get bigger and brighter, until you hit Tokyo’s with its world of hi-tech gadgets and neon bathed streets. Back in the modern world it’s nice to know that nature, raw and rugged still exists. Smooth sailing!