Port of Call Skagway Alaska

Spending a Day in a Gold Rush Town

Skagway is a very popular port of call for Alaska cruises. With a population that fluctuates between 700 and 2,000 from winter to summer it is easy to see what the economy is based on. While Skagway is small and isolated that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to do. Historically Skagway has its beginnings in the Yukon gold rush established as the port of entry for the Chilkoot trail leading up to the gold fields. Today it is a tourist destination with a lot of options for just spending a day off a cruise ship to even longer wilderness adventures.

Where You Dock
Cruise pier Skagway
Cruise pier Skagway
Ships tag the rocks above the pier
Ships tag the rocks above the pier

There are a set of modern docks right near town with specific docks designated for different cruise lines. While there are no facilities right on the docks it is a short walk right to the foot of State Street that runs up thru town.

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Transportation

Taxis are available but the town itself can be walked in a short period. There are locations to visit on the outskirts of town like the gold mine where a taxi would be your best option. There are also Pedi cabs and a number of tour operators that offer short ecursions.

Currency

Alaska is a U.S. state and the U.S. Dollar is the preferred currency with most major credit cards accepted.

Riding The White Pass & Yukon RR
Riding The White Pass & Yukon RR
Attractions

If you are looking for a scenic ride The White Pass and Yukon Railroad offers excursion trains up thru the mountains and back. The station is right in town. There is also a gold mining attraction near town and whale watching tours normally available. One of our favorites was the helicopter tour up to a glacier.

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State Street also has the usual lineup of tourist retail stores with an emphasis on jewelry. Look for local crafters and gift items.

Helicopters heading for a glacier
Helicopters heading for a glacier

If you are looking to book a tour our suggestion is to book on your own instead of thru the ship. You will have a whole day in Skagway with plenty of time to set something up. We called the helicopter tour service the day before we docked in Skagway and save almost fifty percent on the booking.

The National Park Service also has a Skagway facility with good information and exhibits about the Yukon gold rush.

Tip: Most U.S. and Canadian cell services do not have any surcharge for using you phones in Alaska. Just make sure you have a land based signal and are not on Cellular At Sea.

 

 

 

 

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Are the Florida Keys Ready For Visitors?

Part Four – Are the Keys Ready For Visitors?

Before we went back to the Keys we had a couple of people tell us they had been down only a few weeks before and a lot of hotels and restaurants were still closed.

Hurricane Irma crossed the keys in September 2017 as a category four just south of Marathon. These storms are incredibly destructive and when you think about the narrow chain of keys surrounded by water the potential for disaster can be overwhelming. In circumstances like that keys residents generally evacuate and only the foolish stay behind. If you have visited the keys or if you go, pay attention to that mostly single two-lane road that stretches for about 75 miles from Key West to the mainland and imagine 50,000 residents trying to all drive north at the same time. That is probably the biggest reason why there is very little time to protect your property.

The key’s have (make that had) a great biking and hiking trail that stretched for mile after mile. Made up of paved stretches with fences and numerous small bridges with lane markings on the longer road bridges. As we drove south thru the keys the first thing we noticed was the damage to the trail. Fences were blown away, with small sections and pieces of the walkway completely washed away. It is going to be a long time before it is restored. There were a number of houses where nobody had done anything to clear debris or effect repairs but not as many as we had feared. A large number of trees and bushes had been destroyed and there were still piles along the roads waiting to be hauled away but all in all that was the worst of the destruction remaining.

Some damage still remains

A great deal has been done and about eighty to ninety percent of the facilities have been restored and are open. Almost all restaurants and most hotels are now open. It isn’t hard to ignore the damage and debris still waiting to be hauled away and because the keys have this no-hurry, laid back vibe we felt comfortable visiting. Key Largo and the northern keys seem as if the suffered little damage and Key West seems no worse for wear.

Work on repairing Bahia Honda beach

If you have been putting off a visit because of the hurricane damage – don’t. The keys are open for business, the water and weather are great and they could really use the business.

 

Visiting Haleakala

The Largest Volcano on the Hawaiian island of Maui

Approaching Maui

The Hawaiian island of Maui is actually two volcanic cones joined by a small piece of land. The larger volcano to the southeast is Haleakalā towering 10,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean and still considered active, though currently quiet.

North shore surf seen from 10,000 ft
North shore surf seen from 10,000 ft
 The Haleakalā Observatory
The Haleakalā Observatory

The Haleakalā Observatory, also known as the Haleakalā High Altitude Observatory Site, is Hawaii ‘s first astronomical research observatory.

Haleakalā is a unique place since there are very few places on earth where you can drive from sea-level to ten-thousand feet in just a couple of hours.

Afternoon clouds role thru the crator
Afternoon clouds role thru
The view across the caldera
The view across the caldera

The trip up the slopes to the Haleakalā National Park from the seaside town of Kapalua is a full two-hour drive. The steady climb up the slopes represents half the trip but the views from the summit are worth every minute it takes to get there. From the summit looking off to the north you will see the coast with its reefs and surf just offshore from the coastal Hana highway. Looking south is the spectacular view out across the caldera with its numerous smaller eruption cones and gorgeous multi-colored deposits of cinder and earth. The landscape makes you feel as if you are on the planet Mars.

The view across the caldera
The view across the caldera

A popular expedition is to go up to the 10,000 foot summit before dawn to watch the sun rise out of the sea (you need to get a permit for the pre-dawn trip). Mark Twain called sunrise from Haleakalā “the most sublime spectacle I have ever witnessed.”

The best way to really experience the park is by walking its trails. There are 35+ miles of hiking trails in the Wilderness Area that guides hikers through sub-alpine scrubland, rain-forest, and cinder desert.

Maui silversword
Maui silversword

On the slopes of Haleakalā are a number of native birds and over 800 species of plants with over 300 species native, or endemic to Hawaii, found only in the islands. At the higher elevations you will find the Maui silversword or Haleakala silversword, a rare plant, part of the daisy family Asteraceae.

Maui silverswordThe silversword in general is referred to as ʻāhinahina in Hawaiian (literally, “very gray”). The Haleakalā silversword is found only at elevations above 7,000 feet on the Haleakalā volcano, on the summit depression, the rim summits, and surrounding slopes in Haleakalā National Park. The Haleakalā silversword has been a threatened species as defined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, since May 15, 1992.

If you are only spending a day or two on Maui probably the least costly way of getting to see Haleakalā is by rental car. Cars are usually about $75 for a day and at the most $100. It is also worth pointing out that the best time to visit is in the morning. Because of the islands height it has a tendency to develop clouds around the peak in the afternoon and while it is a beautiful sight being above the clouds on Haleakalā you could miss some spectacular views of the island.

The view across the caldera
The view across the caldera
View at 6,000 feet
View at 6,000 feet

Getting To Florida Ports For That Caribbean Cruise

With Caribbean Cruising season fast approaching here is a guide to how to get to those Florida ports. Regardless if your coming by train, plane or automobile there are ways to save money making that final connection to your cruise ship.

Florida Cruises – Getting To The Port…

Florida has become one of the largest destinations in the U.S. for people taking cruises. While passengers come from all over the U.S. and even the world a large number come from the Southeast and especially Florida. The close proximity to the Florida ports offers a number of advantages to cruisers from the region but it also presents some interesting challenges. The following is as complete a rundown on how to get to your cruise ship regardless if you come by planes, trains or automobiles. Okay, maybe not trains.

Miami from the Port

Florida has four major cruise ports; The Port of Miami, Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale, Port Canaveral at Merritt Island (sometimes called the Orlando port) and Tampa. Each one has its own environment that makes getting to your cruise ship different for each port.

 

Flying In

Tampa

The port is some distance from the airport but there is generally a fixed taxi fare for the trip of about $25 (plus luggage fees and tip). There are also a number of shuttles as well but expect to pay between $15 and $20 per person for these. A cruise ship transfer at last check was over $15 per person.

Disney Cruise Shuttle

Orlando

The nearest major airport to Port Canaveral. Expect to pay over $100 for a taxi to the port which is a 47 mile trip. There are a number of shuttles that charge as little as $15 per person. Booking a transfer thru your cruise line can cost above $35 per person. At last check Disney offers a bus service from Orlando airport and hotels at Disney World to their cruises at $35 per guest.

Ft. Lauderdale

Port Everglades is only about 2 miles from the airport and while the airport taxi stand will usually quote a flat fare of $20 to the cruise ship if you go with the meter on, it should cost less and if you are going from the ship to the airport it should cost about $15 with tip (no delay exiting the port because of security). The cruise ships also offer transfers but they average $16 per person, which for two people makes a taxi the better choice.

Miami

If you are going from the Miami airport to the cruise terminal, current taxi charges are a $27 flat-rate fee. That’s not per person. So if you are traveling with a family of four, that’s just $7 per person (or $14 round-trip) — not a bad deal. Buying a transfer from your cruise line will cast around $17 per person though or $68 for four.

Rental Cars (In City)

Often people will fly into the port city a day or two early and if that is the case it is a good idea to rent a car. Depending on the city rentals can be very inexpensive and give more flexibility on how you get around. Be sure you check with the agency and make sure you can drop the car off near the port.

Miami

It is common in Miami for rental car agencies to allow a rental to be picked up at the airport and dropped off somewhere else in Miami. At between $25 and $40 a day this is a very economical way to get to the cruise port with the advantage of seeing some of Miami in the process. In the case of Avis and Budget*1 they both have drop-offs near the port with free shuttle service to your ship, which saves the cost of a short taxi ride.

Tampa

While it is possible to also pick up a rental car at the airport in Tampa and drop it in the city, there are no drop offs really near the port. When we come in to Tampa on a cruise it usually costs between $10 and $20 to get a taxi to the nearest rental car location.

Port Everglades

Ft. Lauderdale

Because the port and airport are so near each other, unless you plan on spending some time in the area before your cruise, there is little reason to rent a car. It is also worth noting that Avis and Alamo have free shuttles from their airport locations to Port Everglades and back (you must have a copy of the rental car reservation to board the shuttle though).

Orlando

It has become popular to rent a car for the one-way trips between Orlando or airport and Port Canaveral and the rental agencies have been very accommodating in recent years. A recent check showed three agencies (Avis, Budget and Alamo) offering cars between $50 and $75 per day for the one-way trip including free shuttles to the ships in Port Canaveral.

One Way Car Rentals

Even if you live within convenient driving distance to a port, sometimes port parking can become an expensive proposition. This is especially true if the cruise is longer than seven days. Except for the Orlando – Port Canaveral connection, one-way drop-off fees can make renting a car very expensive. The one notable exception to that is if you live near Orlando. Because Orlando is the number one destination in Florida the rental car companies are always trying to balance their inventories and are usually not charging drop-off fees between Orlando and major Florida cities. Renting a one-way car is our normal method of getting to and from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando. We have rented cars for as little as $29 from Orlando to Ft. Lauderdale. One trick is to make reservations way in advance and check the rate a few more times before the cruise.

Port Canaveral

Buses Etcetera

Back in the day buses were good, inexpensive transportation between cities and there still is a number of options for economical fares. MegaBus offers a one-way ticket from Orlando to Ft. Lauderdale for $26. The problem with them as with most bus service is that you have to get to their terminal and to your destination at the other end. This can be a major additional expense impacting the economy of bus transportation. We should also note that some people live in communities with active travel groups that normally arrange charter buses as part of a cruise package

Parking Near the Ports

Most parking structures inside the various ports are owned and operated by the ports and, on average, are fifty percent higher than private services near the port. Over the years there have been some interesting fights between these venues. Mostly it has been the ports trying to make it difficult for the private lots to compete and survive. Generally private enterprise finds a way.

Port Canaveral

Parking at the port garage inside the port is currently $17 per day and they charge for each portion of a day (that means full fare for the day you arrive and the day you leave). There are at least four dedicated private lots with shuttles near the port that average under $10 a day based on 24 hour days. There are also companies that contract with some local hotels for parking spaces and provide van service to and from the port.

Miami

Parking at the Port of Miami currently is $20 per 24 hour day with a daytime rate of $7. Because the port is located right in the heart of downtown Miami it is difficult to find reasonable rates nearby. There are a number of companies offering reduced rates but it would be recommended that you investigate where these lots are and how much security they provide.

Ft. Lauderdale

Parking inside Port Everglades currently is $15 per day but offers a location right next to the ships. Because the port is located near the airport there is a great deal of parking available in the area. There are official remote lots associated with the airport with shuttle service to the terminals as well as more than a few private lots not far away. Again it would be recommended that you investigate where these lots are and how much security they provide before reserving.

Notes & Links:

*1 Avis at Port of Miami with Shuttle to Cruise Ships. Address: 99 Southeast 2nd Street, (Cruise Ship Passengers Only), Miami, FL,33131. Phone: (1) 305-379-1317. Hours of Operation: Sun 8:00 AM – 2:00 PM; Mon – Fri 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM; Sat 8:00 AM – 4:00 PM

Miami Budget location with a free shuttle to the port. Since this option is becoming very popular and there are a number of ships sailing, especially on weekends, dropping off cars can become very congested at these locations. Patience is a virtue…                                                    89 SE 2nd St, Miami, Florida.

A Parking option at Port Canaveral

Shuttle from MCO to Canaveral 

Alamo Port Canaveral 

Eating the Florida Keys (Part 3)

Part Three – Restaurants in the Keys

The Florida Keys
The Florida Keys

Coming to the Keys most people are looking for Sun, sand and water with fresh seafood being a good expectation. Our suggestion is to approach Keys seafood with a simple rule – “the simpler, the better”. Florida’s waters are famous for Florida lobsters (also called spiny lobster or Caribbean lobster) crab, shrimp, grouper and dolphin, and on and on. No it is not the Flipper kind of dolphin but a name for a popular fish. Because of the name issue you will probably find it more often referred to by the Hawaiian name mahi-mahi but whatever you call it it is a beautiful mild-flavored white meat fish.  Most locals have favorite hangouts often with picnic tables on docks or decks, cold beer and fresh-caught fish on the grill. Maybe throw a lobster on the grill too or a bucket of peel-n-eat shrimp.

One problem is you will find a lot of good places to eat but unfortunately there are probably more mediocre to bad restaurants around. In the past we had come to believe that one of the problems is the tourist character of this chain of islands. With an estimated number of visitors to just Key West exceeding 2.5 million and a local population of under twenty-five thousand it isn’t hard to see where the foundation of the economy is. Generally, in the past, restaurants in the Keys were high priced with little dependence on return customers which is a terrible combination. Over the years we had developed our list of favorites with the majority being local places and a few with long histories and reputations.

On returning after over a decade we were hopeful that the internet had helped to fix this restaurant problem. In this modern age it is very difficult for even small restaurants to escape the comments of thousands of online reviewers. After a week of reading reviews and eating around the Keys we decided that, unfortunately, not much has changed. While you can find great seafood still you really need to know where to look, read reviews and ask locals for advice.

Here are a few of our favorites:

Lorilei’sa bar in Key West in Islamorada is another institution in the Keys and a favorite for watching sunsets.

Sid & Roxy’s Green Turtle Inn located in Islamorada has been a Keys institution forever. Sid and Roxy bought the place in 1947 and the current owners work hard at keeping up the reputation. The originator of Key Lime pie.

Herbie’s in Marathon has been in business forever and is a favorite with locals. There have been new owners for a few years but everyone says they’re doing a good job of keeping up the reputation. And don’t get put off by the outside appearance.

Hurricane HoleHurricane Hole bar & grill Key west is just north across the bridge going out of Key West on Stock Island. This is a typical Keys place on a marina with lots of outdoor tables. The food is fresh and good and the prices very friendly.

Ship Wreck Bar & Grill in Key Largo is a little off the beaten path but worth the look. Again this place is a solid favorite with locals and while a little unrefined serves good, fresh Keys seafood and cold beer. Enough said.

In Marathon is Sweet Savannah’s a bakery and ice cream shop. If you are looking for a great slice of Key Lime pie – this is the place. An award winner for five years. 8919 Overseas Hwy, Marathon, FL 33050

Island Fish CompanyIsland Fish Company in Marathon was just an open-air Tiki Hut on the water a decade or so ago. Even then they grilled up some good, fresh seafood at reasonable prices and featured live music in the evenings. We were amazed how they had grown since our last visit. You can’t do that unless you’re doing something right.

Islamorada Fish Company

Islamorada Fish Company, like the Island Fish Company started out by just open-air grilling fresh seafood out on the docks. A while ago the got a new neighbor, Outdoor World, that started bringing in traffic and their business exploded. Now they are all grown-up, were taken over by Outdoor World and have over a dozen locations around the country. They still serve solid seafood.

Sloppy JoesKey West is ground zero for good restaurants in the Keys and you could spend a couple of weeks eating out and still have more to try. Like the Keys in general, some of the best food in Key West is served thru a window and enjoyed at a picnic table so keep that in mind as you decide where to eat.

Conch Republic SeafoodConch Republic Seafood Company in Key West is a good choice for seafood and at a good price. While it is a favorite with the tourists and the waterfront location offers good scenery it is still a solid choice.  Tip: The happy hour buy one get one beer tokens don’t have to be used on the same day.

Key West, The Historic, Exotic Island You Can Drive To

Part Two – Key West in the Florida Keys

  1. An Introduction To The Florida Keys
  2. Key West, A Different Sort of Place
  3. Where to Dine In The Keys (coming soon)
  4. Is It Time To Visit The Keys Again? (coming soon)

Key West is the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence that is the Keys. This town has been a magnet for adventurers, the famous and fortune seekers for well over a hundred years. Over the years it has attracted a number of the rich and famous including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Kelly McGillis, Jimmy Buffet, Calvin Klein, Shel Silverstein, Truman Capote, Winslow Homer, Ralph Lauren, Robert Frost, Kenny Chesney and Harry Truman (his winter White House). Not too shabby for a city of 20,000.

Its residents have been navy men, shrimpers, fishermen, cigar makers, treasure hunters and more than a few people seeking a place to get lost. Today Key West is known for history, bars, its Cuban heritage, bars, great seafood, bars, water sports, bars and more than a few traditions.

The Sun sets behind Sunset Key off Mallory Square
The Sun sets behind Sunset Key off Mallory Square

How many places do you know where they celebrate sunset with a festival every day? The sunset celebration is downtown at Mallory Square where musicians, jugglers, tightrope walkers, crafters, food vendors, locals and tourists gather to celebrate the end of another day as the Sun sets behind Sunset Key. It is such an institution that cruise ships that frequently dock next to Mallory Square are required to leave before sunset so they don’t block the view for the celebrants.

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Crowds and entertainers gather at Mallory Square to celebrate sunset

Getting around Key West has a number of odd options
Tourists cruising around Key West

The town has also become famous for a number of annual events like Fantasy Fest in late October an annual 10-day party in paradise for grown-ups. Started in 1979 by a group of Key West locals, the party was created to bring visitors to the island and has completely grown out of control. Pay attention to the word “adult” in the description, cause this town that gets pretty crazy on a normal day for Fantasy Fest is over the top. There are also Hemingway Days where Ernest look-a-likes come from all over for a chance to claim the title of Papa for a year. Check out the calendar and you will probably find very few weeks with nothing going on in this town.

Garden at the Audubon House
Garden at the Audubon House

Key west also has a number of worthy attractions and a few less so. John J. Audubon lived here and his home is maintained as a museum along with Hemingway’s house and Harry Truman’s Winter White House with all open to the public. There is also a really nice aquarium, Mel Fishers Maritime Museum, the Shipwreck Treasure Museum and believe it or not a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum.

Souvenir options by the bushel
Souvenir options by the bushel
Sloppy Joe's Bar
Sloppy Joe’s

In addition to the festivities there are a number of other things you will find Key West famous for. First is key lime pie, a delicacy invented in the keys. Be sure to take a bottle of key lime juice and a recipe with you when you leave. The city is home to a large Cuban population that brought their cigar making skills with them. There are a number of hand-rolled Cuban cigar makers in Key West. It is also famous for leather sandals (flip flops) and the oldest manufacturer is Kino located right downtown. Their leather sandals sell for $10 to $20. I’ve rarely gone to Key West without taking home a pair or two.

Key Lime Shop
Key Lime Shop

This town is also is famous for its seafood (fish, Florida lobster and shrimp), snorkeling and diving and its bars. Perhaps its most famous is Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street where Ernest Hemingway hung out,  southwest of . Tony’s where Jimmy Buffet was a regular (it was actually the original location of Sloppy Joe’s) and Hogs Breath Saloon. Hogs Breath probably sells as many Tee Shirts as beers and who doesn’t want a T that says “Hogs Breath is Better than no Breath at All”.

Key West is also a U.S. Navy base with a Naval Air Station and research facilities. When I was in the Navy we stopped in Key West a few times. There were submarine pens right near downtown and evenings at Sloppy Joe’s was a study in white with wall to wall sailors in bright dress uniforms.

Market Square at Front and Wall
Ship Wreck Museum
Ship Wreck Museum

When visiting there are a number of opportunities to do some snorkeling or diving along with a trip to the Marquesas Keys with the Key West National Wildlife Refuge and the Dry Tortugas National Park between fifteen and thirty miles out to sea. Key West was also home base for Treasure Salvors the operation headed by Mel Fisher that found the wreck of the richest Spanish treasure galleon, the Atocha, just to the southwest  in fifty-five feet of water. Be sure and visit their museum.

Back To The Florida Keys? (In 4 Parts)

When I was a kid growing up in the Northeast more than a few years ago, I thought Florida was the promised land, paradise and the most exotic place I could imagine – all rolled up in one. I was in my twenties before I ever made it there but I had long dreamed of turquoise water, coral reefs, palm trees and warm tropical weather. Later I visited Florida a few times on business and on a vacation and my dreams remained intact. About forty years ago we relocated to Ft. Lauderdale with a job. While there are more than a few people who don’t care for Florida, we loved it.

At the time we moved to Florida, Ft. Lauderdale airport was a single, one-story cinderblock building with twelve parking meters out front. The movie “Where the Boys Are” was still inspiring spring-break college students to the degree that we wouldn’t even try to get to the beach during spring-break because of the traffic and mobs. By late June each year many neighborhoods were all but abandoned and restaurants, if they were open, had few customers. Jump ahead a couple of decades and things have really changed. More business meant more employees. More employees meant more families and that meant more children and all that meant a growing year-round economy. Things were changing and not all for the better.

When I was in the Navy I was a diver and fell in love with coral reefs. In all the forty-eight mainland states only Florida offers coral reefs. If you’ve never glided over or thru a coral reef you have missed one of life’s great experiences and you should try it as quickly as you can. Many people plan trips to tropical places for the beaches and warm water but for very little extra money and effort a coral reef is only a short swim away.

The main attractions in Florida are fishing, boating, beach-combing and diving. Everything is focused on the water. After we moved to Florida, for a number of years every Sunday morning would find us at the beach. It started with breakfast and the Sunday paper, progressed to beach combing and sunbathing and ended with an onshore dive at a nearby reef. It just didn’t get any better than that.

Soon we discovered the Florida Keys and now we had a get-away place for weekends. In those days summer was the best time to go to “the Keys”. Like the rest of Florida, summer was off-season and hotels were cheap. As Florida residents we could frequently find deals at four star hotels that included breakfast and dinner for two for less than a hundred dollars a day! The Keys were everything we loved about Florida and more.

Just recently we spent a week in the Florida Keys. With the exception of Key West it has been over ten years since we’ve been in the Keys and that was way too long. Last September hurricane Irma rolled over the southern Keys as a category four storm. That explains the question mark in this title. Category four hurricanes are incredibly destructive and it always takes time to recover. Part of this trip was to see what progress has been made. This post is presented in four parts:

  1. An Introduction To The Florida Keys
  2. Key West, A Different Sort of Place 
  3. Where to Dine In The Keys (coming soon)
  4. Is It Time To Visit The Keys Again? (coming soon)