I knew I wanted to take the ferry again when I found out I was PCSing back CONUS. Alaska is unique in many respects, one of them being it’s the only OCONUS duty station you can drive to. I was hoping to take the ferry out of Whittier, which would have been an easier drive down past Anchorage (and a final delicious meal of pizza and local beer at Moose’s Tooth) but the Kennicott was delayed in repairs and the travel agency wasn’t able to book it for me so I ended driving back through Canada to the Haines ferry instead.
The best way to think of the ferry is less of like a cruise and more of like a hostel. It just seems to prevent any disappointments or being underwhelmed with the trip. The boats are designed to transport people and goods after all, so while there are port calls, don’t be surprised if they’re short. There’s no running around the decks like on a cruise ship or spa or formal nights. And like a hostel, it’s cheaper way to travel and see some new places you’d be hard-pressed to visit on a budget. I don’t know a single cruise line that you could get a week-long trip through Alaska for $220 (the price of a single traveler with no pets, vehicle, or cabin during the winter season.)
I was somewhat fortunate this trip in that I was traveling in the off-season. Last time I took the ferry it was July which is peak tourist season. I found out I was moving to Alaska a month before I moved and because of the timing all the cabins, called staterooms, were full. This time I was glad to get a stateroom. Although I wanted one with a window, the Army is committed to buying the cheapest option (though to their credit, they did pay for the ferry plus the rest of my move) so I got an inside stateroom instead. On the plus side, the stateroom still came furnished with linens and had an en suite shower and toilet. The biggest downside was the water was lukewarm at best though I discovered if I cranked it all the way to hot it would get cold so the sweet spot was a little before that point. It wasn’t hot but it was good enough.
There is a heated solarium on the aft upper deck with lounge chairs and some people pitch tents and tape them down to the deck with duct tape, but I didn’t see any tents this trip. I saw a few people sleeping in the lounge chairs, but most opted to sleep inside. Overall the ship wasn’t very crowded. I don’t know if that was because it wasn’t the peak season or because we were headed south or both. The ship I was on, the M/V Malaspina, is the oldest of the fleet. The last time I took the ferry I was on the M/V Columbia, the fleet’s flagship (flagship ship?). There have been a lot of changes since then. They closed the bars in 2014 and the gift shops as well. That was pretty sad. The bars were really nice, they served mixed drinks and local Alaskan beers on tap and since it was state run they bartenders didn’t accept tips. I met a lot of interesting people in that bar. The gift shop sold various things that people tend to forget – band aids, toothpaste, Dramamine, and also some Alaska ferry merchandise. What little is left has migrated to the cashier’s booth of the cafeteria.
There is a decent amount of reading material in every ferry terminal and on the ship. It reminded me of the book selections I found in the pax terminals and MWR space while I was deployed, though with significantly less romance novels. Most people read or looked out the windows while we were underway.
The Malaspina had a fore and aft lounge, a move theater with several movies a day put on, usually a few educational Alaska films during the day and a fun movie at night, and a cafeteria. I remember the prices being expensive when I moved up here, but since then my pricing appreciation has changed. I brought my own food again this time, but better. I had a variety of freeze-dried meals, dried fruit, Picky Bars, Bobo’s Oat Bars, and a French press and coffee grinder along with a Jet Boil. Last time I was running low on funds and so we ate Ramen, oranges, and Velveeta macaroni and cheese for four days. I still can’t stand Ramen or Velveeta.
One night I decided I wasn’t feeling like my food options so I ordered dinner from the cafeteria. it was surprisingly good and came with plenty of sides, which was good since I was so hungry. I had a full meal and drink for $16.50, certainly not bad at all by my estimation. The prices for sides and breakfast items seemed a bit steep, but not unreasonable if you’ve ever seen the prices in a remote coastal town. They still provide free hot water from either the coffee machine inside the hot line or after hours from a pay machine by the condiments. It also makes espresso and lattes for a small charge. There is also still a free microwave at the back. I used some of their condiments but tried to be conservative with what I took. The coffee on board was only $1.50 and you got a free refill as well if you keep the receipt.
I got a little seasick last time during the channel crossings so this time I opted for some Sea Bands. I’ve had good luck with Dramamine in the past, but you have to take it before you get sick and also I didn’t want to be drowsy all the time.
About an hour past Ketchikan you’re back in Canadian waters until about an hour before you dock in Bellingham. I bought a daily international plan from my cell provider that charged me a flat fee of $10 a day for international service. It was still very spotty but it was nice to be able to send text messages and updates on how our dogs were doing.
It was nice to be able to get some sleep in between tending the dogs and just admire the scenery without also having to drive. I’ve heard driving through Canada is also beautiful but I can drive all the time, I can’t always take a ferry to get where I need to go.