All at sea with The Conversationalist – Japan to Vancouver, Part 2

If you wish you were on an exotic cruise somewhere having a lovely time, enjoying beer and skittles, well look what we’ve got for you – an up-to-date account by Brian Stoddart, of The Conversationalist’s latest fact-finding cruise – this time sailing from Japan to Vancouver. Last time we delivered Part 1 of this journey to you, here’s Part 2. In this report, The Conversationalist also reflects on how some ports and places are increasingly regulating tourists and tourism, something Fremantle hasn’t yet had to consider. Enjoy!

Seabourn Odyssey has now commenced its summer season run, Vancouver to Alaska and return, that will end in September when it heads to Japan on its last voyage as a Seabourn ship. Leaving it in Vancouver after the repositioning cruise from Japan, then, was an emotional moment for many guests who had travelled on the ship from its first outing onwards. That atmosphere had prevailed through over the remainder of our travels through the Aleutian Islands chain and onwards.

From Dutch Harbour we went to Kodiak where one of the great attractions was Big Ray’s Outfitters, complete with a massive taxidermied grizzly and a full range of weapons as well as clothes. One of the shop assistants was an instant guide to Alaska being all about hunting, shooting and fishing even if conservation is now to the fore. He had recently relocated from Montana in order to tick off some bucket list items. The other big attraction for a lot of guests was a trip to Walmart!

Then came a run further up to Homer where the finds were a marvellous bookshop run by a woman who had spent considerable time in New Zealand; a magnificent Burmese Mountain dog; a legal cannabis outlet (for observation only), and a set of wonderful people. And Time Bandit of Deadliest Catch was indeed in port and the focus of much attention.

Then came the magnificence of Glacier Bay on a clear day, followed by Sitka and its long running raptor rescue centre which houses and retrains some magnificent birds.

As elsewhere in the Aleutians and Alaska, there is also a reminder of just how close Russia is and how long standing the connection has been. The Matyroshka dolls are everywhere.

Next, a voyage highlight. Odyssey became the first cruise ship ever to stop in at the communities of Klawock and Craig on Prince of Wales Island where the whole community, largely of First Nations origin, turned out in support.

They have run a campaign in recent years and constructed a deep water dock to attract the ships, calculating that controlled visits will yield local benefit. They had some excellent crafts on display, along with a huge amount of goodwill. The communities rely mainly on logging and fishing, so a tourism strand is considered a good addition.

The Seabourn guests loved it, mainly because of the people they met, as did we. Lawrence, for example, is a former mayor who visited Australia and New Zealand, including Fremantle, while serving in the US Navy, and now makes a living from his jewellery inspired by First nations traditions. One of the bus drivers had served in the marines, and a significant number of other people had returned to the community after being “away”, some for several years.

For many guests, the fish chowder served up at the tribal community centre was the best food they had anywhere off the ship.

Then came a complete switch, one with a complex hook.

Ketchikan, the next stop, was a total contrast. We arrived there along with two other large cruise ships so that a big number of passengers hit the town early in the season. But that will be the norm for the next few months and the town is openly a tourist destination. Back in Craig, one crafts store owner told us to visit just one specific outlet in Ketchikan because, she said, it is the only independent one – she was right, it was an excellent place with a resident First Nations artifact painter.

Tourism, then, is Ketchikan’s dominant preoccupation so that places like that one outlet were hard to find, though the wool and yarn shop was another. The one remaining fur shop and its high prices were reminders of the trapping trade that spurred the growth of the town and other northern Canadian ones like it in the first place. For the most part, though, the big stores sold much the same thing and at very similar prices so that, to quote a once famous Australian sports commentator, it was a bit deja vu all over again. And for anyone in search of a king crab meal, $US90 and upwards seemed to be the norm.

Somewhere between the extremes of Ketchikan and Craig, of course, lies the balance point for the growth of tourism – very similar to Fremantle’s challenge in having to balance the influx of food and alcohol outlets against organic community development.

Elsewhere in the world, places like Venice, Amsterdam and Barcelona have decided they are now past that point and need to rebalance, sometimes to the chagrin of visitors like those to Venice now having to pay a daily fee. Ketchikan shows no signs of any such levy, and Craig has invested heavily to get people there. And in its present state, it is well worth visiting. But what will it look like a few years on?

From Ketchikan we cruised down the British Columbia coast, on watch for whales and other wildlife before a stop at Nanaimo and the sail into Vancouver. Later that evening, having dinner with friends near the University of British Columbia, we watched Odyssey cruise back out.

And a few days later still we are further up the Johnson Strait, on the lookout for the return of a ship we have enjoyed being on but will unlikely be so again. It has been a privilege over the past years to spend time with her crew and guests.

By Brian Stoddart.


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