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DESTINATION: ALASKA

Battling the cruise ship bulge

A couple pledges to counter the ship's gourmet fare by walking off calories on wilderness trails along the Inside Passage.

June 13, 2004|David E. Gilbert | Special to The Times

Aboard the Seven Seas Mariner — From our well-earned vantage point atop a granite outcropping 2,000 feet above Alaska's glacial passages, we looked down to our flotel, the floating hotel that had become a refuge from the howling wilderness. Soon we would be warming our aching muscles in the topside whirlpool -- an impeccable conclusion to a day of hiking along the Inside Passage.

My wife and I had heard an Alaskan cruise was only for "the newly wed or nearly dead." Kimi and I, active people in our robust middle years, were daunted by this generalization and others -- including the assumption that a constant onslaught of super-caloric food would be served while we did little more than sit on our duffs watching the landscape slide by.

We don't have anything against good food. We just need to earn our indulgences.

So when our travel agent suggested we join the maiden voyage of the Radisson Seven Seas Mariner three years ago, we signed on but made a vow: We wouldn't gain a pound by the end of the trip.

Our strategy was to get off the ship the moment we made port and hit the nearest trailhead for a vigorous hike so we could feel virtuous enough to indulge in the Mariner's gourmet fare. That's important, because on the Mariner, it's hard not to rest, relax and indulge.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 16, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Alaskan cruise -- A photo caption with a Sunday Travel section article on Alaska's Inside Passage said the Seven Seas Mariner was shown at port in Ketchikan, Alaska. The ship was docked in Juneau, Alaska.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 20, 2004 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Alaskan cruise -- A photo caption for a June 13 article on Alaska's Inside Passage ["Battling the Cruise Ship Bulge"] incorrectly said the Seven Seas Mariner was pictured at port in Ketchikan. The ship was docked in Juneau.

Every cabin is a suite with a balcony, and the living space ranges from about 250 to 1,200 square feet. (The latter, a two-bedroom suite, also has almost 800 square feet of veranda space.) Our accommodations were more extravagant than our first house. We also were pleasantly surprised by how comfortably the Mariner can ensconce 700 passengers, offering plenty of privacy.

Midnight departure

We departed at midnight from Vancouver, Canada, under the Lion's Gate Bridge, leisurely wending our way to Victoria by dawn on an otherwise dreary day. With little time to prepare a hiking itinerary before boarding, we had relied on the Mariner's library of Alaska guides and Internet access in the ship's library.

We zeroed in on 3,500-acre East Sooke Regional Park, a leisurely hourlong drive from Victoria, and its stunning 6-mile Coast Trail. We walked through the stiff salt breeze in the footsteps of the Coast Salish people who had harvested berries, netted salmon and collected shellfish here. The cloud cover lifted, revealing Washington's Olympic Peninsula. As the tide receded, an iridescent, black-violet and green pelagic cormorant dived for its lunch. We made it back to Victoria just in time for afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress hotel -- in our hiking togs and mud-caked boots.

The Mariner then plowed north into the Inside Passage, on its way to covering 1,500 miles in a week. By the time we arrived in Ketchikan, Alaska, after being at sea for the better part of a day, Kimi and I already had fallen prey to Le Cordon Bleu-inspired cuisine on the Mariner. A workout was in order.

We hailed a cab that took us on a 10-minute winding ride to the Deer Mountain Trailhead, named after a peak rising about 3,000 feet above town. In a place that averages about 140 inches of rain each year, residents use the mountain as a barometer of sorts: If you can't see the summit, it's raining. And if you can see it, it will be raining soon enough.

The trail cuts a steep upward route through the rainforest, affording spectacular views of the Tongass Narrows to the south from the first lookout, a mile away and 1,000 feet up from the trailhead.

From there we ascended farther into lush, dripping, old-growth Sitka spruce, hemlock and red cedar, from which the region's renowned totems are carved. Rivulets of seeping spring water threatened to turn our path into a mudslide, but we pressed on after hikers on their way down reported flowering skunk cabbage ahead.

Views of the channel

Later, after cruising into Juneau, we sidled up to the pier below the Mt. Roberts Tramway. We plunked down $22 for a day's worth of unlimited rides and clambered into the shining red car, which pulled us 1,800 feet above the capital to views of the Gastineau Channel, heavily wooded Douglas Island and the rich wilderness of Admiralty Island National Monument. We refueled at the Timberline Bar & Grill with appetizing fish and chips, a halibut and crab casserole and selections from the Alaskan Brewing Co.

Refreshed, we set out along a self-guided loop passing totemic carvings that depicted the folklore of native clans. The route, liberally posted with bear warnings, zigzagged down toward a 2-mile trail back to town. Soon, we were propping up our feet on our Mariner balcony, sipping cocktails and watching daylight fade over the Chilkat Range.

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