Amsterdam

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At the start of this year, I challenged myself to visit 12 new destinations in 12 months. At the time, I had a good idea of the places I thought I would end up in 2016. I’m happy to say, though, things don’t always go to plan. Just two weeks after my impulse trip to Germany, I was packing my bags again and heading out for a long weekend in Amsterdam. I’d been invited along on a group trip by fellow travellers that I’d met in Alaska last year. Just like Frankfurt and Cologne, Amsterdam wasn’t somewhere I’d expected to visit this year, but I’m so glad that I did.

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There are a lot of cities I’ve visited where I’ve really felt mis-sold. Take San Francisco, for example. The San Francisco you see in all the movies and TV shows is actually just a very small part of one neighbourhood. The majority of the city looked nothing like I expected it to. What I like about Amsterdam is that it looks exactly how I imagined. Tall, wonky houses line  endless canals that are straddled by bridges carrying cyclists. People live on boats, and stopping for a break at one of the many cafes is an essential part of the day. After all, it was Amsterdam’s merchants who introduced coffee to Europe.

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The only problem I had with Amsterdam is that I found it so disorientating. It doesn’t take long for the canals to start all looking the same, and there’s not much difference between the design of the bridges for an untrained eye to tell them apart. At one point we walked down the same street 4 times before we realised we were going round in circles. I guess it all adds to the charm when visiting Amsterdam as a tourist, although I think I’d find it frustrating if I had to actually get somewhere.

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I started to plot my journey through the city by shops. There are a lot of independent shops here, so that is at least one feature you can tell apart. Vintage shops are particularly common, and anyone who loves to shop and hunt out unique pieces would feel right at home here. Serious cycling shops are also popular, which makes me think a lot of Amsterdam residents keep expensive road bikes at home in addition to the city bikes they hurtle around the city on. The bikes, I have to admit, are one thing I was not prepared for. I mean, obviously, I knew that everyone in Amsterdam cycles. And I knew that there are more bikes than cars in the city. What I didn’t know was that those bikes, and the people on them, speed through narrow crowded streets at about 30mph. The only warning you get is a brief ring of a bike bell, and if you don’t get out of the way quick enough, well that’s your problem. I read a statistic that 12,000 to 15,000 bicycles are pulled out of Amsterdam’s canals every year. I suspect most of these are the result of either tourists trying to manoeuvre rental bikes along the narrow streets, or locals trying to avoid the tourists.

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The other fast-moving objects you have to look out for in Amsterdam are trams. If you don’t like the thought of cardio, this is how you get around the city fast. Tickets last for either 1 hour or 24 hours, and the trams operate between 6.30am and 12.30am.

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If you’re after a more romantic mode of transport, there are numerous options of boat trip to choose from. Officially made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2010, the Amsterdam Canal Ring is made up of waterways that outnumber those in Venice. Amsterdam also has three times as many bridges as Venice, more than any other city worldwide. The canals were built in the early 1600s, after Amsterdam’s population grew beyond its medieval walls and land was drained and reclaimed.

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One of the most famous areas of Amsterdam is the Red Light District. Streets so narrow you have to squeeze past the line of people walking in the opposite direction are lined of both sides with windows displaying women who generate about ∈650 million annually. Prostitution was legalised in the Netherlands in 1810, and brothels became legal in 2000. Only about 5% of prostitutes working in Amsterdam were born in the Netherlands. The red light is supposed to be flattering, but to be honest there were so many red lights in such a confined space I could barely see anything, let alone tell you which woman I found the most attractive. Since 2007, city officials have been trying to clean up the district by reducing the number of Red Light windows. Instead, they are encouraging the gentrification of the area by helping fashion studios, art galleries and trendy cafes to open up. It’s a slow process, as they have to find new attractions to replace the tourists who come to Amsterdam for the sex trade.

I can imagine that, if you haven’t experienced anything like it before, the Red Light District could be a shock to the senses. If it does bother you, though, you can avoid the area. You could still visit Amsterdam and avoid bikes and canals if you really have a problem with them. What you can’t really avoid in Amsterdam is the smell of weed. Although cannabis is illegal in the Netherlands, it is tolerated. And this is what makes it such an attractive destination for a lot of visitors. There are strict rules on when and where cannabis is ‘allowed’ to be sold and consumed. However, the ever-present smell of it in the city makes me think there is more smoked than authorities like to admit to. The only place I couldn’t smell weed was outside the cheese shops, because there the only thing you can smell is cheese. As a vegan, I think I prefer the smell of the weed.

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So – canals, bikes, trams, cafes, vintage shops, red lights, weed and cheese. As I said, Amsterdam was everything that it was sold to me to be. For a lot of the group I was travelling with, it wasn’t their first trip and I can see why. Once you start to learn the layout of the labyrinth of canals and streets, or you stop caring that you’re lost, it’s very easy to fall into the flow of Amsterdam life.

Cologne: Beyond the Cathedral

DSC_0769Cologne is Germany’s fourth largest city, and therefore bigger than Frankfurt. The layout of the city somehow makes it feel smaller. One thing there is a lot more of in Cologne is tourists, and the main reason for that is the cathedral. The gigantic structure towers over the city. It took 600 years to build, although admittedly for 300 of those years almost no building work was carried out. I didn’t go inside the cathedral, but I was impressed by the detail and skill demonstrated on the outside of the building.

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A great way to see the city is with the Can You Handle It? free walking tour, which meets outside McDonalds in Rudolf Platz every day at 12noon and 4pm. Be aware that it is a long walking tour, and we were with our guide Helgi for more than 3 hours.

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Since it was bombed during World War II, there isn’t much of the old town left. Most of Cologne was destroyed within just 90 minutes of one bombing raid. It is believed that Cologne wasn’t actually the Allied’s target that night, but bad weather forced them to change their plans. It’s bizarre to think that, if the weather had been clearer, the architecture of Cologne would now look totally different.

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Helgi told us about how Cologne was quickly rebuilt after the war, plainer and simpler buildings being more efficient than recreating their elaborate predecessors. I still think there is beauty in these purpose-built structures though, especially when I compare them to the pre-fab buildings that made up part of my middle school in England.

Frankfurt and Cologne have a lot in common. There is a bridge with love locks here too, although the sheer number of padlocks in Cologne compared to Frankfurt suggests that Cologne city council are not so concerned about the potential dangers. In fact, Helgi told us that the locks are more likely to be removed by people scavenging the metal to sell.

Gunter Demnig’s stumbling blocks are also dotted all over Cologne, and their locations give an indication of how the layout of the city has changed.

The basement of the NS Dokumentationszentrum houses an insight into Cologne’s third reich history. It was used as the local gestapo prison where people were interrogated, tortured and killed, executions often occurring in the courtyard. Inscriptions written by prisoners can still be seen on the basement walls, the last one reading ‘I think I can see an American soldier’.

One curious aspect of Cologne that I had to ask Helgi about is the green man signs for crossing the roads. In every other European city I have visited there is one green man and one red man instructing you when it is safe to cross the road. In Cologne, however, there are two red men and one green man. Helgi told me that he had heard various reasons as to why this is, but the most probable is that it saves money. Traffic lights usually come in sets of three, so rather then spend money requesting sets of two lights for the pedestrian crossings the city of Cologne thought they’d save a few euros by bulk ordering.

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Like all good holiday destinations, Cologne has it’s own local tipple. Kölsch is a light and hoppy beer served in 0.2l measures. In a lot of bars in Cologne, you will automatically be served Kölsch upon arrival. When your glass is empty, the server will replace it with a fresh one. When you are finished drinking, you indicate this by placing your beer mat on top of your glass. It seems a bit unhygienic to me, but I guess it avoids having to queue at the bar or attract the server’s attention.

All I need is for the breweries of Cologne to develop a gluten-free version of Kölsch, and it would be a strong contender for my favourite city in Europe.

 

Useful Info

We travelled from Frankfurt to Cologne with blablacar. It was a very last minute decision, and a totally new experience for me. For only ∈9 per person we got an efficient transfer in a nice car with a friendly local, and we also got to know our other travelling companion in the car.

Train one-way Cologne to Frankfurt approx. ∈49.

Can You Handle It? walking tour is free, but tipping is strongly recommended.

Reflections on Alaska

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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One last midnight sun

The last full day of our G Adventures tour around Alaska I think symbolised the Alaskan easy going attitude to life. As we packed our bags in the trailer one last time to return to Anchorage, the air was still cool but the rain and heavy cloud from the previous day had cleared. The weather changes in Alaska just as quickly as it does in the UK. On our drive out of Denali National Park, we stopped at all the viewpoints to see if we could spot the mountain. However, we were still just taking photos of cloud. The South Viewpoint was our last chance. We pulled up,expecting the same disappointment. The cloud still looked so bad that none of us even bothered to get out of the van. Our guide, Miles, went to use the bathroom and a couple of minutes later we could see him running back towards us, waving his arms in the air like a madman. I thought maybe he was being chased by a bear, but as he got closer we could hear him shouting ‘You can see Denali! You can see Denali!’. We all grabbed our cameras and ran to the lookout. The cloud around Mt McKinley/Denali only moved for a couple of minutes, but it was enough. I can say that I have seen the highest mountain in North America. The experience was typical Alaska, they’ll give you what you want eventually but you have to accept that things work on Alaskan time.

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After spending 3 weeks in Alaska, it was hard to return home to dark nights, impatient drivers and no gluten-free beer in bars (one of my favourite thing about Alaska). I really surprised myself by cramming in so much in such a short time, but I was blessed with (mostly) beautiful weather and some great people along the way. I checked off all the wildlife I wanted to see, plus more. In just three weeks I spotted (or rather, someone else spotted and then got my attention) orcas, humpback whales, porpoise, dolphins, bald eagles, puffins, sea otters, ground squirrels, marmots, moose, caribou, dahl sheep, a brown bear AND a black bear. Plus a lot of other birds and small mammals whose names escape me now.

I visited Ketchikan, Juneau (OK, only the airport and ferry port, but I’m still including it), Haines, Skagway, Anchorage, Homer, Seward, Whittier, Valdez, McCarthy, Kennecott, Tangle Lakes and Denali. It felt like so much, yet when you look at a map of Alaska even all those areas barely cover much of the state. There is so much more to see and experience in Alaska, and I want to make a promise to myself to return one day.

From initially deciding that I wanted to visit Alaska after seeing it in a travel brochure, it has taken me five years to realise that dream. In the process, I’ve proven to myself just how much I am capable of achieving and this blog helps to motivate me to do more too. Alaska is a destination that will always stay close to my heart as it gave me so much more than I ever thought it would, even if it was on Alaskan time.

Taking Photos of Cloud at Denali National Park

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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They say that of all the people who visit Denali National Park, only 30% get to see Mt McKinley/Denali Mountain clearly. I would have been happy just to see 30% of the mountain.

For most of my trip I’d been blessed with great weather, so I have no right to complain that when we turned up in Denali it closely resembled a Scottish summer. It rained/drizzled constantly, and the clouds hung so low that sometimes we were above them. For the entire 2 days we were there.

After the chilled pace of life at Wrangell St Elias, it was a shock to suddenly be in a national park full of tourists. You can only drive your own vehicle 15 miles into the park, which when you look at the size of the whole park is nothing. Shuttle buses will take you between certain points of interest, and you are able to jump on and off buses should you want to do some hiking. We took the bus 66 miles up to Eielson Visitor Center (4 hours each way) where apparently you can see Mt McKinley/Denali from. I can’t confirm that, however, because all we could see was cloud. Even the mountains in front of the highest mountain in North America weren’t visible.

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Our 8 hours sat on a bus were not completely a waste of time, though, because we saw some amazing wildlife. I only had caribou and brown bears to cross off my list by this point, so I was chuffed that our driver spotted some caribou right at the start of our journey. Then, as we rounded a corner, a brown bear ran right out in front of us and narrowly missed a collision with our bus. Our driver, Jose, was brilliant. Bus drivers are not obliged to stop for photos or provide any commentary, but Jose did both exceptionally. Concerned that the bear might be being chased, he stopped the bus immediately and cut the engine. When no other animals appeared, he explained it was probably a young male who was weaning. Bear cubs stay with their mothers until they are 4 years old, then she has to chase them away to teach them to fend for themselves.

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We also saw lots more caribou that day, and some moose. On the way out of the park, I picked up a newspaper to see what Denali actually looks like.

Tangle Lakes

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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After spending three nights in McCarthy, any other destination would have struggled not to be a disappointment. As the drive from McCarthy to Denali National Park is too long, and bumpy, to realistically complete in a day we stopped over at Tangle Lakes for one night. It was immediately apparent that we’d left the hip, cool atmosphere of McCarthy way behind us. There were two shared showers at the cabins where we stayed, but only enough water to run one at a time. Plastic flowers displayed in polystyrene blocks ‘decorated’ every window. In the restaurant, animal skins, hunting photos and signed photos of George W. Bush adorned the walls. Further down the road, we found a pie shop that sold every book ever written about Sarah Palin, with of course a signed photo displayed on the wall next to them. I mean, I’m sure she’s an interesting lady to read about, but I can’t imagine ever visiting a coffee shop in Scotland that sells 15 different biographies on Alex Salmond.

For all it’s quirks and faults, though, our accommodation at Tangle Lakes was fine for one night. The food was good, and the people as friendly as I’ve encountered in other parts of the USA.

The redeeming feature of Tangle Lakes, and the reason you should stop there if you’re passing through, is the view. Most of our group spent the evening sat on the porch, a drink in one hand, looking out over a stunning lake and mountains. The next morning, we took a small hike that gave us even more impressive views of this beautiful landscape. Then, after a couple of miles of teasing tarmac road, it was back on another bumpy dirt track to Denali.

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Flying High Over Wrangell St Elias

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From the choice of activities we had at Wrangell St Elias National Park, our decisions were vey much weather dependent. If it had ended up raining for three days, I probably would have gone rafting. Well, you might as well if you’re going to get wet anyway. On our first day there, a layer of grey cloud covered the sky. My hope of taking one of the flightseeing excursions with Wrangell Mountain Air looked like it was going down the drain. Then, at the end of a really long and tiring day of activities, the sun came out just in time to catch the last flight. And boy, am I glad I made that decision.

Flying over the national park in a small, six-seater plane really helps you to understand the scale of it and how all the different parts fit together. Distances and sizes in the park are so huge, at some points you feel you are going to fly right into a mountain when in fact you are still over a kilometre away. The views of the mountains and glaciers from above are incredible. Our pilot, Bill, chatted to us and told us all about the area as we clicked away with our cameras. Bill was just as good as our guides on the ground, and helped us gain a new perspective of the park and life there.

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There are so many activities to choose from in McCarthy and Kennecott, but flightseeing is definitely one of the best ways to see the national park.

Useful Info:

70 minute flightseeing tour: $205

Kennecott and the Root Glacier

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Unintentionally on this trip, I had been following the story of mining in North America. From the boom towns in Sacramento and Seattle where hopeful young men had bought the supplies they would need to survive the winter further north, I’d traced their journey into Alaska and Northern Canada. Admittedly, my transportation choices had been a little more comfortable, but I still got an idea of the seemingly endless and unforgiving journey they would have faced. Visiting Kennecott, McCarthy‘s neighbour in Wrangell St Elias National Park, tied up the end of the story very neatly for me. Kennecott, an old copper mining town on the bank of the Root Glacier, is actually the reason that McCarthy was built. The miners needed somewhere to relax and enjoy themselves, and the mine owners needed to make sure the men spent their money so they’d have to keep working. The mines themselves are all way up on the mountain. It’s possible to hike to some of them, which I attempted but unfortunately, due to an injury the previous day, I didn’t get far up the steep and rocky route. The men who worked the mines would ride up and down on the tram buckets that moved the copper ore down in to the valley. I don’t blame them, but even that was a 45 minute journey. Men would frequently fall off the tram or get decapitated, their bosses making them sign a liability waiver. All the mines have really positive names like Bonanza, Jumbo and The Mother Lode. Down in the town itself is the 14 storey mill where the copper ore was processed. It was due to be destroyed after the mine closed, but thankfully for us that job was given to a con man who simply took what was valuable, along with his commission, and disappeared. There are 3 mill tours every day, and I highly recommend you take one of them if you go there. The two hour walk up to the very top of the mill building and then back down through many of the lego-like rooms is not particularly easy, but it’s a fascinating tour. The guides in McCarthy are all excellent and really knowledgeable about the area and all the activities they run. Ashley took us on our mill tour. She showed us photos of how the mill and the mines looked when they were in operation, as well as some of the guys who had to deal with deep snow and falling rocks to build the railroad. Her excellent commentary wasn’t even disrupted by the two young children in our group who asked her twenty questions a minute and ran off in different directions when they saw some dangerous mill machinery to climb on.

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Even if you only make it as far as the town of Kennecott and the mill tour, you will have experienced the national park. However, the outdoor activities are really what it’s all about there. We had two full days in McCarthy and Kennecott, but there were so many activity options to choose from that we couldn’t do it all. I opted for a glacier walk with crampons. The Root Glacier runs right alongside Kennecott. What most people think is tailings from the mine is actually glacial moraine. At this point in the glacier, the ice is covered by a thin layer of rocks which turns it into a moon-like landscape. Our guide, Kirk (also excellent), led us down a trail to where the ice was the more traditional blue and white. Then, we donned our crampons and off we went. We walked around the glacier for a good few hours, and it is one of the most incredible things I have ever done. I’ve walked on a glacier before in Europe, but it was nothing like this. From a distance, the glacier looks quite flat. However, when you’re on it you realise that it’s an intricate landscape of hills, crevasses, pools and waterfalls. The water is so pure, you can fill your water bottle up. Kirk showed us lots of different features of glaciers and told us about how the glacier is constantly changing. Lakes and waterfalls quite often suddenly appear, only to disappear again just as quickly. Kirk also boiled up some of the glacial water and made us hot drinks, which I thought was a nice touch.

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If you want a slightly harder challenge than just trying to walk on crampons, there’s also the option to go ice climbing on the glacier. Either way, you will not regret it.

Useful Info:

Kennecott Mill Tour: $27.50

Root Glacier Walk: $80

Magical McCarthy

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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Almost as soon as we left Valdez, our guide Miles became like an excited school kid on a field trip. Our next stop would be McCarthy, his favourite place in Alaska.

On paper, McCarthy looks far from the most exciting place on Earth. The year-round population is between 25 and 40 people (as with all statistics in Alaska, it depends on who you ask), plus their dogs which about doubles it. ‘Downtown’ consists of two restaurants (one of which doubles as the bar), 2 hotels (owned by the same person, who owns most of McCarthy), the grocery store and a couple of excursion offices. However, as soon as we arrived in McCarthy we immediately understood why Miles was so excited. The town sits in Wrangell St Elias National Park, which was formed in 1980 and is home to the second and third highest peaks in the USA as well as nine of the 16 highest peaks. Only about 80,000 people visit this national park every year. Some national parks get more visitors than that in the month of January alone. One of the big reasons for the low numbers is that Wrangell St Elias is not easy to get to. There’s one road in, a dirt track that is labelled on the map as a highway and really shouldn’t be. It’s 60 miles long, and takes about 3 hours to conquer one-way. If you don’t like bumpy rides, this isn’t the place for you. You’re driving along the route of the old mining railroad, and it’s advisable that you don’t go over 35mph so as to avoid the old rail spikes sticking out of the gravel. As one local told me in McCarthy ‘In Alaska we don’t have a side of the road we drive on. If there’s a pot hole on the right hand side of the road, you drive on the left’. The road ends at the Kennicott River, where you must walk over a bridge then on into McCarthy, or catch a shuttle bus for $5.

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So, the people who make it to Wrangell St Elias are the ones who really want to be there. And that’s what makes it such a great place to visit. Everyone who enters McCarthy immediately relaxes into its gentle pace of life and chilled out culture. We stayed at the Lancaster’s Hotel. Upon arrival we were told we would have a short introductory talk and tour of the hotel. It always makes me nervous when hotels have introductory talks, as they usually comprise of a huge list of rules and regulations. However, Becky just wanted to welcome us personally and tell us that if we needed anything all we had to do was ask. If no-one was on reception, she told us to press the intercom and someone would answer. It’s the complete opposite to Anchorage, where a member of hostel staff had looked put-out when I asked where the washing machine was. We soon discovered that everyone in McCarthy is this friendly. Both the restaurants, which are actually staffed by the same team, were happy to accommodate my vegan and gluten-free requirements. The grocery store, by no means big, had an impressive selection of gluten-free and vegan foods that could put some British supermarkets to shame. The lady at the grocery store also makes the sandwiches, for which you have to hand in a slip of paper with your order on the night before.

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Although you have no desire to use it once you get into the McCarthy pace of life, there is wi-fi available for a charge. I believe it works in both hotels, but the reception is limited. I spotted a local sat on her quad bike outside the pub checking emails on her laptop, which leads me to assume the internet access is not available in the ‘suburbs’ of McCarthy.

Although I’m aware there are a lot of reality TV shows set in Alaska, I’d avoided watching them before I went there. Which is why I was a little embarrassed when I met one of the stars of The Edge of Alaska at the pub in McCarthy and I had to admit that I didn’t have a clue who he was. Two of the guys I was drinking with got very excited about the encounter though, and Jason was super nice in answering all our questions. I chatted to him for a while about all sorts of subjects, he told me he didn’t mind that I’d never seen the show and I promised to watch the next series.

Visiting McCarthy leaves you in two minds. You want to tell everyone you know about it, because it’s so cool. But, on the other hand, you also want to keep it a secret to stop more people piling in to the town.

Exploring Around Valdez

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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From Whittier, we caught the ferry to Valdez. Once again we were incredibly fortunate with the weather and spent most of the sailing sunbathing on the top deck. There were more whale sightings, icebergs in the water and the most sea lions I have ever seen together on one of the islands. I have to admit, I was a little relieved that this would be my last ferry journey in Alaska. I worked out I’d spent close to five days in total on the Alaska Marine Highway.

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The town of Valdez isn’t particularly scenic or interesting. It’s an oil town, and is unfortunately famous for the Exxon Valdez oil spill. You don’t have to venture far out of Valdez, though, to find beautiful scenery and great outdoor activities. We hiked up to a reservoir and ate our packed lunches looking out over the calm water.

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We also stopped at the Worthington Glacier. Unlike other glaciers in Alaska, Worthington is easy to walk to the bottom of. You can actually touch the ice, although it made me a little nervous to get so close that I could hear the ice cracking. Seeing the ice close up is like an out-of-this-world experience, and the bright blue colour is just incredible. As it is so accessible, this glacier can get busy. A massive tour group turned up just before us,slightly ruining the serene atmosphere close to the ice.

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Seward and the (Seemingly) Neverending Exit Glacier

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Continuing our journey around the Kenai Peninsula, we headed to Seward. I’ve heard that cruise ships regularly stop here, but thankfully there were none there when we arrived. Due to changing ferry schedules, I only got to stay in Seward one night. On the condition it was minus the cruise ship passengers, I would have liked more time there. There is something very quaint and traditional about the town, which says a lot in a state where everything is practical in design and had to be rebuilt after the 1964 earthquake.

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Seward was our entry point for hiking to the top of the Exit Glacier. If you’re looking for a leisurely stroll, then this is not for you. Out of our group of eight, only four made it to the top. The entire hike, up and down, with A LOT of near vertical, is about 7 miles. We did start to question the miles markers, though. We’d trek for an hour, only to find the next mile marker telling us we’d covered less than half a mile.

Year markers show how much the glacier has receded.
Year markers show how much the glacier has receded.

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You don’t have to make it all the way to the top to see the glacier, there are lots of great photo opportunities on the way. Although it’s all tough, the last third is by far the hardest. There was thick snow on the ground by this point, slowing us down even more. There are lots of false horizons too. Just as we’d get our hopes up that we were near the top, we’d see yet another hill in front of us with a line of orange route markers dotted up it. If you do manage to battle the slope, snow and rocks, the view of the Harding Ice Field from the top is definitely worth it. A white landscape stretches for as far as you can see. I feel privileged that I’ve been able to witness it, but then also saddened that for future generations the glacier and ice field, along with many others, will simply be a thing of history.

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It took us two hours to descend back to the car park, and my reward was a hot shower at the Hotel Seward. Ms Gene bought the hotel just a couple of weeks before the earthquake in 1964. As well as repairing the hotel, she helped other locals in Seward to rebuild. A true example of the Alaskan spirit of survival.