JUNEAU, Alaska — I'd been told she'd had a little work done. Who can blame her? She was turning 50, and her life had been hard. The miles were starting to show.
But after an $8-million update, she was as good as new and ready to celebrate — and I got to join the party.
Meet the Malaspina: Fifty years ago she made the voyage that launched the Alaska Marine Highway System, a ferry network that opened the state's isolated coastal towns to tourism and gave residents easier access to the outside world.
To mark the system's golden anniversary, the Alaska Department of Transportation collaborated with coastal towns from Washington to the Aleutian Islands for a summer-long celebration. The event kicked off in Ketchikan, Alaska, in May, when the renovated Malaspina set sail on a five-day, 500-mile commemorative Golden Voyage. Special sailings and events will continue through October.
I couldn't wait for the trip to begin. I've always wanted to see Alaska's Inside Passage by ferry instead of by cruise ship. Fewer people, fewer rules and much less miniature golf on a ferry, which suits me fine.
I flew into Ketchikan, near Alaska's southern tip, arriving a couple of days early to explore the area before the Malaspina began her Golden Voyage.
The city was just shaking off its last significant snow of the season when I arrived May 1. It probably would have been smart to wait later in the season to make this trip, but I would have missed the celebration.
Clouds hung low and rain fell as I left the airport.
I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head and remembered advice I'd heard from an Alaskan friend: "Only tourists use umbrellas," she said. "Don't even bring one along. All you need is a jacket with a hood.
"And if you really want to look like an Alaskan," she added, "wear Xtratufs."
I passed on the Xtratufs, rubber boots that are nicknamed "Ketchikan sneakers" because people wear them everywhere: to restaurants, churches, shops and to fish, which is what they were designed for. It was a fashion statement I didn't want to make.
Actually, they probably would have come in handy.
The next day I set out on my mini-Ketchikan tour in a misty rain, climbing hilly downtown streets crammed with frontier characters, serene viewpoints and enough photo ops to keep me busy for a couple of hours.
During the summer, visiting cruise ships sometimes dwarf the town and thousands of tourists pack its streets, but on this day I had it mostly to myself, and I browsed in shops on Creek Street, built on pilings over Ketchikan Creek. A century ago the buildings housed bordellos.
My next stop took me to the rain forest, wet and green and beautiful, with waterfalls and streams everywhere. I had entered the Tongass National Forest, the largest coastal rain forest remaining in the world.
The 17-million-acre Tongass rates as the nation's largest national forest, covering most of southeast Alaska. It has glaciers, bays, fiords, high mountains, lakes and rivers. More bald eagles and black bears live here than anywhere else in the world, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It seemed early in the season to spot bears, but I tried to be careful.
I didn't want to get eaten and miss the Golden Voyage.
On the way back to town, I checked out another of Ketchikan's highlights, its totem poles. At Totem Bight State Historical Park, I strolled through a pretty seaside park with 14 Tlingit and Haida totem poles and a clan house big enough to house 30 people.
The poles, most built from cedar, feature stylized human, animal and supernatural forms. A brochure explained that they told stories about ancestry, history, people or events. The setting, combined with the unusual artwork, had a spiritual feel.
Back in town, more totem poles awaited at the Totem Heritage Center, which displays 33 poles, some dating to the 19th century. No wonder Ketchikan is nicknamed the totem pole capital.
I glanced at my watch. Time to meet the Malaspina. I would spend the night on board the docked ship, which was scheduled to begin its run early in the morning.
When I saw the 408-foot ferry earlier, just after arriving in town, she was dressed to celebrate, with colorful signal flags flying. A community celebration had taken place onboard, with dancers and other entertainment. It was the first of many parties.
The flags had been taken down. Now, they'd go back up for the next celebration honoring the ship and the marine highway system.
They call it a marine highway, I was told, because it's the closest thing Alaska has to a highway. Most roads can't go very far because of the bays, islands, glaciers and mountain peaks, so in many areas the primary means of travel is by sea or air.
The kicker: The marine highway system has been designated a National Scenic Byway and an All American Road, the only marine route to be awarded the honor. The designation, given by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is designed to preserve and protect scenic routes. Another that has earned it is the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and Virginia and the George Washington Parkway in Virginia.
Impressive, I thought, as I looked around. There was an observation lounge with wrap-around windows and aircraft-type seating, a large cafeteria, bar, gift shop and solarium. During long trips, riders who don't purchase a cabin can pitch tents on the open upper deck or sack out in lounge chairs.
I chose a cabin, which I loved. It measured 200 square feet, about the size of a standard cruise ship cabin, but had no bells or whistles. It was plain but efficient, with four berths, a bathroom and shower, sink and table. The bed was comfortable, and a window gave me a wonderful view of the Inside Passage as we slid by.
My ticket cost about $200 for the three-day, two-night special voyage, and an additional $148 for the cabin, which could accommodate four. I could have invited three friends or family members to share the room, and the cost would have been the same. You pay for the cabin, not the number of people in it.
In general, ferry representatives say, prices are comparable to other transportation costs, whether by plane or ship.
At 5:30 a.m., I awakened when the engines started to rumble.
Light flooded my window as we moved away from the dock. Perhaps the weather was clearing, I thought, as a bright yellow beam from the rising sun spread across the sky. Clouds still hung low on the mountains, though, and when I lay down on my bed, the soft vibration from the engines lulled me back to sleep.
It was raining again when I got up a few hours later. I guess that's why they call it a rain forest.
Our first stop, before noon, was Wrangell, a onetime gold mining camp with about 2,300 residents. The town has more than 100 miles of forest roads that offer visitors access to remote lakes, campsites and scenic overlooks.
When we arrived, residents were re-dedicating a restored tribal house, and we followed a colorful and noisy parade of Tlingit dancers and singers through town to Chief Shakes Island, the site of the ceremony. The sun smiled on the event. A resident told me it was the first sunny day in three weeks.
But by the time we reached our next stop, the thriving fishing village of Petersburg, rain was falling softly.
It didn't deter villagers from celebrating the Malaspina's anniversary visit. Norwegian dancers came aboard to entertain, and hundreds of townsfolk lined up for a tour and to have dinner in the ship's cafeteria. It was a nice change of pace for people who live in a small town with few restaurants.
The food was hearty and relatively inexpensive, with breakfast and lunch entrees less than $10 and most dinner entrees under $15. The menu varied day to day, with Alaskan seafood often featured.
Later that evening, just before we left, the village shot off fireworks in honor of our visit. At the same time, people blinked their porch lights, and others, who had parked their cars on the roads near the dock, flicked their headlights.
The next morning Juneau, Alaska's capital, had its turn, and locals met us at the dock to celebrate and tour the ship. Then the ferry set off again, this time on a special run into Tracy Arm Fiord, where the full beauty of the Inside Passage emerged just as the sun did.
The ferry dodged ice floes to explore the narrow inlet, named after Civil War Gen. Benjamin Franklin Tracy. The 30-mile-long fiord, surrounded by 7,000-foot snow-covered mountains, brought everyone out on deck, where we marveled at towering waterfalls, mammoth glaciers and a bear that rambled near the shoreline looking for a snack.
We returned to Juneau that night, my Alaskan adventure almost over. But the weather finally seemed promising, and I raced around town, taking in some of the highlights: the ice field at nearby Mendenhall Glacier, the friendly tour and tasting room at Alaskan Brewing Co. and, finally, a 21/2 -hour whale-watching excursion.
Ten dolphins came to play as Capt. Grant Moore maneuvered the boat through the quiet waters of North Pass. The boat was surrounded by intensely beautiful scenery, and I made a promise to myself to return some day.
All I need to do is get a pair of Xtratufs.