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Stingrays, Horses and Bears ... Oh My!

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The dream Alaska cruise is booked, air fare reserved and pre and post-cruise hotel stays arranged. Now comes the hard part - deciding what to see and do when we get to the Last American Frontier. With only a day in Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau, the choices won't be easy.

While I enjoy touring famous cities and landmarks from the comfort and safety of a vehicle, as I grow older and cruise more, I find myself wanting to experience sightseeing in a more active and thrilling way. This is a big leap for an indoor girl with a fairly sedentary lifestyle. Since my travel bucket list has grown longer than my life expectancy, I want to make certain each tour is special and an event to remember. It must be the kind of activity that rises above and beyond my comfort zone, which currently sits on a pretty low threshold. Just as I fear being in the limelight (see my previous post "No, I don't want to be a volunteer ..."), I am a huge whimp when it comes to trying new things - especially when they invite potential injury. However, with the encouragement of my husband David, who is not at all afraid to venture into new territory, I am learning to spread my wings.


I could plan a cruise excursion the easy way, by simply viewing the line's glossy tour booklet, choosing and booking a pre-planned excursion. All neatly packaged, wrapped and available for every cruise passenger, they are the ultimate in convenience. But what fun is that? After all, last year I planned a small private group tour of the Scottish Highlands with 14 fellow passengers, and it turned out to be the highlight of our cruise. So you see, I have discovered alternative ways, albeit involving many hours of research and, in my case, obsessive rumination over very detail of the tour.

This is not to belittle cruise lines for providing a valuable service. I have taken advantage of several cruiseline excursions, and they have more than satisfied my growing thirst for adventure. The first such cruise excursion we took part in was Swimming with Stingrays in Grand Cayman over 10 years ago. This sounded like just the adventure David and I were looking for, so I promptly reserved the boat to Stingray City the minute it opened for booking on the web. The booking process was simple alright, but it still left me with lots of questions about stingrays, in general. I spent every spare moment for months reading everything I could get my hands on to find the answers to my most pressing questions: "What if I step on one? Will it bite me? Will it stab me to death with that stinger?". Keep in mind, this was before the famous Steve Irwin a/k/a Crocodile Hunter incident. As a result, I spent months perfecting the "stingray shuffle" in my living room.


If that weren't enough, to fully appreciate these mysterious, graceful aquatic creatures, I needed to learn how to snorkel. All summer long, I practiced in our backyard pool until I could breathe through that tube without drowning myself, a hurdle I am proud to say I soon overcame. All my anxiety over stingrays, I am happy to say, was for naught. The experience was very cool and I survived unharmed. On a second trip to Stingray City with my daughters on a later cruise, I even did the obligatory stingray-kissing photo op - how touristy!


The second must-do-before-I-die adventure would be horseback riding. Not that I knew how to ride a horse. Everything I knew about horses I learned from TV's "Mr. Ed." Oh, I had been on small ponies as a child - you know, the country fair type ride, where someone leads you and your little pony around a circle the size of a hula hoop. I always wanted a horse (didn't every little girl?) and remember begging my dad to dig up his prize vegetable garden to build a horse barn. Of, course he didn't, but I could dream! I was overjoyed to see the excursion listed as available through the ship while docked in St. Maarten. However, I was not feeling the love when I read of disappointing experiences through the ship. I decided that this was one I was going to plan on my own for myself and two daughters. So, once again, I was on a mission to find the best stables on the island with the grandest of horses and the friendliest of guides - one with a lot of patience for a novice like myself.

After months of research, I found a highly recommended stable outfit on the French side of the island. Our family rented a minivan and headed off to the stables. My husband who is highly allergic to most animals watched from a distance as we were fitted for head gear and a horse suited to our weight and size. My horse was huge! Funny how they don't look that big in the movies. How do those guys in the westerns leap on and off their horse with so little effort? I couldn't even reach my foot high enough for the stirrup - my arthritic knees don't bend that way! "Ummm ... Excuse me," I timidly said. "I am going to need some help here." After some initial shock, the young stable hand lead my gallant animal and I over to the big stepladder, and I climbed up to the saddle. I felt more than a little foolish while the other few people in our party simply saddled up with very little assistance. Even my girls, who had never been within a mile of a horse in their lives, made it look so easy. With some brief instruction on how to maneuver the animal, off we went on our equine adventure. The horse was very gentle and knew the trail well, so thankfully I didn't have to do much with the reins. Slowly riding along wooded trails and gorgeous beaches - nudist beaches, I might add - it turned out to be one of the most thrilling things I had ever done!


This brings me to our third planned outdoorsy thing on the list: Bears - or observing them in their natural habitat as they fish for salmon in Alaska water. And because the only way to get to the rainforest creek to see the bears is by air, we will need to fly in a floatplane to get there! A double feature - two brand new exciting and thrilling experiences in one shot! Are you sensing a theme here? Yes, animals and wilderness. This indoor girl is getting off the couch and into the wide open world!

... And now the search for bear and flight begins! Stay tuned ...


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