A Birthday Within The Inside Passage, Alaska

Friday, July 8, 2016: A Day Spent Sailing Towards Vancouver:

Being a Lector at my Birthday Mass:

             I awoke on my birthday with a jolt to realize that we needed to race down for 8.00 am Mass. Since I wanted to serve as Lector, it was important to get there early. By 7. 50, I was in the Hudson Room and Fr, Tim was presenting me with the reading for the day. I went through it rapidly, quite thrilled indeed to be able to hear Mass on board on my birthday. It was our last Mass of the cruise and Fr. Tim said a special blessing for us.

Breakfast at the Lido and a Final Lecture:

As usual, the Lido was mobbed by people who wanted a long and leisurely brekkie on their last day on board. I got the Swiss Muesli for a starter followed by waffles with strawberries and cream and OJ. Llew and I found a really nice spot to watch the many islands of the Vancouver Archipelago slide by us—some large, some small, some far away and misty, others really close at hand. When we felt quite sated, I decided to go for a presentation to the Queens Lounge on ‘Alaskan Explorers’ given by naturalist Humberto—and it was very informative indeed. He spoke to us about Vitus Bering, about Dahl (after whom the porpoises are named), about Seward (after whom an Alaskan city is named), about George Vancouver’s role in mapping out the region and finally about the Alaskan Purchase (from Russia).

After an hour, we decided it was time to return to our stateroom to begin our packing as tomorrow by this time, we will have docked at Vancouver. Determined to enjoy every last minute on board, we also wanted to make sure we stayed on track.

Packing Our Cases for Departure:

For the next hour or so, Llew and I focused on getting all our stuff into our suitcases (concealed under our bed) while also keeping aside the things we would need for the rest of the day (including semi-formal dinner wear) and clothes for the next morning’s departure. We are quite amazed by how much we have accumulated even though we kept our buys to the minimum.

Invitation to the Mariner’s Lunch at the Manhattan:

Packing done, Llew and I decided to go for the Mariner’s Lunch at the Manhattan for which we were especially invited. We were ten minutes late but we need not have worried. Sit -down service for a three-course lunch was offered. We both opted for the Crab and Shrimp Cocktail served already dressed in a light mayonnaise with shredded lettuce. For a main course, I chose the halibut with grilled shrimp served with a lime-cilantro sauce and grilled asparagus, while Llew got the beef brisket with mashed potatoes. And for dessert, both of us chose the Mixed Berry Cobbler which was absolutely delicious. Coffee and petits fours were part of the meal and we enjoyed them both before we got back to our staterooms.

Finally, a Session at the Gym:

I was keen not to leave the boat without putting in at least one session at the gym. Having walked around the deck several times for exercise, I decided I ought to go and check out the gym and take in the views of the passing islands which were just a visual treat at every juncture. And indeed, that was where I went after I climbed into a T-shirt, shorts and my sneakers. For the next half hour, both Llew and I were at the elliptical machine gazing at the prow of the ship and the route that lay ahead of us. It was absolutely delightful and I was sorry I had not found the time to get to the gym every single day. But then, that’s the problem with being on a cruise that offers so much. It was essential to me to have tried varied experiences each day and to have immersed myself in the true spirit of cruising which does involve dashing from one end of the ship to the other and from the lowest floors to the topmost.

Playing Bingo for a Free Cruise:

By this time, we discovered that a single game of Bingo was being offered in one of the lounges and that the prize was a 7-day cruise for two to the Caribbean or Mexico. Well, you have to be in it, to win it, right? What a great Birthday Present it would make! So off we raced to the Queen’s Lounge to buy our tickets—a card of six for $35 and to play a form of Bingo which was slightly different from the “Housie” with which we are more familiar. I have to say that it was fun and when we started sweating for just 2 more numbers on one of our cards, we were sorry that someone else won the house, but not so sorry when we discovered that the guy who won the prize was also celebrating his birthday! Oh well, at least one Birthday Person got a really unforgettable present that day!

Time for a quick nap and Cookery Cards:

We did actually find time for a nap—a short one for me, my usual 20 minute shut eye– before I darted off to the Explorer’s Lounge to pick up all the recipe cards that pertained to the many cookery demonstrations that had been carried out on the liner. Several of these demos had been presented when we were sightseeing in the various ports—and so we had missed them. It was good to collect about thirty recipe cards for some of the delicious concoctions we had enjoyed during the cruise. That task accomplished, it was time for us to get back to our staterooms to shower and dress for dinner as we had reservations at the Pinnacle Grill which is one of the specialty restaurants on the ship.

Off for a Birthday Dinner to the Pinnacle Grill:

We would be wearing our glad rags for the last time on the cruise and we were glad that it would be on my birthday. Our 8. 30 pm reservations at the Pinnacle Grill saw us seated at a lovely sea-facing table with an amuse-bouche of stewed mushrooms placed before us in tiny demi-tasse cups. We were sorely disappointed that the Alaskan King Crab Legs were all gone—but in all fairness, it was the last day of the cruise and we had a very late reservation. After we ordered drinks (a Cabernet for Llew, a vodka cocktail for me) we got down to ordering our three-course meal: it was going to be special, we hoped, for it would be nice to save the best for last. Since our friend Tony who had tasted the Lobster Bisque at the Pinnacle Grill on our last cruise had pronounced it the best he had ever had, both Llew and I decided to have that. And it was amazing–just filled with lobster bits and very flavorful indeed. For a main course, I chose fish again with shrimp scampi while Llew had steak and for dessert, the two of us chose the Not—So Classic Baked Alaska with Cherry Garcia Ice-Cream and Bing Cherries Jubilee which is a HAL specialty,  a demo item by Chef Suraj, a few days ago. And just when we thought the meal was done, along came a waiter with a massive slab of Chocolate Mousse Cake to celebrate my birthday. Sadly, he did not sing Sarta Murliya—which is the traditional Indonesian song that is sung almost every night at the Manhattan. He merely sang a quiet Happy Birthday, but there was a candle and he did procure a knife and I did cut the cake—which Llew and I only proceeded to taste (it was awesome) as we were filled to bursting with our celebration meal.

I can only say how blessed I feel that for several years in a row, I have celebrated my birthday in different parts of the world—in the past few years, it has been in Berlin, Kyoto, South Africa and now in Alaska. Outside, our ship was worming its way through what is known as the Seymour Narrows—as the name says, it is a very narrow inlet through which the captain maneuvers the craft. Islands passed us by in the soft shades of a North American dusk as we inched closer home with every nautical mile we covered. It was a lovely birthday and one that was made special by the many email and Twitter messages I received from family members and friends around the world.

Last Night and Birthday Bash at the Piano Bar:

We ended a really terrific day at the Piano Bar in the company of the one and only Jimmy Maddox who, on having been told at the gym, where we had met him earlier this morning, that it was my birthday, decided that he would sing and play for us his funny Birthday Song. Well, it was a funny song indeed and it was great fun to have the entire crowd at the bar (and there were hordes as it was the last night and Jimmy had accumulated a faithful band of fan followers) as we ushered the almost-end of my birthday. It had been a night to remember and I was so thrilled by the way things had turned out. Llew, who was feeling a trifle unwell, had left earlier, but I stayed until midnight, when the bar closed, to see my birthday out in it’s entirely. Since we had put our clocks one hour forward at midnight, my birthday came to a sudden and abrupt end—but it was true fun while it lasted and I had a ball!

Back in my stateroom, I found I had about ten minutes to zip up my case and place it outside our door for removal by the porters. I met the deadline and before long, Llew and I were fast asleep. Our last day on board had been packed to the gills but it had been a fabulous day and an amazing cruise and I have to say I was sorry it ended.

Catching Ketchikan’s Spirit

Thursday, July 7, 2016: Ketchikan, Alaska:

            It was our last destination in Alaska—Ketchikan. A place that became familiar to me a few years ago when a priest-friend of ours, Fr. James Valladaras, had served as Ship’s Chaplain on a cruise liner and had sent us a postcard form this destination in Alaska. Little did I dream that one day I would actually set foot on this spot.

I expected Ketchikan to be little more than a touristic spot with kitschy souvenir stores and the chain jewelry stores that we have been seeing from Juneau onwards. We arrived there about 9.30 am (rather late in the day by cruise ship standards). By this hour, we’d found the time to have breakfast in the Lido. Eggs with meats for Llew, waffles with strawberry compote and whipped cream for me washed down with hot chocolate. These breakfasts are quite magnificent. We also made ourselves bagel sandwiches (smoked salmon for me, ham and cheese for Llew) to take aboard as we were not sure how much there would be to see in Ketchikan and we did not want to have to waste time in a restaurant. We thought that a sandwich on the run would be perfect—so we packed one each.

Jewelry Charm Collecting:

And so it was that we raced from one jewelry store to the next to collect the free charms that are distributed and, in the process, we ended up collecting quite a few. I also bought a few bracelets on which we could hang the charms. I will probably give a couple of them away as gifts.

Exploring Creek Street and Souvenir Shopping:

That task done, we headed towards Creek Street—the best-known tourist spot in Ketchikan. This area was once the town’s red-light district and it has been maintained as a quaint and very pretty part of the state of Alaska. It is also known as Alaska’s First City because most cruise liners stop at this port first—in our case, the order was reversed and we arrived at Ketchikan at the end of our travels. Houses on Creek Street are built on stilts over a tumbling river to which we had, alas, arrived just two weeks too early. Had we come at the end of July, we’d have found thousands of salmon leaping all over the Salmon Ladder as they swim upstream to spawn. My friend Bonnie had highly recommended this sight and I was sorely disappointed that we missed it. Instead, we began to walk towards a Salmon Hatchery, in the hope of finding some spawning salmon there. Sadly, the hatchery was closed for renovation and we could see nothing.

As fate had it, however, we found ourselves just steps away from the Totem Heritage Museum where a number of genuine, original totem poles gathered from all over the native settlements in Alaska have been brought here for safe-keeping. There were several totem poles all over town and several scattered about the entrance at this museum. We did not feel the need to enter it, so elected to walk back to town as we had trekked on a walking tour far out of the central tourist area. And then, as luck would have it, we found a free shuttle bus that the town operates—waiting for us to board it and take it back to the center.

So hop it we did—and that was when we went souvenir and gift shopping in the stores so that we’d have a few trinkets to take back to family members. Of course, we got our mandatory postcard and magnet and other little odds and ends—and armed with those, we went out in search of Alaska’s famous smoked salmon to take back as gifts. There were a few shops selling and shipping smoked salmon anywhere in the States. They offered samples—served on crackers with a dab of cream cheese—and I really did enjoy those nibbles (Llew does not eat fish). With some smoked salmon packs in our bags, we left and began to look for a spot where we could eat our lunch.

Lunch on the Dock and More Exploration:

It was time for lunch for both of us were feeling peckish—despite our big breakfasts, all the walking we are doing does work up an appetite. We found a vibrant place on the Dock to sit and eat our bagel sandwiches and do a bit of people-watching—which was a lot of fun as another cruise ship was docked right by and was filling with passengers. Others posed by the sculpture of prospectors in the Klondike. When we were done, we decided to go out and find Edmund Street (aka Street of Stairs). And when we found it, we realized why it was so named. It is quite simply a street of stairs. You climb higher and higher (about 7 floors) to get some interesting views of the city—a Lonely Planet recommendation—as Ketchikan is built in tiers—the more expensive housing is found the higher you go.

Visiting the Southeast Alaskan Discovery Center:

Lonely Planet had also stated that the museum that would probably most appeal to short-time visitors was the Southeast Alaskan Discovery Center. Since it was right in town and was run by the National Parks Services, Llew and I had free entry into it as we are National Parks members (entry is normally just $5 per person). The most interesting aspect of the museum is the Rain Forest that has been re-created indoors with birds and animal life presented in taxidermied form—this allowed us to finally see a brown bear! The museum also presented very good exhibits on the Tlingit, Huna and Tshaimshin people who first inhabited this region—much of which was very informative. We did manage to browse around for about an hour. And then when our legs began to give way, it was time to think of returning to the ship.

Relaxing the Evening Away:

Ketchikan turned out to be a delightful place. We did have some disappointments—not enough wild life, no salmon to be seen at all, some charms not available as I did not have a particular coupon book that would have entitled me to them. But, overall, it was a truly sweet place—not just a touristic spot. Alaska’s few towns revealed themselves to us in different ways and we were glad we experienced their variations.

Back in board, we went directly to the Manhattan Dining Room for some tea and nibbled at a few of the open sandwiches, scones and assorted pastries that were offered: the raspberry mousse cake and the pecan tarts were simply divine and much against my better judgement, I indulged as no one has a sweeter tooth that I do so. In fact, I have an entire set of sweet teeth!!!

In our staterooms, we caught up on email through our on-board internet connection and switched on the TV to catch up with international news when we received the awful reports about the shooting of a black man in Dallas that ended with the sniper shootout that killed 5 policemen and seriously injured several others. Like the rest of the country, we watched in horror as the events unfolded and for the rest of the evening we felt the sobering sense of being jolted out of our bubble of luxury and unreality to come to grips with the fact that for the rest of the world life goes on in its usual painful way.

Dinner at Tamarind:

Still, because life had to go on, we had our showers and got dressed for the next item on our agenda: Dinner at Tamarind, the pan-Asian restaurant on board where there is a nominal surcharge ($20 per person) for a really special meal. We had reservations for 8. 30 pm, which left us ample time to get a cocktail in the adjoining bar called Silk Den. I had a Mango Mojito which was excellent while Llew got a glass of red wine. As for our dinner at Tamarind, it was quite superlative to say the least with service that was beyond outstanding. We started with the Satay Sampler and Peking Duck in Chinese crepes for our appetizers—both were awesome. We got lamb, pork, chicken, veal and shrimp satays served with a spicy peanut sauce and Peking Duck served with two pancakes served with hoisin sauce, green onions, cucumbers—all to be rolled and eaten. Llew and I shared them so that we had a chance to taste both (and they were both good). One can get really good sushi and sashimi in Tamarind, but since Llew does not eat fish, we stayed far away from those offerings. For our main course, we both chose the Asian-style Lobster Tail which was served in a spicy sauce and outside its shell. As an accompaniment, I chose the stir-fried veg which included cucumbers, snow peas, mushrooms and scallions while Llew got the oyster and shitake mushrooms. The food was simply grand and we couldn’t have been more delighted. For our dessert, we picked the Tamarind Chocolate Basket which I had eaten on our cruise the last time and remembered to be superb. I was not disappointed. It is a chocolate mousse tinged with the flavor of ginger and served in a dark chocolate tart shell with berries on the side. As was to be expected, our entire meal was outstanding.

A Show in the Theater by ‘On Tour’:

We were running a trifle late for the late-evening (10.00 pm) show called ‘On Tour’ that featured the singers and dancers of Nieuw Amsterdam, but we decided to go and catch as much of it as we could. And boy, were we glad we did! The show was simply terrific with the most thrilling singing you could have wished for and well-choreographed numbers by obviously well-trained ballet dancers. Truly, just when we thought we couldn’t possibly have a better time, along comes a show like this that simply sweeps you off your feet. It was grand. Sadly, we got just about 20 minutes of it but those minutes were amazing.

Another Evening at the Piano Bar with Jimmy:

Just when we thought we ought to call it a night, we passed right by the Piano Bar and since our man Jimmy Maddox was doing an ‘Elton John Night’, it was hard to resist. We settled ourselves on bar stools right by his piano and, for the next hour, gave ourselves entirely to the pleasure of listening to him and joining in wherever we could. He has truly been one of the treasures of our cruise and we were simply delighted to stay right up to midnight when he finally called it a night.

We returned to our stateroom just astonished by just how much we are packing into our days as we settled down for the second last night in our stateroom. Because we were instructed to put our clocks one hour forward as we left Alaska behind during the night, it was already my birthday by the time we fell asleep. What a great start it was to my birthday!

Until tomorrow…

Highlight of an Alaskan Cruise–Glorious Glacier Bay

Wednesday, July 6, 2016: Cruising in Glacier Bay

Whale-Watching at the Crack of Dawn:

            Today was meant to offer the highlight sights of our entire cruise. And by the end of the day, we realized why it is considered a privilege to be able to set eyes on these parts of our planet. But to begin at the beginning…

We set our phone alarms for 5. 30 am as the Cruise Director had informed us that chances of whale sightings were best just before we entered Glacier Bay—about 5. 30 am! Naturally, we took him at his word and by the time we reached the Crow’s Nest as the Explorations Deck is called, there were about thirty people ahead of us scanning the waters. Initially there was not much to report but we did see some rather cheeky sea otters—brown bodies bobbing up and down and identified by shiny button noses. After a fairly long time, when most people had given up, we saw a few ‘spouts’ in the far distance—these are made by whales blowing water out through their blowholes. A little movement was visible in the water—we saw what looked like black fins and tails—but, even with binoculars, they were too far off.

And then, just when I thought how disappointing it was how little wild life and marine life we were spotting on this trip, there came a gigantic Orca (Killer) whale almost slapping against the side of our ship. I kid you not! It was literally just three feet from our ship and directly in the water below us when it made a graceful turn, exposed its back and fin above the water line and then plunged below exposing fully its huge forked tail. It was such an awesome sight to behold—especially after I had quite given up on spotting anything that remotely resembled a whale. Needless to say, it felt worth completely worthwhile to have woken up at that hour to see what we did.

Picking up Park Rangers Mid-stream:

Whale-watching apart, however, the sea surrounding Glacier Bay was stunning to say the least. Dotted with green-draped islands, it offers opportunities for some serious wild life watching if one has good eyes or a good pair of binoculars. We, however, saw none. At about 6. 15, we began to see a boat in the distance—we thought it was a whale-watcher, but as it neared closer to us, we made the happy discovery that it was the commuter vehicle used by the US Park Rangers who began their journey in it from Gustavus (pronounced Gus-tay-vus) in order to meet our ship which they would board and on which they would remain for the entire day. It was really cool to see the three of them—interestingly all women—well-clad against the cold in bright red coats. We waved to them from the Crow’s Nest and got some good pictures of their craft. We did not see the manner in which they are hauled up into our ship on the Starboard (right) side. Apparently, our ship brings its speed down to just a few knots in order to lower a rope ladder along the side of the ship. The rangers then climb up it and into the ship. Sure beats a cup of coffee to wake you up in the morning! One of their colleagues then sails away in the boat with the intention of returning to the same spot in the evening to take them back to Gustavus. A few minutes later, two of the rangers came to the Crow’s Nest. They would spend the rest of the day with us providing us with the kind of expert commentary that would guide us through the area.

The US National Parks Service has declared the entire Glacier Bay region a National Park. Thanks to the efforts of the naturalist John Muir, who is mainly associated with Yosemite National Park, the US government was persuaded to take this area on as a protected region. This means that it is maintained as ‘wilderness’ and because the only way to get to these parts is by boat, only very few people on this earth have had the privilege of seeing the area. Because the whale populations in these parts apparently dwindled quite suddenly, environmentalists petitioned for the banning of cruise liners in Glacier Bay. The cruise companies, however, appealed and, finally, a happy compromise was reached. Only two cruise liners per day are allowed in Glacier Bay. So we were really honored to have the opportunity to survey this part of the world in our Holland-American cruise-liner. Campers are allowed to spend time here but there are no camp sites, no running water, no facilities of any sort. If you wish to camp in this area, you pitch tent wherever you please and use the wilderness for bathing and toilet facilities. We were amazed not just to see a few people on one of the beaches but to actually find two of them kayaking in the Bay—I mean how cool is that???

Exploring Glacier Bay:

We spent most of our morning in the Crow’s Nest—it was one of the best places to be as it is an enclosed area that is temperature controlled and one can hear the experts provide their commentary which turned our attention to the map of the area and the route that our ship would take as it wove its way through a network of islands to the glaciers that give this bay its name. Ice-draped mountains were all around us by this time and you get a sense of actually being in Alaska although it is the middle of summer and the warmest time of year in these parts.

I nipped downstairs to get breakfast up for the two of us: waffles with strawberry compote and whipped cream for me, a bagel with cream cheese for Llew together with assorted pastries—all washed down by hot chocolate and coffee. Filled with this lovely repast, we trained our eyes on the topography as it unfolded before us. In front of us was another cruise ship and as we followed the exact same route, our ship literally inched forward. This allowed for a lot of photo opportunities as the glaciers came into view. At one point, the ranger pointed out a herd of white mountain goats—a nanny with her kids—on the mountain in the Starboard side; but we could barely discern them as tiny white spots.

Our exploration of Glacier Bay continued as Reid Glacier and Lamplugh Glacier came into sight. These are basically great rivers of ice the tops of which are almost entirely black or grey as a result of the debris (called moraine) that has been picked up along the way. The faces of the glaciers, however, are tinged blue and you understand where the shade ‘ice-blue’ gets its name! A half hour later, our ship made a left turn into Johns Hopkins Inlet and we were able to see Johns Hopkins Glacier come into focus. This glacier is the only one that is increasing in size—the others are steadily regressing as a result of global warming. We took a bunch of pictures but I was constantly aware of feeling sorry that there was so little wildlife in evidence. I had, at the very least, hoped to see a couple of bald eagles on this trip for birds and animals have the run of this land here and are masters of all they survey.

Margery Glacier—The Biggest Highlight:

It was not long before we arrived at the big kahuna—Margery Glacier. Being the highlight, they save the best for last. It is a massive ice river that runs down to the sea and as the ship inched closer and closer to it, we realized that the best way to view it and to get the best pictures would be to leave the Crow’s Nest and get down to the deck when glass would not inhibit our viewing of the sight.

And that was what we did. It was cold on the deck and Holland-America had thoughtfully provided cups of warming Dutch Pea Soup for everyone on board—a wonderful tradition that I hope they will retain. Just when I started to feel peckish, along came the soup. It could not have been more welcome.

Fueled up well for more viewing, we went down to the third floor and when we emerged on the deck, we found just a few people there—certainly not as many as I expected. Perhaps the bulk of them had already taken their pictures and left. For Llew and me, it was a marvelous opportunity not just to get some nice pictures of the glacier itself, but to pose against it as well. And finally, after we had taken the mandatory pictures, we could actually gaze upon the giant glacier surrounded by ice-encrusted mountains and take in the wonder of the region—the dead silence of it all, the bird life (loads of sea gulls in the water) and the glare of snowy light as it bounced off the white and ice-blue face of the glacier that appeared in some parts like giant stalagmites reaching for the air above.

When Glaciers Start Calving:

I was disappointed that it was not warm enough for us to see some of the ‘calving’ of the glacier—the name given to the process by which giant chunks break off the main glacier and fall into the sea. The fact that the water around the glacier was filled with ice floes ought to have indicated to me that we were likely to see it happen—but I had given up hope.

Imagine our delight then when we heard what sounded like a gun shot—a great big crack. And a few minutes later, a great chunk of ice detached itself from the side of the glacier and fell with a wobble into the sea with a huge high splash. Luckily, my camera was ready and since its journey down to the water was slow, I got a decent enough shot. It was a true sight for sore eyes—we actually saw the process of ‘calving’. A few minutes later, we heard the rumbling roaring sound of the glacier again as it proceeded to fling another chunk of ice into the sea. And we realized then why the ranger had told us that if we had not yet gone outside, we ought to—as the sound that the glaciers make are as awesome as the sight of them. It was a truly splendid morning spent really well as our ship made a full circular turn at Margery Glacier to allow passengers on every side of the ship to take in the absolute beauty of it. We realized then why this is the highlight of any cruise to Alaska. It was a sight that would remain in my memory for all time.

A little later, as it was rather cold on the deck, we went back to our staterooms. Our early rising had made each of us feel a little woozy but by noon, we were at the Lido Deck as the ship began its slow retreat out of the Bay. There were still lots of opportunities to take pictures but at the end of the day all we wanted was to drink in the sights of the mountains, the islands and the sea and we ended up doing just that.

Lunch on the Lido Deck:

Everyone seemed to have become really hungry by the act of glacier-watching for the Lido was packed. There were loads of choices on hand and I settled for soup (Ketchikan Green Chile and Corn Chowder) as I needed some warming up, a plate of small Middle Eastern nibbles and a bowl of spaghetti that I had custom-made for me Carbonara-style with bacon and mushrooms. Llew settled for a plate of roast meats.

Ranger Presentation in the Showroom:

At 1.00 pm, feeling fully sated, we made our way to the theater to listen to Ranger Faye make her presentation on Glacier Bay and although she used Powerpoint and some really good slides to make it interesting, I have to say that I dozed off through most of it. Early morning risings and too many late nights have begun to take their toll on me and I am often finding it impossible to keep my eyes open. Still, I was quite pleased with the few bits and pieces I caught and as we trooped out of the theater at 2. 00 pm, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at leisure.

An Afternoon of Leisure:

Llew chose to take a long and much-needed nap. As usual, I was content with a 20 minute shut-eye after which I donned my sneakers and began a two mile walk around the deck. There were a lot of other walkers doing the rounds, so I had plenty of company. After I had walked three miles or nine rounds of the deck, it was close to 5.00 pm when Mass was about to be celebrated. I joined Llew in our stateroom as we swiftly got ready and set off for Mass which, I was surprised to see was attended by at least 30 people. Mass and Communion done, we went back to our stateroom to get into our bathing suits for a nice long relaxing soak in the hot tub on the Lido Deck. This was the first time during this cruise that we found the time for a hot soak—on our previous cruise to the Baltic, we were in the hot tub after each day’s sightseeing in a different European capital.

Gala Night on Board:

Half an hour later, we returned to our stateroom to shower, shampoo and get ready for our formal Gala Night on board. I love these formal (dress-up) nights as it is a great pleasure to see everyone in their grand attire—males in jackets and ties and women in strapless gowns and their highest heels. We went to the Manhattan Dining Hall at 7.00 pm and were happily seated almost immediately—so much better than getting there at 8.00 pm and having to wait for half an hour for a table. It happened to be Lobster Night—so we were excited.

To our good luck, we were placed at a table for four and were quite pleased by the company of Bob and Mary who had just joined our ship in Skagway having done the land part of the Alaska cruise first. They made very interesting company as they were very seasoned travelers. We were awed to discover that they have been traveling together since their retirement in 1993 and have undertaken a minimum of two big trips per year—sometimes three. Having done this for 23 years, they have seen most parts of the world (except Israel and India) and made really entertaining company. Llew and I would dearly wish to follow in their footsteps—Inshallah!

Dinner was as good as the posted menu promised it would be. Both Llew and I started with the Shrimp Cocktail—which was different from the British version which is usually lettuce dressed with a Marie-Rose sauce with shrimp placed on the top of cocktail glasses. In this case, the undressed lettuce was placed in cocktail glasses, four large shrimp were draped on the side of the glass and a tiny ceramic container of a cocktail glass was served to be used as a dipping sauce for the shrimp which were also accompanied by a wedge of lemon. Although different, it was delicious. Both Llew and I also chose a salad for our second course—Caramelized apples, pears and shallots were served in a balsamic-vinaigrette over greens (nice enough). For our main, no marks for guessing that we both close the Surf and Turf—Lobster Tail with Filet Mignon accompanied by roasted carrots and a green spinach pilaf. It was very good indeed and we both enjoyed the dish. Finally, for dessert, I had the

Flourless Chocolate Cake served with a raspberry sauce and whipped cream—Llew ordered it too—that Chef Suraj, during his cookery demo, had said was his favorite dessert on board. It was great, I have to say. The texture was incredible. It was rich and super creamy and the quality of the dark chocolate used was so good that I could tell from the taste that it was a superior grade.

Evening in the Crow’s Nest with Piano Man Jimmy:             

Our companions said goodbye to us at the end of their meal and we decided to get to the Crow’s Nest where Piano Man Jimmy Maddox had been moved for an evening of hits from Around the World. Once again, we were regaled by the multiplicity of his talents as pianist, singer, raconteur. The songs he played were well-known hits and with a large number of people joining in both in the singing and taking spontaneously to the floor, we had a really great evening. At 11.00 pm, we finally decided to get back to our stateroom and call it a night.

It had been a day of immense sights and sounds and we were certainly enjoying our travels and all the wonders it was slowly revealing to us.

Until tomorrow…

Trespassing in Tracy Arm Inlet and Juneau, Alaska

Monday, July 4, 2016:

Tracy Arm Inlet and Juneau, Alaska:

            We put our clocks back one hour before we went to bed last night as we would be arriving in Alaskan waters and crossing a time zone line at 2. 00 am. We also set our alarms for an early start as we were told to arrive in the Crow’s Nest—the highest Observation Deck on the ship—at the crack of dawn to spy whales. Not to be daunted by the hour, we were at our stations as planned at 6. 30 am to bag good seats.

Whale-Watching at Dawn in Frederick Sound:

At 6.30, there were not a lot of folks in situ, but as the half hour passed, the place got packed with cruise passengers and the Crow’s Nest became full. We had armed ourselves with hot chocolate and small pastries from the Café attached to the adjoining library and feeling quite content at that hour of the day, we trained our sights and our binoculars at the horizon and hoped to see whales.

The secret to whale watching is abundant patience. We were in Frederick Sound at this time—a fertile feeding ground for whales who eat for 22 hours of the day—who knew? Since they find rich food in these waters, there is good chance of spying them. Rick, our Cruise Director, told us what to look for—a head of mist rising above the water is a clue as the mist is left by spouting water issuing from the whale’s blowholes. Even while waiting, we had views of the mountains and the little islands that dot the Sound—so there was a lot of visual interest.

About twenty minutes later, we started to see the mist and within ten minutes, we were fully into whale-occupied territory. The spouting water was frequent and very often we saw the turns of the great mammals in the water. On at least two or three occasions, I saw their tails stick out of the water and then plunge swiftly back in. They were not too distant and in a couple of cases, we actually saw their backs glide through the shallow waters. It was a very rewarding sight and worth getting up early to spy. With humpback whales spotted, we are left with four of the other sea creature to see as part of the Big Five! (The others are Orca—or Killer—whales, sea lions, Dahl’s porpoises and otters).

Breakfast in the Lido:

It was time to go in search of breakfast for cruising through Tracy Arm would continue for about four hours. We made our way to the Lido and since I spied the Full English Breakfast offered with the kind of tenderloin English bacon I like and the fat sausages that the English call Bangers, I decided to have one of those—both the bacon and the sausage were very tasty indeed. We also go freshly squeezed orange juice as the decaff coffee on board is not the best at all. With breakfast accomplished, it was time to go out in search of a few ship board activities that would keep us happily occupied until we disembarked.

Culinary Demonstration featuring Baked Alaska:

Llew preferred to get back to our stateroom for a nap as he suddenly felt sleepy while I headed off to meet Alex who was demonstrating the making of Baked Alaska, the famous dessert that everybody loves but rarely makes at home. The chef happened to be Suraj who was originally from Goa. He took forever to whip up the egg whites (which made me wonder why he had not simply used a mixer as all of us would do at home!). The finished dessert was browned with a blow torch. The entire operation took about 20 minutes after which I headed off elsewhere.

Discovering the Klondike Gold Rush:

I was keen to find out a bit of history about the Klondike Gold Rush and when Cruise Director Nick made a presentation on it, I went off to listen to what he had to say. Sadly, he was nearing the end of it and I too suddenly felt very sleepy. It was time to return to my stateroom for a nap. About 20 minutes later, feeling very refreshed, we went off to Lido Deck to participate in the Great American BBQ being held to celebrate July the Fourth—as, of course, it was American Independence Day. With breakfast sitting quite heavy in my tummy, it was time to think about more food.

The Great American BBQ on Deck:

Long lines of other passengers, all determined to fuel up before disembarking and spending the day at Juneau, did not think so. With plates heaped with corn bread, bread rolls, the ubiquitous coleslaw and potato salads, baked potatoes with sour cream and chives and bacon, BBq-ed spare ribs, chicken, steak and lovely well-seasoned peppery salmon, they were heading to their pool side seats. Llew and I followed suit and found blueberry cobbler and red, white and blue cupcakes also offered for dessert. I could only take a very small sample size helping of a few things before it was time to head off to the Reception Desk to make arrangements to get off the ship for we had arrived at Juneau and the cruise terminus and its accompanying buildings could be easily spied across the narrow inlet of water.

Arrival at Juneau, Alaska’s Capital:

Our first day getting off the cruise liner saw most passengers wanting to race off and explore. And although tiny with the feel of a one-time prosperous frontier town, Juneau offered a whole lot to see and do. But, as it is also popular with cruising companies and offers only a limited number of berths for disembarkation, our ship was anchored a few meters off shore.

An Experience of Tendering:

As a result of our location, we needed to be ‘tendered’ ashore. This is the process by which passengers board small boats that then ferry them to the pier where they can disembark and begin exploration. It is not an easy task to get over 2000 passengers off a huge cruise liner and on to small boats—the allusions to the evacuation of the Titanic are inevitable. Fortunately for us, Christine, the Cruise Director, had offered to get us swiftly off the boat if we came to see her as soon as we were ready to get off.  We took her up on her offer and were ferried over to land on the very first boat that moved away from the Nieuw Amsterdam to get us to Juneau. It took no more than ten minutes and was a very smooth operation as we joined about fifty passengers on board to make the crossing past another HAL boat in the water—the Westerdam.

Exploring Franklin Street:

One of the benefits of attending a number of the shipboard presentations the previous day, was becoming aware of the free ‘gifts’ offered by many of the jewelry stores that line the streets of Juneau. Most gifts take the form of charms which can be hung from a bracelet—and are, therefore, a sought-after perk. It also allows passengers to walk the length of Franklin Street, the busy shopping artery that leads to the bus terminus and to the Mount Roberts’ Tramway which passengers can ride to get way up high on a towering mountain that overlooks the city and provides bird-eye views. We did not think spending the $35 per head that it costs to get to the top was worthwhile.

Instead we marched into the souvenir shops to find a T-shirt for my brother, postcards and magnets—our usual fund of souvenirs—and to move on. It was interesting to note that almost all the jewelry stores are manned by Indians from India who make Juneau their home for just 3-4 months of the year (the summer cruise season) and then push off to the Caribbean Islands for the rest of the year. We entered into conversation with one of them who used to live not far away from my home town in Bombay. Their wares take the form of precious jewelry and semi-precious stones set into jewelry and once they provide you with the free charm, they turn their attention to other customers as soon as they sense that we are not the in the market to purchase.

Off to the Mendenhall Glacier:

Our main aim while in Juneau was to make the trip a few miles out of town to the Mendenhall Glacier which is the closest we will get to a glacier on this trip as we have not booked any of the pricey helicopter or floatplane rides that actually put cruise passengers on the glaciers themselves. Using Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor, I had discovered that the least expensive way to get to Mendenhall is by Juneau’s public transport bus that costs a mere $2 per passenger per trip. However, this bus does not get all the way to the glacier and passengers are required to walk the last one and a half mile of road leading to the venue.

The second alternative is to take one of two ‘shuttle’ bus services run by private operators from the bus terminus. One is called the Glacier Shuttle (aka the White Bus—which is the one we took), the other is called the Glacier Express (aka the Blue Bus). Both cost the same amount ($15 per person one way which makes it a pricey $30 round trip for a journey that lasts no more than 20 minutes each way). Still, it takes passengers to the very entrance of the little state park—so all said, it is the best bet.

We entered the Juneau Visitor Information Center for maps and advice and were directed to the bus ticket counters from where we purchased our bus tickets to the glacier and headed a few meters ahead to the bus stop to board the bus. This stretch of the city was simply crawling with cruise passengers and there was a bit of chaos all around as folks tried to find their private tour operators, the public bus stops and the tram terminus for the cable car ride up the mountain.

Bus Ride to Mendenhall Glacier:

All private bus operators are supposed to give a running commentary to the glacier and back. Ours, a young girl with little interest in her job except to see that passengers boarded the bus in a queue, said absolutely nothing except to warn us about bears and not getting too close to them. Once at the stop, we were pretty much on our way as we followed the throngs to the venue. The twenty minute bus journey is uninteresting but for the meadows filled with wild flowers that follow you throughout and the vistas of the mountains all around.

Exploring Mendenhall Glacier:

Juneau sits at the bottom of what is known as the Juneau Icefield and one of the features of the icefield is the Mendenhall Glacier. It has been in steady recession over the past century and as global warming has melted much of it, what is left behind are icy waterways filled with glacial water. You hike about ten minutes and arrive at the very nice but very crowded Visitors’ Center that offer maps, rest rooms and souvenirs. And then you have two options: you can walk about five minutes and arrive at a viewing point that offers good photo ops against the backdrop of the glacier (which is what we did first) or you can hike to Nuffy Falls which we did later—or you can do both.

The glacier is not as impressive as the many we have seen in other parts of the world on our travels (the Columbia Icefield in the Canadian Rockies is vast and amazing and you can easily walk all over it; the Fox Glacier in New Zealand near Haas was incredible in its size and the fact that you can easily hike over it without spending a small fortune on helicopters or floatplanes). Still, the lovely bright blue that we spied at Mendenhall’s base (caused by moraine or debris that has accumulated over centuries) was a first-time sight for us and it was lovely.

Once we took our pictures, however, it was time to decide whether or not take the mile-long hike to Nuffy Falls—a 45 minute round trip. Since we had time on our hands, we went—not really knowing what to expect. It turned out to be the most fun part of our day.

Hiking to Nuffy Falls:

The hikers’ path to Nuffy Falls is very well marked and very well-traveled. There were scores of other walkers for company—of different sizes and ages—and they all coped well. Along the way, you pass by an abundance of wild flowers: large white daisies, purple hollyhock lookalikes, loads of unripe berry bushes. The air is cool and bracing but after a while you will find that you do not need a parka even though you are in close proximity to a glacier (a fleece is enough). About 20 minutes later, you arrive at the Falls and they are truly a spectacular sight. This is because this is the closest I have ever got to a waterfall—you are literally within a couple of feet of the tumbling water and can reach out and touch it. Needless to say, the water was ice cold. The blue base of the glacier is only a few feet away—so there are lots of good photo ops. But the place is constantly mobbed and that takes away some of the sense of being secluded in a pristine wilderness. Still, it was a fully worthwhile hike and easily recommended.

Return to Juneau and the Ship:

We followed passengers on the reverse journey to try to find the bus stop that took us back to Juneau. By this time, it was about 4.30 and the early tourist excitement had calmed down in the city. We spent about hour or so looking into a few more shops and landmark establishments such as the Red Dog Saloon that was once a prospector’s favorite haunt before we decided to get back to the ship. Once again, we were tendered across in a little boat and checked back into our ship.

Evening on Board:

For some reason—and probably because we had done two really good hikes in bracing mountain air—both Llew and I were hungry. But since we had 8.00 pm reservations at Canaletto, the specialty Italian restaurant on board, we decided to try just a little of the Alaskan food being offered in the Lido. I tried the Alaskan Seafood Chowder which was delicious and the Gold Diggers’s Chilli—both of which were great—together with the Alaskan beers on sale. Alaska has some nice brewing companies that use mountain glacial waters to brew their liquors and I was keen to taste a couple while on the trip.

Time to Dress for Dinner at Canaletto:

Back in our staterooms, we had enough time to dress for dinner and make our way upstairs again. I had tried to get a later dinner slot but all were taken. The concept at Canaletto is that of sharing and after ordering drinks (Chianti for Llew, a margarita for me), we looked at the menu. We decided to share two of the small plates (veal and sage polpettino which were meat balls in a delectable sauce—we got four which made it perfect for sharing) and the Vermouth Clams that were served in a very tasty broth dotted with chorizo sausage. Our appetizers were superb but not surprisingly, we already felt full. Still, we soldiered on towards pasta and decided to order two for sharing and to forgo a taste of the Large plates as we simply would have no room. We chose the Shrimp Papardelle which came with three tiger shrimp in a lemon infused cream sauce—very rich and very good, but we could only eat a little as we also had the special of the day—the lasagna made with chicken, beef and veal. It was also really good, but with just a few bites of the two really splendid dishes, we had had enough. It was time to order the lightest of desserts and we got the gelato—pistachio for Llew, gianduja (chocolate hazelnut) for me—both of which were splendid. We both felt really bad that our capacity is so small as neither of us did justice to the truly delicious offerings put before us.

Evening at the Piano Bar:

I would have preferred to call it a day at that point, but Llew was keen to get to the Piano Bar to listen to Jimmy Maddox belt out a few numbers as it was Elvis Night and the baby boomers were there in full force. We had a lovely one hour listening to a truly talented man who combines the skills of a pianist, singer, story teller and entertainer quite effortlessly into a one man show.

As our ship slowly pulled out of Juneau, Jimmy regaled us with stories about The King as well as sing-along numbers that had our feet tapping, heads shaking and lips moving. A truly lovely end to a very eventful day.

Until tomorrow…

Cruising the Inside Passage En Route to Alaska

Sunday, July 3, 2016: At Sea—Sailing to Alaska

            We had the kind of day today of which people think when you say the word ‘cruise’, i.e one on which you eat too much, drink too much and overdo everything.

Sunday Mass on Board:

I awoke early (as is my wont) leaving Llew to lie-in while I showered and got dressed. He followed right after and we were able to make it to 8.00 am Mass on board as it was a Sunday and we wanted to start the day right. In the Hudson Room, over 150 people had assembled so that there was only standing room although we managed to find seats. The priest was an Irishman but we did not get his name. Later on, we discovered that he is Fr. Tim McCarthy from Vancouver.

The sea was choppy and for the next two hours, we were off  balance. Father, therefore, suggested we sit down throughout the service which was very inspiring. By the time Llew and I made our way to the Manhattan Dining Room for brekkie, it had calmed down somewhat—but, apparently, several cruisers on board were sea sick and actually had to see the doctor on board for a shot. But here is how we spent our free sailing day on board:

Sit-Down Breakfast in the Manhattan:

The Dining Hall was packed when we entered but we were seated with three other folks right by the window—we kept our eyes peeled on the water for whales but none revealed themselves to us. We are still probably too far south. Breakfast for Llew was the Full American: eggs over easy with sausages, hash browns, brown toast. Mine was a custom-made omlette: I chose ham, mushrooms and Gruyere cheese with smoked salmon on the side. Both of us had freshly squeezed orange juice—which is always a treat on Holland America Line ships. We both declined the trays of baked pastries that came around as we can do without the carbs.

Setting Up Internet:

At 10.00 am, I returned to our stateroom to set up the Internet on my mobile phone. For some reason, I am unable to get on to network connections on my laptop when I am traveling unless I use a dongle. I am not carrying one with me, so there is nothing I can do now. Anyway, set up was very simple and because Llew was keen to watch the UEFA match between Iceland and France that was being screened live in the Casino Bar, we split up and off he went.

Cookery Demonstration:

I headed off to the Culinary Arts Room to watch a live demonstration of three dishes that are served in the three specialty restaurants: Dungeness Crab Cakes (Pinnacle Grill), Rigatoni with Sauteed Vegetables (Canaletto) and Penang Red Curry (Tamarind). We were given samples of the pasta and it was very good. An hour later, I left to join Llew for the next item on our agenda.

Champagne Art Auction:

Our next stop was the Art Gallery where a glass of Champagne was offered to each person who participated in the Art Auction. Although Llew and I had no intention of bidding on any of the works, it was fun to watch the proceedings while sipping bubbly.

Lunch at Lido:

We intended to head off for lunch next to the Manhattan but when we saw that the line for a table was so long, we decided to get to the more casual Lido Buffet style restaurant where the menu is identical to the one in the Manhattan and the choices more plentiful. Before long, I picked up a small plate of Middle Eastern appetizers (hummus, babaganoush, feta cheese, one dolmas—vine leaf wrapped rice—and an olive) which I ate with focaccia bread which was great. For my main course, I went to the salad bar and ordered the Asian Sesame Salad with Seared Tuna which was simply great and made me feel virtuous. Llew chose the Roast Lamb Au Jus from the carvery and the Steak with Mashed Potatoes and Veg. Since the salad made me feel good, I opted for a small ice-cream sundae made with chocolate and biscotti ice-creams, a splash of chocolate sauce and nuts and I tried something I had never eaten before—Holland-America’s signature Bread Pudding with Sauce which was every bit as delectable as other bloggers say it is. I had a tiny sample portion as I was already beginning to feel I was eating too much. I hate this Gourmet Remorse with which cruising tends to leave you.

A Short Nap and Some Surfing:

It was time for a short 20 minute nap which I enjoyed thoroughly in my stateroom as the sea was back to feeling as calm as a mill pond. Half an hour later, I was dressing to head out again while Llew decided to shower and relax some more. Iceland had lost the match and he was disappointed. Together we watched a program on TV in our room about London’s Food Scene that was great fun.

High Tea in the Manhattan:

I went off for High Tea on my own as Llew was too full to eat another morsel, he said. The place was packed and I wondered how I would cope on my own (as eating alone is not my favorite thing to do) when I spotted Kathleen, another cruiser who was also sipping tea alone. Her husband had also decided that High Tea was not his thang! She had a daughter named Rochelle who was exactly the age of mine! How was that for coincidences? We had a lovely cozy conversation over delicious finger sandwiches (I had smoked salmon on mini bagels and roast beef with tiny cornichons), the fluffiest scones with cream and strawberry jam and bite- sized pieces of chocolate cake which were all washed down with decaff Earl Grey which made for a really wonderful tea.

Brisk Three Mile Walk Around the Deck:

It was time to find a way to work off all those accumulated calories and since we can get to a gym at home anytime, it made sense to enjoy a more unique experience—walking around the deck of a moving ship. And that was exactly what we did. The air was bracing so we bundled up well in our hooded parkas and began our brisk walk. Three rounds make a mile and within half an hour, we did three miles. No marks for guessing how much we wanted to pat ourselves on our backs. But not for long as food beckoned again.

Invitation to a Wine and Cheese Reception for Returning Mariners:

With barely ten minutes left before the Wine and Cheese Reception ended, we rushed off to meet Tina, one of the PR people on board, who had invited us to a very cool reception to meet other returning mariners like ourselves to try to get us to sign for their frequent cruiser program. Each of us was given a goodie bag with a very neat gift—a selfie stick! How appropriate for a cruise that promised to offer a lot of opportunity to pose. We each picked up a glass of wine (red for Llew, white for me) and after chatting with Tina for a long while, we carried our wine glasses out with us and rushed off to our next venue of interest.

Sip and Savor in the Explorer’s Lounge:

One of the most loved dishes on board this ship are the Dungeness Crab Cakes (served in the Pinnacle Grill). Earlier in the day, I had watched chef Felix prepare them. Since Alex, our Culinary Hostess, had informed us that they were sampling the crab cakes at 5.00 pm, I was keen to take Llew along to get our tidbits. And how fabulous they were! They really are among the best crab cakes I have ever eaten. We had two each—served with a very light Sauce Marie-Rose (mayonnaise lightened with a bit of tomato ketchup) and as we continued sipping our wine, Alex began a Foodie Trivia Quiz—Llew and I formed one team. We called ourselves the Almeida Allies—and though we did not do too badly, we did not win. However, participating in the quiz was a great deal of fun and we had a really good time.

Meanwhile, we watched people dressed to the nines making their way to the Main Dining Room to begin the first sitting on what HAL calls one of tis Gala Nights—a formal night which most people take seriously. It was grand to see how well everyone was dressed and as they began to troop through the ship, it was a delight to take in the fancy clothing.

Time to Dress for the Captain’s Cocktail Party:

It was time for Llew and me to dress for a very special event—Llew and I were invited to the Captain’s Cocktail Party in the Silk Den, the Asian bar on the 11th floor’s Observation Deck. On our last cruise to the Baltic Sea, we had received a similar invitation and we were delighted by the sense of deja-vu. I ordered a margarita (as I had done the last time) while Llew got some more red wine. We met some of the more important members of the officer strata and as we nibbled on Asian eats such a shrimp tempura and spring rolls, we got to know them a little better. As we were already togged out in our own formal gear, it seemed like a very special party indeed.

Dinner at the Manhattan:

And on to the next item: if one has a cocktail in hand, dinner cannot be far behind. We were seated a good half hour later but we enjoyed every bit of our meal. Both of us started with the Escargot Bourguignon—which was absolutely scrumptious—served with a toast point. I then moved to an Arugula Salad with apples and peaches (also very good) while Llew chose the Roasted Artichoke and Carrot Soup. For a main, I got something I had really enjoyed on the Baltic cruise—Maple glazed Duck Breast with Cranberry-Corn Stuffing and Candied Figs (divine) while Llew got a version of Surf and Turf (Steak and a large grilled Shrimp). For dessert, I had the Black Forest Cake while Llew had the Chocolate Souffle with Warm Chocolate Sauce. Overall, it was a very good meal and we enjoyed it thoroughly.

The Marquee Show at the Showroom on the Sea:

It was time to race off again—this time to see the stage show called The Marquee—which is a song and dance extravaganza—with a number of really talented young people who performed all sorts of circus-style acts including juggling, gymnastics as well as well-choreographed dance routines. The quality of the show was quite amazing indeed and we had a grand time. Just when I thought it was time to call it a day after what had been a most eventful 12 hours, we got side tracked again.

A Beatles Sing-Along at the Piano Bar:

Passing by the Piano Bar on our way out from the theater, we simply could not resist popping in there to enjoy the singing and piano playing of Jimmy Madox who had a faithful band of fans around him joining vigorously in the sing-along. It was a 60’s special night and he played a lot of Beatles, Rolling Stones and other 60’s artistes. Needless to say, Llew and I joined in lustily and had a really fabulous time.

At almost midnight, we finally decided to call it a day. We headed to our stateroom and passed out after what had been a truly amazing and most enjoyable day for me.

Until tomorrow…

Ahoy There! Let Our Cruise to Alaska Commence

Saturday, July 2, 2016: Setting Sail from Vancouver to Alaska

             As usual I awoke at 6.00 am and while Llew had a lie-in, I managed to get some blogging done. I was also excited to discover that my internet connection on my laptop actually worked and I managed to get and send email (unlike the last time I had traveled to Canada when I could not even find any internet connections). However, it was a good job I did everything I wanted for my joy was short lived. Within 20 minutes, it was gone. A little while later, after I had done some blogging, Llew awoke, showered, shaved, dressed and got ready. I followed swiftly, then went down to get us coffee and Nutella croissants from the local Tim Hortons downstairs and,  not too long after, we were on the airport shuttle to get to the Skytrain that took us back to the Waterfront. The fact that it was a holiday weekend in Canada and a Saturday meant that trains were empty—this made it really easy for us to load and remove our baggage from the train. From there, we easily found our way to the cruise piers in the basement of the Convention Center.

We thought we’d be one of the first to embark as 2.00 pm is given as Embarkation Time; but by 11.30 am, the place was already crawling with people and the Hall was filled. Everything was super organized with European precision and we were soon finding our way to the check-in counter where we were given our boarding cards by Holland-America Lines—HAL–(our baggage had been taken earlier) and then we were off and away. I was quite excited by this point especially at the thought of having a few hours to explore the ship and find our way around it. We had an ocean view room on the 4th floor which was very well located for the Reception Counter, main shops, etc. were just a floor below. In no time, we were aboard but went directly to Reception to try to make a lunch reservation on one of the two days it is usually offered in the pan-Asian restaurant called Tamarind—about which I had read on the internet—but was disappointed to find that it has been discontinued. So off to our stateroom we went and found that it (and the rest of the ship) is an exact replica of the Eurodam on which we had sailed through the Baltic Sea in 2013. There was a sense of comfort in the familiarity of it all but it was also a trifle predictable. Perhaps it would have been more fun to discover new horizons!

We did not lose much time in our rooms, however, as our bags had not yet arrived. Instead, as it was almost 1.00 pm and as we only had a croissant and coffee for brekkie, we went off to the Manhattan, the Main Dining Room—for lunch. It was our first meal on board and I looked forward to something really special. Only a few people were in the restaurant—most were still embarking. Both Llew and I chose the Cream of Broccoli Soup for starters—it was thick and very delicious. I avoided the bread as I am still trying to limit carbs. For our main, I had the Apricot-Glazed Salmon served with zucchini and carrots and steamed potatoes (which I avoided). Once I got over the sweetness of the apricot sauce that was poured over the salmon, it actually turned out to be quite good. Llew had the Pulled Pork Sandwich served with Red Cabbage Slaw which was really good. For dessert, the two of us had the Biscotti Ice-Cream—I ordered mine with a few strawberries. So that was it. It was a good meal, but not outstanding, but the cruise had not even begun yet.

It was time to get to our stateroom where we found that our baggage had been delivered together with a whole lot of delicious goodies—a tray of tea-time sandwiches (smoked salmon, brie, ham and cheese, prosciutto—all fab), a tray of sweets (truffles, cake, a chocolate tower), a tray of cut up fresh fruit—together with a basket of fruit and a lovely flower arrangement. We felt very special indeed! It was time to unpack and we found spacious closets with room enough for all our needs (I certainly travel very light and had no difficulty accommodating all my things). Unpacking done, we stashed our bags under our bed and went off to Reception again to made reservations for 8.00 pm dinners at some of the specialty restaurants on board at a time that would also allow us to attend the shows in the theater each night. All that done, we made our way to the theater for an introduction to the facilities and amenities available on board as well as to take a walking tour of the main areas of the ship and the areas we intended to use—such as the gym, the pools (indoor and outdoor), the hot tub, the Crow’s Nest which is the enclosed 11th floor Observation Deck, etc.

By this time, it was close to Embarkation Time and we had the mandatory Emergency Drill procedure to attend on deck. Having gone through this before, we knew exactly what to do and in no time, we were on the deck, participating in Roll Call, listening to evacuation and other instructions and chatting with a few other passengers. When it was over, it was time for departure so we made our way to the Lido Deck on the 9th floor at exactly 4.45pm to attend the Sail Away. This included drinks on the deck, the opportunity to grab one of the deck chairs that we positioned at the very front of the ship (it helped to get there early–but this turned out to be the aft or back) and to enjoy views of Vancouver as we departed. Going under a great big bridge was an additional treat as we listened to music, chatted with a few of our companions, enjoyed the complimentary nibbles—salmon, beef steak in horseradish sauce and spoons of baked brie with cranberry sauce and nuts–as we saw Vancouver recede in the background and the islands of the Archipelago that we had seen en route to Whistler by road come into view. Llew enjoyed lying on the deck chair while I left at 5.30 to pick up the complimentary ship’s charm that was offered to anyone who arrived at the Main Shopping Desk. I then reconnected with Llew as we returned to our stateroom. I ordered a cup of tea from Room Service and we began nibbling on our savory goodies in our room as Llew sipped some wine.

It wasn’t long before we dressed for dinner and went in search of the complimentary glasses of champagne offered by the jewelry showroom and art gallery on board and with that in hand, we made our way back to the Manhattan to have dinner before we could attend the live show in the theater. Only we discovered that our wait for dinner would be 20-25 minutes and, rather handily, since the Explorer’s Bar was just next-door, we sat down to enjoy a violinist and a pianist do wonderful soft classical chamber music. We were hugging the coast of Canada throughout our sail and the movement of the sea could barely be felt at all.

Very shortly, we were seated for our first dinner at sea in the Manhattan, a massive dining hall, where we found the menu for the evening was devised by chef Elizabeth Faulkner of whom I have never heard. I started with the Broiled Scallops with Bacon, Avocado Mash and a vinaigrette—but my scallops were tiny, the mash was bland and I found no interest whatsoever in the dish. Llew had the salad of mixed greens with caramelized apple which was far better. Since I was dying to also try it, I asked for a tiny portion of the Ketchikan Fisherman’s Chowder in a sample serving (it was served in a bread bowl as a regular portioned starter) and found it to be simply delicious and filled with tiny scallops. For a main, Llew had the Shrimp and Chorizo with Grits which was served with okra—a typical New Orleans dish—while I chose the New York Strip Loin done medium rare. Llew got three very large shrimp and I got an outsized piece of steak. We split our entrees and while they were both good, there was nothing to shout about either one of them. For dessert, Llew got the Mango Mousse while I got the Klondike Gold Rush Baked Alaska which was a brownie, topped with Vanilla Ice-cream and Meringue with a chocolate sauce poured over. Again, it was good but not outstanding. Since we needed to rush off for the show, we grabbed our things and left right after dessert.

In the theater, we found ample room. Nick, our Cruise Director, was holding forth, calling out a few raffle numbers and giving out prizes before the main act of the evening arrived—a stand up comedian called Chad—who entertained up for about 15 minutes. His jokes and his acting were pretty lame and by that point in time, my eyes were closing. It was 10.00 pm and any hopes I had of sitting in a Piano Bar and singing along were wiped off as we decided instead to get back to our stateroom and call it a night. But after changing and getting into more comfortable wear, we headed to the Crow’s Nest to see what it felt like to enter the Seymounr Narrows, a tiny inlet just past Vancouver Island. However, it was very dark and while we could see land on one side close to us, we saw nothing on the other side. We did see—literally—a ship pass us by night. It was a Holland America ship returning to Vancouver—which is where we will be a week from now. It was time to well and truly get back to our staterooms to sleep.

It had been a packed first day and we did not have a dull moment.

Until tomorrow…

And We’re Off to British Columbia and Alaska

And We’re Off to Vancouver and Alaska:

            Our departure from Southport, Connecticut, was a bit unusual this year. Instead of the convoluted journey we usually undertake to one of the New York City airports, this time Chriselle, who happened to have arrived from California to spend a week with her cousins, Arav and Anaya in our absence, gave us a ride to La Guardia Airport where our summer travels began. As Llew and I were utilizing Frequent Flyer Miles on American Airlines to get to Vancouver where our trip would begin, we ended up taking different flights with the intention of arriving on the West Coast of Canada within an hour of each other.

But the best-laid plans of mice and men…go awry, of course. Llew’s flight to Detroit from where he was to make a connection to Vancouver got delayed and, long story short, he was put on another flight to Dallas and eventually reached Vancouver an hour after I did—but minus his baggage. My own three flights that eventually got me to Vancouver went without hitch. I enjoyed First Class service on all three sectors, picked up a pizza from Wolfgang Puck Express at Indianapolis, had a super interesting companion on the leg from Indianapolis to Los Angeles so that time flew by most pleasantly as I marveled at the scenery of the world beneath my window while we flew northward along the Pacific Coast from LA to Vancouver where the sea was punctuated by islands burnished gold by the a swiftly setting sun.

However, by the time I made contact with Llew, it was past midnight and the two of us kept fingers crossed as his checked-in bag had not reached (because it was somewhere in Detroit). The airline assured us that we would receive it at our hotel in Whistler and recommended that he do some shopping for the next 24 hours as all he had were the clothes on his back! Dear, oh dear. Not the most providential way to start a much-anticipated trip—but we are seasoned travelers who know how to take all sorts of situations in our stride. So without batting an eyelid, we simply hailed a cab and proceeded to our hotel (the Travelodge at Vancouver airport) as we had missed the last free shuttle for the day.

Needless to say, we merely hit the hotel when the two of us passed out for the night.


 Gracious Southern City

Savannah, when we visited, was like a beautiful mature actress who has liberally applied the theatrical makeup of a much younger starlet so that her chief temporary attraction lay in the youthfulness of her face. Everywhere we went, there was evidence of the Little Dublin to which the city is converted on St. Patrick’s Day—only two days away. Gigantic shamrocks, strings of emerald beads, cheery leprechauns and pots of gold glittered in shop-fronts and on the tables of street-side vendors. Little wonder that my younger travel companions adored the city. Armed with our guide book (Fodor’s The South) which advised us to park our car in the Visitors Center, we began our walking tour of this extraordinarily elegant city, passing by Scarborough House which today houses the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum in whose gardens pink forsythia was blooming luxuriantly.

Our next port of call was the historical African-American Baptist Church, dating from 1777, where, since it was a Sunday, we decided to attend the 11 am service to take in the distinctive ambience of Southern Baptist worship. What a treat it was! I understood then what was meant by the term “Sunday best”, as African-Americans in droves, decked out in full church regalia (think three-piece suits for the men, ditto for the women but include elaborate hats and showy jewelry) made their way to the front pews and enthusiastically greeted their minister, a young jovial man, as he processed down the main aisle with his band of suited, booted and tied male choir singers. There could not have been more than a hundred people in that church, but when they raised their voices in prayer and song, one could quite easily imagine throngs of thousands crowding the space—they were so actively involved. Enthralled by not one but two choirs—a male and a female one—and two pianists, and the accompaniment of clapping, swaying, etc. we felt as if we were witnessing the full sound effects of a Broadway show! What a fabulous way to praise and worship, we thought, and how much nicer it would be to have such devotion in our churches rather than the quiet embarrassed murmurs of a handful of parishioners to which we are accustomed in our own Roman Catholic ones!

Leaving rollicking religion behind us, we walked towards lively City Market abuzz with art galleries, street-side trattorias and pubs. Once we entered the historic district, we passed by the gold-domed City Hall of Savannah and the Cotton Exchange Building—important because Savannah made its fortune through the shipments of cotton grown on vast plantations.

Strolling through Factor’s Walk, a maze of wrought iron balconies and cobbled streets, we arrived at the dazzling Riverfront where huge commercial barges slid quietly by on the Savannah River, companionably sharing untroubled waters with old-fashioned steamboats. Discovering an irresistible deal ($2 frozen margaritas) at One-Eyed Lizzie’s, a Mexican Restaurant on the waterfront, we feasted on enchiladas and burritos while overlooking the river on a brilliantly sunny day. I would not be lying if I said that this lunch was the highpoint of Menaka and Chriselle’s day but they sportingly indulged my love for mansions, museums and marketplaces as we continued our walking tour. Unable to resist the lure of Southern candy shops, however, we nibbled on samples of decadent chocolate fudge and sticky gophers, praline pecan clusters and chocolate dipped pecans as we covered more ground.

Laid out by the genius of General James Oglethorpe, founder of Savannah and Georgia, the city is punctuated every few blocks by parks, some tiny and sparse, others lush and crammed with impressive fountains and statuary as in the sprawling Forsyth Park. Known for the profusion of its azaleas, Savannah’s bushes were on the point of budding in wild abandon and early signs of the riot of color certain to paint the city in the next week were clearly evident.

We took pictures by the house that provided the inspiration for John Berendt’s 1994 runaway bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and by the statue of the bird-girl who features in the book (left). Several historic homes dot the landscape of the city’s grid and the many eccentrically stocked antiques stores provided a welcome occasional diversion.

The next stops on our Southern Sojourn were  the gracious cities of Beaufort and Charleston. Please join us on our exploration of these bastions of Southern glamor.

Bon Voyage!

Raleigh, N.C.

Raleigh, N.C.

History in the Midst of Technolgy

Our visit to Raleigh, North Carolina, was an opportunity for us to connect again with relatives and to explore the significant buildings of this capital. Alas, our spell of good luck with the weather ended here and while it came down in sheets on a dreadfully gray day, we popped into Woody’s of City Market for apple cider and hearty barbecued pulled pork, another Southern specialty, apart from the ubiquitous fried chicken. The rain had held out long enough, however, to allow us to explore the quaint Victorian Oakwood district with its gingerbread-trimmed homes and gardens in which, miraculously, rosemary bushes are a perennial and the adjoining Oakwood Cemetery where thousands of confederate soldiers lie buried. We also took in the Greek Revival architecture of the Capitol building, the Museum of North Carolina and Exploris, a science museum.

Before deciding to call it a day and head back to the warmth and dryness of home, we took pictures of the Executive Mansion, home of the Governor (above left) , not open to the public, and of the ornamental pear trees that were in full glorious bloom on the streets (left).

We left Raleigh the next day to begin our long drive homewards to Connecticut, but not before driving through Shenandoah National Park in the midst of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

Please join us on the last leg of our tour.

Bon Voyage!

Myrtle Beach

Myrtle Beach

Coney Island of the South Atlantic

 Later that afternoon, we drove further north arriving at the commercial strip that comprises a number of beaches that make up the Myrtle Beach area of North Carolina. A wondrous place for kids, this is a family vacation paradise. The many amusement parks held little interest for us, however, though we did cruise along Ocean Boulevard getting occasional glimpses of the Atlantic’s thunderous waters. Since it was St. Patrick’s Day, Chriselle insisted upon our visiting an Irish pub for lunch and search out one we did. At The Blarney’s Stone, we watched middle-aged Irish couples dance the Irish jig while an Irish band fiddled live tunes. Emerald green was the color of the day, evidenced in the headgear, jewelry and garb of the general public. Even the beer that flowed endlessly from bottomless vats was green while the Shepherd’s Pie and Meatloaf we devoured for lunch was better than anything Llew and I tasted on our culinary journey through Ireland last summer. Having satisfied our urge for a typically Gaelic repast, we made our way up north to Raleigh, capital of North Carolina, where our digs for the next two evenings was Cary, the suburb in which Menaka’s cousin Jose lives with his wife Nimmi and their son Alex.

Do join us as we continue our exploration in Raleigh, capital of North Carolina.

Bon Voyage!