~~Cruising Smoothly Along the Coast of Vancouver Island~~
Still somewhat exhausted from yesterday's full day of travel and activities, I am rather lazy this morning, enjoying freshly brewed coffee from our little two-cup coffee maker we brought aboard, and watching CNN on our stateroom flat panel TV with the highlights of yesterday's opening ceremonies of the London Olympics. Unfortunately, TV coverage of the opening ceremonies was unavailable on the onboard channels, but I understand that they were spectacular.
Today is a sea day as we cruise from Seattle to our first port of call, Ketchikan, Alaska, on this 14-day Alaska Explorer Cruise on Holland America's ms Amsterdam. Other than the 11 AM meeting this morning of our Cruise Critics group in the Crow's Nest Bar on Deck 9, the only other major activity will be our first (of four) formal nights with a Captain's Toast at 7:45 PM in the Queen's Lounge, preceding our dinner in the La Fontaine Dining Room at 8 PM. So out will come my trusty tuxedo for yet another duty.
Our ocean view stateroom 3373 on the Lower Promenade Deck is quite nice, although somewhat smaller than I expected; our last cruise on the Golden Princess to Hawaii last November was in a mini-suite that is easily twice the size -- with a balcony. Such staterooms on HAL's ships are called Veranda Suites which go for twice the price we are paying for this stateroom: well beyond my budget. $10,000 for two is a little steep in my opinion.
The Lower Promenade Deck has a wrap-around genuine teak deck quite popular with morning walkers; fortunately our windows are coated, providing one-way outer views. Only at night does care need to be taken to prevent outside viewers. Our ocean view is only very partially obstructed by lifeboat canisters at the rail and some sort of harness hanging down for their dispersal from the deck above: no real impediment to our view.
Of course, our request for twin beds had been disregarded, requiring a reconfiguration by our room steward, Eco, from Bali; most of the crew on this and other Holland America ships are from Indonesia, a hold over from Holland's imperial days. They are all outstanding workers, always friendly and pleasant. There is a small sofa along with a table and a chair that also serves a small desk. The LG (Korea) flat panel TV also has a DVD player; there is a DVD library at our disposal. No refrigerator, however.
The ms Amsterdam was built in 2000 and has since been substantially refurbished; it is now in remarkable condition, and I challenge anyone to find as much as a speck of rust anywhere. The "Pristine Fleet." It carries only 1380 passengers -- a real plus in my opinion, although the spacious public areas could accommodate many more. The two-level La Fontaine Dining Room at the stern of decks 4 and 5 is exquisitely beautiful; our second-seating assignment is Table 24 on level 5. We chose not to dine there last evening in lieu of a barbeque served around the Lido Pool on deck 8; an early-to-bed seemed appropriate.
Our 7 AM flight on Alaska Air yesterday morning was early departing as well as early arrival; flight time was only a little over 2 hours. Of course John Wayne Airport opens at 7 AM at which time there is a line-up of over a dozen 737s waiting take-off, one right after the other. The flight was smooth and I was surprised to notice the ample legroom, not common on other airlines for which such accommodation requires additional fees. We were even given the option of checking our carry on bags -- without charge -- which was a definite advantage on boarding and finding overhead space. The flight was NOT full as I had reason to believe earlier; the aisle seat next to me was vacant, so I moved over vacating the middle seat.
On arrival at SeaTac Airport, and after a lengthy and circuitous route to the baggage claim area, requiring one of their underground trains for transit, we found ALL of our luggage -- Yeah! - and then followed another circuitous route to the shuttle bus area. We had booked Shuttle Express from SeaTac Airport to Pier 91 and our ship, and the trip took longer than expected due to heavy traffic, but we still arrived at our ship around 11 AM. Next to the ms Amsterdam at dock was RCCL's Rhapsody of the Seas, one of their "Chicken of the Seas" ships -- big and ugly.
Check in with Holland America was speedy and efficient -- no lines at all, and I was aboard and in our stateroom by noon; luggage arrived later while I went to the Lido Restaurant for a light lunch. My favorite place on the ship is around the Lido Pool, just adjacent to the Lido Restaurant (buffet), with a retractable cover, a signature feature of all HAL ships. With the cover closed it provides a wonderful "solarium." Of course there is a convenient bar nearby.
Required safety drill was held at 4 PM with EVERYONE required to appear on the Lower Promenade Deck beneath their assigned lifeboat, where we stood while a roll call was taken; failure to attend can be grounds for disembarkation. After a routine message from the ship's captain we were finally dismissed.
Sail-away was at 5 PM and I chose the area around the aft Sea View Pool; the departing view of Seattle's beautiful skyline under clouded skies was very enjoyable. It was here that I started smelling the barbeque cooking at the Lido Pool area, prompting my decision to partake.
So that's it for now; time to shower and get ready for our Cruise Critics "Meet and Greet" at 11 AM. More tomorrow, of course.
~~Sunday, July 29th - Ketchikan~~
It is still early here aboard the ms Amsterdam (we set our clocks ahead one hour last evening) and we are now approaching our first port of call, Ketchikan, where we will be at dock from 8 AM until 5 PM. Having no shore excursions scheduled for the day, our plans are to wait until mid-morning to leave the ship -- after the "herd" has departed -- and then take the funicular at the end of Creek Street up to the Cape Fox Lodge, a very nice hotel overlooking the town and harbor. Traditionally, I enjoy sitting in their beautiful dining room, enjoying an Alaskan Amber beer and feasting on their delicious halibut fish and chips for lunch.
Since we have been here multiple times, we have already seen most everything so we will just walk around the town, seeing what is new. On our last visit aboard the Pacific Princess in 2009 I discovered that the restaurant just adjacent to the dock had a free Wi-Fi network accessible to me from our balcony stateroom and I took full advantage; we shall see if that is still the case today.
The morning is quite overcast and foggy and cool, of course; good day to drag out the heavy coat purchased in Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine last fall. The standard weather report for Ketchikan is always: it is raining, it has rained, or it is going to rain.
Yesterday's cruise along the coast of the Vancouver Island could not have been smoother; the seas were like glass. Until we cross the Alaskan Gulf toward Kodiak and Anchorage we can expect the same smooth cruising, which is fine with me.
Last evening was the first of four formal nights during the cruise and there was a Captain's Toast (15 minutes) preceding the production show in the Queen's Lounge at 8 and 10 PM. Since our second seating for dinner is at 8 PM, we waited until afterward to go to the 9:45 PM "Toast" receiving a glass of wine or champagne -- courtesy of the Captain -- upon entering the Lounge. The Captain was very personable and introduced his senior staff, as usual, and then we all toasted to an enjoyable visit to Alaska during these next two weeks. As further evidence of Carnival cost cutting, this "Toast" has now replaced the traditional Captain's Welcome Cocktail Party. Oh well...
The production show featured the rather small group of dancers and singers: 4 couples; parts of the show were quite good but most were rather "flat" to me. Of course, the music and most singing are all pre-recorded and the sound system in the Queen's Lounge was mediocre to poor. Not a memorable experience.
Our Cruise Critics "Meet and Greet" was held at 11 AM yesterday in the beautiful Crow's Nest Bar on deck 9 and was well-attended and very successful. The ship provided coffee, tea, cookies and Danish and we were honored with appearances by the Cruise Director, Hotel Manager and even the Captain. Good PR for them.
Now we are pulling up to the dock in Ketchikan so I will call it quits for now with more to tell later.
~~Cruising Tracy Arm, Monday, July 30th~~
With a heavy cloud cover and thick fog, this morning has begun with little to see outside our window. The seas are mirror-smooth, however, and the sun is trying to break through so we hope that by noontime when we enter the Tracy Arm fjord visibility will have improved. The North and South Sawyer glaciers here are reported to be some of the most scenic although our ship will be unable to approach closely due to the substantial number of icebergs and pieces of floating ice that have broken free of the glaciers. This will be my first visit here.
Yesterday in Ketchikan went according to plan -- for me; after leaving the ship around mid morning we walked the considerable distance from our Cruise Ship Dock #4 to the downtown area where the Carnival Spirit, Celebrity Infinity, and Celebrity Millennium -- all huge megaships -- were at Docks #1, #2, and #3. Those three ships together carry around 10,000 passengers, released on the small village of Ketchikan; then add another 1380 from our ms Amsterdam. Lots and lots of tourists; the many shops and souvenir stores -- mostly owned by the cruise ship companies themselves -- were thriving.
The ground was wet with puddles everywhere and a light mist/drizzle was only slightly annoying. We found the entrance to the funicular up to the Cape Fox Lodge at the end of Creek Street, the historic site of bordellos of the gold rush era, now all tourist ships. A moderate line awaited the funicular which accommodates only a few at a time, but soon we reached the Lodge around 10:30 AM and found a nice window table in their dining room; the view out over the town, harbor and cruise ships is excellent.
Breakfast was still being served so we waited until 11 AM to place our lunch orders, mine for a 3-piece halibut fish and chips plate. While waiting I ordered beer: a sampler of Alaskan White, Alaskan Amber, and Alaskan Summer beers, all very good. Then I settled on a pint of the Summer beer. As we enjoyed our lunch the dining room began to fill with many glances at our prime table location; our timing had been perfect. The halibut was wonderful, of course, and I relished every moment of my Ketchikan experience.
Being satisfied with my one thing to do in Ketchikan, having been here many times before, I decided to return to the ship around 12:30 PM while Jim wanted to explore further and do some shopping. At the bottom of the funicular, a steady drizzle had taken over but with my Acadia National Park jacket from last year's visit to Bar Harbor - and its hood - provided good protection and I arrived back at the ship around 1 PM.
Jim, on the other hand, got caught in a heavy downpour and his return to ship later around 4 PM found him drenched. A hastily purchased plastic rain parka was his only protection. After my substantial lunch with beer, my afternoon involved a long nap. Our departure at 5 PM was the last of the four cruise ships, leaving Ketchikan to return to its rainy, quiet normality.
Today at sea will be highlighted -- we hope -- with clear views once we reach the Tracy Arm this afternoon. The decks will be filled with warmly clothed passengers in search of whales and other sea creatures as well as floating ice, small icebergs, and glaciers. Holland America's tradition of serving hot pea soup to those passengers lining the decks will be a welcome treat. I will report later.
It is quite pleasant here now in Cabin 3373 having enjoyed a couple cups of freshly brewed coffee along with fresh fruit slices and juices: my usual breakfast. CNN is providing the morning news on TV although very little London Olympics coverage -- an NBC exclusive coverage -- is shown. Oh well...
~~Juneau on Tuesday, July 31st~~
We are now approaching Juneau, Alaska, where we will be alongside for the day: 8 AM until 10 PM, a long day in port -- Tuesday, July 31st. The only excursion I have planned is the tram to the top of Mount Roberts, something that I have never before done during previous visits. Of course, there will be the obligatory visit to the Red Dog Saloon for a pint of Alaskan Amber beer. No doubt there will be several other cruise ships in port so there will be throngs of tourist competing for space on the sidewalks. The tram ride can be anytime during the day so I will try to time it to avoid long lines during the morning and still be able to get a "view" from the top.
Yesterday's visit to the Tracy Arm and the Sawyer Glaciers -- North and South -- was under overcast clouds, frequent and intermittent drizzle, and cool to COLD temperatures. It certainly brought out the warm clothing and rain gear. Holland America's traditional hot pea soup served on deck to us glacier-gawkers was a welcome treat.
Tracy Arm is a long, serpentine and narrow fjord leading up to the Sawyer glaciers and many icebergs of varying size and shape are encountered in increasing numbers as our ship ventured farther up the fjord. Our entrance into the fjord was after noon and our nearest approach to the South Sawyer Glacier occurred around 3 PM and it was very impressive, due to our close proximity. Some "calving" was observed -- large chunks of the glacier falling off -- followed by loud sounds of the breaking ice. Very exciting and only enjoyed by "smaller" cruise ships; the larger megaships can't traverse this narrow fjord.
One unusual occurrence was meeting The World, a "residence at sea" cruise ship, departing the upper part of Tracy Arm; it is a time-share/condominium ship of moderate to small size; I saw only two life boats on each side telling me that it does not carry that many passengers -- I saw none on the many balconies.
Transit back down the fjord saw passengers returning inside the ship for warmth and to dry out. The Crows Nest Bar on deck 9 was very popular, of course, with its panoramic views, and seats were at a premium. I chose to wander about the outside decks, seeking a little overhead protection from the drizzle; the views from the aft Sea View Pool area on deck 7 were spectacular as we departed the glacier. North Sawyer Glacier is "stable" meaning neither advancing nor receding, and South Sawyer Glacier -- the larger and most visible -- is receding. Global warming has been having drastic effects on glaciers - to which any visitor to Alaska in the past 10 years can well attest.
Last evening was a second performance of the Amsterdam Singers & Dancers, a rather small group of four couples; their efforts and talents are impressive but the overall productions are rather flat. Of course, the sound track for the entire show is on tape with the singers providing "sweetening," and the sets are less than inspiring, although the costumes show a little promise. Marginally enjoyable.
I see we are now "alongside" - at dock -- here in Juneau so the day will now begin. I have already enjoyed my freshly brewed coffee -- from the little two-cup coffee maker we brought aboard, so I should now be awake. It appears to be drizzling outside so today may also be a wet one; we shall see. That is what umbrellas and rain gear is far. After all, this IS Alaska!
~~August 1st, Icy Strait Point~~
The ms Amsterdam is now at anchor off Icy Strait Point and I just saw a glimpse of sunshine on the nearby shoreline, covered with lush forests. With the constant drizzle yesterday in Juneau, sunshine is a welcome greeting. Our arrival was scheduled for 7 AM, which is still a few minutes away, and tender service will be required to this somewhat recent cruise ship port; around the bend is the old Indian village of Hoonah.
The meeting time for our shore excursion, the ZipRider zip line -- longest in the world, is at 8:30 AM in the Wajang Theater here aboard ship from where we will depart for a tender to the dock and the bus which will take us up to the mountain top -- elevation 1300 feet -- for the start of the zipline all the way back down to water's edge, a distant of over 1 mile -- at speeds up to 65 mph. We did this 3 years ago and it is quite an experience.
Yesterday in Juneau, with three other cruise ships in port: Celebrity's Millennium, Sapphire Princess and NCL's Pearl, we joined the crowds of tourists on the soggy streets under clouded skies and frequent drizzles, the first stop being at the base of the Mount Roberts Tramway to see how long was the wait line. It appeared of reasonable length and we were able to get aboard the second car on the way up to the top which is at an elevation of 1800 feet; the ride takes only 5 minutes: one car descending, one car ascending.
Built in 1995 the tramway project is owned by a local Indian company which is also the developer of the complex at the mountaintop: shops, restaurant, bar, theater, facilities, and surrounding parks and walkways. It is a very nice place to visit. There was a short wait for the restaurant's 11 AM opening but being the first in line, I was seated at THE PRIME window table overlooking the city, harbor and ships: quite a spectacular view of the tram cars in motion. The clouds intermittently came and went as did the drizzle and the time spent sitting there was most pleasant. I enjoyed an Alaskan beer and then ordered halibut fish and chips -- again; can't ever get enough halibut! The crowds up on top were not sizable, most just riding up, looking around, and going back down. Our own return down the tram was in a car only partially filled; perhaps the rain had discouraged many of the thousands of cruise ship passengers from venturing out.
Near the base of the tramway is the very interesting Taku Fish Company that, in addition to actually processing recent catches of salmon, also boasts of a restaurant and gift shop; through windows in the gift shop one can observe some of the fish-processing going on. At one window there was a close-up view of beheaded salmon being skillfully filleted by a worker with a very sharp knife, carefully slicing the salmon length-wise and removing the backbone and ribs and creating a beautiful, large fillet of red salmon. Very interesting, I thought. Much of the salmon is to be smoked and then packaged for sale.
My next stop was a short visit to the Red Dog Saloon that was just adjacent to our ship's dock, and even that early in the afternoon, seats were already at a premium. This bar has been a Juneau -- and Alaskan -- tradition since its founding in the early 40s and I always enjoy its seedy, bawdy atmosphere. Then a short walk through the drizzle back to our ship for a warm and dry rest. I would later venture out again for a second visit to the Red Dog Saloon before dinner aboard. Our departure from Juneau was not until 10 PM.
Dinner last evening in the La Fontaine was rather sparsely attended; many passengers had evidently chosen to remain ashore to dine in local Juneau restaurants. Then it was early to bed for me.
More on today's activities in tomorrow's email.
~~At Sea on Thursday, August 2nd~~
Another lazy morning here in room 3373 on the ms Amsterdam, cruising across the Gulf of Alaska towards our next port of call tomorrow, Anchorage. This is really the first time on this trip that we have been in the open ocean and this crossing of the Gulf can be quite rough. However, the seas are only moderately active and the location of our stateroom, near the middle of the ship and on deck 3, reduces the sea motion considerably. Outside I see a few white caps but generally the ride is rather smooth.
We were so lucky with weather yesterday in Icy Strait Point. Our journey at 9 AM on a converted school bus from the dock area, through the small Indian town of Hoonah, and up to the mountaintop for the ZipRider zipline, was mostly in clouds that came and went. At the mountain top the visibility was limited. There is a short walk from where we got off the bus down the hill to the zipline staging area and, by the time we arrived, there was hope that the clouds would clear to give our 90 second ride on the world's longest zipline (5330 feet) a spectacular view of the forests over which we were "flying." As it turned out, that was the case; we were in the last group and by that time it was rather clear.
There are 6 separate lines on the zipline leading down to the shoreline from the 1300 ft summit and all were in simultaneous use yesterday, except the last 8 of us were dispatched in two groups of 4. We were fortunate to have been last; the visibility was great. The ride was thrilling, to say the least, at speeds around 60 mph, and I was able this time to maintain my forward orientation using outstretched arms -- right or left -- to navigate. Of course, photos were available for purchase at the Landing Area and, of course, we purchased ours -- rather good ones, I might add.
Afterward there was ample time for me to enjoy a LARGE bowl of hot King Crab Bisque before our second excursion at 12:30 PM, a whale watching cruise, also a repeat of what we had done 3 years ago; it was so good then that I wanted to do it again. And it again was a great experience with many, many whales observed -- mostly in "pods" of a half dozen or so. It was about a 35-minute boat ride on this three-decked tour boat out to Point Adolphus, an ideal location for spotting the many whales.
At one point the boat's captain turned off the engine and generator providing absolute silence so that we could all hear the sounds of the whales: wonderful! Aboard was a local Indian boy who provided an excellent commentary on the area and the whales, making the entire afternoon an extra special experience. Near the end of our tour the boat's crew served their homemade smoked salmon dip on Ritz crackers, and it was DELICIOUS!
The skies cleared off and there was even nice, warm sunshine before our return to the dock at 3 PM and back onto tenders to the ship by 4 PM, our time of departure from Icy Strait Point. What a day!
I had made reservations for dinner last night at the Pinnacle Grill at 7:30 PM thinking that tonight -- August 2nd -- would be our second formal night, but by surprise our second formal night was last night -- lobster night in the main dining room, La Fontaine. Regardless, we dressed in our tuxes and enjoyed a sumptuous dinner in this specialty restaurant on board; the service and ambiance were superlative. I was somewhat disappointed in my serving of lobster: delicious but on the small side, and I had to request that it be removed from the shell. I also requested a fillet mignon in addition but was told that there would be an additional $10 charge! Quite different than in the Crown Grill on Princess ships. Not exactly what I expected for the $25 surcharge. Dessert was probably the best CrÃ¨me Brule I have ever tasted, so the evening was enjoyable although not "off the charts." We have reservations also next week at the Pinnacle Grill, a gift from our friend and travel agent, Patric, NOT on a formal night.
Again last evening was a performance of the Singers and Dancers in the Queen's Lounge (theater) but we decided to pass; I have found their performances to be somewhat mediocre -- not exactly the spectacular shows we've seen on Princess' larger ships. Oh well...
~~Anchorage, Friday, August 3rd~~
Today we are alongside (docked) in Anchorage for a long day: 7 AM until 11 PM. This is day 7 of our 14-day cruise so, as such, our halfway point. The time seems to fly by so rapidly. Having visited Anchorage many times -- both on cruises and also two week-long stays, no special excursions are scheduled for today. The dock area, primarily an industrial port, is remote from the downtown area but free shuttles are provided back and forth throughout the day.
It had always been my understanding that Anchorage had NO port due to its shallow waterfront, the reason that most cruise ships use Seward or Whittier as ports for Anchorage. In fact I questioned this itinerary when I first saw Anchorage listed as a port-of-call. However, I was wrong in this misunderstanding; Anchorage has a large industrial port, located well north of the rail station and downtown Anchorage. The horrific "Good Friday" earthquake in 1964 -- about 9.0 on the Richter scale -- did much damage to the city as well as alter significantly the waterfront to the south; there is even a park located there commemorating that tragic event. Tsunamis from that earthquake destroyed the town of Valdez, being at the upper end of Prince Edward Sound.
Today Anchorage is a thriving metropolitan area, the largest in Alaska.
Later today I would like to visit the downtown area near the Eagan Center, in particular the Downtown Deli & Cafe, a favorite for many years. I learned that perhaps the restaurant was no longer in business but it still appears on the tourist maps we have been given, so I shall see. Their halibut and salmon dinners were among the very best I have ever had. During my weeks' visit here, I dined there quite frequently.
Also of interest is the excellent Alaska Museum located near the city's center; they also offer an excellent lunch in the main atrium/lobby. Anchorage is a beautiful city with many flowers, trees and greenery -- unusual for such a northerly locale. During their hard winters, however, there are plant "kennels" where locals take their potted plants for safekeeping until spring. My guess is that the population of Anchorage may now be over 500,000 -- a large percentage of the entire Alaskan population.
During previous visits to Anchorage we have taken the Alaskan Railroad train north through Talketna, Denali (Mount McKinley) on up to Fairbanks, a stunningly beautiful trip. Then once we took the train to Anchorage from Seward after disembarking the ms Veendam on a 7-day cruise from Vancouver in June 2002; the usual bus ride takes around 4 hours.
As mentioned previously, yesterday was a lazy day at sea with moderate sea motion while crossing the Gulf of Alaska, nothing as rough as has been experienced on earlier cruises. We have also been taking advantage of a spa package -- for a price -- for the "Thermal Suite" on deck 8: limited access to steam rooms, thermal "chairs" and Jacuzzi, with fantastic ocean views from the front of the ship. Very nice and relaxing.
The ms Amsterdam, carrying only 1380 passengers (we learned that on this cruise there are 1427), is much smaller than the megaships of Princess, Celebrity, NCL, but boasts much larger public areas: lounges, bars, etc.; it is very spacious, a real treat compared the over-crowded conditions on larger ships.
Our stateroom location on the Lower Promenade Deck 3, almost mid-ship, makes everything on the ship very convenient: Front Office, etc., in the Atrium, main dining room La Fontaine (two levels at the rear), Lido Buffet on deck 8, along with swimming pools and bars. The rear Sea View Pool -- with a bar -- is a quiet, relaxing place to watch the seas float by. Although built back in 2000, the ms Amsterdam, and sister ship the ms Rotterdam, are both maintained and regularly refurbished to the highest level of comfort and elegance.
Not much to report this morning so I will cut it short. Tomorrow we are in Homer, another new Alaskan port for me.
~~Homer, Alaska: Saturday, August 4th~~
Under overcast skies and cool temperatures we are cruising this morning toward our next port-of-call, Homer, Alaska; it will be my first visit to this small town. The excursion I had selected, "A Taste of Homer," remains wait-listed, so that will not come to pass I think; it was a 1 PM tour of the local brewery, which sounded interesting to me. We are in port from 10 AM until 6 PM so perhaps we can see the brewery on our own later this afternoon.
At 10:30 AM I am invited to a Mariner Society Award Reception to receive a Copper Medallion, commemorating my 100 days of cruising with Holland America. Then there it is a special luncheon in the La Fontaine Dining Room at 11 AM for Mariner Society members; I am a "3 Star" member. (Mariner Society is composed of past passengers of Holland America) Perhaps free wine with lunch?
The beautiful, sunny day yesterday was truly a delight after so many days of overcast, rainy weather. We were at dock all day from 7 AM until 11 PM. Interestingly, the very substantial tide in the Cook Inlet - of up to 30 feet -- requires frequent reconfigurations of the gangway during the day. When I left the ship in early afternoon, the gangway was essentially level between Deck 2 and the dock; returning at around 8:30 PM, the ship had risen to a point that the gangway was at a rather steep angle and resting on another elevating structure. Sunset in Anchorage during the summer does not occur until late -- around 10 PM.
The free shuttle buses operated throughout the day from the remote industrial dock into the downtown area to the Egan Center, a short trip of 10 minutes or so; the last bus departed Egan Center at 9 PM for the ship's 11 PM sailing. As previously mentioned this was my first visit to this port even though I had been in Anchorage on many occasions; after this summer and HAL's discontinuing this 14-day Alaskan itinerary, the ms Amsterdam will no longer be calling in Anchorage, nor any other cruise ship, is my guess. Too bad.
The Alaska Museum in downtown Anchorage has been substantially remodeled, adding a huge new wing; it now occupies an entire block, surrounded by exquisite gardens resplendent with flowers in full bloom. Most remarkable -- but not unusual for Anchorage in its northerly location. The lobby restaurant where I had once enjoyed lunch is now gone, replaced with another nice restaurant in the new wing; being too late for their lunch and too early for their dinner, we chose another restaurant on 5th Avenue where we had also dined before. My favorite, the Downtown Deli and Cafe, was indeed gone, replaced by some other. Sad.
4th, 5th and 6th Avenues are the main streets in downtown, lined with shops, bars and restaurants. Anchorage has certainly increased in size, it seemed to me; I was told that their current population is over 360,000. Many new buildings adorn the skyline although 24 stories have been deemed the limit for high-rises due to earthquake considerations.
To the north, past the dock area and rail station, is Elmendorf Air Force Base and many of their aircraft could be seen flying into and out of the base during the day. Anchorage International Airport is to the south of downtown Anchorage and is a major air cargo hub. Nearby there are facilities for the countless float-planes used in travel to the more remote areas of Alaska. Most Alaska cruise passengers -- either arriving or departing -- fly into and out of Anchorage International Airport, then are bused or trained to/from docks in Seward or Whittier. Our docking IN Anchorage is most unusual for cruise ships, and it will soon be ending.
In Homer today, the dock is at the end of a long spit with the small town at the other end, so a shuttle or long walk will be required; the weather will dictate our choice of activity. Tomorrow's destination is Kodiak Island so I will later describe our day there.
~~Sunday on Kodiak Island, August 5th~~
Our time here today is short; we docked at 7 AM and are scheduled to depart at 3 PM. The tour I chose for today is to Fort Abercrombie and a nature hike; quite different than the terrible tour experience we had here before on a small fishing boat, bouncing around on rough seas, supposedly viewing wildlife and WWII artifacts; that was a real waste.
Starting out as cold, wet and windy, yesterday in Homer turned out to be very pleasant and interesting. Our ship was docked at the end of the Homer Spit, a 5-mile long extension out into the Kachemak Bay at the lower end of the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage and just around from Seward. A hop-on hop-off shuttle -- on school buses for $15 -- was offered from the dock into the small town of Homer, population around 7,000.
At the end of the Spit near the cruise ship pier is a large marina sheltering private small boats, along with several lodgings, restaurants and bars; the Salty Dawg Bar is an old historic institution that has become a required tourist stop. Inside a building originally used as a lighthouse, the walls and ceilings are covered with signed dollar bills -- totaling as much as $30,000; at season's end the money is removed and donated to a Fisherman's Fund. From the dock there was a free shuttle school bus around the marina to the commercial area. Besides our cruise ship the entire spit was lined with tourists in cars, trucks, RVs and motor homes, attracted by the excellent fishing; Homer is claimed to be the halibut capital of Alaska. It is the home port of the fishing boat, Time Bandit, famous from the "Deadliest Catch" TV series.
Like Anchorage there is a tremendous tide, upwards to 30 feet; our bus ride down the spit into Homer was along beaches, dry way out to a great distance due to low tide; our return saw all of these same beaches then covered by the sea.
By the time we reached the small town the drizzle had subsided and we chose to walk the "loop" around from Shuttle Stop #2 (of 4) to #4, the "Old Downtown." Along the way we passed art galleries, a very nice bookstore, restaurants, hotels and other local businesses -- including a theater. Although small, the town did boast concrete sidewalks along the streets.
Around the middle of the afternoon we decided on AJ's Oldtown Restaurant & Tavern for a late lunch; my choice of course was halibut and it was excellent: a pan-poached 6-ounce fillet. Delicious. Our choice of restaurant was a good one; I observed most of the clientele were locals, not tourists. The place was one of the classic old roadhouses with a bar, dining room, live music for dancing, and an excellent kitchen. Even the restrooms were spotlessly clean. Their prices were high, I thought, but I concluded that is just the area.
Our shuttle return back up the spit to the ship at dock was around 4 PM, allowing for a quick visit over to the Salty Dawg and then back aboard the ms Amsterdam. At that time -- 5:30 PM -- it was dry, with no wind and was really quite pleasant. We observed seagulls by the hundreds nesting on, and under, the pier with many very young chicks carefully protected by their mothers; the deposits of their white droppings were overwhelming.
The ship's departure was right on schedule at 6 PM. It was nice to again be back aboard our warm, dry home at sea.
~~Gulf of Alaska, Monday, August 6th~~
Departing Kodiak Island yesterday afternoon at 3 PM after a rainy day, the ms Amsterdam turned back to the east, churning its way through moderate to rough seas back across the Gulf of Alaska toward the Hubbard Glacier which we will approach later this afternoon, a highlight of this cruise. Hubbard Glacier is the largest of the Alaskan advancing glaciers meeting the ocean along its 7 mile wide and 200 feet tall face. If any "calving" is to be seen it will be from this glacier. "Calving" is when large chunks of ice break from the face of the advancing glacier, plunging into the sea and creating small -- sometimes large -- floating icebergs.
Our excursion yesterday afternoon was a walking tour through Ft. Abercrombie National Park just past the town of Kodiak out on the point. Basically a rain forest -- and it held up to its name -- this Park was the location of the military installation of Ft. Abercrombie during WWII and many remnants of bunkers, etc., still exist. In the largest of these bunkers -- the former command center -- is now an excellent military museum housing a wide array of military exhibits, all in superb condition: a jeep, ambulance, many uniforms, communication equipment, ammunition, guns, etc. It was a unique and pleasant surprise to find among the moss-covered Sitka fir trees along the spectacular, rugged coastline at this strategic lands' end.
The rain was a steady drizzle - only a slight hindrance to our wonderful nature hike along the well-maintained trails through this forest, now a National Park. Our all-weather hooded jackets, purchased in Maine's Acadia National Park last fall, worked well; the frequent strong winds made umbrellas a challenge. Mostly level trails -- sometimes rather steep -- lead through the forest and down around Lake Gertrude, a fresh-water lake very near the coastline; a surprise was to see beautiful water lilies in bloom on one end of the lake. Diana, our guide (also a local kindergarten teacher), told us she used to enjoy ice skating on this lake during the winter when it freezes solid; now the indoor ice rinks are more popular. There were 18 in our group. It was a far cry from the pathetic tour experience during our last visit three years ago and I enjoyed it very much -- wet or not. By the way, we encountered NO brown Kodiak bears although we were instructed how to react had we done so.
Last evening was the third of our formal nights and the somewhat rough seas must have deterred some from dinner and later activities; it was a rather quiet night. The rack of lamb was superb at dinner; the dessert souffle a disappointment compared to those on Princess ships. My estimate of the seas was that they were only "moderate." This morning it is almost smooth as we near the mainland on our approach to the Hubbard glacier.
From our window here on the Lower Promenade Deck I can observe the many walkers making their way around the ship: 3 1/2 laps = 1 mile; it has been a little too cold and damp for me and I have only walked once; I do NOT want to get sick! The one-way reflective coating on windows make them impossible to see through from the outside -- especially in the daytime, but also at night to a certain extent.
The little 2-cup coffee maker we brought along has been great for providing GOOD coffee; the "swill" that is served in the Lido buffet is terrible, being made from a syrup concentrate. The coffee served in the dining room, on the other hand, is freshly brewed and is quite good; cappuccino coffees are also offered there at no additional charge. My usual breakfast is fresh melon: cantaloupe, watermelon and honeydew along with pineapple slices, several glasses of juice: orange, pineapple, cranberry, and apple. A couple of Danish pastries with my coffee complete the "feast." One thing I truly enjoy on Holland America ships is their exclusive use of glass and china serving pieces -- NO plastic, except for drinks around the swimming pools. Another is the use of genuine teak on all outside decks.
~~Sitka, Tuesday, August 7th~~
We are now approaching Sitka where we will be at anchor for the day; this is our last Alaskan port of call. The skies are again overcast and the forecast is for a cool day (55 degrees) and "light" rain. So we will again be prepared with all-weather jackets, earmuffs, gloves, scarves and umbrellas. Our excursion from 12:15 to 4:30 PM is "Fortress of the Bear & Sea Otter Quest" which I think should be very interesting, at least something that we have not done before on previous visits.
We were lucky late yesterday afternoon when we finally approached the Yakutat Bay and the Hubbard Glacier; the cloud cover lifted giving us excellent views of this magnificent chunk of ice, the longest of the tidewater glaciers in North America, stretching 76 miles from its source on Mount Logan to Disenchantment Bay. The glacier's face is over 6 miles wide and 200 -- 300 feet in height; it routinely "calves" off icebergs the size of a 10-story building. Again, we were lucky to observe many huge calvings.
The ship's captain maneuvered the ms Amsterdam quite near the glacier's face, although it was difficult to estimate the exact distance; perhaps a mile? Then he slowing turned the ship around, providing exquisite views of the bluish ice monolith to all ship's passengers lining the open decks. We were at the glacier for almost two hours. My first experience at this very spot was in 1996 aboard the old ss Rotterdam now retired and permanently docked in the port of Rotterdam as a hotel and museum.
Sounds from the glacier are awe-inspiring; sounds of cracking ice, like gunshots, and then the thunder of crashing ice -- both along the face and from well behind the face. It is a constant performance. As the ship turned one last time, preparing for our departure, there was one last calving, the largest of the afternoon, much to the thrill of us all, and was greeted with shouts of amazement. Quite an experience!
The "Thermal Suite" in the spa on Deck 8 was a welcome and warm relief from the afternoon's chill outside, watching the glacier. This limited access facility -- for a price -- provides luxurious steam rooms, Jacuzzis, saunas, and heated tiled lounges. At the very front of the ship with large windows overlooking the bow, the views are great. We have been taking almost daily advantage and it is well worth the price paid.
Last evening after the regular shows in the Queen's Lounge was the Indonesian Crew Show, a popular event with all passengers who crammed the theater to capacity. Everyone seems to love their Indonesian crew and their talents were many and surprisingly excellent. Another Holland American exclusive.
It is now time for me to prepare for today's outing; ship's tenders begin service at 10 AM although I am not leaving until around 11 AM or so for our excursion group meeting on the tender dock at noon. With our ship's departure at 5 PM and "all aboard" at 4:30 PM, there will be no extra time once we return from our tour at 4:30 PM.
Tomorrow is our last day at sea so there will be plenty of time then for my description of this afternoon's activities.
~~Last Day at Sea, Wednesday, August 8th~~
The end of our Alaskan Explorer Cruise is coming to an end; yesterday afternoon at 5 PM we departed Sitka, our last Alaska port of call, and tomorrow we will be in Victoria, BC, Canada, for the afternoon and evening. Where HAVE these past two weeks gone?
Among today's highlights will be the Mariners Society events: awards reception at 10:30 and lunch at 11:00. With the veteran cruisers aboard ship I expect the Mariners Lunch in the La Fontaine Dining Room will be attended by well over half of the passengers aboard.
Despite the "light rain" yesterday afternoon our tour, "Fortress of the Bear & Sea Otter Quest," was a great experience. First came a cruise on a nice two-deck speedy tour boat, out across the Sitka Bay into Redoubt Sound, where we observed sea otters that frequent that location; they enjoy lying on their backs, floating, while munching on their "lunch," usually sea urchins. The baby sea otters are well-tended by their mothers, and it is a special treat to watch them -- especially in the large pods, or "rafts" - groups, in which they gather. Our expert boat captain was able to find several of these rafts for our viewing pleasure.
All along the way many bald eagles were observed, many sitting at the very tip-top of a towering tree. We also got to view an eagle's nest high in split branches of a tree, with a "baby" eagle clearly visible; the baby will very soon be departing the nest as an adult.
Our final treat was an encounter with a humpback whale, feeding near small rock islands, almost oblivious to our nearby presence. We saw it exhale, surface, and then sound -- with its tail clearly visible, several times. It was with reluctance that our cruise time came to an end and we had to return to the dock for the second half of our tour; all along the way back we could see salmon jumping up out of the water.
During our return we were served sample of smoked salmon with Ritz crackers (I enjoyed several) and earlier we had been treated with small blueberry cupcakes. Complimentary coffee and hot chocolate were available during our nature cruise. A very nice tour.
Just outside of Sitka Bay there are hundreds of small islands, each lushly wooded with trees. The afternoon low-lying clouds and mist made for a very enchanted panorama. Beautiful!
Once back on dock we transferred to a small van for the short ride through the town of Sitka to a nearby bear rescue center, the Fortress of the Bear, built from a deserted wood pulp mill which now houses primarily orphaned brown bears which are not able to survive in the wild. They are well cared for in two huge circular enclosures with high concrete walls -- remnants of the old mill, and an observation deck provides viewing into each. The bears have become almost pets to the caretakers who care for them daily, and the bears have learned tricks and actions that thrill the observing tourists. A great facility. Many of their rescued brown bears have been relocated to zoos around the country.
Return to the dock was just in time for the last tender at 4:30 back to the ship for our 5 PM departure; Sitka has become one of my favorite Alaskan ports; unfortunately it is not one of the more common ports of call for cruise ships; Holland America is one of the few.
The seas are quite calm this morning as we cruise back south toward Seattle; soon it will be time to prepare for the Mariners Society activities.
~~Victoria, BC, Canada, Thursday,August 9th~~
Yes, today we alongside at Ogden Point Cruise Ship Terminal in Victoria for the day: 12 N -- 11 PM. Our plans are to meet Brian & Bev, good cruise friends from Port Moody, who have driven over for the day. So as soon as the toddling herd of 1400 passengers has filed their way off the ship, we hope to make contact with them and be off.
This afternoon we plan to journey to the Butchart Gardens, just north of Victoria; although we have been there several times, Bev & Brian have never been, so I am sure they will enjoy it.
Later this afternoon we will return to Victoria and Bev and Brian may choose to return to their hotel, the Inn at Laurel Point, for a short rest before our 7:30 PM dinner reservations at the Wharfside Seafood Grille, overlooking the Inner Harbour. It will be a return visit for us.
After dinner we may return to Bev & Brian's hotel for some final visiting before our returning to the ms Amsterdam by 10:30 PM, "all aboard."
Yesterday's Mariner events were done quite nicely; the 10:30 AM awards reception in the Explorer's Lounge on Deck 5 was for a small, select group of medallion recipients and awardees: copper = 100 cruise days, silver = 300 cruise days, gold = 500 cruise days and platinum = 700 cruise days. The older couple next to me both had platinum medallions.
There were only copper medallions presented yesterday by the Captain to about 10 of us, complimentary drinks and hors d'oeuvres served, our individual photos taken with the Captain and the Cruise Director (complimentary copy provided), and then the entire group escorted by the Captain to the La Fontaine Dining Room on Deck 4 for our Mariners Champagne Lunch at 11:00 AM.
Other such Mariner lunches accommodated the rest of the 900 Mariners aboard. The lunch was in no way as special as Princess' "Most Traveled Passengers" lunches, two of which I have attended; one during our Panama Canal cruise on the Island Princess in the Sabatini's specialty restaurant; the other one on our Greek Isles cruise was a very special cocktail party in the Skywalker Lounge on Grand Princess. These Mariner lunches were more in the style of Princess' Captain's Circle receptions.
Last evening was the last of our 4 formal nights so the tuxedo came out for one last tour of duty; I have certainly gotten my money's worth from this tuxedo that still looks just fine; I even wore my new Copper Medallion which generated a lot of attention.
Dinner at Table 24 on the upper level of La Fontaine Dining Room was a special one with "Surf & Turf" -- steak and lobster - offered, and NOT for a $25 surcharge! The lobster tail I was served was easily TWICE the size of the small one I had been served in the Pinnacle Grill -- and steak to boot! And our waiter skillfully removed it from the shell.
The dessert of the evening was the famous Baked Alaska, first paraded around the dining rooms by the assistant waiters, but my choice was the crÃ¨me brule which turned out to be the wrong choice: not nearly as good as in the Pinnacle Grill. Then of course there was the parade of the chefs that always gets a good reception from the "half-starved" passengers waving their napkins high in the air.
Following dinner we went to the final Singers and Dancers Performance "Europa" in the Queen's Lounge and it was the best of the cruise; the costumes were spectacular if not on the gawdy side. There were more shows on this cruise than on any other that I can remember: almost every other night. A good evening.
This morning we are trying to do most of our packing so that our luggage can be set outside our door tonight before we go to bed. Tomorrow will be very busy, disembarking, collecting luggage, and locating our Super Express shuttle to the SeaTac Airport. Since our Alaska Air flight #512 is not until 2:30 PM, we will have plenty of time for a nice lunch there, mine being some of Ivar's incredible clam chowder: yum-good! Our arrival back at John Wayne Orange Co Airport is scheduled for 5:15 PM.
Our 14-day Alaskan Explorer Cruise on the ms Amsterdam in near its end.
~~Seattle, Friday, August 10th~~
Under pristine blue skies, Mount Rainer and the impressive skyline of Seattle greeted our early approach to Pier 91 in Seattle, and the end of our Alaskan Explorer Cruise on the ms Amsterdam. Being independent travelers our disembarkation time is not until 9:15 AM and we are allowed to remain in our stateroom until that time. Our luggage was placed in the hallway last evening about 11:30 PM, after our return aboard and final packing, and will next be seen in the terminal holding area upon disembarkation. Shuttle Express will then take us to SeaTac Airport where there will be several hours of wait before our Alaska Air Flight #512 to John Wayne Orange Co Airport at 2:30 PM, plenty of time for a leisurely lunch including, of course, Ivar's famous clam chowder.
Yesterday afternoon and evening in Victoria with our friends Bev & Brian, first at Butchart Gardens and then later at the Wharfside Seafood Grille, were a complete joy, marred only slightly by the very cool temperature we encountered at our patio table during dinner. Even with my Alaska sweater and Brian & Bev's jackets, it became uncomfortably cool, requiring our change of table to an inside one for coffee. My pan-seared halibut was wonderful, as I remembered it being from 3 years ago, and the entire day passed much too quickly before having to return to the ship around 9:30 PM.
Immediately after leaving the ship a few minutes past the noon docking in Victoria, we found Bev & Brian waiting for us just outside the cruise terminal and were soon on our way to the Butchart Gardens in Brian's new sporty Honda Civic. The day was gloriously clear with warm sunshine, much welcomed after our 14 days of overcast, drizzly weather in Alaska. With the help of the GPS in Brian's new car, we joined the crowds seeking parking at the Butchart Gardens; about a 30-minute drive north of Victoria. We were joined by several bus loads of cruise passengers from ours and the other 3 cruise ships in port; it was the most crowded that I have ever seen the Butchart Gardens.
Despite the crowds, the Butchart Gardens were the most spectacular I have seen in my several past visits; the thousands of exquisitely beautiful flowers ablaze in color and fragrance. Everywhere you turn there is a great photo opportunity.
Our first route was through the sunken gardens created in the former stone quarry, the highlight of which is the spectacular towering water fountain and its many wondrous programmed maneuvers. Then it was back along a path towards the rose garden when we encountered the ice cream shop -- demanding a brief stop and indulgence. Then a nearby enclosed carousel -- new to me -- beckoned, and Bev & Jim couldn't resist a ride on the "reindeer" and the "cat" while Brian & I observed, capturing the display on camera.
The roses were beautiful, as to be expected, although already in their second blooming. As we continued on toward the visitors' center with restaurants and cafes, we passed along hundreds of huge dahlias and mums; I've never seen such large blooms! It is hard to conceive the many, many varieties of flowers and plants and substantial maintenance and care they must demand; their gardening staff must be a small army.
For a rest and further refreshment we stopped at the Blue Poppy Cafeteria where I enjoyed a beer and half sandwich while Bev & Brian shared a pot of tea and a sandwich. Since we would be enjoying dinner in just a few hours, we did not want to over eat.
The final attraction was the exquisite Japanese Garden with its many babbling brooks, ornate bridges, artistically sculpted bushes and trees. Distinctly different from other parts of Butchart Gardens and the plethora of flowers in bloom, the Japanese Garden emphasizes greenery of sculpted bushes and trees surrounding small ponds with stepping stones and charming bridges, painted with bright red lacquers. At the bottom of the Japanese Gardens there is a view of Butchart Cove, an inlet to the sea, framed by the majestic groves of towering redwood trees and other lush woods. Truly a memorable setting to enjoy.
Our time together seemed to fly and it was then time to return to Victoria and our dinner at the Wharfside Seafood Grille; the cruise ship tour buses had earlier departed providing a much less crowded environment for our final enjoyment. Spending so much time at the Butchart Gardens it was decided to go directly to the restaurant although we would be an hour early for our 7:30 PM reservation; fortunately our early arrival was graciously accommodated.
After leaving the restaurant we all took a short walk along the edge of the Inner Harbour and all of it exciting activities -- music, street performers, etc. - with view of the old Empress Hotel and the BC Parliament Building, ablaze with lights outlining the windows, dooms and other features; it was magic! float planes routinely take off and land right in the harbor, adding to the aura of Victoria. It is a wonderfully beautiful city -- day and night.
Reluctantly we bade our goodbyes to Bev and Brian in the parking lot outside the cruise terminal and then reboarded our ship in very quiet surroundings, most passengers having returned earlier was my guess. It was then back to our stateroom and final completion of our packing. A full but great day in Victoria.
~~SeaTac Airport, Friday Afternoon, August 10th~~
I am now sitting in SeaTac Airport enjoying their free Wi-Fi, courtesy of Virgin America -- after viewing their commercial videos. Time now for Ivar's Famous Clam Chowder.
~~Corona del Mar, Friday Evening, August 10th~~
Alaska Air #512 from Seattle to Orange County was also a full flight and we were again allowed to check our carry on luggage without charge, a very convenient thing to do. Due to some mechanical malfunction our departure was delayed almost 25 minutes until about 3 PM, but after a very smooth flight and a couple of chardonnay wines for me, our arrival at John Wayne Airport was only about 5 minutes late.
After retrieving our luggage -- there was a slight problem with one of the bags, we checked in with SuperShuttle and were soon on our way to my home in Corona del Mar, arriving at around 7 PM. All was found to be well on our arrival.
Our Alaskan adventure was finally over. Now for the last of the Olympics!