Our Trip To Alaska

MJ is a handbell ringer and handbell choir director. Every couple of years a Portland group called Bells of the Cascades sponsors a cruise — to Alaska, Mexico, the Caribbean — wherein a hundred or so ringers get together, practice during the ocean parts, and put on a concert at the end. Most of the cruises are to warmer climes, during January, and I can’t go along because of school. When it’s an Alaska destination, they go in August, and I can tag along.

Where we went

Where we went

This trip our onshore activity was a little constrained. MJ had just had her shoulder replaced a month before and was still in a sling, with orders to avoid all stress on that arm. But a little thing like having zero use of her left (dominant) arm wasn’t going to keep her from making the trip, and ringing.

Day 1: Departure

We’d sent the dogs to summer camp for the week and packed the night before, so we were able to get on the road by 7AM. It’s roughly two hours to the Columbia, two hours to Seattle, and two hours to the border, plus another hour inside Canada, because the cruise left from Vancouver. Traffic around Seattle was surprisingly heavy.

Downtown Vancouver from the cruise ship dock

Downtown Vancouver from the cruise ship dock

We rolled in to Vancouver about 3PM. The travel agent had booked us at a 4-star hotel (about a star and a half more than we needed) that had the advantage of being on the most direct route from Canada 99N to the cruise ship dock. I really like Vancouver. Of the three great cities of the NW (Portland, Seattle, Vancouver), it’s probably the most cosmopolitan. We walked around a bit, had dinner at a Red Robin (watched a crow learning to lift an onion ring from an abandoned ring-stacker) and went to bed early.

Day 2: Another Departure

Next day we were up early, dodged the crowds and barriers for the Vancouver Gay Pride parade, and zipped down to the cruise ship dock. Parking was inside the cruise ship center, so we offloaded our bags, zipped through customs and security, and were on board by 10AM, thence to hang around the bar until they let us in to our cabins about 1.

Corner suite, right above that orange storage container

Corner suite, right above that orange storage container

The first thing us old folks noticed was the prevalence of kids on the trip, and groups talking off their balconies. It felt a little like an old New York tenement. All it lacked was some laundry hung outside.

Oh, right.

Oh, right.

Another thing we noticed, after several days, was the number of ethnic Chinese on the trip. At one point, in the buffet, of the ten occupied tables, four were seating Chinese speakers. I don’t know if this is a flood of the new middle class from the mainland, or if it was just representative of Vancouver’s large Chinese population (most of whom had arrived just prior to the return of Hong Kong to the PRC). In any event, I was struck by the numbers, and thought of similar sights mentioned in some SF novel of old (Brin? Niven? Stephenson?).

Day 3: At Sea

We started with a 48 hour run up through British Columbia’s Inland Passage and Hecate Strait to a fishing village west of Juneau. Not much to do except sit on the veranda and sip fine wines. Of course, an outside air temperature of 55F and a ship’s speed of 17kts combined to give a wind chill in the upper 30’s, so that option was out. MJ practised with the handbell group,

One person per note

One person per note

and I made an attempt to get some programming done.

Taking time out to look cool

Taking time out to look cool

Day 4: Icy Strait Point

There’s not a lot of places to stop in southern Alaska. There’s Juneau, and maybe four small fishing ports like Ketchikan, plus a couple of glacier-ridden fjords. So, as I understand it, the cruise lines pooled their lunch money and put in a multi-million dollar dock at a small former fishing port, Icy Strait Point. How small is it? One of the highlights on the tour map was a 20-grave cemetery. They also built a fishing museum and a “zipline”. I use the scare quotes because you don’t really hang on the way you do on a real zipline. Instead, they have a seat that looks like some of the safer playground swings. The most photogenic objects are the local cat

The municipal cat. In chair, at left.

The municipal cat. In chair, at left.

the ship

Our floating hotel

Our floating hotel
(click to embiggen)

And here’s a shot of the ship with MJ in the foreground, for scale. The sling is designed to keep her shoulder from levering itself out of the socket.

The sling is designed to keep her shoulder from levering itself out of the socket

She doesn’t normally wear her hair ahoge style.

And finally the museum, which includes a working model of a Radio Shack.

This museum has everything

This museum has everything

Day 5: Hubbard Glacier

Overnight to the Hubbard Glacier. Very impressive

The approach

The approach

and the warm days meant it was calving almost continuously

If you look close, a chunk of ice just fell off in the center

If you look close, a chunk of ice just fell off in the center

That night was the Bells of the Cascades concert

Concert for the passengers

Concert for the passengers

Day 6: Juneau

Running overnight and most of the next day down from Hubbard, we got in to Juneau in the early afternoon. I wandered around a little bit, but the interesting bits of town were too far away from the ship, so I stayed aboard and watched the float planes landing.

As we were docking, one of these landed between the boat and the dock

As we were docking, one of these landed between the boat and the dock

Here’s another view of the ship. Our stateroom is right above the caribou flag.

A cruise-crowded port

A cruise-crowded port

Day 7: Ketchikan

Our last port of call was Ketchikan. During the run down from Juneau, the handbell group gave a free concert. Unfortunately, the room they gave them was so small only a few passengers could get in.

Only one working hand? That's OK. I'll play both bells with it.

Only one working hand?

Caption goes here

That’s OK. I’ll play both bells with it.

We were moored behind Holland-America’s Noordam, one of three other cruise ships at dock. Seeing small fishing towns suddenly inundated with 10,000 or 12,000 tourists gives you a bit of a feeling what it must have been like during the gold rush days.

Four cruise ships, at 3,000 passengers each...

Four cruise ships, at 3,000 passengers each…

BTW, this was Celebrity Infinity docking at Ketchikan back in June. Our arrival was much smoother.

 

Day 8: At Sea

Another day and a night at sea. We chased the Noordam through the Inland Passage.

No passing zone

No passing zone

That night the Strait of Georgia, and it was amazingly warm. It turns out there was a reason for that.

 

Day 9: Arrivals

Arrived in port at Vancouver about 6AM. Nice trip under the bridge.

Home from the sea

Home from the sea

Spent most of the morning having a leisurely breakfast. Our chalk was due off the ship at 8:30, and by 9:00 we had picked up our bags and cleared customs and were on our way home.

Arrived home late Sunday afternoon, but it wasn’t until Tuesday that the whole family was back together again.

Final Thoughts

This cruise wasn’t as much fun as the others, due to MJ’s shoulder, and there were a lot of minor irritations. The ship is, I think, a little small (90,000t, 2500 pax) and a little old (2001, second oldest in their fleet). It was tarted up a few years ago, with a new carpet and paint job, but if you looked at the edges of the steel plates you could see they were delaminating and rusty. The passageways seemed narrower than on other cruise ships, but that might have been because they were always cluttered with cleaning gear and laundry bags. The pre-departure abandon ship drill was a joke. Our muster station was in the main ballroom, from thence someone would take us to our lifeboat…it says here. Other cruise lines hold their drills right next to the assigned lifeboats.

On our cruise, the whole handbell group had asked to be seated together — same dining room, same time — but the Celebrity people didn’t pass that on to the ship, and their on-board software evidently couldn’t solve such a large linear-programming model, so we were scattered hither and yon. At least our table was quite close to the table where MJ’s sister and her family were seated.

It's good to be close to family

It’s good to be close to family

In another, albeit minor, example of software shortfalls, they had one channel of the ships internal TV system devoted to showing a moving map, with our location. However, the system didn’t seem to be hooked into the actual ship systems, because it couldn’t show true wind speed and direction (0/N), and it kept losing (briefly) the GPS location. When that would happen, the map would keep moving underneath this modal window, so I guess it’s waiting for someone to click <OK>.

I'll just wait for someone to notice me

I’ll just wait for someone to notice me

The cabin crew and wait staff, on the other hand, were superb. Well trained, attentive, engaging. Our sommelier was somewhat overworked (I think they were short-handed), and spent most of the evenings running back and forth with armloads of bottles.

If we had been on our onlies, I think it would have rated as a great cruise. As it was, we’re a little disappointed.

Meanwhile, with everyone back home, the puppy is learning how to fit in.

Next time, I just inch a little to the left

Next time, I just inch a little to the left

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