That’s a wrap!

July 11, 2010 Comments Off

Our last day on the cruise was mostly a day at sea. We slept in as best we could, then spent the day by the pool relaxing and talking to people. We met a nice couple who were the parents of one of the girls that Sasha met on the trip. They were from Orange County, and were loving the cruise. They also hoped to see a little of Seattle before they flew home, so we gave them some tips on what they could see. They planned on trying to see Pike Place market, and they thought the idea of seeing the first Starbucks there was pretty cool.

We did little else but rest until we hit our final destination, Victoria BC. We docked at the main cruise terminal, which is a bit outside the center of downtown. We decided to walk, instead of taking the shuttle bus. We had a nice walk through a residential center. Apparently one of the residents really hates the cruise ships, and sprayed graffiti all over the place complaining about the ships. There was also graffiti from another neighbor complaining about the first.

Perhaps, this is not the best way to present your city.

But for us we had been to Victoria several times, and enjoyed the walk into town. At the legislature building we caught a horse carriage to take us up Government street. The girl driving our carriage gave us the quick tour. She was super enthusiastic, and didn’t stop talking until she dropped us off. In fact, I think she spoke in a single sentence the whole time. She dropped us at the back of Bastion Square, and we started walking back to and down Government street looking for a nice place to eat.

We ended up finding a really nice French Restaurant, and had a terrific dinner, a nice break from the ship’s food. After some food, wine, and espresso, we were tired. We had a few more hors in town, but since we had been here so many times before, we opted to just take a few photos and head back early. We grabbed a cab to the dock and got back on board.

We already had our departure time set. Yulia had a film the next day, so we opted for expedited departure and were going to be up at 7:15 to carry our own luggage off. We had a great trip, but were ready to get home.

Alaska was amazing. We will certainly go back.

Ketch us if you Kan

July 8, 2010 Comments Off

Ketchikan was the only day where I had to set an alarm. We had originally not bought a tour, since we only had a half day here, but Yulia talked to someone who highly recommend the “Deadliest Catch Tour”. This was a tour about commercial fishing, and was held onboard the Aleutian Ballad, a retired fishing vessel that was featured in the Deadliest Catch show. It was famous because it was filmed when it got hit by a 50 foot rough wave, which tore the ship up a bit, but fortunately didn’t sink it.

Now the ship just gives tours, and everyone we asked said this was not to miss. But the tour started at 7:45am, so we had to get up and off the boat early. We ate quick and ran down the pier, getting there just in time. Naturally, everyone else was late for the tour, but we got better seats.

The working deck of the ship was now an amphitheater with a view of the launchers and coilers on the other side of the deck. The ship was run by local fisherman, some who had been on Deadliest Catch, and others who liked to make fun of the show a bit, since it only shows vessels where something is going wrong (in their opinion). As they said, not being on the show is a badge of honor, since you hadn’t done anything wrong yet.

As we pulled out they crew explained that they had a deal with a local tribe to fish in their waters, which allowed them to show us how all the equipment works, without being in season. Without this agreement they wouldn’t be able show us anything. As we drove out to the waters, we had dolphins chasing the wake of the ship on one side. After a but, we had Orcas chasing us on the other side. We tried to get pictures of both.

The crew demonstrated long line fishing, two types of commercial crab pots, prawn pots, and gave us details of what is involved from a financial and safety standpoint for them as fishermen. I remembered so many guys when I went to college who wanted to fly up and fish for a summer to make money, and then came back saying that they would never do that again. PRetty much for most of the men involved you can make a lot fast with a good haul, or go broke or get killed if things go wrong. Very high-risk high-return.

We got to handle several types of sea life as the pulled up the traps and handed things around. They even showed off a local octopus and wolf eel, but those were too dangerous to handle for the visitors. About halfway through the tour they pulled alongside an island, and fed some Bald Eagles. We had spent half the trip trying to get pictures of eagles from afar, and now they were swooping at us a few feet off the boat.

It was a great tour. We saw pretty much every kind of sea life they had, and we had a great time talking to the crew on the way back to the dock. I ended up getting a Captian’s Jacket from the boat as a souvenir, since it was very cool looking and perfect to use on our own boat.

We had just a few minutes to walk around town after the tour before we had to get back on the ship. It was unfortunate that we only had a half day here, as this town was much bigger than either Sitka or Juneau, but we had no time to explore.

The cruise south was getting hotter. We were definitely leaving Alaskan weather behind. We headed back up the the Lido deck for lunch and a few drinks. After a short time it was apparent that after all the touring, after all the walking, and photos and everything, we were ready to relax. I took a short nap in my chair. Sasha swam and Yulia walked a bit. Then they both went to the room to nap and I read. It is good when your brain finally can relax and forces you to slow down.

We had a great dinner that evening at the Pinnacle Grill, and for the third time brought our own wine to the restaurant. The reaction to our wine from the waitstaff each time has been amazement, and it was pretty clear that we were bringing wine on board that was much better than what they sold for the guests.

After dinner Yulia played some Blackjack, and won, as usual. Sasha had a dance with the cruise director in the Ocean View bar (she was the better dancer). Then we all went to the Piano Bar for Beatles night, Yulia left early to sleep, and Sasha and I stayed late to close them out.

I can see Russia from my Verandah

July 7, 2010 Comments Off

It was an odd feeling waking up. Odd because the boat wasn’t rocking.

We looked out the window to fog. I looked down. The water was smooth as glass. We were anchored at Sitka. It was nice to be in calm water. I checked and our. Tour wasn’t until 12:30, so we were in no rush.

We had a leisurely breakfast, packed up my backpack with rain gear and the camera, and went down to the launch to get on the tender to the marina. The ride was easy, and since these tenders were also our lifeboats, I was impressed to see how well built they were. They looked more like military landing craft, very solid and well built. If something went wrong it was good to know that emergencies were planned for.

Once at the marina, we walked towards the closest street. We had two hours to kill so we thought we might see what was around. There were a couple of shops on the street, nothing too special, just small tourist shops and a few local business. But we were just really happy at that point that it wasn’t raining. This was really our first dry day for the trip, and we were glad to have it.

We stopped in a tourist shop so I could pick up a pair of cheap sunglasses, and Yulia asked the girl behind the counter where the main street was. She told us “you’re on it”

Dang.

I leaned out the door of the shop and could see both ends of the street. The girl unfolded a map across the counter and pointed out the street. I swear the map was 1:1 scale. We thanked her and walked a bit further. Ahead of us was the St Michael’s Orthodox church. This was on our tour later in the day, but we wanted to take a look inside before the crowds showed up. The tourist signs pointing out the church were already in front, letting us know that it was $2 each donation to tour the church. We went inside and found an elderly woman next to the donation box smiling and directing folks in. She looked a lot like my grandmother (on the Russian side of the family). We paid and asked her if they sold candles.

For those who aren’t Russian Orthodox; when you go to an Orthodox church, you burn candles at the various icons for prayer. We are Orthodox, so whenever we visit an Orthodox church we make sure to purchase and burn a few candles.

The Church was fairly large for an orthodox church (which is still small) but the icons were beautiful and very old. Some of the oldest and most historical Russian Orthodox icons are located in America, because so many in Russia were destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1917. We looked about and found the box to buy candles in the corner of the church. We bought a few and went about lighting and placing them in the small spaces in front of the respective icons. I had put mine in place under the main central icon, then turned around and was surprised to see the elderly woman from the front standing right next to me.

I was startled for a bit. She was looking at me with wide eyes, and asked, “Are you Orthodox?”

It took me a second to process her question. “Uh, yes.” I replied. “My whole family is.” I pointed over to Yulia and Sasha.

She smiled and said, “I’m so glad you are here.” She reached up and kissed me on both cheeks, Russian style. She then walked over to Yulia and sash and did the same. Apparently we were the only tourists in a long time who were actually Russian Orthodox. “Which church do you go to?” she asked.

I told her that we go to St. Nicholas’ in Seattle, and she was excited since she knew our church and had been there. We talked with her for a bit and told her that Yulia was from Russia and that my family was Russian on one side. As we left, she gave each of us a souvenir pin of the church, and told us to visit when we came back to Sitka.

It was honestly a moving experience to connect with someone at random like that.

We felt good as we walked up the street, we stopped when we hit the other marina on the opposite end of the main street. Sitka was not short on marinas. We were just below the hill where Russia sold Alaska to the US. Russians usually comment that they sold Alaska, “for a knife,” meaning that they got a raw deal. It turns out that it was a 7.2 million dollar knife, and the czar was tired of shipping everything so far back to Russia, so it wasn’t such a bad deal. Hell, considering we ended up with Sarah Palin, the Russians made out like bandits.

We grabbed a quick snack at a book shop with an Espresso stand in back, and made our way back to the dock to meet our tour. We were set for a tour of the Church, some sightseeing around town, and a visit to the Raptor Center, which is basically rehab for eagles. (ah, how nature imitates the music industry….)

We learned that the original downtown burned down, and that the town had about 20 minutes warning before the fire reached the church. So everyone ran into the church and started bringing out all the icons and religious items. They saved about 95% of everything there, and once it was all over, they got the original church plans from the Smithsonian Institution and rebuilt everything.

The loop of the town was beautiful, and you could really get a feel for how isolated Sitka is from the mainland. Even the airport for the city was on a separate island originally, with no connecting bridge. You had to take a boat from the terminal in town over to the runway. Your luggage took a separate boat.

The raptor center was a volunteer organization and had been in operation for something like 30 years. It was critical when Bald Eagles were endangered, but now the Eagles have fully recovered and are not endangered, and the center works with all kinds of raptors. We got some close photos and saw how they took care of the huge birds, some of whom never recover and stay there permanently.

We also got to see a local dance group that performs traditional Russian Dances. Yulia was impressed, for a group of amateurs, they knew the dances well. These folk dances were common years ago in Russia, but are pretty unheard of know, so seeing them here is more common than seeing them in Russia.

After the tour, we caught the last tender back to the boat. The sun was out now, and you could see all the small islands in the Sitka Sound, dotted with homes and private docks. As we made out way out of the harbor, we met another fog bank on open water. The seas were not bad, but after an hour os so we turned back to the inside passage toward Ketchikan, and lost the fog and waves.

The sun went down over the islands giving us a beautiful sunset for the first time this trip. We took a few photos and headed down to the piano bar to close out the night.

Ice, Ice Baby

July 6, 2010 Comments Off

We woke up to howling wind and snow. Apparently we didn’t fully lock the exterior door to the balcony, so the whole place started howling once the winds got up. We took a look at the TV channel that showed the front of the ship, and the foredeck was covered in snow. This meant it was an excellent chance to ignore everything and go back to bed.

That worked for a while, but eventually the howling and rocking got the best of us, and we dressed and headed to the Book Cafe to get some espresso and watch the sea. Yulia was not liking the storm, but as before the Cafe saw the least amount of motion on the ship, and had good espresso and pastries, so it was a great hiding place. We lasted there until we got actually hungry, then headed up for some breakfast.

The Lido deck was pretty busy. We grabbed food, and sat out by the pool. The pool has a closing roof, so it was all sealed up, and pretty steamy. At least it was warm, with two hot tubs providing the heat and steam. We looked out and could see nothing but fog around us. The snow had stopped, and the foghorn was blowing.

Yulia and I went down a few decks to watch a fruit carving demonstration while Sasha stayed above to hang out and listen to her iPod. The fruit carving was a pretty good way to kill time. We were due at the glacier at 1:00, and we were really just trying to keep busy until then.

We went back up to meet Sasha, and she was scanning the windows looking for ice. As soon as we turned into the fjord of the glacier, Sasha saw ice floating and started taking pictures. The icebergs weren’t that large, and were pretty dirty, but they were amazing to see. We went back to the cabin to get some warm clothes and raingear on, so we could watch from the lower deck and foredeck.

As we moved into the fjord, park rangers began explaining the area around. There were two glaciers in this fjord, Hubbard Glacier, which was very large, and really clean ice, and a second glacier to the side which was really dirty, and I don’t remember the name. As chunks of ice broke off, seals and their pups would swim up on the ice and hide from Orca whales. We looked out and sure enough you could see seals on the ice surrounding the boat.

One of the Rangers was a native who explained the cultural significance of the glacier by relaying the creation myth of The Birth Of Raven. This was an amazing, moving story that really gave one the feel of the importance of the area. To everyone but me, of course, since I had found the booze cart at this time and was half a glass of cognac down at this point. I tried to ignore the talking on the loudspeaker since the learning was really harshing my buzz, and focused on trying to get some photos of Orcas eating the baby seals, but no one was cooperating.

I did get some great views of the ice. The size was amazing. Once the ship stopped and turned near the ice, we went back to our room since our balcony was in the perfect spot for photos. It was quieter in our room as well, and you could hear the massive ice crack, then see little landslides flow down the face of the glacier. In this case, “little” means “size of my house”.

The ship left after a few hours, and started heading South again. This was as far North as we would go. We spent the rest of the evening playing around the ship. Sasha got to meet the club DJ and he gave her a tour of his booth and equipment, I won a trivia contest in the pub by knowing 9 out of 10 Game Show theme songs (I wasn’t sure if i was proud or ashamed), we caught a comedian playing in the theater (utterly shaming the broadway creatures they normally have there) and we capped off the night in the piano bar where it was “Elton John Tribute Night”.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Goldfinger

July 5, 2010 § 1 Comment

We awoke to much smoother seas. We were done with open ocean for a bit, and were navigating within the islands of northern Canada/Southern Alaska. The weather was good so we had great views of the islands on our way in to dock in Juneau. As we entered the harbor we could see the beach across from the Marina, which had a bright yellow color in the sand. This was all apparently a man-made beach, crushed rock pulled out of the Gold mines that honeycomb the hills here. The excess rock was dumped, making a sandy beach that wasn’t there before.

Once we docked we had a good 3 hours before our main tour, so we left the ship and walked around the town. It was a really funky old town. With surprisingly little development despite having a population of 30,000 and 20,000 tourists visiting on a busy day. There was one shopping street, and my mission was to find a couple of simple windbreakers for Yulia and Sasha. They had enough warm fleece with them, but nothing that I thought was good enough if it started to rain.

We found the Alaska Brewery shop, which I was excited to see. I don’t drink that much beer anymore, but I love Alaskan Amber. Yulia hates beer, but even she likes their beer. We looked about and I figured that I would hold off and get something from them online later.

All the shops were cool, and prices were touristy, but not unreasonable. Eventually we found a place that had some nice jackets and I managed to convince Yulia and Sasha to pick one out. I also got myself a oilskin rain hat, just in case.

We found a Russian shop a ways down the street. Half the place was filled with the traditional Dolls, Boxes, crystal and crap. The other half was Post-Soviet junk, KGB shirts, CCCP caps, etc. It was all the crap you usually bought in Moscow, but cheaper.

Sasha looked across the street and saw the Gondola Ride that took you to the top of the mountain. It was a cheap ticket, and we still had two hours, so we figured that it would be fun to take some photos from the top of the mountain. It was a quick ride up to the top, and the view was fantastic.

They had a Bald Eagle up top that was in permanent care after being shot by some hunter. She looked pretty worse for wear, but it was nice to see folks taking care of her. Hopefully the hunter gets some creeping jock itch or other karmic punishment. Fucker.

Inside the mountain center we ran into a local selling a healing balm made from local plants. He was in the middle of tables of typical necklaces, hats, and touristic crap. He was motioning everyone over to try some. I read the ingredients and saw that the active plant was a local arctic Wormwood. This was cool since Wormwood is the active herb in Absinthe, which was originally part of WW1 medkits. Yulia tried it, and it was smelly but helped her sore back. I got two jars for fun.

We sat down at the restaurant for lunch. They had great crab, and fish and a chips. I got the special that included Alaskan Amber beer. While we waited, I checked out my phone and found an open wifi network. I joined and opened Facetime on the phone to see who was on. We ended up calling Roger and Anya and talked with them with video, and even got to see Oscar.

We looked about for a bit, then headed back down to our ship to catch the ride to our gold panning tour. It was raining now, not too heavy, but enough to make the jackets and hat pretty valuable. Our tour bus drove us through town and to the river on the far side of the mountain. This was a historical district and in addition to the tourists, several locals were panning there as well.

We were shown how to pan, washing the lighter dirt away and leaving the heavy gold (and iron) in the bottom. We were able to get the gold out of our starter pans, and Yulia was good enough to scoop dirt straight from the river and find a few more flakes. It was fun, but cold and rainy. We were getting pretty chilled by the time we were done. We all packed up and the bus drove us out to the Salmon Bake.

The food at the salmon bake was excellent. But we were getting cold. We stayed for a short while, took some photos, and got back on the bus. We were tired, and wet. Once we got back to the boat, we were beat.

Sea you on the 4th

July 4, 2010 § 1 Comment

The Fourth of July onboard was a bit rough. We were on the ocean side of Vancouver Island, and looking at some 6 foot swells at times. We ordered breakfast into our room, and after eating and getting dressed, I had to run the the Reservations desk at the main restaurant to get us reservations for the Formal Dinner this evening. Things filled up fast, but I was able to get us a 5:30 reservation.

This formal night was the “Captain’s Toast” night, with a presentation by the captain after the dinner in the theater. We were just exacted to get a change to dress up. I had brought my tux and two sets of ties/cummerbuns, and both Yulia and Sasha had beautiful evening dresses ready.

This is one of those times when I like to point out my personal taste for actual bow ties. I don’t like pre-tied ties. I think they have this awful, cheap feel to them, and really betray the fact that you are wearing a seriously expensive tux when you have something that looks like it should spin and shoot water around your neck. The only problem is that it is a pain in the ass to tie a bow tie. I actually have a PDF of how to do it saved on my iPad that I have to reference. But I think the look is worth it. That, and I get to untie it at the end of the evening in the bar and it hangs down with that cool “untied bow tie” look. Goes great with a martini.

With the reservations out of the way, we headed up to the pool. On the way out of port, the pool was pretty calm, tilting a bit as the ship turned and navigated out of the Sound. But now, it looked like an insane wave pool. Which it basically was, driven by the rolling of the ship. Kids were tossed about in the pool and were having an insane time. Sasha let into the pool right away and was going nuts. She hit it off right away with a few kids and was much more relaxed.

We hung out at the pool through lunch. After lunch I had made reservations for a poker tournament in the casino. I figured this would be fun, since I’m not much for other casino games but I always like a good poker game. Sadly, this was nothing like a good poker game, for me at least. It was setup fairly short stacked, we started with 1500 in chips, and blinds at 100/50. Blinds also were raised every 10 minutes, which was less than a full round. That, and the dealer spoke very bad english. It was a weird setup, but everyone at the table was pretty cool, so that really made up for the odd play. The one thing we all agreed on was that the boat was rocking more. It really felt like playing with a few extra drinks.

I didn’t hit a single card the whole round, and got wiped out once the blinds went up. Which with the game structure didn’t take that long. I took solace that I went out 6th out of ten, which is a lot better than first strike.

With a humiliating poker beating out of the way, we retired back to the Book Cafe, grabbed some coffee, and rode out the waves. The advantage to the Book Cafe was that it was in the center of the ship. It didn’t get so much of the wave action that we were seeing around the rest of the ship. Some folks on board were getting ill, but we were doing fine.

By the time dinner rolled around, we were pretty excited. I got my tux on, decided on the Yellow-spotted tie, Sasha put her new dress on, Black with Green accents, and Yulia had a smashing Red dress. I picked out a 1998 Bordeaux from our wine case, and we headed to the Forward Restaurant, La Fontaine.

It is pretty neat to see the whole ship dressed up, though most folks think “Formal” means “cheap tie”, but hey, at least there were no baseball caps. Without a doubt, Yulia was the best looking woman in the restaurant. She literally was stared at while we were escorted to our table. We called the Sommelier over and asked him to decant our wine. He had to run over the the culinary center to fetch a decanter, since no one else was bringing any wine worth decanting. He approved of the 98 Bordeaux, and left us for a great meal.

Dinner was fantastic, we have felt really fortunate with the food on this cruise. The desert was cool as well, Sasha got little pastries that looked like swans, Yulia had a nice tort, and I had a Baked Alaska variant.

After dinner we went back the the theatre to hear the Captain’s toast and introduction to the crew. It was fun up until the point where the show started again with the Broadway rejects, and we ran from the theater screaming with our ears bleeding. We again took refuge in the Piano Bar

Not bad for a full day at sea. Juneau is next.

Anchors Away!

July 3, 2010 Comments Off

Tired.

We are finally back in our room after a busy first day boarding the ship. The ship left port at 4pm, but we had go be in line to get through registration by noon. Our last cruise experience taught us that if you aren’t early, you are seriously late. There is no “just on time”.

I had pre-registered us for the trip online before we left. All our bags had the pre-printed tags, all the Passport information was entered, I had even written in to confirm that we could bring our own wine on the trip. I had looked over the ship’s wine list and it was fairly middle range stuff, at high range prices. Walking through the checkin carrying a wooden wine box tied up with rope as a handle got me noticed.

Our only hangup was Yulia’s Passport, which has a typed date extension that the computers never pick up. Once we had them hand enter that date, we were good to go.

Our room was aftward on the port side, we had a fantastic verandah with a view of the marina as we left. The room was big for on a ship (which is to say small but with smart use of space). We were two decks below the main buffet. We went up to grab lunch and found that the crew was handing food to people from the buffet, instead of self serve. They explained that they did this for the first two days to prevent the spread of any GI illness that someone might bring onboard.

Made sense. It also keep people from pigging out and wasting so much food.

We toured the ship, finding the pools, sports decks, kids deck, spa, showroom, and main office. It’s a pretty big ship but not gigantic. At the dock we were moored next to the Princess Line ship, which was much larger, but we were recommended against that line and suggested Holland America instead. Since Holland America allowed us to bring wine and prices did not, that was going to pay for itself quick. And our ship was a lot less crowded.

For Departure they had a big BBQ on the Lido deck, with a band, food, and drinks specials. Mixed drinks were a pretty good price so we sat with a few mojitos, listened to the music, and watched the ship pull out. It was smooth cruising out of Seattle, and up Puget Sound out to the Straight of Juan De Fuca. We were really happy with the ship.

We signed Sasha up for the Kids section. This place had some xBoxes, games, and was kind of a mixer so the kids could meet. Sasha hung out a bit, but wasn’t in the mood to hang out. We all went down and found a piano bar, with the guy at the piano playing Billy Joel requests.

Epic Win.

We grabbed a couple glasses of champagne, and sang along for a bit. Naturally, I requested “Piano Man” and he challenged us to “fill in the blank” on the words. Of course, no one but me spoke up, however, I knew all the words. It was good. After that we checked out the opening night show. Apparently, overacting broadway wash-ups are the new black. We managed to last 5 minutes before we had to leave the theater.

After that we spent the remainder of the evening in the book lounge, watching the waves outside.

This should be a fun trip.

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