June 06, 2016

The Trip Home

I wake before my alarm goes off at 7:00. The ship is already docked in Vancouver, British Columbia. The last items are packed away, and I go for breakfast, my last meal on the ship. The buffet is very busy, but the staff is prepared today and everything works smoothly. Turn around days are the hardest on the staff because of all the extra work getting rid of one set of passengers, readying the ship, and greeting a new set.

At 9:00 we head to the gangway, luggage in tow. The process is painless. I learned many years ago how to navigate an escalator with two suitcases in tow. The one I never figured out is how to climb stairs with two suitcases, but we encounter no stairs. Canadian immigration process consists of collecting a form. No interview, no questions, they don't even want to see if I have a passport, not to mention look at it.

Finding the luggage storage facility is easy. There is a line of passengers using the service. It takes about 20 minutes to get the group's 23 pieces of luggage checked. How to get out of Pacific Place is another matter. We are directed the wrong way by the first person we asked. Our second attempt is successful. Once outside, the group disperses to engage in different activities until we meet again at the airport at 7:00 PM to claim our luggage and check in for our various flights back to the USA.

I head to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, one of the best rated tourist attractions in Vancouver. The free shuttle bus from Pacific Place is a bonus. The bridge is fun, especially if you are a people watcher. Kids try to make it sway, some adults are scared out of their minds. They think it is bad going across, and probably don't realize they have to cross the bridge a second time if they ever want to go home again. A couple of hours here is enough for me to see everything. The bus takes some of us back to Pacific Place, others will return later.

After a lunch at Subway, I buy a ticket for the Hop On Hop Off Bus. The route takes me around the city including several stops in Stanley Park, a thousand acre park in the city, much of it native woodlands. The bus eventually brings me back to Pacific Place.

Vancouver definitely is a city where one could spend a few days. We were fortunate in that the weather was absolutely perfect, sunny skies and temperatures in the low 70's. An unusual phenomena for Vancouver.

I eventually head to the train station about a block away to find a train to the airport. Instructions are clear, I purchase my $2.70 CAD ticket, and follow the signs. Modern clean trains run about every 7 minutes during rush hour on a Friday night. After about a 30 minute ride I am in the airport looking for the luggage company. Downstairs and a few hundred foot walk, it is easy.

Checking in with United is fairly quick. Metal detectors at the security checkpoint do their usual thing and set off bells and whistles as I approach. Eventually I am cleared.

Our 10:50 PM flight to Chicago is smooth. Some passengers are able to sleep, but not me. I never have been able to sleep on a plane. I think the engine noise is just too much.

Because of the late departure, we are not able to clear US customs in Canada, but must do so in the US.

We land at Chicago's International Terminal. At customs and immigration there are tempermental kiosks that take our picture and attempt to compare them with our passport photos. There are only 2 agents, and a plane from Mexico unloaded just before us. It takes about 30 of 40 minutes, we claim our luggage and immediately give it back to United for our flight to Orlando.

Of course our next flight leaves from the terminal as far away from the international terminal as one can get and still be at the airport. After the shuttle tram it is still a long walk. I already have a boarding pass, so I don't need to check in with United, but do need to be processed by TSA again. While I am waiting for my usual "additional processing" a cigarette lighter falls off the baggage conveyor belt. TSA is in panic, "There was an explosion in the luggage X-Ray....", an exaggeration that brings everything to a screeching halt.

Despite the long distances and the delays, I make it to the gate about 10 minutes before boarding. We leave the gate and taxi to near the end of the runway, and then turn back towards the gate. A water leak has been discovered in the forward galley. We need to go back to a gate and have a mechanic look at it.

About an hour and a half later we are on our way to Orlando. The captain pushes the jet at maximum speed and makes up some of the lost time. No matter how you cut the pie, this plane is going to be late for the rest of the day.

About 3:00 Saturday afternoon I am back home. Over 30 hours with no sleep. I'm getting too mature for this. (I don't like the "O" word!) I don't unpack, I hit the shower and then nap for about 5 hours. Hopefully within a few days my internal clock will be back to normal. No trips for at least a few months, time to finish a railroad before the NMRA National Convention in Orlando next summer.

At the moment my next cruise is October 22 on MSC Divina for 2 weeks. Pictures from this trip will be posted in a few days.

Day at Sea

This is our last day on the ship. We turned our clocks ahead one hour last night. I think I am being smart, and wait until 10:30 to have breakfast. The windjammer closes for breakfast at 11:00 and I expect it to be nearly empty. Well I got that one wrong. It takes a walk around the room twice before I find a table. For some reason they have shut down some of the serving stations even though many people are waiting in lines for food. Actually I know the reason, they schedule by the clock not by customer demand. It is 10:30, so we shut down half of the service. Period.

I find my family in the Solarium, they report the water is really too cold to enjoy. I had no intentions of swimming in Alaska and didn't even bring a suit. Plans are made to meet for dinner at 5:30. They also want to carry off luggage in Vancouver instead of having the ship handle it. It certainly is quicker, and I tell them that is fine with me as long as someone can lug my second suitcase if needed.

Even though we get off the ship in the morning, our flight isn't until 11 PM. We plan to tour Vancouver during the day, doing what, depends on the weather when we get there. Vancouver isn't known for great weather. Adrienne, my oldest daughter, has found a luggage service that will accept our luggage at the ship dock, transfer it to the airport, store it for the day, and have it available for us to pickup at the airport in the evening.

Dinner reservations have been confirmed for 13 at 5:30. Not an easy task, but Royal gets it done. Unfortunately it is then learned that starting about 6 PM we pass through a strait where often there are many whales sighted. At least our table is next to the window so we may see some more whales. I don't remember if I mentioned this earlier, if I did, read about it again. Some of the fishermen in Alaska have been caught off guard this year because the salmon have started running two to three weeks earlier than ever before and many fishermen didn't have their boats ready or in the water.

It is suspected that the seals and whales are also making an early appearance this year, because of the warmer weather over much of the world.

Yes, some whales are spotted during dinner. I get a soft drink at the Champagne Bar after dinner and soon depart to the cabin to pack.

Ketchikan Alaska

Ketchikan Alaska is our last Alaskan port on the Radiance of The Seas. As we arrive at 9:00 AM the temperature is about 50, the skies very cloudy with some rain. The sun manages to peek thru for a few minutes. When I prepare to leave the ship for my "Bering Sea Crab Fisherman's Tour" it is pouring, fortunately I only have to walk about 10 yards between the covered gangway of the ship, and the covered gangway to the Aleutian Ballad fishing vessel.

This ship was featured in the early seasons of Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch. The ship was almost lost twice in it's history, once when a 90 foot wave knocked her over on her side and all hands had to abandon ship in the icy Bering Sea. The second time she ran aground and ripped holes thru much of the bottom. Several years ago she was refitted at a cost of about three million dollars to carry tours out of Ketchikan Harbor, her commercial fishing days behind her.

The staff on the ship relate many personal stories and tragedies from their years of crab fishing in the icy Alaskan waters. They give demonstrations of setting and pulling crab pots, and long lines. They work in cooperation with a sovereign Indian Nation, and everything they catch is released back into the water. The neatest part of the tour was when dozen's of eagles flew nearby to take fish thrown into the water by the crew. I promise, pictures will be posted as soon as I can.

The owner of the ship still owns a quota for king crab, but he leases that license to another operator, and spends his summer running his tour operation and talking with tour passengers. Personally, now knowing more about the dangers and conditions the crab fisherman work under, I think he has made a smart move,.

I didn't consciously set out to do this, but I now realize much of this trip touched on the locations of various TV shows. I traveled the "haul road" stopping at Coldfoot, an often featured location on "Ice Road Truckers". I rode the Alaska Railroad nearly 500 miles from Fairbanks to Seward. The TV show "Alaska Railroad" covered operations on this same route, and today my tour was on the Aleutian Ballard, featured in Deadliest Catch, rounding out my inadvertent ties to TV. And I must add, our entertainer the other night, Bobby Arvon, sang the theme song for the TV show Happy Days for many years, a show I never watched.

Earlier I had mentioned that there of 13 of us together on this cruise. We all had dinner together the first night, and I haven't seen any of them again until this afternoon. We are planning on having dinner again tomorrow night, the last evening of the cruise.

I imagine there are a few of you that have missed stories about strange passenger behavior. Well I am happy to report there really has been nothing worthy of writing about. Yes there was one person in the Windjammer buffet in pajamas early this morning, but that has been about it.

The ship is sold out, all cabins are occupied. The food and service has been good. The only glitch I have had is room keys. Here it is the sixth day and I am on key # 4. Maybe my surgeon slipped in some magnets when he installed my replacement joints, I don't know. They are supposed to be titanium, but whatever they are made of, they set off the metal detectors each time I board the ship. I'm pretty used to this by now as it happens often.

Tomorrow is a "sea day" in the context we don't dock. Actually most of an Alaskan cruise takes place on the inside passage, or close to land, not what you would call "out to sea". The ship has barely rocked at all.

Icy Strait Point

We arrive at Icy Strait Point at 6:30 AM. Initially I didn't think I would get off the ship today, but after seeing how close everything was I decided I might never be here again, so I should.

Icy Strait Point is a private development built strictly for the cruise ships that stop here. Many years ago the site supported a commercial salmon canning operation. Long after the cannery closed, about 10 years ago, numerous tours were created for cruise ship passengers. The ships anchored in the bay and had to tender to the dock.

In March of this year a new dock was completed for cruise ships to eliminate the tendering process. Because the completion date of the dock was uncertain there have only been a limited number of ships this season,. Many more ships are already scheduled for next year. The dock can only handle one ship at a time. When we departed at 3:15 PM, a few minutes late because two passengers were late returning to the ship, the Celebrity Infinity was waiting to take our place.

The stop offers dozens of tours from zip lines to whale watching, to nature walks and fishing. The old cannery has been turned into a museum, and of course there is a large shopping area and several places to dine, fresh salmon being a featured item. In the nearest town, about 4 miles away, natives are carving totem poles for a new National Park Service visitors center in Glacier Bay. All work is being done by hand with no power tools, and so far the carvings have taken five years. The visitors center is being built as needed to accommodate the massive totem poles.

Eagles are frequently sighted flying overhead, and seals and whales can be seen swimming past the docked ship. Definitely a stop where the beauty of nature has priority over shopping.