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August 11-August 18, 2006, Alaska Cruise, Royal Caribbean, Vision of the Seas
On August 10, the day before we were scheduled to leave on a flight bound for Seattle, a terrorist threat was uncovered in London.
I had been packing all week and was ready to go, using two suitcases and a hanging suitbag, plus one carry-on. Because of the terrorist threat, the security level was raised to orange in the United States, and rules changed regarding what items could be taken onboard an airplane in a carry-on.
I was a bit frazzled at this point, just because of the anticipation of the upcoming vacation, and the last minute packing change. I brought out another small suitcase and re-packed some things. Lip gloss, gels, lotions were no longer allowed in carry-ons. When we went on our Panama Canal cruise in 1999, the airline managed to lose one of our suitcases and I wasn't happy with the prospect of giving them the opportunity to lose 4 cases!
We left early for the airport...our friends came to our house at 5:30am, and we drove to Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. No traffic, and we arrived at the parking about 6:20am. By the time we got our luggage out of the truck and took the shuttle to the airport, it was 6:40am. We originally stood on line for about 5 minutes, outside the airport, expecting to check our luggage, but I was sure the line was for Southwest only, and we were flying Alaska. Asked both of the guys to go to the front of the line and check, and sure enough, Alaska Airlines was conducting check-in inside the terminal. Any suitcase weighing over 50 lbs is charged a $25 fee, up to 75 lbs...more, if it weighs more. My one suitcase weighed in at 61 lbs. The girl checking us in brought back one of my suitcases and asked me to re-arrange my clothes so everything would weigh less than 50 lbs. I had been watching when she was weighing the suitcase, and asked her (very nicely) to weigh it once more, WITHOUT her foot on the scale. The same suitcase now weighed 44 lbs. Whew! There was a somewhat long line waiting to go through the security checkpoint, and the sign said there would be a 15 minute wait. However, it went very quickly and we were through in about 5 minutes. A breeze, and the flight was uneventful.
We arrived in Seattle at 10:30am, picked up our luggage, which took a full hour(!!!), and headed outside for the Shuttle Express to take us to the port. The ride took about a half hour. We had all our paperwork filled out in advance, so check-in was quick. The only problem with the check-in was when I asked for re-confirmation that the gratuities would be on our credit card. The girl assured me they would be, and we could adjust them up or down as we wished. Later on, we found out that in order to actually have the gratuities automatically on your credit card, you need to see the Purser and have that arranged. One of the remarks I left on my comment card at the end of the cruise was that they need to let the check-in people know that gratuities need to be arranged.
We walked onboard, and down one level to the 4th floor. The Centrum (middle lobby area) is beautiful with a very large metal sculpture, a lot of glass, and the elevators in that section are very fast (not so with the other elevators). We had a window cabin on one side of the ship, and our friends had a matching cabin on the other side of the ship, same floor. The room was very nice, however, there was not enough storage space for suitcases and clothes. I've never had a problem with this before, and I actually packed a lot lighter than I normally would on a 7 day cruise, so I was somewhat disappointed with that. One suitcase had to remain on the couch, packed, and a small suitcase had to remain on the side table next to my side of the bed, packed. I was able to unpack one suitcase and the suitbag, and put things away in the closet. I brought a electric outlet strip with me and plugged in my cell phone, camera, curling iron, hubby's shaver, and our electric toothbrush. My friend decided not to bring an outlet strip, and ran out of battery for her camera during the trip...had to purchase a new one, and it wasn't cheap in Skagway.
Our cabin steward, Jay from the Phillipines, knocked on our door and introduced himself. He had us both sit down in front of him on the bed, facing him, and I got the feeling he was going to rail in to us for something we did wrong! My hubby, Ray, said he had the same feeling. He was a little difficult to understand, so I found myself asking him questions a number of times. He was excellent in his job. As it turns out, everything was always done before we had to request anything, but we rarely saw him.
We explored the ship before it left Seattle, and took quite a few pictures of the Seattle skyline. We started out on a walk around the upper deck, but I only made it a few feet before I saw a clothing sale, located around the pool. My group had lost me at that point, and found me buying a new, warm, Alaska jacket. Can't pass up a sale! Muster was at 4:30pm, and I thought it went very well, except that they lined us up on the sunny side of the ship, we were squeezed in tight, and it was hot. Our life vests were marked with the number 10, and there were three people standing in our group with different numbers. The staff wanted those three people to go to their groups, and all three put up a fuss...they wanted to stand with their friends. This is the only time the staff asks us to be serious and learn something in the case of an emergency, and I thought these people were just doing their best to be obnoxious.
On to the cruise: We were supposed to launch at 5:00pm, and didn't actually get going until abou 5:40pm. We later found out (many were talking about it, but I don't know if it was true or not) that they had a number of people late because of the flights being delayed, plus quite a few people had cancelled because of the terrorist threat. Like I said, I don't know iof that was true, but there were many seats left empty at the 8:30pm late seating for dinner. The waiters were told it was because people had cancelled.
We had helped ourselves in the Windjammer for lunch when we first got onboard, but we were already in "FULL SPEED AHEAD EATING MODE" by the time the ship actually got under way. Right after the ship left, we headed to the 9th floor for ice cream...just a little something to hold us over until 8:30pm dinner. After ice cream, we just took a walk through the Windjammer looking for fruit, but of course, the desserts were calling. I hadn't been on the ship more than 3 hours, and could already feel the clothes getting tighter!
We managed to hold off eating anything more after that until dinnertime, where we met our table-mates in the Aquarius Dining Room, on the 4th floor. There were two other couples, all four were friends. One couple was from Washington, D.C., and the other couple lived in the Los Angeles area. We enjoyed their company very much, and will keep in touch by email. Our waitress was Zerrin, a girl in her late 20's, from Turkey. She just got married 3 months ago to one of the head-waiters, Villi. She has 4 more months on her contract, as does he, and then they intend to go back to Turkey and start their lives together. She was a sweetheart, and did an excellent job for us.
The entertainment onboard the first night was a comedian, Louis Johnson. A quick routine, and he was going to do another show a different night. We missed his second show, but he was very good. Also, the cruise directors are a husband and wife team, John and Katrina Blair, and they were very good. He sang pretty well (as well as can be expected...I've been known to complain about how bad the cruise director on a Carnival ship sang!). There was also an Elvis impersonator who sang one song, but we weren't impressed. We didn't go back to see the night he did an entire show.
The food onboard was wonderful, plentiful, and always a beautiful presentation. We were at sea all day on Saturday, and we ate like there was no tomorrow. Saturday was the only day we ate in the dining room for breakfast. We seemed to enjoy the Windjammer for breakfasts and lunches more than the dining room. It was cloudy and cool (about 56 degrees), and not many people sitting by the outdoor pool. I was also surprised that the indoor pool, the Solarium was never crowded. That was reserved for people 16 and older, so there were not kids around. Saturday night was our first formal night and pictures were taken. The photographer that came around to the table was a little strange. We told him we were a group of 4 and would like a picture of the 4 of us, but he insisted on taking separate pictures of us all. My husband and I did get a picture taken of the two of us, but that was it. Later, on the second formal night, all 8 of us wanted our picture taken together, and the photographer walked away from us when we requested that...we all had our own cameras anyway, so had our waitress take the picture and it came out very nice. The entertainment that night was Tony Tillman...an excellent showman, who used to work with Sammy Davis Jr, and did a lot of his act. We really enjoyed the show. Saturday night there was a time change back one hour, so we gained an hour of sleep.
On Sunday morning we were scheduled for Juneau, and our first excursion. We all met for breakfast, and then got off the ship for our white water rafting trip down the Mendenhall Glacier. We arrived in Juneau at 11:00am, and our excursion was scheduled soon after that, so we were the first ones off the ship. We were driven to the rafting area in a bus, which took about a half hour. My husband and I had done this excursion 12 years before on our first Alaskan cruise, and all those years I had been saying I'd never do it again. When the time had come to book the excursions, that was the first one I booked! My friend was very nervous about doing this, but I tried to keep her calm. When we got to the place, they immediately outfitted us with rubber overalls, a slicker with a hood, and high boots. Underneath all that we were wearing heavy winter coats. The last time we had done this, the company had two different types of rafts...one with metal sides, where the trip was pretty easy going, and the regular rubber raft. This time, they only had the rubber rafts, which makes the trip much more adventurous. There were ten of us in the raft. I told the guide right off the bat that I wanted to sit in the back, and have no responsibility. Meaning, I didn't want to row. Turns out only the guide was going to row. The last time we did this, everyone had an oar, but they lost so many oars, they decided to change the way they handled it. The four of us sat on the plank in the back of the raft, directly behind the guide. He was sitting on a ice chest that was tied down to the raft. There was just a small bar to hold on to under the plank, and I didn't feel comfortable, nor safe holding on to that, so I grabbed on to the belt that was holding down the ice chest. I figured the guide wasn't going anywhere! By this time we were already cold, and our hands were wet...pretty uncomfortable, but the ride was just starting. We hadn't moved more than a few feet and my girlfriend screamed! This was going to be some trip! There were a number of ice glaciers broken off in the water (the temperature of the water was 36 degrees), and we figured the guide would maneuver around them. Instead, he purposely went right into one to show it to us. Hmmmm, what about puncturing the raft? We continued on and finally we came to the river, and the rapids. It was so super-exciting, but scary! Whitewater rapids have a grading system and these rapids are grade 3...i.e.: Class 3: Whitewater, medium waves, maybe a 3-5ft drop, but not much considerable danger. May require significant manuevering.(Skill Level: Experienced paddling skills). The entire trip took us about an hour, and we enjoyed it very much...we warned the guide beforehand that both my friend and I would most likely be screaming, and he was okay with that. He told us he expected to hear screams behind him! We didn't disappoint him.
After the rapids we were treated to a light snack in the lodge, and then headed back to the ship. Our friends took a walk through Juneau later on in the day, we had done that before, so spent time lounging around on the ship. The entertainment that night was Brad Cummings, a comedy ventriloquist...very funny, terrific show. We departed Juneau at 11:00pm.
Day 4: We arrived in Skagway at 7:00am, and again, we all had breakfast together in the Windjammer. We then split up, and our friends did the White Pass Railroad excursion with a side trip of panning for gold and attending a salmon bake in Liarsville. While they enjoyed the scenery on the railroad trip, they did not like the panning nor the salmon bake, and would not recommend it.
Before our excursion, my husband and I took a walk into Skagway, shopped a little, saw salmon swimming upstream in the creek, and just enjoyed the little town.
A little while later we headed for a Musher's Camp to go dog-sledding. The bus driver was a retired airline pilot, and had no tolerance for children. There were 5 small kids on the bus, and while they were talking throughout the bus trip, they were very well behaved. The bus driver stopped talking every time the kids started talking, and once in awhile he turned around to them and told them they were rude. They weren't. But, we did learn a lot about Skagway in spite of him. We all arrived at the camp and a van picked us up, took us up a hill, and to the dog sleds. Each sled has 16 dogs pulling it. There were 4 adults, 3 children plus the guide in our sled. Since there was no snow, they pulled us along on a dirt road for a mile. It was so exciting and fun being pulled by dogs! I wish we could have kept on going. Afterwards we met Sebastian, a German man who has run in the Iditerod four times, and another race twice. He lives in the Yukon with his 117 dogs, and his nearest neighbor lived 5 miles away but moved because of the dogs. He has no running water and no electricity, however, he hooks up a long cable at the camp and has a laptop, which he uses to buy everything he owns....his dog food, his truck, whatever medicines he needs for his dogs. He never takes his dogs to a vet...he has learned how to care for them himself. He was so interesting to listen to, and after his speech, he asked if we had any questions. I made the mistake of asking how he kept warm in -50 degrees, while he was in a race. He said he was happy I asked that and had me go up to the front of the stage. He put a very long, warm coat on me, a hat made of bear skin, with the fur attached, mittens made the same way, and he had very heavy boots. I actually started feeling quite warm wearing all this paraphanelia. After Sebastian's presentation, we were able to see the Husky puppies, hold them, pet them, take pictures. They were so beautiful. We really enjoyed this excursion and would definitely recommend it.
We departed Skagway at 8:30pm. Dress was 'smart casual' for the evening, and many people don't seem to understand what that means. There were people dressed in everything from jeans to evening gowns. Hubby opted for Dockers and a nice shirt, and I wore Gauchos and a sweater. I figured we were 'smart', and 'casual'.
Day 5: Our next day was spent in Icy Strait, Alaska. It was cloudy and 57 degrees, but the sun came out during the day and it was beautiful. We arrived at 7:00am and the guys headed out on their excursion at 7:30am to go salmon fishing. They each caught salmon and halibut, and the salmon has been filleted, smoked, and sent home. I expect to see a package this week. They had a very good time on their excursion.
The girls went to Icy Strait Point and were met by the owner of a restaurant who showed them how to fillet salmon and halibut, gave them some recipes for dips, rubs and marinades, and then we were able to cook and smoke our own fish. When we got back to the table after our cooking lesson, there was a feast in front of us. The fish we cooked, along with a crab, beans, cole slaw, salads, fruits, etc. There was so much food, we couldn't finish it all, and it was delicious. There really wasn't too much else to do in Icy Strait Point, so this turned out to be a very good excursion, since we both like to cook.
Departure was at 4:00pm, and we needed to change our clocks forward one hour that night. The entertainment was hilarious...Wilde and Haines who have performed on Comedy Central, MTV, Showtime and HBO. We enjoyed the show very much.
Day 6: We were at sea all day going through the Granville Channel on our way to Victoria. While the weather was supposed to be cloudy with a temperature of just 51 degrees, it turned out to be a warm, sunny day and we were all able to enjoy being outside. One of the nicest things they did on the ship that day was to have a Parade of Flags. Staff members from all the different nations paraded around the pool holding their nation's flags, and we all got to cheer, take pictures, etc. Hubby and I also entered into a ping pong tournament. I was elminated in the first round, but the guy I played was a ringer! He brought his own ping pong paddle (protected in a case!) onboard with him. I, on the other hand, only get to play ping pong once a year, when I'm cruising! I felt I did pretty well up against him, only losing by 5 points! My hubby got to the last round, and came up with a silver medal. He also lost to a man who has a ping pong table at home and plays all the time. However, I did remind my hubby that coming in second means you are the FIRST LOSER!!!
This was the second formal dress night, and pictures were taken again. Again, we all brought our cameras to dinner and took our own pictures, and were very pleased with them. The photographer had a hard time understanding us and vice versa.
There was a lot of dancing in the evening. There was a group of 26 people onboard who belong to http://www.dancersatsea.com These are people who come from all over the U.S., and schedule many different cruises during the year. It was such a pleasure watching them all dance, but when they did, they took up the entire dance floor. Hubby and I got up to dance a number of times and ended up laughing quite a bit because we weren't doing the dips, the choreographed steps, etc. We enjoyed being with that group...it was almost like having bonus entertainment.
Day 7: Victoria Canada. We arrived at noon and watched the ship dock. At 12:30pm, we all got off the ship for our excursion to Butchart Gardens. We were to have a picnic lunch on the grounds, and I was expecting a sandwich, potato chips and a soda. The tour bus guide told us that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip had this same lunch served to them when they visited. I whispered to my hubby that I think they weren't going to include any potato chips! They ushered our group to a beautifully manicured lawn, and everyone around us watched as we headed towards ten red and white checked tablecloths, arranged on the lawn, with a large picnic basket holding down each of the four corners. Inside each one was a spinach salad with raspberry vinagrette dressing, a shrimp cocktail, a chicken dish with grilled veggies, and a dessert tray that rivaled the ship's desserts. A bottled water finished off the items in the picnic basket, and someone came around and asked if we'd like wine, or champagne. The lunch was wonderful, delicious and plentiful...we couldn't finish it all (I made sure I had room for the desserts and cheeses). After our lunch we had about an hour and a half to just roam around the grounds as we wished, and I took pictures of all the beautiful gardens and flowers. My garden at home looks just like that, except for the brown leaves! I've never seen such a wonderful place.
We left Butchart Gardens and headed for Craigdarroch Castle. The castle is located near the downtown harbor and was built in the 1890's by Robert Dunsmuir, a coal baron, and the richest man in Victoria. He wanted his wife to come with him to Victoria, and promised her he would build her a castle if she accompanied him. The house has 87 stairs, 4 1/2 stories high and 39 rooms. A year before he finished building the castle, Robert died, and his wife and children moved in themselves...his two sons finished building the castle for their mother. It was quite a place to see...the original stained glass is still in the house, and the view from the tower is overlooking Victoria.
After this we headed to the harbor for a few minutes before returning to the ship, and we were able to take pictures in front of the famous Empress Hotel.
That night we had dinner (casual dress), and then went to karaoke for awhile and laughed. We went back to the room and packed after that, and again, it was a little more challenging because of the airline restrictions. We put three suitcases out to be checked, and kept the small one and our carry-on with us overnight. In the morning, when we were getting ready to get off the ship my husband noticed he couldn't find his wallet. No panic, I still had the passports in my posession, but it wasn't a good feeling, not knowing where that wallet was.
We headed to the Some Enchanted Evening lounge after a last breakfast in the Windjammer, to wait for our tour group to be called. We had decided to take a bus tour of Seattle that morning, and then they would drop us off at the airport later on. In order to do this we had to schedule a flight after 1:00pm. Our flight was scheduled for 3:00pm. We were one of the first groups called to disembark the ship, and we made our way to our suitcases immediately, where hubby found his wallet in the back pocket of the pants he wore the night before. Whew! We both breathed a sigh of relief, and everything went smoothly from then on. We were very surprised we only had to present our claim documentation, but we never had to show our passports, even though we were re-entering the United States.
The bus took us to the Seattle Space Needle, and we were able to go to the top and take pictures of the city, then it continued on and gave us a tour of the city. I was disappointed the bus tour didn't stop at Pike Place Market (we have been there before and wanted our friends to see it). I would have opted for seeing the market as opposed to a tour of the various buildings around Seattle. The bus did get us to the airport around 1:30pm, and the lines were long for check-in. This time each of my suitcases weighed in at 44 lbs. Our friends' suitcase weighed over 60 lbs, and they paid the fee....I think it was the way they packed, though, because they didn't buy anything more than we did. We had time for a leisurely lunch in the airport (had to throw away our water bottles that we brought in to the airport before going through security, then on the other side of security, they were selling all types of drinks, lotions, gels...everything everyone had to throw away). Our trip home was uneventful.
In summary, the cruise was wonderful. I would definitely recommend the white water rafting and the dog-sledding. The captain told us they hadn't seen sun for weeks, and we were very lucky to have had such great weather. The food was great, the service spectacular, and the ship was beautiful...everything very centrally located. If you ever have the chance to sail on the Vision of the Seas, go for it...it was a wonderful vacation.