Thursday, July 27, 2017

Outside Passage and Home Again

Leaving Sitka, we turned south to complete our round trip in Seattle after sailing the Outside Passage.  The Outside Passage is the open ocean to the west of the many islands and archipelagos which make up the Western coast of Canada and Alaska.  First, however, we stopped at Prince Rupert (PR) in British Columbia.  PR has only recently begun a push for the cruise trade, having built a new cruise ship dock and enlisted many friendly volunteers to greet the arrivals with maps and information.  I had a pleasant walk around.  The Museum of Northern B.C. is full of well-displayed and interesting information on the history of the area.  A long walk down the waterfront ends in a very pleasant Rotary Waterfront Park.  Rotary has spent much of its energies creating pleasant parks in small towns throughout the world.  The park contains a rebuilt train station from the early 1900’s.   Like many other Alaskan cruise ports, the stop offers various wildlife and nature tours...not really a whole lot to do in town. 

The final day of a cruise is always a bit bitter sweet.  Our last day was at sea in glass-smooth waters with the flukes of many whales visible in the distance.  It was a day to wander the ship, say good-bye to new friends, and try to finish the book you took out of the library the first day.  We had our final dinner in Tuscana, one of the specialty restaurants.  Just like in The Polo Grill, the other specialty restaurant, the best dish turned out to be Colorado lamb.  I wish they didn’t ship all our good lamb out of state, but it commands a premium price.  The last chore was organizing and packing to get suitcases in the hall by 10:00 p.m. and remember to save everything we would need the next day for our hand luggage. 

Starting out fresh on the ship before a
harrowing journey home
The trip home was horrible.  A storm in Denver forced our flight to be diverted to the middle of nowhere (Scottsbluff, Nebraska) to refuel and wait out the storm.  We arrived in Denver to find the airport packed with stranded travelers and all hotels full, so we spent the night on the hard floor with lights glaring overhead and the speakers blaring out announcements every half hour.  We were glad to arrive home!   

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Inside Passage

We awoke on Saturday morning to a gray fog covering small islands on both sides of the ship; we were slowly making our way through what is known as the “inside passage”.  The inside passage route which wends through the many islands off the coast of Canada and Alaska is probably one of the best known and most popular of cruise routes.  Starting in Puget Sound in Washington and then extending north, first along the British Columbia Coast and then the Alaska Panhandle, it was used during the Klondike Gold Rush to carry prospectors north from Seattle and California.  Our aft-facing stateroom offered the perfect place to view beautiful scenery on both sides of the ship.

We spent our first day at sea.  The slow pace of a sea day gave us the opportunity to explore the ship and slow ourselves down to a cruise pace after the frenetic activity of packing and travelling.  We have sailed with Oceania before, so the Regatta already felt like home.  Carrying under 700 passengers, it is the perfect size with both room to roam, places to meet new friends and socialize, and space to find some quiet and privacy.  

Creek Street, Ketchikan
Our first stop was Ketchikan, but we didn’t dock until the afternoon, so I took advantage of the morning to complete my transition to vacation with a massage.   It rains almost every day in Ketchikan so we felt lucky to have only one small drizzle during our stay.  We found perfect refuge in a seafood bar.

The third day was a highlight of our voyage with passage through the narrow and magnificent Tracy Arm Fjord.  Enclosed by high cliffs, our journey was rewarded at the end of the narrow passage by the sight of Sawyer glacier.  Again, our aft stateroom offered the perfect viewing point as we turned and left the glacier (see video above).  Several members of our party remarked that the cliff walls leading into a narrow crevasse reminded them of the box canyon of Telluride. 
Tracy Arm Fjord
Day four we anchored off the small town of Sitka.  A town of only 9,000 inhabitants, it is surrounded (as is most of the mainland we had passed) by the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States.  Sitka has only about 20+ miles of paved road.  It has an interesting history as capital city when the Russians owned Alaska. Going into the town by tender, we booked a nice two-hour tour and viewed grizzlies, rainforest, and totems.

Leaving Sitka, we headed south to waters outside the inside passage…next stop Prince Rupert British Columbia.  A beautiful and tranquil four days transiting the Insides Passage offers a metaphor for a tranquil spirit, which is why we take vacations.  The beautiful Regatta, with its friendly and helpful crew and interesting passengers, tops it all off.  A great cruise!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Scatter-shooting inSeattle

We had a one-day stay in Seattle prior to boarding the Oceania Regatta for a cruise through Alaska's inside passage.  We settled into the Mayflower Park Hotel, a boutique hotel well located in the city center and not far from the cruise dock.  The hotel is one of the oldest in Seattle and it has been beautifully remodeled.

Seattle is a nice city, worthy of more than a one-day visit. But one day was all we had, so here are some general impressions.

Cars.  There are too many and they go too fast.  There were three fender bender accidents along with police cars, closed lanes, and slowdowns, between the airport and downtown.

Boutique hotels.  There are not enough.  It’s nice not to have to worry about points and to see something unique. The Mayflower Park Hotel was an elegant and comfortable place to stay and their bar, Oliver’s, was the perfect watering hole…think Strater Hotel and the Office.
Market Places.  The Pike’s Street Market bustles with people, and supplies a unique mingling of fish, food, and tourist fluff.  Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to shop there.
Coffee.  Thank you, Starbucks!

Homeless People.  They appear to be a problem all over the U.S., not just in Durango. 
Where is FOX news?

A Great America.  We asked the taxi driver if all of the bustle and construction in town was due to our new administration and their efforts to “make America great again.”  “No,” he said, “it’s due to Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, and Starbucks.”  He also said the terrible traffic was due to innumerable people cruising around town hoping to get a Uber commission.

Art and life. I’m for it, and so is Seattle.

Buskers.  I always add a dollar to the pot. Why don’t more homeless people learn to play an instrument?

Chihuley’s Museum and Gardens. I didn’t see a person there who didn’t have a smile on his/her face, especially in the garden.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

North to Alaska

Packing presents perennial problems. It is a test of decision-making and discrimination, a test which I seem to fail every time.  I have enough trouble paring down all the stuff in drawers and closets without having to limit myself to the contents of an 18" x 25" x 10" container for eight days. Inevitably, things come back which haven't been worn and things are missing when I need them.  Packing for a trip seems to be one area of life where learning does not take place, at least for me.  One thing I have learned: a good suitcase with four wheels is an excellent investment and can make life on the move a lot easier.

To further complicate the problem of this packing assignment, we will be cruising the Inside Passage of Alaska, which has its own special needs.  Binoculars are a must for searching the shores for wildlife.  And, for a visit to the state where the national bird is the mosquito, bug spray is another essential.

A final dilemma involves whether to roll or to fold.  My mother introduced me to rolling clothes for a suitcase which saves both on space and wrinkles.  It's the way sailors pack their duffel bags.
This time I'm starting early and expect to for the first time master the art of packing light.  Oh, and it looks like I'll need to get my passport OUT of the suitcase!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Do You Know Who You Are?

Did I get your attention?  I'm positive that you're quite certain of who you are.  More to the point, do governments know who you are?  As the world transforms itself into a lock-down state because of fear, it becomes important to have proper documentation of your identity.  Citizens of the US, with their cherished doctrine of personal freedom, have for years resisted the idea of a national identity card, something that is common throughout the rest of the world.  It appears that resistance has been futile.  The question now remains, what form will a national ID take?

While a Social Security number (SSN) currently functions more or less as a national ID, it is really just a series of numbers issued for tax purposes.  When you are issued the SSN, you are also issued a card, but it's a card that is easily destroyed and more or less easily duplicated.  It's the numbers which are unique to the holder, and the numbers can, and have been, easily acquired by hackers.  Drivers' licenses issued by individual States have generally been an acceptable form of identification for most things, but as more and more states issue drivers' licenses to non-citizens, they are no longer acceptable for all purposes, notably for travel outside the 48 States.  Birth certificates are good and useful, but who walks around with a certified copy of their birth certificate?

It is more important than ever the you have a passport and that you keep it current.  Friends were recently denied boarding on a flight to Europe because their passports expired less than 6 months after the date of their scheduled return.  Other clients of mine have been scurrying about trying to get proper identification documents at the last minute for a cruise to Alaska, roundtrip from Seattle, which called at only US ports.  They found it difficult to understand that merely being in international waters was reason enough to have a passport.  Of the 308 million-plus citizens in the United States, only 30% have passports. Simply your one of them!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Beautiful Budapest

Sailing into Budapest on the Danube ranks second only to sailing into Venice on a cruise ship; it absolutely takes your breath away.  It was cool but clear on the morning of our arrival, and almost everyone braved the sky deck as we approached the city.  Our Tour Director, Eric, pointed out the sites as we sailed along.

Budapest, like Vienna, is worthy of more than one day's visit.  We took the included Avalon city tour in the morning and were driven through the beautiful city divided by the Danube, eventually stopping at the Belvedere on the Buda side to take in the view.
Budapest consists of two cities, Buda on the hilly side which is full of palaces and official buildings, and Pest on the flat side full of shops, offices and homes.  Pest is where most of city life takes place, and our boat was docked just a few short steps from the famous pedestrian Vaci Street.

We had signed up for an afternoon tour to the Hungarian countryside where vineyards flourish and wine is king.  We visited two wineries and tasted their wares altogether spending a great afternoon in the countryside.  One bottle of wine even made it into our luggage and is awaiting Thanksgiving.  Wine makes for good friends and fellowship! We made lots of new friends and acquaintances on our river cruise and would be sorry to see it end, but everyone promised to keep in touch.
A wine cellar in the Etyek wine area of Hungary

Friday, November 4, 2016

Sold on Slovakia

Full disclosure:  I've returned home and must complete this blog from memory.  We returned to bright sun in Durango, but now the weather has turned cloudy and rainy, just the right atmosphere for remembering out river adventure. 

Arrival in Bratislava
The rain abated for our arrival in Bratislava.  Bratislava is a good-sized town to visit.  With a little over 400,000 inhabitants, a pleasant and varied walking area (not all cobbles!), convivial people, and beer which rivals that of the Czech Republic, it suited me.  We entered a bus for a short tour of the city, which was quiet and deserted on a Sunday morning, and drove up the hill to the Bratislava Castle for the view.  Bratislava had been a refuge for the Hapsburgs when the Turks were knocking at the doors of Vienna, but they spent very little time there. 

The Soviet bridge over the Danube
At the castle, we overlooked the Danube where our boat was docked close to the modern bridge constructed by the Soviets as a pride of Communist engineering.  It's know locally as the "flying saucer."  Constructed with no center support in the river, it was the first of a kind.  Unfortunately, however, the Soviets constructed a highway continuing from the bridge which passed with 15 feet of the magnificent St. Stephens cathedral creating a hazard of noise and vibration threatening that landmark.  Beyond the bridge, you can see the many large blocks of Soviet-styled housing where large families often shared 2-3 room flats.  They've been brightened somewhat with designs in bright paint.  Our guide spoke very openly about how happy the young people were that they had been liberated from the Soviet oppression, although she noted that many of the older people wished to return to a society where their jobs and salaries were guaranteed, although there was little to spend money on. She was sympathetic, but she said their attitude was better a warm prison than the unknown risks of freedom. 

A quiet street in Bratislava
Now a member of the European Union, salaries in Slovakia average 1000 Euros a month or less while housing costs around 500 Eros.  Austria is only 14 kilometers away and many people find employment there where annual salaries are more than double those in Slovakia. 

Slovakia broke away from the Czech Republic after the Soviets left because there were two people vying for the position of Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia; they decided to split the country up so they could each have his own country.  Our guide informed us most Slovaks would have preferred to remain with their Czech cousins. 

After lunch on the boat, we walked back into the city to sample Slovak beer and see if it measured up to the well-know Czech product.  It did!

St. Stephen's Cathedral - Bratislava