bbmm at travel agent

okinawa

Met mm at the travel agent’s to get some information about cruises and resorts. Her mum’s doc says she can go on short breaks and it will likely be beneficial. But she can’t go too far away and preferably as little travel hassle as possible. It was the doc who suggested cruises. There are definitely advantages, mostly it’s the minimum amount of travelling and yet she can enjoy going away.

We’re limited by the total number of days, preferably under a week. There are only a few itineraries that fit the criteria. Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan. And the Japan one is only as far as Okinawa. I knew Okinawa is south of mainland Japan but I didn’t realise it’s that far south. It’s nearer to Taiwan. From brief research, it’s mainly a beach resort type of destination.

The Okinawa cruise is on the huge Ovation of the Seas. Over 4000 passengers, 167000 tons. One day at sea, then arriving at Okinawa at 1pm. Stay overnight then leave at 2pm the next day. Another day at sea. Truth be told, it’s an odd itinerary and doesn’t give a lot of time on the island.

We’ll see.

cruise refund

cruiserefund

I emailed my travel agent chasing the cruise refund; it’s been over 2 months since the day of the azipod failure. She emailed back that NCL has processed the cruise part of the refund as well as the future credit. I have a suspicion that she forgot to follow up and only after I prodded her that she contacted the cruise department; or the cruise department dropped the ball. Anyway the refund is for the value of the cruise, just over USD1,000 per person. The disappointing thing is that they didn’t refund port fees, which to me smacks of corporate greed. We didn’t go to those ports, so why do we have to pay the fees? My travel agent agrees too, but short of a class action, there isn’t much I can do about it.

The refund goes towards the additional hotels, car rental and other expenses in Melbourne and New Zealand. I can do the calculation to see if we came out ahead, since I kept track of our spending. But I can’t be bothered. Money spent is money spent. I also have a bunch of credit card points from the original payment; I wonder if I’ll lose them because of the refund.

Mum and I have USD500-ish each to spend on a future cruise, valid for 5 years. It’s not a huge amount, in the scheme of cruise cost. No point booking a cruise just to use it up. We’ll see. I will likely never go on the Star and will recommend no one else does too. Other NCL ships, may be. The service was good, the food was good.

They are still processing the Auckland flight refund, hopefully that will be soon.

cruise trip posts and pics

the cruise trip is written up and posted.

  • day 01: singapore gardens by the bay, east coast food village
  • day 02: singapore to sydney
  • day 03: sydney farmers market, harbour, barangaroo, watsons bay
  • day 04: sydney fish market, darling harbour, harry’s
  • day 05: sydney fish market, embarkation
  • day 06: at sea, eating
  • day 07: melbourne cbd, qvm
  • day 08: melbourne: fitzroy gardens, mcg, docklands
  • day 09: adrift at sea with no propulsion
  • day 10: on tow
  • day 11: st kilda festival, beach, melbourne riverside
  • day 12: melbourne city circle tram
  • day 13: yarra valley fruit farm, winery
  • day 14: melbourne to auckland
  • day 15: rotorua lake, kuirau park
  • day 16: wai-o-tapu geothermal area, waimangu volcanic valley
  • day 17: hobbiton
  • day 18: waiheke island
  • day 19: auckland mission bay
  • day 20: long flights home

flickr sets:

some of the more unusual pics. The markings on this tree at gardens by the bay in singapore looks like a human face:
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door 5, sydney carriageworks market:
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sculpture on waiheke island:
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penguins taking a selfie, waiheke island:
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cruise trip day 20: flight

Checked out at 9.30am, drove to airport, returned car. Total 701km driven this trip.

Finished the remaining fruit we had and did some shopping. Mum bought eye serum and I made friends with the people at the whisky counter. Tried aberfeldy 12 and 18, craigellachie 13 and 19. Bought a 1l bottle of craigellachie 13 for NZD99. Bought some more chocolate.

The only lamb we ended up eating in NZ was the turkish sandwich at the airport. Ah well, we have plenty of NZ lamb at home.

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This was at the airport. The sign says, “On loan from Middle-Earth, Do Not Touch.” Heh.

First flight was almost full. We asked for 2 aisle seats and luckily had empty seats next to both of us. I watched thor 2, edge of tomorrow and a bunch of rizzoli & isles. Food was okay. Chicken thingh and lemon shortcake ice cream for lunch and chicken curry and panna cotta for dinner.

We landed at singapore at 6.40pm. Our next flight is 7.55pm so it’s tight. But of course the gate is at the other end of the terminal! And of course mum’s foot is hurting. We got there during final call, but luckily weren’t the last ones to board. The entertainment system isn’t as extensive as the previous flight, they didn’t have the entire season of rizzoli & isles so I watched veep and part of suicide squad. Dinner was seafood pasta and magnum ice cream. Kept falling asleep.

Arrived 11.45pm, thank god our luggage came out quickly. Taxi home, fruit in fridge, will unpack tomorrow.

cruise trip day 19: auckland

Drove out to the fish market in the morning but only one or two shops are open. Someone told us the market’s closed for earthquake strengthening. That’s a disappointment, we thought we’d have brunch there. The good thing was I got a refund of the NZD4 I paid for parking by buying something — a $4 bottle of apple juice.

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For want of somewhere to go, we drove east towards mission bay. Beautiful views back to the city skyline at okahu bay. Mission bay itself is pretty nice too, a beach with long stretch of sand and plenty of restaurants. Quite hectic even for a monday, can’t imagine how busy it can be at weekends.

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Lunch was mussels. Took longer than expected because they forgot mum’s order of steak. By then we were full from my pot of mussels so we just ordered a smaller pot of mussels. The one with cream sauce was better, and the sauce was perfect for dunking chips. Dessert was ice cream from the movenpick next doors.

Back to the city and we found newcastle, a local shopping area. Walked around, again trying to find somewhere to eat. Not finding anything good, and still full, we went back to our room to finish up all the food we have in the fridge.

cruise trip: day 18: waiheke island

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Since trains aren’t running and there is a lot of parking in the city, contrary to what the motel receptionist told me, we drove out in the morning and parked near the harbour. Long queue to get on the ferry to waiheke island, one of the most popular outlying islands in auckland. The ferry ride was 45mins and apart from a brief heavy shower that got everyone on the ferry soaked, the rest of the day was bright and sunny.

After some faffing around, we got on the #1 bus towards onetangi. I have no idea what to expect or do on the island. There’s a hop-on-hop-off bus, bikes, scooters and car rental. Public transport seems to work better for us.

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Onetangi is a long beach with one café restaurant. I’m glad I bought pies at the ferry terminal and mum brought nectarines. We walked along the beachfront admiring the beautiful houses, then took the bus to the nearby winery district.

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Found a nice secluded table in the tasting area of one of the wineries. Nice views of the vines and olive trees in the garden. Mum ordered sorbets and I had a taste of the rosé and pinot noir. Not earth-shattering. Ordered a full glass of the luna negra malbec. May be the sorbet affected my palette, found the wine too tannic.

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Stopped at oneroa village near the ferry terminal. A few shops, a small grocery and good views.

Ferry ride back to auckland and quickly walked around the cbd. Souvenir shops and saw the sky tower. Not a lot of places to eat though. Either fast food or asian food, neither of which interest us. Went to countdown and bought roast chicken, cooked prawns and ingredients to make dinner back in our room.

cruise trip day 17: hobbiton

tl;dr: I originally planned on missing hobbiton. Big mistake; it was so fantastic.

Originally I wasn’t planning on going to hobbiton movie set because we didn’t have a car and there were only a couple of days in auckland. But with the revised schedule, it was the perfect opportunity to go. One hour from rotorua and 2 hrs from auckland, on the way back to auckland. When I was booking online last night, I was only able to get a slot on the 12.40pm tour. Just as well, it gave us leeway. We had time to stop by a blueberry farm outside of rotorua for frozen yogurt and to sample their stuff. I bought blueberry wine, mum bought chocolate and a punnet of fresh blueberries.

Once we got to hobbiton we asked if they had an earlier slot and found ourselves on the 12pm tour, yay! We joined our guide on the bus for the short journey from the visitor centre area they call the shire’s rest. We quickly learn that the site is part of the alexander farm, still a working farm, and was rebuilt after the film crew left. When filming, the props were made of disposable materials like polystyrene. When they rebuilt, they used permanent materials. Peter Jackson asked the NZ government for financial assistance, but the government wasn’t able to provide $$$ however they sent in the army to help construction. The site attracts an average of 2000 visitors a day and everyone had to join a tour.

Our guide was Nathaniel from the US who is a superfan and extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the entire middle-earth universe. Our group was around 20 people and we discovered 2 fellow Star survivors.

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From the first step into the shire, it was magical. There were plenty of other tour groups so lots of people but it never felt contrived, for want of a better word. So realistic, so obviously a labour of love.

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There were so many hobbit holes they seemed like real homes. Any minute now a hobbit would come out and go about his business. They were built to 75% or 100% scale depending on the needs of the films, to fit the actors in order to emphasise the small stature of hobbits. Most are just façades or with a small empty space behind the door so no, the hobbit holes aren’t real homes. There was still a lot of attention to detail placed on windows, doors, chimneys and gardens. The fishmonger has fish drying outside the door, the baker has loaves of bread, we could see blocks of cheese through the window of the cheesemaker. Real fruit and veg grow in the garden and there are even hobbit-sized clothes lines.

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At the top of the hill is bag end, the baggins residence. Property taxes in the shire are calculated based on number of windows and bag end has the most windows. This is the most complete home because they filmed around its exterior a lot. A little further down is Sam’s house with its yellow door.

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We stopped at most homes, took pictures and imagined living there. The end of the tour went past the mill and onto open views back to the shire.

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There was enough time to stop at the green dragon inn for a complimentary (as in, included in the NZD79 admission) mug of beer or ginger beer. I had the stout, which was very nice. The tour was 2hrs and time totally flew.

Late lunch in the café of sandwiches and we got on the road again towards auckland. We got to the motel around 5.30pm and I was pretty tired by then. If I had to drive another half an hour I would have needed to rest. The receptionist told us not to drive out to the city but to take the train. When we got to the train station we found out trains were being replaced by buses this weekend. The bus got to britomart just in time for us to see the Star depart for the next cruise to singapore. So they had made it from melbourne.

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Dinner was at the crab shack next to the pier. Chaotic waiting process which involved putting our names down then being shunted to the bar. Eventually someone came up to lead us to our table. Long wait to get served too. On the other hand, the food is good. The daily special crab is mud crab, and we also had a small pot of clams and mussels to start. There’s enough crab there for 3 people, they gave us 3 sets of claws and legs. Total silence as we each worked on our portion. Just steamed, nothing fancy, nothing needed.

It was quite late when we finished. We took the bus back and I recognised the location enough to know where to get off. Don’t have a map on me aside from google maps.

cruise trip day 16: wai-o-tapu, waimangu

Torrential rain meant the 20min drive to wai-o-tapu geothermal area was more like 30mins. We timed our arrival to coincide with the 10.15am eruption of the lady knox geyser. Organisation can be better. Everyone got back in their cars to drive over to the geyser carpark at 9.30am, splashed through the mud, watched the geyser and drove back to the main carpark. A mini-traffic jam in the making.

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I would describe the geyser show as underwhelming. A park ranger poured some surfactant into the hole and some steam splurged up. May be 20m high and 10 seconds duration.

The rest of the park made up for it. Wai-o-tapu has the largest area of surface thermal activity in the taupo volcanic zone and we followed the guidemap that showed us 3 walks. Craters, sulphur caves, mud pools and boiling springs could be seen everywhere.

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Artist’s palette is a flat pool with mineral deposits showing different colours at different spots. Green, yellow, orange, grey, white. We could walk on a wooden boardwalk through the area which gave a different perspective. There is sulphur in the air, not overpowering.

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Probably the highlight of wai-o-tapu is champagne pool. 65m in diameter and 62m deep with surface temperature at 73-76ºC. The name comes from bubbles of CO2 that break out on the surface. There are gold, silver, mercury, arsenic, antimony, thallium, sulphur in the water and the distinctive orange deposit at the side is from arsenic and antimony sulphide. And since it’s been a while since I wrote out compound formulae: orpiment As2S3 and stibnite Sb2S3.

waio092oyster

We followed walk 2 down the sacred track to the frying pan flat and oyster pool. Another boardwalk let us close to the natural features. We didn’t stray from the marked paths; signs for 100ºC water warned us of the danger. There were parts where the path met water and when I stuck my hand in the stream the water was cold. Left a sulphide deposit on my fingers though. Told mum not to touch it. I can pour conc H2SO4 from one bottle to another without gloves and without spilling, but it doesn’t mean lay people should do it.

waio113devil

We completed part of walk 3 and headed back to the visitor centre. The last interesting sight was devil’s bath, a crater filled by excess water from the champagne pool. It changes colour from yellow to green depending on light and cloud cover. Today it was green and quite sickly.

We walked for almost 3hrs and every single minute was worth it. The rain had abated somewhat although we were glad we wore our waterproof coat and I borrowed a large umbrella from the motel that acted as walking stick for mum. They charge NZD32.50 for entrance, we had a 10% voucher from the motel and it was well worth it. I was skeptical when I was trip planning, all the geothermal areas charged hefty admission and I realise it’s for maintenance, to keep the area pristine. I also realise that had our cruise went ahead per the original itinerary, we would be stopping at tauranga today and I had booked our own excursion to wai-o-tapu, so we made it.

Lunch was at the café. Pies and I had L&P lemonade.

We had the rest of the afternoon. The option was to go back to rotorua or go to another geothermal area. We found ourselves at waimangu volcanic valley. They offered senior discount, so NZD30 for mum and NZD37 for me.

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The straight route from the visitor centre to lake rotomahana is supposed to be around 2hrs. We made it to echo crater and frying pan lake faster than recommended. May be the same people explored the region, the craters and lakes are all named the same.

wmgu023cathedral

Cathedral rock was originally named Gibraltar rock because of its resemblance to the latter. There was an eruption in 1917 that changed its shape so they renamed it. Steam coming out all around it makes it look like it’s magic.

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Mum didn’t take the steep 60+ step climb to infernal crater lake. It claims to be the largest geyser-like feature in the world even though the geyser itself is hidden beneath the depths. The lake empties and refills every 35 days or so. There’s a hiking trail from inferno lake to other craters but the trail is closed due to mud.

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To save time and energy, we took the bus part of the way to warbrick terrace, formed from silica flowing from the stream. The green colour is due to algae formation.

wmgu081lake

The walk to the lake was unremarkable and would have been more pleasant if we hadn’t walked for hours already. Mum rested while I explored around the lake. We waited for the last bus of the day to take us back to the visitor centre.

Overall, if we had only visited waimangu we would have been disappointed in the area. I didn’t think the entrance fee is worth it and much preferred wai-o-tapu.

Back in rotorua we stopped at a petrol station, hit a souvenir shop (12 kiwi keychains for NZD9.90, and we have a 5% off voucher), and dinner back in our room finishing off the food in the fridge.

cruise trip day 15: rotorua

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Homemade fry-up for breakfast. I didn’t want to leave the b&b, it’s highly recommended.

But onward we go.

It’s three hours to rotorua and it rained the entire time. I’m driving without a map, hahaha. Only have handwritten instructions I copied off google maps. It was pretty straightforward, just follow roadsigns. Thing about A roads in NZ, they don’t have a lot of places to stop. Not talking about service stations, there weren’t even villages on the way with shops or petrol stations. We did stop at around the 2hr mark and arrived in rotorua at around 1.30pm. Stopped at the tourist information centre to get a town map and various leaflets.

Checked into our motel, definitely several grades below the b&b. The whole strip is full of motels, I guess it’s the luck of the draw whether we get a good one. It’s not bad, I’ve stayed in worse but mum clearly wasn’t impressed.

It hadn’t stopped raining but we decided to go out, find something to eat and sightsee a little. Nando’s is following us so we had chicken again; the other options were pub food or asian. NZ nando’s don’t have sweet potato fries, the portugese roll was good.

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Rotorua is situated on lake rotorua, there’s a viewpoint 5mins’ drive from the town centre. It was still raining and hard to distinguish between the sky and the water. Can imagine how pretty it looks when it’s sunny.

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The museum is closed; the building itself an impressive tudor building. It overlooks government gardens, which will be worth visiting in better weather.

On the other side of town is kuirau park. We drove past it on the way in and spotted pockets of steam coming out from behind the trees. There are several hot springs and mud pools in the park. These look the same no matter the weather and we happily walked around looking at each one. To have hot springs and mud pools in your local park, that’s something.

Dining options are limited, or may be we weren’t looking closely enough. We decided to go to countdown and get food to eat in our room. Bought rocket salad, avocado, peach, two flavours of wraps, hummous, pâté, brie, pear paste and wine.

cruise trip day 14: melbourne to auckland

The hotel is separated from the airport terminal by a multi-story car park, but it’s a weaving 10mins walk so we took the hotel shuttle. For some reason I thought the flight didn’t provide food so we bought sandwiches before boarding. I think it’s because I booked via virgin australia which is a sort of budget airline and the flight was operated by air new zealand. Air NZ has the best safety videos, including one set in middle-earth; the newest is called summer of safety.

Arrived at auckland 5.15pm. We breezed through e-passport but it was pandamonium at the luggage belts, there was a long queue and bottleneck to get through customs and we had to fight to even get to our belt. The long lines was for biosecurity, which is even stricter than australia. The agent grinned when I said we bought timtams, and waved us through.

It was great to drive the SUV yesterday, but it cost almost the same as one day’s rental to fill it up when I returned it so I’m glad I opted for a more economical yaris this week. Our b&b hosts had emailed me detailed driving instructions which I wrote out for mum. The drive from the airport through the city to the northern suburb of hillcrest was around 45mins, took us longer because we turned the wrong way and had to go back on the motorway, take the next exit and google map to the destination.

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The b&b is called birdwood house and it’s run by Barbie and David Scott. Absolutely wonderful. Our room is on the 1st floor and comes with its own lounge. Such a romantic setting. The living and dining room downstairs is also beautifully decorated. Very English, down to the bottles of port which we were encouraged to partake.

The hosts gave us a list of places to eat so we headed to the nearby village of birkenhead, found a pub and had the special small plates for dinner: chicken wings, pork belly, arancini, cheesy garlic bread. Many of the shops were already closed and most other eating places were asian or italian food.

To get some peace and quiet, I escaped to our lounge to read. If I could find spare blankets I would have slept on the sofa. Sigh, I really need my own space.

cruise trip day 13: yarra valley

We aimed at getting the 10am shuttle to the airport (5am and 7am were simply too early). A bunch of other people had the same idea so it was a group of anxious people queuing up. The bus was late but it didn’t matter. We all managed to fit on it and we were cheering and clapping as we left the port. Someone said, “we’re free!” It’s been stressful, but it could have been a lot worse if the weather was poor or if they had problems towing the ship. The frustraion is the slowness and lack of communication from NCL. I still don’t know how we’ll get the 100% refund, how the future cruise credit will work and how to get reimbursed for the flight. Plus the Star is now known as the unluckiest cruiseship at sea.

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We got to the airport at 11am, picked up our rental car and headed to yarra valley. The drive itself is around 1hr, but the area is large so it took us a while to find a destination and drive to it. I found a leaflet for rayners orchard and that’s where we headed. Luckily we just missed a coachful of visitors so the place was empty. Peach trees could be seen from the car park, and peaches too, very tempting to just pick them.

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It was that in-between time between lunch and tea. Their café is quite basic, mum had ham sandwich and I had scones. The ham sandwich was really delicious, must be the butter. The scones were great too, normal cream rather than clotted cream. The best part of the meal for me was the tea that was strong and came in a proper teapot. We bought peaches and nectarines from the shop.

Seems to be off-season, several of the other fruit farms we visited were closed. We bought strawberries from a stand and made a few scenic stops. I didn’t have a detailed map so we muddled along. It’s okay, I was driving a big SUV and the valley is very pretty.

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We wanted to go to a dairy farm and ended up at a winery. There was time for some tasting while mum shopped. Tried the sparkling wine, pinot noir and riesling. Tiny portions, and I spit most of it out. Quite nice, but not nice enough to buy.

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The last scenic stop was near kangaroo grounds cemetery. Pretty farmland and rolling hills. I was looking in one direction and when I looked in the other, I spotted a group of wallabies. I think they’re wallabies as they are smaller. Mum was in the car so I dragged her out to see them. There’s a fence between us so I wasn’t worried. They were quite a bit away anyway. Such a nice bonus to end the visit.

Drove back to melbourne airport, checked into the hotel and returned the car. Not too many choices for dinner so we had nando’s again. This time I remembered to order sweet potato fries instead of regular fries.

cruise trip day 12: melbourne

The golden princess in in port, embarking passengers, so we can’t go into the terminal until after 10.30am. Pity the people who were planning on leaving the ship today. We took it easy, I spent the morning reading. It was nice to see the golden princess again, our alaskan cruise was on her.

Finally ventured out at noon. Got the tram and visited the tourist information centre to ask about airport bus. Have to figure out how to get from the port to the airport hotel tomorrow. Taxi of course, but the lady at the counter suggested we taxi to the city and catch the bus, which will be cheaper. In the end, it wasn’t needed. When we got back to the ship they told us there will be several free shuttles to the airport.

Not much to do; we’d seen all of melbourne that we wanted to see. Did some shopping at daiso, of all places. Got the hob scouring pad that worked so well, and some other ¥100 type stuff. Lunch was at nando’s. Shared half a chicken with fries. I got a beer and a ginger beer for mum.

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After several attempts over the past few days we finally got ourselves on a #35 city circle tram. Melbourne has a free tram zone and this one that goes around the central area is completely free. One circuit takes 1hr, we’d already travelled on more than half the route so it was kinda boring.

Tram back to port. I packed quickly and went upstairs to read while mum did her packing. I have a whole bottle of wine to finish today so I sipped while reading. The deck was almost empty, people had either left or still out in the city.

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Dnner at Le Bistro. Escargot, rack of lamb. Huge portion of lamb, 6 chops in total. The most I usually have is 3 chops. No dessert in the restaurant, tried the trifle at the buffet. No good so switched to watermelon instead.

Last task of the day is to settle the bill. Nothing to pay, I get US$89 OBC refund.

cruise trip day 11: st kilda

We woke up to a ship safely docked at melbourne. Seems like déjà vu to walk into the terminal and get a map. A volunteer greeter gave us lamingtons and told us about the st kilda festival. St kilda is the beach alongside port; the town centre is about 2-3km away. Except to get there on public transport means going on the tram to the city and changing to another tram.

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The festival takes place everywhere in the town. Various stages where bands played music, lots of food stalls, craft stalls, kid’s playground and amusement rides. All spread out along the entire beachfront so there was plenty of walking. The best part of the walking was I caught a porygon. I had the app open for some odd reason and it popped up suddenly, wasn’t on the nearby list. The beach is beautiful, a long stretch of white sand. There was a group of people playing beach netball and another group playing beach volleyball. And on the stretch of sand in between the two groups, a woman doing yoga.

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Lunch was free sweet potato fries from the nando’s truck and gozleme with lamb, spinach and cheese filling. I’ve been wanting to try gozleme, saw it at various places in sydney and melbourne but never have the appetite or time to try. It’s very nice. The flatbread crispy and the filling tasty and hot.

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I wanted to slowly walk back to port, so we started off doing that. It was very windy and lots of people were kiteboarding. Looks like it’s a lot of fun, probably takes considerable upper body and leg strength.

Took a couple of videos. Can hear the roar of the wind. Keep watching till around 28s, he gets lifted up above the water by the kite.

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In the end, the wind was too much and when sand started drifting everywhere including all over our faces we called it a day and took the tram back to the city. It was still early so we walked along the yarra for a bit. Riversides are always pretty.

Tram back to port. Late lunch / high tea at the buffet. It’s bavarian night so they had roast pork, cabbage salad and I was dying for a beer. Proper dinner was at Le Bistro, I cancelled the other restaurant reservations and we’ll focus on Le Bistro for the rest of our dining package. Mussels with cream sauce, crevette and crème brûlée. The mussels were so-so, although the sauce was great. The crevettes were meh, I still hanker after L’Ecluse crevettes after all these years. the crème brûlée was okay. Finished the 3rd bottle of wine.

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Full moon tonight.

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Played around with the camera. Hit the shutter as it was trying to autofocus, to get some nice bokeh-like effect.

Got a notice that the ship will leave melbourne on the 14th. We had planned to stay onboard till the 15th so now we have to find somewhere to stay on the 14th. The best option is airport hotel, so I quickly went on hotels.com. Not many choices, got holiday inn at the end. I also booked a hotel at rotorua for a couple of nights so we go somewhere other than auckland.

cruise trip day 10: on tow

It’s just like another at sea day, although we’re moving a lot slower. At least we’re moving.

Breakfast at the buffet, we’d given up on going to the restaurant. Egg white omelette with vegetables, bacon, black pudding, mushroom. Mostly spent the day reading at a table by the pool. I recognise a few regulars there already. A woman in her twenties with large headphones at a window seat, a couple quietly doing sudoku puzzles and a blind lady with her seeing-eye friend.

Queued up for phone and internet again. Since we have a car, I cancelled the original auckland hotel in city centre and booked a motel in the suburbs. Cheaper room rate and free parking. I spent the day worrying about getting my three simcard topped up and finally gave up trying. I need a credit card with UK address to purchase a top-up, argh. Either I change my credit card back to the UK or I’ll have to find someone to help me if I want to continue to use this number. It’s been working fine so far, no problems roaming in sydney or melbourne. I may even keep it as my primary phone because i can still use whatsapp and this way I don’t get junk calls.

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Lunch was from the grill: a burger (no bun), braised cabbage salad and paella that was the result of the poolside competition. Dinner at the restaurant: beef gnocchi, mahi mahi and bread pudding that looks like chocolate mousse. I’ve never seen bread pudding presented in a glass before, it’s like in masterchef or mkr when something doesn’t work they switch to a deconstructed version served in a glass. I’m on the 3rd bottle of wine. Left around 2/3 at Cagney’s last night and when I sent for it tonight they said the bottle broke so they’re giving me a fresh bottle.

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By this time there are 3 tugboats rescuing us. The Hastings is still doing all the heavy work towing us. There’s another one behind with a loose cable, to ensure we don’t roll and to steer, I’m guessing. A third is stuck to our staboard side, also for stability and steering? The captain says we’ll be docking at melbourne sometime after midnight and there’s a shallow dangerous part of the bay to negotiate beforehand. All credit to the tugboats, they’re doing a great job.

We made the news and there are even videos of us being towed; helicoptors were seen hovering above us.

edit: after I got home, I found this video of the ship arriving at Melbourne and the two tugboats docking us. What an amazing feat. The tugboats look so tiny compared with the ship, which at that point was an immovable monolithic object. The pilots are unsung heroes.

cruise trip day 09: adrift

Had to wake up early for NZ passport control, we were the first group.

Finished and there’s an announcement from the captain. The remaining working azipod suffered a breakdown during the night and we have no propulsion system. No wonder the ship isn’t moving. Apart from propulsion, everything is working. We spent the entire day adrift, dead in the water. We hadn’t gone far, around 75 miles from Melbourne, which is a blessing. The weather is also good, and the sea calm. The plan is to get towed back to Melbourne for repairs which may take 4-5 days. The rest of the cruise is cancelled, ie all NZ stops.

Everyone is in a state of shock. We all know about the azipod problems, which has caused missed ports since mid-December. Unlike the previous trip, there was no riot and people seemed relatively calm. The captain announced that we’d get 100% refund and 50% future cruise credit. I guess the full refund defused the situation somewhat but most of the passengers are from north america or europe and it’s a long way to come. Plus the refund doesn’t cover airfares, hotels and other spending.

Another announcement later gave us options:

  • stay on board, explore melbourne and continue with the ship to auckland
  • disembark, fly to auckland — they’ll reimburse up to US$350 airfare
  • disembark, go home — they’ll reimburse up to US$300 for flight changes

We discussed the options and decided we should make the most of our time and disembark. We can either stay in australia so it means changing our flight home; or fly to auckland and take in as much of NZ as possible. Mum has never been to NZ so it’d be nice for her to see more than just auckland.

They turned a couple of conference rooms into internet rooms and let us use their laptops to get on the internet. Long queue though; I put my name down and managed to get a workstation 2hrs later. They want us to limit our session to 20mins but the connection is so slow and there’s so much to do that it’s impossible to adhere to the limit. A quick search and we decided to stay in melbourne for a couple of days then fly to auckland. Auckland hotels are really full (I already know this weeks ago when I was planning the trip) so I’m relieved to find a reasonably priced one outside the city. Got rental car, got the flight from melbourne and we’ll go home on our original flight.

Pretty stressful day, although I wasn’t panicked. Worst case scenario, we stay with the ship. I’m also used to, and quite adept at, travel planning. I could see some other people not doing so well in rearranging their trips. I went back to the internet room later to email sis and mm, belatedly realising we should let them know we’re safe in case we make the news.

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Lunch was at the restaurant. We realise the lunch menu doesn’t change so our choices are limited. I had shrimp & rocket salad, salmon burger and berry sorbet. For dinner we went to our second speciality restaurant, Cagney’s steakhouse. Mum had the rib-eye and I opted for the huge 29oz tomahawk steak, which is enough for 2 people. That said, between the bone, sinew and fat there was a lot of waste. Too full for dessert.

With that steak, I went and did 5k on the treadmill. Long time since I ran, and I was very slow. Only managed to make up the time by doing intervals.

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Something like 16hrs after we suffered the breakdown, our rescuer finally made it out to us at 8.30pm. The tugboat Hastings looks tiny compared with the huge ship, and yet it’s capable of towing us back to port. We started moving ever so slowly around 9pm; I was at the bow watching and we all gave a cheer when someone noticed we’d started moving.

cruise trip day 08: melbourne

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Tram out to the city, got off at the parliament area. Picture opportunities at St Patrick’s cathedral, parliament building, hotel, theatre and the former treasury building turned into a museum. We headed towards Fitzroy Gardens, since it looked pleasant and interesting on the map. It’s quite compact, with a pretty conservatory, Cooks’ cottage and nice walks. Cooks’ cottage is the exact building that belonged to Captain Cook’s parents in North Yorkshire that was dismantled and shipped to Australia.

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I saw on the map that the MCG is only 10mins’ walk from Fitzroy Gardens so we headed there. Mum took a rest on a bench while I explored. The national sports museum needed entrance fee and I didn’t want mum to wait too long so I didn’t go inside. The shop was a gigantic disappointment. Boring t-shirt and expensive football shirts for sale.

Outside on the grounds were statues of sporting greats. A sculpture commemorating the first game of australian rules football played in 1858, Olympic champion Betty Cuthbert (I’d never heard of her before) and quite a few cricketers. I saw Neil Harvey, Dennis Lillee and Shane Warne. Should have walked to the other side of the stadium to see Don Bradman.

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Met up with mum again and planned on getting the #35 circular route tram but it didn’t arrive for ages and ages. Took a regular tram to docklands. In terms of feel, pretty similar to canary wharf. Lunch at black cod, a nice semi-casual fish restaurant. I had grilled barramundi and mum had the seafood platter of fried fish, prawn, scallop.

Tram back to CBD and discovered the tram to port isn’t working so walked across the river to find the bus to get back to the ship before 4pm.

Blueberry ice cream from the deck, read a bit. I found my favourite place, outside by the pool. Usually not that crowded.

The ship was supposed to leave at 5pm but there was a delay until 6.30pm because two passengers didn’t come back. I wonder what happens to their stuff. On a plane, missing passengers’ luggage is offloaded, do they do the same for cruise passengers? What if they manage to make their way to the next port and their stuff was offloaded at the last port? Do their cabin get sealed?

Dinner was at the Asian restaurant, no charge. Steamed dumplings, fried rice, pepper shrimp, tapioca pudding. Honestly, not very good. Needed 2 glasses of wine to finish the meal.

Walked 2.5 laps of deck 7, more reading.

cruise trip day 07: melbourne

Breakfast at the buffet, they have omelettes, eggs benedict and I discovered different sections. The American section has crispy bacon, sausage links, waffles, biscuits & gravy. The British/Aussie section has proper bacon, bangers, black pudding and kippers. Well impressed. There’s also congee.

Walked 4 laps on deck 7.

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Began seeing land late morning and people crowded at the bow to see the Melbourne skyline get bigger and bigger.

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Lunch was bbq by the pool of chicken and seafood. Have to say, food so far has been good. Not excellent, it’s hard to serve excellent food for thousands of passengers.

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We got clearance to go onshore at 2pm. There was a long queue at the terminal for the myki card and an express shuttlebus took us to the national gallery just south of the river. I remember the gallery and the eureka tower next to it although it’s been too long since I’ve been in Melbourne to remember directions clearly. What I do remember is the city isn’t very big so I found Flinders Street station, Federation Square and the CBD easily. Walked around the busy shopping areas and ended up in a Woolworths. Really hot day with the sun beating down.

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Took a tram to queen victoria market. By then it was almost 5pm and I was half afraid the market will be closed. And indeed the day market was closed, but we were lucky to find the wednesday night market just starting. Lots of food stalls and some souvenir and craft stores. There were lamb, bbq, porchetta, paella, pasta, turkey legs, sausages, pavlovas and lots more. We planned on having dinner back on the ship so we just bought lemonade and ate the strawberries we bought at the supermarket. The lemonade was expensive, AUD8 for one.

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Took the tram back to port. Dinner was really good: lamb shank and hazelnut soufflé. A part of me wanted to eat at the market, because I love street food. But the restaurant meal made up for it, and it’s included.

cruise trip day 06: at sea

tl;dr: spent the day eating

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Breakfast at the restaurant. i had pancake, sausages, bacon and mum had eggs benedict. Tea was a dreadful as expected: I asked for hot tea and got a pot of hot-ish water and some sort of green tea teabag. Good thing I have PG and the buffet has hot water.

Made more restaurant reservations and did some shopping.

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Then it was time for lunch, which was at the restaurant. Crab salad, chicken leg, lime parfait. Not too adventurous, tasted okay.

Read a bit, napped a bit, walked laps on deck 7. Bought a 4-meal speciality dining package for US$94, so average per meal around $25 per person. Also got a wine package that suited me: 4 bottles for US$110. I picked the chateauneuf for all 4, the rest were new world wines. $27.50 per bottle is around the same price at m&s at home. I can drink it at any bar or restaurant, and they will give me a tag and store it if I can’t finish the bottle.

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Dinner was at one of the speciality restaurants, Le Bistro. Escargot to start, lots of garlic and butter, yummy. Mum had duck two ways and I had filet of beef. The beef was too salty, the duck was good. Tart tartin for dessert was too sweet, again mum’s chocolate napoleon was better. The bill came to $62 but was included in the dining package. We’re ahead already.

cruise trip day 05: sydney embarkation

First things first, drop by the post office to send a couple of packages. The lady at the counter said I’m a good friend for sending timtams to my friends, especially considering the postage is three times the cost of the contents.

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Packed up, stored our suitcases at the hotel and took the train to the fish market for brunch. I ordered marron, dreadfully expensive and it’s only by obsessively watching masterchef and MKR did I know about them. Live, they look like dark lobsters. Cooked, they turn orange like all crustaceans and have a delicate lobster-like flavour. I also ordered steamed pippies and raw scampi. The scampi was really great, sweet with the taste of the sea.

Too much to expect mum to roll her suitcase to the cruise terminal so we took a taxi. Dropped our bags but decided not to board just yet. Time for one final gelato. I found the best flavour so far, salted coconut with mango salsa. Had another blood orange sorbet too.

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The Star looked nice with the opera house in the background. How wonderful to have a cruise terminal in the heart of the city. We have an inside cabin, #5585, mid-ship port side. It’s pretty much like other inside cabins on other ships. We’re impressed with the amount of space between the twin beds, the large shower and lots of space to hang stuff in the bathroom. As suspected, the itineray has changed because only one azipod is working. Burnie, Milford Sound and Napier will be missed. We get US$500 OBC and 25% future cruise credit.

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As per my usual routine, I went exploring around the ship. Nicely decorated, pretty without being gaudy. There’s a coffee bar in the atrium underneath the stage which people will like. The photo gallery is full of computers vs shelves for hardcopy photos. The gift shop is closed, but is the biggest I’ve come across so far. I pondered drinks packages but dismissed them because everyone in the same cabin must buy the same package and I can’t drink enough for two people. To use up some of the OBC, I made reservations at the speciality restaurants.

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One of my favourite places on cruise ships is deck 7 and on the Star it’s one of the best. Lots of space, very wide with lounge chairs.

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Dinner was at one of the MDRs, the Versailles at the stern. We’re already liking the freestyle dining, none of the first seating / second seating crap. I had steak frites and mum had prawns. For dessert the chocolate lava cake had unfortunately turned into plain chocolate cake although the milk chocolate mousse was good. I had a glass of malbec. Overall, first impressions of the food are good.

Watched the ship leave port at 7pm. Sailed past the opera house, inner bays, Manly. The bridgeclimbers on the harbour bridge gave us a cheer as we went past.

trip day -01

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The travel agent confirmed the changed itinerary this morning, and I gave her an earful. Not her fault but NCL and their cruise department dropped the ball. It’s not acceptable to notify the customer of changes less than 24hrs before departure. Hopefully we can enjoy the remaining ports. There’s also the additional nights at Sydney and Auckland so plenty to do.

Met up with mm for a drive, catch-up and shabu shabu dinner. Borrowing her suitcase because it’s the large size. I repacked and put my small cabin trolley inside the suitcase for shopping. We havd 30kg each on SQ so shopping is okay. Speaking of SQ, sigh, I have to grudingly admit that their website and check-in process are vastly superior to CX’s. I’m supposed to be loyal to CX but in this case, really can’t.

Leaving at 6am tomorrow so I’ve set the alarm for 4.45am. Still doing laundry, turned out we needed to run 2 loads. Ah well, I’ll sleep on the plane.

next trip

cruise

I have to switch gears quickly. Just as I finish sorting and uploading Tokyo Hakone pics and get the trip written up, I have to go to the travel agent to pick up cruise tickets. First world problem, I know. I deserve no sympathy. 😛

Although the destinations will be really nice, I’m not looking forward to the trip at all. I’ve only been back home for 2 days and I’m already wanting to scream.

cruise 2017

Mum needed to go to the clinic so I went with her. After she finished, we debated where to go for lunch. Ended up getting on a bus and going to HMV café. Nice john dory fillet, very healthy.

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Went to the travel agent to look at brochures and ended up booking a holiday!!! Australia and NZ cruise next February. 12 days, with extra days in Sydney (embarkation) and Auckland (disembarkation). They only had 2 inside cabins left at that price and if we booked by 30 nov we could pick 1 out of 4 offers:

  • unlimited drinks
  • speciality dining package
  • free wifi
  • pre-paid service charge

We opted for the service charge. They charge ridiculous servce charge on cruises so we’re saving a lot.

After the travel agent we went to Ikea to get salmon only to discover they’d sold out. Sold out. Incredible. Have to try next month. Then went to the cold meat place and bought a whole steak filet. Grabbed a few pieces to take to sis’ place. She has a function tonight so I’m teenager-sitting. I made two potato mash and fried up the steak. Veg was cherry tomatoes. Mostly I was watching tv or reading in the living room and gis was in her room. Sis and R came back at 11pm, I waited downstairs and took their uber home. Had to re-book but since he was the nearest driver he naturally responded. Chatty guy, a professional by day who liked driving so he usually did weekend nights. Clean and comfortable Tuareg.

cruise writeup and pics

Sorted cruise pics and wrote up the trip. Total around 200 pics: ship, Halong Bay, Sanya. The most work needed were the halong bay pics.

I try not to overdo photoshopping because it feels like cheating somehow. The pics at Halong Bay were seriously awful though. Grey, hazy, dull, just ugh. I don’t have the newfangled dehaze feature in photoshop and lightroom cc, but there’s a youtube video for everything isn’t there.

Adjust levels, add a little mid-tone blue and green in levels, unsharp mask (20%, 50px), shadow/highlight and the pics pop a bit better.

Here’s the original of a pic I took at port:
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After fixing:
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Contrast before and after:
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Another one, the rock details really came out in this one:
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Posts and sets:

cruise day 05: home

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Day of disembarkation. Breakfast then had to vacate our cabin by 9am. Ship scheduled to arrive at 1pm so way too much time to waste. Ended up at a corner of the theatre, sitting and reading.

Lunch was at the self-service restaurant. Usual barely edible foor. Roast chicken was okay, people were queuing and stopping to wait for the chef to chop up the dark meat. There was a baked mozzarella pie that was quite decent.

I went down to 6/f deck to watch the ship dock. A pilot boat was nearby hovering, watching closely as the ship parked. Then it was time to disembark. By 1pm we were off, a long walk to get our luggage then a shorter walk to the bus stop. Home by 2pm.

Mum asked me how I rated the cruise. I said 1 out of 10. Too crowded, too many of the same stupid noisy people I avoid day in day out. Food was terrible. The cabin was fine except there were constant problems–the wardrobe door creaked loudly, one day there was no water, the loo didn’t flush all the time. Way too many mainlander crew who should know better than to speak mandarin at us. The bright spots were our steward David and our waiter Hendrick, both from Indonesia. Always with a smile, always getting things done promptly. Apparently they only make USD300-400 a month, and get charged the same rates as us for internet and food. Gave both a nice tip.

Hopefully I will put my foot down next time and refuse to go on a cruise. I spent most of my spare time in the cabin reading, which I can do at home. Yes, I got to visit Vietnam. Not a big deal.

cruise day 04: sanya

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Thought I’d try the omelette station at the outside café. No taste whatsoever. I watched the chef cook it and he added no seasoning. Plus it was overcooked. Grilled tomatoes and broccoli were okay, hard to mess those up.

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Arrived at Sanya on Hainan island in the morning. The port is located on a man-made island with 5 blocks of residental or hotel buildings. Everything looked fake. We didn’t join any excursion but it was easy to take the CNY5 shuttlebus to the end of the port.

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Next to the port entrance was an artificial beach, can see our ship vaguely in the background.

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Most of the attractions on Sanya weren’t attractive to us. There’s a rock where someone famous wrote end of the world and sea, temples, beach resorts. We just walked around. There was a pedestrianised shopping street with clothing stores and jewellery stands. Spent some time inside a supermarket but didn’t buy anything. It was just like Shunde. Lots of people, wide streets, useless shops. Crowds gathered everywhere, including around a wall where colourful notices were posted.

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Found a market consisting of street market selling fruit and wet market selling the usual meat, fish, veg. Crowded with locals, stuff seemed fresh.

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A couple of odd sightings. Walked past a shopfront with people lounging in chairs at the front. But look carefully, everyone sitting down was attached to an IV. There was a toy shop next door and a mum was browsing through the selection with her son, also hooked up to an IV. She was holding his bag whilst he was playing around. Strange. At another street there was a queue of people outside a shop. Turned out that it was a buddhist place giving out free food. Impressed with the orderly queue, unusual.

Overall, not much to see. Definitely just like Shunde. Vendors giving out leaflets and stuff, which we ignored. We were quite tired with all the walking so we found a KFC to sit down. I was even able to stumble my way and ordered an ice cream, a portugese custard tart and an iced tea. Okay, they had to bring out a menu and I pointed to what I wanted. I tried.

full set: flickr

Lunch was back on the ship, at the end terrace café. Once again not much on offer. Salad, parma ham, sushi. Got very crowded and noisy at 1pm when people returned on board.

Watched the ship leave port, spent the afternoon mainly in the cabin, too lazy to run.

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Dinner was Italian night. Same parma ham as lunch, more tasteless spaghetti and the only good main meal on the cruise of Roman style steak. I asked for it rare, knowing that it’ll come medium rare. It was almost medium, but still not bad. The chocolate ice cream was awful and powdery. Asked for fruit.

Back to our cabin for shower and packing.

#30 new country: vietnam | cruise day 03: halong bay

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Tasks #28-30 of 101.1001 is to visit 3 new countries. Did greece and israel on the cruise in 2014. Although strictly speaking, visiting Bethlehem meant I could add Palestine too, I wanted to add a new country during another trip. So, here is Vietnam.

Arrived at Halong Bay at 8am. Miserable, misty day that did very little to highlight the beauty of the UNESCO World Heritage site. We joined the ship’s excursion so duly showed up at the theatre at 9am. It was organised chaos with hundreds of people waiting for their tours. We got a small sticker and waited for our number to be called. The ship was moored in the bay itself, instead of getting a tender and boarding the tour boat, we went straight on our tour boat.

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Total 31 people on our tour, so not too bad. Everyone seemed fairly quiet and educated. The guide spoke mandarin, a feature on this cruise, so I didn’t listen and went outside to try to take pictures. The weather didn’t help. Most of these have been photoshopped. I can imagine how the rock formations will look like when there’s no fog and the sun is out. One of our tourmates described the scenery as like a watercolour painting. He was being generous.

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Still quite spectacular, especially the pillars that simply jut out of the water.

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Possibly the most iconic image of Halong Bay is the one of two chicken-shaped rocks, popularly called either the kissing rocks or the fighting rocks. Other tour boats were in the way, it’s useful to use them as a scale. These are two of the smaller rock formations in the bay.

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Stopped off at thien cung cave, a steep walk up into the 10,000 sq meter cave with several floors and high ceiling.

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Impressive limestone stalactites and stalagmites lit in several places by lights. Too dark to successfully take pictures, I’m glad I got a few that were in focus.

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At one point our guide pointed out an opening to the outside. Probably that was where the cave was first discovered. I dunno, I didn’t understand what he was saying.

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After the tour of the bay and cave, we returned to Halong town. The excursion became bizarre. We got off the boat into a coach, about 10mins drive to what looked to be a newly developed…street. We were escorted into a building, given badges and were shown around a department store. Salespeople flocked around us trying to hawk pillows, mattresses, towels, clothes and even toothbrushes. Everything looked cheap, outdated and tacky. Felt like we time travelled back to a 1970s communist store, any moment an official will demand our ID book and shopping permit.

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The street outside the store was empty and devoid of people, except tourists bundled off coaches. The street ended abruptly with tarmac one minute and muddy fields the next. There was a market one block down selling souvenirs. Most people opted to buy food–coffee (including civet cat coffee) and cashew nuts. The cashews were pretty good, so we bought a couple of packets too.

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By then everyone was hungry and looking for food. Not many options, the only one seemed to be a bar café whose enterprising staff set up a table outside cooking noodles. I guess this is our experience of pho in Vietnam. The noodles were okay, no different from what I’ve had all around the world. A sign of the times, they accepted CNY. But we only had large notes and didn’t want to accept change in local currency. Somehow we got the waitress to tell us the price in USD. We calculated the meal to be $7, she quoted $8. Was quite happy to give them the extra dollar.

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This whole last part of the excursion was weird and staged. Definitely were brought to an area dedicated solely for unsuspecting tourists. On the way back to the tender, we passed by real local streets and I wish we had the time to walk around there instead.

Impression of Vietnam: not enough to gauge really, a guided excursion where we were spoonfed stuff is not the best way to experience a new country. Halong Bay was beautiful, although I was a little underwhelmed. Too crowded and too little free time to truly take everything in. There was a part of the town I saw on the coach that had narrow, colourful colonial houses. There were small tiny local eateries too, as well as giant luxurious hotels. Felt like a developing SE Asian country, somewhere between mainland China and Thailand.

Full set: flickr

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Dinner was now a theme: barely edible overcooked food. Spicy chicken where the chicken was dry, watery salad, green minestrone (I’ve never come across green minestrone), spaghetti arrabiatta that was not spicy, green crème brûlée that had no custard or brûlée topping–it was yet another mousse-like concoction. Cheesecake was passable. Our routine after dinner: salad on 11/f then back to cabin.

cruise day 02: at sea

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At sea day. Breakfast at the restaurant. Ordered an Italian breakfast–pesto omelette which was underseasoned, 1/6th of a grilled cherry tomato (seriously), salami, croissant and I asked for a side of bacon. The waiter didn’t seem to understand the concept of side order. Asked for tea, didn’t get any. Disappointing. Went to the other restaurant, self-service this time, and again asked for a cup of tea. Got lukewarm water in the non-teacup cup and a tray of green and fruit teabags. No milk. How hard can it be? Eventually resorted to going back to our cabin and making my own PG, at least they gave us a kettle in our cabin.

Parents went to walk around the deck and watch the group dance exercises, I went to the fitness centre to use the treadmill. Eeek, stupid noisy women walking on the treadmills next to me. Ignore. For lunch parents found the aft outdoor café that was relatively quiet. It’s right outside the buffet so convenient for getting food. They set up a couple of noodle stations in the café–fried noodles and soup noodles made from handpulled noodles. At least the noodles were freshly made.

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More fennel, and I discovered a very light raita dressing that went well with it. Other food was unimpressive–roast pork was dry, pastries for dessert was dry and too sweet. The pastry on the lemon meringue pie couldn’t be cut even with a knife. The only reasonable food were ones that took little effort–roast potatoes and braised cherry tomatoes.

Back to cabin to read and nap. Tried pizza for tea, I quite liked the dough but parents didn’t. Barely any topping, it’s some sort of red sauce.

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Gala dinner. Our friends from last night joined us at our table. Sigh, better than complete strangers I suppose. Ox tongue, seafood pasta, baked lobster, oreo parfait, ice cream. The pasta came with one single mussel, the lobster was horribly overcooked and the parfait was like no parfait I’d ever tried, it tasted like mousse and had no oreo flavour. The vanilla ice cream was decent.

There was a performance of Nessun Dorma by the resident tenor (we saw him having dinner at the buffet later). People going up to him to take selfies while he was singing, huh.

After dinner there was supposed to be a cocktail with captain and crew but there were too many people so we escaped back to our cabin. Parents went to the cocktail eventually but I stayed put.

cruise day 01: embarkation

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Boarding was between 4-8pm so we left home at 4pm via taxi and was at the terminal in 20mins. There was another 20mins’ wait to check-in, it was done by tags so we were able to sit whilst waiting for our number to be called. There was a welcome cake display when we boarded, together with a strange Jesus watermelon sculpture. Huh. Everyone spoke mandarin, which was super annoying.

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We have an inside cabin on deck 9, aka Tosca. All decks on the Costa Victoria seem to be named after operas. The cabin has 2 twin beds and a bunk, so I get the bunk. Long time since I slept on a bunk bed. The cabin itself is quite okay, room enough for 3 people.

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Went to one of the restaurants for dinner. Here’s what I don’t like about cruises, having to share a table. The other guests were a threesome consisting of a mum, a cute 4-year old and an auntie friend; and another middle-aged couple. At least everyone was quiet and polite. Dinner was deep fried seafood, salad, pork paillard, cheese, diplomat cake. Argh, nothing good. The seafood was doughy, the salad watery, the pork tasteless and served with sad vegetables. No idea what the cheese plate was, apparently edam, provolone, monte nero–they all tasted the same. The diplomat cake was too sweet and the puff pastry soggy. After dinner we went up to the 11/f buffet for salad, hoping that it’d be not watery. I found a big bowl of fennel, so I was more satisfied.

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Walked around the deck, watched some of the 8pm light show that was visible from where we were. Back in our cabin at 9pm, shower, reading and ready for bed.

full set of ship pics and food: flickr

cruise next week

I’ve been on several cruises and generally don’t really enjoy them. The scenery is nice, especially on the Alaskan cruise, but being in close proximity to thousands of people with no escape is not on my favourite things-to-do list. That we’re usually at a location for limited time and have to rush back to the ship for dinner is another dislike.

So why did I agree to go on a cruise again with my parents? Argh. Because I need to add a new country to 101.1001, that’s why. A silly and illogical reason, but perhaps given my obsession with checking items off lists, not entirely surprisingly.

It’s a 5-day cruise starting Monday, with days 1 and 5 embarkation and disembarkation respectively. Day 2 is at sea so there are only 2 stops: Halong Bay and Sanya.

Halong Bay in Vietnam.jpg
Thomas Hirsch / User:Ravn – own work under CC BY-SA 3.0

All right, the prospect of visiting UNESCO site Halong Bay, with its distinctive limestone formations, pillars and caves, is quite enticing. I just have to get over the fact that it’s only a day visit and parents have booked us on an excursion. Ugh, I hate organised tours. I have no idea what to expect in Sanya, thankfully we haven’t joined any excursions but I have done exactly zero research.

I’m sure I’ll be socially miserable on the cruise, especially one that has a high chance of swine encounter. Hopefully it’s limited contact. Also hoping for our own table at the restaurant. Parents are managing expectations, jokingly calling this an easyjet cruise.

trip report and pics

gold002dock

Finished writing up the cruise trip and uploading pics.

posts (this goes to the old website):

  • day01: seattle — flight, arrival, hotel, night walk
  • day02: seattle — pike place market, space needle, chihuly garden and glass
  • day03: embarkation — seattle, cabin, sailaway
  • day04: at sea — exploring the ship, food, formal night
  • day05: juneau — mendenhall glacier, tracy’s king crab shack, whale watching
  • day06: skagway — white pass, emerald lake, carcross, skagway
  • day07: glacier bay — margerie, grand pacific, lamplugh glaciers
  • day08: ketchikan — river, creek street, king crab takeaway feast
  • day09: victoria — butchart gardens
  • day10: disembarkation — seattle outlet, vancouver night market
  • day11: vancouver — capilano suspension bridge park, granville island market and brewery
  • day12: vancouver — grouse mountain, lonsdale quay market
  • day13: vancouver — flight home

flickr sets:

trip pic teasers

I’m at parents’ to monitor the internet; they haven’t had internet or cable tv since the weekend. The repair guy came, changed the modem and within 10mins of him leaving, the connection dropped again. I reset and fingers crossed the connection has been stable so far. I’ll keep an eye on it for a couple of days.

With no wifi or tv, I was just using my iphone which okay for email, fb and reading. I had wanted to get started on the design stuff I said I’d finish this week, but without internet to download graphics the design is still in my head. I was able to get started on writing the cruise posts; even without access to flickr I can get the text sorted and then just add the pics afterwards.

It’s quite nice to partially unplug for a bit.

skag082emerald

Anyway, I uploaded all 1,556 pics and videos when I was home last week. I basically discarded about half of the almost 3,000 I took. I can’t stop looking at the glacier pics, but there are others favourites too. This is Emerald Lake in the Yukon on Skagway day. The turquoise green colour apparently is light reflecting off maristone at the bottom of the lake.

sea147gumwall sea301chihuly

Other colourful things we saw were the gum wall at Seattle, the #2 most unsanitary attraction in the world (the blarney stone being #1). In contrast the macchia forest glass sculpture at chihuly garden & glass is a thing of absolute beauty.

yvr462birds

We saw plenty of animals on the trip: whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, bears and bald eagles in the wilderness or semi-wild settings. Saw a couple of birds of prey demos too; hawks and falcons and owls were familiar and very impressive. I’d never seen, nor heard of turkey vultures before, they had one at Grouse Mountain. Pretty mean looking beast.

cruise alaska day13: vancouver day 04

More packing in the morning. Had breakfast at Tim Horton’s again, after looking around the area immediately next to the hotel and deciding it was the best option: blueberry cream cheese bagel. We then loaded the car and drove to Richmond in search of king crab legs. Even at the wet market they were nowhere to be found. Why doesn’t Vancouver have an awesome seafood market like Pike Place in Seattle?

Dropped mum off at departures, returned the car, then went to check in. Two bags each, no problem getting through. The nice lady at the counter even offered us the middle 3 seats—the flight wasn’t full so we had all 3 seats to ourselves and 2 aisle seats. Nice.

Lunch at the terminal after security. Mum opted for roast pork noodles and I looked at the burgers at A&W before going for the noodles too. I did get the root beer. At the duty free I deliberated on whether to buy a whisky but eventually I did get a bottle of Glen Breton, Canada’s only single malt whisky. I figured I probably won’t have the opportunity to get it in the forseeable future and it’s in the 101 whiskies book.

yvr585rainbowcrosswalk

Our flight was slightly delayed, and so our trip has come to an end. Final pic of Vancouver, the rainbow crossing at Davie, I had to get my camera out quickly to snap this while the light was red.

cruise alaska day 12: vancouver day 03

Our last full day in Vancouver and our trip. We wanted to buy some frozen king crab legs back for my dad, so we’ve been looking for supermarkets and such like. First stop today was Walmart at Norh Vancouver. Breakfast was Tim Horton’s again, I had a cream cheese bagel and a way too sweet iced green tea. We ended up spending a loooooong time at Walmart, and we came away with vitamins, cereal bars, marshmallow and…two new suitcases. Sigh.

yvr381cablecar yvr393peak

The real destination today was Grouse Mountain. We got the cable car up from the car park to the top, caught the end of the lumberjack show and proceeded to the chairlift to go up to the peak. The chairlift was long, took 12mins to get up. The views were great. It was a really sunny day but there was still blocks of ice up there. We didn’t go up the Eye of the Wind windmill, it was fine to go to the top of the chairlift.

yvr474owl yvr514beargrinder

After coming down we applied sunblock and saw the birds of prey demo, saw a grizzly bear playing in the water and caught the first part of the lumberjack show. All really interesting and great. Different from Capilano, I must admit I prefer Capilano because there was more nature and trails and things to see rather than shows that came on at preset times.

Got the cable car back down, we were lucky because for some reason they suspended the cable car right after us. May be mechanical issue, may be hot weather. We ate the whole pack of strawberries we bought at Walmart, it was perfect for the hot day.

We saw a leaflet at the hotel for lonsdale quay market so I drove over there with nothing more than what I remembered was on google maps and the small map on the leaflet. Managed fine. The carpark was free for the first 2hrs. The market was smaller than Granville Island and less crowded. One seafood stall, a few fruit & veg, arts & crafts and a few snacks and sandwiches.

yvr534greenbrew yvr545greenbrew

Totally unexpected, there was another craft beer brewery. This one was called green leaf brewery and their flight was 4 small glasses. I had sour weissbier, pale ale, magnificent bestard, sour apple. We were hungry so we ordered sandwiches which they called from another stall. The sandwiches took a long time, I had grilled cheese & bacon and mum had salmon.

Drove back to Walmart to get strawberries and swiffer liquid—I should have gotten more stuff as soon as mum decided to buy suitcases.

yvr573stanley yvr578stanley

The final destination was Stanley Park. At 1000 acres we knew we wanted to drive around and may be park somewhere. We ended up driving around and stopping at various points to take photos. After Stanley Park we drove to Chinatown, the old one. By that time it was early evening and everything was closed. Went back to the hotel, wasn’t hungry so I just finished the honey lager I bought yesterday at gib.

cruise alaska day 11: vancouver day 02

Woke up at 8am, Mum was pooped so she was still asleep. I let her sleep while I caught up with online stuff. She woke up after 9am and we went off for breakfast at Tim Horton’s. Sausage egg muffin, hash brown and I had a chai tea while mum had a hot chocolate. The chocolate was way better than the tea.

Got the car keys from the hotel valet as well as a $3 off coupon from the front desk and we were off to capilano suspension bridge park, about half an hour’s drive from where we were. It’s one of the top attractions in Vancouver and it wasn’t hard to see why, though of course it meant it was awfully crowded.

yvr092capilano yvr108bridge

Next to the entrance were the totem poles. Can never get tired of seeing them, I should study them in more detail. Then it was the suspension bridge, which stretches 450 feet across and 230 feet above Capilano River. There were a lot of people on the bridge which made it swing quite a bit, especially at either end. I was too focused on taking pictures I had no time to be scared of heights. The way the foot traffic went, and with me holding the camera with my right hand, I couldn’t actually hold onto the rope so I ended up walking near the middle of the plank without support.

yvr131treetops yvr135treetops

On the other side of the river was the Treetops walk, a series of small suspension bridges attached to huge trees 110 feet above the ground. This was really great fun and I did not feel any vertigo at all.

The nature walk was back on ground level, a trail through the forest that passed the river, lots of trees, a bird of prey demo and with views of both the suspension bridge and the cliffwalk.

yvr201cliff yvr215cliff

The cliffwalk was back over the other side, so a return on the suspension bridge. I had envisioned the cliffwalk as like the one in the grand canyon but this one was less scary. The floor wasn’t glass but more solid wood. Really really odd that I did not feel vertigo like I normally would. May be it was because it wasn’t a straight drop down, the high treeline and treetop canopy gave an illusion that we weren’t as high up as we were.

We had a great time at the park. Bought souvenir magnets and I had gotten stamps at various points so they gave me a “I made it” certificate. Happy.

yvr248falsecreek yvr244aquabus
yvr269granmkt yvr277granmkt
yvr291granmktlunch yvr294granmktcrab

Went back to the hotel, parked the car and walked to Horton Street dock for the aquabus to Granville Island. The trip across false creek took 5mins. Now this is what we expected of a market! Fruit & veg, deli, bakery, seafood, arts & crafts. We had a late lunch there at the food stall area: halibut & chips, clam chowder, dungeness crab. The crab wasn’t as sweet as king crab, we still enjoyed it and were glad we got to try another type of crab.

yvr316granbrew
yvr317granbrew yvr318granbrew

It as a nice sunny day with lots of visitors and street performers, I was glad we didn’t drive because parking looked horrendous. We wandered around the rest of the island and came across granville island brewery. Oh I was in heaven! A small craft beer brewery just when I needed a beer. They were only licenced for tasting so they offered a flight of 3x4oz tasting glasses. I tried the maple cream ale, IPA and potato stout. The stout was nothing like guinness or murphy’s or porter, it was still quite dark but wasn’t as bitter. Mum had a ginger ale.

We retraced our steps on the aquabus and walk to the hotel. Mum took a nap while I got online again. Had a late 8pm dinner at one of our favourite places that we spotted yesterday. Alright, we went all the way to Vancouver to go to Nando’s but it is a favourite. We ordered double leg, which isn’t on the UK menu, 5 wings and garlic bread. Yummy yummy yummy, and much needed after walking the whole day.

cruise alaska day 10: disembarkation–>vancouver

Woke up around 7am, the ship was already docked back at Pier 91 at Seattle. We didn’t have to vacate our cabin till 8am so we got breakfast from deck 14: cream of wheat, croisant, fruit. After breakfast and a last check, we took our luggage and bade farewell to our cabin. We had to take our own luggage down to the casino for assembly, our bags were full so it was a little bit strenuous, not helped by idiots who don’t even hold the lift doors. There was a short wait till our turn was called. It was less comfortable than using the ship’s services but it meant we were inside the terminal a lot faster.

Shuttle back to the carpark was uneventful, we were in the car and on our way by 9.15am. We’d rather struggle a short way with our luggage than have to wait around for a couple of hours on the ship.

On the way to Vancouver, on the I-5 we stopped at the outlet. Mum and I both bought jeans at $19.99, and mine were 501s to boot. Additional shopping at Gap and I also bought a pair of brightly coloured Kinvara 3s.

I delayed our stop and lunch till we were less than 30 miles from the border. Petrol (okay, okay, gas) is cheaper in the US than in Canada so I wanted to fill up as late as possible. We ended up having lunch at a Denny’s. After a week of good quality seafood and delicious king crab legs, we were pleasantly surprised at what we ordered. A three course set with salad, prime rib skillet and mini apple crisp for me, mini banana split for mum plus one diet coke came to $30 with tips. The skillet tasted quite alright.

There was no delay at the border, just a couple of standard questions, and we were back on BC-99. There was quite a bit of traffic in the city as soon as we hit the airport, we found the Ramada Inn on Granville with little problem and were checked in by 4pm.

yvr021canadaplace yvr034steamclock

We left the car with the hotel and walked about 30mins to the waterfront near Canada Place. Mum sat down to rest while I ran over to Gastown to take pictures of the steam clock.

yvr052richmondmkt yvr075richmktcane
yvr062kebab yvr066richmktsquid

Got the skytrain to Bridgeport and walked to the Richmond night market. From our research seemed to be a really great must-see market full of international food and events. Small $2.25 entrance fee for me and mum was free. Just as well, because we were extremely disappointed. Reminded us of the carnival fair around CNY, with stalls selling cheap, tacky stuff like toys, jewellry, household goods and iphone covers. The food stalls were the same—unmemorable Asian food like noodles, fish balls, yakitori sticks. We opted for the best we could find: a middle-eastern stall selling kebabs and grilled squid. It was really hot and I was dying for a beer, but I guess because of licensing they only had sugary, artificially coloured concoctions they called mocktails.

It also got way too crowded so we took the train back downtown and walked back to the hotel. Saw a 7-eleven nearby and bought some water.

cruise alaska day 09: victoria

Woke up at 8am, buffet breakfast: egg white omelette with vegetables, 2 sausages, baked apple. As we near the end of the cruise, time to start packing our luggage. It didn’t take me long, but it did take mum a while. So i left her in the cabin and went to the chef’s demo at the theatre. The head chef demonstrated how to make gravalax, potato pasta and black forest cake. The banter with the maitre d’ seemed a bit forced. Afterwards they led us to tour a small part of the galley. It was very clean and there were some chefs working there, I guess the real work was done in areas out of bounds for passengers.

Lunch at the restaurant: clam chowder, spaghetti aglio e olio, tilapia taco, baked apple. I was looking forward to the pasta, but it was overcooked and underseasoned. The fish was really good, as was the dessert.

The afternoon was sunny so I walked around deck 15 while mum did deck 7. Stopped by one of the bars at the end of my walk and got an ultimate cooler cocktail — vodka, passionfruit puree, cranberry juice, watermelon juice. Good one to sip while reading.

gold364fish gold363vongole
gold365floating gold366souffle

Early dinner at 5pm: seafood trio, curry pumpkin soup, linguine vongole, curry fish (can’t remember name of the fish, it wasn’t one I recognised), floating island, sorbet, milk chocolate hazelnut soufflé. The soup, pasta and main were disappointing for our last meal — too much curry, not enough clams and too tough respectively. Dessert completely redeemed the meal. We had the same waiter as our first dinner, he remembered, and brought us extra dessert. We hadn’t ordered the soufflé and were mighty glad he brought it because it was great.

We docked at 7pm at Victoria. Apparently the Jones Act mandated that ships stopped at a foreign port so Victoria BC became part of many Alaskan cruise itinerary. Lovely evening, we assembled in the theatre for our excursion to butchart gardens. We had to join the excursion to ensure we got back to the ship. Our bus driver was a weirdo, she talked a lot of hot air and drove very slowly.

vic031sunken vic046sunken
vic058flowers vic125flower
vic155japanese vic148rose

Eventually we made it to the gardens at 8.30pm. Really neat, almost too neat, gardens with lots of separate garden areas, fountains and even a carousel. It became a race to see as much and photograph as much as possible before it got too dark. There was enough time to souvenir shop for magnets and we were back on the bus at 10.15pm. It would have been very expensive and difficult to go there on our own, it was obvious the gardens were opened specially after hours for the cruiseliners. It was one of those excursions where there was no other choice.

A quick tour around Victoria confirmed that it was somewhere worth returning to for a more in depth visit. Back on ship quite late. We opted for express walk off disembarkation so we didn’t have to leave our luggage outside.

#32 new us state: alaska

Tasks #31-33 are to visit 3 new US states. #31 was Washington, this is the second one, I went to Alaska.

Alaska is the biggest state and one that is on many, many bucket lists. I read several books set in Alaska and the theme is very similar—city slicker goes to Alaska, has adventures, falls in love with the environment, perhaps even fall in love with someone living in Alaska, ends up moving there. And no wonder, the scenery is fabulous and it’s so peaceful. That said, it can be rough, lonely, cold and living standards isn’t as high as the US mainland leading to a high crime rate. So there are romantic notions, but reality may be very different.

It’s all moot anyway, I was only there as a tourist. Going on an Alaskan cruise is also on many, many bucket lists. We did a roundtrip from Seattle to the Inside Passage and saw the usual places: Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan.

There was water in its liquid form:

jun015channel

Water in its solid form:

glcr067margeriecalf

There were whales:

jun241whale

and bald eagles:

ket006porteagle

and we ate a lot of delicious king crab:

jun185tracycook

The Inside Passage is only a small sliver of the state, there is still vast areas of Alaska worth exploring. Definitely worth returning.

posts: Juneau | Skagway | Glacier Bay | ketchikan
flickr sets: set 1 | set 2

cruise alaska day 08: ketchikan

ket006porteagle

Woke up at 6.45am, the ship had already docked at Ketchikan. We didn’t have many plans so we had breakfast at the buffet: egg white omelette with vegetables cooked to order with grilled tomato, baked apple and watermelon. While waiting for Mum to get ready I saw a couple of bald eagles flying past.

ket012welcome ket013street
ket084creekstreet ket108creekstreet

By the time we made it to shore it was 8.30am. We got a walking map from the information centre and caught the free shuttle bus to the totem heritage centre. There was an entrance fee of $5 so we didn’t go in. Walked back to town along the river, to married man’s trail and then to creek street. Creek Street was the main attraction of Ketchikan, a boardwalk built over the Ketchikan creek with houses on stilts. Most of the buildings were touristy shops selling souvenirs, t-shirts, jewellry, salmon. We bought a 4-pack of smoked salmon to go with the canned salmon we bought in Juneau.

Mum decided to shop at this one store for a long long time, and I got impatient. There was very little time left before all aboard, sigh. It was a rush to go to the fish place to get takeaway king crab legs and to get final souvenirs.

ket161lunchfeast ket166kingcrab

In any event there was a long queue to get back to the ship because the forklift that was supposed to lift the gangplank malfunctioned. It took over an hour to clear the queue. We enjoyed our lunch feast of king crab legs together with some salad from the international café and salmon with salmon cakes from the salmon bake on deck 14.

gold331escargot gold332tianshrimcrab
gold335lobster gold334rockfish

Spent the afternoon reading, got an alaskan amber ale and a knob creek from the bar. Dinner at the restaurant, second formal night: escargot, tian of shrimp & crab, salad, cold apple & goat’s cheese soup, lobster, rockfish, baked alaska, cherry sorbet. Our waiter brought us extra portions of lobster so altogether we had 5 portions of mains. That needed some walking on deck 7 afterwards.

I put a load of laundry in, we got changed and went to see a show. This was called British Invasion and this time I recognised the songs: mainly Beatles, Queen and the Stones. Finished the last of the wine, two bottles was more than enough.

cruise alaska day 07: glacier bay

glcr035margeriepan

Whole day cruising, the majority of the day was spent inside Glacier Bay National Park, part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site and one of the world’s largest international protected areas. It was probably the highlight of the entire cruise.

We woke up at around 7am but still missed sunrise. Rangers were already on board with commentary, we’d been inside the national park for a couple of hours and were headed straight to our glacier viewpoints. Didn’t want to waste any opportunity to watch the scenery, I went to the buffet and got breakfast back to the cabin. Didn’t feel like a heavy breakfast so mainly watermelon, melon, baked apple with some grits.

glcr004bay glcr012eagle

The inside channels were quite narrow, no wonder only 2 ships were allowed in the national park every day. There were pieces of ice debris floating everywhere. The ranger spotted the bald eagle quietly perched on a piece of ice.

glcr031grandmargerie glcr039margerie

First stop were the Grand Pacific and Margerie glaciers. The GP did not look like a glacier at all, just a big wedge of black soil. The main attraction was Margerie, and it was magnificent.

glcr066margeriecalf glcr067margeriecalf

The ship stopped a quarter mile from the glacier and for the first 30mins the port side had the view. We went to deck 15 and joined everyone to watch. First sign of calving was a soft rumble, then a scratchy cracking, and then pieces of ice broke off. I was lucky enough to get the pictures on sports mode.

The second 30mins the captain turned the ship around so starboard faced the glacier. We went back to our own balcony to absorb more of the beautiful glacier, no more calving but it didn’t matter. Did not want to leave.

glcr103lamplugh glcr107lamplugh

The next glacier stop was Lamplugh glacier. The ship faced it head on so we went to the bow and got great views. Could see the ice in great detail. It was pretty windy so we didn’t stay long. The ship turned slowly and after about 45mins headed back down glacier bay. What a wonderful glacier experience.

Lunch was at the restaurant: grilled veg & cured meat, gazpacho, salmon cream cheese bagel, blueberry roulade, mint choc ice cream. Everything was good except the gazpacho tasted like diluted ketchup.

After lunch we went to a ranger presentation about why people come, return and stay at Alaska and Glacier Bay. The love of nature and the national park was so evident, I can definitely see the attraction. Fresh air, beautiful scenery, at peace with nature, very few neighbours. Perfect.

Walked about 25mins on deck 7, then spent the rest of the afternoon in our cabin reading or out on the balcony hunting for whales and other animals. Saw a sprout very very far away. There were quite a few seals that swum next the the ship, and birds too. All too far away and too fast to photograph. The memories are just fine.

gold311goatcheese gold312terrine
gold316scallop gold318choctrio

Got a pre-dinner snack of bratwurst and fries, just because I wanted to try the deck 14 grill. Opened the second bottle of wine, a really nice cabernet franc. Dinner at the restaurant: goat’s cheese soufflé, quail & venison terrine, salad, strawberry sorbet, diver scallop with cream sauce, chocolate trio, orange sorbet. The soufflé was rich, the terrine was the first fail I tried on the cruise (too salty, weird texture), everything else, especially the seafood, was good.

glcr154sunset glcr159sunset

Looked for our pictures at the picture gallery, at $19.95 it was too expensive to buy. Ran on the treadmill for about half an hour. Waiting for sunset at 9.39pm. The sky turned gold, then pink and purple. I thought I saw a dolphin; no one else seemed to be around, I felt like it was just me, the water and the dolphin.

cruise alaska day 06: skagway

Woke up early for 7am arrival. Breakfast was cream of wheat, bacon, egg and baked apple. At dockside by 7.30am to wait for our tour bus to arrive. I’d booked the Emerald Lake bus tour with Dyea Dave Tours, another local company. Our driver Saskia arrived at 7.45am as promised, and there were 12 of us in the bus, the small group (and lower price) another advantage of booking independently.

skag016railway skag031welcome

We drove up the Yukon highway in fairly overcast weather, stopping at various points to see waterfalls or valley views. The biggest draw for Skagway is the White Pass & Yukon Route train and the bus route mirrors the train tracks on the same side or opposite side of the valley, with the advantage that we could stop whenever we wanted. The train ride itself was of course a draw, but well, it’s a train, we’ve been on the Flamsbahn so we weren’t bothered. After about an hour we got to the top of White Pass and the welcome to Alaska sign. Beyond that was the Yukon and Canada. The customs post was at Fraser, and we all held up our passports while the agent walked through the bus to check, the process took only a few minutes although there was a wait while we waited in line.

skag055railway skag061tutshi
skag071desert skag088emerald

Past Fraser we had a pitstop along the Chilkoot trail, a stop at Lake Tutshi, Carcross desert and then finally reaching our destination Emerald Lake. So pretty, the weather had cleared out and we could see the green of the lake clearly, caused by light reflecting through the deposits of calcium carbonate and clay at the bottom of the lake.

skag096carbakery skag107carbakerylunch

Backtracked to Carcross township, formerly known as Caribou Crossing. Tour excursions had grilled chicken buffet lunch at a big canteen type place, our tour guide brought us to a small bakery that offered homemade sandwiches, soup and baked goods. We had corn beef (our salt beef), swiss & sauerkraut sandwich, salmon chowder, rhubarb strussel and blueberry cake. $24 almost, not cheap. I also noticed I was the only one in our group to pay in CAD, so many posts in cruise forums from Americans asking if they can pay in USD, sigh. Places like Carcross will definitely accept, mostly because of the thousands of Americans who arrive without realising you use another country’s currency when you are in their country, but the clueless still get a shock when they get change in CAD. Again, another country.

skag127carstation skag141carbridge
skag152store skag159passportmoose
skag176carcross skag186carchurch

There was about an hour after lunch to explore the township. Carcross was the base of operations for many gold rush miners, and the haphazard and slightly desolate feel remained. The township was more like clusters of buildings that were a mix of old and new. The church, general store and station looked older while there was a newer block that had the information centre, a fish & chips place, a coffee place and a first nation store. In Canada what is known in the US as American Indians are referred to as first nationers. The pink general store was were most people headed for souvenirs and ice cream; they also had a little table where people could stamp their passports with a couple of cute stamps, self-service.

I bought a mini cinnnamon roll from the bakery before getting back on the bus, it looked so enticing on the tray. The journey back to Skagway was about 1.5hrs, and we napped for part of the way. We stopped at a lay-by and came across another tour bus where the driver had set up a spotter scope on a mother-and-kid mountain goat duo way up on the cliff. I could see them through the scope but could not see even a tiny white speck with just my eyes. We stopped at another viewpoint above Skagway and our driver dropped us off in town at around 2.30pm. WIth tips, it came to $200 for the two of us.

skag224house skag247redonion
skag277train skag267trainplough

We took our time walking around town back towards the ship. Bought magnets, hats, key chains and I got a free penknife. Like in Juneau there was an old timey saloon, this one called the Red Onion which was also a brothel. Difficult to go to drinking places with mum so we passed. The white pass train arrived back in town and I took some pictures. They also had this huge red drill engine parked at the yard, this was what they used in winter to clear snow.

gold275vealscaloppini gold277cassata

We were back on board at 6pm and headed to dinner. Our usual deck 5 place didn’t have any tables for two, so we were sent to Canalto restaurant at the back of deck 6, nornally used for traditional dining. We had a pair of great waitstaff but were seated in the middle of a noisy group, ah well. Dinner: seafood antipasti, cold peach bellini soup, veal scallopini, fettuccine alfredo, cassata with limoncello sorbet. It being Italian night we also got limoncello in the souvenir glass.

Ran a bit on the treadmill, read, and finished the bottle of pinot noir.

cruise alaska day 05: juneau

jun007sunrise jun015channel

For some reason, woke up at 4.15am, just in time for sunrise. Took a few pictures then went back to bed, waking up at a more civilised hour of 8am. Breakfast from the buffet: bacon, hard boil egg, french toast, watermelon. Not bad, but I don’t think I want to have such heavy breakfasts all cruise.

Watched as we sailed through the fjords towards Juneau. Peaceful and pretty scenery. Disembarkation was noon. We didn’t book any excursions, I had prepaid the glacier express bus for Mendenhall glacier. The blue bus was distinctive and easily recognised from the tramway car park, about 5-10mins’ walk from where we were docked. $20 round trip, around 20mins to the glacier. They dropped us off at the car park, across from the visitor center.

jun075glacierfalls jun132glacier
jun121kayak jun111nuggetfalls

Just 5 mins from the visitor center and we were at the edge of Mendenhall Lake with already great views to the glacier. A friendly park ranger was there to give informed commentary. We followed the 1 mile nugget falls trail for even better views. Easy paved hike that was really great on a pleasant day, we didn’t see any bears although some reviewers commented that they had. Both the glacier and the falls were so huge, we got close enough to the falls to feel the spray. There were kayakers on the lake too. Very impressive and a must-see in Juneau.

Got the blue bus back to Juneau town and checked out the rows of independent tour groups there. I had at the back of my mind to take mum to a whale watching cruise, and we signed up for one at 5pm. That left us enough time for a late lunch. We both did research before the trip and agreed that we had to go to Tracy’s king crab shack.

jun192tracycombo jun198tracycrablegs

The crab shack was actually 3 shacks. Order at one, pick up drinks at the second and they cook the crab at a third shack. The line was long, but as the greeter said, study the menu and by the time we decided on what to order we would be near the head of the line. We ordered a combo of 1 king crab leg, 4 crab cakes and carb bisque plus an extra order of 1 leg. I was grumpy and thirsty so I ordered both the alaskan amber ale and the summer ale. Total bill just under $75. Not cheap, but it did not disappoint and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.

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There was just about enough time to quickly explore the shops in town. Another popular destination would be the red dog saloon, but a) I’d just had 2 beers and b) it was too crowded. We met up with the whale watching group near the tramway carpark. The bus took us 25mins to Lake Auke to board the boat. We speeded to where whales had been seen and we ended up seeing humpback whales, orcas, sea lions and bald eagles. The whales were quite far away, and difficult to photograph. I got a nice video of the trail flip. The humpbacks started breaching, I was too late and only got the splash but later got the action pic from a fellow passenger. This was a really enjoyable evening out; there were only 14 passengers in the tour (vs 100-200 on a ship’s excursion), it was a nice evening and even if we only saw one whale it was worthwhile.

There was around 45mins after we got back to do more shopping. Bought magnets, salad paws, oven glove, ulu knife for me and spent a fortune on canned salmon. They were delicious canned salmon though.

The dining room was still open when we got back onboard so we had a late dinner: king crab provençale (yummy, more king crab), chilled apple soup (more yummy smoothie goodness), surf & turf, burned rhubarb napoleon with redcurrent sorbet. The prawns in the surf and turf was good if a bit salty; the steak came medium well even though I ordered rare. We’re coming round to the thinking that we should avoid red meat and stick with fish and seafood.

cruise alaska day 04: at sea

Breakfast was at the restaurant. I had a some fruit followed by salmon cream cheese bagel. All pretty tasteless unfortunately. The tea was english breakfast but not strong enough—usual American mistake of adding the tea bag to not-boiling water instead of water to teabag.

There was a shopping event, with apparently low prices. Mainly clothes like t-shirts with Soutn America logos (guess that’s where the golden was previously), accessories like belts, scarves and hats. Really boring. I went and did laundry. $2 per load, I brought laundry sheets myself.

gold225mussels gold227mixedgrill

Lunch was at the restaurant: green lipped mussels, cobb salad, mixed grill, ice cream. Again, the seafood was good and the meat overcooked. I asked for a second helping of the mussels and I got a second helping.

gold121piazza gold143vines
gold136intcafe gold138intcafe
gold232rouladepistachio gold233cheesecakechoc

What’s new on Princess is the international café on deck 5, open 24hrs for soup, sandwiches, snacks, cookies, pastries and dessert. We got blueberry roulade, pistachio pudding, strawberry cheesecake and chocolate opera to enjoy in our cabin. There is zero possibility of going hungry on this cruise. Had to burn off some of that by walking around the deck, even though it was very windy.

gold259shrimp gold260bananasfoster

Formal dinner. Most people had changed, although I didn’t see many tuxedos or evening gowns. Mainly suits, ties, neat tops or sparkly outfits. Some were in normal casualwear but no one was bothered. Dinner was nice again: stilton mousse with waldorf salad, asparagus soup, shrimp danielle (grilled with rice), bananas foster. I had a glass of rosé.

There was a champagne waterfall show in the piazza after dinner, plus a crew presentation. The captain said a few words too. We went back to change before going to the show at the theatre. It was called Stardust and had songs from the 1940s-1960s. Mum recognized many of the songs but the only one I knew was Unforgetable.

Got a john jacob rye from the bar to try. It was okay.

cruise alaska day 03: embarkation seattle

We woke up early, at 6.30am. Had breakfast, checked out and went to the Whole Foods nearby. Bought cous cous, salmon and a couple of bottles of wine. Princess allows one bottle of wine per person without corkage, so I was pleased to see local Washington and Oregon wines. We had time, so we thought we’d go to Pike Place market again, but there wasn’t a lot of parking.

Drove to pier 91 cruise terminal to drop off Mum and the luggage. Then proceeded to find our parking slot. I’d pre-booked parking at cruise parking that was about 5-10mins from the terminal, has free shuttle and was about $30 cheaper than the official terminal parking. Check-in at the cruise was straightforward, we were at the waiting area a little after 11am. At around 11.45am they started letting people onto the ship. Priority and disabled boarding came first so it was about 15-20mins before it was our turn. By 12.15pm we were in our cabin.

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We had a balcony cabin, and it looked like the MSC balcony cabin. In fact, it turned out that cruise ships were pretty much all the same in terms of layout and deck arrangement. Just some cosmetic or small differences. I thought the cabin was a bit bigger, there was more storage space and the space between my bed and the balcony was larger, enough for 2 people to move around.

We learned a tip from online forums, that the buffet on embarkation day would be a scrum. Instead, we made our way to one of the dining rooms for lunch. We were seated at the same table as a wedding party. They were also experienced Alaska cruisers so we got a few pointers. Lunch was avocado & bay shrimp, beef tenderloin and apple tart with mint tea. Food was definitely better than MSC, the shrimp starter was really good although the beef was overcooked.

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gold063sanctuary gold071chess

Unpacked in our cabin, then it was time for the muster station drill in the theatre. After that, we took a walk around the decks, taking pictures and watching the sailaway party.

gold212crawfish gold213loveboat

Although we opted for anytime dining, we were outside the restaurant promptly at 5.15pm just before it opened. There was no problem getting a table for two. Dinner was red snapper ceviche mojito, frozen pineapple soup, crawfish etoufflé, flourless chocolate cake and we shared the signature Princess love boat dream which was a chocolate mousse. The seafood was really good and the frozen pineapple soup more like a smoothie. The chocolate desserts were good too. Turns out, corkage applies in the restaurant, even with the “free” bottle of wine. Doesn’t matter, they bring us water, so I’ll just have the wine in the cabin.

After dinner I went running on the treadmill for half an hour, then opened the bottle of cooper hill pinot noir, from Oregon. Nice.

#31 new US state: washington

sea319chihuly

Tasks #31-33 are to visit 3 new US states—visit, as in stop, go to places, photograph and experience as opposed to drive through. This is the first one, where I visited the Pacific Northwest for the first time.

I travelled to Seattle via Vancouver with mum to go on an Alaskan cruise. Got there a couple of days beforehand as we’d never visited that part of the US before. Saw Pike Place Market, Space Needle, Chihuly Garden & Glass. People say it rains a lot in Seattle; aside from a little rain in the morning, we had really good weather so no complaints.

The highlight was definitely Chihuly garden. Well worth the price of the combo ticket with Space Needle. On the whole I liked Seattle (notwithstanding the homeless behind Pike Place market). It’s relaxed, pretty and doesn’t have the manic busy feel of New York or LA. They have fresh seafood at Pike Place market, access to great wines from Washington state and Oregon plus lots of craft beer choices. If I were a coffee drinker, it’s a big coffee city too.

Full writeup: here | flickr set: here

cruise alaska day 02: seattle

Breakfast at the hotel, ham steak, scrambled eggs, waffle made from machine. They also have english breakfast tea so I could save my pg stash. By the time we were ready to had out it was already 10am. Sigh.

It was raining a little. Short walk to Seattle Center to take the monorail downtown. $2.25 for me and $1 for mum, the trip was around 1 mile, there were only 2 stops and took all of 2 minutes. Kinda fun, especially when the driver took one curve at a fast speed.

sea047chocwine sea045chocwine

First stop after we got off the monorail? Gap, Old Navy, A&F so mum could look for…I don’t know what she was looking for. It was boring. We finally made it out of the shops and walked towards the seafront. Found a nice shop that sold chocolate and wine, they had a wine and truffle tasting for $20, with great-looking local wines, but it was too early in the day. I wanted to go back later, but never got the chance.

sea052pikemkt sea055pikemkt
sea067crableg sea086crab

We spent a long time at Pike Place Market, for good reason. Great place, with stalls for fresh seafood, fruit & veg, flowers, snacks, nuts, souvenirs and trinkets. Bought apple chips and mum bought nuts. Opposite the market itself were specialist food stores including salmon, oil & vinegar, desserts plus the original Starbucks with a long, long queue. Apparently they still make coffee the original way, whatever that means. We obviously didn’t join the queue, but we did join the queue for piroshky piroshky bakery, a Russian bakery selling sweet and savoury pastries made onsite. We bought a salmon pât&233; pastry and a cardamom apple cinnamon roll.

sea112pikelunch sea114cinroll

We went back into the market to buy 2 portions of ready-to-eat alaskan king crab legs and apple cider. The area just behind the market at the sort of park/promenade was an uneasy mix of tourists and homeless; we found a table, ignored the people around us and enjoyed our lunch.

Underneath the market in post alley was the gum wall where people stuck pieces of chewing gum on the wall. Pretty disgusting. We left the market and walked up Pike. No hard rock shirt, it was a repeat. We found a Target and mum went to town buying vitamins and stuff. I bought a shower curtain liner. We carried our loot quite a few blocks uptown to the cheesecake factory. Shared our favourite red velvet cheesecake and I got a glass of an oregon pinot noir at $4 happy hour price. Happy.

sea163needle sea175needleplane
sea185needleview sea202needleview

Took the monorail back to our hotel to drop our shopping. I went to the lobby to print a combo ticket for space needle and chihuly garden to take advantage of the online discount. It was great to have our hotel so close to Seattle Center. By then the day had turned into a glorious blue sky evening. Even though our Space Needle slot was 6pm, it was still very much light outside and we took our time going around the observation deck. Great views.

We saw that part of the park had a bunch of stalls in what looked like a pop-up market so when we came back to ground level we walked over to explore the folklife festival. We heard music and saw a bunch of people dancing on stage to what turned out to be the anzanga marimba ensemble. Nice. There were stalls selling folksy clothing; the food stalls in contrast were all about deep fried food, hahaha.

sea301chihuly sea292chihuly

The visit to Chihuly garden and glass was higher on my to-do list (if the weather wasn’t nice, we wouldn’t have even bothered with space needle). The entire museum was a showcase for the studio art work of Dale Chihuly. There were separate galleries for different projects and works of art. So skilful, so intricate, every piece was interesting and fascinating.

sea312chihuly sea342chihuly

Great timing as we came to the outdoor garden part of the museum it was almost sunset. The highlight of the museum was the glasshouse with an intricate piece from the ceiling that allowed the space needle to act as background. Outside were many other pieces that reflected the space needle, very clever. We sat for a bit, visited the gift shop and wandered out.

By the time we left it was around 9pm, still a little light. Didn’t feel like eating but we went to walgreens again to get coke and I bought a beer from Pike Brewing company from the gas station around the corner. Interesting label, a tripel ale.

flickr set: seattle 251 photos, 6 videos

cruise alaska day 01: flight, seattle

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Final packing done quickly in the morning. Had salmon spread on crackers and oatmeal for lunch, then left at 12.30pm. Taxi, check-in, train and I was at the airport in less than 1 hour. Parents arrived about 10mins after I did, and I took Mum to the senior check-in counter so she didn’t need to queue up. Got through security with plenty of time to spare so we browsed through duty free. Tried a taste of Aberfeldy 12 and 21 plus Jack Daniels Honey, can always rely on duty frees for whisky tastings.

The plane arrived late at the gate so the flight was delayed about half an hour. It was a very full flight, even the middle seats were taken. I’d booked 2 aisle seats at check-in, G and H, and it proved to be a good decision because we both had a little bit of space and we could move around without disturbing other people. Lunch was fish, ice cream and beer. Pretty bland and forgettable. Watched Hobbit 1, I’d seen it before on a flight and I wanted to see it again. Then I discovered there was the entire season of The Great British Bake-off, so I started watching it, episode after episode. Wonderful. Breakfast was sausage and eggs with weak tea. At least CX knows the concept of tea.

Arrival at YVR was uneventful although there was a long wait at the luggage carousel, which stopped at one point. Luckily (or not), most passengers were waiting still, so it wasn’t our luggage specifically.

Car rental places was just across from the terminal in the car park. I’d booked through avis uk which gave me a better deal than avis us, so I used my uk licence and lloyds credit card. Hyundai Accent in white, a neat little car. We set off at 3.15pm with the mileage reading at 20,997km.

An easy drive down BC-99 to the US border, we got there at 4pm. Then there was an hour’s delay while we had to park, go into the customs building, queue up for a long time to wait for immigration. And all this despite us having visa waiver status and ESTA, plus they charged us $6 each admin fee. We never get charged admin fee at airports.

We got to Seattle around 6-ish. One way system and a bit of map misreading meant we got a tad lost. I wasn’t that worried, because I saw from the map I printed that the hotel is near the Space Needle and it was just a matter of finding the right street. And without a map or GPS I actually did, ha! The hotel was a modest Quality Inn, which worked out to be just over $200 per night including room, taxes and parking. Fairly large room, if a bit dark.

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It was getting late so time to find food. Walked to a nearby Walgreens to get toiletries and coke. The friendly cashier directed us to the 5 point café which is somewhere between a diner and a bar. I had chicken fried steak and Mum had the steak dinner. Large portions and even though we were pretty hungry after our long day we couldn’t finish the large mound of mash that came with each dish. The food tasted okay, no complaints. They also had nice craft beers, I was thirsty so I had 2: a Maritime Pacific dark and an amusingly named Northwest Crazy Bitch IPA. The bill came to $50 including tips.

Walked back to the hotel via the Space Needle, which looked very impressive at night. Showered, got on internet, pretty tired.

getting ready for alaska

weather weather

I’m almost packed, just last minute electronics and stuff to put in. Flight’s checked in; car booked; hotels booked; even parking at the cruise terminal is booked; printed everything that I could. I got replies from a couple of hotels I sent enquiries to, but it’s too late. If I make an enquiry, don’t take 2 weeks to respond, you’ll lose your potential customer.

Looks like the weather is pretty warm, mid- to late-teens, cooler in Alaska and in the mornings. Hoping for more sunshine. Probably just shirt sleeves in Seattle and Vancouver then my fleece rain jacket for Alaska. Mum is taking warmer clothing—she feels the cold much more than me. Happiness is flying to North America, with the 2 pieces luggage allowance it’s basically double what we can take usually.

What I’m looking forward to: scenery, scenery, scenery. A different cruise company, hopefully none of disgusting passengers from we-know-where like on Med cruises. We’re sure to go looking for places that serve king, snow and dungeness crab, have identified a few restaurant possibilities.

Talking about king crab, Discovery is celebrating its 20th anniversary by showing the first episodes of their most popular shows. I managed to catch The Greenhorn, S01E01 of Deadliest Catch. This is one show I’ve followed on and off over the years, and have tried harder to catch the last few seasons. Amazing to see all the boats from the first season and even more amazing that the Hansens and the Northwestern are still here, after 10 seasons.

There’s a crab boat excursion on board the Aleutian Ballad, which has now been converted to a tourist destination with crab pot demos and such like. It’s nothing like the original boat, and I don’t think sitting on plastic seats in calm waters is the same as watching the show. It’s in Ketchikan and we want to spend our half day there exploring the town so we haven’t signed up for any excursions.

cruise planning alaska: excursions

Mendenhall Glacier Skagway White Pass Railway
images from flickr users bill & vicki T and michael bennett

One of the most pleasurable activities in trip planning is to look at sights and activities. We will have a total of 6 stops, so I was furiously looking them all up. Online resources as well as library—Fodor’s Alaska Ports of Call is a very, very useful book although it focuses too much on cruise excursions.

Juneau — we have the whole day there 11am-10pm. Most excursions are to Mendenhall Glacier, perhaps combined with whale watching. The glacier excursions are to the visitor center, with a view of mendenhall across the lake. To get on the glacier it’s either by helicoptor or a hiking expedition. I did the helicoptor to glacier trip in new zealand and mum doesn’t want to risk walking on ice so we are just aiming at going to the visitor center. Looking at pictures and videos, it’s definitely not second best, there are numerous trails that offer spectacular views of the glacier and the chances of seeing bears is quite high.

Ship excursions allow about an hour there, and the universal lament is that there is not enough time. There is a bus that goes there every 30mins $20 roundtrip. This means we can stay there as long as we want. We’ll go there straight after getting off the ship, then aim at getting back to town in the afternoon for an early crab dinner. If we see afternoon whale watching tours at the dock, we may go for that otherwise we’ll just stroll around town, visit a tourist trap bar or tour the beer brewery.

Skagway — whole day 6am-8pm. So many things to do. The main excursion is the white pass & yukon route train that goes between Skagway and Fraser in British Columbia. Add-ons include the suspension bridge, gold panning and dog sled rides. Suspension bridge sounds interesting, I’m a fan of Gold Rush and although the idea of dog sled rides is appealing it involves getting too close to dogs so yuck.

We will likely need to join a tour for our preferred option of train and bus combo that takes us to Carcross and Emerald Lake. There is a ship excursion option of course, and I’ve emailed a couple of independent tour companies. It’d be great if the independents have space, much prefer the smaller group.

If we can’t find an appropriate bus/train combo tour then I’ll want to go on the Jeep adventure where we drive ourselves to the summit.

Ketchikan — half day 7am-12.30pm. I thought we can walk around historic creek street, visit the heritage center or take a bus to one of the parks. More strenous activities include ziplining, karting, kayaking. There’s even a crab tour on board one of the early deadliest catch boats.

Mum likes the look of the wilderness cruise and crab fest for the all you can eat dungeness crab part. Plus we get to pull crab pots. Sounds good and we’ll have to go with the ship’s excursion on this one.

Victoria — evening 7pm-midnight. We want to go to butchart gardens but it may not be open—they only open till 10pm in the summer. If that is the case, we’ll just do a quick hoho bus tour or even better, walk inside the empress hotel and around the waterfront.

Seattle — 2 nights, 1 full day. A definite is pike street market, I envision us being there for hours. Space Needle, we’ll see. People flock to viewing points all over the world, from eiffel tower to empire state building, we always find those experiences a bit meh. Waterfront or may be the olympic sculpture park.

Vancouver — 3 nights, 2 full days. Mum did the homework on Vancouver and the first thing she identified are the markets — richmond night market, international night market and granville public market by day. We like markets. It being our last stop, the plan is to see what we can buy to bring home.

Activity-wise, there’s the capilano suspension bridge, especially if we skip the one at skagway. They also have a cliff walk, a treetop canopy walk as well as walking in the forest itself. Looks fantastic and at least half a day.

Another day can be spent at grouse mountain with a cable car, walking, bears and a 5-line zipline. The zipline takes 2.5hrs, even though mum won’t go she said I should. For some reason, I’m scared of heights, rollercoasters and bungee jumps but I went zorbing and I’m okay with the idea of ziplining.

cruise planning alaska: hotels

To recap, in Seattle I need to find hotels that offer park-and-cruise packages so I can leave the car there whilst we are on the cruise. I spent a lot of time looking and the results are disappointing, either because there aren’t many places with this package or the available ones have already been booked up. People plan and organise for their cruises, especially a big ticket one like Alaskan cruises, months or even a year in advance. We’re leaving in 2 weeks.

I found offers at Quality Inn, Knights Inn and Econolodge—motels around the Sea-Tac area, which is to the south of the city. The cruise terminal is around the middle and towards the north. These places say they have transportation to and from the terminal, but from online reviews and thinking about it myself, I’m not altogether convinced. In one case, their so-called transportation is to give you a link to book a town car or a minivan with Shuttle Express. Riiiiight. Of course, worst case scenario, there are taxis which potentially may be $50 or more one way.

The one place that is closer to the cruise terminal is hotel nexus in North Seattle. No wonder they still have places, the package, which works out to be around $450, doesn’t seem to be cancellable once booked.

Back to the drawing board. Find a hotel that is wallet-friendly, has parking for 2 nights and I’ll park at the cruise terminal. If the park-and-cruise package is in the $500 region and cruise terminal parking is at $140 then I have $360 for a regular hotel. Which sounds like a lot but is hard to find in Seattle during cruise season.

What is my bottom line? Given a choice, I prefer to be nearer downtown. One of the Kimptons, or the W is currently on special offer, or a b&b, or a real home at airbnb. These didn’t work. Too expensive, no availability or rooms with only 1 bed (no, Mum and I don’t share very well so we need a twin room). I did find a Quality Inn a few blocks from the Space Needle for $375. I consider the task complete. With a confirmed reservation, I can keep an eye on other offers in the next 2 weeks.

Burrard Street 2009 The Burrard Hotel
images from flickr users gord99 and miss604

Vancouver next. No complications with cruise parking and such, all I need is a decent place with 2 beds and parking. By now I’m getting tired of searching so I picked one that seemed reasonably priced, in a central location and has good reviews. The Burrard, according to its blurb, dates from 1956 and has been updated to a mix of fun, retro and design-chic. One of the tripadvisor comment says that it’s not for

stodgy and old people

which I find unfair to old people and a stupid comment in general. I think Mum will enjoy the modern design, if the pictures I found online are really indicative. It may be a bit noisy, if the guests are really as hip and young as they claim; plus they are pet friendly so…dogs, yuck. Anyway, I can cancel before arrival, so again I can look for others.

cruise planning alaska: routing

Mum wants to go on another cruise, this time to Alaska. It’s one of the most popular bucket list items—it’s on my travel list. I had always thought it was way too expensive. Mum did all the initial research, talking to the travel agent and getting all the information about cruise companies and destinations. Many of the cruises are one-way north or southbound, starting or ending at Anchorage in the north and Seattle or Vancouver in the south.

The cost of the cruise itself isn’t too bad, it’s the cost of the flights that turned out to be prohibitive. Open jaw including a leg to or from Anchorage pushed the base total to over 30k (almost USD4,000, before tips and excursions). Mum wasn’t deterred, she kept looking and looking. She wanted Princess, and she found round trip cruises.

The choice between starting at Seattle or Vancouver was supposedd to be a no-brainer. Vancouver is a direct flight away whereas Seattle required a layover at LAX or SFO, pushing the cost back to 30k. I looked quickly on google maps, and it’s only 2.5 hours’ drive between the two cities.

cruisemap

We decided on the cheaper Vancouver flight and roundtrip cruise starting at Seattle. This means we can stay over at both places, which neither of us had visited before (layover at YVR doesn’t count). The ports on the cruise will be the usual: Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan with VIctoria thrown in. We get to go into Glacier Bay too, Princess being one of the companies with the required licence.

Total cost is less than 25k, or just over USD3k. Still expensive, will need to be disciplined with excursions.