Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mission Alaska: Life Onboard the Norwegian Pearl

I don't have a lot of pictures but the Norwegian Pearl was a lovely ship with a great crew, run by a company obsessed with protecting us all from noroviruses.  There are hand sanitizer dispensers outside every restaurant, the casino, near the shops, by the shuffleboard court -- you name it.  However, since noroviruses are spread by people who touch contaminated surfaces and then touch their mouths, the ship wanted to prevent all possibly surfaces from becoming contaminated in the first place.  I think they also didn't completely trust the passengers to disinfect themselves.  So, outside every restaurant they positioned crew members armed with spray bottles who constantly reminded us to "Washy washy".  After spraying, they reminded us to be, "Smiley smiley, happy happy."  This procedure was also followed when we arrived back on board after a shore excursion.

In less than two days, the "Washy Washy" refrain was a common humor point throughout the ship.  During the improv show, the actors asked the crowd to shout out something they'd heard on the ship.  More than half of the audience yelled, "Washy Washy."

I'm happy to say that thanks to our own attention to cleanliness and the diligent spray crew, my friend Janet and I remained disease free for the entire trip.  This made us happy happy.

The crew and the passengers represented all nations so we heard a good number of different accents throughout the week.  Janet and I went to a game run by the cruise entertainment staff called Majority Rule.  They asked a series of questions and each team had to submit our answers.  We earned points when our answer matched that of the majority of other teams.  For one question the host asked, "What do men have to do to be attractive to women?"  Most of us said, "Smile!"

The host next asked, "What do women have to do to be attractive to men?"  Accessing our smart ass sides, we wrote down, "Breathe."   That answer became even funnier when the host, in his Phillipine-accented English said, "Breed."

We also played team trivia one afternoon.  We were doing pretty well, we thought.  Then we found out that Big Ben isn't the clock or the clock tower in London -- it's the bell inside the clock tower.  How well do you know the American flag?  The red stripes represent the original 13 colonies.  The stars stand for the states.  What about the blue behind the stars?  Nah, we didn't know either.  According to the ship, it stands for loyalty.

Cruise ships are big on serving delicious cocktails and food.  We were happy to celebrate the start of our vacation with a drink at the Bliss Lounge.  That's a Pear Pleasure.  Pretty and delicious.

Speaking of martinis, every afternoon the ship held a "tasting" of some family of cocktails.  We went to the Martini tasting on Tuesday.  Hands down, or bottoms up, this was the best drink value on the ship.  $15.00 entitled us to taste each of five different drinks.  These were not just tastes as in a small splash of cocktail.  Oh no.  They served us a healthy belt, easily the equivalent of a full shot and a half.  I'd like to be all virtuous and say that I did not finish the classic martini or the melon-tini, but I probably made up for it by drinking the rest of Janet's Cosmopolitan sample.

Whoever decorated the ship seemed to pay homage to different cultures.  The lounges were particularly interesting.  The Bliss Lounge resembled nothing closer than a Turkish seraglio.  Lots of crushed velvet upholstery, opulent drapery and beds.  Yes, big queen, or sheik-sized beds.  I guess if someone's going to get falling down drunk, the handy beds make it a comfortable landing.

The bed motif was continued in the Spinnaker Lounge.  I'm not sure how it fit with the nautical look, but why let realism interfere with comfort?

Yep, kind of interesting.  Speaking of the Spinnaker, the decorator was so obsessed with beds that he/she didn't give much thought to the other seating.  Going to that lounge made us feel a little like Goldilocks.  The individual chairs were so low our knees came up to our chins.  The stools were so high that you couldn't get comfortable unless you were at least 6 feet tall.  Janet and I adopted the strategy of arriving super early to shows we wanted to see so we could snag a "just right" booth.
There were other beautiful spots on the Pearl.  The Crystal Atrium, appropriately named as you can see, boasted a beautiful glass sculpture by artist Dale Chihuly.

There are a number of restaurants aboard the Pearl.  The bigger of the two main dining rooms is the Summer Palace.  The ship's decorator was clearly inspired by the opulence of Imperial Russia.  The newel posts were all topped with giant Faberge-inspired eggs.  The chair backs displayed the Romanov coat of arms.    Nicholas and Alexandra's pictures indicated the mens and ladies restrooms.  The walls were lined with portraits of Czar Nicholas, Czarina Alexandra and their children.  The only person of note missing was Rasputin.  I gotta tell you, after awhile, the portraits bummed me out.  Nobody's smiling, for one thing.  For another, I know that they're all fated to be brutally murdered. 

Every night in the Summer Palace, we were entertainment by the melodious renditions of the Manila Trio.  They blended flute, guitar and violin beautifully as they performed Broadway standards, Sinatra hits and that hit of all hits, Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.  I looked at the musicians, sure that they were pulling our legs, but their facial expressions were as serious on that song as any other in their repetoire.

We laughed about that all the way back to our cabin.  Our very, um, compact cabin.  Janet and I were really okay in it, once we realized we could shove most of our suitcases under the beds so we had at least a yard of wriggle room.  I don't know how three or four people could share one of these staterooms without killing someone by the end of the week.  I know I'm a big woman, but the bathroom was tiny by anyone's measure.  Clark Kent couldn't have spun in it fast enough to change into his Superman tights. 

Still, the stateroom steward kept it clean and on some nights when he came in to do the turn down service, he left us with a little friend.

All joking aside, I really liked the ship and the Norwegian experience.  I'd sail them again, particularly if they're going back to Alaska.  There's still so much more to see! 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mission Alaska: Victoria, B.C.

I know Victoria is not part of Alaska, but it was the final port we visited on our cruise.  This is a charming island city, both beautiful and historic.  Our original excursion choice got cancelled, so we signed up for the Grand city tour and high tea at the Empress Hotel.

The bus took us all around and the driver gave us an excellent narration explaining the history and customs of Victoria.  These days its home to a lot of retirement condos and government offices, in addition to tourism, of course.  The houses all over the island are beautiful with gardens that burst with colors, showing the pride of their homeowners.  The Empress is a large, lovely older hotel situated looking out over the city harbor.  High tea is a popular custom -- whether enjoyed at 2 p.m. or, like us, 9 p.m.  Traditional tea sandwiches, scones, and small, tasty confections arrived on a tiered china stand.  The wait staff served our tea the "proper" way, placing our requested lumps of sugar and cream in our cups before adding the tea.  I'm a confirmed tea drinker, so I loved both the taste as well as the ceremony.  I also liked the gift of their special Centennial blend that they presented each of us with before we left.

After the tour and tea, we returned to the ship, eager to catch that evening's performance of Second City, the improv group.  We'd seen them perform other times and really enjoyed the shows. 

The evening was a little bittersweet.  We knew that it was the last night of a fantastic vacation.

Tomorrow:  Some general observations and pictures onboard the Norwegian Pearl.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Mission Alaska: Ketchikan

Is anyone tired of the beautiful scenery yet?  I know that I didn't get tired of seeing it while we cruised.  Friday brought us to Ketchikan, another small town in what has to be one of the most beautiful states in the entire country.  Janet and I definitely focused on wilderness excursions so we disembarked the huge ship, walked a few feet across the pier, and boarded a 78' metal power catamaran for the trip to Misty Fjords National Monument and Wilderness Area.

We were told pretty soon in the trip that Ketchikan gets about 20 sunny days a year.  We were very lucky to have skies like this:

If I remember the narration right, the area was first "discovered" by Captain George Vancouver.  When I say discovered, I mean by Europeans since the Native American Nations were there long before anyone else sailed in. 

The narrator on our trip was phenomenal.  I could not begin to retell everything she shared about the area, the history, the culture, the eco-system, and the wildlife.  In addition to the naturalist, they also had a Native Artist on board who could speak even more about the Native Nation that populates the area.

In these pristine surroundings, every piece of the eco-system works together.  Nature's synergy is wonderful to behold.

I don't know if it  happens all of the time, or if we were fortunate to the extreme, but whales showed up again for our pleasure.

Isn't he handsome?
 Below is a picture of a place in the area called New Eddy Rock.  You can camp on it or get married at its base if you want.

Not that we ever tired of seeing whales, but Janet and I also hoped to see at least one bear while in Alaska.  While the boat motored around Misty Fjords, all of a sudden the captain told us they'd spotted a bear on shore.  Everyone ran to the starboard side looking for the critter.  We searched and searched but couldn't see it.  Finally, even the crew gave up and the captain announced that the bear had probably gone back into the woods.  Seconds later, a woman on the lower deck began to yell, in a broad Southern accent, "It's in the trayyy root.  It's in the trayy root!"  We heard her running, her feet clanging on the metal deck.  She pounded up the stairs.  "I saww it.  It's in the trayyyyyy rooot!"  She ran out and continued to yell while she pounded on the door to the captain's bridge. 

I stared at the damn tree root but couldn't see anything but branches, roots and dirt.  Finally I just zoomed in the camera as much as possible and started snapping photos.   When I later looked at the photos, imagine my surprise.  There WAS a bear in the trayyyy roooot.  (Look to the left of the room ball near the first big root.  You'll see it looking back at us. 

How gorgeous is this place?  Seriously gorgeous!

I don't remember the name of the little black and white birds with the red legs and feet, but they were cute.

Whales, bears, birds -- why not some harbor seals, too?  The ones on top of this rock outcropping were easy to spot.  The others were almost perfectly camoflaged.


See them?  There were a few dozen spread out over the rocks.

Figured I'd check out the video feature of my new camera.  I was amazed that I captured the Orca jumping. don't blink.  You'll miss it!

After visiting the last group of orcas for a few minutes, the captain really needed to return us to our ship.  We even passed another humpback without stopping.  Back in Ketchikan, we did a little shopping.  Once on board again, Janet went off for a massage and I shot some photos from the balcony.
Floatplanes are popular for getting around Alaska between towns that don't have many roads, as well as for sightseeing.  For my money, I'd rather be amid the scenery than flying over it.

Someone in Ketchikan has a sense of humor.

Pretty soon we were cruising away from Ketchikan and making our way back down the inside passage.  Tomorrow:  Victoria, British Columbia.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mission Alaska: Glacier Bay

Thursday of our trip was like an all-day excursion enjoyed without ever leaving the ship.  When Janet and I first began planning the cruise, we knew we wanted an itinerary that included Glacier Bay National Park.  There are no roads to this wild location.  You can only reach it by plane or boat.  Together the park and preserve are roughly the size of the state of Connecticut.

To protect the environment, they only permit two cruise ships and a small number of authorized smaller vessels in a day and we reached it early.  So that we could learn and fully appreciate our surroundings, park rangers joined the Norwegian Pearl in the morning.  Their boat ran up alongside our ship and the rangers grabbed onto a ladder and climbed up to an open door.  While both vessels were still moving.  The head ranger narrated throughout the day, giving us information about the history, the ecosystem, the flora and fauna of the park while we slowly cruised its waters. 

We specifically booked a stateroom with a balcony so that we could relax and enjoy Glacier Bay at our leisure. From the time that we woke up, we were cruising by non-stop beautiful scenery.  This was the only day that we ordered room service.  We ate in between taking pictures.  It was a little chilly out on the balcony, but we were fine in sweatpants, long-sleeved shirts, our fleece jackets and light gloves.  To be on the safe side, however, we ordered a mid-morning treat of a drink the ship called an Alaskan Snow Plow.  Hot chocolate with Bailey's Irish Cream and cream de cacao.  Yep.  That took off any chill.

Here are just a few of the many pictures I shot that day.

Does everyone seen the somber old man face on the side of the mountain?  I'm sure I'm not the only one!

We were excited to see some minor glacier "calving".  Everything was so quiet that the rumble and cracking of ice echoed all around us.

You can read more about Glacier Bay National Park by clicking here.

The park rangers told us that when we were leaving the park, we should keep an eye out for wildlife.  They weren't kidding.  I took a quick trip to the spa for a massage while Janet wandered around on deck.  When we met up again in the room, she was bubbling over saying she'd seen another humpback as well as some sort of dolphin-like animals jumping around but she didn't know what they were.  Just as she was describing what she'd seen I glanced out of our cabin window and saw some for myself.  They were Dahl's porpoises.  A minute later I looked again and there was a humpback swimming alongside the Pearl. 

The endless, awe-inspiring beauty of the day was almost overwhelming.   While breathing the cleanest air that's ever gone into my lungs and feeling the crisp, cool breeze on my skin, I was humbled by our relative insignificance in the face of nature's majesty.  I was also reminded with every breath that we have a responsibility to protect this beauty we have so generously been given.

Tomorrow:  Ketchikan and our trip to Misty Fjords. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mission Alaska: Skagway

We were up early for a 7 a.m. disembarking in Skagway, Alaska, a one-traffic-light town that in the 1900s was the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush.  Hopeful goldseekers stocked up in Skagway and then journeyed over 20 miles up into the mountains to the Canadian border.  They needed to bring at least 2000 pounds of goods with them on that difficult trek or the Canadian authorities denied them access.  The last thing anyone wanted was starving miners.

There really isn't much to Skagway except for the tourism season that starts in May and runs until September.  They live on the dollars brought in by the cruise ship passengers.  When the last cruise ship of the season departs, the town pretty much shuts down.

From everything we'd heard or read, the White Pass Railway up the mountain was the excursion we had to take.  This is quite the old, historic train.  No high speed, luxury cars on this choo-choo.

We creaked and chugged on the old rails, climbing higher and higher while the narrator told us about the history of the gold rush, the well known characters of the old days of Skagway, and the perils and challenges faced by the miners.  As we climbed higher and higher up the mountain, I marveled that any sane person would attempt it on foot or pack animal  100 plus years ago.  I guess that begs the question, "How sane is a person who's infected by gold fever?"

Sometimes it seemed like we were right on the edge.

Glad that this particular train bridge is no longer in use.
 The higher up we climbed, the more snow, of course.  We never got tired of looking out of the windows at the scenery.

The trip up the mountains took two hours.  The trip back, only an hour.  Gravity helped!

Jewell Gardens & Glassblowing

Back in Skagway, Janet went off to the Gold Dredge to discover what it was like to pan for gold.  I joined an excursion to visit a glassblowing studio.  I was excited to see the demonstration and then participate in making an ornament to keep.  Our tour guide Jonathan, a young college student from Utah, and the glass artist David could not have been nicer to our group.  David first demonstrated the techniques and explained about the method and tools.

Then each of us on the tour picked the colors and design we wented and stepped up to assist David in creating our ornaments.

David showed me how to roll the colored glass onto the initial "gather" of melted glass.

Pipes heating, ready to be used to gather molten glass.

Under David's watchful eye, I carefully rolled my ornament in the 2300 degree flash oven.

Using the heavy tweezers to pinch and twist the glass, adding design with the colors.

The blowing part of glass blowing.  Yes, I've already thought of every off-color joke.

The almost-finished product.  It needed to spend the night in the tempering case and will be shipped home to me.
After all of us completed ornaments and David made a wavy-lipped bowl, we enjoyed a delicious high tea and toured the pretty gardens before being taken back to the ship.

All told, this marked another terrific, interesting and fun day on the cruise.  Once back on board Janet and I exchanged stories of our adventures.  She'd done quite a bit of shopping in Skagway and showed off her purchases.  Both of us then began looking forward to the next day and Glacier Bay.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mission Alaska: Juneau

I recently returned from an amazing trip to Alaska. There are so many impressions of nature at its grandest and I can scarcely do it justice. I might have been overwhelmed by the experience were it not tempered to some degree by some of the funny, near goofy stuff that also happened during the week-long cruise.

I'd like to share the journey in pictures as much as possible, but I'd probably blow out Blogger. Everything is so gorgeous that I couldn't keep from snapping picture after picture after picture.  I'll do my best to select enough to give you at least a good idea of Alaska and our adventures. It's going to take a few blog posts.

We departed Seattle on Sunday, May 22nd, cruising up the inside passage.  By Tuesday, we reached Juneau.  After a slow, crowded disembarking at this first port on our journey, we were transferred by bus to a boat for our Wilderness Cruise.  I couldn't wait to see whales and the whales did not keep us waiting.  Within minutes, we spotted the first humpback whale.

I think we saw at least half a dozen humpbacks on that trip, including one who was sleeping at the surface of the water.  The captain killed the engine and we just hung out there for awhile watching the whale while it rested.

The company has been running these tours for at least a dozen years so they know the area well.  The captain cruised to a popular haul-out spot for Steller sea lions.  That big guy in the middle is the beachmaster -- the boss of this herd.  I bet he weighs at least 1500 pounds.

One of the crew members told me that they hadn't seen Orcas in the area, that it was a little early in the season for this species.  I guess the killer whales didn't get that memo.  When we were close to the time that we needed to head back to the dock, the captain thought he saw something out of the corner of his eye.  I turned my head and spotted the distinctive tall dorsal fin of an adult Orca.  There were three small groups around the boat, including some youngsters.  Absolutely gorgeous.

After a few minutes of observation, we really needed to head back, so we said goodbye, leaving wildlife and beautiful scenery in our wake.  Please note the blue sky.  These are rare in Juneau.  Apparently it rains 300 or so days a year, so we were lucky.

After rejoining our bus driver/tour guide, we traveled to Mendenhall Glacier.  We learned that glacier ice appears blue because the blue in the light spectrum is reflected back to us from the deep, compact ice.

I have many more glacier pictures from a few days later in our cruise, so I'll leave you with just one on this post.  After Mendenhall, we were delivered back to our ship.  Our spirits were high from the gorgeous views of mountains and water and the joy we felt over seeing so many whales.  The day could not have been better!

Stay tuned for the next post on our visit to Skagway.