Vancouver to Seward 21-31 May 2017
We boarded the Holland America ship Noordam by lunch on Sunday 21st with some trepidation as Jim and I were unsure we would enjoy the cruise 'experience'. However we were soon settled into our 'stateroom', cabin in other words. It was spacious with a queen size bed, small sofa, table, desk, TV, double wardrobes, ensuite with bath, and best of all, a private balcony with a table and two chairs complete with footstools.
Getting to grips with the complexities of 10 decks, four entertainment venues, (in fact I think there are 5 but I did not see the last one until we were disembarking) numerous bars and quiet areas including a library, two pools, three hot tubs, a fitness centre and spa, medical centre, casino, shops, two main restaurants and two cafe style eating places took some time.
Everything was made clearer by the Cruise Director's introduction, information available on the TV and the daily programme of events which listed what was on, when and where.
We soon settled into a routine which by day 3 was very limited for Jim as he
started with a flu virus. I did not give him much sympathy to begin with as I thought it was just a cold but it developed quickly into flu, with a raised temperature etc. At least he could retire to the cabin in comfort.
The first afternoon and evening was beautiful, warm and sunny and we sat on our balcony watching superb scenery roll by as we travelled between the mainland of British Columbia and Vancouver Island.
As everyone says about cruising the food is good and non-stop. I heard a number of people saying that it is a poor cruise where you do not gain ten pounds in weight! However, that was where we encountered the most negative aspect of the cruise for me, the Lido self service restaurant. It was an absolute scrum! At lunch time it was the only one of the 2 main restaurants open and it was difficult to find a table. They were not cleared quickly so dirty plates were often piled up. Then to acquire food you had to tango around fast flowing streams of people moving in all directions and often stopping unexpectedly when they spotted
some enticing dish, or changing direction without warning. By the time I managed to return to my table clutching a plate (of rapidly cooling food by this time) I felt as though I had escaped a war zone.
After experiencing this for a few meals I realised a strategy was needed and from then on we booked into the Dining Room for dinner most evenings where there was waiter service and a much calmer, one could even say refined, atmosphere, we waited until 'off peak' times to eat breakfast and lunch when possible and if the table was full of dirty dishes I asked someone to remove them! There were plenty of staff around but often they were just chatting to guests. Friendliness is fine but a clean table is even better!
This was what I had feared of a cruise but our strategy made a huge difference and meal times became manageable.
The Cruise Director had advised on the first day that everyone should decide what they wanted their cruise to be and then plan how to achieve it. That advice was invaluable. By following it I avoided all the
bits I didn't want like shopping in very expensive on board shops, visiting the casino, learning how to fold towels etc.
Then I was free to listen to excellent talks about our ports of call and the wildlife of Alaska, read, attend numerous quizzes (they were the only things that tempted Jim out in his dark days of flu misery), listen to classic music played by a duet, a pianist and violinist, and my very favourite, sitting in the B.B.King's Blues Bar – that was fantastic! I dipped my toe in the indoor pool once but it seemed chilly, perhaps influenced by the snow topped mountains sliding by the windows. However, Pauline and Colin enjoyed the pool, hardy souls that they are.
Then of course once we crossed into Alaska there were the ports of call, Ketchikan, Juneau (the capital of Alaska which cannot be reached by car, only boat and plane), and Skagway. Each is full of character and cruise ship visitors. But to be fair, the streets were not over-run as I feared they might be and wandering through the towns was a very gentle experience.
We had a
few rain showers in Ketchikan but as they receive something ridiculous like 150 inches of rain a year it was not a surprise and did not prevent us from walking around and visiting Creek Street, the once infamous area of town full of bars and brothels as well as the museum. Some of the streets are built on the sides of hills and are reached by flights of wooden stairs.
In Juneau we limited our exploration to the port area and the Mount Robson Tramway as we are returning to spend a week there in June. The Tramway (more like a cable car than a tramway) whisks you directly to the top of a mountain where we saw Bald Eagles, a Ptarmigan, Sitka Black tailed deer and goats, as well as the wide ranging view over the Gastineau Channel.
On reaching Skagway we went off on the White Pass and Yukon route railroad to the summit, a journey of three and a half hours. It was built originally to help prospectors reach the interior as they raced off to the Yukon gold fields carrying supplies of everything they needed to survive a full year,
including food. The Canadian government decreed that they were not allowed to cross the border without these supplies. Before the railway arrived they might have to make 5 or 6 journeys hauling their packs up the steep track to the mountain summit. It is hard to imagine the danger and discomfort the prospectors faced and even more difficult to understand how they managed to construct the railway over such extreme terrain. When we reached the summit it was freezing and this is in May!
After the morning trip on the train Jim retired to his cabin leaving me to wander through the town alone so there was no one to see me stop off in the Red Onion saloon for a Red Light Bloody Mary. I had a chat to the barman about the ghosts (they have a certificate to say they are officially haunted!) and the young lady serving posed for a photograph. Again I visited the museum which was really interesting but I have been in so many here by now that they are blurring together. What I do remember is seeing baskets and bowls made from baleen.
Baleen is a mesh
like cord found in the mouths of whales. It acts as a strainer so that only fine plankton and marine life gets swallowed by the whale as they have very narrow throats and would choke without the protection provided by the baleen.
All three towns visited were interesting and each had it's own character. The ship docked long enough to have plenty of time to look around in each location. There was no sense of rush or having to sacrifice certain sights, it was all very leisurely.
After Skagway we headed to Glacier Bay where we picked up three Rangers who had come out by boat from Bartlett Cove to rendezvous with the ship and they spent the day with us giving information and helping to spot wildlife. We spent some time in front of Margerie Glacier, a tidal glacier which calves into the sea as chunks of ice fall away into the waves making loud groaning and crashing noises. We were very lucky as it was a beautiful day with a bright blue clear sky and warm sunshine. Although the scenery was spell binding I was a little disappointed with the lack of
wildlife. In fact Glacier Bay is considered the highlight of the cruise but I found the towns more engaging.
After another day at sea crossing the Bay of Alaska we finally reached Seward. Did we enjoy the cruise? Jim missed out a little and suffered a lot but that could happen anytime and anywhere. He did manage to see most sights. As for me, surprisingly, I think I might become addicted to cruising! I will choose the ship and destinations carefully but would certainly like to try a longer cruise. The key was as the Course Director said, shape the experience to be what you want. I realised that gave the balance of privacy and activity that suited me perfectly. Pauline and Colin spent much more time than us on deck and in the pool, but that is the great thing about the ship, you choose your own activities.
On a practical point the entertainment of whatever kind never lasts longer than an hour which leaves scope to fit a lot in one evening. The music is usually in sets of 45 minutes, very manageable. Another surprise on Holland America ships (I have no
experience of others) is that the floor mat in the lifts is changed daily to show what day of the week it is. Honestly, life on board is so easy, no arguing or calculating before agreeing the day, just walk into the lift.
Sadly after seven days we disembarked from the Noordam and set out to see what Seward offered.
Seward is positioned at the top of Resurrection Bay and is surrounded by snow topped peaks, a glorious sight in the sunshine with a bright blue sky, and yes we had four sunny days when the temperature reached 22 Centigrade!
One day we went out into the Kenai Fjords National Park on a boat and saw lots of marine life including sea otters, Pacific Harbour seals, Steller sea lions, Humped back whales, Orcas, Dall porpoises and lots of birds including the Horned and Tufted puffins.
Jim was still suffering and he nodded off between each sighting but at least he managed to see everything.
Seward has a pretty boat harbour, good bars and restaurants, interesting shops and a wonderful Sea Life Centre which is the
only centre in the world dedicated to studying the Northern marine environment. We had as much fun as the kids in the touch tank, especially with the urchins. We were encouraged to touch them between their spines and when you do they close the spines around your finger as if they are shaking hands. They are probably deciding whether you are edible but despite that it felt very friendly!
The Sea Life Centre was built with money resulting from the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster when a huge oil spill killed off much of the birdlife and after a huge clean up effort traces of the oil can still be found around the shores today. Some species of birds have still not recovered to their previous numbers.
The local museum showed an interesting video about the Iditarod Trail. Many people have heard about it in connection with the mushing race that takes place each year from Anchorage to Nome when a team of dogs pulls a sled with a driver on board for approximately a thousand miles across a terrifyingly extreme landscape of snow and ice for 8 to 15 days depending upon the
conditions. However, the original trail went from Seward toward Nome and was established to enable gold prospectors to reach the interior as well as trappers.
Apart from the video the Museum had exhibits about local characters as well as the powerful earthquake which took place in 1964. This earthquake, one of the strongest recorded at 9.5 on the Richter Scale was followed by a 12 metre high tsunami which washed boats and vehicles inland and destroyed the harbour. There is now a new small boat harbour further along the coast but the seafront is kept free of new buildings and forms a long RV campsite. We loved Seward and look forward to returning there for a night later this week.
We said goodbye to Pauline and Colin as they left to continue their adventure to Girdwood and then Anchorage where we shall meet up with them for one night.
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