Transpacific Crossing - Vancouver to Yokohama, September 2018

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September 30th 2018
Published: October 1st 2018
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Transpacific Adventure, Vancouver to Tokyo, September 2018

I’ve done a few cruises over the years with different companies, and today I’m again boarding a Celebrity ship for a repositioning cruise across the northern Pacific Ocean. What’s different about this journey is the fact I’m sailing Concierge Class, which comes with a boatload (no pun intended) of benefits I haven’t had the opportunity to sample previously. The one I probably appreciate most is the priority check-in which, for anyone who has cruised in the past knows, is a godsend – sometimes the line to get from quayside to cabin is a living nightmare – I don’t DO crowds and long lines, period! The other goodies of this cabin class rate fairly high on my list as well and I can’t wait to get started.

Checking out of the Hilton around 11am, their complimentary shuttle dropped me at the Canada Place cruise ship terminal, in time to begin my check-in process. Towering large over the terminal and docked at the pier, is the Millennium. At almost 91,000 tons, she is the grandmama of the Celebrity fleet – one can only hope she doesn’t act or dress as one! Built in 2000 and refurbished in 2016, she has a passenger capacity of 2,138 and a crew of 1,000. My verandah cabin is on Sky Deck 9 and with 191sf living space and a 46sf balcony, I should be comfortable for the next two weeks in my floating hotel. Getting from shuttle to ship was a breeze, less than 20 minutes and that included clearing US Customs as our first port of call will be Alaska. Cabin wasn’t ready this early, so it was lunch first on deck 5 – very enjoyable and I met some interesting people at the table, as I generally do.

By 2pm I was settled into my cabin, unpacked and taking photographs of the harbor from the balcony, it really is beautiful here. Then the dreaded and totally boring mandatory drill – complete waste of a good hour onboard – but I made up for it by returning to the cabin to find the evening savory snacks and a bottle of sparkline wine on the table. Promptly at 4:30pm, the ship’s horn sounded, and she slipped slowly away from the pier. Watching our departure from Vancouver on the balcony with said wine and snacks, is the only way to bid adieu to the city. Don’t need to explore, the layout is virtually identical to all other Celebrity ships I have sailed on over the past couple of years. I could probably find my way blindfolded from bow to stern if I had to.

Later that evening I headed for the Celebrity Theater to catch the 7pm show – what a hoot that turned out to be. It was a comedian (always a bad sign, they are generally mediocre at best) by the name of Richie Minervini, and he was beyond bad, he was god-awful. Within the first 10 minutes of his patter, people were getting up and leaving – I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt for a few more (I must be getting old, that’s my only excuse). Just as I was about to stand up and make an exit, the lights on the ship went out and Richie was in pitch darkness up on the stage. Evidently there is a vengeful god upstairs. My immediate comment was, “that’s the best part of the entire show” – didn’t realize the people around me had heard that, but laughter erupted and we all high-tailed it to the nearest door. Lights back on, I walked towards the dining room for dinner, lights out again. People were using their smartphones as torches until we were bathed in light a few moments later. The captain announced over the PA system that it was a small technical problem (yeah right), but it did necessitate our stopping dead in the water for about 30 minutes. This is slowly turning out to be the Willie Wonka Cruise, I can tell….LOL.

I prefer eating later in the evening, so after the regular 7pm show, I’m in the dining room around 8:15pm each night. Instead of having assigned seating times, I always go for the select option which allows me to show up at the main dining room anytime between 5:15 and 9pm and be seated, usually at a different table (with new people). This way I’m never stuck with boring idiots and I end up making friends by the boatload (no pun intended). I got lucky and shared my table this first evening with two delightful couples and before I knew it, it was 10:30pm…time to call it a day.

The fun continued the following morning when I attended a destination seminar in the same theatre for upcoming ports of call. There was a raffle at the conclusion and almost all the numbers called, were for tickets not given out. I almost felt sorry for the young staff member, she was obviously embarrassed. All I could do was laugh - did I happen to mention I’m probably on the Willie Wonka Cruise? I only can imagine what’s in store in the coming days…..too funny.

Finally arrived in American waters early on Sunday morning. I awoke to see dawn breaking over the mountains lining the horizon as we approached our first port of call in Alaska. Sitka is the only Inside Passage community that fronts onto the Pacific Ocean, hugging Baranof Island's west shore in the shadow of the impressive Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano with a graceful cone reminiscent of Japan's Mount Fuji. The city of about 9,000 residents is located on Sitka Sound, and is marked by the picturesque remnants of its Russian heritage, including the onion-shaped domes and gold colored crosses of the beloved Saint Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The city and borough limits include most of Baranof Island, where Sitka stands, along with south Chichagof Island and many other small, forested islands along the coast.

Although first inhabited by Native Tlingit Indians over 10,000 years ago, Sitka is recognized as the heart of the Russian influence in Alaska. The Russians had arrived by 1741 and in 1804 attacked a Tlingit fort. The region’s most famous battle eventually led to the creation of Sitka National Historical Park. Originally established as New Archangel, Sitka became the capital of Russian America in 1808. When Russia sold Alaska to the United States on October 18, 1867, the transfer ceremony took place on Castle Hill.

There are 22 buildings in Sitka on the National Register of Historic Places, so there’s plenty to see on a walk around the town. Downtown features numerous art galleries, a fine bookstore and gift shops, while the city’s main event during the summer is the Sitka Summer Music Festival. Centennial Hall, the community’s civic and convention center, is also the venue for the spirited New Archangel Dancers, who perform Russian folk dances using authentic music, choreography and costumes. Sitka National Historical Park features a remarkable collection of totem poles carved by Tlingit and Haida artists that are placed along a well-maintained trail in the forest. Near the park is Sheldon Jackson Museum, one of two official Alaska State Museums. The museum's impressive collection represents many different Alaska Native cultures.

The morning dawned clear and bright – this bodes well for my first full day of sightseeing at sea. We sailed into the port of Sitka just after 9am – what a magnificent region – small tree-covered islands just offshore (mostly uninhabited), with mountains lining one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. The water was crystal clear, the sun shining down on brilliant green forests of pine, and not a cloud in the sky – this is a “picture perfect” day so far. Docking by 9:30am, I was ready to join the scheduled shore exclusion to explore as much as possible in the 8 plus hours we had on land. The tour bus was a converted school bus painted green and probably as old as I am, but what the hell, it moves and will be my chariot for the next few hours – that works. Our first stop, just a 15-minute drive from the port, was the Sitka National Historic Park and I got my totem pole pictures as planned. I even sat thru the 12-minute video “Voices of Sitka”, echoing the arrival of native peoples thru the Russian era and into modern day. So far, so good. It had warmed up considerably (probably around 70f) and according to our guide, this was highly unusual as they only receive approximately 75 days of sunshine each year, and not at this late in the season.

Another short drive to downtown Sitka and the Centennial Hall where we were entertained for 40 minutes by a group of women known as the new Archangel Dancers. For the past 49 years, the mission of this team has been to promote and encourage interest in Alaska's Russian history and culture through folk dance and song, which were very prominent in Sitka during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Dancers support the performing arts in the Sitka community to promote and encourage tourism. In addition to frequent summer shows, a performance is scheduled annually around Alaska Day to support this important celebration and to showcase their repertoire which includes over 70 dances from Russia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. Shows include lively dances such as Troika Polka, Ural Mountain, Korobieniki, Hutsulka, Chumak or Hopak. Flirtatious or fun-loving character dances such as By the River, Kadril, Kerchief, Gypsy Dance, The Sailor Tap and Mirage tell a story or depict a traditional way of life. Stately and serene dances such as The Beryozka Gliding Dance, Pryalitza or Uzory lend an elegant flavor to performances, while children's favorites such as the Ribbon and Cossack Horsemen dances add another dimension. Shows are concluded with a spirited and energetic rendition of a traditional Russian finale. Generally, only six dances are performed at each show, giving visitors and locals a variety to watch and enjoy. I got some photos of each dance and the colorful costumes.

One of the major tourist attractions (of which there are quite a few) in Sitka, is the Raptor Center – a sanctuary for bald eagles and others – this was the final stop and definitely the highlight of the entire tour. It was established in 1980 in the backyard of two concerned residents and began with one injured bald eagle. The effort grew, and volunteers treated eagles in their homes until 1983, when they moved to a small shed on the campus of Sheldon Jackson College. In 1991 the Center moved to its present location on 17 acres bordered by the Indian River. It’s a non-profit corporation, and doesn’t receive any federal, state or local tax money. Funding is provided through visitor programs, donations, memberships, gift shop and catalog sales, grants and private contributions. Approximately 2,500 members worldwide help the Center accomplish its mission of rehabilitation, education and research. Each year they treat approximately 200 wild birds, releasing many back into the wild. They conduct educational sessions for more than 40,000 visitors about raptors and their habitats, along with providing unique opportunities for more than 15,000 school kids thru in-class visits, and the Adopt-a-Raptor curriculum.

First, we all gathered in the conference room while our guide explained the history and current events being conducted at the Center, and then I got to walk around the fenced-in enclosures where recuperating raptors are housed. The owls are cute (especially the snowy ones), the hawks are impressive but nothing and I mean nothing, compares to the stunning visage of a bald eagle. I saw at least a dozen of them in various stages of recuperation, and a few who are no longer able to fly and are permanent residents. These enclosures, nestled in the pine woods, are simple wire fences so photographs of the magnificent birds can be taken. What was the best part of this sightseeing stop you ask? I got to learn some interesting facts such as the peregrine falcon is the fastest bird, reaching speeds of almost 200 miles per hour; owls can turn their heads ¾ of the way around (270 degrees); and the bald eagle has a total of 7,192 feathers. Now please, please, please let those questions be asked at the brain wanker trivia game tomorrow – I intend to ace that with my newfound raptor knowledge! The fabulous weather continued all day and it was hot enough to go swimming and take a quickie dip in the jacuzzi, once returning to the ship in midafternoon. Our departure was prompt around 6pm and we slowly steamed out of Sitka harbor, turning “Millie’s” bow to the west…..Asia I’m on my way.

Familiar with the phrase “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink?” …..that certainly began today, as we sailed across the Gulf of Alaska. Weather was crazy. Woke up to flat seas, but by midday, it’s whitecaps and wind, dark overcast skies and even some rain…..Sitka was obviously a fluke. The north Pacific Ocean like others, is famous for rough weather around the fall and winter time, so holding my breath for the Bering Straits. I spent a very lazy afternoon, which included downing a couple of flutes of champagne watching the always nutty Park West Art Auction. This was followed by an interesting lecture on the Ring of Fire Around the Pacific – very comforting – I can see it now, first a massive earthquake in Japan and then a humongous tsunami – all while I’m right in the middle of it all. What has been a delightful surprise, is the number of familiar faces among the crew. So far, I have reconnected with three women staff members (one is an officer) from prior cruises. Running into my officer friend just this morning, has resulted in a bouquet of beautiful flowers plus a bottle of champagne showing up in my cabin. I really am taken care of very well with Celebrity – guess brand loyalty really does pay off at times! With all these upcoming sea days, there are boatloads of activities in which to participate….I intend to sample a few, read a lot of books, sleep late and just be a slug until we enter the Sea of Japan.

Having left the window drapes open all night, I awoke to see land very close to the ship – we were transiting the Aleutian Islands – the last terra firma I’ll see until Japan. They are a chain of 14 large volcanic islands and 55 smaller ones belonging to both Alaska and the Russian federal peninsula of Kamchatka. Forming part of the Aleutian Arc in the Northern Pacific Ocean, they occupy an area of 6,821 square miles and extend about 1,200 miles westward from the Alaska Peninsula toward the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, marking a dividing line between the Bering Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The archipelago contains both the westernmost part of the United States by longitude and the easternmost by longitude. The westernmost U.S. island in real terms however, is Attu Island, west of which runs the International Date Line. While nearly all the archipelago is part of the state of Alaska and is usually considered as being in the "Alaskan Bush", at the extreme western end, the small, geologically-related Commander Islands belong to Russia. Most are uninhabited, but a few are. I noticed at least 5 fishing vessels in the local waters as we sailed passed. Snow covers the higher slopes of the ridges, and a few of these are still active volcanoes.

A little bit of history:

In the Battle of the Aleutian Islands (June 1942-August 1943) during World War II, U.S. troops fought to remove Japanese garrisons established on a pair of U.S.-owned islands west of Alaska. In June 1942, Japan had seized the remote, sparsely inhabited islands of Attu and Kiska, but was the only U.S. soil Japan would claim during the war in the Pacific. The maneuver was possibly designed to divert U.S. forces during Japan’s attack on Midway Island (June 4-7, 1942) in the central Pacific. It’s also possible the Japanese believed holding the two islands could prevent the U.S. from invading Japan via the Aleutians. Either way, the Japanese occupation was a blow to American morale. In May 1943, U.S. troops retook Attu and three months later reclaimed Kiska, and in the process gained experience that helped them prepare for the long “island-hopping” battles to come, as World War II raged across the Pacific Ocean.

These “at sea” days are fast becoming a routine: breakfast around 8am; a lecture or game of trivia mid-morning; lunch at noon followed by either a nap, a movie or attending the Park West Art Auctions (only attend the auctions for the free champagne). My snacks arrive around 4pm so I have a glass of champagne then, followed by the first seating in the theater at 7pm and finally dinner between 8 and 8:30pm. As there are 8 consecutive sea days, my routine will be well established by the time we enter the Sea of Japan next week.

What a morning! The ship rocked and rolled all night. We are deep into the Bering Sea, still paralleling the Aleutians, but the weather has definitely turned, and not for the better. High waves, wind, very little visibility, rain, mist and very overcast…. talk about “I felt the earth move under my feet”. Walking around the ship means holding on to anything solid to stay upright and as I suspected, not that many people were in the restaurant for breakfast. The captain assures us that this will improve by late afternoon – time will tell.

Let’s discuss the Concierge Class benefits I mentioned earlier. These range from invitations to complimentary Apple product seminars and teaching sessions (fee applies to others), to savory/sweet snacks delivered to my cabin every afternoon; choice of pillows (I ordered the long body one and two Swedish isotonic ones – all for much improved sleep); a personal concierge to handle just about every request imaginable; having a dedicated check in line for the restaurant seating each evening, and invitations to private cruise seminars where champagne and mimosas are served (my personal favorite!). No doubt there are other bennies available – just haven’t experienced them yet…..give me time…. LOL

Last night I went to sleep and it was Thursday evening – woke up today and it’s Saturday morning……how’s that for time travel? We crossed the international date line under the cover of darkness and with two more 1-hour turn backs in the coming days, I’ll finally be on Japan time. This is a great method for those passengers who do still suffer from jet lag (thankfully that’s a permanent condition for me), but they continue to bitch and whine about having 25-hour days onboard, and how it totally screws them up…. there’s simply no pleasing some people! Considering we are on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with nowhere to go, how can 1 additional hour each day, make an ounce of difference? Crazy.

A little bit of history:

Otaru was recognized as a village in 1865, and in 1880 the first railway line on Hokkaido was opened with daily service between Otaru and Sapporo. An Imperial decree in July 1899 established Otaru as an open port for trading with the US and the UK. It was finally designated a city on August 1, 1922. It is well known for two things: beer and the freshness of its sushi, with its prominent industries being arts and crafts such as studio glass and music boxes.

Terra Firma at last…. wide awake at 3am, and as the drapes and balcony door are open, my cabin was flooded with a brilliant silver glow from this month’s full moon. It blazed a trail across the watery surface from horizon to ship, bright enough to read by. By 5am, we were entering Otaru harbor and I’m grabbing my camera to capture the beauty of this breaking dawn vista. Temperature is much warmer than the ocean crossing, and the clarity of the skies over Otaru, bring promise of a fabulous sightseeing day. But first, before any passenger can disembark, mandatory Japanese immigration process must be completed including fingerprinting, answering a couple of questions and finally receiving my visa sticker, permitting a 90-day tourist stay in Japan.

I had opted for a guided, full-day shore excursion which would give me a general overview of the city – best way to see as much as possible, with such a short time in port. Pulling out of the parking lot by 9am, the tour bus made its way to the first stop: gondola ride to the top of Mt. Tengu. Looming over this coastal city, the 1,745’ mountain is said to be the home of goblins in Japanese myth. It’s a short 5-minute ride to the top, in a gondola which can accommodate 30 people at a time – thankfully not that many wanted to ascend in mine. From the summit, the birds eye views are simply breathtaking in all directions – perfect location for that stunning photo. I visited the chipmunk house, photographed the long-nose goblin and a variety of Japanese statues and paper/wooden wishes hanging from the trees. Round trip tickets are 1900 yen ($16.71) for adults, and 1300 yen ($11.43) for kids, and is open every day – hours vary by season. Should you “feel the need for speed”, an Olympic bobsled run is also available to descend, instead of using the gondola.

Next stop was the Old Aoyama Villa which was built on the fortunes of herring fishing at the turn of the 20th century. The Aoyama family fortune was accrued over two generations and at the urging of a young daughter, this incredibly lavish Japanese mansion was constructed to rival any other home in the area at the time. No expense was spared and was furnished with every luxury during the golden age of herring fishing in Otaru. It is now designated as one of the city’s special historical properties, and well worth spending a couple of hours exploring the buildings and the stunning gardens. The top floor of this mansion has been converted into a restaurant…. here I had lunch and one of the best Japanese meals in a long time – yes, I even used chopsticks! The tea and tempura were fabulous but I passed on a couple of other selections. Not sure what they were, but they didn’t look too appetizing. By this time, it was early afternoon and the dark clouds were gathering, blotting out the sun – rain is definitely on the way.

Our final sightseeing stop was enroute to the ship in downtown Otaru. Located just a is a 10-minute walk or a 2-minute bus ride down the main road from the terminal, it was a central part of the city's busy port in the first half of the 20th century. Large vessels were unloaded by smaller ships, which then transported the goods to warehouses along the canal. It became obsolete when modern dock facilities allowed for direct unloading of larger vessels. Thanks to a citizens' movement, a part of the canal was beautifully restored in the 1980s instead of being landfilled, while the warehouses were transformed into museums, shops and restaurants. The canal makes for a pleasant stroll during the day, when artists present their works to passing tourists, and during the evenings when old fashioned gas lamps are lit and provide a romantic atmosphere. The canal also serves as the main site of the town's Snow Light Path Festival during the winter season. It is a serene and very peaceful respite from the bustle of Otaru.

Our second port of call, Hakodate also located on the island of Hokkaido, is the island’s third largest city. Thankfully the earthquake of September 6, 2018 did not cause any damage here, and hotels/restaurants are all open for business. It is best known for its fabulous views from Mt. Hakodate and its incredible seafood. As one of the first Japanese harbor cities to be opened for international trade after the era of isolation, the city has experienced notable influence from overseas, with the foreign population’s former residential district and western style fort, being among its top tourist attractions. As the day had dawned very overcast and cool, I decided to simply disembark for a couple of hours and walk around the town. I hadn’t been on terra firma very long before the heavens opened and it poured down, and I do mean poured by the bucket load! I was soaked to the skin in minutes, I felt like a drowned rat. My explorations came to an abrupt halt and I virtually “swam” back onboard, as the weather didn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

Back onboard later in the afternoon our captain gave us the “happy” news. The recent inclement weather was a direct result of super typhoon Trami which had achieved category 5 status with sustained winds of 140mph at its peak. Of course we were right in its path, but thankfully it was still more than 1,000 miles to the south of our position. To be on the safe side, the captain cancelled our third and last port of call in Shimizu and instead we were headed directly to Yokohama, where we would be docked overnight until disembarkation. As I write this one day prior to flying home, we are safely docked in Yokohama with very overcast skies and the typhoon, now downgraded to a category 3, is expected to make landfall tomorrow morning in southern Japan. It’s fingers, eyes and toes crossed that my flight is still operational out of Narita in late afternoon, but nothing is confirmed as yet. Why is it that crazy weather and idiot situations always seem to revolve around me? Do I need to change deodorant or what? LOL

Even though it's just a 20-minute train ride south of central Tokyo, Yokohama has an appealing flavor and history all its own. Locals are likely to cite the uncrowded, walkable streets or neighborhood atmosphere as the main draw, but for visitors it's the breezy bay front, creative arts scene, multiple microbreweries, jazz clubs and great international dining.

A little bit of history:

Up until the mid-19th century, Yokohama was an unassuming fishing village. Things started to change rapidly however in 1853, when the American fleet under Commodore Matthew Perry arrived off the coast, to persuade Japan to open up to foreign trade. From 1858, when it was designated an international port, through to the early 20th century, Yokohama served as a gateway for foreign influence and ideas. Among the city's firsts in Japan: a daily newspaper, gas lamps and a train terminus. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 destroyed much of the city, but the rubble was used to reclaim more land. The city was devastated yet again in WWII air raids; occupation forces were initially based here, but later moved down the coast to Yokosuka. Despite all this, central Yokohama retains some rather fine early 20th century buildings.

At last disembarkation day, I’m more than ready to head home. As I was waiting for my number to be called to leave the ship and collect my luggage dockside, we get an email and announcement from Celebrity that Yokohama is closing its port immediately and the ship has to clear all passengers before leaving the dock and anchoring offshore, due to Trami. What a circus that turned out to be! When they said every passenger had to disembark, that’s exactly what they meant, including the B2Bers (consecutive cruisers) who were to be bused to nearby hotels until the typhoon cleared the region. Ships are not allowed to remain tethered to the dock during natural disasters – its mandatory they put out to sea and anchor offshore until the storm passes. It turned out to be a zoo onboard…. many of the elder passengers, especially those in wheelchairs and/or using walkers were throwing fits…they obviously hadn’t planned on packing a bag to move to city hotels for who-knew how long. I tucked myself into a comfy chair in a corner and watched this free entertainment – what other choice did I have, a super typhoon is way beyond my control. Once I heard my number called, I walked down the gangway with rain was coming down in buckets, dark grey clouds threatening the entire city, and no one knew at that time, if the airports were still open or not. I checked my Delta app and it showed my flight was still operational but it wouldn’t depart for another 7 hours, and Trami was due to arrive in less than that. Finally arrived at Narita and the rain hadn’t let up, it was a deluge. Got checked in and headed for the Sky Lounge, with fingers crossed that I wouldn’t hear the dreaded cancelled flight announcement. Thankfully it did depart on time, but I heard later on that the airport did close and other Delta flights inbound were diverted…. whew, dodged another bullet!

What can I say about the entire cruise? Overall it wasn’t that great, the food was definitely mediocre (I sent a total of 7 meals back to the kitchen for various reasons), the entertainment was a joke (especially the single invited guest performers for the most part), and the restaurant wait staff left much to be desired. At least a third of them were working onboard for the first time and apparently this was their training cruise. Do the words “guinea pig” mean anything to anyone? The ship goes into dry dock in January 2019 for a 35-day total refurbishment – yeah, it needs it! I will say that the staff try very hard to please and are always extremely pleasant and helpful, but when your waiter can barely speak English and doesn’t know the difference between stewed prunes and figs, I have a problem with that. Would I do it again? Highly unlikely but of course never say never, it could happen. Let’s just say I’m very happy that the Willie Wonka cruise is now in my rear-view mirror (along with super typhoon Trami!).

Additional photos below
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26th October 2018

Loved meeting you
Linda, I had the pleasure of eating breakfast with you one day on the cruise. I really enjoyed it. I loved reading this blog. Thanks for keeping me entertained after the cruise. Hope you have great travels from here on out.

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