The Bering Strait - Northern Pacific Ocean, May 2019

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May 11th 2019
Published: May 11th 2019
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Arriving at the Yokohama’s Oi Marine Wharf around 11am it was general check-in chaos as usual to board Celebrity’s Millennium, but with this being a container port and not a standard cruise ship terminal, it only added to the confusion. Larger cruise vessels are unable to pass under the Rainbow Bridge to dock at the regular terminal, making Oi Pier the only option currently available, until the new cruise terminal opens in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Brand loyalty once more paid off, as I was eligible to join a much smaller line of “Elite” level passengers for the checking-in process. This trip I’m in an ocean view cabin which works just fine – most of the actual cruise will be “at sea” days with nothing to see but water in every direction, so pointless to have a balcony. When I sailed on the “Millie” last year she was definitely showing her age: chipped paint, worn carpeting, shabby furnishings throughout - it was very obvious she desperately needed some TLC and from what I see so far, she has gotten that in spades. First impressions: new carpeting on each deck, color-coordinated with new (much lighter) paint hues on walls and ceilings – it even has that “new car” smell without the leather. The majority of the public spaces have been treated to refurbishment, but it’s the cabins which lead the charge in change. What a pleasant surprise when I entered my living area for the next couple of weeks, to find complete bathroom renovation with modern sinks, glass-enclosed shower doors and new tiling. Only a few complaints here, one being the crazy positioning of the grab-handle on the back wall of the shower stall. Instead of having it in a comfortable place to hold on, it is aligned with my left shoulder, making it impossible to soap that area of my body – I have to turn sideways to complete my daily ablutions. Why it wasn’t installed about a foot closer to the shower head makes no sense, but it currently just ranks as a minor inconvenience. Secondly, the position of the laundry line, makes it impossible to open or close the glass door when clothes are drying. Thank god I won’t be using that – I’m sending everything out to be laundered by the experts on board. And lastly, the shower door is hung the wrong way – it should swing outwards and not into the shower stall. Should anyone ever have a medical problem while showering and collapse, it would be impossible to open the door to rescue them! However, the excellent over-the-sink lighting is a definite improvement. Celebrity is making major moves in the “greening of the planet” sphere, by no longer supplying separate tubes of body wash, shampoo and conditioner but have instead installed 3 pump bottles in the shower which the room attendant refills as necessary.

Over the small desk in the cabin is a very large oval mirror surrounded by a light bar – it’s a godsend for applying makeup, hair drying, checking out your wardrobe…. a vast improvement over the dimly-lit former arrangement. The beds now have two king-size pillows each (one very firm as a back support, the other softer for a great night’s sleep). New mattresses and box springs virtually guarantee a restful night. The light grey checked carpeting perfectly matches the light grey furniture throughout – including a fairly spacious wardrobe and plenty of drawer space around the cabin. Finally lots and lots of wall plugs and USB ports located at the desk and in the light stands beside the bed completes the renovated space…. I give it 8 out of 10.

Major differences onboard with which I don’t agree: the library has been removed to make room for additional cabins – a large percentage of passengers are NOT pleased at all. A couple of very small areas have been set aside for paperbacks (donated by guests obviously) on deck 5 which are laughable, but the treasured hardbacks are nowhere to be seen. And the worst offender of all in my humble opinion, has to be the sectioning of the Cosmos Lounge on deck 11. It was once a magnificent cocktail lounge, bar and dance floor with 180-degree views, from ceiling to floor windows affording jaw-dropping vistas. Now this has been reduced by almost 40% to enlarge the “Fun Factory” designed for younger passengers, who virtually don’t exist on these longer cruises – a complete waste and should never have been touched in the first place. But in spite of all this, the Millie is still a great lady and a real good time. The restaurant staff are as expected outstanding, with a genuine desire to please and satisfy every food request to the best of their ability.

Before we can raise the anchor and slip our mortal coils from the pier and prepare to set sail, the dreaded “mandatory fire drill” has to be completed by all on board – this is the one activity I simply loathe. With this completed, I’m ready to enjoy the first live theater show and then to dinner to meet some new people – can’t wait to see will be sharing my table this evening.

Our first (and last) Japanese port of call is Hakodate. Built on a narrow strip of land between Hakodate Harbor to the west and the Tsugaru Strait to the east, it’s the southern gateway to the island of Hokkaidō. Under the Kanagawa Treaty of 1854, the city was one of the first ports to open up to international trade, and as such hosted a small foreign community. That influence can still be seen in the Motomachi district, a steep hillside that's sprinkled with European buildings and churches; the waterfront lined with red-brick warehouses; and in the nostalgic streetcar that still makes the rounds of the city. Should you ever mention you've been to Hakodate, every Japanese person you know will ask if you took in the night view from atop Hakodate-yama (1,096’) – yes, it's that famous! You want to be at the peak for sunset or after dark: what's striking is seeing the lit-up peninsula (which locals say is shaped like Hokkaidō itself) against the pitch-black waters. It’s said this is the best viewing spot in Japan – that’s debatable but I agree, the views are breathtaking. In addition to the viewing platform and parking area, those who hunt around will find the remains of an old fort behind the buildings, with interesting foundations intact.

For the beer lovers in the crowd, why not head for Hakodate Beer? This beer hall and pub makes its product using water that comes from neighboring Mount Hakodate, making it the quintessential local tipple. They have a number of different blends of beer that you can try, and you can also buy bottles to take back (assuming the ship allows it back onboard, I’ve never tried). They also serve local bar snacks like signature fried squid plucked straight from the bay of Hakodate. Of course there’s something for the teetotalers as well…..Tea Shop Yuhi is located inside a building that dates from 1885 and would once have been used as the Hakodate Quarantine Office. The teahouse is charmingly made all out of wood where you can sit, get a drink and look out over the harbor. The tea served here is the traditional Japanese green tea for which the country is famous, and you can also snack on local wagashi which are Japanese sweets that are served with a side of pickles.

For the shopping addicts, there’s always the Red-Brick Warehouse District, a signature feature of Hakodate, which faces the harbor and is one of the most historically significant parts of the city. Take a walk here and explore these red brick buildings which would have been built at the start of the 20th century, when Hakodate was making a name for itself as an important port town in the region. They were restored to their former glory and there is also a shopping area here where you can stock up on local souvenirs.

Finally if you’re at all hungry (is that even possible coming off a cruise ship?), and you want to try some of the most delicious street food in town, then head to the old town marketplace known as Daimon Yokocho, where you will find some 25 street food stalls serving up the best dishes around. These include the famous ramen made with squid stock (instead of the usual pork), which is Hakodate’s signature dish, as well as donburi rice bowls filled with fresh seafood.

One port of call remains before we begin the long run across the northern Pacific Ocean, and I plan to make the most of it. Petropavlovsk - is the capital and largest city on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the second largest city in the world that is unreachable by road (the first being Iquitos, Peru). It is a port city on the Avacha Bay and surrounded by high, snow-capped mountains and volcanoes, so many that the horizon cannot be seen from any point in the city. This city of roughly 200,000 residents is the principal entry point for travelers visiting the peninsula and has a well-built tourist infrastructure to cater to tourists who wish to do anything from wildlife viewing to bear hunting to paragliding. The Kamchatka Peninsula is a 750 mile-long peninsula in the Russian Far East, approximately 248 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Being a part of the Ring of Fire, Kamchatka is extremely geologically active and has numerous volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and even a lake of acid. It contains the southernmost expanse of arctic tundra in the world and is notable for its wealth of arctic wildlife, fish, game, and marine life. Nineteen of the volcanoes constitute the "Volcanoes of Kamchatka", and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A little bit of history:

In the early 17th century, Russians began exploring what they claimed as the eastern reaches of their dominions. The first Russian maps showing Kamchatka as a peninsula appeared in the 1680s and continued to improve in the next decades following Bering's expeditions to eastern Russia and Alaska. The city was founded by Danish navigator Vitus Bering in late 1740, when he laid the foundation stone for this harbor town naming it after his two ships, the St. Peter and St. Paul which were used for his second expedition to the region.

Russian fur traders first established posts on the Kamchatka River, but they almost brought the indigenous tribes they were trading with to extinction via encroachment, warfare, and disease. Small native groups still exist dispersed around the peninsula, relying on fishing, reindeer herding, and some tourism for their livelihood. Russian Orthodox missionaries were close behind the traders and worked in a large area that included all the Aleutians. The faith and the language they spoke remain the ones in use on Kamchatka today.

During the Soviet era, several military bases were located across the peninsula, which prevented all foreigners and even most Soviet citizens from visiting. In addition, the military tested the range and reliability of their missiles by launching them from other sites, using the peninsula as the target area. When a Korean Air Lines flight strayed deeply into Soviet airspace in 1983, it first crossed the Kamchatka Peninsula before being shot down near Sakhalin. The fighter jets that brought its demise and that of all 269 aboard, were scrambled from a base on the peninsula.

It was not until 1991 and the fall of the USSR that Kamchatka started opening its doors for tourism. As in Alaska, the contrasts of nature - the snow and heat, glaciers and greenery, the sea and the clear sky - make the peninsula a near-certain growing attraction for tourists and other visitors. A large military presence remains on Kamchatka and is blamed by some as the source of small but growing pollution. In the summer of 2005, a Russian Navy submarine was disabled in an accident near the peninsula and sank to the seafloor, requiring an international effort to rescue the crew.

I joined a private tour operated by a local Russian company – KamchatkaInTour - accompanied by 19 of my fellow passengers, all of whom had also opted not to go with a highly overpriced ship’s shore excursion. Our tour was a total cost of $95 (USD) per person and well worth every penny. You never know what to expect weather-wise at this time of year. Most of us had prepared for a winter climate with heavier and warmer clothing – that was a mistake – our entire day on shore was blessed with incredible sunshine, warm temps and a cool breeze, couldn’t have asked for any better. We docked in the early morning and were disembarking shortly after 9am, where we met our multi-lingual Russian tour guide just outside the main pier gates. Anna, fluent in Mandarin and English, usually handles the Chinese tour groups, but relished this opportunity to practice her English with us. As we exited the terminal, we were greeted by a group of teenagers in native costume displaying their dancing skills, to welcome us to Kamchatka. My first thought was “don’t quit your day job kids”, but at least they displayed a lot of enthusiasm.

Boarding our tour coach (thankfully built in South Korea), we were delighted to find a clean, air-conditioned and very comfy interior with enough room for everyone to sit by a window. And we were off on our Russian adventure into the tundra wildness. We drove for approximately an hour, well away from what I would term “civilization” and were totally surrounded by the most incredible volcanic range of snow-clad mountain peaks imaginable – they seemed to go on forever – these are the landmark of Kamchatka. The most prominent one, Klyuchevskaya Sopka, is the tallest active volcano in Eurasia at 15,584’. Our destination was a remote dacha/farm where they breed and train sled dogs – there are many of these around the Petropavlovsk area. Our first photo stop was a monument displaying a mother bear with cub evidently crossing a river with a salmon in her mouth, teaching her young how to fish in this frozen wilderness. With the volcanoes in the background, it made for an incredible photo location.

Arriving at the dacha, we had a short hike across the fields and were greeted by the owner and staff – all Russian speakers with barely an English word to be heard – thank god for Anna. Being seated in an open-air stage, we were entertained with 45 minutes of singing and dancing, led by the matriarch and 5 young girls in beautiful native costumes, with Anna giving a running commentary on what each dance/song meant to this tribal group. The animal skin clothing and brightly colored beaded head dresses etched against the glaring white of the mountains in the background, was simply magical. Next to this stage, was an animal skin tepee where the group moved next, to sit with the matriarch while she prepared what resembled oat cakes in a frying pan over a small fire in the center. It was a smoky and hot experience crammed inside, but the delicious fried cake served with hot tea was a great distraction. Needless to say, I was a lot happier when I crawled outside to cold fresh air, some 30 minutes later. Next up on the day’s agenda was lunch in a rickety wooden shack, serving as the restaurant with hand-hewn wooden tables and benches. Animal skins from wolves, bears and foxes decorated the walls and ceiling, along with various sets of antlers from elk, moose and god-only-knows what else! A basket of fresh-baked bread arrived accompanied by a bowl of salmon soup. Certainly an acquired taste and as much as I usually adore salmon, somehow seeing a chunk of it swimming in a clear broth along with pieces of potato, some carrots and chives just didn’t ring my culinary bell – I passed on this lunch offering.

After lunch as we made our made slowly back towards the bus, we stopped at the kennels with at least 120 huskies and pups in residence. They were simply gorgeous animals – obviously part wolf, with thick fluffy coats in a variety of colors. These are not pets by any definition but working dogs, however many of the group approached a few of the adults displaying a more friendly demeanor. A couple (obviously sled pack leaders) were not approachable and were given a wide berth.

Back on the bus we began our drive back to the ship, but Anna had more destinations in mind to complete our tour. Petropavlovsk's largest and most impressive church is a golden-domed stunner, which sits atop an outcrop from where it is visible from across the city. Despite looking ancient, the church was only built in the early 21st century, and still isn't complete as funds have dwindled. The Peter and Paul Church with its distinctive blue and white buildings and golden onion-shaped turrets gleam in the sunlight – really an impressive sight and a fabulous photo opportunity. Next we stopped at Lenin Square in the center of town. As Lenin statues go (and there are still around 1800 in Russia still standing), this is an impressive one with the revolutionary leader in a dramatic pose, with his billowing coat tails flared out to each side. On the other side of the square are the dramatic and philharmonic theaters. From this point two one-way streets Leninskaya and Sovietskaya, divide the city. Finally a quick 15-minute stop at a local fish market completed our day of Russian touring and we were back onboard around 5pm.

Now we began our 7 “at sea” days and with nothing to see but water in all directions, its time to fire up my trusty Kindle and read a few novels to pass the hours. Weather started deteriorating as we crossed the Bering Strait, with temperatures plunging into the high 30’s and low 40’s – just too cold, wet and windy to spend any time out on deck. A lazy period with plenty of onboard activities for those who want trivia games, seminars and shopping to fill the time. And of course, the bars were doing a roaring business around the clock.

After a solid week at sea, I’m so ready to see and walk on some terra firma! It’s a full day in Victoria, a place I haven’t visited in many years. Capital city of the Canadian province of British Columbia, it’s located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, off Canada's Pacific coast. Named after UK's Queen Victoria (and at the time British North America), Victoria is one of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest, with British settlement beginning in 1843. The city has retained a large number of its historic buildings, in particular its two most famous landmarks, Parliament Buildings and the Empress Hotel. The city's Chinatown is the second oldest in North America after San Francisco's.

Known as "The Garden City", Victoria is an attractive city and a popular tourism destination with a thriving technology sector that has risen to be its largest revenue-generating private industry. It is in the top twenty of world cities for quality-of-life, with a large non-local student population. Victoria is popular with boaters with its rugged shorelines and beaches, and also popular with retirees, who come to enjoy the temperate and usually snow-free climate of the area as well as the usually relaxed pace of the city.

A little bit of history:

Prior to the arrival of European navigators in the late 1700s, the region's Coast Salish First Nations peoples established communities in the area, possibly several thousand years earlier, which had large populations at the time of European exploration. The Spanish and British took up the exploration of the northwest coast, beginning with the visits of Juan Perez in 1774, and of James Cook in 1778. Although the Victoria area of the Strait of Juan de Fuca was not penetrated until 1790, Spanish sailors visited Esquimalt Harbor between 1790 – 1792.

In 1841 James Douglas was charged with the duty of setting up a trading post on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. He built Fort Victoria on the site of present-day Victoria in anticipation of the outcome of the Oregon Treaty in 1846, extending the British North America/United States border along the 49th parallel from the Rockies to the Strait of Georgia.

Erected in 1843 as a Hudson's Bay Company trading post on a site originally called Camosun (the native word was "camosack", meaning "rush of water") known briefly as "Fort Albert", the settlement was renamed Fort Victoria in November 1843, in honor of Queen Victoria. When news of the discovery of gold on the British Columbia mainland reached San Francisco in 1858, Victoria became the port, supply base, and outfitting center for miners on their way to the Fraser Canyon gold fields, mushrooming from a population of 300 to over 5,000 within a few days. Victoria was incorporated as a city in 1862.

In the latter half of the 19th century, the Port of Victoria became one of North America's largest importers of opium, serving the opium trade from Hong Kong and distribution into North America. Opium trade was legal and unregulated until 1865, then the legislature issued licenses and levied duties on its import and sale. The opium trade was finally banned in 1908.

Entering Canadian waters, the climate gods shined on our ship once more and it was cloudless blue skies, brilliant sunshine and a cool breeze when we docked. Two other large cruise vessels were also in port (Celebrity’s Solstice and the Ruby Princess) with approximately 8,000 passengers in total, making for a very crowded pier. I waited for a couple of hours until the area had mostly cleared before disembarking and making my way downtown, to reacquaint myself with the city. The Big Bus Company operates a really good HOHO tour bus system with a stop right in front of the terminal building. For around $37 (USD) per person, it’s a fantastic way to see the entire city with stops at all famous tourist attractions, with the exception of Butchart Gardens. My most favorite stop in Victoria has to be the Fairmont Empress, formerly and commonly referred to as The Empress, and is one of the oldest hotels here. Located in downtown facing the city's inner harbor and very close to the Parliament buildings, the hotel was designed by Francis Rattenbury, and built by Canadian Pacific Hotels, a division of the Canadian Pacific Railway company. Opened on January 25, 1908 the Chateau-styled building is considered one of Canada's grand railway hotels. Since its opening, the hotel has undergone two expansions, the first from 1910 to 1912, and a second expansion in 1928. The building was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada on January 1981. The highly-touted Afternoon High Tea is expensive (approximately $85 per person USD) but considering it’s a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience, something to keep in mind. The ornate lobby is mind-blowing, very reminiscent of “Golden Age” hotels in New York City and Chicago during the late 19th century.

The last evening onboard was, as always, a combination of sad goodbyes to new and old friends, and as this is the final port of call before arrival tomorrow morning in Vancouver, just 94 miles away, it was time to pack my stuff and prepare to be moved to my new cabin, in preparation for my next cruising adventure…...stay tuned.

Additional photos below
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12th May 2019

Lots of adventure
Thanks for a bit of the history.

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