Thursday, December 29, 2016

London 2016 - Days 4 & 5 (12/27/2016 & 12/28/2016) - Solo Jaunt

I slept later yet again this morning, making it until 5:30.  Brad left for the airport at 6:30, leaving me with a day on my own in London.  I left the hotel at 8:40am, aiming to make it by foot to the Tower of London sometime around the 9am opening.  I was there around 9:10, and the lines were still short (which was not the case when I left a couple of hours later).  The tower experience was OK, so I didn't feel too bad about skipping out on it the first time I was in London 11 years ago.  I gave up on the audio guide after a while because I wasn't all that interested.  I also decided that I find the idea of crown jewels (and a monarchy in general) garish and outdated; I'm not sure how much my annoyance at the queue to see the jewels played into this decision.

From the tower I took the tube to Westminster.  I first went in search of something fast, open, and peculiar to London for lunch, but settled for Subway after finding 2 Itsu locations closed.  I then walked back to Westminster Abbey to (stand in line and then) do the audio tour.  I liked the cathedral, but not as much as St. Paul's.

Afterward I had about 1.5 hours to kill before heading for my 3:30pm Up at The O2 (UATO2) appointment.  This wasn't enough time to check out the Imperial War Museum, which had been my original plan (though I wasn't too torn up about it since I probably had enough battle artifacts from the Tower of London Armory).  After finding the ticket office for the houses of parliament closed, I took the tube over to Canary Wharf to check out the Crossrail Place building (which I had seen on some TV program) and its roof garden.

After that I took the Jubilee line one more stop over to North Greenwich, arriving at UATO2 right at the suggested 15 minutes prior (though that earliness was cancelled out by an inability to access my ticket barcode due to lack of an Internet connection - it eventually got sorted, though it should have been much easier than it was).  Overall the climb was probably worthwhile.  It wasn't as strenuous as the advertising would have you believe (I guess they're trying to CYA for couch potatoes), but the last part of the descent did get a little slippery for some people.  The view up top would also be much better if it were closer to central London.

After the climb I had a quick dinner at Square Pie in the O2, then took the Underground back to the hotel.  My length and quality of sleep improved even more that night, just in time for me to depart back to Seattle the next morning.  I was fortunate enough to get business class again for the return flight, with less worrying in the run-up this time.

London 2016 - Day 3 (12/26/2016) - Come on ya Gunners!

I slept a little later this morning - made it to 3 or 4 before not being able to sleep anymore.  We left the hotel at 10:15 and then walked across the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul's Cathedral.  Brad didn't think it would be worth paying to enter, so we went on a walkabout while I went in and did the highlights audio tour, and then the stair climb to the top gallery on the outside of the dome.  I was more impressed with the building than I expected to be - the architecture/design, the ability to explore a lot of it, the view outside from the top, the crypt, etc.  I eventually made my way to the designated meeting point around 12:45, 15 minutes late.

From there we found another Thai restaurant to have lunch and then took the tube to Emirates Stadium.  Brad did not get a ticket to the match ahead of time (whereas I had bought an Arsenal membership just to get access to a ticket for the match), and thought that he might be able to scrounge one up at the stadium.  He passed on picking one up on the street and instead chose to stand in line at the box office.  This is where I left him to go find my seat before the match started.  I later found out that they ran out of tickets before he made his way to the window, and had done a bit of wandering and eating while I was spectating.  Arsenal managed to squeeze out a 1-0 victory with an 86th minute goal after dominating possession and chances throughout.

After meeting back up we took the Underground back to Southwark and found dinner at a Turkish place named Tas - the vegetarian moussaka was quite good.

London 2016 - Day 2 (12/25/2016) - Biking Around London on Christmas

I was asleep by 9pm the night before, and slept deeply until right at 2am.  But then I was wide away for the next 4 or 5 hours.  The jet lag did something similar to me each of the next 2 nights.  I did manage to drift in and out of some half-sleep for a few hours before Brad arose at 11am - he handled the time change much better than I did, getting a good long sleep in.  We weren't in any particular hurry because most of the city, including public transit, was shut down for Christmas.  We lazed around the room for a while (breakfast consisted of some makeshift items we had picked up at a Coop convenience store the night before), finally leaving around 2pm.

We had a light late lunch at an EAT. shop on the south end of the London Bridge, then rented some bikes for a couple of hours.  This ended up being a really good idea (credit goes to Brad) despite my not having ridden a bike in something like 8 years.  The bike rental stands are plentiful in the city, and the car traffic was significantly reduced due to the holiday - which made it less scary for me.  I will say, though, that there were still quite a good number of tourists milling around town even though almost nothing was open.

We rode over and crossed the Thames on the Tower Bridge (on foot because there was no bike lane, and I was till getting re-familiarized with riding).  From there we rode north to the Gherkin building, then back down and west along the north bank of the Thames via a Quietway route (which are a great way to avoid car traffic - more cities should do something like this).  We crossed back over the river at the Westminster Bridge, then made our way toward a pub called The Anchor - the hotel staff had mentioned that it was one of the few places that is open on Christmas.  By the time we returned the bikes and made it to the pub, it was only open for 15 more minutes.  Brad grabbed a quick beer and then we walked back to the hotel and ate dinner at the restaurant there.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

London 2016 - Days 0 & 1 (12/23/2016 & 12/24/2016) - Seattle to London

The idea for this trip started when during his visit to Seattle this autumn Brad Schwartz mentioned that (a) Delta, his employer, has nonstop flights between Seattle and London; (b) he was willing to give me a buddy pass on Delta (a significantly reduced fare where I would fly standby, but be booked for business class).  He thought that my chances of getting business class during this time of year (off-peak) would be pretty good.  Combined with my desire to see an Arsenal match, and the holiday break from work, I had to give it a shot.  I made plans to attend the Arsenal Boxing Day match against West Brom, and about a week prior to the trip Brad decided that he was going to join me in London after all (a possibility that he had been considering ever since the subject was broached).

The seat status on the flight looked good for me right up until a couple of days before the trip.  A Virgin Atlantic pilot strike caused some additional bookings on the flight (Brad wasn't sure how legit they were), and then a few Delta employees registered standby (and thus ahead of me on the list) the day before.  Brad was a lot more worried than I was (and even drew up contingency plans), even though he had his own routing issued to deal with for his trip to London from Atlanta - he gave me a 90% chance of getting on the flight and a 20% chance of getting business class.  In the end, I got both, with one person below me on the upgrade list, and one business class seat to spare after everyone was given a seat (along with 6 remaining seats in economy).

On the slight downside, I was one of the last to get on the plane because they were still sorting out the standby situation when boarding began.  This resulted in the vegetarian main course not being available when the flight attendant got around to taking my order.  I "made do" with just the appetizer salad, the string beans from the chicken option, and chocolate lava cake with ice cream for dessert - first world problems.

My flight left in the evening of the 23rd and arrived on the afternoon of the 24th.  Brad beat me there by an hour or so - he transited via Amsterdam form Atlanta.  After meeting up at the arrival area (we had very fortunate timing with him coming over to my terminal just as I was leaving customs), we bought a couple of Oyster cards and took the Underground into town.  We were staying at the Hilton London Bankside, which was a few blocks from the Southwark station.

After checking in and dropping off our things, we went for a walkabout.  We crossed the Millennium Bridge and then wandered into Covent Garden.  We were feeling Thai food for dinner, and eventually found one place (Busaba) that was open after three failed attempts - Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day would limit our options for the duration of the trip.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Hawaii 2016 - Day 6 (12/8/2016) - Museum Day

It was rainy all day so I was content to make this a museum day.  I had an early lunch at a place close to the hotel called Ruffage Natural Foods, which had plenty of vegetarian options.  After that I took off for the State Capitol Building.  I wasn't able to get into any of the legislative chambers since they were not in session, but I was able to take pictures in the Executive Chamber.

My next stop was the Iolani Palace next door.  Unfortunately, the next available audio tour didn't start until 1:45pm, so I had a little waiting around to do.  Also, during the tour itself my audio player (a repurposed original iPhone or iPhone 3G) ran out of battery power - it was OK, though, since I was close to the end.

After that I drove over to the Bishop Museum, which was a bigger complex than I expected.  I got in for the Island Earth show at the planetarium, which was kind of informative but a little too hokey since it was intended for grade-schoolers.  I will say that the globe projection that they have in the planetarium entrance area is pretty cool, though.  I only had 2 hours at the museum before it closed, which was not nearly enough.

Speaking of stuff that I didn't get to do that I would have liked to, here's a list of things that I'll need to check out next time on the island:
  • Haiku Stairs, aka Stairway to Heaven
  • Byodo-In Temple
  • Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
After the museum, I went in search of a vegetarian restaurant.  I tried 2 that were closed despite the Google Maps hours indicating otherwise (one appeared to be a temporary closure, but I'm not sure about the other), before finding Peace Cafe to be open.  After dinner there, I headed back to the hotel to close out my Hawaiian vacation.  Nothing further of note happened before my noon flight to LAX the next day.

Pictures can be found here:

Hawaii 2016 - Day 5 (12/7/2016) - Oahu

First on the agenda for the day was Diamond Head.  I made it there around 10am, parked outside the park (the inside lot was understandably full), then made the hike in and up.  The hike was only mildly strenuous, but I was still drenched in sweat by the time I was done; I don't understand how some of the little Asian ladies made it up and down nicely dressed and in nice shoes without breaking a sweat.  After that, around noon, I need to go back to the hotel to shower again before doing anything else.

Next was a visit to the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites, on what happened to be the 75th anniversary of the attack by Japan (no, I didn't plan that - it was a happy accident); I didn't see any of the formal ceremonies, though.  By the time I got there, the tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial (which are free) were gone for the day.  The guy behind the desk advised me that since I was solo they might let me through with one of the groups if I hung around by the entrance to the movie where they assembled.  Fortunately this worked, and I was able to get in with the 2pm group.  Our group had a survivor of the attack with us - he received a rousing ovation, was first to get on and off the boat to the memorial, and had several picture requests from other attendees (including a few young ladies).  I will admit that I got a little emotional when I saw the guy, but I held it together pretty well.  Overall I thought that the memorial and the general site was quite tasteful.  If there's a next time, I'll try to check out the other memorials/museums (e.g., USS Missouri) on the site.

After leaving Pearl Harbor I drove up to Haleiwa in search of the Hula Dog food truck (they have a veggie dog), but it was closed.  Instead I went across to the Pipeline Pita food truck and had a felafel gyro and pineapple slush (which was served in a pineapple) - they were both OK, though the slush was not worth the price.  From there I hustled up to Shark's Cove to check it out before it got too dark - I arrived just at sunset, though it was too cloudy to see the sun.  I got in a brief conversation with two couples who were hanging around nearby (I heard them discussing the Polynesian Culture Center, and was curious what their opinion was), and then we said our goodbyes as it got dark.  From there I drove back to the hotel.

Pictures can be found here:

Hawaii 2016 - Day 4 (12/6/2016) - Maui to Oahu

I had a noon flight from Kahului to Honolulu, so I didn't try to get in any activities this morning.  The turboprop flight on Island Air took maybe 40 minutes, and provided nice views of Moloka‘i and O‘ahu.  I wasn't as fortunate with Emerald Aisle this time around, with a Nissan Altima being the only option that wasn't a minivan.  I found my way to the Waikiki Resort Hotel and then checked in.  One thing I liked about this hotel (which I didn't know beforehand) was that they offered an "unlimited" DVD rental service from a kiosk in the lobby - I guess that resort fee is good for something after all.

After stowing my gear, I drove out to check out a couple of spots that had been recommended to me by coworkers.  My first attempt was the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, but I found that entrance to the park was closed on Tuesdays.  Next I went in search of Spitting Cave, which Nick Dare said was his favorite place in the world.  I have to agree that it is a pretty cool place (though unexpected given the neighborhood that you drive into to get there), with a nice cliff-side overlook of the ocean.  Unfortunately, I didn't even get a great view of the cave itself doing its spitting thing, as I didn't know what to look for.  Also, I had a near-panic moment after mustering up enough courage to cross the narrow slope (above the cave inlet) to get to the eastern jut of the cliff.  I got about halfway when the other two guys who were there started crossing back over, so I sat on the rocks to let them pass by.  After they had passed and I snapped a few pics, I realized that I didn't want to be out on the other side and have to cross back by myself with them gone.  So I freaked out a little bit and gingerly made my way back to safety.  In retrospect, I probably way over-exaggerated the danger in my mind. For one, the crossing wasn't really *that* steep, and it is pretty easy to just walk across.  Secondly, if I had fallen over the edge, having those guys around would not have made a difference.  In any case, it was still a great spot to check out.

My next stop was Diamond Head State Monument.  When I arrived there around 4:40pm, the guy at the entrance window told me that I would have to hustle if I wanted to make the hike up and back by the time they closed the gate at 6pm since it ordinarily takes about 45 minutes each way.  I probably could have done it, but I decided that I wanted to take my time admiring the view during the hike, so passed for that night.

I drove back to the hotel and parked the car, then went for a walk around Waikiki.  I ended up having dinner (a veggie burger) at a Mahaloha Burger in the food court of some shopping center.

Pictures can be found here:

Hawaii 2016 - Day 3 (12/5/2016) - Haleakalā

I was a bit lazier this morning, with the first order of business being a stroll along Kahekili Beach.  After cleaning up back in the room I drove to Whaler's Village to find some cheap lunch (pizza) in the food court.  Next, I drove up the northwest coast to Nakalele Blowhole, arriving around 1:30pm.  I hiked down to the blowhole, snapped a few pics, and then returned to the car.  I worked up quite a sweat on the way back up, even though it wasn't very strenuous (I'm finding that I sweat even more as I advance in years, and I've always been a sweaty person).

My next destination was the peak of Haleakalā, the dormant shield volcano that makes up the eastern part of the island.  I continued along route 340 on the northwest coast to get back to Kahului.  That road was well paved, but was winding and a single lane for long stretches (I continuously worried how I would get by if another car approached from the opposite direction).  The going was pretty easy after the approach to Kahului, though, as even the Haleakalā Highway is two-way and well paved all the way up the mountain (except for maybe 1 or 2 bridge crossings while on the mountain).  The National Park Service describes the summit as remote (since the nearest emergency help is probably 45 minutes away), but it is quite easy to get to and at no point did I seriously fear for my safety.

The drive up was interesting, with cattle often visible along the road on the lower half.  The road went up through the clouds, and then things cleared up as I approached the National Park entrance.  It remained clear until a couple miles from the summit, at which point it began to drizzle, but with strong winds that made it feel like a more substantial rain.  I parked at the Summit Building parking lot at 4:15pm (where it was 46 degrees Fahrenheit), made a quick jaunt up the stairs to check out the summit building, then left to check out the lookouts a little lower on the road.  I was lucky to catch a nice sunset (~5:45pm) just below the clouds on the way down the mountain.

After that I headed back to Kahului to grab dinner at Max's Restaurant before returning to the hotel.

Pictures can be found here:

Hawaii 2016 - Days 1 & 2 (12/3/2016 & 12/4/2016) - Road Past Hana

I had an afternoon flight from Seattle to Maui, arriving around 9:00 at night.  At the National Car Rental, their computer systems were down so (from what I could gather) they appeared to be giving all Emerald Aisle customers access to the Executive cars as well.  In any case, I picked a Buick LaCrosse.  I only mention this because I really enjoyed driving that car for the 3 days that I had it.

I wasn't sure if my T-Mobile pre-paid plan would have service in Hawaii, but the coverage turned out to be pretty good - I had LTE service upon landing.  I had downloaded the Maui and Oahu islands in Google Maps so that the data would be available for offline navigation - this ended up being helpful for some of the stretches where I didn't have service.  However, my phone's GPS did not position me well enough to do guided navigation to the Royal Lahaina Resort, where I was staying.  I therefore navigated based on the directions listing, with the GPS location only becoming good enough to follow my position about 5 minutes away from the hotel.  A reset of the phone the next morning fixed the positioning issues for the most part.

On Sunday morning, I looked up some breakfast places on Trip Advisor and decided to drive to Duke's Beach House which was at the Honua Kai Resort a little further up Honoapiilani Hwy.  To be honest, I'm not really sure why I didn't just eat at the restaurant at my resort.

I finished breakfast around 10:15am and took off for the Road to Hana, aka Hana Highway, having to get back to Kahului first.  The Hana Highway (routes 36 and 360) is about 65 miles long and connects Kahului to Hana along the north coast of Maui.  However, it takes about 2.5 hours to drive (with no stops) because it is very winding and narrow, with one-way traffic at many short stretches (e.g., crossing old bridges).  In addition, there are many scenic stops along the way that make the journey longer and more worthwhile.  Thankfully, this stretch of road is well maintained and makes for a smooth drive  There was light rain on and off throughout the late morning and afternoon, but did didn't deter me from making quite a few stops, including:
  • Hookipa Lookout - this was a great place to watch surfers below, and the waves were pretty good, though not huge (I'm not sure how they compare to the waves most days); the light rain didn't bother me too much here, and I assume it doesn't bother the surfers who are already in water; one of my favorite stops.
  • Twin Falls - a lot of cars stop here because it provides access to the first waterfall along the route; the waterfalls aren't super impressive, but it may be worth the detour.
  • Garden of Eden Arboretum & Botanical Garden - this may be worth the $16 if you're into trees (they had quite a few types labeled) and vegetation, but otherwise you should probably skip it - you can get similar landscape views for free.
  • Kaumahina State Wayside - nice to have a public toilet along the route; also provides a decent view of Nua‘ailua Bay.
  •  Ke‘Anae - I really liked the rocky shores there.
  • Somewhere in there I stopped for a late lunch at a group of roadside eateries.  I got a veggie taco from a place called Island Style Taco - I wasn't too impressed, but it at least provided sustenance.
  • Hana Lava Tube - I actually passed on going down into the caves because I was running out of daylight (it takes something like 30 minutes to go through) and I was a little scared to go in alone; I would have done it if I had company and more time.
  • Waianapanapa State Park - made a quick stop to overlook the black sand beach.
  • Hamoa Beach - there was a nice view overlooking it, but the beach itself wasn't spectacular, partially due to the rainy weather; there were some great waves coming in, though.

It was past 4pm by the time I reached Hana, and I kept going down the road, wanting to see a few more sights.  I stopped at Wailua Falls, which is one of a few that are visible from the one-lane bridge crossings, because it was on my list; really, I drove past it, parked, then walked back - I wouldn't suggest stopping at/on the bridge itself.

I made it to Ohe'o Gulch (and the Kipahulu Visitor Center of Haleakalā National Park) around 5pm, but decided not to stop and check out the natural features because the sunset was quickly approaching.  The roads had greatly deteriorated after passing Hana and I feared that the drive back would be pretty bad (I was about as far away from the hotel as could be possible on the island).  I was right to be worried - the road along the southeast coast of the island was awful.  It was highly deteriorated (parts were more gravel than paved, with potholes aplenty), narrow (i.e., one car width) for long stretches, and had missing/decayed guard rails at a couple of cliff edges.  Add to this the fact that the sun was setting, and I literally feared that I might not make it back alive, as I didn't know how long the stretch of bad road would continue.  After a very tense hour or so the road improved significantly as it turned inland - smooth pavement returned and there were no more winding turns.  It began raining around 6pm when it turned dark, but by then I was thankfully on the better road.

By the time route 31 connected to route 37 I was more at ease.  I made it up to Kahului then back to the hotel around 8pm, very grateful to be in safe and familiar territory.

Pictures can be found here:

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Alaska 2016 - Day 14 (9/2/2016) - Return Home | Final Thoughts

I met up with Jeff and Tammy for one last meal before ending the vacation - we had breakfast at Snow City Cafe.  The wait was about 45 minutes (we thought that we might avoid their notoriously long wait on a Friday morning, but we were wrong), so we took the chance to briefly check out Resolution Park nearby.  Once we eventually got seated, the meal itself was pretty good.  We ate fairly quickly so that I could make it back to the hotel before the departure of my 11:15 airport transfer (Jeff and Tammy weren't flying out until later that night).  Though I did make it back with a couple minutes to spare, I was still the last one on the bus - the driver even called me out on it.  I said my goodbyes to Jeff and Tammy before boarding.

We saw a group of three moose as we approached the airport, and the bus driver stopped to let us take pictures.  I found this funny after only seeing one in passing (the day before) the whole trip - a fact that a few people (including Tammy) were disappointed about.  The rest of the journey home was thankfully uneventful.  The flight from Anchorage to Seattle took about 3 hours, and I was able to take an Uber home from the airport - legal rideshare pick-ups from the airport were a fairly new development.


Some closing thoughts about the trip...

Once again, I had an enjoyable vacation.  I hadn't traveled alone for the entirety of a trip this long (though I had done parts of long trips alone) in 10 years, but that turned out not to be a problem.  I wasn't really worried about it, but some social things are easier when you have a companion (or companions).  Regardless, I met some very friendly people on both the cruise and land tour, many of whom invited me to join them for meals, etc.  I guess I get along well with old white people.

I don't know that cruising is my preferred way of traveling, but it worked pretty well for this trip (especially for seeing some glaciers).  Most of my preferred itineraries are not amenable to getting around on a ship, plus I usually like to be more involved in planning my activities.  It was still a nice thing to do at least once.  I wouldn't be opposed to going on another cruise if someone invited me on one that sounded cool, but I don't see any other cruises in my near future besides maybe Antarctica (and that's not really a cruise like this type of cruise).

The main highlight of the trip was definitely the flightseeing tour to Denali, and next would be hiking on Worthington Glacier.  Also noteworthy were cruising through Glacier Bay and College Fjord, among other enjoyable experiences.  All in all, Alaska is a beautiful state, and I'm glad I finally got to see some of it.


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here:

Alaska 2016 - Day 13 (9/1/2016) - To Anchorage

We got to sleep in a little bit this morning, as luggage pick-up wasn’t until 9 AM.  The bus to the Talkeetna train depot left at 12:30, and the train to Anchorage departed around 1:55.  The train ride to Anchorage took about 3 hours.  The passenger seats were on the top deck of double-decker cars with panoramic windows and ceilings; the bottom deck housed the dining area, bathrooms, and kitchen.  Happenings on board included a decent veggie melt for lunch in the dining area, a moose sighting (by my tablemates Charlene and Phil, which led to a free brownie-a-la-mode dessert which they shared with me), a swing by Sarah Palin’s childhood home in Wasilla, and a transit through Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (where I saw a C-17 on a runway, but no F-22s).  After arriving at the Anchorage depot, we were transferred by coach to the Hotel Captain Cook.  I was surprised to have a room on the 18th floor  – it had been a while since I had seen a building that tall (there were 20 floors in the hotel), and wasn’t sure that any existed in Alaska.

After settling into the room for a bit, I went down and booked a spot on the 7:15 trolley tour of Anchorage.  When I walked over to catch the tour, I wasn’t too surprised to find a few other people from my Princess tour also onboard.  The trolley tour took us far beyond downtown to more areas of Anchorage than I expected – including West Anchorage High School, Earthquake Park, and the airport.  After the tour a few of the Princess people (Bob, Kathy?, Gary, Glenda?) walked over to the 49th State brewpub to grab dinner.  We were met there by a couple of Bob's friends from Florida who were completing a work camp in Alaska.  We finished up and walked back to the hotel sometime around 10:30.


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here:

Alaska 2016 - Day 12 (8/31/2016) - McKinley Lodge

Luggage pick-up was once again 7 AM, with a 9:45 departure for the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge.  The drive took a little over 2 hours, with one scenic stop to take pictures of “the Mountain”.  Unlike the last two bus transfers, where the 52 passengers were split between 2 coaches, we all filled up one coach.

This lodge had an environment somewhere between the last two.  The rooms were housed in many buildings sprawled across the large property, just like Denali.  However, the property was located an hour drive from the nearest town of significance, Talkeetna, so it was isolated like Copper River.  After arriving at the lodge, I wandered around for a bit until I found my building and room.  After stowing my gear, I walked over to the casual 20,320 Alaskan Grill for lunch.  I checked in with the hostess to eat alone, but of course I ran into Jeff and Tammy in there so I joined them at their table.  The mac and cheese that I had there (with mushrooms and grilled onions added in) was probably the best tasting meal that I had eaten since leaving the ship (though I wish the portion was a tad bigger, even if it meant additional clogging of my arteries).  After the meal I went back to my room to be lazy for a couple of hours while the other two headed off to another excursion.

The rest of the day/evening was pretty quiet.  I went to a couple of talks held at a “theater” at the lodge – one at 4:30 PM by a female mountain guide about climbing Denali, and another at 6 PM by a naturalist about bears.  Both were pretty good, but I was certainly more impressed by the climber.  Other than those and hanging around the main lodge for a bit, I didn’t do much else.  I was also pretty tired and went to bed relatively early.  After talking to some other travelers on the tour, I found out that I missed out on a pretty good display of the aurora, which started around 11 PM and was off and on through about 2 AM.  Oh well.


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here:

Alaska 2016 - Day 11 (8/30/2016) - Denali

The first item on the agenda this morning was the Denali Natural History Tour, which was included with my cruisetour package.  For breakfast, I grabbed a couple of items to go from the express café in the main lodge as I met with the group for the 9 AM departure.  The tour was OK, and we had another great guide/driver, Dalan – interestingly, he immediately recognized my name as West African due to having spent some time living in Ghana as a Mormon missionary.  The tour included 3 stops while riding the first 20 or so miles on the lone road into the park – one was a video about the history of the park using archival video and pictures, the second was a stop at Savage Cabin where a guy play-acted as the chief ranger from 1930, and the last was a history/culture talk by a young lady of Athabaskan descent.  Side note: with some exceptions, only park buses are allowed past mile 17(?) on the road into the park.  As it was another picture perfect day with no clouds in the sky, we also got a couple of scenic views of the Denali mountain.  We didn’t have as much luck with wildlife, though, as the best that we could do was a few Dall sheep high on a mountainside, and a family of willow ptarmigan (the state bird) by the side of the road.  Another side note: Dalan was the second guide/speaker within the week whose favorite bird is the raven.

The tour lasted about 4.5 hours, dropping us back off at the main lodge somewhere around 1:30 or 1:45.  At that point, Jeff, Tammy, and I walked across the street to a hotdog and burger place to grab lunch.  After a brief respite back in my room I met back up with Jeff to embark on the main attraction of the day: a flightseeing tour to Denali.  We were picked up by the Fly Denali shuttle van right around 3:15 and then driven to the Healy airstrip where the office was located.  We signed in and then waited to depart on our 4 PM flight, which began just about on schedule.  Our plane was a Piper Cherokee Six, a piston engine powered propeller plane that seats up to 6 people.  I had the fortune of taking the copilot’s seat – though I did my best not to touch any of the controls in front of me.  Our pilot was Jamie, a 36-year old lady who had been flying for literally half her life.  There were two other passengers besides Jeff and me - both worked for Fly Denali.

The take-off and landing portions of the flight were a bit bumpy, as were a couple of sections through the mountains and around the side of Denali.  Otherwise, though, the turbulence wasn’t too bad.  I did sweat a bit during the flight, but that could partially be attributed to the direct sunlight that beat into the cabin (luckily they provide a selection of loaner sunglasses, one of which I wore over my glasses).  And while my stomach was pretty much ready for the flight to be over by the end, I was never in any real danger of airsickness.  The flight path took us south to the Wickersham Wall on the northwest side of Denali (I can’t remember all the other stuff that we passed by on ingress and egress), ascending to 11,200 feet (above sea level).  Considering that the base of Denali is at around 2,000 feet and the peak at 20,000 feet, this was *incredibly* only halfway up the mountain.  We loitered above Peters Basin and then flew in and out of the pass above Traleika Glacier.  We also did a fly-by of Mount Brooks and Brooks Glacier below it before heading back to Healy.  We did not fly around to the south side of Denali because there was too much turbulence going around the west side, but we did get good views of both the north and south peaks.  The total flight time was somewhere around 90 minutes.  All in all it was an amazing experience with spectacular and truly awesome views; hopefully my very amateur pictures (mostly with my Nexus 6P smartphone) do it some justice.

After landing at Healy we thanked our pilot and hosts, and were driven back to the Princess lodge.  Jeff then left to meet up with Tammy for their evening excursion – we were thankfully back about 25 minutes before their scheduled 6:50 departure.  I headed back to my room to mentally process all that had just happened and marvel once again at the pictures.  After making sure that they were all backed up to two clouds (Google Photos as well as Sugarsync), I walked over to check out a Thai/Chinese food take-out place across the street that I had spotted on the drive back.  My expectations were pretty low for Thai food in Alaska, so I wasn’t disappointed by the so-so Pad Thai (as far as Pad Thais go, a so-so Pad Thai is still pretty enjoyable in my book).  The Thai iced tea was a little better, so it wasn’t a waste of $16.  On that note, Jeff, Tammy, and I noticed over the past few days that the food had been on the expensive side.  We hypothesized that it was a combination of the increased costs of getting the food to the remote areas as well as an ability to charge higher prices to tourists.

The aurora forecast for the night was a 5 on the Kp scale.  However, to my understanding the auroral activity never materialized – neither from the hourly forecast nor from looking out my window.  I gave up around 1 AM and went to bed.


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here:

Alaska 2016 - Day 10 (8/29/2016) - Denali Highway

Today was all about getting from the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge to the Denali Princess “Wilderness” Lodge.  I use the quotes because there is a stark difference between the Copper River Lodge and the Denali Lodge – the former has about 80 rooms and is on an isolated property, while the latter has probably 1000 rooms across several buildings and is within a semi-bustling (by Alaskan standards) town with stoplights.

We departed the Copper River Lodge around 8:15, and headed north on the Richardson Highway.  We then turned west on the Denali Highway.  Though these are their actual names, I use the term “highway” loosely here because these are mostly 2-lane (combined) roads, with tiny stretches where a lane is added in one direction to make the total 3.  Additionally, the Denali Highway is unpaved for about 100 miles in the middle.  The abnormally high rainfall this summer had also caused an increase in the number of potholes, making for an even bumpier ride.  Our driver Braden reported, though, that the unexpected late-season maintenance had drastically improved the road within the last week.

Our streak of excellent weather continued, despite a chilly start in the morning.  By the afternoon the temperature was in the 60s, and the sky was once again mostly clear.  After a scenic stop at MacLaren Summit, we stopped for lunch at the Maclaren River Lodge.  Though the menu was limited there, it was respectable what they could offer (including running toilets) at such a fairly isolated location.  After we left the lodge Braden made the mistake of telling the passengers that he had intentionally failed to notify the lodge proprietors that this was his last highway drive of the season in order to avoid the tradition of having to wade into the river.  At the urging of the passengers, he relented and performed this duty at the crossing of the Brushkana River.  I must say that he was a great sport and a genuinely nice young man to have as our driver.

We made a few more scenic stops to admire the Alaskan Mountain Range, including a couple specifically for the rare viewing of Denali – Braden informed us that in his 9 trips across the highway this season this was the only day that it had been clear enough to see Denali on the drive.  By the time we turned north on the Parks Highway and made it to the Denali Lodge, we were close to an hour behind the scheduled 9 hour travel time.  Nobody on the bus seemed to mind, though, as we had been fortunate to have such pleasant weather and the chance for extra scenic views (as well as a fun stunt from the driver).

When I made it up to my room at the lodge, I was surprised to find someone else’s bag waiting there (mine wasn’t to be delivered just yet) – I did note, though, that the last name on the tag (Oj-something) was somewhat similar to mine, so the mix-up was understandable.  I called down to the front desk to inform them of the mistake, as well as request a wake-up call if the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) made an appearance that night – a service I found out about that morning after some people had used it to see the lights the previous night.  I then met up with Jeff and Tammy to plan our flightseeing tour for the next day – we went with a less expensive third party instead of a Princess excursion.  We then had dinner at the pizza joint on the property, during which a conversation with the couple at the next table revealed that they were the parents of Annie Westhoff (a girl that I used to play soccer with in St. Louis).  On the way back we stopped at the front desk to inquire more about good places to view the lights if they did happen, then walked down to the spot by the river that the clerk had suggested.  After making it back to our J building, we said our conditional goodnights in hope that we would meet again in the middle of the night for the lights.

I was still up (and was in fact looking at the aurora forecast) around midnight when Jeff called saying that he and Tammy had noticed that the sky was looking a little lighter and were about to walk out to check it out.  I bundled up in a few layers (the temperature was down to about 35 degrees) and joined them.  We could see a bit of the green aurora from in front of the main lodge, and there were others around getting a look as well.  We walked down to, and past, the suggested viewing spot on the river to try to get a better view, but it didn’t help.  On the plus side there were fewer lights around (though there still a couple of annoying lights from buildings on top nearby hills, as well as the intermittent passing car on the nearby road), but it was at a lower elevation so we actually had a more obstructed view toward the horizon with the most activity.  We could still see some of the faint activity at the edges of the aurora overhead, though.  Like several other people that I saw, I tried in vain to get a picture of the lights, but they were far too dim for both my phone and my camera (plus I didn’t know how to work the manual controls).  After a while we decided to walk back to the lodge to try to see more of the hotspot on the horizon.  But the lights had just about begun to fade when we made a move, and they were gone by the time we arrived back at the lodge.  I made it back to my room a little before 1 AM, so the whole ordeal lasted a little under an hour.


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here:

Alaska 2016 - Day 9 (8/28/2016) - Worthington Glacier

After having booked the excursion to hike the Worthington Glacier the evening before, I was both excited and apprehensive.  My primary worry was whether my ankle/Achilles injury had healed sufficiently.  It had greatly improved the last few days, and for the most part I could forget that I ever had an issue with it on the trip.  However, there were still a couple of extended positions where I could feel some discomfort, especially early in the day.  During the course of the night I also realized that I did not have proper shoes to attach crampons – the only shoes I brought on the trip were a dressy pair and a pair of casual Merrells that were comfortable for walking around but didn’t have laces.  I didn’t anticipate deciding to hike up a glacier during the trip.  I was also worried that I didn’t have gloves, and wasn’t sure if that was a required item for the ice activities.  Only one of my worries turned out to be realized on the day of the excursion.

After a quick bagel from the breakfast bar, I met up with the rest of the group of four a little before the scheduled 10:15 departure – I was actually the last one, as they were already in the van.  The Aussie couple (Ben and Suzie) were on the excursion – this wasn’t a surprise, as they were the only others under 50 on the tour.  We were joined by Rachel, a Taiwanese student who was working for Princess in Alaska over the summer.  Our driver Jared (who had also met us in Valdez prior to boarding the coaches) then drove us the hour or so back to the Worthington Glacier, where we met our guide Tyler.  After introductions and a suggested trip to the restroom, we gathered up the gear and began the walk to the glacier.

It was a beautiful day with mostly clear skies and temperatures perhaps approaching 70 degrees Fahrenheit at the base.  I began in an undershirt and a long sleeve t-shirt.  It did get cooler during the ascent, and I did put on my jacket, but I possibly could have been OK without it.  We hiked probably around 20 minutes to get to the glacier, and then another 5 or 10 before needing to put on our crampons as we approached the icy portions (a lot of the lower portion was covered with rocks).  When Tyler noticed that my low-top shoes did not have laces, he instructed me to strap the back straps of the crampons around my ankles as tightly as I could.  This worked out OK, but it became progressively uncomfortable, and even painful, as we hiked up.  Tyler was initially concerned that Rachel’s feet/shoes were too small for the smallest crampon size/setting – to the point that he told her that he would watch her closely for the first few minutes and might need to send her back if the crampons seemed insecure.  However, it turned out that she would be the superstar of the group, and was nearly as surefooted on the glacier as Tyler.

We hiked about 2/3 of the way up the bottom slope of the glacier, stopping to perform the customary “glacial facial” along the way.  At this point my crampon straps (especially my left one) were rubbing fairly painfully on my ankle while ascending.  I was relieved when we stopped for a snack (trail mix) and some hot chocolate.  I also took the time to readjust the straps a bit, which was a little helpful.  I let Tyler know that I was OK with going up a little farther, which was all that he planned on going up anyway.  After a few minutes more ascending, we turned around and began the descent.  Going down wasn’t nearly as bad on the ankle straps, especially after adjusting where the buckle/snap landed.  We took a little detour to explore a recently formed moulin that Tyler hadn’t yet been able to check out.  We eventually made it back to the rocks, where we could take off our crampons, and then further below take off our helmets.  Ben reported that we had been hiking for a little over 3 hours when we made it back to the parking lot (15+ minutes late) to meet Jared.  From there we returned our equipment (including the ice ax that I had been carrying along), said our goodbyes to Tyler, and then made the return drive back to the lodge.

We were back at the lodge sometime around 4:30.  After a shower I headed over to the bar to grab dinner, this time sitting with a retired couple, Sue and Roger, from Minnesota/Phoenix.  After dinner I ran into Lindsey, the park ranger, who was there to attend the 7:30 talk on the park geology that was given by her colleague Matthew.  After the talk I ran into Tammy and Jeff, and we discussed potential arrangements for a flightseeing tour while at Denali.


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here:

Alaska 2016 - Day 8 (8/27/2016) - Whittier to Copper Center

My designated disembarkation time was 7:30 AM.  After getting off the ship I boarded a catamaran with 51 other passengers and crossed over to Valdez.  The trip took a little less than 4 hours, even with a few stops to admire sea lions and sea otters.  I got a little seasick for the first time during the boat ride, but I figured that it was due to staring at the laptop screen while we went along – I was over it soon after turning off the laptop and instead looking at the surroundings.

After arriving in Valdez we were picked up by a couple of motor coaches.  They first took us a few blocks to the Safeway parking lot, where we were then released to find lunch.  I ate at a place (Roadside Potatohead) that was a former food truck – I had the hummus wrap recommended by one of the tour guides (Jared).  A group of 3 (a married couple, Ben and Suzie, and her mother) from Australia that was also on the tour was kind enough to invite me to join their table.  After lunch we walked back to Safeway and bought some supplies ahead of the 9-hour bus ride in a couple of days.

The coach then took us to the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge, just outside the tiny town of Copper Center.  On the way we stopped at scenic pullouts to view Horsetail Fall in Keystone Canyon, Thompson Pass, Worthington Glacier, and the (the western edge of the) Wrangell Mountain Range.  After arriving at the lodge, I unpacked and then joined up with a 6 PM group nature walk around the lodge property that was led by a ranger from Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  The same ranger (Lindsey) then gave a talk at 7:30 about ravens, a bird species that I now better appreciate.  Before the talk, I booked an excursion to hike the Worthington Glacier the next day.  After the talk I joined Jeff and Tammy, a married couple from Pittsburgh, who were already dining in the hotel bar.  After dinner I grabbed a cookie and some milk chocolate from the "Christmas in July and August" party in the lodge great room, then retired to my room.


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here:

Alaska 2016 - Day 7 (8/26/2016) - College Fjord

It was a lazy morning, with nothing on the docket for me until a backstage production tour of the Princess Theater at 11:15.  After that I grabbed lunch, then sat around for a while.  As we approached College Fjord in the early evening I went topside to observe the scenery and take pictures.  I got cold after being out there for a couple of hours, so I took a quick break to go pack up my suitcase and leave it out to be transferred.  I made it back outside right as we were passing Bryn Mawr Glacier.  I ran into Christine, Eric, Stacy, Ryan, and Nell, and hung with them while the ship made its way to Harvard Glacier and did a couple of twirls.  As the ship reversed course the Zemke crew invited me to dinner once again, as their 7:30 seating was fast approaching – I was happy to accept.  Mama Zemke (unfortunately, I don't recall her name) was well enough to join this time, so we had a full table of 8 (they added 1 for me).  After dinner the young’ns  and I walked over to the Explorers Lounge to see if Ryan and Nell would win anything in the drink package raffle – they didn’t.  After that I bid them farewell and retired to my room to get some sleep before an early morning.


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here:

Alaska 2016 - Day 6 (8/25/2016) - Glacier Bay

This morning was one of the most anticipated events for me for the trip – cruising in Glacier Bay.  I was dressed around 9:30 as the ship approached Russell Island.  I went up to the Promenade Deck (7) to view the couple of glaciers (Lamplugh Glacier and Reid Glacier) that were visible from our initial stake-out spot.  I then grabbed a bit of breakfast while the ship sailed into the Tarr Inlet toward the Margerie Glacier.  I briefly met up with Christine in the buffet as we approached Margerie, but left to go take pictures on the top decks while she had breakfast.  I ran into Eric and Stacy while the ship was twirling in front of the awe-inspiring glacier, and hung with them for most of the hour or so that the ship spent there.  We luckily got to witness a couple of fairly large shards calving from the glacier while our side was facing it.  There were park rangers on board during our time in the bay, and they provided some interesting information over the PA system during some of the viewing time.  One nice tidbit I picked up was that it was (to the day) the 100th birthday/anniversary of the National Park Service – Glacier Bay is a national park.

After the ship left Margerie around noon I grabbed a veggie burger from the grill and took it back to my room to lunch on.  I wandered around the ship for a while, grabbed a soft-serve cone from the ice cream bar, and unsuccessfully tried to find a good spot to look out for ocean wildlife.  Later on I met up with Christine to try to spot some of the dolphins, sea otters, and whales that she had been seeing from her balcony.  Unfortunately, the fog set in as soon as I went over there, so I didn’t get to see anything.  We went to afternoon trivia at 4:30 and teamed up with Helen again.  Our respectable 19 points (out of a possible 29) put us just one behind the co-leaders so we didn’t get to participate in the tiebreaker.  After trivia Christine and I met up with Eric and Tracy at the Wheelhouse Bar, where we killed some time before dinner.

Dinner was a formal affair.  I crashed the Zemke table in the Provence dining room, where there was assigned seating at an assigned time (7:30 in their case) – they arranged to add an extra seat for me to join Christine, Eric, Stacy, Eric’s brother Ryan, Ryan’s wife Nell, Eric’s dad Bob, and Eric’s mom.  In the end, though, Eric’s mom was a no-show due to sea-sickness so I essentially took her place.  Speaking of sea-sickness, the ship had encountered some fairly rough (but not alarmingly so) waters by this point, so her absence was understandable.  The rolling of the ship would continue throughout the night and into the next day.  Thankfully this didn’t affect me.  After dinner I swung by the Universe Lounge to catch the end of the Marriage Match Gameshow (their take on the Newlywed Show) before retiring to my room.


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here:

Alaska 2016 - Day 5 (8/24/2016) - Skagway

I slept in this morning and skipped breakfast entirely.  I made it to the Horizon Court Buffet right about as lunch service began around 11:30.  The vegetarian options were actually a little lacking at the buffet today, but that was probably not a bad thing for my waistline; I still got enough to eat.  After lunch I went ashore to try to make the 12:40 departure of the White Pass Scenic Railway.  I ran into Christine, Eric, and Stacy just as I was preparing to board the train, and Christine warned me that the views were not great because of the clouds and fog (they had just done a train ride).  I decided to cancel my booking and instead joined them for a trip into Skagway.

We took a “Smart Bus” the mile or so to the far end of the downtown area, where the brew house was.  We braved the half hour wait and then had lunch there – or at least the others had lunch, as I had recently eaten.  We then slowly made our way back to the pier, stopping at many of the shops.  At some point Eric and Stacy left to head back to the boat to pick up something to mail at the post office.  Christine and I browsed through more shops that caught her eye, and also made a stop for ice cream, and another for mini donuts.  We made it back to the ship around 5 PM.

I met back up with Christine later in the evening to watch the movie "Money Monster" in the Princess Theater – I knew nothing about it beforehand besides that it starred George Clooney and Julia Roberts, but it turned out to be pretty decent.  Afterward, we had a late dinner at the buffet.


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here:

Alaska 2016 - Day 4 (8/23/2016) - Juneau

It was another relatively early morning today, as I was dressed by 8 AM.  I met up with Christine for breakfast in one of the dining rooms before she departed for her late morning walking and food sampling tour.  I took it easy (did some writing and coding) for the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon.

I met up with Christine around 1:30 to go ashore and walk about a bit.  There was some intermittent rain, but it was brief and very light.  After a while I left her to continue shopping while I went over to take the tram up to the top of Mount Roberts, where I was able to get a nice view in between the fog rolling in and out.  After that I headed back to the ship to relax for a bit before hitting up the buffet for dinner.  As there weren’t any appealing shows or events that evening, I stayed in my room and watched “All The Way” (with Brian Cranston as LBJ) – which I ended up liking more than I expected.


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here:

Alaska 2016 - Day 3 (8/22/2016) - Ketchikan

The ship changed time zones back one hour to Alaskan time in the middle of the night (2 AM).  We dropped anchor at Ketchikan early in the morning.  I was also up relatively early – 7ish – partially due to the time change.  After the breakfast buffet I decided to take a tender boat to shore and walk around town for a bit.  While on the boat I met a woman named Christine who was cruising solo-ish – she had friends on the cruise, but was rooming alone.  During the course of conversation I found out that she was an OB/GYN surgeon from Oklahoma City, and we decided to explore Ketchikan together.

After reaching the dock, we scored a map from the tourist information center that guided a walking tour of “downtown” Ketchikan.  We followed the directions for the first few points of interest, but pretty soon abandoned it and began wandering about to various shops.  We eventually sat down at a coffee shop, where I had a sub-par mango smoothie.  Then we checked out a bar named Annabelle’s down the street where Christine bought a t-shirt and sampled a flight, while I gorged on a slice of peanut butter pie.  After a quick stop at Orca Corn to buy some kettle corn, we made it back to the dock to take a boat back to the ship before the 1:30 cast-off.

Back on the ship, we caught a screening of part 2 of Spirit of Alaska and grabbed a late afternoon snack from the buffet.  For dinner, I had my first dining room experience – we went to the anytime dining room (which is what I had selected pre-trip, while she had chosen the assigned dining room) and shared a table with 7 other people.  The cruise dining experience is pretty nice – you get to choose whatever you want (including multiple of each) from a menu of a few starters, salads, soups, mains, entrees, and desserts, all while being served by a pair of attentive wait staff.  After dinner we went to the show by vocal impressionist Travis Turpin – he does pretty good impressions of old timey singers (e.g., Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Neil Diamond).


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here:

Alaska 2016 - Day 2 (8/21/2016) - At Sea

I slept in for a long time this morning, making up for what I didn’t get while packing the night before.  I first got up around 9, but then decided that I didn’t really want to be up just yet.  I got back up after 11 – something that I can’t remember doing for a while.  As I prepared for the day, I noticed that the boat would rock a bit from time to time, in contrast to the virtually peaceful sailing from the day before when we had Vancouver Island to shield us from the ocean.  Apparently the open waters past the island were a tad rougher.

After getting dressed I went up to the buffet for lunch.  They had an Asian theme going, and once again I didn’t have trouble finding stuff to eat.  My next activity was a talk at 2 PM about whales, given by the ship’s naturalist in one of the theaters.  Later on at 4 PM I attended a trivia event at one of the lounges.  I arrived a bit late and ended up partnering with another solo cruiser named Helen – we managed an almost respectable 11 out of 20 correct.  We chatted a bit afterward, and I found out that she was a retired nurse from Australia.  At one point she asked if I was on the cruise or part of the staff – she seemed surprised that a person “my age” would be cruising with all the “old people”.  I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt that it didn’t also have to do with race.  All in all, it was a pleasant conversation.  And she gave me a tip that they seem to do a decent job of setting solo travelers up at a table with similarl demographics in the dining room.  I decided to pass on that for the day, since it was a formal night, but I considered dining there subsequent evenings.

The rest of the evening included dinner once again at the buffet and then watching comedian Derrick Cameron in the Universe Lounge.  His full set was better than the abbreviated one from the night before.  Interestingly, he keeps it clean and doesn’t curse or do dirty jokes;  I guess that’s cruise friendly.  He does make racial jokes, though, which is particularly humorous to me since we were probably the only 2 black guys in the room.


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here:

Alaska 2016 - Day 1 (8/20/2016) - Embark

Alaska has been on my list of places to travel for a while.  After hearing of my coworker Dave Long’s enjoyable cruisetour to there last year, I decided that I wanted to do something similar.  And since I was now living in Seattle (for a while at least), I figured that this was the time to do it since I was as close as I could reasonably get.  The only company that I saw in my brief search that did cruisetours (part cruise, part land tour) was Princess Cruises.  They had some Alaska cruises that left from Seattle, but the cruisetours all seemed to start or end in Vancouver.  After a couple of false starts with potential companions for the trip, I ended up booking solo.  I selected a 13-day “Off The Beaten Path” cruisetour, which included a 7-day “Voyage of the Glaciers” cruise.

This would be my first cruise, so I didn’t know what to expect.  Since the Down Under trip in 2007/2008, I’ve travelled with just a big backpack and usually done laundry in the middle of my big trips.  But I also haven’t done any organized tours since then.  While glancing through the tour itinerary, I noticed that the cruise portion included 2 “formal” nights and 5 “smart casual” ones.  A bit of Internet research revealed that a tuxedo, suit, or dinner jacket was expected for men for the formal nights in the dining rooms.  What I stupidly didn’t realize at the time, though, was that there would be other places to eat besides the dining rooms.  So I figured that I had to pack some nice clothes (I didn’t have a tie with me in Seattle, though), and that necessitated bringing a suitcase (and not just a backpack).  Of course I went overboard (pun intended) and over-packed since I was wanted to bring enough for all 13 days and wasn’t sure what the weather mix was going to be.  And being one who doesn’t pack until the night before (or morning of) my trips, this ended up causing a very late night – I didn’t get to sleep until 2 or 3 in the morning.

Another thing had me worried prior to the trip.  A few days earlier I had picked up some sort of injury to my left ankle/Achilles area.  This had come at the end of a couple of weeks of increased soccer playing, and it marred my streak of not having any serious injuries (i.e., enough to miss a game) since moving to Seattle.  I don’t even know how I got the injury, but I vaguely remember it waking me up during my sleep the night after my Monday game (I think...).  In any case, I was set to miss games on Wednesday and Thursday due to a separate thigh/groin injury, but then this ankle one seemed to get worse and worse.  It wasn’t anything structural, since it didn’t hurt at rest and I had most of my range of motion.  However, I did feel pain when I pointed my toes or planted on that foot (e.g., just to walk).  This was usually the worst in the morning after waking up, but would get well enough after shuffling around for a bit that it was almost unnoticeable for most of the day if I was just walking slowly.  Running or pivoting on it were still not doable.  I hoped (and expected) that it would subside by the time that I left for the trip on Saturday, and didn’t do anything to treat it.  It was no better by Saturday morning, though, and it was only then that I noticed how bruised (yes, I guess my dark skin can bruise after all) and swollen the back of my ankle was.

So I departed for Vancouver a little worried, but nevertheless undeterred.  I took an Uber to the airport, checked in and dropped of my suitcase, and then eventually boarded the Air Canada turbo-prop for the short hop up the coast.  I was mildly looking forward to the flight (originally scheduled for 11:40, but delayed ~25 minutes), as I had only ridden on passenger jets - I jumped out of the only other propeller plane that I can recall riding in.  The flight was fairly uneventful, though I didn’t like having to remove my earbuds for take-off and landing - something I haven't had to do on a flight for a long time.  We were above 10,000 feet so briefly that the flight attendants only got through half of the plane (I would estimate there were 80 or 90 seats) for beverage service.  I was in the back, so I didn’t get a drink, but that’s not even worth thinking of sweating over (first world problems).

After landing and going through immigration, I found the Princess staff and handed off my luggage for transfer to the ship.  This was very convenient.  I didn’t think that I had made it onto their transfer roster per the status on my account on their website, but it looked like they didn’t care as long as you were booked on the ship.  They also provided a shuttle bus transfer to the pier, so I didn’t have to worry about making my way down there myself.  It was while getting on the shuttle that it struck me what most of the demographic for the cruise would be - lots of…let’s say..."experienced" people.  And no color (though there was a tiny bit more later on the ship).  Neither of which was a surprise - I just didn’t think about it much beforehand.

The shuttle got us to the pier sometime around 3 PM, a good 45 minutes before boarding was to end.  With the wait for the shuttle, the stop to pick up other passengers, and the questionable route through side streets, I probably could have gotten there a little faster via SkyTrain; but the convenience was pretty tough to beat.  The cruise check-in process involved a bunch of walking about (luckily with staff pointing you in the right direction), but it was pretty smooth.  After I received my room key card (which also served as my on-board ID and payment), I went through security and then US immigration.  So I guess I was back in US territory after boarding the ship, even though I was still in Vancouver?

The name of the ship was the Coral Princess.  After finding my Oceanview room (i.e., it had a picture window, but no balcony), I took a few minutes to get acquainted with the amenities.  I found it to be pretty comfortable for the size.  Soon after an announcement was made for the required safety drill at 4 PM.  When the general alarm was sounded (unfortunately, right as the Brazil v Germany Olympic soccer final was going to PKs) I grabbed a life vest from the closet as directed and left to find the Muster Station.  I find out at this time when I went to leave that my suitcase had been delivered and was waiting outside my door.  After taking it into the room, I walked up to Muster Station E.  There we went through the exercise (the assistant tour director for our station tried to make it somewhat fun, but I found her to be overly enthusiastic) and then were released.

Back in the room, I unpacked my suitcase and continued going through the introductory documents that had been left in the room.  I also registered my on-board Princess@Sea account, and purchased an Internet access plan.  After a while, and a bit of a nap, I left to go explore the ship.  Among the 10 or so passenger decks, there were various bars and lounges, a couple of theaters, a casino, a spa, a couple of pools, a half basketball court, a couple of shuffleboard stations, a fitness center, two dining rooms, a buffet, an ice cream bar, an outdoor movie screen on one of the decks, and much more.  I grabbed a slice of pizza at the pizzeria before realizing that the buffet was close by.  I ate the slice and then went into the buffet to finish out the meal.  The buffet had plenty of vegetarian options in addition to the many for carnivores.  They also had complimentary lemonade and iced tea – these are my drinks of choice, so I found an additional beverage plan unnecessary.

My activities for the remainder of the evening included attending the second welcome show at 9:45.  I didn’t realize beforehand that they would have a music and dance intro as well as an intro from the tour director and his deputies – I was only there for the comedian.  It ended up being not so bad, though - I got a bit of useful information from it.  The comedian (Derrick Cameron) was decent enough that I would consider going to his full show on the next night.  Prior to that I tried to go to a meet and greet for solo travelers, but I didn’t see anybody at the bar that looked like they were running it.

This is probably going to be by far the longest post of this travelogue because of how new the experience was for me.  The rest will probably just be little more than listings of the activities that I did.


My favorite photos from the trip can be found here: