Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Alaskan Cruise: The Beginning

Last Thanksgiving, my nephew Brian, his wife, Vicky and their baby boy, George, were at the Aerie for dinner and the topic of cruises came up. (They had been on a couple and we had never gone a-sailing.) Vicky expressed an interest in cruising Alaskan waters and I had always wanted to visit Ketchikan and Sitka.

Brian pulled out his tablet and proceeded to do a quick search which resulted in Royal Caribbean’s 9-night voyage out of Vancouver as a likely target for us. The next Monday, Brian got in touch with Royal Caribbean via a Costco travel agent and booked two staterooms aboard the Radiance of the Seas to depart Vancouver on May 17th.

Brian also arranged for hotel rooms at the start of our cruise, a train trip from our debarkation point of Seward to Anchorage, and hotel rooms in Anchorage. All Terry and I had to do was arrange for our own air travel to Vancouver at the beginning and out of Anchorage at the end.
The ship’s itinerary looked like this:
                                                                Arrival                   Departure
05/17     Vancouver, B.C.                                                5:00 pm
05/18     Cruising
05/19     Ketchikan, Alaska*          1:30 pm                8:00 pm
05/20     Sitka, Alaska*                    11:00 am              8:00 pm
05/21     Haines, Alaska*                Noon                     10:00 pm
05/22     Skagway, Alaska*            7:00 am 10:00 pm
05/23     Juneau, Alaska*                               7:00 am 8:00 pm
05/24     Icy Strait Point, Alaska* 6:30 am 3:00 pm
05/25     Hubbard Glacier (cruising)
05/26     Seward, Alaska*               5:00 am
*Denotes ports-of-call where there were on-shore excursions to indulge in.

Terry used nearly all her accumulated flight miles to purchase flights on Air Canada to Vancouver and from Anchorage on Alaska Air which helped keep the cost down considerably. Our flight to Vancouver was a non-stop out of Newark, NJ. It departed around 4 pm on the 16th so we would miss the major rush hour traffic in New Jersey by a good bit. Turns out, this was the only direct flight from any of the east coast airports from Boston to Baltimore. Even so, it’s a four hour drive just to get to the airport. (Next time I think we’ll pass on the desire for a direct flight and depart from Corning/Elmira just 45 minutes away.)

No sooner had we parked the Jeep in the economy lot and pulled our bags out than the shuttle bus pulled up to take us to the terminal. A very positive sign! We managed to get TSA pre-check and, being very early for our departure time, we sailed right through—except my knees would set of the metal detector and I’d have to get wanded—something that would also happen every single time I went through the detectors boarding the ship.

We grabbed a sandwich wrap and sat down to wait and do some people watching. A half hour prior to departure and after the First Class and Elite folks boarded, we got on the plane ourselves. Seats 25 A and B were right behind the wing on the right side of the plane about two thirds of the way to the rear. Even better, 25 C turned out to be empty. It was a larger plane (I think it was a Boeing 777) with three seats on each side and four down the middle.

We departed right on time and had a relatively smooth flight with only a little turbulence over the Dakotas and again over the Canadian Rockies. The bourbon was acceptable. 
View from the tarmack. Manhattan in the background with the port and NJ Turnpike nearer.

We landed right on time, too. Baggage claimed, we hailed a cab to take us to the Grand Westin Hotel. When he learned we were in Vancouver only for the second time—the last being way back in 1993--the cabby proceeded to give us a running commentary as we drove across town. Lots of new buildings and growth since we were there last! Then again, they did host the 2010 Winter Olympics. For $31 US (including tip) we had a quick guided tour of the city. As we unloaded, our bags, the cabby was surprised we only had the two carry-ons and two suitcases for a nine-day cruise. (We’re pretty frugal in our packing under ordinary circumstances. Comes from RVing, I guess.)

Checking in was no problem but we learned Brian and Vicky were not booking a room at the hotel. They had come in early, rented a car, and were visiting one Vicky’s friends for the night. We would see them in the morning when Brian would drive us to the docks and return the rental. And then we would all go through the boarding procedure from Hell.

Cruise Day 1
Dawn on Wednesday, May 17th was a bit overcast with a light sprinkle. We were told to be on the docks no earlier than 11 am and, being novices, we believed that. If we had been a half hour earlier, we could have avoided what was to come. 

First, the signage for returning the rental car was nonexistent and none of the first four Port Traffic Authority officers (rentals themselves?) had a clue as to where to go. The fifth simply said “P2” which we took to mean “Parking Level 2.” Spying a big blue “P” with an arrow, we set off to find a ramp going down. Upon reaching the first underground level we finally spotted a sign (with arrow) saying “Return Rentals.” We were in the right place! We got to the return area and unpacked our gear (including little George’s stroller). The rental guy came over and gave the car a look over and then walked away. We assumed he was going over to the little desk and shack and would be right back with papers and a charge for Brian to sign. He wasn’t back in five minutes and other cars were being returned around us so we went looking for him. Didn’t spot the first guy, but another fella, saw us and shouted out to the first guy who, it turns out, was already inspecting another car further down the row. Anyway, Brian signed the papers he was handed and we all headed off to the elevator to go up to the ground floor where we found chaos ruling. 

Okay, maybe not total chaos but some level pretty near. Seems there were three cruise ships in port and, rather than schedule staggered starts, they were all boarding passengers at the same time. Our ship, Radiance of the Seas, the largest of the three ships, could hold 2500 passengers. The Norwegian Sun was smaller (about 1800 passengers) and the third was a Holland America ship, the Volendam, was the smallest (about 1250 passengers). All were booked solid for the first cruises of the season.
And, being the first cruises of the season, there were lots and lots of rookie counter folks checking papers and handling luggage. And only a half dozen lines for customs. Lots of bottle necks; lines that cris-crossed one another; 5-6000 passengers trying to start their vacations…it wasn’t pretty. But there were no fights, and only a few harsh words. It took us almost three hours—most of it waiting in line—to finally get to the ship and find our way to our stateroom (to drop off our carry-ons), a bar, and then a meal. In that order. Folks who arrived at 10:30 instead of 11, were well into their third or fourth drink by the time we got to the bar. Sometimes it really, really pays to be early.

At 4:30 pm we had our mandatory evacuation drill, or, as they prefer to call it, “Guest Assembly Drill.” We were about a half hour late pulling away from the dock because of delays caused in the terminal but we were underway shortly after 5:30 pm on our way to Ketchikan, Alaska.
Wood carving at Vancouver port terminal.

George takes all the chaos in stride.

Me, finally aboard the Radiance of the Seas.
View from the ship of Vancouver.

More of the Vancouver port area

Lots of float planes around Vancouver.
Paddle wheeler plies the harbor waters.

George like having room to roam in his stateroom.  (Shoes and socks would be a problem the entire cruise.) 

Vicky and George in the Solarium.


JDP said...

The Bourbon was acceptable??? Maybe you did not drink enough!

Linda Stager said...

I am so glad you are writing this blog. I am sitting back and reading avidly. Great job! Linda

TennRebel said...

We almost went to Vancouver the day you arrived but decided not to because it was forecast to be cold and rainy.