June 18, 2024

Celebrating Alaska

The teak promenade deck on Zaandam was never crowded.

Holland America Line recently celebrated a milestone anniversary of 150 years in service and 50 years of cruising to Alaska. Founded in the Netherlands and now headquartered in Seattle, the company operated transatlantic service between Rotterdam and New York long before their fleet of blue-hulled ships became a dominant presence in Alaska.

Our ship follows Grand Princess through Blackney Passage.

I too am celebrating an anniversary of sorts. My guidebook to Alaska was first launched 30 years ago and is currently in its 10th edition. To celebrate the book’s enduring success, I decided to take a somewhat nostalgic cruise to Alaska aboard the Zaandam. Entering service in May of 2000, this is a spacious, mid-sized ship carrying 1,400 passengers. Like all HAL ships, which are run by Dutch officers, the Zaandam boasts a wrap-around promenade deck, its teak surface perfect for walking and pausing at the rail to enjoy the sea views.

Zaandam docked in Skagway at the head of a beautiful fjord.

In keeping with my first cruise to Alaska, when verandah staterooms were just starting to be a standard feature on ships, my husband and I opted for an ocean view stateroom on the ship’s main deck. As much as I’ve become used to having a private verandah onto which I can step to view the scenery and breathe in the fresh air, there were advantages to enjoying the voyage from a window positioned closer to the water. We kept the curtains open and, without getting out of bed, could look outside at the sea and sky any time of day or night. In the evening the northern twilight would cast a pastel glow onto the clouds outside our window and the easy motion of the ship was accompanied by the soothing sound of water brushing against the hull.

A passenger gazes at Marjerie Glacier from one of Zaandam‘s viewing decks.

The familiar fjords and snow-clad mountains of the Inside Passage are always a welcome sight as the ship travels the narrow channels and open straits of the British Columbia and Alaska coasts. The ports of call have expanded their infrastructure over the years to accommodate the steady increase in number and size of ships docking at their doorsteps, but familiar landmarks remain the highlight amid the newer attractions.

In Juneau, the nearby Mendenhall Glacier draws visitors by the hundreds and the shuttle buses fill up quickly. We have hiked the trails near Mendenhall Glacier and landed by helicopter on the Juneau Icefield, so on our last visit we opted to simply go for a walk along the harbor’s bustling boardwalk, past kiosks, public art and the seadrome where floatplanes land and take off, taking passengers on flightseeing excursions to Taku Glacier Lodge.

Skagway is one of Alaska’s most scenic ports, situated at the head of a beautiful fjord. The train ride to White Pass is a must for first-time visitors to Skagway but we chose on this visit to set off on foot to the Yakutania Point trailhead and enjoy a forest hike with views overlooking the fjord’s turquoise water.

Cloudy skies greeted us in Glacier Bay as we motored to the head and lingered off the face of Marjerie Glacier. Its snout is slowly retreating but remains an impressive sight, its crystal blue ice rising several hundred feet above the water.

In Ketchikan, my sister and brother-in-law headed off to the popular Lumberjack Show while Bill and I strolled the town’s boardwalk streets, reminiscing about our previous visits to this lively port. We first pulled into Ketchikan in a sailboat in 1990, when the sight of a cruise ship in port was still a novelty. Today it’s not unusual for half a dozen large ships to be in port on any given day during the summer cruise season. Even so, the reasons for visiting Alaska by cruise ship remain as compelling as ever.

Sailing the Inside Passage

Fury Island anchorage is one of the most beautiful of Fitz Hugh Sound.

There are many scenic waterways in this world, but there is only one Inside Passage. Stretching northward from Puget Sound in Washington State to Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska, this vast and intricate coastline of winding channels, turquoise fjords and forested islands is a famous sea route travelled by vessels of all sizes. Cruise ships ply these waters, but the ultimate is to embark on a voyage of the Inside Passage in your own boat.

Of all the boating I’ve done along the Inside Passage, one of my favorite cruising areas is British Columbia’s central coast, just north of Cape Caution. This aptly named cape marks one of the few exposed legs of the Inside Passage. Here there is no avoiding Queen Charlotte Sound – an open stretch of water, best approached with ample preparation and a close eye on the weather.

Once past Cape Caution, boaters enter some of the best coastal cruising in the world: dozens of deserted islands, secluded anchorages, beautiful beaches and an abundance of wildlife, not to mention some of the best sport fishing anywhere.

Almost without exception, the first anchorage we pull into after rounding Cape Caution when northbound is Fury Island at the mouth of Rivers Inlet. This anchorage, part of Penrose Island Marine Park, is partially ringed with dazzling white beaches of crushed shell and sand. In sunny weather the setting is reminiscent of a South Seas atoll, especially at high water, when the water lapping ashore turns a brilliant turquoise as it shimmers over the crushed clamshells. The cove’s outer beaches can be visited by dinghy or kayak, and are a lovely place to have a picnic or a secluded swim.

Midden beaches ring the west side of Fury Island.

These stunning beaches are actually archeological sites – kitchen middens dating to pre-historic times when the Indigenous people living in villages along the shores of Rivers Inlet came to Fury Island each summer to harvest clams. The shells of these clams were tossed aside and the piles they formed were, over time, crushed and compressed into the shell beaches now enjoyed by boaters and kayakers. Visitors are welcome to laze on these beaches but not disturb them.

More beautiful beaches lie across Fitz Hugh Sound on the outer shores of Calvert Island. The main anchorage in this area is Pruth Bay, reached via Kwakshua Channel. Pacific white-sided dolphins frequently feed at the mouth of this bay and at its head is a former sportfishing lodge that has been transformed into a research facility for environmental science. Called Hakai Institute, it accommodates scientists and undergraduates who work here throughout the summer months. Boaters are asked to anchor well away from the institute’s docks, which are used by delivery vessels and seaplanes, but the rear fingers are kept free for dinghies to tie up. From here you can access the trails leading to the beaches on the other side of the island.

West Beach on Calvert Island is a quiet beach over half a mile long.

It’s an easy hike along a groomed trail to West Beach – a long crescent of soft sand with views of the surf pounding onto distant reefs. Smooth rock formations overlook parts of the beach, where ocean swells rumble onto shore and sandpipers skirt the edge of the surf as they flit across the wet sand. At the south end of the beach is Lookout Trail, which climbs to a viewpoint overlooking the ocean, then descends to a series of smaller, secluded beaches lying to the south. At the other end of West Beach is a signpost for the North Beach trailhead. This trail includes a sturdy boardwalk bridge straddling a wetland filled with native water lilies and leads to another beautiful sweep of ocean beach.

Aboard Celebrity Solstice – Part 3

Celebrity Solstice accommodates over 2800 passengers.

In the week since my last blog we’ve stopped at three ports in French Polynesia as well as Auckland and Bay of Islands in New Zealand. The cruise has been good, although the ship has experienced several mild cases of Covid. Some passengers are wearing masks and coughing is often heard in the public areas. Guests are encouraged to wash their hands frequently and most are still enjoying their cruise.

The entertainment on the ship has been good. Our favourite act is a talented cover band called The Cardinals, which performs hits from the ’60s to early 2000s. As mentioned earlier, the food continues to stand out for Celebrity and the meals on this cruise, basically a transition voyage, have been better than expected. At the lido deck Oceanview Cafe there is a wide selection for breakfast and lunch.

One aspect of the ship I find needing attention is the public area’s background music which, for the crowd on this ship – mostly older couples – is a bit too frenetic, especially in the mornings. One fellow passenger suggested the music in the pool area should be much mellower for people relaxing or reading. But this is a small point for most cruisers I would guess. Alcohol drinks are expensive and when combined with the added gratuity add up to what you’d pay in a luxury hotel. A beer is about $7 USD and a bottle of basic red or white wine will be well over $40 USD. The wine steward at our table, Nelson, is very good however and knows his wines, offering excellent recommendations.

The cruise director has worked hard to engage passengers in various activities. Many of these are held in the grand foyer, where people can casually join in. Especially popular are the dancing classes, with couples brushing up on their ballroom dancing so they can take to the dance floor and enjoy the live band music in the evenings.

Aboard Celebrity Solstice – Part Two

Celebrity Solstice launched in 2008.

Most cruisers know booking early has its advantages. You can select the cabin and deck of your choice, book the shore excursions you want and get your preferred dinning selection. We didn’t book early enough it seemed on our Celebrity cruise and ended up waitlisted for the early dinner sitting. When it came time for the first night of dinning we were slotted into “Select” or open seating. Although this can be fine most of the time, we ended at a table in a high traffic area and decided to duke it out with one of the dining assistants the next day to find a table in the early sitting.

Finally got the table we wanted – two by a window!

Next day, the matter was quickly sorted after a conversation with Nellie, a maitre’d assistant and we got a spot at a table for ten. So far, we’re the only ones at the long table with a window on to the beautiful Pacific Ocean.

Solstice is a 120,000 ton Panamax ship carrying about 2800 passengers. About 80 per cent of the ship are balcony cabins along its 12 decks. It has two atriums and the main one, opposite the guest relations desk is a main gathering area dancing with an excellent nightly cover band. One of the main features, as mentioned, is a large lawn area on deck 15.

Celebrity Cruises has since the Covid 19 era continued to get high praise for its clean ships, excellent food and service staff. While the line has been known for many years for its cuisine, its service, in my view, had sometimes been a bit on the cool side with indifferent waiters and bar staff. On this cruise, I would say the service has improved and ranks with another ‘Premium’ class cruise line know for its friendly and engaged staff – Holland America.

The itinerary for this cruise includes Moorea, Tahiti, and Raiatea. After that it heads to Auckland and Bay of Islands in New Zealand before the last leg to Sydney. Tomorrow we arrive in Moorea where we’ve rented some bicycles to tour this beautiful island. This is a sentimental stop for our editor, Anne Vipond, as she visited her with her parents when she was 16. They stayed at Club Med which unfortunately close many years ago.

Aboard Celebrity Solstice

Celebrity’s 120,000 ton Solstice was launced in 2008 and carries over 2800 passengers.

It’s been over a decade since I last cruised on Celebrity Solstice. At that time I was invited aboard with travel agents and other journalists to sample Celebrity’s newest ship and for some reason came away unimpressed. It remains a bit of a mystery why but I think I was cranky over very minor things such as the use of synthetic material instead of real teak on the promenade deck and I also didn’t like the idea of the exposed workings of the atrium elevators. The lawns on the upper decks seemed contrived.

But I was so much older then, as the saying goes, and now, being younger I see the Solstice in a different light. This is a beautiful ship with many intelligent features and a layout which still stands up well some 15 years after its launch, And today I like the idea that so many teak trees were spared from the Solstice’s decks.

Aboard flight AC flight 519 to Honolulu to catch Celebrity Solstice.

My wife and I boarded the ship in Honolulu for a 17 day cruise to Sydney stopping at French Polynesia and New Zealand. We flew from Vancouver on an Air Canada 737 Max which I think is too small a plane for such a long flight. Nevertheless, it departed on time and we and our luggage made it fine after the five and half hour flight. We hopped in a cab and went to the very serviceable Ramada Hotel located near the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Cab fare is around $50 to $60 USD.

Having a morning and a few hours in the afternoon gave us plenty of time to revisit the area near the hotel along Ala Moana Boulevard and the beaches near the Hilton. Soon though it was time to take the short cab ride to Pier Two and get aboard the ship. Arriving, checkin was a breeze, Celebrity allows passengers to book a time to checkin. Lo and behold, several staff were waiting for us and in minutes we were on the ship and in our cabin. Celebrity does lifeboat drill individually so there is no master drill after you get to your cabin – a big improvement over the draw-out process of assembling on the deck with hundreds of other weary ‘guests’.

Our travel agent, Todd Hancock from Seacourses, convinced us to get one of the cabins with an angled balcony which is bigger that most in the ‘Concierge Class’ cabins. And he was right, these are nice comfortable cabins. The other smart thing about the Solstice is the doors are inset so ambient noise is reduced and you are out of the way of other ‘guests’ when you enter and leave your cabin. Another good aspect is the cabin door swings outwards so doesn’t bang or interfere with the bathroom door.

The next challenge though was trying to get a table at the early sitting as we, booking late, had been relegated to Select or open seating. That’s for the next blog.



Venice Pulls the Plug on Cruise Ships

Large ships such as NCL’s Jade are no longer allowed inside Venice.

The fabled city of Venice, famous for its romantic canals and graceful gondolas, is facing several challenges. Situated on a cluster of islets within a lagoon in the Gulf Venice, the city that began as a medieval fishing village is slowly sinking. The islets upon which Venice is built consist of sand, silt and hard clay, which tend to compact over time. In winter, when high tides, heavy rain and strong winds all combine to bring exceptionally high water levels into the Venice Lagoon, the canals spill their banks and flood the pedestrian streets and plazas of Venice. Adding to these winter woes is the city’s summer inundation of tourists.

In recent decades, Venice has been struggling with over-tourism and, in an effort to cope with the situation, the city has introduced a fee-paying entry system for day-trippers (people who don’t stay overnight). In addition, new measures have been introduced to divert the majority of cruise ships away from the city centre to other terminals within the Venice Lagoon. Porto Marghera and Fusina Terminal are directly opposite Venice, while the small fishing port of Chioggia is located at the south end of the Venice Lagoon.

Before the ban, large cruise ships transited the Giudecca Canal.

Some cruise lines have chosen to bypass Venice and pull into other ports in the region, such as Trieste (located a two-hour train ride east of Venice on the Adriatic coast) or Porto Corsini near Ravenna (located a two-hour drive south of Venice).

Large and medium-sized ships no longer dock right in Venice (at the Marritima terminals) and instead dock on the mainland side of the Venice Lagoon, near the 4-km causeway that connects the mainland with Venice. However, many of the cruise lines still check in their passengers at a Marritima terminal and they are then taken by bus to their ship. Porto Marghera (part of the industrial port on the mainland) accommodates large ships. Fusina Terminal accommodates the small luxury ships. Train service connects Porto Marghera to Piazzale Roma at the western entrance to the Grand Canal. Passengers at Fusina Terminal are ferried across the lagoon to Venice. Small boutique ships (under 25,000 gross tons) and river vessels can still dock in Venice at the Marittima basin and at the San Basilio pier on the Giudecca Canal.

Venice can still be enjoyed from the water on a variety of water taxis and public water buses.

The thrill of arriving in Venice on a cruise ship, gliding past St. Mark’s Square and the entrance to the Grand Canal, is now a thing of the past. However, for those passengers planning a pre-cruise stay in Venice, a water taxi ride from the airport to your hotel will more than make up for it. This experience is described in a previous blog, posted September 29, 2016, called An Unforgettable Taxi Ride.

The Magic of Monaco

The view of Monaco’s yacht-filled harbor can be seen from the walk to the palace.

The tiny principality of Monaco, on the French Riviera, epitomizes glamour. Nestled in hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, this coastal enclave covers less than a square mile but enjoys an international fame far exceeding its size. Attractions range from the royal palace in Monaco-Ville to its famous casino in Monte-Carlo. If this weren’t enough, fans of Formula One can walk the iconic circuit of the Monaco Grand Prix, passing landmarks barely visible on race weekend when the street route is temporarily transformed with crash barriers and corporate signage.

For cruise passengers stepping ashore in Monaco’s yacht-filled harbor for a day of sightseeing, the principality’s highlights are within easy walking distance. Public elevators are strategically situated to help people ascend some of the steep streets and the local buses are an efficient way to get from one side of the principality to the other.

Large cruise ships anchor and tender their passengers into Port Hercule, which is sheltered from easterly swells by a sea wall and breakwater. Rising above this natural bay is a steep headland known as the Rock of Monaco – site of the old town’s medieval fortress and royal palace.

Princess Grace was laid to rest in Monaco’s cathedral.

Avenue de la Porte Neuve leads up to Monaco-Ville where cliff-top gardens provide sweeping views out to sea and narrow, winding streets lead to Place du Palais and its grand Italianate palace in which a reigning prince has resided for over seven centuries. Standing outside is a statue of Francesco Grimaldi, who seized control the fortress in 1297 by disguising himself as a Franciscan monk. A changing of the palace guard takes place every day at five minutes before noon.

Not far from the palace is the cathedral in which Princess Grace, who died in a tragic automobile accident in 1982, is buried. Monaco gained a layer of Hollywood glitter when film actress Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier in 1956 to become Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco. Her son Albert has been Monaco’s constitutional monarch since the death of Prince Rainier in 2005.

After a few hours spent strolling around Monaco-Ville, it’s time to head to the other side of the harbor to enjoy the famous sights of Monte-Carlo, including those associated with the Monaco Grand Prix. This is the most historic and famous race on the Formula One calendar and its route is shown on Monaco’s visitor map. It starts on Boulevard Albert I, which runs past the La Condamine quarter of boutiques and traditional open-air markets before heading up to Place du Casino in Monte-Carlo, then circling back down the hillside and through a tunnel to emerge along the harbor.

The famous Monte-Carlo casino anchors the annual Formula 1 race.

Monte-Carlo’s famous casino overlooks the fountain-filled gardens in Place du Casino, where other attractions are the luxury Hotel de Paris and the historic Café de Paris – the perfect place to pause for lunch before visiting the casino, its interior a dazzling display of gold-leaf and gilt. Afterwards take a stroll through Place du Casino’s gardens to the seaward side of the casino complex to view the ornate façade of the opera house, then head down the hillside to the harborfront. From there it’s a pleasant walk along the marina promenade back to the cruise tender dock or you can instead hop on the bus boat for a five-minute crossing of the harbor.

Cafe de Paris is a good spot to have lunch near the casino.

Cruising to Paradise – Part Two

The lush islands of Polynesia are the stuff of legend. They hold a seductive sway over anyone who has visited their shores. They have lured sailors to commit mutiny, inspired artists to create great works, and prompted mainland city dwellers to abandon lucrative careers in favor of barefoot days at the beach.

Is it any wonder we dream of visiting these storied islands to see for ourselves their bewitching beauty?

Travelling by cruise ship is the best way to visit the far flung islands of Polynesia, which lie scattered across a vast area of the Pacific Ocean. The Hawaiian Islands are the northernmost group and are the easiest to reach from North America, either on round-trip or one-way cruises from the port cities of Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. Another option is to fly to Honolulu and embark on an NCL round-trip cruise of the islands.

Reaching Tahiti entails a longer journey, prompting many a traveller to book a flight to Pape‘ete, and from there embark on a round-trip cruise of the islands of French Polynesia.

There is, however, a third option – and one that appeals to the wanderlust in all of us. That option is to travel throughout Polynesia by ship, cruising from a West Coast port to the Hawaiian Islands and from there proceeding south across the Equator to make landfall at various islands stretching across the South Pacific. Relaxing days at sea are punctuated by days when the ship is docked at a tropical island or anchored off an atoll while passengers are tendered ashore.

Polynesia means ‘many islands’ and they range from the American state of Hawai‘i to the Kingdom of Tonga to the nation of New Zealand. Isolated from one another by hundreds of miles of ocean, the inhabitants of Polynesia nonetheless share cultural traits. Their languages are similar and their traditional mode of transit is the outrigger canoe.

When the Polynesian people of ancient times were migrating across the open waters of the Pacific, they travelled in double-hulled ocean-going canoes carved from large logs that were lashed together with massive crossbeams. Skilled navigators, these ancient mariners steered by the Sun, Moon and stars, and rode the prevailing winds and currents to their next landfall. Over time, the isolated archipelagoes of the South Pacific were discovered, one by one, and a vibrant culture took root in palm-treed villages overlooking fish-filled lagoons. Song and dance were the favored form of storytelling, and performers adorned themselves with shell jewelry and flower headdresses.

The natural beauty of these tropical islands is undisputed but it’s the Polynesians’ joyful approach to life that charms many a visitor.

Cruising to Paradise – Part One

South Pacific Cruises almost always make their first stop at the Hawaiian Islands.

Few would argue that French Polynesia is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. These farflung islands have fired the imagination of anyone who has read or watched the screen version of Mutiny on the Bounty or gazed at the Tahitian paintings of Paul Gauguin.

They range from verdant volcanic islands to palm-fringed atolls. Stretching for hundreds of miles across the South Pacific, they were once connected only by seafaring vessels. Modern visitors can travel by jet plane to Pape‘ete on the island of Tahiti, but the ultimate for many is to cruise these waters and recapture the aura of making landfall at a lush tropical island encircled by a turquoise lagoon.

Whether lounging on the beach or exploring with an inland excursion, Polynesia is one of the world’s most exotic destinations.

Several small-ship lines, such as Windstar and Paul Gauguin Cruise Line, offer round-trip cruises out of Pape‘ete and these are dedicated to French Polynesia. However, for travelers preferring to cross the Pacific Ocean by ship, there are various itineraries offered by Princess Cruises and Holland America Line. These extended voyages depart from the West Coast ports of Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, and their itineraries include Hawai’i, which is the northernmost island group of Polynesia. After making a port call at Honolulu and some of the other Hawaiian islands, such as Maui and the Big Island, the ship will head south to the Polynesian islands lying south of the Equator.

Pape‘ete, a former whaling port on the island of Tahiti, is the administrative capital of French Polynesia and a major port of call. It was still a primitive paradise when the French painter Gauguin arrived in the late 1800s to “live on fish and fruit” while pursuing his art. The modern world descended on Tahiti in the 1960s when planeloads of tourists began arriving. Fortunately for cruise aficionados, ships also call at the less-developed islands, such as Moorea and Bora Bora, where passengers are tendered ashore.

What better way to experience the languid pace and pristine beauty of these islands than by slowly cruising among them. Days are spent on shore, visiting cultural sites and snorkeling in reef-protected lagoons. Nights are spent on board the ship, travelling beneath a star-filled sky.

The Good Deeds of Cruise Lines

The captain on the bridge of a cruise ship scans the horizon with hi-powered binoculars.

Bad news sells, but the good deeds performed by cruise ships are just as newsworthy. Top of this list are rescues at sea.

It’s an age-old tradition to help fellow mariners in distress. Hence, whenever officers on the bridge of a cruise ship receive a distress call, they promptly respond. In one month alone three Holland America Line ships performed rescue operations.

The first was conducted by the ms Zuiderdam after departing from Fort Lauderdale on a round-trip Panama Canal cruise. In the middle of its first night at sea, the ship answered a distress call from a Bahamian inter-island vessel with eight crewmembers aboard. The vessel was sinking and ms Zuiderdam, about 15 miles away, promptly altered course. Less than an hour later the stranded mariners were safely aboard the cruise ship and disembarked a day later when the ship pulled into Oranjestad, Aruba.

Meanwhile, a sailing yacht ran aground in Antarctica and its stranded crewmembers, from the Arctowski Polish research station on King George Island, radioed for help. Holland America’s ms Zaandam came to their aid and took them to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The bridge of a modern cruise ship contains high-tech equipment, but the act of aiding fellow mariners is as ancient as seafaring itself.

The third rescue took place approximately 250 miles off the coast of Maui when the pilot of a single-engine Cirrus SR22 ditched his disabled aircraft into the ocean. He was at the midway point of a solo flight from California to Maui when he realized a malfunctioning fuel system was preventing the transfer of fuel into his aircraft’s main tanks. This meant he would lose engine power before reaching Kahului Airport on Maui and out of range of Coast Guard rescue helicopters. Fortunately ms Veendam was in the area. So, with 20 minutes of fuel left, the pilot headed toward the cruise ship’s position.

Dramatic video footage taken from a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 shows the small plane deploying its airframe parachute system upon reaching the cruise ship. The aircraft initially pitched nose-down toward the water before leveling off and landing on its belly. As ocean swells swamped the aircraft’s right wing, the uninjured pilot quickly scrambled out the other side into an inflatable life raft. He paddled away from the sinking aircraft as it flipped over in the waves. Within minutes he was picked up by a lifeboat launched from ms Veendam. The ship was on a round-trip Hawaiian Islands cruise from San Diego and it proceeded to Lahaina, where the grateful pilot disembarked.

In addition to rescues at sea, cruise ships perform other roles, such as collecting weather data. The weather reports of meteorologists, based on data from satellites and ground stations, are greatly enhanced by the first-hand weather observations provided by cruise ships as they travel the world’s oceans. These observations also contribute to climatological data collected by the World Weather Information Service.

There is much to keep guests entertained on a cruise ship, but the observant passenger will appreciate that the highly trained officers on the bridge are always keeping a close watch on the horizon.