ALASKAN CRUISE ABOARD GRAND PRINCESS

While planning our travels to join the Graduation Party for Neha and Nina, then scheduled for 15 June, 2013, I impulsively typed in an enquiry on the internet for an Alaskan cruise ex SFO in the month of June. I was delighted to find this 10 day cruise and the dates looked perfectly fitting in with our travel plans. I tried booking the cruise off the Orbitz site but experienced difficulty to be able to communicate by phone because of the time differences. I therefore asked Cheeku to help out which she did and almost by the next day or two we had booked the cruise.

The Graduation party pre-poned to 9 June went off very well. Cheeku had around 100 guests that included Peech, Priyanka and Param, plus us two, a host of Nina’s and Neha’s friends and those of the parents. Harjit worked tirelessly decorating the back yard till the team of professional help came in and then onwards set up the tables, laid out the food and meticulously served the guests through a lovely evening.

There were speeches and speeches – friend after friend of Nina extolling her winsome ways, her quiet leadership, her great intellectual accomplishments and her wonderfully charming singing accompanied by her friends on the Piano and Guitar. Her voice is so rich, full throated, she is a natural performer – at such ease pouring out lovely melodies that would leave expertly trained singers struggling. It was her evening all the way and she carried it with abundant grace with Neha adding sisterly touch by a speech riveting on their sibling relationship.

Simran left on the 12th and Neha on the 13th. It was then our turn to leave for the cruise. Cheeku obviously was distraught but knew she had been complicit in booking it. Harjit was very patient driving us to the Pier in mid-day – the last two miles taking around an hour to negotiate. Traffic in the City can become a nightmare but almost everyone was sticking to the rules – no trying to cut corners as we had again got used to living in Delhi these last few years.

The check in was a walk and soon we were in our State Room, Emerald 121, on Deck 8. Cyrus, our room steward was very welcoming. We had a bit of bite for late lunch – some fish in lemon sauce, german potatoes, chicken cattachori and plain rice was my pick. Nice, nibbled a bit and we were off for the safety demo and drill. Came back and had some dessert – a fruit tart and a slice of apple pie with some hot tea.

Spent the afternoon sitting around the pool as we set off and took a couple of pictures as the ship crossed over just inches below the overhead bridge above. It was very nice but was turning cold. We met up with a couple of Indian families – one Faisal, an IT Engineer from Patna, his wife and two kids – now working near here and Anwar and his wife, from Fremont. Back in the room ordered a cheese toast with nuts and hot water and turned in.

Up next morning at around 4:30 am, tossed around and finally ordered some tea and cookies to get the day started. At around 5 am looking out the window I saw lovely sun rise over floating clouds across the sea. We are headed North and East was exactly opposite of our cabin window – lovely, took a picture. Good start to the Thursday, to be spent fully at sea.

Spent most of the forenoon with Anwar and his wife Fatima. He is from Ethiopia, earlier from Bhuj in Kutch. Both converse in Kutchhi. He was planning the tour for Juneou. I checked at the counter to understand cancellation policy because the weather can be very uncertain. No, unless the tour operators decide it is not safe. Rainwear is our problem. With these conditions was not sure if an advance booking should be done. Anwar worked out a plan that we take the tram and go around the city and then go to the glacier. Let us see – have to figure it out.

Went down to the promenade around 6 pm and listened to some live evening melodies by the Ship’s Musicians in the Piazza. As we made our way up to floor 14, Horizons to check out what is cooking before deciding where to eat, run into Anwar’s looking for us. Have a bite at lamb curry and rice plus some salmon and tilapia followed by a slice of lemon cake. Anwar’s wife had not eaten through the day – she is just done with her chemo and the rest of treatment for breast cancer and is still struggling with her appetite.

We spend the next couple of hours show hopping starting with Sean O’Shea’s powerful singing in Princess Theatre followed by Comedy Magic of Matin Lewis in the Vista Lounge. Coming out we meet a Sikh couple with their two young children: Dr Gurmeet Singh Sidhu, wife Navdeep, son Harnek and a lovely daughter. He is an Internist with Kaiser and Navdeep is a teacher. Possibly we will get to see more of them. Then back to room with Veena who has not been too comfortable walking.

Jun 21st is a cloudy morning. The TV is abuzz with the floods in India killing 200 people and the big market crash of yesterday with all indexes losing over 2 % fearing tapering of Fed infusion of Bond buying.

Call Anwar and decide to meet at the Horizon around 9:30 for breakfast. The place is chocker full inside. It is cold – 59 F, 15 C and breezy with dull cloudy skies. Find a section open at the back, partially covered but not breezy looking at the South sea and we settle in on a table to a Breakfast. Anwar’s do not show up or at least we do not connect up. Later we do and meet up for lunch at 2 p.m.

The evening is Captain’s invite. We go to Deck 7 Promenade – a huge gathering, champagne on offer with some interesting snacks. The Captain is two decks below – at Deck 5 in the Atrium with live music and making an employee of the month award. Meet a couple of other Indian couples – Bannerji’s from Santa Clara, with his daughters and parents on their 40th anniversary. His wife is from Amritsar but says a Brhmin – no Amritsari pheesh for the Bengali sahib. I say pheesh is water vegetable for Bengalese and her mother in law agrees but I suppose the young Mom does not want to add another cooking headache.

Dinner at Botticelli – nice silver, attentive service, good menu. Veena has Shrimp Cocktail, Asparagus cream soup and a Sunday to follow. I pick the soup, Shrimp Daniele and Banana sauted in caramel with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Anwar and Fatima make pretty exotic choices – an enjoyable experience followed by a Comedy show by Kevin Hughes in Vista lounge that I mostly sleep through and back to bed. The show was very funny and was greatly liked – these performers must be very creative or well rehearsed. Not one bloomer! One hour time change tonight, a notice delivered in the room reads.

Saturday 22nd, wake up at the usual 5 or so and hazily think it must be 6 a.m. because of time change and order tea in half an hour. Veena corrects me on time – it is Alaska time, an hour behind, not ahead. OK, lost an hours sleep but really could not have slept through this other mini time change. We get to Juneou at 1 pm after having been on the sea for about 69 long hours. It has been forced rest, not that I do much anyway but being on the ship makes you feel as if you are constrained. In fact one is not because with my current level of outdoor activity and not too eager disposition to keep heading out, the ship really is much bigger and more crowded as well as busier, offering a tremendous variety of activities and entertainment than any home, hotel or mess that we may have lived in.

We got to Juneou earlier at 11 a.m. We were still at the Horizon with Anwar’s after breakfast. Met Faisal and his family, Gurmeet with his son and chatted then got into the line for lunch – rather longish because everybody seemed to want to grab some lunch and get off the boat for their excursions. A lot of food variety – tried some aleusian [?] potatoes sauted with shreds of onions, grilled salmon et al followed by a sampling of cakes shared by us all.

Out of the boat we take a return shuttle ticket into the downtown, just $3, five minutes away the other side of the wharf. There we look around for local tours – take one for drive around the city with a couple of stops and Mendenhaul glacier – haggled down to $ 45 for two. This was less than half the price that we would have paid for the cruises offered by the Grand Princess or our agents, Orbitz. The guide Nick was excellent – a thorough bred American Indian with repertoire rich with local tales and historical anecdotes. The town was founded in 1880 and incorporated in 1900. It has no road access but is accessible by sea, sledge or air. It is the largest state capital in the US even though the down town looks so small. The very large number of jewelry shops seen at the centre are mostly Gujerati owned – this year ‘dhandha mandha hai.’

Mendenhall glacier is 12 miles long, a half mile wide and 300-1800 feet deep slowly melting since mid 1700’s. We could have saved up Chandan Wadi but what with tourists climbing and sledge rides and even picnics, it is gone. Medenhall can be seen but that is about all – you cannot explore its guts otherwise with the volume of curious tourists [approximately 25 to 35 k per day] it could have died by now or receded. The population of Juneou is 33 k with almost the same number of tourists being brought in by cruise ships daily. There are some interesting treks and viewing stations. We explored a couple in easy access. The ice looks bluish –  a payoff of cloudy weather that we had – it was a boon for glacier visiting.

Nick introduced us to a lot of flora and fauna, relics of II WW, names of roads and buildings, the assembly session from Jan to March and plenty more – do not remember much now but was very interesting as we took it in. Eventually decided to get back, some rest and the sit down dinner of Sushi as starter, cold lychee and coconut yoghurt soup, jumbo shrimp tandoori with basmati rice beautiful diced vegetables and raita followed by Drambui Souffle. Then watch performance by the crew at the Princess Theatre and back to the room.

Sunday 6/23 decide not to order room service and go get the morning tea. The boat is coming in to berth and a beautiful haze sits on water. Cannot catch a picture, we had moved off by the time I could walk up and out into the open deck. Skagway is our stop to day. Let us see what it brings. We are already docked and sail off at 8 p.m.

We have our breakfast and are back to the room for a bit of rest before setting out at around 11 a.m. We do not find Anwar’s at the disembarkation and I leave Veena out and return to the ship to look for them. They were waiting in a side lounge. All of us now out, Anwar and I move off ahead to explore the Rail travel options – he has heard that excursion is good and wants to do it. The Princess team is out there and the ticket is $ 129. We think we might get a better deal and set out to search the Rail booking office. I tell the girls to wait while we go ahead and search it out. It is a long walk but we get to their counter though not to much relief – $ 120 plus shuttle charge to move the girls here and then shuttle on return. Anwar asks me to wait at the office and he will fetch the ladies. While he is gone I walk around and run into Sidhu family. They have been on a tour to a summit ans may now be headed back. Briefly talk to them and the Manpreet. Young Gurnek is rather quiet today – well one of those days.

Eventually at around 1:45 p.m. we get into the train and are on the way. I am determined not to be impressed with the excursion so talk of the train service from Kalka to Simla and the train on Darjeeling run. This could not be anything great. Actually the grade is not bad at all – we go up 2880 feet in 20 plus miles. The narrow gauge train had over ten passenger coaches and was pulled by two Diesel engines. They exercise very stringent control – no passenger loitering from coach to coach or getting down from the train. There is a running commentary on the P A system about the train, the journey, scenic features and history et al. The train rail was laid out in 1898 to facilitate movement in the gold rush time. It soon died out but the train was revived and is now a major tourist draw. They offer  at least 5/6 tours – all priced pretty high. Our train was almost full – that means around 600+ passengers. If they run 5/6 such tours a day the revenue generation could be quite a bit, even if it is for a few months in the year.

The scenic features are great – rugged, dense forest; steep hills with forbidding rock formations; water falls, streams flowing into the glacial Scagway river. The rail had two tunnels and quite a few old bridges – one abandoned some time back due to structural weakness. It should have been an engineering accomplishment for those days. One hallowed spot – the grave of two workers who had been killed in an avalanche; another memorializing Buchanan’s campaign for President – a sign put on a wall overlooking a steep drop into a gorge ‘on to Alaska with Buchanan.’ They do know how to create memories out of simple day to day events! 

Monday Jun 24, having learnt last night that today we would be given a conducted tour of sailing towards the Sawyer island and the canal to the National Park – going only as far as the weather conditions and sizes of floating pieces of snow/ice on the fiord allow. We cruise into Tracy arm and round the Big Bend and are now on the way. It is indeed scenic cruising. The volcanic rocks are imposing and their sheer massive blocks only seemingly carrying the cuts by centuries of ice sledding down their sides as its underside thaws and its layers shear from the mono blocks of ice. One wonders otherwise how is it that the massive granite blocks have vertical shearing tears on their surfaces. Seeds of vegetation looking to sprout find any little crevice that could support a welcome spot and you find pines growing on the face of these rocks, again along some crevice or tear. Some rocks are fully covered while others partially so. Mainly on lower parts – surely the patches growing up the faces of the rocks as the falling leaves and other organic residue becomes a source to support further sprouting within creases at higher levels as centuries go by. [??]

Back again at a window side table at Horizon, we sit around for a leisurely bite at lunch. I chose fish and roasted potatoes with some dates, pistachios and a cheese, pepper enchilada followed by a selection of desserts shared by us all and mint medley tea. In the meanwhile looking out for a glimpse of sea life we have some luck spotting whales snorkeling out a spray of water as they do brief surfacing and dive back in. We also spot three slithering longish creatures playfully busy in the waters apparently unconcerned of our presence – possibly sea snakes. Not many birds seen except a bunch of sea gulls at one spot. We must be close to the land there though we could not see far because of rocks on both the sides.

Return to the room around 4 p.m. and dose off. It was perhaps a deep slumber because remember vaguely wondering why did I sleep off last night with my turban on and did not switch off the TV before turning in? Must have been very tired!

Dinner at Botticelli was good – starter of lychee and melon with ginger shavings followed by shrimp cocktail, black bean soup and tilapia with a fancy sounding sauce. Dessert apple stroudle with a scoop of vanilla was good. Voila, done for the day and then off to comedy show of Kevin Hughes and to well deserved rest after a restful day.

Tuesday 25th Jun morning looks slightly hazy as we get into Ketchikian, a 3 block wide, three mile long town community, our last stop in the sparsely inhabited Alaska. May be the day will turn out to be nice and cloudy, as I see sip tea and bring a cup back for Veena with her favorite Danish.

We finish breakfast and get out. Veena and I go first as Anwar’s follow after doing something in their cabin. I walk around and check out the excursions available. The most popular seems to be a Wildlife City & Totem, all in one tour, listed at $ 60 but haggled down to $ 35 per head. The tour includes a visit to Saxman native village, Totem Poles, Clan House, Rain Forest Walk, the red light district, Dolly’s House Museum and the historic Ketchikan city.

We have half hour to spare and walk into Milano Jewelry store. Run into an Indian woman at the counter who works for them. There are a large number of Indian families living here. They have not set up a temple yet but do have puja rooms in their houses. The store is owned by Jews. She says they could but the businesses but have to create some capital first. Very eager to make a sale she offered concessions but not on a Tanzanite set that we liked and were willing to buy three sets if the price was right. This was already on a sale price, her supervisor, another Indian went on to explain. We said will return but did not as she kept repeating ‘nobody comes back!’

The driver guide, Forrest, did a good job with a steady flow of interesting anecdotes as we rolled along. His information is that most of the souvenir stores including some selling jewelry are either owned or franchised by the Cruise companies. The town of Skagway belongs to the cruise operators including the White Pass & Yukon Route rail link. They have 40% cut in profits of all these and the local operators cannot take their tours into certain areas and locations. For example we could see the totem pole craftsmen at work from a long window outside whereas the people crowded inside were those who had bought the Princess excursion. Not much deal any way since our was a manageable group and the guide well informed and well spoken.

The totem poles are worked out of clean, flawless tree stocks that are meticulously worked using chisel and hammer to shape and sanded etc to give it the shape and finish. The figures affixed on the poles tell a tale and mostly represent native tribal characters and their interaction with White VIP’s like Abraham Lincoln and others who tried to make early inroads into the territory. The designs bring back some vague memories of similar stuff by the tribals in India – have to check it out if there is any similarity or shared art style.   

We dine at da Vinci, a larger restaurant, the same menu but the waiters dressed like sailors with scarves on their necks, tee shirts and slacks. Dinner over, we walk into the Princess theatre for a lovely musical show ‘Do you want to dance with me’ a colorful ensemble presented beautifully by the Grand Pricess Singers & Dancers group. One of their pieces seemed to be Ravi Shanker type composition with the dancers in lovely Indian costumes and the stage effects capturing the romanticized Indian musical choreography. Much delighted by the appreciative audience response to the show.

Back in the room Veena is laboring without her C Pap – have got to set it up to bring her some relief though she is as always reluctant.

Wednesday 26th morning, back to a windy start to the day – stayed windy and cold – somewhat rough but thankfully these vessels are well stabilized. In the morning we walk around as Veena and Fatima do some shopping. They did end up buying some jade, look good – five sets each. We go also to Michaelangelo for a sale but do not fancy anything. I sit around and Anwer comes joins me. Later we decide to savor the afternoon tea at 3:30 pm at Da Vinci after some rest. Just as well that we had skipped lunch.

The tea was good – served nice hot with a variety of sandwiches, scones with butter and jelly and cakes and cookies. A feast indeed – reminded me of leisurely afternoon teas at Vickers that I some time partook of. They used to linger on especially Jimmie Brown and savor his tea with a variety of cakes and cookies.

For dinner we go formally dressed to Da Vinci where we are served lobster tail with tiger prawns – a lovely meal. Sampled some snails – called esperago???? End the day at sea with the comedy show that I sleep through. Hook up Veena on her C Pap on my side of the bed – she sleeps like a baby??

I am up at 5 – know the time by turning on the TV and going on to Fox news and waiting till the time shows. Go to Horizon and have a cup or two of tea and bring nack a cup with a Danish for Veena. As we steam into Victoria at past 6 am there are no lights on in high rise buildings on the shore – may be too early for Canadians! The sea is calm. Hopefully we have a good morning ashore on this day – 27th June, Thursday.

Not to be – it is drizzling when we get out. No checks at immigration – Ship card was asked for when returning, nothing going into Canada. The ship had navigated through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then piloted to the Ogden Point harbor in Victoria alongside another cruise ship. At the other end just past the immigration I find some agents standing with a table each only answering some simple questions and directing passengers to drivers of cars/limousines to negotiate their a  la carte tours directly. Not a very easy situation for a new person. Veena wants to go to Butchart gardens and so does Anwar though I am skeptical because of time constraint and the weather.

In the end I ask the first driver who comes our way and quickly settle for $ 100 for a tour to the Butchart garden, drive around Chinatown, the harbor and the Parliament house. This turns out to be a good deal – monetarily yes but more so because Natalie the driver was a very helpful and engaged person. She guided us through all the way walking us through the beautiful gardens and suggesting flowers and scenes to savor and take pictures off. She was hurried but in an unhurried way and we ended up seeing as much as we could walking through up and down across almost all that the garden had to offer, taking a host of pictures, browsing through the abundance of all those lovely blossoms, not easily to be seen anywhere else.

The garden is well organized with piles of umbrellas stacked at various points along the way – enough for thousands of visitors who paid $ 30+ for entry and were not left disappointed. It is a 55 acre wonderland on a 130 acre estate started in 1904. The original was to beautify a worked out limestone quarry and has themed botanical gardens [Sunken garden, Rose garden, Japanese garden, Star pond, Piazza, and Mediterranean garden], sparkling fountains, exquisite foliage and magnificent bronze statues – not to miss the beautiful shaped plants representing scores of life forms including bears, birds, elephants, dogs, hyena, rabbits et al.

Back to Victoria, the Chinatown section has road signs both in English and Chinese with very pronounced Chinese ethnic identity. The drive along the coast through narrow back streets was typical of many port towns in the West with several buildings 100 years old – a school room going back into early 1800’s similar to the one we had one on Farmington/Avon town line. The schools in those days must have been one room affairs with a few students learning from a single teacher.

We got to the ship minutes before 1:30 pm deadline and go to our rooms for some rest before we meet at 3:30 in da Vinci for afternoon high tea. Anwar’s must also have had namaz to perform – the azzan came on his cell as we were returning – marvelous to see such devotion in people who have been away from their roots for generations and yet speak fluent Urdu, Kutchie, keep to their traditions and try passing it to their children.

Dinner at Botticelli was good as usual – Marvyn and Alex are very good servers and also keep us engaged in banter. Alex comes out with a game or trick every evening and knows a few words of Hindi picked from other co workers and may be passengers. Follow up with a pretty good show – a musical, typically British, called British Invasion and then to bed.

Last day, 28 June, on the ship dawns with heavy fog. I am there for tea at Horizon at 5:30 am as usual having got up at about 4:56 am. Veena wants to see the demonstration about cooking at the ship and visit to galleys at 10:00 am so time to get ready now.

After the cooking demonstration and the galley visit we decide to have Fish & Chips in the pub setting at Crown Grill. It is a good experience except that the fish had a fat layer of crunchy crust – enjoyable any way. Anwer also ordered some deep fried prawns – good. The dessert was sorbet of vanilla, strawberry and orange or some similar combination with a fancy name. We liked it all but were glad to get some rest before meeting for dinner.

Up at Horizon in the early evening we meet with a lot of servers who had tried to keep us well looked after, thanked them and wrote out our commendations for a few including Bhanu Partap Thakur from Mandi who was the first one to welcome us both at Horizon and took us around the first morning for breakfast particularly recommending their lovely yoghurt mixed with variety of fruit preserves. Later we decide to eat there rather than go for the formal dinner. There was great variety of food and a flood of chocolate goodies – did not try any; was fully satiated.

Sleep and up to a sunny morning. We were in to SFO earlier than scheduled. Call Cheeku using Anwer’s cell but hit the answering machine. Leave the message that we will be out at 9:40. They do not get it but suspect that the call must have been ours, possibly asking them to come over. As we come out of the ship around 9:45, they are waiting; had been for over two hours. No word of complaint – they graciously bring us to the comfort of their welcoming home! [29/6/13: 10:40 am]

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3/7/2013

Anwer & Fatima come over and take us out for the day to Santa Cruz. It is a lovely drive along Rte. 17 and we go straight to the Boardwalk, walk around for some time and then look for a table for lunch at one of the restaurants there. Anwer’s know the place well – have been there number of times and are familiar with the restaurant. They have a lot of sea food offerings. I pick tilapia with mushrooms, artichokes and some other veggies in a milky sauce – turns out to be very nice. Veena and Fatima ordered grilled tilapia.

After the lunch they drive us around including to a house they had bid on. Santa Cruz is a very pretty place on the sea. I had never known it – having visited with Noel King a few times was a different route. He lived in a pretty place atop a hill, possibly away from the shore line. They drop us back. Cheeku is back and asks them to stay for tea. They spend a pleasant hour and go home sounding very nostalgic our short encounter together on the cruise.

4/7/2013

Carmel on sea

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