Saturday, June 17, 2017

Alaska Cruise Adventure: Day One - Embarkation on Radiance of the Seas!

It's here, it's here!  It's finally here!  It's sail away day!  

Today we finally embark on a cruise that has been nearly 18 months in the making, and although the day dawned cloudy and rainy, it turned out glorious, on many levels.  

We had rented a car from National in Seattle and drove to Vancouver, BC.  It turned out that the rental car return was in the parking structure at Canada Place, and all we had to do was drop the car off, walk a short distance to an elevator, and we were at the cruise port!  Easy peasy!  We arrived at about 9:45 am, anticipating boarding at 11 am.

There were agents there to direct us where to drop our bags. We then were directed to customs, where we had a short wait at several check points (way too many, really, it was quite redundant).  

First it was the cruise check in, where our sea pass cards were issued. Then on to security, just like at the airport.  X-ray machines and metal detectors and the first passport and boarding pass check. Then onto a self check in kiosk for U.S. residents for passport verification and customs.  The machine printed a voucher which we then waited in a short line, maybe 10 minutes, for a customs agent to once again check our passports and passes. He was a hoot. He figured out we were travelling in a suite, so he asked if he could join us.  It was a quick check and off we went to a holding "pen".  

It was here that the boarding process was unlike others we've experienced. Typically, depending on your level with the cruise loyalty club and type of cabin (suites), the higher level members and those sailing in suites get a private lounge to wait in and priority boarding. Not so at this port. Everyone was herded into a waiting area with seats.  But some were left to stand.  We sat there a good 45 minutes or so. 

There was no overhead PA system, so random agents said something we couldn't hear to folks on the ends of rows of chairs, and they began moving people by row of seats through a door. This magical door lead to another holding pen where we sat for another 15 minutes or so.  We were waiting for the ship to be cleared by customs.  It was not too long after that they began boarding.  It was a bit of a wait in a long line to make our way from the cruise terminal and onto the gangway and finally onto the ship. I think we finally walked on the ship at about 11:30 am.  

As we like to do, we wandered the ship to get a sense of her layout. She was small, but beautiful.  She was aptly named, Radiance of the Seas.   Most everyone went to the Windjammer, which is the buffet style resturant for lunch right away.  We headed there just before we were allowed into our cabins (1pm), after most people had gotten their lunch. 

We had booked a junior suite. One of the perks of booking a suite, and for a cruise tour (cruise plus land tour), is that we earn double points in the loyalty club called the Crown and Anchor society.  So for a 10 day cruise tour, we earned 20 points. This allows us to jump one full level with just one cruise!   When we arrived to our cabin, there was a Happy Anniversary sign on the door and decorations inside.  In a twist of fate, both my husband and I had the same idea to surprise each other with the Anniversary package! So we had two!  He also ordered us a cake, which we snacked on the entire cruise!  

Outside elevator

rock wall

mini golf

The Colony Club

Our cabn

Our door

Our bed, with anniversary decor

sitting area of jr suite

Sitting area of jr suite

Bathroom of jr suite (not shown, full size tub/shower)

Dessk/storage of junior suite

The main seating in the centrum ("lobby")

English Pub

Solarium pool

solarium hot tub

Solarium pool

sail away

Sail away

Vancouver, BC

Squeezing under the Lion's Gate Bridge

Sevens card/game room

cool globe

View of centrum bar and fancy stairs

Schooner Bar

Towel Elephant Surprise

The suite was gorgeous. Recently refurbished and much bigger than we expected. We were in cabin 1580, on deck 10, towards the aft part of the ship.  One of the benefits of booking a junior suite is instead of the tiny typical cruise ship shower, we had a tub and a larger bathroom overall. We also had  walk in closet with ample storage including shelves, top and bottom hanger space (bottom rods fold-able and storable if you do not wish to use them, a tie/belt rack on the door, plus ample storage in drawers and cabinets both in the bathroom and the main cabin.  The beds can be arranged as two twins or a king.  We also had a sleeper sofa and a chair and ottoman with two side tables.  

The balcony was smaller than others we've had, but more a function of the size of the ship overall.  There was a padded lounger and two chairs and a small bistro table.  Since we were sailing Alaska, we did not spend much time lounging on the balcony, but more sitting in front of the glass admiring the scenery as we sailed by.  

The muster drill (mandatory) was interesting. Instead of assembling at our actual muster stations (lifeboats), we were directed to Chops Grill.  Apparently, all suite guests were there. We sat at the tables and waited for the crew to demonstrate and explain what would happen in an actual emergency. Others had to stand in other common areas in the typical stand in line formation with children and women ahead of the men folk. I guess another perk of being a suite guest.  Once we were dismissed, most everyone headed up on deck for sail away.  

We sailed away at about 4:45 from Vancover.  The sun had come out and it was quite warm!  As sail away often is, it was an enthusiastic and exciting time. We chatted with several others around us, many of whom were cruising for the first time.  We had a lovely view of Vancouver a we sailed away.  As we sailed toward the Lion's Gate Bridge, it looked like we barely made it under!  In reality, I believe the Captain said we had about 14 feet of clearance! Eek!  It was pretty cool to watch.

We then retired to our cabin to actually sit on the balcony and watch the mountains go by for a while.  We then unpacked (we had gotten our bags before the muster drill!) and enjoyed our cabin until dinner time.  

We had chosen the late seating for dinner, which was 8 pm. The dining room was about 70% full for this seating, with most cruisers opting for the earlier seating or my time dining. We were actually quite surprised by the number of folks we talked to who never ate in the dining room at all.  Seriously, if you are going to cruise, at least try the dining room for dinner and lunch on sea days. It's so much better than the food in the Windjammer/buffet!  
the way finder, touch screen

from our balcony

Sun setting from our balcony

Very cool glass elevators overlooking the sea

Amazing self-leveling pool tables!

ahhhhh, balcony

We were seated at a table for 10, but there were only 3 couples assigned to the table, or the other 3 never showed up for dinner. We scored a window table for the first time ever and on two nights, we saw whales while we were dining! One pod of Orcas and a few humpbacks!   

Our table mates consisted of a couple who were Pinnacle members with Royal Caribbean. To reach Pinnacle, you must have sailed at least 700 nights on Royal Caribbean ships.  I'll let that sink in for a minute...  We are now Emerald, which requires 55 nights on a ship (we earned it faster by staying in suites, so in reality, we've only taken five 7 day cruises and a 3 day land tour that counts as cruise nights).  They were a lovely couple and were probably about the same age as our parents.  The other couple was interesting.  While nice folks, they tended to have a negative vibe, and did not really "click" with the rest of us.  This is the hazard of group seating and with a low # of couples. We prefer to sit at a larger table ourselves, as we like to meet new folks, but it also helps if there is an awkward or uncomfortable silence or presence in the group.  Still, we enjoyed our dinners and the company.  We learned from all of them.  

After dinner, we checked out the entertainment on the ship and did a bit of dancing. Then we headed off to sleep, as we were still mostly on east coast time.  Tomorrow is a sea day and I have a massage at the spa! 

Alaska Adventure: Pre-Cruise in Vancouver, BC.

It's 9:46 am EST on Wednesday, May 31, 2017.  I'm somewhere over the midwest, courtesy of Jet Blue.  

Our day began at o'dark thirty and our flight began at 6:44 am.  For those doing the math at home, that's a 4 am wake up call and we were staying at a hotel at the airport!   We live over an hour from the airport, and parking is outrageous, so it was as expensive or less to stay at the hotel and get an extra 2 hours of sleep instead of driving or taking a limo from home.

I dozed for about 2 hours of the flight, and now, 3 hours in, my neck is stiff, my throat is dry, and my body already tired of sitting, but I'm excited.  This day has been over 18 months in the making. 

Why a cruise?

My husband and I first took a cruise for our honeymoon, nearly 5 years ago. It was our first.  We were not sure if we'd like cruising.  We didn't. We LOVE it!  

This will be our 5th cruise.  All of our previous cruises have been to the Caribbean.  In talking to other cruisers and reading about destinations, everyone seems to agree cruising to Alaska is a bucket list cruise, and quite possibly one of the most beautiful one can take.  We've talked about doing it someday ever since our first cruise.  We decided life is short, so we'd make it our 5th anniversary cruise!

We are loyal to Royal (Caribbean) cruisers, so the cruise line was easy to decide upon.  We (mostly I) spent countless hours researching when the best time to sail was.  The Alaska cruise season is short, because, well, ice, cold, and darkness.  So late May through early September is the window.  Given our schedules, the kids' school and summer commitments, and the availability of my parents to be able to fly up from Florida to stay with the kids, we decided on early June.  

Planning the Alaska Adventure

I booked the cruise the day the Alaska 2017 itineraries went on sale for Crown and Anchor members (we get a one day jump on the general public), so we had our pick of cabins.  That was in February of 2016.  There was also a 30% off sale going on.  We chose a junior suite on the starboard side of the ship toward the back.  We also booked a 10 day cruisetour, so after the 7 day cruise, we have a 3 day land tour.  Royal awards double points for suite guests, and junior suites are not *that* much more expensive than a balcony cabin, especially on the smaller ships.  We'll make emerald status once we have completed this cruise!   I tracked the price of that cabin category from that day and there was never a lower price, in fact increased by over $1000 at one point.  Take home message:  Book your Alaska cruise as early as possible. 

I have spent a lot of hours researching and planning our trip.  Trying to decide what tours and excursions to take, what clothes to take, what flights to take, where to stay pre-cruise, what to do pre-cruise, and recently, potential weather we will encounter.  We will be on the 3rd cruise of the season. The range of weather we must be prepared to deal with ranges from the low 40's (with a relative wind chill on the deck of the ship) to the mid 70's.  Rain is also very likely, and looking at the 7 day forecast, very likely for much of our adventure.  Wtih highs in the low to mid-50's.  I did not expect it to be gorgeous weather every day, but I am hopeful it won't be cold and rainy every day, either.  This made packing a challenge in terms of having to pack for 13 days and two or three seasons of weather. We take far less to the Caribbean!!  

And today, it begins!  

We landed at Sea-Tac at about 10 am local time.  We rented a car from National, the only rental agency that allows you to pick up in the U.S. and drop off in Canada.  I had researched the direct vs. a more leisurely and scenic route, but we opted for the direct route.  It was less expensive to fly into Seattle and we wanted a rental car for a few days anyway, so this was how we planned it.

Driving from Seattle to Vancouver was about a 3 hour drive.  It was not terribly scenic travelling Interstate 5, and there was more traffic than one would have expected going around Seattle in the middle of the day, but we did get a nice view of the city without driving through it.  Mt. Rainier was hidden in the clouds, unfortunately.  

Whirlwind tour of Vancouver's gems

It was about 2.5 hours to the Canadian border.  The roads got increasingly more scenic as we approached B.C.  Lush, green trees and a gently curving roadway.  The border crossing was quick and easy.  More like a toll booth than anything else, but instead of paying a toll, you showed your passports, answered a few questions about the purpose of your trip, and you were on your way.  We waited maybe 5 minutes for our turn.

Mt Rainier?

The road to Canada

The traffic in Vancouver was also surprisingly heavy for 2:30 or 3 pm in the afternoon.  We stopped at Van Duesen Botanical Garden, which was part of the plan.  The afternoon was increasingly cloudy and threatening with rain.  We walked around the garden for about 90 minutes, which was just enough time.  It started to lightly rain just as we were leaving.  

From there we went to our hotel.  It was in an area of Vancouver that was being rebuilt. Many tall office buildings and hotels were under renovation or being built.  We stayed at the Marriott Residence Inn.  It was easy to find (the city is a grid).  There were 22 floors, it was quite large.  More than adequate for our needs, and one of the more economical mid-range hotels from what I've read. Breakfast, which was included, was surprisingly good.  Quite a variety of options despite it's continental/mini buffet feel.

Our only full day in the city,  Thursday, we drove to North Vancouver, to Capilano Suspension Bridge park. It was raining and we arrived shortly after they opened. They provide free rain ponchos if you are not prepared.  It was $80 CDN for two of us, but worth every penny.  What a gorgeous place. It's in a temperate coastal rainforest.  Redwoods abound. Damn, they are huge!  

The park is so much more than the suspension bridge, although that is spectacular.  You do need to cross it to get to the bulk of the attractions on the other side.  Those afraid of heights will find this a challenge to cross.  

Capilano Suspension bridge.  Yikes!

Cliff walk! 

Beautiful nature walk

BIG trees!

Look up, not down! 

We were there about 2 hours. We walked across the suspension bridge first.  Holy cow. If you've never walked across one before, they are narrow, high, and you can most definitely feel the movement as people traverse it.  Most people stopped for photos along the bridge. It spans the Capilano river.  

Once on the other side, there is a gorgeous and lengthy canopy walk. It involves stairs and mini suspension bridges with informative plaques/signs along the way and gorgeous, literally bird's eye views.  There is also a nature walk along trails and boardwalks at ground level.  The rain really gave it a unique beauty almost making the green pop.  

We went back across the suspension bridge (only way back), and then did the cliff walk, which is an arched narrow (one person single file) suspension arch (no movement) from a cliff.  It offers a different perspective on the river below and how nature prevails with trees that grow out of/around the rock.  Educational signs and exhibits about water conservation and geology of the area dot the pathways to and from the cliff walk.  

Of course there is a gift shop and three options for snacks, a light meal, and beverages on both sides of the bridge and park.  Parking is self-pay for the parking lot or it's accessible but bus from the city as well.  It's well worth your time and dollars, especially if you love being literally immersed in nature.  

From there, we went to Stanley Park.The rain tapered off, although it remained mostly cloudy the rest of the day.  Stanley Park is huge, 17 miles around the perimeter which is called the sea wall.  It offers paved bike and walking pathways on the seawall and many hiking trails through the middle.  There is also an aquarium, a few playgrounds, a beach, and several areas to grab a snack or light meal as well as a few gift shops. There are even totem poles.  We spent a few more hours there, walking and exploring.  

Stanley park sea wall and the Lion's Gate Bridge

From there, we went to Canada Place. Our intent was to check out where our cruise ship would be leaving from the next day.  Canada place is interesting as it is attached to the Convention Center. There is also a Fly Over Canada movie, which we did. If you've ever been to Walt Disney World, it was Soarin' over Canada.  It was well done.  We wandered around for a while, then watched sail away for the Seaborn ship.  Given it was now about 5:30 and we had not really eaten a meal since breakfast, I was starving.  There was a bevvy of food options and we settled on an Italian place. It was okay, but at least we had food in the belly!

Canada Place

By now, especially with the time change from the east coast, we were tired.  We walked a few blocks to to get a case of water for the cruise and sea bands.  Then we went back to the hotel and crashed.

In hindsight another day at least would have allowed us to see more of the sights in the city.  It is a lovely city, and there are parts of the city I had wanted to see, but we are not city people, which you may have guessed given our choice of how to spend our time.  :-)

If you are cruising our of Vancouver, it's definitely worth your time to spend a few days exploring and experiencing this beautiful city and all it has to offer.  

Tomorrow, we cruise!