Wednesday, 30 July 2014

City of Vancouver

The 11 day Denali discovery cruisetour ended in Vancouver city on the morning of 7/7/14. We disembarked, collected our luggage that has been brought to the Customs hall by the cruise lines, cleared the Customs and took a taxi to the Hotel. The hotel was Century Plaza Hotel & Spa, which we have booked earlier through   The hotel was in downtown, close to the market, shops and restaurants.  As the check in was at 3 pm only, we left the luggage in hotel care and went about exploring the city of Vancouver. Vancouver city is called officially as city of Vancouver to distinguish it from the Vancouver Island and incidentally the Vancouver city is not located in the Vancouver Island. We went first to the Lookout, which was only at a walking distance from the hotel, to have a bird’s eye-view of the city. It is located on the top of the office buildings of Harbour centre and the viewing platform is only 551 ft, above street level, but it gives a good 3600 view of the city and surrounding landscape.  The revolving restaurant on its top is another tourist attraction.  Close to the harbour centre is the waterfront mall, which has a nice food-court.  From there we came down to Hastings Street and took the bus to Stanley Park.

Stanley Park is a sprawling urban park spread over 1000 acres and there is a rose garden, rock garden, aquarium, totem pole corner besides the sea walk along the seawall which runs round the park and is 9 km long.  There is a hop-on hop-off shuttle service covering important points of interest besides horse drawn carriage tours.  Our interest was in totem poles and so we made a bee line to that corner called Brockton point.  It has a number of poles of different heights, with different animal figure carvings. Totem poles are carved out of the trunks of trees by indigenous people of pacific region of North America and the designs and figures stand for cultural beliefs, clan lineage, notable legends etc.  But they were not symbols of worship.  The animals represent the belief that one is associated with one of nine different types of animals in one’s life.  It was good walk from the bus stop to this point and after we walked back to catch the bus and walk again to the hotel to check in, we had all the exercise to compensate for the lack of it in the last few days.  Our room was in the 27th floor.  It was spacious and had a kitchenette, with all the gadgets, but there was no plates or bowls and so could not be made use of. But there was a good conveniences room in the 5th floor of the hotel, with a coin operated laundrette, free internet facilities, free Wi-Fi hotspot. We made good use of it as in the ship there was no laundry and internet connection was quite slow and costly. 

We had pre-booked on-line tours for two days with West Coast Sightseeing. The first one was to Whistler and Shannon falls. We left on this tour next morning. Whistler is a popular resort town in Whistler Mountain.  Whistler with Vancouver hosted the winter Olympic games and Para Olympic games of 2010.  A platform with Olympic rings is in Whistler Mountain top and in Whistler Plaza in commemoration of the event.  The route from Vancouver to Whistler is a scenic route which is called Sea-to-Sky Highway. It is a winding mountain road with spectacular ocean, mountain and rain forest views and roaring falls.  On the way to Whistler there were halts at Horseshoe Bay Park, Porteau Cove and Squamish village centre. In the first two we enjoyed wonderful views of sea and mountain, while in the third of forest and mountain, a foretaste of things to come at Whistler.

Whistler and the adjoining Blackcomb mountains are popular ski resorts in winter.  We did not spend much time in the Whistler village.  We had our lunch in the Subway restaurant and made a bee-line to Gondola station. First we went up to the  Whistler Mountain-top in a gondola. You have the option of reaching the peak through Gondola or through a chair-lift or else by bike or walk in the respective trails.  After a visit to the Roundhouse Lodge at the top, we made to the Olympic platform for a photo session.  As we were taking in the magnificent scenery all around at the height of 6000 ft. above sea- level, we were joined by another South Indian family, settled in Seattle U.S. and holidaying in Canada. In their company we took the peak to peak gondola service between peaks of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. This Gondola journey is the longest and highest of its kind as it spans a distance of 4.4 kilometres at a height of 1430 feet.  We travelled in a glass bottomed gondola, which is run at half-hour intervals.  The view of the rain forests below and the view of the towering volcanic peaks on the sides made it a memorable experience. In the Blackcomb Mountain we could walk up to the edge of a glacier and even in that summer there was skiing activity going on in an adjacent glacier. We left Blackcomb peak with its stunning scenery rather reluctantly as we had to catch the tour coach. 

On the way back there was a halt at Shannon falls. With water falling from a height of 1105 ft. from the ground, it is the third highest fall in British Columbia. As we were tired, we were content to rest near the base and watch the falls from a distance. We returned to the hotel at around 6 pm and had our dinner in a nearby Indian restaurant where the Indian chef, Mani, who is from Tamilnadu, obliged Rajam with a glass of hot water with pepper and crushed ginger as Rajam had developed mild dry cough. We had a good rest and carried on so leisurely next morning that we missed the booked tour to Grouse Mountain and Capilano Bridge and the company was good enough to offer an alternative tour i.e. Vancouver City and Capilano Bridge, which started late.

In this tour we had time to explore Stanley Park and its seawall and sea walk as the coach stopped there for a time before proceeding to the Bridge.  The Capilano Suspension Bridge is 460 ft. long and 230 ft. above the Capilano River.  The walk across shaky bridge is fun but a bit scary as we swing sideways, sometimes a little violently, when people rush for a view or a photo.  After going to the other end of the bridge we went on tree-top adventure walk where we wander through chain of seven suspension bridges 100 ft. above the ground. At the end of each bridge there is viewing platform around the trunks of the big Douglas fir trees from where we can view below and around, the sprawling rain forest. After this walk, we crossed the bridge to take the Cliff walk.  This is described as “heart-stopping cliff side journey” as we walk over suspended walkways jutting out of the granite cliff above the Capilano River.  It is high and narrow and in some places only the thick glass at our feet alone separates us from the canyon far below. These two walks, cliff walk and treetop adventure walk we took as a challenge to test our fitness and as we did them slowly admiring the view all around, we did not have time to visit the Raptor’s ridge.  There is a totem park and also a cafeteria, which was selling hot samosas besides sandwiches etc. in the bridge park.

After leaving Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, the coach went round the Chinatown and made a final stop at Granville Island.  Granville Island is not an island but a peninsula separated by a creek from downtown Vancouver.  It is a busy shopping district and has a big market.  It is also an art centre with a few galleries. As tour ended by 5’oclock, we took time to walk around the busy Robson Street.  To our surprise we found a section of the street closed to traffic to help people watch a street performance.  The next day we left for Sydney by United Airlines, bringing to an end a memorable tour. I have uploaded photos of Vancouver in the Flickr album “Vancouver”:  


Sunday, 27 July 2014

Alaska - Cruise

On the completion of land portion of Denali Discovery Cruisetour we boarded the ship Norwegian Sun at Whittier around 6.00 pm with our hand-luggage, after completing all custom formalities.  Our main luggage was delivered directly from the coach to our stateroom by the tour company.  Our stateroom was one with balcony in 9th deck. It was comfortable and roomy and the balcony plus long hours of sunlight helped us to enjoy the scenic passage even beyond 9 pm.  The first job we did was to explore the complimentary dining options.  We decided on Garden cafe and Great outdoor in deck 11 and we were not disappointed.  Not only we had good vegetarian options but there was rice and one Indian side dish every day, for lunch as well as dinner. And we could also get plain curd morning and evening from an obliging chef, who incidentally was from Australia.  Further in Deck 11, there was a pizza/pasta station in operation in the afternoon, which we used occasionally.

Among the passengers, we met a group of young couples of south Indian origin, alumni of the same engineering college in Coimbatore, now settled in various states of U.S. There was one other couple, Radha and Ramji, who had been former residents of Western Sydney, now settled in Texas. They had come as two families, the other that of Radha’s sister, Meera, settled in Miami.  We also met two couples from Castle Hill, Sydney; Mr.& Mrs. Sukumar and Mr. & Mrs. Raymond Pillay who had come together and also one Mr. Nagarajan, Koramangala, Bangalore who had come with his daughter and her family settled in California.  Running into one or the other of them one time or other in one place or other, it was quite a fun. Though in the ship there was a variety of entertainments and shows, we had our eyes only for the excellent scenery of glaciers, mountains, forests, waterfalls etc, which could be enjoyed from the comfort of our balcony, and the long hours of sunlight and the pleasant climate most of the days facilitated this lotus-eating laziness. Shows in Stardust and trips to Deck 11 were the only distractions from the glacier-gazing.

Day 2 was all-cruise day.  We cruised along Hubbard Glacier, one of the big glaciers which are calving icebergs. Unlike cruise in open seas, here one never gets tired of grand scenery of virgin nature. On day 3, the ship docked in Icy Strait Point, at a distance away from the shore.  The shore was reached through a tender from the ship. We went on a whale and marine mammals cruise. We could see some seals, otters and whales at a distance and were lucky enough to watch one whale taking a dive close to the ship.  Binoculars were provided to us free to facilitate whale watching and when a mammal was sighted, the ship halted and an announcement made and there was running all over to get to a vantage point.  As we took the afternoon cruise only, in the morning we went on a shore walk and spent time exploring the pier.

The next day ship docked in Juneau, capital of Alaska. Here we took an excursion to Mendenhall glacier.  The glacier is 12 miles long and nearby is a waterfall, Nugget falls or Mendenhall Glacier falls.  There is a trail leading to it and you can watch it at close quarters.  We decided to do it first before taking the trail to the vicinity of Glacier.  As we got there and were enjoying the majestic falls, floating icebergs in the Mendenhall lake and distant view of the glacier flowing into the lake, luck of good climate deserted us.  The climate that has been wonderful so long suddenly changed.  It didn’t turn cold or dark but it started drizzling lightly but continuously, and at times heavily.  So we beat a hasty retreat to the visitor’s centre where we waited for the coach, enjoying only the distant view of the Glacier from the cosy shelter of the centre. In the evening the ship cruised through Tracy Arm Fjord and South Sawyer Glacier. Oh! what a magnificent view of elevated glaciers, sheer rock falls and majestic mountains just dropping into the sea flat, floating icebergs of all sizes and shapes, single and in groups. 

The drizzle continued to dog us the next day as well in Skagway. Braving the continuous drizzle, we went on the shore excursion, the White Pass scenic railway. While we were taking in the breathtaking panorama of mountains, waterfalls, glaciers and gorges, as the train made the steep climb uphill, came the bad news that due to continuous rains some boulders got dislodged and had landed squarely on the track with the result the train before us was turning back and that ours will also terminate midway, even before reaching the tunnel.  Disappointed that we couldn’t do the journey in full, we returned to receive back half the cost of excursion as a small consolation for the interrupted excursion. 

But the next day in Ketchikan we could complete the Duck tour as the drizzle was light and sporadic in the morning and turned a bit heavy only after we returned to the ship for lunch finishing the morning tour. You can see Ketchikan by land and sea in this amphibious vehicle that glides into the water smoothly and floats around the harbour as effortlessly as it travels around the streets of Ketchikan. Ketchikan is a small island town which is called the “Salmon Capital of the World”. This is the last halt before the ship docks for disembarkation at Vancouver. The next day morning for a time the cruising was not smooth and Rajam started developing motion sickness. Luckily it did not last long as the cruising became smooth soon and the rest of the cruise along the  Inside Passage was fine and enjoyable as before. The next morning we disembarked in Vancouver and moved over with our luggage to the pre-booked hotel, “Century Plaza Hotel &Spa”.  The photos of the cruise, I have uploaded in the Flickr album “Alaska Cruise”:

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Alaska, land tour

Rajam and myself went on 11 day Denali discovery cruisetour operated by Norwegian Cruise Lines starting on 27th June 2014 from Anchorage, Alaska .  This tour combined a land tour of Alaska for 3 days and a 7 night cruise across Gulf of Alaska and inside passage to Vancouver, Canada.  We started our tour from San Francisco where we halted for 3 days to visit my nephew, niece and a long-lost friend from Sydney settled there and all their family members.  The photos of our visit to San Francisco I have uploaded in the Flickr Album “San Francisco 2014”:

We landed in Anchorage a day earlier to the start of tour to enjoy the feel of the place and to go round the place on our own.  We stayed in the same hotel, as fixed by our tour operator, Hotel Millennium.  Though it was not in down-town, there was a Subway, McDonald, pizza eatery and a Tesco chain store all within walking distance from the hotel.   As food was not covered in the land portion of the tour, this was important for us, being vegetarians.  The hotel operates a regular shuttle down-town to visitor’s centre from where we can catch shuttles to other locations.  Further the hotel was overlooking Lake Spenard, a big lake which is a sea-plane base and the hotel also was having a sea plane dock.  One can also have a good view of the mountain ranges that surround Anchorage from the hotel premises.  The weather was fine and being summer even at 11 pm. there was daylight, completely disorienting our time-sense.  Anchorage though not the capital of Alaska, is its most populous city having about 40% of the state’s population. 

Next day we went to the city-centre and took a shuttle from there to visit the zoo.  We also spent time going round. There were hot dog stands all around selling the local speciality, the spicy hot reindeer dog.  In the evening we met the tour director, Scott Terry, who briefed us on the programme until embarkation at Whittier, two days later.  The next morning we left by coach to Talkeetna, where we boarded a special glass domed double-decker Gold Star rail-coach for the onward journey to Denali.  The coach has a fine dining restaurant in the lower deck and 3600 viewing, forward looking rotating seats and a viewing portion in the upper deck. This is a scenic route with mountains, glaciers, rivers, Tundra forests all the way. Weather being fine we could enjoy the four hour train journey , munching snacks and sipping coffee while watching the passing rugged Alaska scenery. We reached Denali Park around 4 p.m. and were transported to our lodgings in Denali Park village.

Denali Park village is situated on the banks of the Nenana river and there is also a walking trail hugging the banks.  The rooms were comfortable log cabins, spread over the village in ten single storeyed buildings. The restaurant and coffee shop were in a different building called ‘the Lodge’. As there was no rain and it was all sunshine, and as the village is set in scenic surroundings, walking to & fro for snacks, coffee, dinner and lunch was no problem, but quite enjoyable. A pleasant surprise was meeting Swami Anubhavanandaji in the Lodge on the first day. He was with his host and was staying in a different building. The next morning we were taken deep into the national park on a coach tour called Denali Natural History tour.

We could glimpse the snow covered Mt. Mckinley but did not encounter any wild animal like the bear, wolf or the moose.  We also visited a ranger cabin in use in winter called Savage cabin, as it is by the Savage river, to have a glimpse of the hardships one has to endure in winter.  Even today the Denali park village wears a deserted look in winter with a skeleton maintenance staff only visiting the facilities, we were told.  With temperature plummeting below -25 and daylight lasting for less than 5 hours, it will be all sheets of ice and darkness, we learnt.  The lowest temperature recorded in Alaska was -81 in 1971.  The bus turned round at Primrose Ridge turnaround point beyond the Savage River. Here there was an interesting presentation by an Athabascan Alaskan native of their history and their story of survival braving the harsh winter of Alaska for thousands of years. While returning we heard that there was a mild earthquake previous night in the village, the tremor of which some in the tour group experienced as they were awake at that time and that earthquakes are a common phenomenon in Denali National Park.

The next morning we left by coach for Whittier, to board the cruise ship Norwegian Sun.  On the way there were three stops.  First was in a war memorial, which was a toilet stop.  Here we could take some pictures of the surrounding scenery.  Next was at Anchorage, which was the lunch stop.  We made use of this to go round the J.C Penny mall in 5th Avenue, the main attraction being the Subway and Starbucks in the food court.  The third stop was the wildlife conservation centre at the southern edge of Turnagain Arm. From Anchorage to Whittier it was a most scenic drive and this is called “all-American scenic Highway”, with spectacular views of mountains meeting the sea.  Towards the end to reach Whittier we cross a narrow single lane tunnel, 2.5 miles long, which is shared with the railroad.  This area had been heavily affected by the great earthquake of 1964.  Upto this point the tour was managed by Premier Alaska Tours, who operate tours for many cruise lines including Norwegian Cruise Line. The photos taken in the land tour portion can be seen in the Flickr album “Anchorage and Denali”: