Canada and Alaska: Aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam

The Nieuw Amsterdam docked at Juneau. 

After a lovely but sad farewell dinner in Victoria, the remaining members of our group (some weren’t doing the cruise) caught the ferry from Victoria back to Vancouver then said goodbye to our wonderful tour leader Carmen.

I had joked with her that there was an aspect of Stockholm Syndrome in tour groups and we’d come to love her so much that whoever this ‘Stephanie’ was (the APT rep on the ship), she’d have a lot to live up to. Well, Stephanie turned out to be lovely, and incredibly patient at re-explaining things she’s just said. She would make a good teacher ;-).

There were three APT groups joining the cruise, which meant about 100 people all up – most of them Australian. We had two informational group meetings, one at the beginning and one at the end, plus a bunch of meet-ups throughout the week so people could catch up. In such a large ship it was a good idea to provide these opportunities otherwise we might not have seen some of our group again.

 

The ship:

The Nieuw Amsterdam holds just over 2000 guests and has 11 accessible floors. It also has glass elevators, which were awesome. The average age on the ship was probably between 50 and 60. A few families, but mainly retirees. Below is a video of the indoor pool area.

There were a range of restaurants, from extremely high-brow to burgers and pizza.  Plus 24 hour room service (which I always get excited about then rarely use.. I think we ordered one pot of tea). There was a canteen-type area called The Lido, which had some self-serve options. My favourite places for food ended up being the pizza place and the Mexican bar.

Everything but drinks was included in the ticket price (although we had a special deal for 3 complimentary drinks each night with dinner) although if you wanted to eat in one of the fancier restaurants there was an additional cost. Everything we bought was charged to our swipe cards and these cards also let us on and off the ship. It was a great system and meant that you could leave your room with empty hands, even if wearing a dorky lanyard all day meant that it felt like we were on a 7 day conference.

Our room was small but certainly big enough. It had a little lounge chair and coffee table and a balcony with two chairs. We enjoyed the fact that the tap arrangement was one of the simpler ones we’d come across – at one hotel Mum had ended up having a bath because we had no idea how to get the shower to work.

During our time on the ship we did a few activities – most notably winning the final night trivia. To be completely honest, our team mate Lynn would’ve probably won it on her own, but we all got badges anyhow, so now I have two unearned badges from my trip. Score!

Apart from the trivia and spending our evenings at the quiet Silk Den bar, Mum and I didn’t do many of the organised shipboard activities. There were quite a few things on – presentations, movies, shows, games clubs and more. Including a daily art auction of a vast number of really ordinary paintings (and a few good ones). That was a bit weird.

On the voyage there were three stops (Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan) plus the northernmost point was a morning in Glacier Bay National Park. I’ll cover each in a post of its own.

Next: Juneau!

Advertisements

Canada and Alaska: Burchart Gardens!

The Burchart Gardens are the main reason why we came on this trip, as Mum had seen them on tv and wanted to see them in real life. I did five minutes of research and had read that the best time to come was in spring to see the bulbs blooming. We’re here in late summer so I didn’t expect it to be super impressive.

We had a special deal with our tour group to have breakfast at the gardens before having about an hour and a half to walk around. Breakfast was in a nice greenhouse-style room, but from what I could see through the windows and on the way in, I was itching to get out and walk around.

The gardens are stunning. I’ve never seen anything as perfectly manicured or colourful. The gardens have several separate spaces. A rose garden, Japanese garden, smaller sections of parterre and dahlias etc then the quarry garden, which was the first space that the original owners planned out and the view you’ll see if you google the gardens.

Every area was astounding in its perfection, but the dahlias were what really grabbed me and I think I’m going to have to attempt them at home because wherever I see them I find them irresistible. I think you can see why!

We were encouraged to annoy the gardeners by asking them questions, and so we learned that 75 gardeners take care of the property and they are open 363 days of the year. They also do fireworks on saturdays, so time your visit for then!

Next: cruising up the inside passage! Also, I giggle when anyone refers to ‘the inside passage’.

Canada and Alaska: Whistler and a Float Plan Ride

Whistler rivals Banff for prettiness and the mountains, dare I say it, are even more spectacular. Here’s Mum and I at the float plane dock.

Although who can really say which place we’ve been is the best? I’m reaching that stage of travel where I can’t honestly recall precisely what Banff’s mountains looked like. Lucky I’ve got five million photos!

The float plane was fantastic but slightly wobbly. The scenery was a ring of mountains with glaciers and lakes. The colour of the water was really stunning from the air.

As always, I felt my stomach lurch when the plane bumped up and down, but it was worth it! The other good thing about doing the flying options is that they’re quick (20 minutes this time) and so there’s time to do some walking around afterwards. Whistler town centre is a pedestrian mall and the town is set up for lots of summer sports. BMX and mountain bikers we catching the chair lifts up and riding down the mountain right to the middle of town. I got a free gondola ride and watched them from above.

I didn’t go up the mountain until late so I just did a little walk around, enjoyed the scenery and then came down. The gondola is one of the longest in the world and takes 20 minutes to go all the way to the top. Dare I say it even got a little boring? The views were great though, when it wasn’t rocking in the wind.

After having lunch at a cheap pasta place, Mum and I had enough leftovers to heat up for dinner in our room, which had a microwave. Imagine being able to eat what you wanted, with only a one minute wait and not have to make conversation with a waiter or try to work it tips! Luxury!

How one’s priorities change when traveling, hey?

Next: we go to another place and do more things.

Canada and Alaska: Lake Moraine and Kelowna

We left Lake Louise early (have I mentioned my tour group are ALWAYS on time? I love these people) to get to Moraine Lake, which is just down the road. When we turned in there were many, many cars and motor homes and whatnot. Which is the tourism paradox, I suppose – the more beautiful a place is, the more you want it to yourself, the more people you’re going to have to contend with.

Anyhow, it wasn’t too bad, we took photos, had a wander then got back on the bus. I didn’t realise that there was a short walk up a hill, and that the height showed the jade colour better. I’m sure if you want to see it there are about five billion photos elsewhere online. Here is the reverse view from the above photo.

We made a few stops during the drive that day on the way to Kelowna (cologne-a). Including a rest stop where we spotted this guy and his huge ass!

Tee hee!

We passed through very smoked valleys, but then emerged from the haze and were back to corn fields and wider skies. We also spotted a BEAR!

I realise how bad this photo is, but it was copied over to me from someone else’s camera (thanks Wayne!) then blown up, but it was a real, wild bear! It was on the edge of a corn field. It looked at us for a bit then wandered off into the forest, which is what I’d do if I spotted a big tour bus.

After that excitement no one was sleepy. We stopped off for ice cream (I had maple syrup and also a giant punnet of raspberries that were OMG delicious), then got to our hotel. A quiet night ensued. I mean, my nights are always quiet, but Mum also went to sleep reasonably early too for a change. holidaying with a party animal is a challenge, but I’m coping like a hero.

Next: Whistler and float planes and other stuff.

Canada and Alaska: Lake Louise

It’s iconic, it’s incredible, it’s a huge tourist trap. It’s Lake Louise! One of the world’s most recognisable hotels, the Fairmont Lake Louise is a huge, bustling building and we were lucky enough to have a lake-view room.

That’s the view from our room at 6:30am. Of course the views from around the lake are even better. After we got to our room and unpacked, I left Mum to do her own thing and I walked the 2.5km path that follows the right side of the lake to the end.

It was packed with people. As I walked I could hear accents from around the world. I know some people could find it annoying to be somewhere so beautiful but also surrounded by people, but you have to come to terms with being a tourist and being part of the problem and just enjoy it for what it is, and it is stunning.


I later learned that the lake changes colour throughout the year. Obviously it’s frozen in winter – it is used for hockey and skating and sledding etc, then the ice melts around the beginning of June and at that point all the rock flour (glacier sediment) has settled and the water is crystal clear. As the glaciers around the lake start to melt in the warmer weather they bring superfine rock particles that cloud the water and reflect the light, becoming a deep jade (what you see now in August), then the glaciers freeze solid before the lake does, so the water clears in September and then freezes again. So all the lakes we’ve seen are glacier-fed and jade-coloured, but will be clear in a few months. I find that fascinating!

If you walk to the end of Lake Louise you can see six separate glaciers, three of which are visible from the hotel, but one of which is mostly covered in moraine, or landslides. People think of glaciers as pure, ancient water. But the truth is that the water that comes out of them is filthy because they grind the landscape so harshly that they pick up the rock. In Iceland icebergs are often striated with black volcanic gravel that the glaciers churn up.

Anyhow, Lake Louise was quite experience. The hotel is vast and very busy. We had dinner again with Heather and Steve, which was lovely, then an early night because we were leaving early to get to Moraine Lake, another postcard-perfect site.

Canada and Alaska: Banff Springs Hotel and a Helicopter Flight

The town of Banff is named after Banffshire in Scotland and the influence is easy to see. Our hotel, the Banff Springs, looks like a cross between Hogwarts and a country club.

Although you don’t find Ferrari’s parked outside Hogwarts.

Banff itself is about 1km away and look like a movie set for an alpine village – a little too clean and perfect to be real. The whole town is ringed by mountains and I can only imagine that it would look like a fairytale in winter. We had two nights here, with a helicopter ride over Canmore in the middle.

The hotel is a sprawling pile of stone with tartan carpets and leather couches. Lots of expensive boutiques and and a range of restaurants.

On our first night I met Mum in a small wine bar in the hotel and she had been watching the chef behind the bar make charcuterie plates, one of which involved smoking tuna tartare under a glass dome. Very fancy! Also, here is my first video addition – I hope it works.

We didn’t stay up too late though, because in the morning we had an item to cross off our bucket lists – the helicopter flight!

The thing about heights is, I never know if I’m going to be terrified or thrilled. I love hot air balloons, hate ladders, love boats in rough seas, hate high balconies. I didn’t know how I was going to go on the helicopter but if it was awful I could always close my eyes.

We drove to Canmore and had a safety briefing (essentially, try not to annoy your pilot by screaming if you go down) then were asked if any couples minded splitting up as the helicopters took five people in each. As an incentive it also meant sitting in the front so I volunteered Mum and I straight away. She was happy to do it too, of course.

We waited for a bit watching the helicopters come and go then jumped in and put our headsets and seat belts on. There is something innately exciting about wearing a headset, I wish I had an opportunity to do it more often – imagine going through life being able to just listen to specific people and block out everything else!

I don’t really have the words to describe the flight, but of course I have the pictures. I didn’t feel too anxious, just felt my stomach drop when we went over the top of ridges. I wish we’d been able to go for longer!

Next: I make Mum walk ten miles (actually one kilometre but you wouldn’t know it from her complaining) and we have a nice dinner. Thrilling!

Canada and Alaska: Icefields Parkway and a Glacier Experience

Unlike everything else we’ve done here, I’d not hear a peep about the Icefields Parkway, which made it one of the best surprises of the trip so far.

Apologies for the poor photo quality – almost all these pictures were taken out through a bus window while going at high speeds. The subject matter hardly suffered though! The parkway trip takes a few hours and the views are spectacular the whole way. So spectacular, in fact, that I regret all previous uses of the word ‘spectacular’ and wished I’d saved the word for this occasion alone.

I mean, if this wasn’t even worth mentioning, what on Earth does the rest of Canada look like?

We broke up our trip with a few stops. The first was at some falls along the Athabaskan river. A wide section of river suddenly narrowed and the force of the water was incredible. The water and rocks carve smooth bowls and canyons through the rock walls.

Next was a stop at one of those places where tourists are herded, penned, ordered around and generally treated like giant dollar signs. Fortunately our tour had everything arranged so there wasn’t much waiting for the bus up to the glacier and we had time to sit and eat the sandwiches we’d bought at the falls. I haven’t been to Switzerland, but I imagine it is a bit like this?

While we were sitting out on the deck a chipmunk darted around under tables and seemed to spend a lot of time checking out my backpack.

Then it was onto a bus, which took us up to the big bus-truck things that drive onto the glacier. The trucks were interesting, being six-wheel drive and kind of like tanks, plus the road towards the glacier was extremely steep (a gradient of about 32 degrees), but being on the glacier felt weird. Not long ago I saw a documentary about glaciers, and seeing the road the trucks had worn into it and having a big group of tourists standing around all felt a bit sacrilegious. It’s not really logical – global warming is the problem and glacier shrinkage isn’t caused by people standing on a tiny part of it, but still.

Our tour director warned us not to drink the glacial waters because of Ice worms . They live their whole lives on glaciers and eat algae and if you have eat too many they can make you ill. I thought that perhaps it was the Canadian equivalent of drop bears, but apparently they’re real.

Next was a short rest stop then Carmen handed out some maple leaf biscuits. Maple-syrup flavored and OMG, so good! My hands smelled like syrup for the next hour. If I bring nothing else home I’m bringing several boxes of these!

Just think of a shortbread cream biscuit but infused with maple syrup.

Anyhow, back to the Icefields Parkway. If you ever go to Canada make sure you take a trip along it. It’s about a hundred times better than the Great Ocean Road, and compares favorably to Iceland’s ring road (but more trees) and Lake District in England (but without the narrow lanes filled with sheep and impatient local buses). Also make sure you’re not doing the driving so you can spend the whole time goggling at the towering mountains and turquoise waters. I guarantee you’ll love it!

Next: Banff Springs Hotel and a ride in a helicopter!