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!

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Canada and Alaska: Vancouver Island

We spent two and a half beautiful, sunny days on Vancouver Island, right before our Alaskan cruise.

If your geography is a bit shaky, Vancouver Island sits along the south-west corner of Canada, it is part of the province of British Columbia and the capital of that province is Victoria, which is situated on the island. The island is a 40 to 90 minute ferry ride (depending on where you go from and how fast you go) from the mainland and it is a really big island, over 500 km long. Big enough for some people to feel that it could get along quite well without the rest of Canada, thank you very much.

Vancouver Island also has its own microclimate – or many microclimates, depending on how you look at it, the weather can vary from bay to bay. It does not get anywhere near the amount of snow as the rest of Canada and so is a haven for retirees. Being an island, it keeps the prices a bit lower for real estate than Vancouver city, but it is becoming more popular.

Anyhow, we left Whistler, drove down the coast then caught the ferry across to Nanaimo, a town north of Victoria. Then we drove to Chamainus, a small logging town that now attracts tourists by being super cute and having lots of murals all over town. I saw a hummingbird while we were there. It was so tiny that I thought it was a beetle until I saw the beak. No photo though!

Last stop was Victoria and our waterfront hotel. Victoria is a city built on fur and gold and so it has some similarities, architecturally and culturally, to Melbourne. Our guide the following afternoon told us that the Chinatowns in Victoria, San Francisco and Melbourne were the most significant centres for Chinese culture outside China, and their existence allowed for free discussion that led to the uprising that led to the overthrow of the monarchy and communism in China.

Victoria’s Chinatown also has one of the narrowest streets in North America. Fan Tan Alley. The area is now popular with artists and designers.

Victoria has a wealth of beautiful buildings and I won’t bore you with too much history, but the most notable (and noticeable) are the Empress Hotel and the Parliament Building. They were both designed by a fellow with quite an interesting history. He was a very young architect who scandalized Victorian society by running off to England with his mistress. The mistress then fell in love with an employee (a butler or something), they messily bludgeoned the architect to death to grab his fortune. They were both caught and, upon learning her lover was to be hung, the mistress threw herself off a bridge. However the lover’s sentence was commuted, then he was drafted for WW1, survived with medals of honour and was eventually freed.

Despite his dubious past, the fellow obviously knew what he was about, architecturally-speaking, and these days the parliament buildings are outlined in lights at night, giving an appearance similar to a birdcage. Although there are no bulbs within reach of the ground because people would steal them.

While we couldn’t see the birdcage from our hotel room, we had a great view of the harbour. Victoria has the cutest water taxis I’ve ever seen and I spotted a seal in the water. Others had just seen an otter – you can imagine my disappointment at missing out!

Terrible photo but that underwater slug is actually a seal.

Next: Burchart Gardens!

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: We Go On A Harley Davidson Ride in Jasper

As part of our tour, we get to sign up for a variety of activities, so today is a Harley Davidson sidecar ride! We were driven by minibus from the Fairmont Lodge into Jasper where we got suited up.

Mum actually manages an almost badass expression, I just look like an idiot. Three other ladies from our tour group came along on the same trip. We paired up with a rider and so Mum got the sidecar and I sat behind Rob.

I didn’t think we’d be able to hear each other but we didn’t go too fast and so we could chat a bit about the same things everyone here tells tourists – it’s been a heck of a forest fire season and half the pine trees are dead thanks to shorter winters not killing off pine beetles. Look it up if you’re interested, I’m sick of talking about it.

The ride went for about half an hour. We stopped to take photos then I jumped in a side car to see what that was like. It was much louder and lower – I think I liked sitting up higher better. Mum enjoyed the whole thing even more than I did, but then she was quite a thrill-seeker in her time. As you can see from the photos, the air was quite hazy, which was a bit of a bummer but no one wants to hear tourists complain when farms and homes are being burned down.

After the ride we had a little walk around Jasper before returning to the hotel. You’ll be unsurprised to hear we found a bar then bought several bottles of wine. I also ordered my first poutine but it had pulled beef and horseradish sauce as well as the traditional curds and gravy, so I’ll have to have the real thing at some later stage.

It was a good thing we did buy the wine because I had to drink half a bottle to get to sleep. The jet lag is killing me! I need to remember to factor this in on future trips. First world problems, huh?

Next: we drive along one of the world’s most scenic roads, walk on a glacier, and eat some astonishingly good biscuits which I suppose I should call cookies but WON’T!

Here Comes The Planet 54 – Tanzania 07

In this episode of Here Comes The Planet we take a cultural tour around Mto wa Mbu Village in Tanzania. This consists of walking through the village’s farms and sampling an amazing array of delicious food, learning about the village’s history and entertaining its children.

We also watched some local artists at work, sampled banana beer and found the village nightclub!

Also – DISCO TOTO!!!

Here Comes The Planet 45 – Tanzania 02

Our group, which has now taken to calling itself “Team Toto”, moves on to the main part of our African adventure when we meet up with the Dragoman tour that will be taking us around east Africa. We’ll be spending over a month with most of these people and our tour guide, Steve. The beginning of a new adventure!

In this episode we check out the Forodhani Night Market and the Darajani spice market in Stone Town before heading to a spice and fruit plantation tour where we get to sample lots of exotic fruits and see some impressive tree climbing. We stay in northern Zanzibar on Nungwi Beach where we get the chance to visit the Mnarani turtle sanctuary and tick something off Nicolette’s bucket list – swimming with turtles!

Also, people are rightfully worried about being bitten by turtles. Because it frickkin’ hurts.

Also, cute kitten!! 😀 😀

Here Comes The Planet 44 – Tanzania 01

The first of our Africa videos! After completing a long to-do list before arriving, we finally get to Tanzania. Our friends Leigh, Nicolette, Lucas and Kat are along for the ride, sharing the African leg of our trip with us. First order of the day is some relaxing on the island of Zanzibar before we start our safari tour. Amanda and Lucas get their hair braided at a local village after learning how to weave palm leaf baskets and make coconut rope and we all eat at The Rock restaurant – which sits on a rock just off the coast.

Also, surprise adoptions!