Day Fifteen to Nineteen – A Room With A View

The past two days in Osoyoos have been much more in tune with what should be a fundamental part of any vacation – good weather.  The dull grey above has departed for parts unknown and a strange yellow globe now lends its warmth and candlepower to our surroundings.

Ohhh…right…that’s the sun!  We haven’t seen it in so long it was all but totally forgotten.

The area in and around Osoyoos showed us much of what British Columbia offers – great scenery, fabulous orchards and some truly outstanding wines.  This brought about the need to stop often to smell the roses…or in many cases (pun intended!), the wines.  Mother doesn’t really enjoy the ‘juice of the vine’ the way we do so her sniffing and tasting was limited.  A designated driver was a no-brainer so I took one for the team, appreciated many aromas, and left the wine tasting severely curtailed (until after the days excursions were done).  However, my wife didn’t have either of those limitations.  🙂

Listing the many wineries we visited, and detailing the offerings we enjoyed, would make this blog quite boring very quickly.  As well, given that wine is so intensely subjective to personal tastes, it would also be unfair.  Suffice it to say if you have never been to the Okanagan Valley and really enjoy wine, you are missing out on some of the most wonderful wines in the world (and they have the medals to substantiate that comment).  If you have been here before, you know why you need to come back.

Driving the short trip north to Penticton takes us deeper into Wine Country.  Given the stiff penalty for littering ($2000) the highways are clean, but as in many places around the world, in need of some nip & tuck surgery here and there.  However, the greater rainfall this year has brought out the very best in lush landscapes in the hills, in the trees and hanging flower pots around the cities and towns and in the personal expressions covering homeowner’s yards.  Beyond the tasting of beverages, there remains much to do and see.

Our new accommodation was another B&B.  The picture that now graces the top of my blog is what we had to face each and every morning after climbing out of bed.  Not real hard on the eyes.  🙂  We had the lower floor of a two-story house complete with two bedrooms, full bathroom, kitchen, sitting area, living room and an awesome porch (where the picture was taken from).  As it turns out, that same porch had its own BBQ which we also made use of.

Fox Ben (the name of our B&B – http://www.naramatabedandbreakfast-foxben.com/) is everything described in their website.  Their pictures are a totally accurate view of what we enjoyed.  If you are a ‘beach-bum’, their location in the upper Naramata Bench area is a little far from the sand but don’t let that dissuade you.  Both water and sand are near enough to not pose any real difficulty in enjoying both.  If, on the other hand, you are looking for ‘grape juice’ then you’d be hard pressed (puns abound!) to find a better neighborhood.  Their locale aside, it’s a marvelous place to stay.  The residence is great, the owners are very personable and breakfast each day was fabulous.  AND, they only have room for one set of guests so, privacy reigns.  What more do you want??

Breakfast done (upstairs in the main part of the house) we would then jump in the car and set out to wander the day away.

One day was spent touring ‘the bench’.  Driving your own vehicle has its benefits – it’s certainly the least expensive way to go.  However, the biggest drawback for the driver is the driving.  If the driver doesn’t partake of the grape (which is fine) then no biggie.  However if, like me, the driver does enjoy wine in all its flavors, then some of the fun is just not there.  Now a chauffeur driven limo…THAT solution piques my imagination.  One must keep in mind that with convenience, however, there is usually a price.  Which could impact the amount of wine purchased (all for purposes of refilling the wine cellar and enjoyment over years, you understand.  😉 )  So it’s a tradeoff.  I drove…and just kept telling myself I would enjoy them all at a future date.  Much wine was found and into the trunk it went.  Fortunately we could store it at the ‘home away from home’ so we didn’t need to jostle it around day after day.

Another day was spent taking a little jaunt up the road to Summerland (which has its own, albeit smaller though no less enjoyable, version of the bench).  Later we stopped at a long-time friend’s home where we were treated to lobster tail for dinner.  I should be so lucky more often.  🙂  And yes, more liquid in the trunk.

One more day, one more city – Kelowna.  This time was more to see what has changed and do a little shopping than anything else.  Having said that, from a cellar restoration perspective, it was not a wasted day.  😉

Our last day here was one of final discovery and re-visitation.  A couple more wineries new to us were visited and a trip back to Mission Hill (we have been there a few times in the past) was also on the books.

Mission Hill is one of the oldest wineries in the valley.  Keeping in mind the palate of one person is not the same as another, our return was not really for the wine.  It was more to show mom its grandeur.  It is easily one of (if not the most) beautiful wineries in the Okanagan Valley.  If you have never been, you really should if you’re already in the area.

It also has a rather unique story behind it.

The lands were purchased in 1981 but it was 1994 when the real excitement began.  In 1991 they began looking for a serious, qualified head winemaker.  They found one and he started in 1992.  His first vintage, a 1992 Chardonnay, was entered in the 1994 International Wine and Spirit competition.

It took Best Chardonnay Overall.  That came as somewhat of a shock to the judges in the competition.  So much so that it was remarked perhaps a mistake was made and maybe bottles were mixed up.  After all, no one knew who Mission Hill was, or where the Okanagan Valley was and besides that, Canada doesn’t really make wine.  It was decided, in fairness to all, the judging team would be completely reassembled, all the wines re-poured and the blind tasting would be done once again.  Keep in mind this all happened after the competition was finished.

Mission Hill won.  Again.

This pretty much helped set Canada and the Okanagan Valley on the world wine whereabouts (the REAL www).

A couple of years ago, my wife and I visited Mission Hill and I will admit I am not their wines biggest fan.  At that time I spotted some ‘old’ Chardonnay on their shelves.  I picked up two bottles, one six years old and one eight years old.  Chardonnay is not typically a wine that ages well.  But I am a big fan of oaked Chard and thought I would take the chance.  Since then, both have been consumed with great delight.  Age did not harm either at all.  With that in mind, I thought I would look for more.  None was (visibly) available.  When I asked whether there were any still around, I was directed to their sommelier.

I told him of my experiences with their elder Chards in the past and my desire to obtain more if possible, but also understood there could easily be none left.

He looked around then quietly asked me to follow him.  We left the tasting / retail area and quickly walked outside to another building that was clearly not open to the general public.  After using his swipe card to enter, we passed through the outer, then inner double doors to a much more formal display enclave.  He then explained this was a room set aside for ‘appointment/invitation only’ guests for private tastings.  While showing me some of their older wines, he told me of the competition of ’94 and then pointed to one of the bottles on display – the 1992 Chardonnay that had done them so proud.  I could only stand there in mute amazement.  I never suggested that purchasing one would be the highlight of my trip, as much as it ran through my head, for a number of obvious reasons.  But I certainly was more than a little happy he had chosen to share its story in these, more personal, surroundings.

We then left that room to the ante-room we had just gone through.  Here he pushed on half the wall and a door opened.

Behind that door was a few older wines (including about a case or so of the ’92).  He pulled out three vintages, all Chardonnay – 2005, 2006 and 2007 and asked if these were what I was looking for.  I simply smiled and said yes to all three.

On our way back to the retail area he mentioned that he didn’t offer these to most people…only those that not only expressed an interest, but also displayed some knowledge of what they were trying to acquire.  Every once in a while a person needs a pat on the back.  I just got mine and remain very appreciative.

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Day Thirteen – What the Heck???

It’s now time to leave our oasis.  As with every cruise so far it comes much too soon.  A decision was made to take our luggage ourselves in order to secure an early disembarkation.  Eight o’clock arrives and we’re walking off the ship.  Much better than waiting until ten thirty.  On to the shuttle, back to our car, pack the trunk and off we go.

The plan was to travel north to a little Bavarian town – Leavenworth, WA.  And no, it wasn’t to take me to prison.  THAT one is in Kansas.  This is quite the most unusual town I’ve seen in quite some time.  Every building must be following some sort of architectural controls because they all appear to have been teleported directly from Rothenberg.  Even Safeway and MacDonald’s meet spec.  Did the walk-about (in Sunny Weather!!!) after driving around the blocks for twenty minutes trying to find a parking spot and found the most amazing place for lunch.  Nothing exotic, but easily the very best bratwurst we’ve ever had (and there was about six to choose from).  All of us could very easily have had a second one but we managed to behave.

Back to the car and onward we sped.  The weather continues to co-operate and for whatever the reason, there is very little traffic.  In about three hours we begin our approach to the US/CANADA border.  Again, a wonderful lack of other vehicles…only two cars ahead of us.

Our turn comes up and I stop at the guard building.  All the passports are in order and the standard questions pose no problems.  We even have a detailed list of what we have purchased just in case that comes up.  But…now here’s a new one.  When were we last in Canada?  Lying to customs has never been my forte’ so I answer “yesterday..we stopped in Victoria as one of our ports of call on the cruise ship”.  But we never went through customs at all.  Never were required or requested to produce a passport or declare anything.  Well guess what?  The cruise ship does that for you.  It reports all passengers entering any country whenever they dock.  So…returned to Canada yesterday, left Canada yesterday and are now re-entering Canada.  One Day Later.  So…we have now been out of Canada for one day., not ten

Exemption limits are different for one day rather than ten days.  We’re well within limits for ten days…but way over for one day.  Are you Serious????

Complete and utter dumbfounded glazed look in the eyes sometimes has a good effect, even more so when totally legit.  The guard said she would not request us to attend the office to pay the duty given our situation.  However, she said, be aware that this can have a totally different outcome in the future.  Well thank you very much!!  By the way…which way to the nearest bathroom?

So…very valuable lesson learned.  Be acutely aware of when you leave and return to Canada.  Things are not always as cut and dried as you might believe.

The rest of that trip was uneventful (thank goodness!) and we made our way into Osoyoos, located our vineyard and unpacked.

Our B&B this time had its own five acres of grapes which he sells to one of the local wineries.  George (our Czech host) lived there with his wife.  She worked outside the home and he took care of the B&B.  His main hobby was his roses and his other was cooking.

It was easy to see the passion in his roses…they really were quite stunning.  Personally I liked the aroma of the mauve ones best, but the others were all amazing.  Ok…so roses are a weak spot of mine.  Sue me.

His other passion was cooking.  The first day began with an omelet (for each of us) that could probably have fed two.  Each was paired with fresh fruit and hash browns.  I guess we should be happy…don’t need to eat for the balance of the day.

The second morning’s repast consisted of crepes.  Simple.  Effective.  Well done.  Each was more than a dinner plate could accommodate (it hung over the edge all the way around).  We each had one (which didn’t take the quantity down enough to get to the TOP of the pie pan he served them in.  I don’t know how many he made, but it was just a silly amount).  THEN he asked if we would like a fresh croissant.  I looked over to his kitchen and he had two cookie sheets with at least twelve croissants on each, still warm from the oven.  Uh…no thank you.  🙂  I never asked but I wonder if he was a cook in the army??

Oh…by the way.  Everything he made was Really good.

Both days were spent navigating the Osoyoos area in search of wine-cellar appropriate liquid gold.  And there was no shortage.  Our search was meeting with a wide variety of successes.  Edmonton winters, as cold as they generally are, have brought about almost a complete evaporation of the wine cellar in our basement.  We have found much in the way of replenishment.  Onward!!

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Day Twelve – Victoria – 50 years of change

Our last port and the most nostalgic for me.  The ship has docked and it’s 7 PM.  A rather strange time and we’ll be gone at midnight (??).  Five hours with only two until the streets roll up.

That’s not really true of course.  Although most stores close at nine, the streets themselves are still very much alive with various activities.  A short shuttle from the ship to downtown, two blocks north of the grand Empress Hotel.  If you’ve never seen this hotel, should you go to Victoria, make a point of stopping by.  It’s been around forever, is way too expensive for most people and is totally impressive.  And yes, the ivy is real, not glued on and is as much a part of the hotel as the location and the name.

Edmonton has (although they seem to be disappearing) its cows around town.  Victoria has their dolphins.  It also has its one man band, 24 Karat Kutlass (pimp mobile??) and what appears to be its own Pantheon.

We spend a couple of hours walking around just taking it all in, passing time while waiting for the lights on the parliament buildings to make their nightly appearance.  And there they are, all three thousand six hundred of them.  Should I email them pointing out where some need replacing?   Nah…not my job and not really that visually distracting.  🙂

On to the shuttle for an early return to the ship.  Our return route has been diverted due to road construction.  As it turns out it takes us through my old stomping grounds.  Fifty years ago (and I just realized that while on the bus) I lived in this very area – James Bay.  Two years I spent (part of grade two, grade three and part of grade four) running through Thunderbird park (home of some rather magnificent totem poles) with my best friend who was one son of the large Hunt family (carvers of the totems).  My mother worked at the parliament buildings, my father was in insurance.  Almost every weekend we would picnic in Beacon Hill park.  Two important things I learned in school was how to write and how to square dance.  The dancing was important cuz there was this one girl … ahhh…that’s another story altogether.  Besides, what does a seven-year old know?

A nice lazy day and fond memories brought to the fore.  However, we were going to find out things were not as uncomplicated as they appeared.

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Day Eleven – No Plan Ketchikan

The day begins with somewhat less cloud, no rain, and almost…warm.  This was one cruise day we had nothing planned (the other will be Victoria).  It was also our shortest in-port day so a walk-about town seemed the most feasible.

With no real push to get off the boat, we got up late(er) and went up with mother to the buffet for breakfast.  Nourishment taken care of, once more she decided not to join us for the daily excursion, so off we went.

As towns go, out of two we had just visited, this was the nicest.  Walking around the middle of town revealed many of the same cruise-line controlled jewelry/trinket stores as any other port o’ call.  However, just slightly off the ‘main drag’, the real selection of stores came into view.

Easily the most impressive was one that specialized in marble carvings.  Do I remember the name?  Nope…didn’t get a business card and weren’t allowed to take pictures.  The reality was there was nothing that met more than two out of three of our requirements.  The piece had to be 1) appealing to our eyes and tastes, 2) affordable and 3) easily transported by one person (other than Clark Kent).

What set this store apart from almost all other similar establishments, was the displays.  There wasn’t one piece that had fifteen duplicates sitting right beside it on shelves all over the store.  All of the pieces were carved from singular chunks of marble (and they had  about twelve different types).  Some were partial carvings (looked like the animal, bird, sea life was just coming right out of the marble).  Others were complete with just a base still attached.  Most expensive was $24,000 and probably needed a crane for final delivery.  To say nothing of a complete front door remodel.

Not that I have a burnin’ yearnin’ to move to and live in Alaska, but it seemed a good idea just to take a look a real estate prices.  Yeah…looking is more than sufficient.

A few more photos and back to the ship – we depart at noon.  We dock in Victoria  tomorrow at 7 PM.

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Day Ten – Too Big for a Rum and Coke

Today is going to be another sea day…sort of.  After sailing all night from Skagway we are now entering Glacier Bay.  Glacier Bay National Park is just over three million acres and part of a bigger area – the World Heritage Site (about 25 million acres, one of the world’s largest internationally protected areas).

During the past few days we have been shadowed by three other ships so there’s four of us traveling the Alaska route.  We enter the bay alone and spend several hours very slowly cruising up, into and eventually back out of the bay.  During our time there amazing visualizations abound.  Distance and size are completely distorted.  What appears to be a fairly close shoreline is actually two miles away.  Ice that floats close to the ship is, in fact, huge chunks that have fallen and now just float aimlessly.  Certainly not big enough to pose the slightest threat, but it might fit in your freezer chest.  You know…the floor model where you’d normally keep three sides of beef and half a pig.

Sitting beside a tidewater glacier it soon becomes apparent that ‘calving’ is not always great singular masses falling off the side.  It can, quite often, be an avalanche containing several tons of ice of smaller sizes cascading down the side.  The video in the picture page (hopefully it gets there) shows exactly that.  Keep in mind the spray of the water from the ice falling is about twenty feet high.  That gives a bit of an idea just how much ice hit to cause that much of a splash.

Looking at what has been carved by nature one can only marvel at ‘accidents’ that happen.   When I saw the elephant, I could only shake my head…and take the shot.  Michelangelo had to sit back, think very hard and spend the better part of three years to create David.  Nature didn’t think at all, nor spend nearly as much time.

After leaving the bay, we pass by the Zuiderdam (Holland America Cruise Lines) on its way to enjoy more of Nature’s design works.

We now face more sea time making our way to our next port of call, Ketchikan.  Having just seen what comes naturally, our ship’s culinary carvers show what they can do.  Watermelon, brocoli and many other fruits and vegetables take on totally new identities after meeting with experienced knife-wielding.  Certainly impressive in their own right.

Take a peek…and we’ll be back here from Ketchikan shortly.

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Day Nine – If it’s Skagway, it must be a Train Ride

If it wasn’t for the scenery, the lack of improved weather would be rather depressing.   However, despite the slightly cool temperature (5 – 7 C), the trip into and out of Skagway was informative and visually impressive.  The day was set to begin by catching a train just a short walk from the port.  What began as a three-hour tour ultimately took four but there were no complaints.

Our transport for the trip was an older train with three engines (although the middle one was rather cantankerous which is what caused our delay) and a multitude of old-style passenger cars.  Riding was its own trip back in time (albeit not ~that~ far) and the journey also took us back along numerous trails that were popular in the late 1800’s.

The gold rush was in its heyday in the 1890’s and many a potential gold miner and his pack mules lost their lives along the ‘Trail of 98’.  What’s left of it is all but invisible.   The parts still around are totally covered in snow right now so even less is left to be seen.

Along the way we passed by a cantilevered bridge the train used to travel on.  When built it was somewhat of an engineering and architectural marvel.  It was the highest cantilevered bridge in the world.  It was fully retired in 1968, which given its current state, was a good decision.  Its replacement is much less nerve-wracking and actually meets  the edge of the span at both ends.

At the far end of our journey, we paused just over the Canadian border.  At that time, the engines were disengaged from the passenger cars, taken on a side track to the opposite end of the line of cars, re-connected and we made our way back.  Just before starting, the staff had us swap sides with each other and flip the backs of the seats over.  So now we were all once again facing front and looking out the other side of the car.  All of us then got to see what the other side saw on the way up.  Very simple and functionally effective.

Back in Skagway we strolled up and down main street and a few of the side streets.  The sites we had just experienced were much more impressive than the stores.  Those were merely copies of so many others in Juneau; tourist traps (for the most part) with little to differentiate them.

A couple of hours later and it’s back to the ship.  Once again the struggle to control the ability to eat so much more than necessary rears its head.  Oh well…sometimes you just have to take one for the team.  🙂

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Day Eight – Whales, Sea Lions and Orca, the Killer (not) Whale

Our first ‘official’ Alaska day begins with stopping in Juneau.  Although our whale watching tour doesn’t leave the docks until 2 PM, we’re still up fairly early and down for a bite of breakfast (again at Sabattini’s).  The weather is not outstanding but it’s certainly bearable given what hardy Albertan’s should be accustomed to.  Mother will be staying on board (for much of the cruise actually).  She feels, given her RV’ing sojourns many years ago with my step-father, she has seen most everything, including Alaska which she has been to twice.  That, plus the lack of real warmth outside, has made her quite happy viewing things from a distance – albeit a cozy one.

We are in Alaska.  We have yet to see, much less try, any Alaskan King Crab.  A personal desire of mine, on this adventure, was to see one up close and personal.  Our walk into town took us past our tour company and towards the downtown ‘core’. Once there we found the local tourist information office.  Lots of interesting things to see, but that was not my focus.  The gentleman behind the counter suggested that our best bet, short of diving down and procuring our own personal crustacean, was to go to the local hatchery.  He assured us that it was within reasonable walking distance at only about 3 miles.  Really.  You don’t say?  I have my own opinions about a 5 KM distance at 5.5 C and none of them involve Shank’s Pony.

A suggestion met with less facial distortion was to take a bus.  We could walk about 2 blocks and catch one that would take us almost right there.  And for less than the ETS equivalent – actually, about 1/2 the price.  Done and done, off we went.

Our arrival gave us a 6 minute wait as our driver was just starting her shift.  Her inspection in and around the bus met with her approval and we were now underway.  Fifteen minutes later (and I’m fairly sure it was more than 3 miles) we were deposited (with directions) at the bus stop we should come back to for the return trip.  The directions were explicit and very easy to follow.  The distance, however, was the better part of another mile.  Alaskan’s seem to have differing outlooks regarding time and travel than we do at home.  Our tour leaves at 2, it’s now 12:40 (when we get off the bus).  A jaunt down to the hatchery, spend at least ~some~ time looking around, then attempt to get back to this spot at bus arrival time (only every 1/2 hour), to then hopefully be back to where we need to be in less than 1 1/2 hours?  Hmmm…I don’t think so, Tim.  Yeah, we’re hardy Albertans and all, and we’re also not dumb.  We’ll grab a cab.

The hatchery has tours they are happy to sell you or just admission if you are there to simply visit the aquarium/hatchery. I thought it was time to play the ‘I’m just an ignorant tourist simply looking for one thing’ card to see how far it would get us.  Sometimes a plan comes together.  The young lady behind the counter looked around at the fact there was NO ONE else there and simply said ‘sure…what the heck’.  In we went.

As nice a place as it is, and as pleasant as all the staff are, I was Highly disappointed with the King Crab.  The Star Fish (the ones with 5 ‘legs’) and the Sea Stars (with Many ‘legs’) were amazing.  The flounder was intriguing because as often as I have enjoyed his relatives, I’ve never actually seen one.  Flat as a pancake with eyes on the top of his head (cuz if they were on the side, he’d drag them through the sand).  The first King she showed us…what can I say?  She named him ‘Lunch’.  She must be a light eater because I’ve seen many a Dungeness that was a lot bigger.  The one she named ‘Dinner’ was hiding.  I would too if I had a reputation of being a giant and in fact was just barely…tall.  Really a LOt less than I had expected.  The legs that I have seen, enjoyed and occasionally, paid for, were from much larger specimens.  Oh well…there is much of the world left to see.

Got the cab and back to town.  Time enough to grab a soup and sandwich, quick stop at the bathroom and up to meet with our tour company.  The wait for everyone was only a few minutes then down to the bus and off to the boat.  Twenty minutes later and we are boarding a very nice thirty seat flat-bottomed cruiser with room at the top (when idling only) for twelve (for better photo opportunities).

They (much like most whale watching companies) offer a 100% full-refund guarantee that whales will be spotted.  They have yet had to make good on it.  We weren’t more than 500 yards out when our first whale popped.  Most missed it, including me, as it was unexpected to say the least.  Our driver, Larry, took us out quite a ways before more were evident.  Jeff and Kelly (our tour guides) both have years of experience and each have degrees in oceanography and marine biology.  In addition to that, they have both been doing this for many seasons and have a great appeal with their guests complimented with a good sense of humor.

The next three hours were spent spotting many humpback whales blowing, surfacing and diving.  In one spot we were even privileged enough to see mom and baby (along with an escort that is ~not~ the father).  Mating is around Hawaii, then the next year is spent travelling back to Alaska for mom to fill up with food, make the return trip and then have her bouncing baby (if something that is 15 feet long and 2 tons at birth can bounce!).  The two of them make the trip back to Alaska and all the while mom is feeding the baby and training it.

Each whale has a ‘fingerprint’ that is totally unique and documented.  It is the underside of the tale.  It can range from all white to all black, anywhere in between with or without spots.  They are very much creatures of habit (which certainly helps out with the guarantee provided by whale watching companies).

On our way back we stop by a very large buoy which has several sea lions on it.  It is hard to imagine just how big these animals become – nine feet and about fifteen hundred pounds being average (for a male).  One smaller guy was trying to get onboard.  His efforts were repulsed each time.  This one is full, go find your own.  Males don’t really have a harem.  They are, however, smart enough to go wherever the most females are gathered.

About this same time, the questions turned to the Killer Whale and would we see any.  Not likely, but possible.  Why is their dorsal fin sometimes tipped over?  Some had heard it was due to lack of sunlight.  Nope.  In fact it is due to lack of muscle stimulation, caused by being in captivity.  It never happens in the wild.  In fact, in the wild their life span can reach ninety years, yet in captivity they are lucky to reach three.

Oh…and by the way.  It is more accurately not a Killer Whale.  It is the largest member of the Dolphin Family.  Bet ya didn’t know THAT one!

Alaska is also renown for its eagles.  We have seen many, but the one we have been most searching for is the rare, ceramic-home-version.  Mother used to have one.  It actually still exists but it suffers from two broken wings and not great attempts at repair.  It has been in the family for about 60 years (she had it before she had me) and it is something I would dearly love to replace for her.  We did come across two very nice specimens in Juneau.  The first was only $1950.  USD.  Yeah.  Right.  We’re all over that one.  Not.  Probably should have got it though.  The only other one we saw…well…take a look at the picture.

A good day and very glad we dressed for it.  Saw the whales, learned a lot and never got seasick.  Tomorrow is another adventure.

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Day Seven – Sabattini’s, Art and Separation

Today is a sea day.  Basically a nothing-on-your-plate day.  Do what you will or nothing at all or something in between.

Another perk is breakfast in Sabattini’s (the other surcharge-based dining room).  Normally a dining room only place, it does serve breakfast, but only to an exclusive clientele.  It really would be too easy to get used to this.  🙂  Amongst other things it includes (if you wish) Mimosa (essentially, Orange juice and Champagne).  Ok…talk me into it.  Sometimes you just have to accept what is thrown at you.

After a wonderful beginning to the day, it’s off to do a little ship-shopping.  One has to be careful with this because not everything is as good a deal as they would like you to believe (typical of anyplace, really).  Nothing really suits our fancy but one item piqued my interest so much I had to take a picture.  It will be easy to figure out which one it is.  My youngest daughter used to work in a liquor store and I was pretty sure I had seen all the different flavored vodka available.

Apparently I was wrong.  If you happen to guess what it is BEFORE looking at the picture, I will be suitably impressed.  There will be no hints.  If you’re reading this blog at all, that should give you enough hints.

Mother tires easily so she went back to the room just before lunch.  Rose gathered up the netbook and her sketch book and left for parts unknown to do some sketching.  That left me to my own devices.  Hmmmm…could be dangerous.  Yesterday I had quickly scoped out Vines and made friends with Raphael…one of the waiters.  Vines is the wine and sushi bar on the ship and I know that will be someplace important.  Let’s see…it’s lunch time…I’m not really ‘hungry’ but part of this journey is to increase our overall wine knowledge and expertise.  (I’m finding age is giving me a much improved ability to have the proper excuse at hand to drink wine. 🙂 )

Given the time of day and the fact that sushi/sashimi will be involved, it seems most apropos to experience the white wine flight.  It consists of three – Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay.  They turned out to be perfectly complimentary to the salmon, tuna and octopus (along with some very fresh seaweed).  A most delectable light lunch.  Fortunately I had also taken my eReader along so sitting, reading and enjoying both the wine and the other delicacies provided a marvelous break from pretty much everything.

My location allows me to keep a lookout on center court where, during the day, entertainment happens.  As it turns out a demonstration of Martini Mixology is beginning.  Again, always wishing to increase my knowledge of things alcoholic, I put down my Kobo and take numerous mental notes.  The mixers are professionals from the bar, but they get members of the viewing audience up to ‘shake’ the martinis.  They won’t make any cut on So You Think You Can Dance, but they do provide a lot of fun to watch.  For their efforts, they’re given the martini they shook.  However, as luck would have it, there is a little more produced than the three martini glasses would hold.  So, smaller versions make their way out to the rest of us.  One even managed to find its way into my outstretched hand, and from there found a home swirling on my tongue.  Shaken, not stirred, a chocolate martini is actually quite tasty.

Time slips by and now it is time to meet Rose at the Explorers lounge for one of our favorite pastimes onboard – the Champagne Art Auction.  Yes my wife is an artist (and if I do say so myself, a damn good one) so why look to buy others?  A different way of looking at it is why limit yourself?  On our very first cruise (Caribbean in 2005) we had the opportunity (at this function on board the Star Princess) to bid on some paintings by a new up and coming artist by the name of Michael Godard (http://www.michaelgodard.com/index.html).  Opening bids were much less than $200 (for original works!).  Today you can’t buy prints for less than $450.

A couple of hours later it was back to the room to freshen up just a tad (after all it was ‘formal night’) and make our way back down to do a more official ‘wine tasting’.  This time it was the s hips Wine Sommelier Club which brought about its own flavors.  We were seated at a table of eight (and there were about another twelve or more tables of eight) each position being accompanied by six glasses and each two positions also accompanied by a plate of a variety of fourteen canapes.

The tasting started with a 2002 vintage Dom Perignon Champagne and ultimately finishing with a 2006 Opus One.  When surrounded by a group of people who (for the most part) know little or nothing about wine, coupled with a sommelier that really needed a lesson in public speaking, I couldn’t, in all good conscience, keep quiet for long.  Near the end of the tasting, two of our table mates asked me if I would give the next presentation.  I took that as a compliment and filed it away as a future career choice should I get tired of computers.  🙂

Back to the room for a quick shower and shave before our formal dinner.  However I am now faced with a slight problem.  Another perk to our room (as I said earlier, they’re endless) was free pressing (they used to offer complete dry cleaning but due to environmental concerns they have since discontinued that).  My suit, which I gave up yesterday, has yet to return.

Yet another perk is half price cocktails at the Captain’s Circle club up on the eighteenth deck (Skywalkers) which we wanted to take mother to prior to dinner.  But I probably shouldn’t go up attired only in a shirt, tie and underwear.

Finally it arrives.  Pressed well and even cleaned (I know because there were some spots on the lapel that had magically disappeared).  On with the corsage and boutinier (yep…another perk) and up to the lounge.  one absolutely fabulous Mojito later it is back down for dinner.

We had to wait, partly because of my suit delay and partly because I hadn’t made the phone call that would have reserved us a spot in our ‘anytime dining’ (yes…tiresome as it is, it is yet another perk).  Eventually we are seated, a table to ourselves yet totally immersed in tuxes, flowing gowns and tens of thousands of dollars of jewelry.  Impressive, yes, but I’m also very happy formal night is not every night.

After yet another fabulous dinner it’s back to our suite, and a change of clothes to something much more comfortable.  With that comes a sudden desire to settle back even further and catch a movie on TV.  After that comes an even greater desire to crawl into bed, grab the eReader once again and hope it doesn’t fall out of the hands due to the eyes slamming shut.

Well…two out of three ain’t bad.

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Day Six – Cruising as never before

Cruising…it’s how we love to travel.  A balcony room in a 5 star hotel that takes us from place to place.  Unpack once and drop in to a multitude of locales that we might never have otherwise visited.

Why a balcony when an inside room, or a room with just a window, would cost somewhat less?  Simply because of the extra room that it affords.  An inside room is just depressing.  Small and no natural light.  (Go sit in your bathroom with the door shut and you get the idea.  Yes your bathroom would be smaller but the concept is the same.)  This time, however, mother is with us so now we are three.  More room yet would be a prudent choice.  So we opted for a mini-suite.

The size difference is certainly a consideration even for only two people.  However, again affordability could easily override desire.  In this case two separate rooms would be an even higher cost and that won the day.  The decision was made and all were in agreement this would be an acceptable choice.

The time was closing in and with only two weeks left, our travel agent called us on a Saturday afternoon.  Princess (our cruise line of choice) was offering an upgrade for Platinum and Elite status travellers.  It wasn’t a free upgrade but it was substantially reduced and because we were Platinum, we qualified if we were interested.  It was just too good to say no thanks.

The upgrade was from a mini-suite to a full suite.  And the price was applicable to only the two of us – Mother isn’t Platinum status yet so her cost never changed.  Yet she enjoys all the benefits with us.  And we never told her until we actually opened the door to the suite.

The original boarding time was for 2:30, but because of our upgrade, we were now moved up to 10:30.  A word to potential cruisers – the earlier you can board, the better.  You then have more time to explore and enjoy your surroundings in much quieter conditions.

The first stop, naturally, was at our room. It is the physical size of two balcony rooms put together.  That also includes the balcony portion which is double as well.  The furniture on the balcony is upgraded from plastic to pillow covered teak.

The bathroom now includes not only a much bigger (tiled) shower, but also a separate jetted tub.  Two separate entrances to the more important bathroom functions, so no interruptions by anyone in the middle of the night.  Much nicer bathroom amenities, better quality towels, slippers, quilted bathrobes.  A walk-in closet and sufficient drawer storage to pack clothes for months.  Choices of pillows on the bed (feather, fibre-fill, body pillow, supporting neck roll).   Separate TVs for each half of the suite and a massive choice of DVD to borrow.  One free complete mini-bar setup and choices of canapes for each day.  The list just goes on and on (one of the biggies being free internet for the duration of the voyage).

Was mother impressed?  Her word was ‘overwhelmed’.

This ship (Golden Princess) is a sister ship to the Star Princess.  Our travels have taken us on the Star twice already so, although we’ve not yet been on the Golden, finding our way around is not difficult.  After unpacking and ‘oooing’ and ‘ahhing’ over the room, off we went.  The rest of the day was one of re-aquaintance.  Later we went to the Crown Grill which is one of two dining rooms that actually has an extra surcharge for its dinners.  However, one of the perks of our upgrade was a no-surcharge dinner on embarkation night so that made the choice very easy.  After eating it was back to the room to just sit back, enjoy a little wine and contemplate the next day’s activities.

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Day Five – Falling Waters Two Ways and a little Deception

This has turned out to be the rainiest vacation we have had in many years.  However, the only computer contact I have even remotely thought of has been writing this blog.  A vacation should be a break from work, and that has been accomplished in spades.  Has it been a break from stress?  Hmmm…not so much a break, but certainly a completely different type.  Dealing with some of the traffic situations has been more than a little frustrating.  The rain makes having firm plans really not an option.  And yet, despite the imperfections, it’s still all good.

Take today for instance.  Given the forecast for the day (scattered rain throughout) we thought it best to go exploring.  Off to Snoqualmie Falls.  The trip to the falls is uneventful but the rain has increased its volume with our arrival.  Naturally.  We set off down the trail and, for a change, the distance to a good viewpoint is maybe 100 meters.  Not only that, the viewpoint itself is very close to the falls.  Somehow that seems unusual.  Isn’t it usually necessary to walk for a half hour just to get to some area that’s a minimum 6 football fields from what you’re trying to see?

The falling rain mixed with the mist from the falls themselves did make for some fascinating pictures, but some editing may be necessary to remove the water drops that found a final resting spot on the lens.  You can see for yourself.  Fifteen minutes later the sun broke through and changed the view entirely.  The day improves.

Anacortes calls and it’s only reasonable that we attend.  Off we go to visit a beautiful little city (about 16,000 people).  Stopping at the local tourist info outlet gives us excellent tips for taking in some of the local sites.  A drive through town and out to Washington Park.  Taking the Loop Road (a one way journey through the park) offers more pictures that may turn, magically, into paintings.  Out of the park, along Marine Drive and on to the bridge at Deception Pass (see pic) which joins Fidalgo Island (where Anacortes resides) to Whidbey Island.

Our jaunt through Whidbey Island starts to bring out a few hunger pangs.  It’s now about 3:30 and we haven’t eaten since 8 this morning.  Maybe it’s about time.  We have no idea what’s around, but seafood has been clammering (yep…poor pun intended) for our attention.  Garmin do your thing.  It finds a restaurant called Beachfire Grill (under ‘seafood’) so off we go.  It turns into a bit of a longer haul than we anticipated, but hopefully the end result will be good.

Nope.  Closed when we got there.  Later investigation shows that it actually closed its doors for good in 2010.  Great.  Ok…on to the ferry back to the mainland and we’ll think about other options as we go.

TV advertising has its way of worming itself into areas of your mind that seem to have no other purpose other than to lay dorment…waiting for just the right time to either present you with a solution to a problem or wake you up from a sound sleep.  This time it worked out properly.  We ended up here (thanks to the ads) and we very much enjoyed ourselves.  http://www.thecrabpotseattle.com/  Gordon Ramsey would NOT be happy with some of their plating ideas (see the SEAFEAST), but the food was really good.  And plentiful.  🙂

All in all a day that started out a little shaky ended up as a day well spent visiting much of the local area.  And isn’t that much of what it’s all about?

Tomorrow we board the ship.  Mother doesn’t know what is really in store for her.  We booked a mini-suite as we needed extra room given there were three of us sharing the space.  That she knew all about, as we had explained it all to her.  Things are about to change…in quite a significant way

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