Wednesday morning 7am, and the MS Volendam docked for the final time of our tour, in Vancouver. It was time to disembark and I felt flat as a pancake about this. All good adventures must come to an end, I know, but I was willing to have another week on the ship, you know, just to check we weren’t missing out on anything! Today the rest of our Great Rail Journeys group were flying home. It really was the end of their adventure, but not us. We’d tacked on a 3 night stay down the coast in Seattle. One of the things we like about using Great Rail Journeys as a tour operator is that they are very open to you doing your own thing at the beginning or end of the tour and will sort this out for you happily. This time, their hotel was out of our price range, so they sorted out our flights home and train (which actually ended up being a coach) to Seattle whilst we arranged an air b n b for our accommodation.
We waved bye to our group at the cruise terminal and suddenly we were on our own. We took the Skytrain the short distance to the Pacific Station where we promply discovered our tickets were for Vancouver WA and not Vancouver DC. After a very short panic and some fabulous customer service from the team back in York we ended up on the coach transfer to Seattle leaving an hour early (but we’d arrived 3 hours early!) Thanks Gary and Links for sorting us out.
Our coach journey crossed the international border from Canada into USA and as such we had to empty the coach with all our luggage and go through customs etc. This took roughly 30 minutes and then we were back on the highway towards Seattle. The journey took about 4.5 hours so not too bad at all.
We used UBER to get to our accommodation, a cool little basement in the Central District, before heading out in search of a Seattle beer or two and some dinner. We didn’t need to go too far – there was a nice local bar 10 mins away with a great menu, and we were in time for happy hour which meant £2.20 pints! We set up camp there for a while before heading back for an early night as we were pretty drained!
I didn’t sleep very well as I was missing the movement from the sea! We had a fairly lazy morning – as in we didn’t set an alarm for the first time in the 2 week holiday, but around 10am we headed into town via the local Downtown bus which took about 20 mins.
Our first stop was the Space needle observation tower. This was built in the 60s to coincide with the World Fair in 1962. When it was built it was the tallest tower west of the Mississippi, and its unique shape makes for a very interesting skyline.
We couldn’t have picked a better day to go up – the weather was amazing and visibility was brilliant. Mount Rainier – named after the beer we drank last night!! – stood proudly and snow topped – it almost looked like a painting actually, it was picture perfect and we couldn’t take our eyes off it.
We spent quite some time at the top, enjoying the views and the interactive photo points. We even managed a beer at the top – surprise surprise! We also enjoyed (in a loose sense of the world!) the glass revolving floor.
After our visit, we took the 2 minute ride on the Seattle Monorail, also built for the World Fair in 1962. This one mile stretch of track which is above ground in the air, connects the Seattle centre with downtown near to Pike Market, which was where we were heading for lunch
Pike Market was a sensory overload. Flowers, food, trinkets, you name it- we loved it! there was even a man playing the MOP!
We joined the queue for “the world’s best mac n cheese”. They make their own cheese and the mac n cheese was amazing.
Just down the street was the first ever Starbucks but we didn’t go in as it was queuing and heaving!
By now it was getting towards 30 degrees and the sun was just so hot. We had a quick beer and water stop at the historical Virginia inn before grabbing a nice air conditioned uber back to our digs.
We had a siesta and after a shower and change headed back out, this time on the bus, for a pizza at the Diller Hotel, which dated from the late 1800s.
We then walked down Harbour Steps to the waterfront where we joined an hours harbour cruise to watch the sunset
. This was a lovely way to spend our evening. The waterfront area was alive and buzzing. There were loads of delicious looking seafood restaurants and a big ferris wheel. It was a lovely place to spend the evening.
After our cruise, we couldn’t resist some of the “best clam chowder” at Ivan’s takeout before heading back to the accomodation.We can confirm the clam chowder was delicious!
Our last day of our adventure! Sad faces all round.
It was forecasted to be another scorcher, so we decided we would take the ferry to West Seattle’s Alki Beach. On our way to theferry at pier 52, we stopped for a drink at Pike Place Brewery
checked out Post Alley
and it’s very random Gum wall
and also did a taster flight at Seattle’s Copperworks Distillery, which resulted in some more gin being purchased!
We then got tempted by the close proximity that we were to Ivan’s, so decided to have lunch there before going to the beach. We bagged a fabulous waterfront outdoor seat and ordered more clam chowder and then battered jumbo shrimp and chips. Yum!
We then made our way across the sound on the ferry ($12 for two) to West Seattle and jumped on the free shuttle to Alki Beach.
As it was rather hot by now it was heaving, but we enjoyed our time there. We couldn’t go in the sea as there was a lot of seaweed unfortunately but the sea breeze cooled us down, as did the west seattle brewing company lager!
We had an Uber back to the air b n b, and another siesta before heading out in search of BBQ! We found it on Capitol Hill – similar to Soho, and enjoyed brisket, ribs, mac n cheese and coleslaw before walking it off with an explore of Capitol Hill area.
By now, we were starting to feel sad about our imminent departure and also a bit sensory overload! We had eaten and drank to our hearts content for 2.5 weeks and there is only so much that you can take. Plus, similarly to Vancouver,there were some interesting characters out on the street- falling out with themselves and wandering down the middle of the road. Like Vancouver there is a high level of homelessness, and you can’t help but wonder if its linked to the legalisation of cannabis. Maybe not- Who knows, but I wouldn’t have wanted to have been there without my big strapping 6 foot 4 hubby!
Saturday arrived and it was time to fly home. I was distraught. We had THE BEST time ever. I can’t even begin to describe how much we enjoyed our trip, and wholeheartedly recommend this trip to anyone. Travel with Great Rail Journeys and you have the security of a tour manager and logistics team behind you every step of the way. You also have enough free time for you not to feel like you are on an escorted tour. But you get to enjoy their group discounts, which means the price is really competitive and hard to beat by going solo.
Check in and embarkation onto our home for the next 7 nights was fairly quick and easy and by 12.30 we were boarding the ship. I was beyond excited, poor Keith had to put up with me! First impressions of the MS Volendam were good. It was grand and although huge, not too huge, if you know what I mean.
We had already decided to purchase the drinks package a few weeks ago; we went for the Elite signature $482.55 pp ( around £380 pp) which allowed us up to 15 drinks of values up to $15,per person per day. If we drank 15 drinks this meant our drink price would be around £4 a drink which we felt was cheap. It also allowed us to have “posh coffee” and soft drinks from the cafe and bars too.
We also upgraded our room to the Lenai stateroom – this was one step up from the basic cabin with sea view window, but one less than the stateroom suite with balcony. It actually turns out that it was quite a bit cheaper than the upgrades offered by Great Rail Journeys for a better room – but Keith spent quite a lot of time investigating the room types on Holland and America website and when he discovered this type of room, we specifically requested our Customer service manager Gary to get this sorted for us, which he did, and we are absolutely are thrilled with the upgrade- so thanks Keith and Gary.
The room itself is a normal sized room, we think, with couch; but has a full sized window which is a sliding door onto the lower promenade deck. Although not private, we have our own reserved sun loungers outside and the large window (with privacy glass so we can look out but people can’t look in) makes the room feel very spacious. The Lower promenade deck is not as busy as other public areas. We are extremely happy with this choice.
Room checked, we went up stairs on the top deck, which has both an indoor and outdoor pool, two hot tubs, pool bar and also a sun deck. By now the rain had stopped so we made a start on the cocktails and local beers whilst watching as we cruised out of Vancouver, ready to embark on our Alaskan adventure.
We had pre booked the Pinnacle Grill for dinner – and enjoyed fillet mignon for dinner. It was sooo good! Before and after dinner, we enjoyed cocktails whilst we listened first to the cocktail pianist and then the jazz trio. The music was good and we were throughly relaxed.
Thursday–a day at sea whilst we sailed the Inside Passage into Alaska.
Today was a mainly spent on the top deck, looking for wildlife and eating and drinking! We spotted two humpback whales and a pod of dolphins. The humpback whale sightings were particularly exciting!
Tonight was a formal night, which meant we got to get our glad rags on. We had also booked into the dining room for dinner. On the MS Volendam there are two inclusive dining in areas, the Dining Room – a place where you can order a la carte off a menu and be served at your own table, or the lido market which has every type of food you could imagine served as a buffet.
It was lovely to see everyone in their finest and after our dinner we listened to a pianist and violinist playing some classical music, before going to hear the ocean trio play some jazz.
An early start for us as we were being picked up mid Pacific, by a smaller boat to take us down to The Tracy Fjord inlet. Just getting onto the smaller boat was an adventure as the smaller boat came alongside our cruise ship, and we had to walk down a small walkway to get onto the smaller boat – right in the middle of the open sea! It also provided a really great first proper look at the size of our boat! Which is huge in my eyes!
As we powered off away from the MS Volendam, it was not long before we saw our first humpback whales, really close! We saw about 4 or five spouts of water, then their back arching through the water – this happened 3 or 4 times, then you’d see their tail as they began a deep dive down for 5-10 minutes. The sound they make as they spurt the water out is just wonderful.
Next up, our boat captain gets a call from a nearby boat saying they’ve got orcas near them. So we powered over to nearby boat and watched a pair of orcas (killer whales) swimming for ten minutes or so. Just incredible and all the staff were excited as this was rare to see in this area.
It was soon time to leave the whales behind and head towards the main feature. The Tracey Fjord inlet and the Sawyer glacier. The scenery became more and more magnificent as we traveled through the gorge – and we were darting between floating icebergs. We couldn’t have felt further from home! The water was emerald green and there were steep mountain gorges on each side, with dramatic waterfalls here and there.
The Sawyer glacier absolutely took my breath away! It was 500ft tall and we were viewing it from the bottom. It was bright blue and as the ice cracked and fell, the thunderous roar was overwhelming. Neither of us have ever seen anything quite like it and I don’t think I will ever forget the magnificence of it. Alarmingly it is recedeeding at quite a rate as it melts.
After a couple of hours in complete awe, it was time to turn the boat round and head back towards Juneau. Whilst at the glacier, the on board barman had fished a small iceberg out and chopped it up for drinks on the bar! It would have been rude not to have tried a Juneau gin and tonic with 300+ year ice from the glacier, so I obliged!
On the way to Juneau, where we were to reunite with MS Volendam, someone shouted BEAR! The captain slowed down to a stop and we watched for a minute or two, a grizzly on the shoreline looking for salmon. What a moment!
I don’t think I can remember such a day – we were bouncing off the walls in excitement as we arrived into Juneau, Alaska’s state capital. We had an hour to spare, so nipped up for some lunch on our ship then had a quick look around the small town.
We managed a quick drink in the Red Dog Saloon, which had some live music on, before taking ourselves off on another whale watching excursion – this time an evening one with food. To be honest, we were pretty exhausted by this point – almost, dare I say it, overwhelmed with the scenery and excitement of spotting all the wildlife earlier that day. The food on the excursion was great – local salmon, chowder, local cheeses etc and even reindeer sausages! We saw some more humpback whale activity, but not as close as the morning trip, and we were struggling to get excited by it as we’d just had such an amazing morning!! When we got back to the cruise ship, we had 15 minutes to spare before we waved bye to Juneau, so we quickly got showered and changed before heading for a drink or two to reflect on possibly one of the most incredible days we’ve ever had!!
Saturday dawned a little cloudy as we docked into Skagway – the furthest north we’ve ever been. The weather was a concern for us as we had booked a helicopter and glacier trip – but sadly the cloud was just too low and so it got cancelled. Disappointing but understandable. Safety first – can’t you tell I’m terrified of flying! We managed to book onto the White Pass summit train journey which took the historic route of the Klondike Gold rush route.
Although visibility wasn’t brilliant at the summit, the scenery was terrific and we enjoyed the on board commentary. Americans do it so well! Some of the bridges that we had to cross were rickety to say the least and as we neared the summit the temperature dropped and visibility became non existent.
The pass followed the Yukon river and providing plenty of opportunities to perhaps see some bear activity – sadly not for us today.
Video highlights here:
After our train ride we spent some time exploring Skagway, a really charming town despite the obvious tourism. We love the wooden buildings and we enjoyed half an hour or so looking in the Museum. We picked up some souvenirs and went for a beer at the Skagway brewing company. I tried the local gin and had to wrestle with myself not to buy a bottle – I already had a bottle from Juneau and had to think of my weight limit for the flight home!
It was a fairly early departure from Skagway, but as we’d been used to so far, enjoyed a lovely evening on the boat.
Cocktails in the Ocean Bar, followed by a great meal in the dining room and then a couple of nightcaps whilst listening to Tommy and his jazz trio in the ocean bar before a relatively early night. Tomorrow was a 6.30am alarm as we wanted to be awake and on deck for 7am to watch our entrance into the World Heritage site that is Glacier Bay National Park.
Sunday Glacier Bay
Bright and early we were having our pre breakfast walk round the promenade deck, when the Cruise Director’s voice boomed around the ship. “Mountain goats starboard” oh and “6+ Brown/Grizzly Bear’s are down on the shoreline off our starboard side of the ship, the Captain has slowed the ship down”. Luckily we had not only a pair of binoculars each, but also our superzoom camera- both of which had become permanent fixtures to our bodies for the last week! Considering it had only just turned 7am we were some of the lucky ones as many were still in bed. What a way to start our day!
We went up on deck to watch the low cloud swirling around the base of the mountains, and the scenery was just fantastic.
After an hour or so looking at the view and on the watch out for whale activity we popped for breakfast in the dining room – I loved the Dungeness crab benedict and Keith had pancakes and waffles. Just as breakfast was served we were right next tothe Lamplugh Glacier – we couldn’t believe our eyes. The large windows of the dining room gave a great view.
As soon as we’d scoffed our breakfast in superspeed timing – we were desperate not to miss out on a second – we rushed out to the bow of the ship. The scenery was jaw dropping and I could not and still can’t get my head around that we were experiencing this phenomenal sight from our huge cruise ship!
At 10.30 the highlight of the day, the Margerie Glacier was right in front of our eyes. The waiters brought bowls of Dutch Pea soup around to everyone and we just stood and admired this humongous, 21 mile deep and 1 mile wide glacier. I still can’t believe how close we got considering the size of the MS Volendam.
We spent over an hour there and the captain did a very slow and very impressive “3 point turn” so everyone got a good look no matter where you were on the ship. As chucks of ice fell off into the water, you heard a tremendous roar, like thunder. It was a bitter sweet moment – the beauty of the drop off and the sound was wonderful and infectious – you wanted to see it, but at a rate of 5-6ft recession EACH DAY, it doesn’t take a mathematician to know that this won’t be here too much longer. What we didn’t realise was that glaciers actually provide the majority of the world’s drinking water- this is real and concerning – and my god, they are utterly beautiful.
The Grand Pacific Glacier was also right next to the Margarie Glacier – this one looks dirty and black and grey rather than the staggering blue of the glaciers we’d seen up to now. I thought it was pollution, but apparently its rock debris.
We stayed on deck for the entirety of our visit of Glacier Bay apart from nipping into the dining room for a quick 2nd lunch! Mac n cheese was on the menu – my fave!
As we left Glacier Bay, around 4pm, we watched the National Park rangers do an extraordinary disembarkation onto their tiny in comparison pilot boat, down a rope ladder hung tentatively from our ship!
watch video here!
Later that evening was our second formal evening of the trip and another lovely reason to get dressed up in our glad rags. What a fanTASTIC day it had been!
Another earlyish start today as we docked into Ketchikan about 9.30am and we wanted to be first off the ship – we had lots planned but not much time!
First on the list – Totem Poles via Creek Street. Creek St is one of the most famous images of Ketchikan that you see. It’s really pretty and the wooden houses and shops that stand tall on stilts above the creek. Hence the name.
We caught the local bus from the centre of Keitchikan to Saxman Totem Park. This is home to the largest collection of totem poles and was an enjoyable visit.
You don’t need too much time there, but we decided to walk the 3 miles back to Keitchikan rather than wait the 45 minutes for the next bus back. The walk was pleasant, it hugged the coastline and there was a decent pavement- we’ve been eating and drinking far too much so it was a good time to have some exercise!
We then made our way to the Heritage centre museum where we saw some of the older Totem Poles that had been collected from uninhabited Tlingit settlements on Village Island and Tongass Island, south of Ketchikan, as well as from the Haida village of Old Kasaan.
We then followed the village trail around past the salmon hatchery,
and along Married Man’s walk, before making our way back to the cruise ship for a very quick lunch and FaceTime with the dog (and mum!)
I was trying to distract myself, as I was bricking it about the afternoon’s activity that we had lined up. A Seaplane flight to Neet’s Bay to go bear watching. Obviously the latter part was fine – as a nervous flier the seaplane was making my tummy do all sorts, but I refuse to let my fear of flying stop me.
At 2pm we met with some others from our group and the cruise, and got driven 5 minutes to Tarquin Air’s headquarters.
We boarded a 10 seater Otter seaplane and flew 25 minutes to Neets Bay. It. Was. Terrifying. Oh my gosh – I cried and cried, and had my eyes closed, and had a full blown panic attack! Even Keefy was scared! Absolutely the scariest thing I’ve ever done and the thought of the journey back made me want to set up camp for ever in Neets Bay. Even when the ranger who lived there said she has to have a chocolate ration and no phone or internet. Thats how scary the flight was! (The scenery was fantastic by the way – I’m glad I filmed it!)
We spent 45 mins or so on Neets Bay, which is 40 miles north of Ketchikan and only accessible by boat or floatplane. Bears are attracted to Neets Bay because there is a salmon hatchery there, so they like to come and get their supper there. Our guide told usthe silent signal we must perform if we saw a bear BUT we were pretty unlikely to see one though because the salmon were late this year, and it was a very hot day so the bears had been sighted either late at night or early morning. So we enjoyed seeing their habitat and having a little hike in the rainforest – seeing where they had clawed the trees and seeing their “day dens”.
Then. Keith spotted one!!!! A great big 7ft male black bear! OH MY GOSH.
It was so exciting albeit mildly terrifying. We stood fixed to the spot, cameras in our hands, breathing silently but rapidly!
We watched him for a couple of minutes before he disappeared into the trees and we could not believe our eyes. Our guide was thrilled, she couldn’t believe our luck as only one group in the last few days had seen one!
High as kites, nothing was going to stop me at the this point, certainly not a silly little floatplane…. haha! I got the opportunity to sit up front next to the pilot, Chuck.
I pushed my terror aside and tried to embrace the 25 min ride back to Ketchikan from up front. I even kept my eyes open! You can see our flight highlights below.
What an absolutely tremendous experience – completely priceless and another one I will never ever forget!
Thanks Chuck for encouraging me to not be a wimp, and keeping us safe! And letting us take silly pics in the cockpit when we landed!
That night on the boat we didn’t even get changed before we went for some drinks in the bar. Excitement oozed through our veins like blood. I’ve never felt anything like it before! This trip was just AMAZING.
Our final day at sea before we docked early in the morning at Vancouver. We spent the day eating and drinking and on the hunt for wildlife.
We’d grown fond of Ross, the on board Naturalist host – his enthusiasm infectious, but he was knowledgeable and friendly and we enjoyed spending time with him up on deck contantly with one on the horizon looking for whales.
By 5.30pm we were just about to turn in and get changed for our last night at sea. When the Captain announced “ there is unusual Orca activity beside the boat”. We stood with Ross, margarita in hand, in the glorious sunshine and watched this pair of orcas/killer whales chase the boat and play in the waves literally 8 foot from the boat, right in front of us. It was magical. Ross was beside himself, he said it was exceptionally rare to see Orca’s at this point and for so long, so close. It was the most perfect end to the most perfect of weeks I can remember and I may have had leaky eyes!! Just incredible.
The remainder of the night was spent enjoying the last of our drinks package and food, which was just wonderful the entire week. I was feeling exceptionally emotional about having to pack our cases and say bye to the Lenai stateroom, and as if it knew – just as I was getting out of the shower and dressed – just 3 metres from our room I watched a humpback spout and then its tail as it dived. How on earth was I going to cope with going back to not having the binocs round my neck and being on constant whale watch!!
I cannot reccommend this cruise enough. Absolutely insanely wonderful – NOT relaxing in the slightest, but one of the most incredible experiences we’ve ever had. i cannot think how we will top it.
Great Rail Journeys booked the cruise on our behalf – we travelled on Holland and America line MS Volendam. The food and hospitality was absolutely out of this world. It’s not cheap, but it was priceless!
We arrived into Vancouver station around 5pm and picked up our coach transfer to Vancouver Four Seasons hotel. Our evening was spent at leisure so we wasted no time showering and changing and went for our first explore of the area. We walked for 10 minutes and found the historic and famous Gastown- home to the famous steam powered clock and lots of bars and restaurants.
The pipes on the Steam clock are powered by steam and every 15 minutes you can hear the tooting steam whistle. There literally is a restaurant for every type of world cuisine imaginable and so it’s no surprise that Vancouver is well known for its culinary experiences. We tried a couple of local lagers in the Steamworks brewery before heading to Tacofino, a highly recommended Mexican street food restaurant. We had a feast of fish and meat tacos which were delicious before trying a pint at The Wild Pig. All the excitement of the past few days had begun to catch up on us so we had an earlyish night.
The morning was spent on a guided tour of Vancouver: the first part taking in sights of downtown from the comfort of the coach, although we had some time at the really beautiful Dr Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese gardens within Chinatown. Chinatown is Vancouver’s oldest district- it actually predates the city itself. We saw turtles bobbing around in the water and explored the small but really tranquil gardens.
The tour moved on to the beautiful Stanley Park which is actually one of North America’s largest urban green spaces! It is made up of several different areas and has a 5.5 mile sea wall that surrounds the park. Our favourite part of the park was the Totem Park where we saw a collection of colourful Totem Poles and learnt about how they were made, painted and why they were there. Each one told its own story and it was fascinating.
There are great views of the harbour and the city skyline from this point- it reminded us of Chicago.
We then drove along the sea wall to Prospect Point- a great point to check out Lion’s bridge and where we’d be travelling on the cruise ship tomorrow. On one side was the sea wall and the views across the bay, the other was huge red wood trees.
Our next stop was one of our favourite places of the trip so far: Granville Island. This small little island is home to Granville Island Market which is a food lovers paradise.
It’s full of street food stalls along with some fruit and veg stalls and a great place to pick up some souvenirs. We headed straight to the sushi stall before going for a Granville island beer.
We then went for battered salmon and chips – an interesting local variation on our seaside fish and chips we get in England. It was DELICIOUS! We also tried battered oysters – because when will you ever see these again?! I wasn’t a fan so Keefy ended up with two of those!
We had a walk around the island stopping every minute or two for more pictures, it’s just so pretty- before heading to the Granville Island Brewing company for some tastes of their unusual flavoured lager.
We made our own way back to the hotel, taking the local aqua bus to get back onto the main Vancouver Island before taking a mile or so walk back up to our hotel.
We made use of the pool and hot tub facilities at the Four Seasons before heading back out for dinner. We walked back down to Gastown to go to a barbecue joint that we’d seen the previous day. Our meal was delicious and thankfully not too largely portioned as we were still rather full from our Granville Island food earlier!
After dinner, we walked the mile or so to the Olympic Village where we picked up the night ferry for a cheeky little DIY harbour cruise as the sun set. It’s always a favourite for us to hop onto the water and see any new city’s skyline from that perspective. The Olympic park was lit up – we really enjoyed our evening.
On our walk back to the hotel we came across a family of raccoons scavenging in the rubbish which was a bizarre sight to see!
along with rather a lot of homeless people and people off their faces (presumably on cannabis which is legalised here). In fact when we nipped Into the convenience store to pick up water for our room, a guy was going wild at the poor staff. He was off his face and we felt a bit intimidated so we hot footed it back to the safely of our hotel!
We had the morning at leisure before our lunchtime embarkation of the MS Volendam. As it was raining, we had a lay in, and grabbed breakfast from the 7 11 store down the road before taking a wander around the Pacific Rim retail outlet which was conveniently situated next door to and adjoining our hotel.
By 11.30 our coach had arrived to take us the 2 minute drive to the cruise terminal at Canada Place. I was very excited as I’ve never been on a proper cruise before so was looking forward to seeing our ship, Holland and America line’s MS Volendam.
Our first morning in Banff began at the rather early time of 04:00! Blasted Jet Lag! Determined to make the most of our time here, we decided after a coffee and shower to make the most of our early morning by going for a hike to acclimatise to our new surroundings.
We took a walk down the high street, which was empty at this hour meaning we could get all the pictures we could possibly wish for in the beautiful morning light.