Adventures on the Rocky Mountaineer and Alaska Cruise – July 2019 Part 7 – [Hopefully not Sleepless in] Seattle 

Wednesday

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! 

Thursday 

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! 

Friday 

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 the  ferry 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. 

https://www.greatrail.com/tours/premium-rockies-and-alaska/

Let me know if you book with them!

Until Next time 

Lx 

Adventures on the Rocky Mountaineer and Alaska Cruise – July 2019 Part 6 – Alaska Cruise on board the MS Volendam.

Wednesday lunchtime

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. 

Friday Juneau

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 Skagway

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 to the 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!

Monday

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 us  the 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. 

Tuesday 

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!

The excursions we booked were:

https://www.hollandamerica.com/en_US/shore-excursions/1010063/tracy-arm-fjord-glacier-explorer.html

https://allenmarinetours.com/juneau/whale-evening/

https://www.hollandamerica.com/en_US/shore-excursions/1010061/dog-sledding-glacier-adventure-by-helicopter.html – cancelled 

https://www.hollandamerica.com/en_US/shore-excursions/1010061/white-pass-summit-scenic-railroad.html

https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g31030-d1886381-r509504551-Taquan_Air_Tours-Ketchikan_Alaska.html

Adventures on the Rocky Mountaineer and Alaska Cruise – July 2019 Part 5 – Vancouver

Monday evening

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.

Tuesday

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!

Wednesday

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.

 

 

 

Until next time

Lx

Adventures on the Rocky Mountaineer and Alaska Cruise – July 2019 Part 2 – exploring Banff National Park

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.

We took the Bow River Trail down to Bow Falls, a very well maintained and flat path which followed the Bow River.

Along this we discussed what the correct procedure would be if we ran into a bear! Then mused on how different our pre breakfast walk chat was to when we are at home!

The scenery was just simply breathtaking and I’m going to let the pics show you as I still can’t quite find the right words!

We arrived back at the hotel ready for breakfast at 07:30- feeling good that we had managed a 2 mile walk but also completely in awe of the scenery here.

After breakfast our group met in the foyer ready to start our days excursions. First up was the Banff Gondola- a cable car which took us up to the peak of Sulpher Mountain. We were rewarded with phenomenal views of Banff and beyond. We had an hour on the peak so once we’d taken all the pictures we took the boardwalk up to the weather station.

Our next stop was the iconic Lake Louise. This was simply incredible. The unusual blue and green colour of the water is formed by eroded rock “flour”, eroded by the glacier. The flour then settles in the base of the lake which gives it the unusual but absolutely mystical colour.

We had a couple of hours here so grabbed a sandwich and beer, before walking round the base of the lake. It was simply awesome.

Next up, we carried along the Highway 1 west to Yoho National Park, where we had a 30 minute stop at the Emerald Lake. Some of the members of our group watched a wild bald headed eagle circle above – we missed it as we needed the loo!

A question arose as to why Lake Louise was named that and not Emerald Lake. It turns out the reason is that actually it’s original name was that. But then during the Victorian Era, the increase in tourism meant that there were lots of Emerald Lakes so it was renamed Louise in honour of Queen Victoria’s daughter.

Our final stop of the day was what we fondly called a ‘Ted Special’. Ted is our coach driver and local guide and he made a suggested photo stop at the National Bridge in Yoho National Park.

This extremely scenic location is unusual because it used to be a waterfall where the water flowed over and dropped. Over time, the glacial water has eroded through underneath and as such has opened up a chasm. It’s beautiful and atmospheric and with the mountainous backdrop was a worthy photo stop.

On the journey back to Banff, Keith and I, along with a couple of other ladies in our group saw two black bears in the distance! Too quick for pics but amazing nonetheless!!

We arrived back to the hotel around 5:30pm – what an incredible first day we’d had! It was now free time, so Keith and I grabbed our swimwear before jumping on the free local us up to Banff Upper Springs. This was the site of the first hot springs in Canada and as such the tourism popped up around it. Now it’s a smallish swimming pool filled with natural mineral water at a temperature of 39 degrees c. The views over mountains were wonderful and it was a nice way to contemplate what we’d seen that day.

After a quick freshen up and change at the hotel we went out in search of dinner and some beers. We found the Elk Bar with its rooftop patio and enjoyed some local beers and cider along with the National Canadian dish of Poutine – a chips and gravy with cheese dish – accompanied by elk tacos!

Absolutely delicious!

We managed one final beer at the Banff Avenue Brewing Co- also with a nice outdoor patio with views over the high street.

We couldn’t believe we’d been up since 4am and made it to 11pm. We’d had a phenomenal first day!!

Until next time

Lx

Adventures on the Rocky Mountaineer and Alaska Cruise| Part 1 | A pre amble in London and making our way to Banff, Canada

Another year, and another exciting Great Rail Journeys trip for us. These trip are addictive- the minute we land from one, we can’t stop ourselves obsessively flicking through the next years brochure, pausing to number crunch- can we afford it? Before taking the plunge and booking it, taking advantage of GRJ’s low deposits. The longer we can pay chunks of the balance off over, the better.

After months and months of hard saving, firstly for the trip itself and then enough spending money for us to do everything that we want whilst in the trip, the time finally came for us to pack our bags, wrap up all our work affairs and turn that out of office on. Canada and Alaska – we are on our way.

When we booked our airport parking and hotel, we realised the parking began at 00.30 so we decided to use this as an opportunity for a pre holiday London day. Coincidentally at the same time, Keith discovered a Stanley Kubrick exhibition that was on, and as a huge film fan, wasted no time in booking our tickets.

Goodbyes were said to Jazz the dog, and Mum who has kindly moved into our house whilst we are away to dog sit, and by 07:30 Wednesday, we were on our way.

Check in at London Heathrow’s Renaissance Hotel was quick and easy. Parking is on site and we take our keys so no worries about someone else driving Ruby. And a bonus was that despite arriving at 10:15, our room was already ready, so we dumped our cases, made use of the in room safe and grabbed the free public bus to Heathrow Bus station where we jumped on the next Piccadilly line train to South Kensington.

No trip to Heathrow for us is complete without a beer at The Hoop and Toy, South Kensington followed by a meal at the wonderful Pierino’s.

We then had a brisk half an hour walk off of the carbs to London Design Museum, home to the Stanley Kubrick exhibition this summer.

Keith was bouncing off the walls. I must admit, I’ve only seen 3 of his films; Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut and Full Metal Jacket- all of which I enjoyed. From the moment we stepped inside we were treated to an enormous collection of Stanley Kubrick’s personal items on display including an Oscar, his editing desk and lots of original film costumes, including Laurence Olivier’s costume in Spartacus, the Venetian Masks from Eyes Wide Shut and most notably, the creepy twins dresses from The Shining.

After the exhibition, Keith was quite emotional – to say he (and I) enjoyed it was an understatement and if you have any interest in Kubrick films I highly recommend a visit.

We made our way to Chinatown for some dim-sung before a beer on the Thames at The Tattishall Castle boat pub before making our way back to the hotel at Heathrow. A cracking day in London.

Thursday

For once, we didn’t have to set our alarms at an antisocial time! Our Air Canada flight departures at 13:05 so our check in time was 10 ish.

Before that, we had the exciting meet and greet with our Great Rail Journeys tour manager. As with all their tours, throughout our holiday we will have the company of 30 or so travelling companions, led by one of their tour managers, who we meet in Heathrow and stays with us throughout the trip- his job is to guide us, help us get the absolute maximum from our trip, and hold our hand throughout.

After a quick chat with Alex Green, our TM, we checked in our baggage and headed through security with a couple of hours to enjoy Heathrow’s Terminal 2.

Our Air Canada flight was on time, and really a rather pleasant 8.5 hour flight on their Dreamliner before touchdown at Calgary, Canada at around 14:45 local time. We flew right over Greenland and got an amazing view of the mountains.

Calgary is currently hosting its Stampede, famous fortnight of events such as rodeos and horse cart racing. As such, the captain treated us to a massive “Yeee haaaa” just before landing, and the airport is full of people in cowboy hats and boots. Before we’d got out of the airport Keith had made friends with the locals!

Sadly we were not staying in Calgary to witness Stampede events, our coach transfer to Banff awaited. The trip took around 90 minutes and it didn’t take long for the open fields to turn into ski slopes, toboggan runs and then into huge dramatic, snow capped mountains.

Our hotel, The Banff Ptarmigan Inn, was situated right on the Main Street so after a quick check in, we jumped into the shower, changed and went straight out again. Evenings are free time away from the group- a perfect mix of having a tour group but having alone time too.

Despite being up for almost 20 hours, we were a little tired but wanted to make it to 9.30pm in an effort to beat the jet lag. We enjoyed our first Canadian lager- Kokanee lager- in the hotel bar, before taking a wander down the high street to find a suitable dinner place.

Banff is full of restaurants of all different cuisines and gift shops. The buildings are cute wooden chalets and the backdrop is stunning mountains. We were lucky, the sky was a picture perfect blue sky.

We opted for burgers at Eddie’s Burger bar- a long standing burger joint which is very popular and as such we waited across the road at The Rose and Crown Tavern whilst a table became available. This was the perfect time to sample my first Canadian Gin – distilled across the road, The Park Gin was nice and smooth. Keith had a Keith lager!

We enjoyed our “ Rocky Mountain burger” – an elk patty with jack cheese and onions etc- it was gorgeous and had a great chat with the really friendly bar men. Clearly they love where they live and work, and although we’ve only been here for a couple of hours, we can wholeheartedly see why.

We made it until 9:30pm – before caving in and hitting the sack. Tomorrow we’ve got a full days itinerary- let’s see what time we wake up!

Grand Tour of China; Part 1. Hong Kong extension

Monday

After a year of hard saving, we were finally ready to hit the road towards Heathrow. Woo! In a slightly different way to what we normally do, we decided this time to book a hotel at Heathrow which included parking for the duration of trip. We used hotelextras.com and bagged a bargain in The Park Inn by Raddison. Luck was on our side as due to already being in South London due to family commitments, we arrived at the hotel quite some time before or 2pm check in time- but this wasn’t a problem and we were allowed to check in early for no extra cost.

We dumped our cases and did a quick U turn- eager to get into London for a day playing tourists.

The Park Inn couldn’t have been better located for our needs. There was a free bus to every Heathrow terminal from across the road – which then connected to the Underground. There was also the Hopper bus which picked you up outside the hotel door, but this was £5 pp each way, so for the sake of crossing the road we saved ourselves £10 pp.

Our first destination in London was the Guildhall and Roman Amphitheater. The remains of the amphitheatre were unearthed in the 80s and have been made into a wonderful free attraction underneath an art gallery. I particularly enjoyed seeing the Roman drainage systems, which were remarkably still in tact. There is a wonderful crossover of old remains and new projection to give you an idea of how it would have looked.

Across Guildhall Yard is the Guildhall. Again, it’s a free visit but it was fascinating to see. Some famous trials occurred here including one of Guy Fawkes’ conspirators.

The weather was terribly wet and bleak, but it didn’t bother us as our next stop was Elephant and Castle for a visit to the Cinema Museum. This needed to be pre booked in advance as entry is by guided tour only. Keith was so excited as a life long fan of cinema.

First impressions were fab- on entry you’re shown into a wonderful room set up as an Art Deco cinema, with wonderful chairs, lights etc. The venue of the museum is in an old building from Lambeth Workhouse- where Charlie Chaplin lived for a while, a fact that the museum are very proud of.

After a rather lengthy introduction our guide, Ronald, who is a passionate cofounder of the privately run museum, began to show us around some of the many items they have at the museum. Sadly this part lasted only 15 mins or so, before we were lead upstairs for a complimentary tea and biscuits. We were then left in that hall for over half an hour (and weren’t allowed to browse through some of the items we’d been rushed past) before being taken back down to the original theatre for some short movies.

At this point we’d already been there coming up to 2 hours, and so we made a sneaky exit as we didn’t fancy giving up any more time. It’s a shame really- the museum don’t get any investment so have to work very hard and rely on volunteers to survive. They clearly have loads and loads to see but haven’t managed to find a decent way to display it as there are piles upon piles of history all over. We weren’t the only ones to come away early.

After a disappointing visit I was worried how to turn the day around! Needn’t worry though, and before we knew it we’d stumbled down the Lambeth walk (Oi!) and onto the South bank near Lambeth Palace (London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury). By now the weather had cleared up and we enjoyed a beer right opposite the London Eye on The Tattishall Castle Pub boat.

We enjoyed a beautiful Italian meal at our favourite, Pierinos in South Kensington before nipping back to Embankment and Tattishall Castle for “one for the road”!

Tuesday

Flight day! Yay!

After a very peaceful night’s sleep, we checked out of the Park Inn at the very respectable hour of 08:30. 20 mins later we were at Terminal 3 dropping our bags at the Cathay Pacific stand and 20 mins later we were chilling in the departure lounge for our 12:20 flight to Hong Kong.

Our flight with Cathay Pacific was very smooth and comfortable- despite being almost 12 hours long! We paid extra for the extra legroom seats owing to Keefy’s 6foot 4 ness and these were a roaring success.

At 06:30 Wednesday (HK time, 23:30 Tues UK) we landed and an hour later we’d reached our home for the next two nights, The Harbour Plaza Metrapolis. Due to the early hour we were unable to check in, so we headed to the rooftop pool for a quick dip, jacuzzi and shower before heading out to do some sightseeing. After weeks of very low temperatures in the UK, the warm weather was very welcome!

By 09:00am we had freshened up and had our explorer hats on. We departed the hotel by Metro (attached to the hotel via Mall) and travelled two stops, disembarking by the famous and historical Star Ferry. We crossed Victoria Harbour on the Star Ferry which offered fabulous views of the Hong Kong skyline.

Outside the ferry terminal we boarded a public bus which took us up to the Peak. We thought that this would take us up to the Peak Tram but actually it took us to the Peak during a twisty journey of about an hour. The views from the top were amazing, but I was a bit disappointed that we hadn’t ascended on the Peak Tram. Luckily we were able to buy a single ticket to descend only- and actually this worked really well as there was no queue to go down, and the views were really great! Plus we got to experience a very steep descent! At the Tram terminal there was a HUGE queue so actually our bus journey up was a triumph as we’d have probably wasted at least 2 hours just queuing to get on the tram.

We decided to walk the streets of the South Island, taking in the various street markets and food vendors before settling on lunch at Tim Ho Wan, in the Central Station. This is the cheapest Michelin Star restaurant in the world! We enjoyed a fabulous and rather large Dim Sum lunch and the whole thing only came to £12!

We headed back to the hotel for a quick freshen up and then had a couple of drinks in the patio bar Happy Hour which had a lovely view of the Harbour.

The hotel ran a free shuttle bus (0700-2300) so we took advantage of that to get us closer to the main Golden Mile Street which is the equivalent of Regent and Oxford Street. About a mile along the Golden Mile we reached Temple Street Market, which is a popular night market where you can pick up all sorts of knock offs and cheap souvenirs- haggling is a must!

We found a traditional noodle restaurant down one of the back streets and after deciding it looked clean (spotting a Michelin recommendation sticker helped) we popped in and ordered some noodles for supper before heading back to bed – only 33 hours later than we got up in London!

Thursday

Thursday dawned another sunny and hot day, and after a welcome 8 hour snooze we were up and raring to go! After a delicious breakfast at the hotel we caught the tube to the Ngong Ping 360 cable car on Landau Island. We had pre booked our tickets in advance and as such that, and the fact that we had arrived relatively early, meant that we had minimum queuing time. We had chosen to travel on the Glass bottomed carriage, which was interesting if not mildly scary! We were rewarded with amazing views.

Unfortunately we shared our car with a family which had particularly excited (read that as loud!!!) children who screamed all the way through the 25 min journey! So when we disembarked my ears were ringing!

Being on Landau island Peak was great! The main feature is the large Buddha at the Peak, but also there are some fantastic buildings to explore too.

After a couple of hours we headed back down again- I spoke to a member of staff who allowed us to take the glass bottomed car again for our descent – and happily we enjoyed a much more peaceful journey down, enabling us to relax and enjoy the tremendous views.

We decided to have our lunch at Tsim Sha Tsui which is by the Star Ferry pier. We found a very nice restaurant overlooking the harbour and enjoyed a delicious mix of Chinese cuisine along with lots of green tea.

After a quick freshen up at the hotel we enjoyed an hour at happy hour again before taking the shuttle back to Tsim Sha Tsui to enjoy the daily 8pm show of The Symphony of the lights show- a free light display where many of the sky scrapers use projection to light up the buildings.

We then boarded our Aqua Luna Junk Boat for our tour of the harbour. This was a highlight of our time in Hong Kong. Originally we had booked the sunset cruise but the lights along the harbour are spectacular so we luckily got the concierge to change us to the 20:45 tour.

After our harbour cruise we took a cab to the Ritz Carlton hotel, for a nightcap at the highest bar in the world. The Ozone bar is located on the 118th floor and has the most incredible views over the harbour. Drinks are obviously pricey, but we grabbed a beer each for just over a tenner which we didn’t feel was too bad as they didn’t seem to mind us only having the one and there was no entry charge.

By now it was well past 10pm so we started making our way back to the hotel as we had an early start in the morning.

We may have only had 48 hours in Hong Kong, but we sure had enjoyed our time here!

Until next time

Lx