Welcome to the first edition of Don's Diary! In this monthly series, Don Wood will be sharing stories and giving his opinions on the various cruises and trips that he has been on over the years, alongside his wife Joan. In the first edition Don talks about the first cruise he and Joan went on - back in 2007!
In the words of a Maria song, in the Sound of Music, “Let’s start at the very beginning” - which means going back to 2007. We were a couple of 70-year-olds living in beautiful North Yorkshire, just outside the town of Northallerton, where in fact we still live.
We hadn’t given much thought to cruising as a holiday, until we met an old friend who enthused wildly about a cruise in Alaska from which he had just returned. He raved on so much that we thought we must give it a try.
So with much trepidation I booked a cruise on the good ship Norwegian Sun, one of Norwegian Cruise Line's ships - NEVER say boat!
Don's Diary - Let the journey begin
First we had to get to Heathrow, and the travel company with which I had booked the cruise were to pick us up at 08:00 in a people carrier. In the event, it arrived at 07:15 but fortunately we were ready! It had already picked up a couple from just outside Stockton-on Tees and we soon became friends with Tess and Jerry. I had to resist calling them Tom and Jerry - having to stop myself mid-word several times.
An uneventful journey, with a couple of comfort breaks, followed and we arrived at Heathrow at 13:25. A swift check-in with Air Canada, not as much airport security 10 years ago, and we duly landed in Calgary, Canada at 16:30 (7 hours behind UK time).
A coach took us to The Royal Canadian Lodge hotel in Banff, just an hour and a half from Calgary, where we met up with two of our friends from our town whom we had previously discovered were also doing the last 11 days of our holiday.
A quick meal, then we realised that it was really 04:00 in the UK so we crashed out to bed at 21:00 (Canadian time). After a good night's sleep we rose at 06:20, had breakfast and said cheerio to our friends Ron & Sheila, who were going by the Rocky Mountaineer train to Vancouver - where we would all join the good ship, Norwegian Sun.
The rest of us, who were going by coach to Vancouver, had a nice tour round Banff, a cable car ride up Sulphur Mountain, (we soon learned it was well-named), visited Banff Springs Hotel and eat some well-earned spare ribs at Tony Romas.
The next day, after a good breakfast, we joined the coach for a well-anticipated trip to the Columbia Icefield and Glacier. We were all well wrapped-up but it was not nearly as cold as we had thought it would be. We boarded a huge Tonka vehicle with wheels six feet diameter and proceeded up the glacier - which was spectacular.
On the coach ride back to our hotel a black bear and her cub wandered across the road in front of us, followed by a huge Grizzly who thought we were invading his territory. He came roaring out of the woods to take us on. He Didn’t scare me, I say, ducking down between the seats of the coach.
We had dinner and wine with Tess & Jerry at the hotel, before heading to bed to gird our loins for the next day’s adventure. We rose early at 06:30 as we had to have our packed cases loaded onto the coach for departure at 07:30 for a place called Kamloops - a five hour drive. Fortunately we had an early stop for breakfast and a few comfort stops on the way.
We arrived at the hotel in Kamloops at 17:30, settled in and had a good seafood dinner with Tess & Jerry. The following day, we had our cases outside the rooms at 07:30 ready to be packed onto coach. Off we go again, this time heading for Vancouver.
Say hello to the Norwegian Sun
There was heavy rain on the way and, after a few comfort breaks, we arrived at Canada Place - the Cruise Port Terminal in Vancouver! There she was in all her glory, the Norwegian Sun. What a beauty. Built in Germany & entering service in 2001, this 2400 passenger leviathan was waiting for us.
Checking-in was straightforward and we soon got settled into our “stateroom.” Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) prefer not to call them the downmarket name of cabins as most other cruise lines
We had our first compulsory emergency muster drill out on deck before setting sail, so we would all know how to put on a life jacket and what to do if we hit an iceberg! Then off we went into the great unknown.
Somehow, amongst over 2000 passengers, we met up with our old friends, Ron and Sheila, who had travelled to Vancouver via the Rocky Mountaineer train, and we arranged to meet for dinner at the Four Seasons, one of several restaurants on-board, where we had also arranged to meet Tess and Jerry.
We met Ron and Sheila, but Tess and Jerry didn’t show up. We later discovered that they had forgotten where we were supposed to be meeting and went to the Seven Seas restaurant instead. We had a few drinks and then set off to explore the ship - which was massive!! It would be easy to get lost if there weren’t frequent direction maps at many points around the ship.
Of course, we still got lost. After a long day, and all the excitement, we had an early night. We knew that we would be at sea all the next day and night, so we had a bit of a lie-in (till 08:00!!).
We were sailing through what is disgustingly called Alaska’s Inside Passage. After a good breakfast, for those who felt like one, we went into the theatre for a presentation on the ports at which we would be stopping and the ship's excursions that were available. These need to be paid for separately and it has to be said that they are not cheap!
They are not obligatory and cruisers can make their own arrangements when they arrive at each port, or as we have since found, probably do a lot of port research and make suitable arrangements in advance.
However, there is one very important reason for going on the ship's excursions instead of making your own arrangements. Everybody is advised on the time the ship will sail to the next port, and if a ship’s excursion is delayed for any reason (heavy traffic, bus breakdown or whatever) the ship will wait until everybody on the ship’s excursions are back on board.
However, there is no guarantee that the ship will wait for anybody who is not on one of the ship’s excursions. In fact as Jane McDonald disclosed on a recent TV programme, and many others have found to their cost, the ship will leave port without them.
It's then the responsibility of the late returning passengers to get to the next port, and pay all costs incurred, if they wish to rejoin the ship!
The port presentation was very interesting, but it became noticeable that the ship was beginning to rock and roll, and the stage curtains were swinging quite violently to the left and then back to the right with each roll.
Our first cruise, our first day at sea and we were in the middle of a hurricane! I will always remember Joan’s words. “Never again” she said, “Never again.” Well, it wasn’t a hurricane of course, but to us inexperienced sailors it felt very rough indeed. It was much the same throughout the rest of the day and Joan didn’t take too kindly to it, although surprisingly, it hardly affected me.
After exploring the ship, a few quizzes and TV based game shows, it was time for dinner again at the Seven Seas. Then off the theatre for a musical show, “Hey, Mr Producer,” featuring the resident show team of five beautiful long-legged girls who I hardly noticed, and five young men who all flung themselves around the stage with such energy to embarrass us all.
Tomorrow we arrive at Ketchican, our first Alaskan port at 06:15, so it’s off to bed early to prepare for a long day.
Welcome to Ketchican
It had continued to be rough for most of the night and we discovered the next morning that many passengers and crew had a disturbed night.
Anyway, we put a brave face on, and had room service breakfast at 05:50 as we had booked ourselves onto one of the ship’s excursions, called “Misty Fiords.” Our ship anchored just outside Ketchican, and we were “tendered” ashore in one of the ship’s lifeboats.
This is not an unusual situation as there are many ports where ships can’t get in, especially the big monsters that were being built then, and passengers are transported into port in the much smaller tenders (lifeboats).
We then transferred to a local boat (not ship) and went out to see some humpback whales, sea otters & seals. Fortunately, the sea was pretty calm and we had a wonderful few hours getting close to nature.
The local boat took us back to Ketchican and we had a good old wander round before getting the tender back to the Norwegian Sun at 13:00. We had a light lunch in Pacific Heights, a very upmarket self-service restaurant, and then decided to have a quick nap after our exertions of the day.
Later we enjoyed a quiz in one of the many bar areas, with a drink or two, before heading back to our stateroom to get ready for dinner. NCL advertises “Freestyle Cruising” and doesn’t have formal nights like most other ships, where everybody dresses up like Downton Abbey extras.
They do have restaurants where you pay probably $25- $40 extra each, and there they insist that everyone does the full Lord & Lady Grantham bit. I should explain that no cash changes hands on any ship that I have been on.
Upon boarding you register your credit or debit card, and you are issued with the ship’s card which serves as a charge card. This is usually a key card to get you into your stateroom/cabin, and most importantly so they know if anybody is missing, an identity card used when leaving and returning to the ship.
Any drinks or other items you buy are charged to your ship account, and your credit/debit card is charged once the cruise is over. The currency on most ships is $US, although some British Cruise Lines, notably Fred Olsen & Thomsons (really a German Cruise Line) deal in sterling.
We had arranged to meet Tess and Jerry and Ron and Sheila at the Seven Seas dining room for dinner, and after we all went to the theatre to be entertained by a very good magician. More drinks and lively chat, as we get prepared to dock tomorrow at Juneau, the State Capital of Alaska.
We docked at Juneau around 06:00 the next morning, had breakfast in our cab stateroom, and then boarded a coach to take us on a catamaran journey to various small islands, to see even more whales.
It was very exhilarating roaring around on the sea. Then we went back to Juneau and strolled around the shops for souvenirs and suchlike. Back to the ship, Pacific Heights for sustenance, followed by a fashion show, which was really just an excuse to get us to spend some more $$$.
This was followed by another game show, by which time we had to go and tidy-up ourselves ready for dinner. More drinks, chat & banter, and it was off to the theatre for a very high-energy Latin America show. I then had to send my darling daughter Kim a Happy Birthday text for tomorrow.
Skagway & Vancouver
We arrived in Skagway, our last port-of-call, at around 06:45 the next day and once again had room service breakfast. We boarded a train for our journey to the White Pass & Yukon which was so spectacular - such beautiful scenery.
We returned to the ship at around mid-day, had a brief lunch in Pacific Heights, and then decided to have a nap...Must be the mountain air. As we hadn’t seen much of Skagway in the morning, we thought it would be a good idea just to have a wander around as we were docked almost in the town.
In the town we found the usual collection of shops and I was almost tempted to accept Dolly’s invitation. Back to the ship, going through the usual check-in and security procedures, and it was time to tidy up for dinner in the Seven Seas with our group.
This night we would be entertained by an impressionist who was extremely good and we laughed fit to burst. Most cruise lines sailing from American or Canadian ports, or are basically US lines, obviously cater mainly for US clientele, and entertainment, quiz shows etc are heavily Americanised.
So tonight we start our two day voyage back to Vancouver. The next day we had a lie-in, then went for a hearty breakfast in Pacific Heights. This was followed by a briefing from Colin, our grandly titled Tour Director, provided by our UK travel agent, who had met us on joining the ship. Joan then went to the ship's hairdressing salon to get her hair done, whilst I went to the Internet area to potter about.
We found plenty to do whilst sailing back to Vancouver, sitting out on deck, reading, quizzing, game shows, napping eating & drinking, Two good evening shows, and on the last night we had a farewell party where the drinks and canapes flowed abundantly. The Captain brought his senior officers and as many of the crew could be accommodated on the theatre stage to bid us safe journeys home.
We docked next morning at about 05:00, had breakfast in the Seven Seas, then disembarked at 08:30 - heading straight to the Marriott Pinnacle Hotel - our Vancouver base for the next four wonderful days.
We went up Grouse Mountain by cable car, where there was low cloud. We saw a lumberjack show, throwing axes and suchlike, and walked across the Capilano Suspension Bridge stretching 450 feet across and 230 feet above the Capilano River ?.
We also went to the famed Stanley Gardens, taking in the Vancouver Aquarium, seeing performing Beluga whales and dolphins and other incredible sea-life. On one day we took a ferry to Vancouver Island where the wonderful Butchart Gardens are, which have to be seen to be believed. We were there in June and the colours were just amazing.
On our last but one day in Vancouver, we had a farewell dinner with our whole party at the Landmark Hotel and afterwards, unbeknown to us, Colin, the Tour Director, had arranged for us to be picked up in stretch limos for a grand tour around downtown Vancouver. We had champagne in the back and toasted the town.
The next day, we were taken to the airport for our flights back to Heathrow, picked-up by the travel agent people carrier and taken to our front door. It was a wonderful holiday, the highlight being the Alaska cruise on the Norwegian Sun, and so I say to anyone thinking about it - just do it - you will have a great time.
Oh and remember the words of my dear wife Joan, on our first day on the Norwegian Sun, when the sea rolled around a bit - “Never again, Never again.”
Well, we have completed 25 cruises since then !!!