Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Days At Sea

Go on a cruise? Paid for by someone else? Well, SURE! That's what I said when I was offered a free trip on the Natural History Association's nature cruise aboard the Norwegian Star. Eight days traveling from Vancouver, B.C. to Los Angeles on this ship line's repositioning cruise. Stops were planned at Victoria, B.C., Astoria, Oregon, and San Francisco where in each location our group would tour some interesting nature spots as well as natural history museums. Days at sea would offer not just leisure, but lectures by professional environmental people, and I would do two digital photography workshops.

This was my first time at sea. Probably it will be my last time too. Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the trip and especially the company I traveled with. But I am just not a sailor. Maybe it's just my middle ear problem or maybe it's my inexact sense of balance, but the continual bobbing motion of even as large a vessel as the Norwegian Star knocked me off my pins. Oh, I didn't get sick. Naturally I took my little seasick pills, even though I don't really think I needed them. I just never could get my sea legs. And I found it frustrating to try and take photos with the floor rising and falling, rising and falling. Still, I managed

to take over 300 pictures.

Our first day began with a bus trip from Morro Bay to the San Francisco Airport. This in itself was an adventure since we had to board the bus at 5 A.M. in the pitch dark of night, and help guide the bus driver, who only spoke Spanish, out of the State Park without having him kill the numerous mule deer that mingle on lower state park road in the we hours. Except for the fact that we had no rest stop break, the rest of that ride was uneventful and most of us slept our way north.

We went through the usual harangue getting through security and customs to board our Air Canada flight to Vancouver. The plane was very comfortable and the flight smooth. Finding our bus that would take us to our hotel was another challenge, but finally we arrived at the Delta Vancouver Airport Hotel in Richmond.

Not having had much of a chance for food all day, my roommate and I decided on an early dinner at the hotel's restaurant, The Elephant Pub, where we found the food and ambiance to be exceptionally good. I skipped a reception for our group to join up with a friend of mine who lives in Point Roberts, Washington, just across the border. Point Roberts is located right on the Puget Sound and is truly a picturesque spot set amidst a tall northern pine and fir forest.

We stopped at a store on the Canadian side for me to buy some tapes for my video camera and I discovered that American currency isn't worth much. The exchange rate was perfectly even. I remember times when traveling to Canada meant getting more for my money, but not anymore.

Our first day of touring brought us to Stanley Park, the largest park in Canada, and the Vancouver Aquarium. While this place won't rival our Monterey Aquarium, it outdid itself with its dolphins and beluga whales. We also enjoyed our experience in their theater presentation with the new 4th dimension that included tingling sensations on our legs and light little bursts of water splashing us that matched the ocean spray in the film. It was fun.

The rest of the large park located at the water's edge has trails through tall trees, playing fields, a display of brightly painted totem poles, and more.We learned that the Vancouver area has the largest Chinese population in North America beating out San Francisco. Many Chinese left Hong Kong when the communists took over and they brought their money with them, buying large houses selling for upwards of half a million dollars, with cash.

We drove through Chinatown in downtown Vancouver, but our bus driver told us that the majority of Chinese people live in the adjacent town of Richmond.

Soon it was time to board our ship. By some clever twist of fate, we were the last group to arrive at the dock and had virtually no need to wait in any long lines. We just made a mad dash up the runway and went immediately to our staterooms to grab our life jackets and race back to deck seven for lifeboat drill, always a sobering activity.

After unpacking we made our way to deck 12, the open deck where the pool is located, for the Sail Away Party and Barbecue. Tall bon voyage drinks were pressed into our hands and we filled up on munchies as the ship left port.

The Norwegian Star offers freestyle cruising. What this means is you can do whatever you want, there is no schedule. Well, in actuality that wasn't exactly true because there was a schedule of daily activities, which involved various musical events, raffles, games, liquor tasting, gambling, and more. Dining was about the only thing that was really freestyle since there was no assigned seating in either of the dining rooms and there was always the option of eating in the Market Café that served food cafeteria style. This suited pretty much everyone and the food was good no matter what dining area was chosen.

Most of the activities that the ship offered involved spending extra money or were so inane they didn't interest us. So it was nice that we had our own meeting room on the 12th deck to enjoy the nature lectures that were planned.

We cruised all night through calm waters to Victoria and after breakfast disembarked to find our transportation to the Royal British Columbia Museum where a special exhibit called Treasures featured special items from the British Museum. The Treasures spanned from 12,000 BC to 2006 AD from all areas in the world.

The rest of the museum featured their special natural history displays that told the stories of the animals and humans inhabiting British Columbia throughout history.

The museum was great but I hadn't been in Victoria in over 20 years and wanted to at least walk the waterfront and photograph the scenes including the Capitol, the waterfront, and the famous Empress Hotel before we had to board our bus.

Then we enjoyed a drive to the other side of the island where we hiked in lovely Goldstream Provincial Park. I loved walking beside the flowing stream and viewing the forest. I think I was treating a case of tree withdrawal by walking slowly and wallowing in the grandeur of leaves and limbs with the dappled light shining through them.

We were back on the ship at 4:30 PM, enjoyed our dinner and then we started to sail. Now we were leaving the protected inner waters of Puget Sound and went rounding the tip of the Olympic Peninsula into the open ocean. Oh my! This was not the time to be up on the 12th deck! I was determined to get photos as we sailed around the bend, but finally had to give up and get below where the heaving and ho-ing was a lot less. Everyone else enjoyed an evening nature lecture which was held in our special meeting room on the 12 deck. I decided not to go and took meclazine and stayed below in our cabin on the 4th deck.

The next day dawned and if I wanted to eat I had to go above. I wobbled and weaved my way to the Market Café where I enjoyed having breakfast with an older couple from Toronto, Canada whose final destination would be Las Vegas. It was my guess that they enjoyed the casino onboard. We had a lengthy discussion about health care reform and how much they appreciated their system in Canada.

The group was heading off the ship in Astoria to tour the Lewis and Clark Historical Park and Fort Clatsop. I decided to skip this tour and stay on board in port. But first all of us had to go through US Customs. What a trial, standing in line waiting and waiting to finally reach a grim-faced official who looked over our passports for a few seconds and then stamped the official seal on a ticket to use when leaving the ship. This process took hours and hours before all 2000+ people got through the line.

I wasn't upset about skipping the tour. My legs were tired from the previous day's hiking and from trying to keep my balance while we sailed. My day wasn't dull though as I got to film the crew's lifeboat drill where they actually launched all the lifeboats on one side of the ship. Fascinating!

I sat on a lounge chair on deck seven and watched and filmed ships and pilot boats coming and going, sailing under the long Astoria-Megler Bridge. The Columbia River mouth, which is where the port is located, is miles wide, not like the dinky rivers and streams in Southern California. This river, despite the fact that it has some awesome dams on it (one of them being the Grand Coulee) manages to have quite a flow of water streaming out into the Pacific. Crossing the Columbia Bar has always been hazardous and we certainly felt the pitch and roll on our way into port, so I knew it was going to be a challenge to once again perch myself against the railing on the 12th deck to photograph our departure later that afternoon. Still it was a lovely relaxing day for me.

Sail we did promptly at 5 PM with our own pilot boat speeding up to us and directing our way. We heaved and weaved, at least I did. But I got some wonderful photos of all the activity and of Cape Disappointment Lighthouse across the mouth of the river in Washington. Then it was down below for me and room service dinner in the cabin and an evening of reading "Permanent Passenger," a book about life working on a cruise ship.

What's next in our adventure? Stay tuned for "Days at Sea" Part 2!