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Going on a cruise ship kind of goes against everything that I believe travel should be: too many tourists congregating inside a vessel that takes them all from one place to another, docking for half a day (if that!) in each port, allowing these tourists to barely graze the surface of the places they visit.
Too much organization, too much control, too rushed, and too much… well, relaxation, I guess?
That’s why you should be as surprised as I am that, not only did I go on a cruise last summer, but I actually enjoyed it. Like, quite a bit.
In August 2012 I had the opportunity (through my job as a travel agent) to go on a cruise to Alaska with three friends. I have always wanted to see Alaska, and cruising is probably the best way to do so. Yes, it is likely the most tourist way to do it too, but the scenery along the coastline is incredible, and very worth it.
My home for the week was the Sapphire Princess, one of Princess Cruises super ships with a capacity of nearly 2,700 passengers. We got inside staterooms, which worked out fine as we didn’t spend too much time inside.
The itinerary: Depart right from Vancouver, and make our way up the coast, stopping in the small town of Ketchikan, on to Alaska’s capital Juneau, then on to the gold-rush era town of Skagway, before cruising for two days along Alaska’s beautiful glaciers. The cruise stopped nearby the state’s biggest city: Anchorage, where, after a day hanging out around the city, we flew back home on a midnight flight.
As Mentioned, the cruise was gigantic. As it was sold out during our run, that means we were traveling with almost 2,700 others. Surprisingly however, the ship is so spacious that it never felt crammed or overwhelming.
There are multiple restaurants on board, to which one can go for dinner. The menu for the day will be the same at all restaurants, so it does give flexibility on where to eat; with open dining from 5:30pm to 10:00pm, we never had to wait long for a table. The ship also has three special restaurants in which guests can eat for an additional $20. We tried the steakhouse which was actually very good (great service, delicious meat).
The buffet restaurant is ok for breakfast or lunch, but even then it’s not very good… That might be because I’m not a big fan of mass-produced buffets though. We found ourselves usually eating lunch (or even breakfast… or midnight snacks) at the International Cafe on the main Piazza, where you could grab pre-made sandwiches and pastries on the go. We also visited the pizzeria once, which offers delicious freshly made, Italian-style pizzas.
For nightlife, the cruise has multiple bars / lounges. We usually had a couple of drinks a night, but it really wasn’t a huge party environment – then again, the average age for the cruise was probably around 60 years old! There were a few guests around our age, but not too many. The nightclub was virtually empty every night, and even the bars were quite slow, so we did find ourselves having pretty early nights.
Other entertainment included daily shows, some which were better than others. I actually liked the musical productions to be mostly alright, although my friend Ryan (who worked for years with Princess Cruises) didn’t like them at all. There was a night with a comedian which was probably the best of them all, and a night with a magician which was pretty lame. The entertainment talent was pretty good, although there were some major weak links.
The ship hosted two formal nights, in which wearing formal clothes is highly encouraged. This pays tribute to a time when cruising was glamorous, and old-school, hardcore cruisers will be decked out every night, while the rest of us will be sort-of dressed up for formal nights. Even though it is “mandatory” to dress up for formal nights, there were still quite a few people wearing very casual clothes. One of the formal nights of the cruise included a champagne waterfall, which was pretty cool.
Other facilities include the outdoor heated pools / jacuzzi tubs which were great to hang out in during downtime, a gym which I never used, and an outdoor cinema which lays a movie every night – complete with popcorn!- which is awesome… even though the cold Alaskan air at night meant we had to dress up like Eskimos even in summer!
The cruise itself is beautiful, with a distinctively Italian style, marble floors and dark oak accents. The highlight of the cruise itself (visually) is the Piazza area, in which formal nights are hosted.
Overall, as I said earlier, I did enjoy the cruise experience. Not so sure I am ready to drop my travel ways to become a cruiser, but I wouldn’t be opposed to going on another cruise (perhaps a more lively destination with a younger crowd!). Princess was great for the service / food / drinks, and the ship really is beautiful.
As for Alaska, it didn’t disappoint in any way. It is a beautiful part of the world, so pristine, it’s definitely worth checking out. I will be writing about each of the ports of call in the coming days, so stay tuned!
Kitsilano, a neighbourhood located across False Creek south of Vancouver’s downtown core, is home to Vanier Park.
I only discovered Vanier Park in 2012, after returning from Australia (despite having lived in Vancouver for 14 years now!). I always saw the park across the harbour from Sunset Beach in downtown, but never actually made the track over.
As I took biking as a hobby last summer, I visited Vanier a few times over the summer, and got to really fall in love with it. While there isn’t a beach in Vainer Park, the park has a huge grass area perfect for playing sports, having picnics, or simply hanging out. The park also has amazing views of downtown Vancouver, and is home to some pretty cool museums, such as the Vancouver Space Centre, the Maritime Museum, and the Museum of Vancouver.
The park can easily be reached from downtown via a ferry from Yaletown right into the park, or by walking / biking along the False Creek seawall!
Below are some pictures I took during some of my adventures over to Vanier, so you can see why this park kind of stole my heart.
One of Vancouver’s top outdoor attractions is its famous Seawall. The best part of this attraction is that it is free and highly entertaining!
What started as a 7km walking / biking path around the perimeter of Stanley Park, has now extended to surround most of Downtown Vancouver, and extends from Canada Place, around the world-famous Stanley park, and all the way to the Southern neighbourhood of Kitsilano.
The 22km Seawall offers beautiful views of the waterfront and many different parts of the city, from the Central Business Area to fancy neighbourhoods, Vancouver’s chilled-out West End, parks and beaches. The scenery is so varied and beautiful, and can be enjoyed on walks, jogs, roller blades or bikes.
Whistler, a small resort town 125km north of Vancouver, Canada, is known world-wide for its great winter sports facilities. Whistler rose to fame during the 2010 Winter Olympics, which it co-hosted along with Vancouver.
I am not a big winter sports person, but I still love going to Whistler in the winter (although going to its lakes in the summer is still my favourite!). In winter, I enjoy sitting in a hot tub surrounded by snow, taking strolls in the village at night on my way to one of Whistler’s fantastic dining options, and sometimes playing with the snow… especially when there is someone to throw it at!
I haven’t visited the resort since before I went to Australia, but here are some great shots of the beautiful scenery of Whistler in winter, from my last trip there in December 2010!
Day #12: Merry Christmas!
Merry Christmas everyone, from Vancouver, BC, Canada. Hope everyone is celebrating whatever you celebrate with loved ones, wherever you are. Best wishes for the season xx.
Christmas is almost here, and the 12 days of Christmas activities list in Vancouver, Canada, have almost come to an end. Today’s treat, is a Christmas classic not exclusive to Vancouver – one of the season’s most famous ballets; one who most people surely have heard of at some point in their lives.
Day #11: Goh Ballet Academy’s ‘The Nutcracker’
On Friday the 21st of December 2012 I went to see the Goh Ballet Academy’s production of the classic Christmas tale: ‘The Nutcracker.’ This was the first time I saw ‘The Nutcracker‘ and the first time I ever went to the ballet – I really enjoyed the experience!
The story is reminiscent of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ but set in a Christmas world. The ballet, composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was performed for the first time 120 years ago just this past week. This classical ballet continues to have multiple yearly productions all over the world; the ballet today continue to captivate the minds and hearts of the audience. And it’s easy to see why: because it’s truly magical.
‘The Nutcracker‘ is a beautiful story about a girl, Clara, who is given a wooden nutcracker as a Christmas gift during a Christmas party. As Clara falls asleep, she goes into an adventure along with the nutcracker, who soon becomes a handsome prince.
When Clara falls asleep, the set around her grows bigger, giving the illusion that she has shrunk. Shortly, a band of rats (and impossibly adorable little kids, dressed as mice), led by the rat king, attack the girl. The nutcracker comes to the rescue, along with his army of toy soldiers, and after a battle, the king rat is defeated.
The nutcracker (who has now turned into a handsome prince) and Clara go on to an enchanted winter wonderland, where they are greeted by a the snow king and queen, along with dancing snowflakes. Then, they take a sleigh over to a beautiful place (the Kingdom of Sweets) where they are entertained by a number of performers from all corners of the world: Spain, Arabia, China, and Russia. There is also a sequence of dancing flowers, before the Sugarplum Fairy takes to the stage, dancing various numbers along with a prince.
At the end of this beautiful string of ballets, Clara, with the wooden nutcracker in her arms, is woken up by her mother. The ballet ends leaving the viewer with the question of whether the entire thing was a dream, or if the girl was actually transported to the beautiful wonderland.
Goh Ballet Academy’s Take on the Ballet
Let’s begin with the sets. The sets were amazing. The detail on every component of each set was impeccable, and it was sometimes hard not to pay as much attention to the set itself as to the performers. There were a few set changes: the outside of a mansion, then the inside of it, followed by a winter wonderland in Act I. Act II begins with a Heaven-like set, complete with clouds, before moving to the Kingdom of Sweets, a beautiful city-like set, which appears to be carved of wood.
Costume-wise, the costumes are fantastic. Everything from the beautiful glittering tutus of the fairies and snowflakes, to the outfits of the citizens and the soldiers, to the stereotypical clothes of the world performers, to the rat disguises, were captivating. There was so much detail and care put into the costumes that they enthralled the viewers, make everyone feel connected to Clara’s adventure.
As for the ballet itself, it is outstanding. The principal dancers in this production are members of the New York City Ballet and are expectedly talented. What was surprising (simply because of the hype given to the guest stars), is our local talent. Vancouver’s own Goh Ballet Academy has some admirable dancers. Everyone, from the older, more experienced dancers, to the little children dressed as mice, were a joy to watch. The synchronicity of the performers in some of the numbers, when there were a dozen of them dancing along, was admiringly perfect.
Kudos as well to the Vancouver Opera Orchestra for providing their talent to bring to life the magic of The Nutcracker with Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music. Another talented bunch, hidden under the stage, out of sight, but a crucial part of the story telling!
Goh Ballet’s The Nutcracker only played from the 19th to the 23rd of December 2012, at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts. However, if you get the chance to see the ballet in your city or in a future year (I know we get a production of it in Vancouver every year – this year we got two different ones!), I’m sure you won’t be disappointed!
Day #10: Christmas Lights at False Creek
The Telus World of Science, Rogers Arena, and BC Place Stadium are decked out for the season. BC Place Stadium’s lights (left) alternate from night to night, between red and green and a candy-cane inspired red and white swirl; Rogers Arena (middle) is showcasing festive red and green lights; meanwhile Science World’s (right) iconic lights are different every night (red and green or a rotating multicoloured display!).
The beautiful view of downtown Vancouver past False Creek looks even more enchanting during the Christmas season!
BC Place is looking sweeter than usual for the Christmas season, with its candy cane-inspired Christmas lights!
Day #9: Christmas at Canada Place
Canada Place is one of Vancouver’s most iconic landmarks, so it’s really no surprise that the building spruces up for Christmas every year. During the month of December, the usually white sails are lit up with Christmassy green and red, a sight that is welcome from many points along the northern part of downtown Vancouver, Stanley Park, and even across the water in North Vancouver.
There is also a row of Christmas trees, various daytime events, and even a Christmas Workshop (arts & crafts, story telling, face painting etc). All events occur along the western part of the outside promenade. These activities are more family friendly than adult-oriented (and all happen during the day), so they are good if you have young children.
The main interest for coming to Canada Place (aside from the light displays on the Sails, which is pretty cool), are five of the famous Woodward’s Christmas displays. These window displays have graced Vancouver during Christmas since the 1960s, when Vancouverites would go down to Woodward’s Department Store to see them. Since Woodward’s went bankrupt in 1993, Canada Place has taken over as their new home. The Window Displays are a little worn out, but they are part of the heritage of our city. Canada Place continues to house five of the displays (four others are at different buildings in the Bentall Complex, and one is back at the re-built complex on the old Woodward’s site).
Day #8: Gingerbread Lane, Hyatt Regency Hotel
One of the season’s most decadent sights, Gingerbread Lane returns to Vancouver’s Hyatt Regency Hotel for the 22nd year. Yep, this Christmas attraction is one of the city’s best, and with over 22,000 annual visitors, has become one of our most popular traditions.
The idea? Tons of high schools, universities, an private businesses around the city whip up their best gingerbread-inspired creations. The point is to create edible art – although eating the displays is strictly forbidden… or so I hear. Visitors can then cast their vote for their favourite display, along with a recommended $2 (or more, if you’re feeling the season of giving!) donation towards the Make-A-Wish BC & Yukon Foundation.
Forget amateur gingerbread houses. The Gingerbread Lane is all about blowing people’s minds about what can be done with a couple hundred pounds of dough. And sugar, let’s not forget the sugar: Icing to stick it all together and decorate with snowy peaks, bags and bags of candies to bring colour, glass windows made of sugar, and a couple hundred figures (everything from tiny people, animals, famous pop-culture characters and at least a dozen Santa Clauses) carefully sculpted out of marzipan.
This sweet, sweet display at the Hyatt Regency Hotel is also home to an enormous (11ft x 16ft) gingerbread house – no joke! Unbelievable as it is at first sight, the delicious smell of gingerbread filling the lobby, and a closer inspection, guarantees this is the real thing.
Gingerbread Lane is in Vancouver from the 28th of November until the 27th 2012 of December 2012, so go see it before it’s gone!
Day #7: Christmas Market, Plaza at Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Today’s Christmas activity of choice is: The Vancouver Christmas Market, one of the city’s newest Christmas activities, which in its third year, is well on its way to becoming a holiday tradition for the city.
This German-style Christmas market is quite small in size, but it is full of German personality (in a good way). The feel, the smells and tastes, and the decor are very alluring, and evoke a feeling of being somewhere far away.
The enclosure really gives the illusion that you are inside a small German town, and the amount of retail stalls packed into the area is impressive, without being crammed or overwhelming.
The Market features over 45 wooden stalls fully decorated with Christmas trees, pine garlands, and Christmas lights. The vendors at the stands include Gluehwein (mulled-wine) stations, a German Bratwurst Haus, pretzel and soup kiosks, chocolatiers, a small beer garden, a few miscellaneous gifts shops, and multiple Christmas decoration stands – anything from blown glass Christmas tree decorations, to really pricey traditional German wooden carvings and toys.
Aside from mostly shopping (usually over-priced) stands, there is free entertainment at the central gazebo, which ranges from traditional German dancing and music, to a Christmas song competition which can be a slightly irritating, based on the talent of the contestants.
There is also a carousel on-site, which is great for children. And for people who, like me, like to act like a child once in a while.
The Vancouver Christmas Market has a CDN$5 entry fee, but as of this year, this entitles visitors to a season pass into the Christmas Markets (I’m not so sure if anyone would want to attend more than once in one season, but the option is there). The Christmas Market is open from 11am to 9pm every day, from the 24th of November 2012 until Christmas Eve, the 24th of December 2012.
Yes, the Christmas Market is slightly overpriced, but the atmosphere at the Market is quite enchanting, and is well worth a visit for a unique evening out in Vancouver, and a great activity for the season!
Day #6: Festival of Trees, Four Seasons Hotel & Pacific Centre Mall
The Festival of Trees returned to the Four Seasons Hotel + Pacific Centre Mall on the 21st of November 2012, and will remain until the 1st of January 2013. This event is free of charge, but donations towards the BC Children’s Hospital are always welcome.
Day #5: Bright Nights + Christmas Train at Stanley Park
Another one of Vancouver’s cherished Christmas traditions is Bright Nights and the Stanley Park Christmas Train. The Christmas train is celebrating its 15th year, and is open from the 29th of November 2012 until the 1st of January 2013, from 3pm to 10pm (11pm on Friday and Saturday nights), and from 11am to 3pm Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The train is closed on Christmas day.
The cost to go on the train ride is CAD$10, with proceeds going towards the BC Professional Fire Fighters’ Burn Fund. Entrance to the main plaza to see the lights displays is free, although there is a CAD$4 recommended donation.
This year, an estimated 200,000 people (locals and visitors alike) are expected to visit the Stanley Park Christmas Train, and be bedazzled by the millions of Christmas lights twinkling away. The train ride itself is beautiful, taking riders through a winter wonderland bursting with Christmas decorations.
High points of the train ride this year include the music, which was fun, alternate Christmas songs rather than the classics, a moose on stilts dancing 70′s style to a “Santa Claus” version of “Macho Man” and “YMCA,” the neon colour drawings inside the tunnel, and the reappearance of the life-size dragon from the Stanley Park Ghost Train, this time as the friendly dragon from Shrek (along a song from the movie Shrek the Halls). There were also loads of disco balls hidden along the way, which were fun to spot!
Music and props aside, the Stanley Park Christmas Train ride would be almost as beautiful in itself, based on the light displays along the ride, which are simply beautiful.