Boarding the Bliss, at sea, Sitka
Yes, the construction crews start at 7:30 even on Saturdays. But I just rolled over and caught another half hour before beginning my ablutions, getting dressed and completing my packing. One last cup of coffee from downstairs, a final check of email and I was soon pushing/pulling my luggage down Second Avenue and stepping my way closer to Alaskan Way as I headed to the walkway that would get me to the pier.
Fortunately, a working elevator brought me to street level, and I figured that I needed to head to the end of the growing queue. The luggage drop-off was poorly marked, well set back from the sidewalk, so I passed it initially. Joining the queue, the general conversations revolved around where one was arriving from and how travel had been so far. I was between couples from Guam and San Diego. Observations flew when the queue didn’t move at all after 15 minutes and the “arrival window” was well pass. Only the Haven folks seemed to be able to enter the building.
Finally, those impatient and damp folks began to advance. Immediate bottleneck was eventually observable: two security staff checking folks PCR Covid test results. My passport must have been looked at and/or scanned a dozen times. Once we all moved in from the unclement weather (yes, I know it’s not a word; it’s inclement, but that was deliberate!!) we were held up and chased into a maze of ropes before getting access cards. My agent took much longer than most, as I apparently had 2 cards, and this resulted in my getting pushed back into a later boarding group.
We got sent into a room and were told to sit and wait. Then we were told to get up and moved to a different room to sit and wait. From the point when we entered the building, the lighting was dim, casting a pall over the crowd. By observing the room, I guessed that we’d be about half capacity. That got confirmed the next day.
Finally, probably about 11:30 (my boarding window was 9:30-10), the room was called by boarding group to begin the process of boarding the ship. By the time my group was called, the room was near empty, however there was yet another room full of passengers stewing, waiting for their group to be called. The first card I tried failed, but the second was good so I was relieved of the bummer. I wheeled my small (and light by design) roller to the stairs and carried it up two flights and headed to The Local, which was the apparent equivalent to O’Sheehan’s, my favorite lunch watering hole on the Epic.
Seated at a two-top next to a column, I asked for a mint julep (it was Derby Day and I’ve been a Kentucky Colonel for almost 50 years), only to be told the bar wouldn’t fix it then. So I got a draft Blue Moon to go with my blue cheese burger. Really, no points for presentation. A smear of a creamy cheese, ketchup already on the roll. I’d forgotten to ask for extra crispy fries, but these were much too cool to even merit more than the first one. The meat itself was dense, well done (not the medium I asked for). The whole meal was boring and unappetizing. It certainly didn’t bode well for a return to The Local.
Finished and not wanting to risk dessert, I headed up to Deck 11 and the solo cabin I’d been assigned. A fire door was propped open, with a “permanent” sign stating rooms were not ready. Other passengers were waffling about whether the door was open or not, so I just wheeled my bag behind me as I scooted around and headed to my cabin, leading the rest of them. I was the last (moving aft) cabin in the row, it was prepared, and I just left my roller tucked into the corner awaiting the delivery of the big (heavy) suitcase. I checked out the single-level solo cabin lounge, which was much larger than on Epic but lacked a bar. There were cookies, slices of cake, muffins, fruit, and a coffee machine however.
Back out to the staircase, I decided to climb and explore. Four flights up to fifteen, I found my happy place. The Observation Deck bar sat to port in the well-appointed and spacious wrap-around lounge foreward. Comfortable chairs and chaises longue were attended by coffee tables and smaller personal tables, all with a brilliant view of the water. The bar was circular, and I snagged the seat by the break (for bartender and staff access). I asked Harty for a mint julep, and he prepared an excellent salute to the Derby. As I was finishing it, a woman a few years younger than me sat with a seat between us and told me I was in her seat, the best at the bar. Yes, obnoxious, as there was no humor in her statement. She glared at me for the next hour as I nursed Glenmorangie on the rocks, working my cell phone to clear accumulated emails.
Finally ready for more exploration, I climbed up and checked out the buffet, walked the pool deck and then descended to Maltings, the bar which focuses on whiskey/whisky. I nursed a few Jamison’s until a bit before 6, when I climbed back to 11 and put my suitcase into the cabin, unpacking as much as the few shelves and one drawer would allow. The empty suitcase went under the bed. Exiting, I realized I left me key inside, so my room steward let me in and I found it in the suitcase. Walking around the corner to the lounge, Hafsa, the hospitality staff assigned to assist the singles group, was collecting names and room numbers, and “herded” the seven of us to dinner.
Spinach salad to start, which was good; the best thing about the pork main was the asparagus. The lava cake with a scoop of ice cream and strawberry sauce was a fail – too cool, not any liquidity. With one of the guys I headed back to Maltings once we were clear of Washington (so that the tax wouldn’t be collected) and tossed back a few more whiskies. Then I headed off to bed.
Sunday, 8 May
Every evening, upon returning to the cabin from dinner, a copy of Freestyle Daily would rest on the corner of the bed. Besides highlighting the options for the next day’s activities on the front with schedules for dining options and the various services’ hours of operation on the rear, the interior of the folded 11x17” sheet detailed the coming nightly entertainment lineups, special events and activities for families, in addition a hour-by-hour tabulation of options with their locations running from 8am until 2am. It proved a useful resource for planning where to be throughout the course of the day.
This was a day where we’d be at sea. The ship was steaming north in somewhat middling seas off the international waters as we bypassed the Canadian coast. The stabilizers were keeping any rolling down, but there were repeating instances where it seemed the ship had hit something. (There was a rumor onboard later in the week that we’d had a direct hit of a whale, and that the body had been immediately attacked and devoured by orcas.) I awoke, cleaned up and had oatmeal at The Local, but rejected the coffee as it was horrible tasting. Looking towards land from the Observation Desk, fellow passengers reported seeing whales, but none while I was there. No ice appeared to float rapidly by, so the “chugs” that occurred were probably not ice either.
Ten o’clock saw me in the theater for the “This is Alaska” talk, which featured brief videos of several of the ports and was led by the Excursions director. Sitka was skipped, but Juneau and Ketchikan got the strongest focus. At 11am I descended stairs to the atrium to watch the “How to run a cruise ship Q&A”. MC’d by the cruise director and after a brief video and introductions, the captain, XO and “Hotel” director fielded a good dozen questions from the attendees, including one from me regarding engine fuel. I sat with a couple from Edinburgh, and she taught me the proper pronunciation for Oban and Elgin, places I’ll visit (I hope) later this year.
Not spotting any familiar faces, I headed aft to Savor for lunch, where I was seated at a window about 20-feet above the roiling water looking west. The wait staff proposed wine, and I got a big pour of the NCL proprietary red blend called East+West. I started with the Italian Wedding soup, which I found delicious. (I’d find that soups were almost always tasty.) A spinach Caesar salad was fair – the greens seemed a bit tired, lacking crispness. For a main I ordered the baked moussaka.
Classic preparation, but the presentation lacked, probably due to too much time under the heat lamps. The mix of meat, sauce and potatoes were good, but it lacked much eggplant. And I did opt for dessert: milk chocolate cheesecake with chocolate orange sauce. Not real cheesy, with a mild chocolate flavor, it survived the cup of coffee, which was bitter, but at least not as bad as at breakfast.
The Nikon had been left in the cabin; I’d rely on the mobile to capture any pictures I might take as I decided to wander the ship after lunch. Through the midship alley going fore and aft, entering and browsing in the duty-free shops, strolling through the casinos and looking into the various venues, passing multiple bars. In the atrium a game of Deal or No Deal provided some with entertainment. I continue to the track deck, outside in blustery, cool weather (the ship was traveling at 22 knots with 30 knot winds) where the only comfort could be found heading aft in the sun with the wind at my back. Climbing further, I got to the top levels and found a few brave hardy (foolish?) souls jumping in and out of hot tubs, usually to refresh their drinks. No one appeared to be using the slides or the bumper cars, and the laser tag building just look forbidding.
Back to the cabin to collect my reader, and then up to the Observation Lounge where I read while sipping bitters and club soda, glancing out to sea to mark our passage north. At 5 I dropped into the solo lounge where Hafsa had the group engaged in a craft project making some art. I declined to participate, which apparently caused her to begin to dislike me. I offered to make a bar run, and collected a few drinks, some bread and the cheese I’d bought on Bainbridge Island, which I shared to acclaim.
As a group, we descended (some taking the stairs with me) to Manhattan where we were seated for dinner. No photos as I left the phone in the charger, but I had salmon tartare, a cobb salad and shrimp carbonara, which had a red sauce! As a group we headed into the theater to watch the comic and magician Fred Moore perform. It was amusing. Exiting the theater, several of us rounded the corner into the District Brew House, which became known as the brew bar as it had about a dozen beers on tap, including a yummy Alaskan amber.
Monday, 9 May
Overnight we gained an hour as we crossed out of the Pacific Daylight Time zone into Alaska Daylight Time. I had breakfast in the Garden Café, the buffet on 16, as getting a banana with my oatmeal the prior day had been a hassle. Coffee smelled bad/bitter so I just had juice. I grabbed the excursion voucher, my camera and day pack, bundled up in slicker and fleece and awaited the docking announcement. Right on time at 11am they allowed us to leave the ship.
I headed out to the jitneys and rode down to the meeting center, determining how to get to St Michael the Archangel Cathedral. It turned out to be about 2½ blocks away.
Circling it, I found the optimal vantage point for the outside shot, and then stood in the shade of the Lutheran church waiting for various tourists to move along and present a less obstructed view of this small building sitting in the center of Lincoln Street. While waiting for one large male to move (his partner had entered the church, and he was bored) and leave the porch, I entered the Sitka Lutheran Church, which was remarkable in its clean simplicity, and with the oldest church organ in Alaska.
Finally, I called out to the “gentleman” and suggested he find shade across the street, which triggered several others to applaud, as they also had been waiting for him to move. Getting several shots, I then crossed the street and entered the building. There is a profusion of gilded icons, many in silver, that adorn the walls and surfaces of the church. Another “standing” orthodox building, no wonder the jerk propped himself on a wall, as there are no seats to be found, other than the roped off stool that is the
metropolitan’s cathedra. (Both churches are small, as Sitka’s population is 8700.)
Because I had an excursion leaving from the dock, I had to return to the center to catch the jitney back. No queue, I was on and rolling, back in about 10 minutes and prompt for the excursion departure. The nearly 4 hour long
tour, “A Taste of Sitka”, took off in a bus and we rolled into the Channel Club, a roadside restaurant where we were fed a piece of white king salmon with a beurre blanc sauce, placed on a bed of rice, with two half pints of Alaskan draft beer. Our host explained how to remember the five principal kinds of salmon, holding up his hand: chum (thumb), sockeye (index or pointer), king (center), silver (ring) and pink (pinkie.) The salmon fishing industry was touched on during his talk, and we all enjoyed the morsel of delicious salmon (and the beers.)
Back into the bus, we were driven into town and to the Sitka Sound Science Center. A museum, learning center and hatchery, we were taken on a walking tour of the hatchery bins, and delighted to be there as they were releasing smolt into the Crescent Bay. Also pleased were the seagulls, as the young salmon were a bit disoriented in the open waters, serving as an easy meal. There was a little time to wander the exhibits in the museum before the bus loaded up and drove us over to Japonski Island, where the former military base had been converted to community use, and the hospital and airport are situated.
The time was about 5pm, and the ship was due to depart at 1800. The driver offered to drop folks in town (I would have liked to see the Russian Blockhouse and some of the waterfront up Katlian Street) but there was already a lengthy queue wrapped around the meeting center for the jitney back. We returned to the ship and reboarded. From what I heard later, it took abut 45 minutes to board a bus for the 10 minute bus ride. At least 3 ships were in port, of which the Bliss was by far the largest.
Back to the solo lounge, the group was already engaged in a bracelet building project. We had a waiter, so I got a double whisky and watched, sharing excursion and exploration tales. Using our premium dining option, the group went to Le Bistro.
Two appetizers to start: escargot (with more garlic than I thought, as it repeated until breakfast) and beef tartare. Two delicious lamb chops, resting on a brick of something delicious (and unnamed in my notes) with whipped sweet potatoes comprised the main. Absolutely wonderful! My best meal on this cruise. And for dessert, the cheese plate. Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned ahead, so the cheese was refrigerator temperature (it really has so much more flavor if the cheese can warm up to room temp). A bit of chevre, small wedge of brie, Port Salut, Muenster and a small section of a nice creamy blue, they were accompanied by two apricots, a walnut and some red table grapes. There was red wine with the meal which I continued to enjoy with the fromage. They humored me and brought some of the baguette rolls so I was very pleased.
Laura (hospitality from Midlands, Texas) and Eve (facilities manager, Belfast, UK) joined me afterwards at the brew bar for a beer. Before retiring, I began my ritual to back up my camera and phone photos, as it had been since Saturday without. And sometime while in downtown I remembered to send my youngest brother a text to wish him a happy birthday.