Monday, November 27, 2017

17 Days Alaska & Canadian Rockies Tour (with CTC Travel)

This is so overdue, I don't even really remember most of the sequence of things unless I refer to the journal I kept during the holiday.

But because being unproductive on home on a rainy day is quite a waste of good writing weather (and because I haven't quite fulfilled the resolution of writing more this year), what better time to start reliving what was quite possibly the most epic trip this year.

Hello Alaska/Canada, I miss you, 
a lot.

Disclaimer: This trip was taken with the mother and, as mentioned in other entries on holidaying with the mother, trips taken with mom are always group tours.

I hate long-haul flights. 
Anything more than 4 hours is long; anything more than 6, inhumane.

The flight to Canada (where the tour begins with the Canadian Rockies) was 4+ hours to Taiwan, 3+ hours transit in Taoyuan Airport, then 12 hours to Vancouver.
*yay*

Thank goodness for on-board alcohol beverages.

The EVA flight we were on from Singapore to Taiwan was fine but the one from Taiwan to Vancouver, not so great. 
No toiletries or USB charging available.

But hey, it got us there.

A whole day in the air later, 

Hello Vancouver.

One sleep later, the morning in Vancouver. 

This country is beautiful.

Also, very good and way cheaper craft beer.

Thank you, Canada.

The thing about a place as beautiful and vast as Canada is the amount of travelling involved to get from one place to another.

Our destination in Canada was part of the Canadian Rockies, and no good place is ever arrived at without some amounts of travelling. 

Expect lots of time spent on the coach, with pit-stops along the way to marvel at the gorgeous scenery.

View from our next stop at a random hotel along the way.

At least they have A&W!

Customary hipster hotel room shot.

Besides the beautiful scenery, another perk of travelling in places like Canada/Alaska:
Sweater weather.

So much time spent on the coach.
So. Much.

But the views,
oh the views.

(I miss you.)

Finally stepping onto a part of the Canadian Rockies.

The Columbia Icefield.

Lots of tourists, of course.

But still, very beautiful and very worth the time getting there.

Expect the words "beautiful", "gorgeous" and "ridiculous" to recur too many times throughout this entry.

Because, this country is ridiculously gorgeously beautiful.

Customary touristy we-fie with the mother.

Looking through these pictures again causing a serious case of #wanderlust
*cries*

Also, bears.

Lots of bears.

I love you.

Ice cream in cold weather.
Needs no explanation.

Also, beer.

Possibly the best place for a roadtrip.

Maybe one day I'll have the fortune to return.

Till then, stay beautiful.

Another stop on the Canadian Rockies trip: taking the gondola in Banff National Park.

A random room on the top of the mountain, locked but filled with basic amenities and lots of letters piled near the door.

I wish someone was there to tell me more about the story behind this room.

More customary hipster shots of mom.

A random castle among the mountains.

Everything here looks beautiful when you have endless stretches of snow-capped mountains as backdrop.

Stopping at a small town on our way out of the Canadian Rockies after 4 days of travelling to and in the region.

Coffee and toast with the mother in a cafe that looks like this in the middle of a small town in Canada that I don't even remember the name of.
Doesn't get more hipster than this, I guess.

With days spent on the road at the back of a coach, 
I quickly lose track of which part of the world I'm in.

But when it's your first time in a country and everywhere you look is beauty,
I guess it doesn't really matter.

Also, being ushered around in tour bus anyway.

Stopping by a dairy farm for ice cream.
Doesn't get fresher than this, I think.

The mother gets up close with the cows in the barn and falls in love with one of them.

Guess I now know who I got my animal-loving genes from.

More ridiculous beauty.

And customary shot of the mother standing next to a champagne glass statue.

We had ice wine here.
I don't know how to appreciate ice wine. Or any sweet wine for that matter.

Give me a beer any day.

Maple cream ale in maple syrup country.
A must-have.

We travelled out of Vancouver the very next morning after landing in Vancouver on our first night after the long-haul flight.

5 days spent on the road travelling to, in and out of Canadian Rockies, then back to Vancouver to see the city for a bit before leaving for Seattle the next day.
Did we see much of Canada?
Probably not.
Is this a tour you should book if you want to truly experience Canada?
No.
But if you want a taste of British Columbia and its endless stretches of breathtaking scenery and don't have 30 days to spend road-tripping around this part of the world, 
5 days on the road in and out of the Canadian Rockies is more than anyone can ask for.
(I could be wrong.)
Our Alaskan trip beckons.

Goodnight, Vancouver.

Good morning, Seattle.

Customary coffee in coffee city, 
before our drive to somewhere nearer the port where the cruise ships are docked.

Hello, Seattle!

Out of Canada, into the USA, 
spending a night in the city before leaving aboard our 8-day cruise to Alaska.

The last can from my pack of Buckshot Lager that I got from a pit-stop store in Canada.
Very cheap, very yummy.
Yes, "beer" is also a recurring word in this entry.
Because alcoholic I can.

For those interested in outlet shopping, our stop in Seattle on this CTC tour before embarking on our Alaskan cruise was at the Tulalip Casino Hotel, within 10-minute walking distance to the Seattle Premium Outlets.

Hotel room was fancy and luxurious, and we cleared customs at the Canada-US border early enough for us to get to the hotel, check in and still have more than 4 hours at the outlets located right next door before the shops closed for the day.

Brands available at the Seattle Premium Outlets are your typical street brands, with significant discounts on out-of-season designs.

Best snag from outlet shopping: this American Eagle Outfitters sweater.

But really, mostly, 
in the USA, still missing Canada.

The next morning, day 8 of the tour,
checking into our "hotel room" for the next 7 nights.

Best decision made for this tour:
Getting the balcony cabin.

Balcony cabins cost twice as much as the inside or oceanview (i.e. inside rooms that come with a small window with a view of the outside) cabins but are a no-brainer where cruises like Alaskan ones are involved. 

Because of the huge difference in cost, I spent quite a while researching on whether the splurge was necessary. Some articles suggest saving on the already expensive Alaskan cruise by getting an inside cabin and spending most of your time on the top decks in the public areas to get the outside views.
Unless you're fiercely social and part of your goals to go on a cruise is to get to know a tonne of people, I can't fathom why anyone would do that to themselves.

If you're ever planning a cruise to Alaska, get a cabin with a balcony.
It's an 8-day cruise to Alaska - you'll want the private space where you can relax, sit and enjoy the breathtaking views. The public areas get crowded fast and the icy cold temperatures out at sea will make hanging around the ship's public areas a not-so-pleasant experience very quickly.

Enjoy the holiday, earn the money back after.

First thing to do on the ship while waiting for it to set sail for Alaska:
Free ice cream.

This would become a daily routine for the next 7 days out at sea.
Free ice cream from deck 15's ice cream stand, 11am.

We spend a full day out at sea, sailing for Alaska.

The scale of the ship was impressive. Our first day or two aboard was spent going round in a maze, trying to figure out which stairwell/lift led to our desired dining area/our cabin (mom took longer to figure it out and got the hang of it after day 4/5). 
I've never been on a ship this massive before.
*cue Titanic feels*

But I also forget how boring things quickly get on cruises if you don't happen to be their usual clientele.
You get a daily schedule delivered to your cabin every night with a list of full-day shows, activities, workshops, shopping events and endless eating. Mom went exploring but I wasn't interested in any of these things (except my daily 11am ice cream cone) so I spent most of my time on board holed up in the cabin, sitting on the balcony or by the balcony inside the room where there was heating.

And the solitude was perfect because, 
the views, 
to myself.

(Those are dolphins. Yes, dolphins.)
*cue fan-girl scream*

Day 2 aboard:
Bright and early, room service in the morning, breakfast delivered to our cabin before leaving for a full day of activity on Juneau. 
Breakfast on our own balcony, with the view.

Again, best decision made: balcony cabin.

After a full day spent out at sea, we finally arrive at Juneau
first port of call on the Alaskan cruise.
Arrive: 1100
Depart: 2215

This is also where the free-and-easy element began.
Once on board the cruise, the tour with CTC took on a slightly different tone. The guide from Singapore who travelled with us in Canada continued to follow us on board the cruise, and she made plenty of effort to ensure we were doing well on board by sending us texts using the on-board cruise passenger texting system. However, activities on-shore were at our own cost and it was up to us if we wanted to book any land excursions through the cruise company (Princess Cruises).

I chose not to book any excursions through the cruise company. 
Some would argue otherwise and prefer engaging the services provided by the cruise company should any delays occur during excursions that might result in you missing the time to get back aboard the ship before it leaves the port.

While those concerns are valid, the providers of the land excursions I researched on and eventually went with have great track records of picking customers up and getting them back to the port way before the ship leaves. They also guarantee to bear any additional costs incurred should you miss your ship due to unforeseen circumstances and will get you to your next port of call.

Alaska is all about tourism; these providers knew my ship's schedule better than I did.
I got to go on the same excursions without having to squeeze onto a coach full of cruise passengers or pay extra for the middle man.
Smaller groups of tourists, friendlier service from closer-to-the-ground providers, lower rates.

When you can, always go direct to the provider.

I planned our first excursion for later so that we could get into this place earlier before the rest of the cruise ship world got onto Juneau.
Good move because the restaurant had a queue snaking out the front door when we got back after our excursion at 5.30pm.

Go to Alaska, must have Alaskan king crab.
And this place had pretty darn good ones.

First excursion in Juneau, Alaska:
Whale-watching!

Booked the 1.30pm tour with Harv & Marv's and the representative picked us up at our port right on time.

Glancing over at the other whale-watching boats provided by the cruise companies, packed full with tourists squeezing to get a good spot on the deck.

40+ people on a cruise company excursion,
11 on my boat, including me and mom.

I got front row seats next to the captain and he offered us access to the front and end of the boat whenever we sighted a whale.
Harv & Marv's was excellent and our captain was great at conversation about the whales in the area. Smaller boat also meant changing locations faster whenever a sighting was reported over their radio.

Yup, definitely go straight to the provider.

When whale-watching, watch out for spouts.
"Thar she blows!"

Nothing beats getting to see animals in their natural habitats.
Nothing.

After the whale-watching excursion, back on land in Juneau to explore the town.
5.30pm, need to be back on ship by 10pm. Plenty of time left to walk around and explore.

 But first stop: fish tacos at Deckhand Dave's because research says I have to.

Thank you, research.

I love you.

Day 3 of cruise:
Skagway,
second port of call on the Alaskan cruise.
Arrive: 0700
Depart: 2015

Plenty of excursion options. 
Lists of excursions for each port of call in Alaska are available online on the cruise company's website, and CTC Travel also printed out all the lists for us when we booked our tour.

Again, I didn't go with the cruise's excursions and went straight to the most reputable provider I found for Skagway's must-do excursion - White Pass and Yukon Route Railway.

Booking this excursion involved quite a few slightly painful rounds of research and trying to decide on whether I should splurge on the full rail route and go up to Bennett Station (or do the cheaper and shorter route and end at Fraser Station).

The White Pass and Yukon Route Railway, 
possibly the most iconic thing to do for Skagway.

Customary un-glam shot of the mother.

Took mom on the route that went all the way to Bennett Station in the end.

We got some time to get off the train and explore Bennett, part of the Gold Rush history, now an abandoned town accessible only by the railway.

If you're on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway excursion and want to see some undisturbed views of a pretty and quiet abandoned town, go for the Bennett Station route.
*cue the feels*

 Got off the railway at the end and had some time at Carcross Station to explore the area before boarding the coach on our journey back to the port.

Our guide stopped our coach at the iconic Emerald Lake for us to take some customary tourist shots.

He also stopped at the Welcome to Alaska Sign along the Klondike highway so we could take some customary tourist shots of signs to say where we've been.

30+ people on a cruise company excursion trying to get the best seats on the railway, big buses that can't stop by the side of the highway for you to take pictures of signs, costs more.
17 in my group, including me and mom - plenty of good seats to choose from when we boarded our train.

I booked the 7.30am excursion with Chilkoot Charters & Tours, and was a little nervous about disembarking in time to meet the guide at the port. 
Previous liaisons with the company over email before payment went well - the company replied me promptly and clarified whatever questions I had about late arrival. Should our ship be delayed and we fail to meet the guide at the specified start of the excursion, arrangements would be made for us to join a later excursion on the same day. 
Our ship was scheduled for 7am arrival in Skagway but ended up having delays in docking. 

We got to the meeting point at the port a little after the meeting time and while I was slight panicking, our Chilkoot Charters & Tours guide showed up and reassured me that all was well - he'd already received news about my ship's late docking and had gone by another location to pick others up before coming back for us.
These providers really do know my ship's schedule better than me lol.

Our friendly and humorous guide kept the excursion lively and got us back into town around 3.30pm, with plenty of time left to explore the town before getting back on the ship.

Again, go direct.

American popcorn, why you so flavourful.

Next stop in Skagway after getting back from the excursion: 

In all my excitement to find the place, finding the place and rushing into the place, I now realise I didn't take a single picture of the actual place.

The only memory I have of this very awesome place is this picture of my then newly-bought growler from the place, my now not-so-new-and-used growler from the place sitting on the table next to me as I type, and my fading memory of me sipping on the very yummy Spruce Tip Blonde Ale from the place by its bar.

Side-note: A growler, for the uninitiated, is a container used to transport draft beer, commonly sold at breweries and pubs as a means to sell take-out craft beer.

On the to-do list for Skagway was to visit this famous local pub, get a growler of its famed ale and bring it back with me to enjoy on the private balcony. Unfortunately, cruise policy would mean my growler of beer would be taken from me for "safekeeping" till the end of the cruise (because they want you to pay for beverages on-board and not bring your own; only a bottle of wine per passenger is allowed on the first day of embarkation). 
Nobody stores draft beer in a container for 4 days.
So I bought the empty growler for keepsake instead.
*cries*

Back on board for the night after a full day in Skagway.

The mother enjoying the balcony.

Oh Alaska, why you so beautiful.

Day 4 of cruise:
Glacier Bay National Park.
A day of scenic cruising in the national park, no disembarking.

Spent the day alternating between staying in the cabin on the balcony and going up to the public area on the top deck to catch different views of the national park while the ship cruised.

Random passenger standing next to me on the deck says under his breath to me while we all squeeze and watch the glaciers,
"It's a beautiful world we live in, isn't it?"

Yes, it is.

Day 5 of cruise:
Ketchikan,
third port of call on the Alaskan cruise.
Arrive: 0700
Depart: 1315

Short stop because smaller port.
Excursions also available through the cruise company but research told me most of what we wanted to see (and could explore in the amount of time given on land) were accessible on foot. 

Ketchikan, home of salmon.

Also, my first Salvation Army shopping experience in the USA.

Nothing beats thrift shopping in countries that know how to do thrift shopping.
Again, too excited to remember to take any pictures of the actual shop.

Ketchikan didn't have much on the to-do list.
Spent a chill late morning strolling around the port before heading back to the ship.

Back on the ship, in the evening after dinner, in one of my just thrift-shopped tops.

Alone in the cabin for the evening (mom went exploring again), 
music on, wine in the tumbler, out on the balcony in Alaskan weather.

I miss how these evening sessions make me feel.


Day 6 of cruise:
Victoria, British Columbia.
Fourth and last port of call on the Alaskan cruise.
Arrive: 1900
Depart: 2359

Another short stay because, not actually Alaska.

Excursions are available for Victoria, B.C., and most people go for the Butchart Gardens excursion to go see the botanical gardens which is said to look beautiful when lit at night.

Mom and I weren't crazy about looking at potted plants after the past 5 days of amazing natural glaciers so we gave that a miss and explored the port on foot instead.

I was curious why the ship would stop in Canada before returning to Seattle and some random googling mentioned something about regulations requiring cruise ships that are not US built, US owned and with US crews to stop at a foreign port before they are allowed to travel between US ports. 
Random useless information, but interesting nonetheless. 
Read more about the Jones Act here if you're into politics.
At least now I know why I had to randomly stop in Victoria, B.C. at 7pm when there was honestly nothing much to be done in the area.

That said about the Jones Act, the Fisherman's Wharf in Victoria, B.C. was quite a sight to behold. Beautiful, quaint houses floating on water.

#retirementgoals

Also, at least I got to meet this cute cat.

There also happened to be some sort of a street festival going on when we were there.
Flea markets are always nice.

Back on board the ship, our last night while the ship returns to Seattle for disembarkation.

Using what was left of my on-board credits (we were given some on-board credits for being the first 10 to sign-up for the tour package with CTC Travel) to have my last Alaskan beer on our Alaskan cruise balcony.

Goodbye Alaska.

Next morning, disembarked from ship, 
our last day in this side of the world before we end our 17 day tour.

Back in Seattle, 
back on the coach for our Seattle city tour before heading for the airport.

Pike Place Market.

(The western side of the world really know how to do markets right.)

Can I have a corner like this back at home, 
please?

In the land of Starbucks, must visit Starbucks headquarters.

We leave just a day before Seattle Pride.
Would have been nice to experience the parade but I guess a photo of this rainbow flag atop the Starbucks headquarters will have to do.

Can't leave land of coffee without getting my last cup of joe.

Storyville Coffee, outlets everywhere.
Pretty good coffee.

Goodbye, Seattle.
.
.
.

Go here for the official itinerary of CTC Travel's 17 Days Alaska & Canadian Rockies Tour.

Quick (and disorganized) tips if you're considering a #bucketlist trip to Alaska:

• CTC Travel's package was one of the more comprehensive given its price (we also visited Chan Brothers, ASA and Hong Thai; it came down to Chan Brothers or CTC, with us eventually opting for CTC Travel because it was considerably cheaper, had about 95% of the same itinerary, and CTC Travel upgraded us to the balcony cabin for free because we were the first few to register).

The Chan Brothers itinerary we initially considered includes a stop-over in Whistler, a town in Canada famous for skiing. Chan Brothers' package would be an 18 day tour because of this additional stop.

Cruise excursions are all optional and at your own cost. Everything else in the Canadian Rockies leg of the tour was included in our CTC package.

Cruise ship staff mostly speak English (and probably other languages but hardly any spoke Mandarin).

• Book your excursions directly through reputable providers online before your trip.

• Unless you're feeling wealthy or desperately need to stay connected, don't bother paying for the exorbitantly-priced internet on the cruise. Internet speed is slow and reception is very bad once you're out at sea. WiFi is available at most restaurants in all ports of call, some require you order before handing over the WiFi pass, others are free for use once within the vicinity.

• Alcoholics Wine-lovers like me, make use of the one 750ml bottle per cruise passenger limit. Beverage packages aboard the cruise are expensive and buying drinks by the glass doesn't get much cheaper either. I brought 2 bottles of red with me on the first day of embarkation (for mom and myself); that was more than enough to last for the whole cruise.

• Go. The sights are worth it.



Till the next review,
XOXO






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