Saturday, September 27, 2014

Alaska Cruise

Embarrassing to admit that I’ve lost track of the number of cruises we have taken. But I know for a fact this was our second cruise to Alaska, with almost but not quite the same itinerary.  Why go back after nine years?  Alaska was one of our favorite cruise destinations, a visual splendor unlike any we’ve known, massive in its grandeur, the only comparable natural wonder that we’ve seen being the Grand Canyon.  I think of Alaska’s glaciers (most of which are receding) and majestic mountain ranges as almost other worldly, knowing that under our ship the glaciers have carved deep craters below. 

The highlight of this week was a full day of slowly cruising around in the placid waters of Glacier Bay National Park, a World Heritage site, a United Nations biosphere reserve that is managed by the National Park Service.  It is not often that ships have the full reign of that territory. More on that below.

We had another motive for this trip and that was to see Seattle, a city we’ve passed through but never visited in detail.  The other special reason for visiting the city was to spend time with Edna and Mark, a younger and very energetic couple we enjoyed getting to know on our European River Cruise last year. They frequently talked about how unique and special their city was and how much they loved living there.   They said if we ever visited Seattle, they’d want to show us around, so when we told them we were coming to take them up on their invitation, I believe they were as excited as we were.

I will write separately about our Seattle visit so this entry covers half our trip. Our departure from Palm Beach airport to Seattle included a tight connection in Dallas.  Anyone who has flown through Dallas knows it’s a huge airport and although they have a tram that runs from one terminal to another, getting to some terminals takes longer than others.  On the flight to Dallas they announced our arrival at terminal A and our departure gate to Seattle at gate B29, an easy one stop ride to B terminal.  So we get on the tram, get to B and discover that B29 does not exist, with B28 being the last gate in Dallas’ B terminal.  I looked at the board, and our soon-to-depart plane was leaving from the C terminal, which we made in the nick of time.  I tell this story as there is an analogous, more interesting one that I’ll include in my Seattle write up.  American Airlines needs to buy a good computer! Their logistical planning and information provided to passengers needs improvement.  The one big plus about our flight into Seattle included a great view of Mt. Rainier from 30,000 feet, a relatively clear day in Seattle.

We decided to fly into Seattle the night before, although the cruise was scheduled to leave in the late afternoon the next day.  No sense leaving arrival to chance.  And dealing with connecting flights as we did we would have been cutting things close if we came in the day of the cruise, too close.   Using points, we stayed at the Hampton Inn Downtown. 

We are long time Hilton Honors members, frequently staying at their Hampton Inns up and down the 95 corridor.  That route normally leaves dreary eating choices at America’s on the road fine restaurants such as Arby’s  Denny’s, and Hooter’s and the like (actually, good catfish at Cracker Barrel), so staying at Hampton has conditioned us to eat in, even if it means picking up a Subway.  No such thing in Seattle which probably has more good restaurants per capita than most cities in the US and the Hampton Inn suggested “Crow” – a two block walk from the hotel.  Eating at Crow; it seemed incongruous until we looked up reviews – one of the most highly praised – in the top dozen – restaurants in Seattle among some 2,000!  We liked the irony that (as anyone knows who reads this blog) we’ve been going to “Crow Island” in the Long Island Sound for more than 30 years where we have a mooring.  So, hi ho, hi ho, it was off to Crow we went and what a meal.  We ate there again when we returned to Seattle, so I’ll save the details for my Seattle entry (getting ahead of myself again)

The next morning we packed up, and took a van to the ship.  Boarding was effortless.  It helps that Holland America’s Westerdam has “only” some 2,000 passengers, which is now only one third the size of some of the mega ships negotiating certain waters.  That’s our maximum for any cruise line.

On board, we settled into our stateroom, took part in the life boat drill, and then joined fellow passengers for a view of Seattle from the aft pool deck area for the “sail away,” music, snacks, champagne and the like.  But the main attraction was the Seattle skyline, the shipyards, and the breathtaking views of the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges.  Passengers were mostly American and mostly from the west coast, with many from Seattle.  In fact we sat with such a couple, she happy to be underway, he not too sure.  It was hazier than the day we arrived so Mt. Rainier loomed in the distance sort of like a snow-laden Bali Ha’i.
Holland America has graduated to anytime seating and that worked out well for us, sometimes meeting interesting couples, and sometimes meeting couples with whom we had absolutely nothing in common.  The latter became the norm so we generally requested a table for two and normally was accommodated.  Holland America has maintained its excellence in food selection and preparation.  I usually had a good piece of fish which is an improvement over many ships we’ve been on.

Since I’m discussing the cruise line, I might as well get the “entertainment” out of the way.  We don’t go on these cruises for such, but in the evening we’ve been accustomed to seeing some fine production shows over the years, on Holland America as well as some other cruise lines.  The ones we enjoy focus on the Great American Songbook, Broadway and standard songs and the like, with interesting choreography, but alas the influence of shows like “The Voice”, “America has Talent” and “American Idol” now trumps the American Songbook and production shows are geared to a demographic we don’t relate to, loud, spectacular (well, they think they are “spectacular”) effects, with subpar singers and worse dances grinding out this tedium.  They have “theme oriented” shows, such as “at the movies” which I thought might be classic songs from musical films we all know and love.  Goodbye Rodgers and Hammerstein and hello unrecognizable and unmemorable songs, ones I suspect had been written for a flat fee, paid to young songwriters, so the cruise lines do not have to pay royalties over and over again.  Just atrocious.  Save your time and go back to your room and read as we did.

The only exception to this was a duet of two young Ukrainian female musicians, a pianist and violinist.  “Adagio” played every night in one of the small lounges, reminding me of Kafka’s The Hunger Artist, ignored by most of the crowd who are surging to watch the lions eat (the production shows).  So we would frequently be there almost alone as these young musicians played classical duets for piano and violin, while apologizing in their broken English for not knowing many “American” songs yet (no apology necessary from our viewpoint; it’s we who should be apologizing to them for so few of our shipmates being in attendance).  So, thankfully for “Adagio” we developed the routine of hearing them first before going to dinner and then back to our room to read.  (I’ll have to write a separate entry on reading on the trip which ranged from John Updike, to Ian McKuen, to Jack Kerouac).  I was grateful to have some really good books, particularly for those evenings and our first day, which was entirely at sea as we travelled the 880 nautical miles to Juneau, our first port

Also part of the routine, mine anyhow, was an early morning walk on the Promenade deck.  I usually walked this alone or with just a few other people, most preferring to sleep in or, if exercising, walking on a treadmill at the gym.  Nice to be out even in a gusty, cool wind, and watch the sunrise and feel the ship surging under you.  Walk around decks are disappearing from ships now being built, utilizing that space for revenue-producing venues, so the older, traditional ships, for me at least, are preferred.

Arriving in Juneau at 12.30 PM Alaska time (4 hours difference vs. the east coast), we had scheduled the same tour we did nine years ago, our favorite one as it is entirely nature focused and on a small ship.  The objective was to view whales, but there were sea lions and American bald eagles as well.  Nine years ago, when on a similar vessel, I was on the port side and Ann on the starboard.  I had the camera, snapping away at whales surfacing to breathe and then diving, when a large cry came from starboard.  I rushed over only to see the splash after a whale had totally breached, Ann witnessing the event without a camera while I was on the other side.  A total breach photograph is considered the pinnacle of whale photography, and truth be told (as our photographer and guide in residence on the ship related, Kelley, who has been cruising looking for such a photograph for 14 years), they happen when least expected, rarely, and photos are by accident.  She got her first such photograph earlier on a cruise this year.
So, again, we went out after such a photo.  This time, Ann was armed with her iPad so we had it covered from both sides of the ship, but no breach.  Still, to watch the whales (all humpbacks) in their natural habitat was exciting, seeing eagles, and sea lions was again a special experience, well worth the tour.

Next night and day we were on our way to Glacier Bay some 146 nautical miles further. The National Park service determines whether a ship may enter.  The Master of the MS Westerdam, Captain Rens Van Eeten said it was the first cruise of the season where he was permitted to not only enter Glacier Bay, but to proceed to the Margerie Glacier about 55 nautical miles and then to Johns Hopkins Glacier which is at the farthest end, some 63 nautical miles from the entrance to the bay.

We were lucky enough to have spectacular sunny weather to view this first hand, and we had the same fortune nine years ago.  Perhaps my only regret is if I was much younger, and had the means to do it, this is a trip which would be incredibly special on one’s own boat.  The Park permits 25 private vessels at a time in the Bay, although last cruise we saw only one, a motor yacht and this year, only one sail boat, about 40 feet.  There is ice floating in the bay, large chunks, so one must take care.  These are the bergs from the calving process, breaking into icebergs and then falling into the Bay, sometimes with thundering noise and waves.  We witnessed some of that this year, more nine years ago.

The scenery is spectacular.  I must have taken 400 photos and can just squeeze in a few here.  No wonder it is the largest UNESCO protected biosphere in the world.  The Bay covers some 1,375 square miles and glaciers account for about a quarter of the area.  The mountain peaks soar above you.  The weather was calm, clear, and in the mid 40’s, just a perfect day to tour the entire Bay, lucky to be able to make it all the way to the Johns Hopkins Glacier, the only advancing tidewater glacier in the Bay now.  Most are receding. 

Tell that to those who don’t believe in global warming, such as Rep. Larry Bucshon of Indiana from the House Science Committee who was challenged by John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy that he should look at the scientific literature if he doesn’t believe in the phenomenon of global warming.  Bucshon replied "Of all the climatologists whose careers depend on the climate changing to keep themselves publishing articles — yes, I could read that, but I don't believe it."  Perhaps Bucshon should visit Alaska?

From Glacier Bay the ship made a 200 NM run to Sitka, a port we hadn’t visited before.  This was of interest to me as it is where the United States reached an agreement to purchase Alaska from Russia for the mere price of $7.2 million in 1867.  Russia had settlements there mainly for the fur trade and had pretty well decimated the sea otter population and that, combined with its inability to defend the territory if war commenced with Britain dictated the sale.  It was called “Seward’s Folly” as U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward conducted the negotiations soon after our Civil War.  Imagine $7.2 million for a cake of ice more than twice the size of Texas!  In any case, it was here in Sitka where the transfer ceremony took place on October 18, 1867.  The Russian presence is still evident, especially with the beautifully maintained and still functioning St. Michael's Cathedral in downtown Sitka. 

We departed Sitka at 2:30 pm and made way another 214 NM to Ketchikan, a port we’ve visited before, arriving at 6:30 in the morning.  There we wandered into town with a special mission to visit Creek Street, infamously known in the 1920’s for its “bootlegged booze, loose women, hot music, and rowdy customers.” It also has a stream where the salmon were still running and predators awaited, the sea lions for an easy catch and the seagulls when the sea lions had to come up for air.  No wonder Ketchikan is known as the "Salmon Capitol of the World." Unfortunately, Alaska’s weather had degraded after several magnificent days, so Ketchikan was a rainy day.  Still, fascinating.
At about 1:00 pm we set off for Victoria, BC a long run of 578 NM and part of that day, the evening, and the next was spent in fog banks.  The ship had to slow down and it delayed our arrival in Victoria BC to 6:15 PM, hardly worth getting off the ship in that we were departing at 11:00 PM.  We had been to Victoria twice before, experiencing its beautiful inner harbor, the Empress Hotel, its Parliament building, and it’s magnificent Butchart Gardens, so, sadly, this time around we had to pass on a visit, enjoying instead a quiet dinner on board, and photographing the lights of Parliament from the ship.

Another 77 NM brought us back to Seattle the next morning, seven wonderful days, covering 2,095 nautical miles, and reinforcing our memories and love of Alaska.  I’ll continue this narrative on the Seattle portion of the trip sometime soon.  As a reminder, best way to enjoy the photographs is to click onto the first one and then a string of all the photos will appear at the bottom and one can quickly click through them all. 


Thursday, September 11, 2014


We’re going off to Seattle and Alaska so for a while this space will be quiet.  I hope to have some interesting tales and photographs upon our return.

I write this with a great sense of sadness as thirteen years ago we watched the smoke drift from the north to the south when the World Trade Towers were attacked and fell, a day in our lives we will never forget. Although we were some fifty miles away, it was a clear, crisp autumn-like morning sky and we could see it clearly from our boat in Norwalk, CT.  Such senselessness, the loss of life of so many innocent men and women, and yet the monstrous hatred that spawned those attacks continues.  We can only hope that the administration’s plans as laid out by President Obama last night will contain and perhaps destroy ISIS.  It is obviously a war without end.

My older son, Chris, wrote a poem about 9/11 that very day.  It’s a first-hand emotional account of the horror and the hope.

I’ve posted these before, but they’re lost among the hundreds of entries of this blog, so I’ve collected a few of my sunrise photographs, and repost them here, in remembrance.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Obama and ISIS

Apparently, unlike some Americans I support President Obama’s careful and deliberate assessment of what to do with the extremist terrorist group, ISIS.  We’ve heard the knee-jerk criticism of Obama, an understandable emotional reaction to the sickening images of beheadings of journalists on the internet.  Why is he on the golf course instead of in Washington devising a devastating and decisive response?!!!!  (As if planning and policy comes to a standstill as Obama slices a tee shot.  And as if we have an immediate strategy for dealing with all permutations of such groups.  And as if we can do anything to make this group simply disappear.)

When President Obama takes to the TV tomorrow we’ll hear more specifics about dealing with ISIS, and there is a good summary of what to expect on ABC’s blog.

It’s pretty clear that this is not a “boots on the ground” war, but one similar to what we’ve waged against Al Qaeda.  ISIS is even better organized and funded. It is unlikely we can “defeat them” in the military sense of the word.  They are like a form of the black plague which at best can be forced into remission but is easily activated.  It is an especially dangerous group as they know how to court social media and they are positioning themselves as the long sought after Islamic caliphate.  We’re talking about trying to contend with about 1,000 years of history and religious fervor in that case.

No you don’t march on them; you surgically and systematically degrade their capabilities (as has already been said by Obama).  And of course we must develop collaboration with European and Arab states for containing ISIS, and especially how it is being financed.  Judging by their sophisticated weaponry, more like an army than a fragmented terrorist group, some factions of the oil rich Middle East states would seem to be involved.  Is this a middle-eastern incarnation of the protection racket? Intelligence is needed to identify and choke off those funds.  

Indeed, those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it.  As Adam Gopnik recently wrote in his article in The New Yorker, “Does It Help to Know History?ISIS is a horrible group doing horrible things, and there are many factors behind its rise. But they came to be a threat and a power less because of all we didn’t do than because of certain things we did do—foremost among them that massive, forward intervention, the Iraq War. (The historical question to which ISIS is the answer is: What could possibly be worse than Saddam Hussein?)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Big Money Behind Little Dollars

Anyone following the financial headlines has to marvel at the game of steal the bacon being played out by three very similar companies, Dollar Tree, Dollar General,and Family Dollar Stores  Their merchandise is consumable products -- paper products, cleaners, clothing, gadgets and chachkas and the like -- primarily aimed at low- and middle-income consumers.  Most of the goods are imported from cut-rate factories in China or 3rd world countries. Basically, Family Dollar Stores has been the object of takeover bids by their rivals, Dollar Tree and Dollar General. 

Although we’re talking about a generally low margin business, there are a lot of consumers in this category, and the owners of these businesses know it.  So what is Family Dollar’s 5.36% operating margin and almost $10 billion in sales (that’s a lot of purchases at $1.00 each:-) worth to the highest bidder, Dollar General: $9.1 billion.  It’s amazing that low margin businesses can carry this kind of price, but we’re talking about next to nothing interest rates, so just borrow it!  And of course there is the magic of synergy.

But if you look at the principals and the major individual stockholders of these three businesses, making millions of dollars personally in compensation and stock options every year, it brings up the issue of the 1% and the huge disparity of income between them, their employees and their customers. That’s the sad reality of the issue, the magnitude of that income discrepancy unprecedented until Wall Street overshadowed Main Street.

Maybe all three can get together as General Family Tree Dollar Stores?  Cheap goods for the poor and riches for the job creators!  Money rules!