Disembarkation, easy style (or so we thought)

When our time on the Explorer of the Seas was over, we had plans to stay in the Pacific Northwest for a few more days before flying home. Our next stop after getting off the ship was the Seattle airport, where we’d pick up a car, so we didn’t need to be in a hurry.

We packed up the rest of our things in the morning and went to breakfast in the Main Dining Room, which is usually served early (and for a short amount of time) on disembarkation day. I was a little surprised to find that the MDR was only serving a limited menu – this was the first time I’d seen this happen on a last day, but I guess it made sense. I was mostly interested in the coffee, anyway, and fortunately they had plenty of that!

We picked up our bags and settled into a set of comfortable chairs to wait for the dreaded “last call” to get off the ship. We had plenty of time and watched a movie while we waited. One by one, we watched the other people sitting nearby pick up their bags and leave. Finally, I could tell it was getting to be about that time, so I decided to make one last bathroom stop before we left the ship to go through immigration, which can sometimes take a while.

Imagine my surprise to find that all of the bathrooms nearby were locked! I was able to, um, hold it until we got off the ship, and things were fine. But it was a good warning not to wait until the last minute for things like these.

Finally, we took our bags and faced the reality – our cruise was over. On to the next adventure!

Cruising in rough seas

As we left San Francisco, the captain came over the loudspeaker to give his usual information about our route to the next port, which would be Victoria in two days’ time. He also noted, however, that we would be encountering somewhat rough seas over the next day. He definitely was not joking.

I’m a person who’s blessed to have never had problems with seasickness. I’ve had friends cruise with me who suffer from it considerably, though, so I know what it can do to a person. The hubby has sometimes gotten a little ill, so when we heard the captain’s announcement, we made sure to replace the scolpamine patch behind his ear just in case.

Sure enough, by the evening, the ship was rockin’ and rollin’. If you’re not affected by seasickness, the practical concerns caused by rough seas are pretty nominal and easy to overcome. Walking down hallways can be a little difficult, since the lurching of the ship is unpredictable. I recommend using handrails, or if they’re not available, lightly running a hand along the wall as you walk down the hall so you can catch yourself if necessary. As much as we all like to take the stairs every now and then on a cruise, and tell ourselves it justifies all the food we’ve eaten at the buffet, I usually skip the stairs for the elevator when the ship is rocking.

Oh, and maybe skip going to the fitness center and using the treadmill. It’s a little…trippy. I’ve never seen anyone fall, but I’ve seen people come close. I tend to walk fast on the treadmill and one time had the whole treadmill drop out from under me when the ship hit a wave. Talk about catching some air!

Back in your room, you can make some minor changes to minimize the impact of rough seas. If you’re not doing so, make sure to close and latch your bathroom door every time you use it; same with your closet doors. Inside the closet, bunch all of the clothes hangers together on the rod; this will help keep them from rattling as notably. Sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do: We had three days of rough seas in the Atlantic during our transatlantic cruise in 2015 and eventually we just got used to the noises our cabin would make.

Personally, I love it when the ship moves – depending on the motion of the ocean (heh) and the orientation of your bed, it almost has the effect of rocking you to sleep like a baby! Keep in mind, though, that it’s not unusual for the ship to make some creaking noises, especially in really rough seas. The good news is, it’s not falling apart! But you might want to bring ear plugs, just in case.

Going to the C&A event (again)

I’ve written before about the Crown and Anchor Top Tier event (for Platinum level members and higher) that the hubby and I attended on our Majesty of the Seas cruise in the Bahamas. I was intrigued to attend the similar event on the Explorer on the Seas because this is a much bigger ship, and I was curious how many people would attend.

One thing that was different on the Explorer cruise: we didn’t get our invitation to the event until midway through the week, and the event was held on the last day of our cruise. No problem – the event was held on our last sea day, and we had a pretty clear calendar. 😉 We attended the event, which was held in the ice rink, a feature found in Royal Caribbean’s Oasis, Freedom, and Voyager class ships.

(Side note: I just don’t get ice skating on a cruise ship. You can both attend skating performances and participate in an open skate yourself, but I’ve never found myself wanting to do it. I guess it’s a matter of personal preference!)

Indeed, there were a lot more people attending this Top Tier event, which was not surprising as it was a much bigger cruise ship. Waiters were walking around with the usual drinks (I opted for champagne again) and even some small hors d’oeuvres. The program was similar, but with one noticeable difference: The top cruisers had far fewer nights at sea than did the ones at the Majesty C&A event.

I didn’t mind attending the event because we really didn’t have anything to do, and we got a few free drinks out of it. I think the hubby is getting a little sick of them, though – he opted out of the event on our next cruise. (As it turns out, I kind of wish that I had too….)

San Francisco: Sailing in and out

When I booked the Pacific Coastal cruise, I was especially excited to be sailing in and out of San Francisco. I’ve visited San Fran by land several times, and sailing in and out of ports has always been one of my favorite parts of cruising. I thought this would be a perfect combination of the two, and I was not disappointed!

Our arrival time in San Francisco was listed at 8 am, and so I woke up pretty early (around 6) to make sure I was awake. Wouldn’t you know it – I was met by the famous San Francisco fog, so thick I could hardly see past the edge of my balcony. I puttered around the room for a while waiting for the hubby to get up, but finally decided I didn’t want to wait any longer. I headed up to the Viking Crown Lounge on the top deck for the best view.

Photo Sep 18, 10 04 19 AM

By this time, it was about 7 am. It was pretty light, but still very foggy. I sat down by a window and took a few pictures of the fog and all the people waiting on the front of the ship. Suddenly, and very quickly, the Golden Gate Bridge began to emerge from the fog. I took a few photos and a video as we passed under the bridge. A crew member who had been washing the windows next to me sat down and we watched as the ship sailed under the bridge. It was a pretty impressive sight, even in the fog!

Photo Sep 18, 10 07 06 AM

Throughout the rest of our sail in to the port, the fog came and went. My husband joined me on deck and we took some great pictures of Alcatraz and, eventually, the city itself. We finally pulled into port around 8 am and I found that I had a great view from our balcony, even though the fog continued to obscure parts of the city.

Photo Sep 18, 10 18 09 AM

Our sail away the next afternoon, in contrast, couldn’t have been more clear. It was also incredibly windy! The hubby and I were lucky to station ourselves just behind a wind screen and got some great pictures as we sailed past Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge. I had gotten some advice from a friend to always hold my phone-camera sideways when shooting video and managed to get a pretty sweet video of us passing under the Golden Gate.

Photo Sep 19, 7 45 13 PM

You can view my pictures of the sail in and out of San Francisco on my Facebook page. I’m really looking forward to having San Francisco on my itinerary again!

An overnight port stop in San Francisco

For all the many cruises I’ve been on over the years, this cruise featured my first overnight port. Based on our experience, I can definitely say that it won’t be my last!

It didn’t hurt that our overnight was in San Francisco, one of my favorite cites in the country. It’s also the home to one of my friends since high school and close to where my brother lives. Our overnight port allowed us to make time separately to see both of them without having to carefully (over)coordinate our plans.

On the night before we arrived into San Francisco, we were seated at a table with a couple of frequent cruisers, one of whom mentioned how great overnight ports could be. The best part, he said, was how free you felt because you didn’t have to worry about losing track of time and missing the ship. This seemed a little overly dramatic to me.

But as it turns out, he was right! Upon arriving in San Francisco, we got off the ship around noon and wandered around the city for several hours before meeting my high school friend at his house for dinner. We enjoyed a leisurely dinner and called a car from Lyft around 10:30 pm to take us back to the cruise ship. (If driving in San Francisco, it’s best to do it at times when the city’s notoriously bad traffic is at a minimum, and late on a Monday night is definitely one of those times!)

I loved our overnight port in San Francisco, and I would definitely choose an itinerary with an overnight stop again. It allowed us to take both daytime and nighttime pictures of the fabulous view from our balcony (pictured above and below), but most of all it gave us the peace of mind to enjoy our visit without the worry of missing the ship that so often lies beneath the surface on every port day.

Photo Sep 19, 2 26 46 AM

Getting a balcony room on a cool-weather cruise

I have to say – I am a huge fan of a balcony cabin on a cruise. I love sitting on the balcony, especially when the ship is moving, and watching the world go by. Balconies are also a great place to park yourself when you’re pulling into or out of port.

But balconies can also be expensive. So for our Pacific Coastal cruise, I initially planned to pinch a few pennies and get us an oceanview room instead. It would probably be too cold to sit on the balcony, I rationalized, even though our cruise left in the middle of September. If I was wrong, we could always make use of the public space outside.

When it came time to make our final payment, I decided that just for fun I would take a look at the going rates for the various categories of cabin. I was shocked to find a rate on a balcony room that was cheaper than the ocean view I’d booked a few months earlier! Cruise ship cabins are very much priced on supply and demand (as well as the amount of time left until the cruise departs), so it’s not uncommon to see this kind of price drop (although usually it happens after the final payment date).

So I switched us to the balcony room, which also was conveniently located near the elevators on the aft end of the ship. Was it worth it? Well, I was actually paying less than I’d planned to pay for the ocean view room, so in that way it was certainly a deal. I will say, though, that we didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the balcony – early mornings (when I like to sit out on the balcony and drink my coffee) were too chilly, even with a jacket, and we preferred to be up on deck for most of the sail aways, such as our trip under the Golden Gate bridge as we left San Francisco.

When your big ship ports in a small town

Each night when we get the next day’s Cruise Compass, I start by reading the description of our next port of call. When I saw the description of Astoria, I was a little taken aback. In fact, I had to read it aloud to my husband to make sure I wasn’t overthinking (as an academic, I’m prone to doing that).

“Tell me if this doesn’t sound like the most depressing thing you’ve heard,” I said, before reading the description of Astoria:

“Astoria has served as a port of entry for over a century and remains the trading center for the lower Columbia basin, although it has long since been eclipsed by Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington as an economic hub of the Pacific Northwest. Astoria’s economy centered on fishing, fish processing, and lumber. IN 1945, about 30 canneries could be found along the Columbia; however, in 1974 Bumblebee Seafood moved its headquarters out of Astoria, and gradually reduced its presence until 1980 when the company closed its last Astoria cannery. The timber industry likewise declined; Astoria Plywood Mill, the city’s largest employer, closed in 1989, and the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway discontinued service in 1996.”

Perhaps I’m a bit sensitive, but I thought this description of Astoria as a has-been canning and lumber town was a little too bleak. It’s not inaccurate by any means, and the city has had a hard way to go for many years. In fact, the introduction of cruise ship tourism, along with the push to get land-based visitors, has played a major role in Astoria’s economy in the last few years. (Maybe that’s part of the reason why we found everyone to be so friendly and helpful! Although from my years of living in Oregon, I think the people there are just generally nice.)

One thing I did notice, however, was that the small town of Astoria (pop. 9800) did have a bit of a logistics problem with the arrival of a fairly large cruise ship like Explorer of the Seas (3100 passengers). The port is off-set slightly from the downtown, necessitating that passengers either walk a mile along a waterfront pathway or take a shuttle bus ($6 roundtrip). Since the hubby’s bad back limits us from walking long distances, the shuttle bus it was.

However, there were over 3000 of us – and not nearly enough shuttle buses; though I give the town props for trying earnestly, the system in place just couldn’t accommodate the demand. (In fact, Astoria has set up an extensive “cruise host” program to assist passengers in touring the city, and we found these folks to be wonderfully helpful.) But when we disembarked the ship first thing in the morning, we found long lines for the shuttle buses and decided to re-board the ship and try again later (we eventually wound up taking the bus around noon with very little wait).

As cruise lines expand their itineraries and port in more towns like Astoria, it’s increasingly likely that this situation – big ship in a little town – will be a part of your cruise experience. My advice is to plan your day accordingly to avoid the logjam of passengers at the beginning of the day: Have a late, leisurely breakfast; use the opportunity to sleep in; maybe even hit the fitness center in the morning. If you shift your shore time to the second half of the day, you’ll have far less competition for the resources like shuttle buses that can be a bit pinched in these kind of ports.

Brewery hopping in Astoria, OR

You may have noticed by now that the Nerdy Traveler has a fondness for beer. I was excited to visit Astoria as the first port on our Pacific Coastal cruise because a simple Yelp search had revealed so many breweries in the downtown area of Astoria, near to where the cruise ship docked.

I noticed that Royal Caribbean offered a brewery-focused shore excursion, but the price (almost $80 per person) convinced me that I could easily create a DIY version for much less. I was right! (I love it when that happens.)

We started our day at Reach Break Brewing, which was close to where our shuttle bus had dropped us off in downtown Astoria. They didn’t do flights at Reach Break, but did offer half-pours, so we were able to try a few delicious brews before walking up to our next stop, the Fort George Brewery. We weren’t hungry, so we opted to bypass the crowded restaurant and stop in the taproom, where we had a delicious flight of IPAs. (The abundance of IPAs offered at breweries in the Pacific Northwest will always be one of my favorite things about that part of the country!)

Our next stop was the Astoria Brewing Company, a few blocks away and in the direction of our shuttle bus stop where we’d be picked up to go back to the ship. I saw only one beer style I really wanted to try (the IPA, natch), so I decided not to go the flight route. But I made the rookie mistake of blindly ordering a full pint without asking whether half-pours were available. (As a result, my memories of the rest of the day are a little, um, hazy!)

We did make it to one more brewery, the bustling Buoy Beer Company on the waterfront, to sample their IPA before we had to catch the shuttle and make sure we didn’t miss our ship! (We had started our day a bit late and so were a little rushed at the end). We didn’t have time to eat at Buoy, but I wish we had – the food looked and smelled delicious, and plus, we’d had a lot of beer! As you can imagine, once we got back to the ship, we had to take a bit of a nap before sailaway.

Getting to the port: Seattle Terminal 91

Warning: If you have a friend who lives in Seattle, you might NOT want to ask her to drive you to the cruise port in Seattle. Unless she’s a good friend (fortunately, mine was!).

There are two ports in Seattle; Royal Caribbean and Celebrity both leave from Terminal 91. (We were in port along with the Celebrity Solstice.) You’ll use this port if you’re on any cruise line other than Norwegian Cruise Lines, which departs from the more centrally located Pier 66.

As I mentioned, my friend offered to drive us to the cruise port. After a quick stop to buy two bottles of wine to take on our cruise, we followed the fairly straightforward Google Maps directions to the port. That’s when it got a little…annoying.

We arrived a little before 1 pm for a 4 pm departure and frankly, I thought maybe we were late enough to avoid the majority of the day’s traffic. I was wrong, but not necessarily for the reason I expected. See, the person who designed the traffic flow at this terminal must not have been thinking about have two large cruise ships’ worth of passengers arriving at the same time: Right smack in the middle of the flow of traffic is a cross walk through which every arriving passenger must walk!

Yep, that’s right: The cars trying to enter to drop people off – taxis, Ubers, private cars, Lyfts – all have to stop for pedestrians to walk across the road. Unsurprisingly, this caused quite a backup, and the whole drop off process took a good 15-20 minutes, a lot of which was spent sitting around.

So my take away to you is this: When you arrive at the Terminal 91 drop off, expect that you’ll be slowed down, maybe to the tune of 15-30 minutes. And if you’re going to have someone drive you, maybe ask a person you don’t really like? 😉

Staying in an AirBnB in Ballard

I usually like to arrive a day or two early for cruises just in case of unexpected travel delays. For this cruise, we decided to stay a couple of nights in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard. I was familiar with the area from previous visits to Seattle, and I had a friend who lived in a neighborhood nearby, so staying in Ballard would make getting together with her easier.

But Ballard is a residential neighborhood, not really a touristy one. The sole hotel in the area was selling rooms for nearly $400 a night! So I turned to AirBnB for a place to stay.

I admit that as an overthinking traveler, I’m a little conflicted about AirBnB. There’s no doubt that the growth of AirBnB has wreaked havoc on some of my favorite cities to visit, such as Barcelona and New Orleans, because people buy properties solely to use them as vacation rentals. This drives up monthly rental prices to an often unbearable level, because daily rental rates are so much higher than their monthly equivalent.

So when I can, I try to find a rental that upholds the original spirit in which AirBnB was founded: People offering up spaces on their property to short-term renters. The trick is, I prefer to have some sort of private space. So I look for properties like Doug and Lori’s, with a private entrance and self-contained space. (Psst: If you’re looking for a place to stay in Seattle, I highly recommend this one!)

We had a blast during our two days in Ballard walking around the neighborhood, with an occasional Lyft to get us to nearby places. We had a delicious breakfast at Portage Bay Café and tried some great local beers at the Ballard Beer Company. When we took a car to the nearby Fremont neighborhood, we tried some excellent flights at Schilling Cider Tap Room and the Fremont Brewing Company.

Our two days went by too quickly, and soon enough it was time to get on the cruise ship. Seattle, we’ll be back!