A Cruise Skeptic Sails to Alaska
Self-disembarkation was fast and easy except for the part where I couldn’t get “O Canada” out of my head. All by ourselves in a swanky downtown hotel, stuck on trying to coordinate with the rest of our group scattered elsewhere in the city, and not particularly caring what we did as long as we were out and about, Spousal Unit and I decided to wander.
We had a tasty lunch at the Bellaggio Cafe, one of the coffee spots recommended by our hotel concierge. We roamed around Chinatown and Gastown, taking in the red and gold of the former and the cobbled wrought iron Victorian charm of the latter. We learned that it was Canada Day, meaning yet more crowds to avoid at popular spots, which made me glad for our lack of directed itinerary. With a lingering sense of excess from the prior night’s festivities, we skipped dinner and retired early to rest up for the next day.
In the morning, Andrew, Dustin, Glenda, and Spencer joined Spousal Unit and me for Cycle City’s Grand Tour, which turned out to be everything I had hoped for. The route covered a great deal of varied ground on one long loop and showed us much more than we would have seen in five hours if left to our own devices. We rode along the seawall of Stanley Park, where stray logs wash up on the beach and the city arranges them into makeshift benches. In the park, we saw totem poles, the stunningly reflective Beaver Lake, one of the few remaining old growth trees that escaped logging from the British, and a replica figurehead of the Empress of Japan, an ocean liner once serving as the primary link between Vancouver and East Asia.
We took an Aquabus ferry across False Creek to Granville Public Market, located in an area reclaimed from industry. Spousal Unit and I shared an Indian food sampler, bean burrito, and salted caramel gelato, plus fun conversation with other travelers at our table. We ultimately rode through Chinatown, Gastown, and Yaletown, learning the context of assorted details seen on the prior night’s wanderings. Gastown was named after Gassy Jack, the first saloon owner in Vancouver, so called for his storytelling habits and not necessarily for flatulence. The red and gold streetlights in Chinatown were commissioned by the city to give the neighborhood a distinct visual identity. A monument honored Chinese-Canadian railway workers and veterans of World War II.
We detoured through the public park of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the first scholars’ garden built outside China. Vancouver has a similar climate to Suzhou, home to the famed Lingering Garden and Master of Nets Garden, so many of the same plant varieties are found here as well. We skipped the actual garden and its admission fee. Since I had seen the aforementioned originals in China, I was happy enough with the respite of cool greenery on a relatively hot day.
Not just a comprehensive survey of Vancouver, the Grand Tour gave us a feel for its bike-friendly infrastructure. Guided by cycle-specific traffic lights, we rode along separated lanes and mixed-use paths, flowing from one riding space to the next like a movie introduction where the camera seamlessly travels through a variety of set pieces. We did have to thread the needle alongside traffic at times, and there was one awkward hill up to a cloverleaf pedestrian bridge. Even so, everyone kept up well and enjoyed the ride – including those who were worried because they hadn’t ridden in years.
Our guide, Nick, balanced a swift pace with keeping the group together. He shared plenty of historical and cultural knowhow, including details on the planned nature of Vancouver, its environmentalist goals, and its vision of livability borne from the cancellation of a controversial freeway. The start of said freeway had already destroyed the historically black neighborhood, Hogan’s Alley. If not for residents’ spirited protests, Chinatown and Gastown would have also been obliterated. Nick spoke honestly of Vancouver’s challenges with affordable housing and heroin addiction, which the government is mitigating through a supervised injection clinic.
The bike tour was more about the very cool experience than photo ops, especially given the limitations of finding good vantage points with a phone camera while staying close enough to hear Nick. I did get a few good shots. I also got sunburned. Ow.
Afterward, we caught up with people we had missed the night before, as they had gone off to Canada Day celebrations we had no desire to brave the crowds of. Sushi is one of Vancouver’s culinary specialties, so eight of us went to Minami to partake. Spousal Unit and I also shared a tofu salad and an incredible flight of plum wine, of which the Darjeeling tea-infused variety was my favorite. Others moved on to beer and bar food. Spousal Unit and I cashed out to wake up at 4:15 the next morning.
Seattle was a Sure, Might as Well addition to our original itinerary. Like Vancouver, it seemed pleasant and fun to explore, with an easily walkable city center, a variety of museums and other such points of interest, and amazing local seafood and vegetarian dishes and COFFEE! We also wanted to meet up with friends and family in the area.
We went with the Amtrak Cascades train for its reliable travel time and superior visuals, as contrasted to a bus apt to get hung up in border traffic along a boring highway. The train was overbooked and running late, but we beat the worst of the line and were luckily assigned a seat on the scenic right hand water side although I had forgotten to ask for one in my caffeine-deprived 5:30 a.m. haze. The conductor paused at one point where seahawks were roosting. Free wi-fi was good enough for leisurely surfing, food unimpressive but functional, baggage incredibly slow to appear at the claim. A line of taxis was waiting, and our driver gave us his card to prearrange our Tuesday ride to the airport.
The people I had hoped to see are three separate cohorts who don’t know each other. Stressed out from trying to schedule tourism and social time, I gave up on a plan entirely. I just made a short list of things I was interested in and figured the details would fall into place. Spousal Unit and I would keep everyone in the loop with our availability, and anywhere we hung out would be cool.
We wandered up to Pike Place Market, snacking on a pint of blueberries as we drifted through the weekend hordes past crafts and fish and produce and flowers, then down to specialty shops on the lower floors. After a bunch of texting back and forth, we met Jennifer and Pete – the parental units of my Seattle family group – at the EMP Museum, where I was happy to see a meatless option at a sausage booth but not hungry enough to try it. Jennifer is a Trekkie, and Spousal Unit enjoys various incarnations of the series, so we all paid the upcharge for the Star Trek exhibit. Though I haven’t seen much of anything Trek, I liked the presented emphasis on its peaceful, diplomatic vision and commitment to diversity. Props, models, and costumes are always cool to see, and there were a few infinite mirror doors giving the illusion of lights fading down a hallway.
Indie Game Revolution featured a diverse selection of good stuff in various genres. I tried a few rounds of SPL-T, an elegantly simple puzzler, and spectated the quirky Tenya Wanya Teens, in which one figures out various actions using an unlabeled 16-button controller. Though I didn’t get a chance to play, I had enough fun watching others pee and fart repeatedly as they button mashed at random. Too bad that one station was stuck on the Nvidia Driver Upgrade Game.
We also checked out exhibits on sci-fi – again with neat props and whatnot to look at – and horror, in which I especially liked the material about the psychology of fear’s appeal and elements of creepy soundtracks, from heartbeats to theremins to the dissonant interval known as a tritone. There were short video commentaries on iconic scary movies, including two of my favorites, Evil Dead 2 and Ringu.
Upstairs was a showcase of wearable art, plus a video demonstrating that all of the dresses and bodysuits could be worn by actual humans. Most outfits had a sample of materials nearby, allowing us to safely get our hands on translucent tabbed and slotted plastic, vinyl stuffed to resemble classic car fenders, and cathedrals of carved felt.
I grabbed an obligatory shot of IF VI WAS IX, the multi-story sculpture of instruments that Spousal Unit insisted on calling Guitarnado. I wasn’t aware that it played music until looking up its proper name after the fact. We also skimmed over various interactive features, such as a music lab and make your own video booth, that would have been great to try out on a longer visit.
Scott – Jennifer and Pete’s son, basically a cousin, who I bond with over fitness and video games – was stuck at work while we toured the EMP Museum. I had been texting back and forth with Sharon, one of my best friends from college, and the six of us intended to meet up for early dinner at Seatown Seabar. There were no near future reservations available to fit the whole group, so Jennifer and Pete bowed out for the night with a hope that we could get back together tomorrow. The halibut and local brews were ace, as was six years of catchup compressed into one long mealtime chat.
Chihuly Garden and Glass, another item on my Seattle wish list, was still open with plenty of time to browse. Scott had never been inside, so it would be new to him as well. Some years back, I had seen Dale Chihuly’s work when it traveled to Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. This museum featured similar arrangements of glass and greenery plus a variety of standalone pieces and installations. Of particular note were the massive dark room arrangements – one was a garden of its own – and a variegated ceiling which cast watery rainbow lighting on the white walls and floor.
Scott climbed up a giant red macaroni sculpture in Seattle Center that he and his friends liked to hang out on. One of the pieces had been helpfully labeled with an up arrow. He showed us various points of interest on the way back to our hotel – a skate park, a huge fountain, and Metropolitan Market, a 24-hour grocery full of uniquely delicious snacks. We stocked up on protein bars, sweet popcorn supposedly flavored with beer in some regard, and Cascade Ice, the best zero calorie fruit drink I have ever tasted.
The next morning, we skipped the overrun hotel breakfast in search of local food and coffee open on July 4th. Local 360 offered up tasty egg scramble platters, spicy potatoes, and flashbacks to high school brought to us by the soundtrack of Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, and Weezer. Apparently the dream of the ’90s extends beyond Portlandia throughout the Cascades.
Jennifer and Pete had mentioned plans to go to Mt. Rainier. With another friend of ours tied up for the foreseeable future – and unfortunately missed on this trip – we took this chance to escape the crowds of America Day, so named by some international tourists when asking Spousal Unit about it in the grocery store. Given my hyperacusis, we also had no concern about being back in town for fireworks. Pretty lights are all well and good. Loud, sharp noises feel like a kick to the stomach or some other nasty physical twitch. With its ban on boom booms, Mt. Rainier would also be a respite from the amateur pyrotechnics we heard en route.
Many other people had the idea of getting away from it all. We skipped a heavily mobbed stop with the same sort of large trees we had seen in Alaska, instead pulling off at the much quieter Box Canyon for a small loop trail showing mossy rocks shaped by glacial ice.
We drove up to Paradise – home to a visitors’ center, lodge, and a variety of trails from paved and easy to steep and strenuous. This area was 5400 feet above sea level, equally thick with cold mist and tourist hordes. Unprepared for the chill in my thin shirt, I grabbed an oversized jacket from the stash of outerwear in Jennifer and Pete’s trunk.
Spousal Unit, Scott, and I took a short paved trail to the gorgeous Myrtle Falls, after which Scott ran ahead and away from the crowds. We followed the more rugged path up its slope, avoiding deep muck and finding traction on pocked patches of snow, but stopped when the trail became covered with snow and fog. Scott was well out of sight – we hoped he had some clue of where he was going if he meant to hike the full long loop. As we later learned when meeting up at the visitors’ center, he turned back a short while beyond that point after doing some casual glacier climbing.
Dinner at Alexander’s Lodge was another successful instance of jumping at the first open restaurant with a decent looking menu, which endeared me with mentions of quinoa, butternut squash, and kale. Fatigue started to hit me on the way home. We had a scenic ride with great company, conversation, and exploration, but a long day on the road nonetheless.
Even after a leisurely and serviceable hotel breakfast, we had time to kill before our airport taxi. Spousal Unit was all done with physical activity. I wasn’t, so I went out to enjoy aimless wandering and photography without the twin pressures of holiday weekend crowds and uncertainty over schedule. I watched Pike Place wake around me, discovering entire sections we hadn’t seen earlier. I returned the greeting of a jovial security guard who called out to wish me a happy Tuesday. I came across two guys shooting some movie in a fountain below a statue of Chief Seattle.
SeaTac’s infamous TSA Line Ride was anticlimactic, the flight home an equally unremarkable grumpfest of incoming jet lag and no time for a proper dinner. Our taxi driver happened to be a friend from board gaming night at our local Unitarian fellowship – a surprise pick-me-up, quite literally, after the fatigue of long haul travel. Both cats yelled at us for a while over our audacity to go on vacation. Wide awake at midnight and disgusted by the trip laundry pile, I decided to recalibrate my body clock college style, up all night and early to bed with a beer for good measure. I still needed another day before my brain dropped enough of the zombie act for me to go back to work, and my workouts took a few more to get up to speed.