Monday, November 21, 2011

Across the Wide Pacific

Two years ago we twice crossed the Pacific by cruise ship as a creative way of getting to and from New Zealand. We found ourselves cruising across it for a third time because of Citibank. Jeff's son Matt works in their Tokyo office, and a year ago was selected for a management training program. As part of the deal, Matt was assigned earlier this year to work in Dalian China for 12 months. As soon as we heard Matt's news we started searching for repositioning cruises from the Pacific Northwest to Asia. The Diamond Princess's September 17 sailing from Vancouver, stopping at Dalian on October 9 and dropping us off October 10 in Tianjin China, seemed just the ticket.
For a number of reasons, the biggest two being uncomfortable beds and bumbling, poorly-prepared lecturers, the Diamond Princess matched up poorly in our estimation compared to the Holland America Volendam, which we took on those cruises, to New Zealand in 2008 and then back home in 2009. That said, the Diamond Princess is still a cruise ship and it's not a bad life even on a cruise ship with some disappointments, and it did get us to China with some good touring in Alaska and in Vladivostok and Pusan. We told you about Alaska in our last post, and will tell you all about the stops in Russia and South Korea in the next two episodes, and limit today's entry to the voyage across the Pacific and to our first stop in Asia, Muroran Japan.

As we visited our last glacier just before the port call at Whittier, our ship hit its most northerly point, about 61.3 degrees from the equator. This is the farthest north we've ever been. This is really north, closer to the North Pole than Helsinki, Stockholm or Oslo, further north than the northernmost islands off the coast of Scotland. Not that it meant much -- it was only a few days after the autumnal equinox, when day and night are exactly 12 hours long everywhere in the world. At this far northern outpost we would have enjoyed 19 1/2 hours of daylight had we been here 3 months earlier, or a mere 4 hours 26 minutes of sunlight in late December, and with the sun never rising even a third of the way above the horizon. Nor did we have a chance to see the Northern Lights, as we had a steady week of clouds and/or rain. Oh well, someday perhaps we'll experience these things, just not this time around.

As we left Whittier for Japan, we followed the Aleutian Islands for three days, for about 1,500 of the 3,505 miles we covered from port to port, each day finding ourselves further south as well as further west. The islands were always quite a ways off in the distance, only visible because they are also incredibly mountainous. The Pacific lived up to its name and stayed more or less peaceful, and we had no further episodes of mal de mer, as Louise experienced for one afternoon when we hit big rollers north of Vancouver Island a week earlier. At a lecture about the ship and how it navigates, they showed us this slide of the stabilizers, enormous "wings" that practically eliminate rolling, the side-to-side movement of a ship, though they do little to stop pitching, the movement up and down of the bow and stern. It was fun to watch the explosion of water near the bow when we did hit a larger than usual wave, but with only dim shapes of land for three days and then no trace of it for three more, that was about all there was to look at outdoors, that and the pulsating energy of the propellers and the wake of the ship as one stood at the stern and both watched and felt them, viscerally.

As you can see from this shot of it while we were docked in Muroran, the Diamond Princess is a big ship, 115,875 tons and 946 feet long to be exact. Decks 1 to 4 we never saw except for a passageway on 4 we sometimes used getting on and off the boat; these are where all the mechanical and storage facilities and cabins for the staff are located. Most of decks 5, 6 and 7 were public areas: multiple dining rooms, a vast theater for lectures and performances, and a casino and shops we entirely avoided. A very attractive atrium linked these 3 decks amidships, and every afternoon and evening an occasionally good string quartet performed. The atrium was also a good place for people-watching.

There were one or two lectures each day when there was no port call, and we went to almost all of them, but as noted only a handful were outstanding. There were performances every night, both in the big theater and in a smaller venue, but again these are not really "our thing." We found one comedian fairly funny, another so bad we walked out within 10 minutes, and we watched the film Water For Elephants, which we loved. Two or three times we watched an old movie or a History Channel program on the tv in our stateroom. That was it for ship-provided entertainment on the 23-day cruise. We spent far more time reading, Louise on her Kindle and Jeff on the iPad.

Our cabin was one of the least expensive, an inside one on deck 9. It was 2 to 4 decks down to the main public areas in the lower part of the ship, and 4 to 6 decks up to the ones on the upper decks, and we rarely used the elevators so we got plenty of exercise. 12 days on our 23-day voyage we had no port call, and our pedometer tells us we walked 75 miles total on those days, or just over 6 miles a day. A few times when we felt we hadn't gotten enough exercise, we started on the bottom deck and walked every public corridor we could walk without covering the same point twice until we reached the topmost deck, and found that we had hiked over two miles! And that was just inside -- add the outside decks on 7 and 15 and you can add about a half mile more.  It was truly a big ship!

Mealtimes are always wonderful on any cruise ship. We ate in the cafeteria-style dining room on deck 14 for all our breakfasts and lunches and for almost half of the dinners. It was bright and cheery, but you usually sat as a couple at your own table and did not often mingle with other passengers. The food was excellent, more so when we learned where and how to get made-to-order omellettes at breakfast. The serving area looks so inviting just before it opened, when we took one of these shots, but look out when the doors opened for a meal, it looked like a Chinese street at rush hour. With so many food stations and almost all of them self-serve, however, it moved remarkably fast. And did we mention the chocolate-filled almond croissants that Jeff had roughly 22 of our 23 mornings?

There were several dining rooms with sit-down service where we more commonly had dinner, usually asking to be seated at a table for six. Our past experience was that a table for eight put some people too far away for conversation, but six allowed you to converse with everyone and gave you two couples to chat with in case one of them turned out to be duds. Our favorite couples were these folks from Delaware who knew each other and spoke Mandarin between themselves but were happy to have us join them and chat in English. One had come from Taiwan, the other from a Chinese community in Burma, in both cases emigrating to America when the husband got a scholarship to graduate school in the US. Their life stories were quite fascinating to us, and our wide-ranging travels were equally amusing to them, and we all enjoyed a similar eagerness and excitement about seeing the world from our cruise ship.

Yes, the food was tasty and, if you selected carefully, healthy. Each half of the cruise they offered a tour of the kitchen, which Jeff took both times, and he was impressed with it's size, orderliness and cleanliness. We took a photo one evening of the menu (actually about 2/3 of it, as there's a second page with a dozen items available every day, including shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad, and both salmon and steak main courses), and of the grilled veggie appetizer and our main courses. The serving sizes were modest enough to keep one from overeating - or to allow one to try an extra appetizer or salad - and always very nicely presented. Our belts told an even nicer story: neither of us put on any noticabe weight despite all that wonderful food.

3,505 miles from Whittier, Alaska we finally hit land at Muroran, Japan. For six days and seven nights we had pushed on at 18.8 knots -- almost 22 mph -- and crossed six time zones and the International Date Line. Each of those six days was therefore 25 hours long. This proved to be a little tiring but manageable, and far far easier than two years ago when we had six consecutive 23-hour days. By the fifth of those, Jeff gave up trying to sleep at 2 a.m. and walked around the ship, discovering to his surprise that a fourth of the passengers were doing the same thing as their bodies failed to feel tired with so many too-short days and nights. This time around we felt and observed a smooth accommodation to the demands of the clock. As for the Date Line, we lost Wednesday September 28. Poof, gone! It just never happened! As recompense, of course, when we head back to the US we get to try out November 18 twice, when we leave Shanghai at 9 p.m. that evening and arrive in LA the same day, but at 3:30 pm!

Muroran was a disappointment, though a lot of the blame goes to the Japanese Customs and Immigration folks who decided they wanted an electronic fingerprint as well as the usual passport check of everyone getting off the ship. It was so badly bungled that we stood in line 90 excruciating minutes, watching any hope of getting out of Muroran to a national park 50 km away drift away and finally vanish. There just wasn't time enough left for the train-bus trip there and back to work and still have enough time to see the sights so tantalizingly described in our guidebook.

The city was one we had never heard of before, as it's a fairly gritty factory and port town with no real attraction other than its accessibility to that national park and (but with a 3-hour drive each way) to Sapporo. Folks who paid the big bucks for Princess-organized tours did get to board all those buses waiting while we did the fingerprint foolishness, and they did do their tours, though the visit to Sapporo was ridiculously brief compared to the travel time to and from. The rest of us made the best of Muroran, which was not much. We found an Internet cafe and caught up with email and checking the bank and credit card accounts; we found a charming ramen shop where you sit at a counter around the small kitchen, and got bowls of soup that brought waves of nostalgia to Louise; we visited a mildly interesting Shinto shrine; and we talked for a while with an American English teacher and one of his students, part of a welcoming group that Princess had arranged and stationed all around town. But compared with the port stops we made on the Volendam at two other cities not far from Muroran and which we glowingly described in this blog two years ago, Hakodate and Otaru, this was a downer. We hope Princess either chooses one of those ports, persuades the Japanese that they have to do a far better job of letting passengers disembark from cruise ships, or both.

It's now on to Vladivostok and our first visit ever to Russia. We'll tell you all in our next entry.

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