It’s Day Four of our 10-night, American Cruise Lines’ Grand Puget Sound sailing, and if this were an ocean-going vessel, it would be called a “Sea Day”
American Constellation departed Tacoma early this morning en route to our next port, Anacortes, and we will spend most of the day on the water. That’s reflected in the ship’s daily planner, the “Ship to Shore Coastal Rundown,” which features additional activities throughout the day. Such as, a class on “iPhone Tricks: Learning to take Better Pictures,” taught by the onboard marine biologist, Paola, and “Painting with Watercolors,” featuring painter and author Teresa Ascone.
After starting our day with a sit-down breakfast in the main dining room, we are in our stateroom when the captain announces the sighting of a Humpback whale off our starboard side. Since we are on the port side, we grab our cameras and head for a viewing spot, along with a number of our fellow passengers.
Update: It’s now in the front of the ship. So a small group of us, cameras in hand, climb up to the top deck, braving brisk winds, in hopes of snapping a National Geographic-worthy photo. Alas, the only sea life we spot is a small orca off the bow. “Patience, young grasshopper,” as they used to say on TV’s “Kung Fu” — we have a tour devoted to whale watching coming later in the cruise.
While we are grateful the rains have stayed away, the temps in the 50s have hampered using our wonderful balcony, where you could literally sit for hours enjoying the passing Pacific Northwest scenery, which is spectacular. Fortunately, our floor-to-ceiling window serves close to the same purpose.
With the whales off on their merry way, we pop into Teresa’s watercolor class, where she is instructing guests on how to paint, appropriately enough, an orca. A native of Alaska, Ms. Ascone has taught art for more than 40 years and authored two books on the subject. She makes it look easy, but since I’m still trying to master stick figures, I’ll be an interested observer.
Since this is a longer cruise, we thought it a good idea to locate the Guest Laundry. The ship has one on deck five, and here’s a pleasant surprise: There’s no charge to use it. They even conveniently furnish Tide Pods for the washer. We will definitely be paying it a visit before we dock back in Seattle.
At a relaxing, sit-down lunch in the main dining room, we meet Tom and Joan, who reside in Washington State and are among the repeat American Cruise Line customers onboard. While we always make new friends on our journeys, the people on this ship seem particularly friendly and welcoming. It’s almost an extension of the family vibe coming from the crew.
Tip If You Book on ACL: Be sure and reserve the shore excursions as early as possible. Tom and Joan waited, and were disappointed they couldn’t get on the whale-watching tour.
But we can’t dally too long at lunch — General Hotel Manager Rick is warming up for a spirited game of “Boozy Bingo” in the Cascade Lounge. We file in to an already crowded room, grab two bingo cards and get ready to test our luck. The staff has assembled a plethora of prizes, mostly from local merchants, plus Amazon gift cards.
Rick keeps the action going with fast-paced draws and witty asides, and the rounds go fast. No one is more surprised than me when I shout “Bingo!” during play. My reward is one of the Amazon gift cards and a coffee mug for Pam. During the games, the captain again alerts us to a group of orcas nearby, causing a rush to the windows.
The action shifts to the Sky Lounge next, where the pastry chef will be demonstrating how to make Chocolate-Dipped Coconut Macaroons. We each get to try the finished product, and have the recipe to take home. Now if only the ship’s pastry chef, Jailaa Brown, could come home with us as well — she has been giving us extraordinary desserts, including hundreds of cookies baked fresh daily.
This is the first time since we left that we felt the ship rock slightly, so it wasn’t surprising when the captain announced he had deployed the stabilizers. But the motion was short-lived.
As we approach Anacortes, the sun is now shining brightly in all its glory, which the crew says hasn’t been the case on the last two sailings. Is an omen of things to come, or just a brief respite from the clouds? Only time will tell. Stay tuned.
- Watercolor artist Teresa Ascone teaches a class
- Hotel GM Rick revs up the crowd for bingo
- Guests go to the windows to watch for orcas
- Pastry chef Jailaa Brown demos making macaroons
- The sun shines brightly as we reach Anacortes
Day Five of our Grand Puget Sound cruise on American Cruise Lines finds our ship, American Constellation, docked in Anacortes, Washington, a city of some 20,000 people on the north shore of Fidalgo Island. We arrived yesterday around 6:30 pm, and will stay here another night before continuing our voyage around the San Juan Islands.
Hard to believe, but we have reached the half-way point in our 10-night journey. We’ve found time runs at a different pace when you’re on a cruise.
Just to prove travel writing isn’t all glitz and glam, we are starting our day with a trip to the ship’s Guest Laundry, where we’ll freshen up and wash some clothes. Not only is the laundry free to use, but also I learn from Rick, the hotel general manager, housekeeping will also do laundry on request — no charge.
In fact, it’s hard for guests to spend anything extra on this cruise. The meals, the drinks — alcoholic and otherwise, gratuities, pretty much everything except premium excursions, are all included in your fare. Rick also said if a guest prefers a certain brand of wine or spirits, and lets them know in advance, it will be waiting for them when they arrive.
You could say I put that to the test when I couldn’t get the soft drink I prefer, Coke Zero. Within 24 hours, a crew member was knocking on my stateroom door with two cans of Coke Zero, with more stocked in the lounge. Color me impressed.
The ship is offering a number of interesting excursions here, including a “Walking Experience” of this seaside port town, a “Hiking Adventure,” along a coastal trail that skirts the Salish Sea, a “Jet Boat Adventure” in an open-air boat or making a local loop in a bus. We opt to layer up and strike out on our own to discover Anacortes, a town my late brother used to call home.
It’s a gloriously sunny day with temps in the 50s — the weather gods are indeed smiling — and it’s a short walk past the pier to the town’s main street, with its charming mix of historic buildings and shops. Our first stop is the combination Hardware Store/Alley Cats Antiques, and when I say they have everything you can imagine, believe it.
There’s all manner of marine items, garden art, glassware, furniture, books, postcards and vintage jewelry, and much more (there was even a large, yellow cat curled up sleeping by the cash register — not for sale, by the way). Pam zeroed in on the jewelry, and found several pieces that will be accompanying us back to Palm Beach.
Just down the street is a coffee shop/bookstore, where we learned about the people and murals painted on many of the shop walls. They depict persons who have historical ties to the city.
Speaking of history, our next stop was the Anacortes Museum, just a few blocks off the main drag. Housed in a 1910 building that was at one time the city library, admission is free. There’s a major exhibit on “Photographing Anacortes,” which spotlights the photographers who captured the city through the decades. Adam, the docent on duty, told us many thousands of the photos have been digitized and are available online.
As it was getting to be lunchtime, we decided to head back to their ship, where returning passengers were being served the ship’s own version of a Brandy Alexander, with lots of chocolate bits. Yum — we’ll take two, thank you.
For lunch, we grabbed a hot dog and fries in the Sky Lounge and found a table on the outdoor deck — the perfect place to enjoy this sunny, early spring day in the Northwest.
Later this afternoon, there’s a program on “Whales of the Pacific Northwest” in the Cascade Lounge, which is timely, since our next port of call is Friday Harbor, Washington, the San Juan Island where we are signed up for the “Whale Watching Cruise.” We can’t wait. Stay tuned.
- This cat takes a nap in a downtown Anacortes shop
- One of the murals that grace the shop walls in Anacortes
- The Anacortes Museum
- Inside Alley Cats Antiques in Anacortes
American Constellation is docked on San Juan Island, at a town of some 2,500 people named Friday Harbor. The name derives not because it’s a haven for weekend celebrations, but, according to Wikipedia, from a man named Joseph Poalie Friday, a native Hawaiian, who herded sheep here in the 1860s.
This is Day Six of our 10-night, Grand Puget Sound cruise on American Cruise Lines, and the sun is out in all its Northwest Pacific glory, bathing the waters and evergreen-lined shoreline around us in a radiant glow.
Last night, the entertainment in the Cascade Lounge was a Seattle-based quartet, The Chancellors, who delivered a spirited set of musical favorites in high style. We learned the keyboardist is a member of the Seattle Symphony, and a special tip of the hat to the lead singer, who was smooth as silk.
Today’s tour is the much-anticipated “Whale Watching Cruise,” where we need to be assembled on the dock by 8:30 am. Passengers can either take a 10-minute walk to the tour boat or a one-minute ride in the ship’s tender, otherwise known as a motorized launch. We opt for the latter, along with most of the other 54 people going with us.
The tour is sold out, so word again to the wise: Reserve your chosen tours as early as possible.
Whale watching is big business around these parts, as the Puget Sound waters are home to Orcas, Humpbacks, Minke and Gray whales, along with a wide range of aquatic mammals, such as sea otters, sea lions and seals. Sharp-eyed birders can also see bald eagles and sea birds that inhabit this region. We are welcomed aboard “Odyssey” by Captain Pete, assisted by two marine biologists, who will tell us more about what we’ll see during a three-hour-plus tour.
The spectacular scenery we pass, including the rocky, tree-covered shores of islands in the stream, are the result of glacial activity thousands of years ago. Go just a little ways offshore and the water can be over 800 feet deep.
It wasn’t long before one of the biologists pointed out a harbor seal over to our right. Wait — false alarm. It was a piece of wood. Everybody back to their seats. Later on, the captain gets a report about a humpback in the area, and sure enough, we find it. It’s a juvenile, and comes to the surface every 3-5 minutes for air. By law, boats have to keep their distance, but even so, we get some good photos as we follow it on its journey. By this time, two other whale-watching boats have joined us.
It’s distressing to learn about the plight of these magnificent animals, whose numbers have steadily declined due to lack of food supply, which also affects many other life forms up and down the food chain. We can only hope the work of dedicated scientists and institutions can turn the tide, so future generations can enjoy their beauty.
On returning to the ship, bartender Nikki’s “welcome back aboard” drink is called a Blue Whale, which tastes a whole lot like a blue-green Bahama Mama. Whatever color it is, and whatever you call it, it’s a keeper. Next up is a sit-down lunch in the dining room, where they are serving a delicious orange chicken with fried rice, followed by a Neapolitan for dessert.
It’s such a gorgeous day, we decide to regroup and head back out to explore Friday Harbor. The marina area looks like a picture postcard, with a number of shops and restaurants where you can stop and admire views of the harbor. Pam says it has a little of that Alaska vibe going on, and she’s right.
After stopping at the Rip Tide Cafe for a cappuccino, we find an outdoor table where we watch the Washington State ferry depart and a seaplane make a landing. It’s one of those idyllic moments you want to bottle and take back home, to enjoy again and again.
For those staying onboard Constellation, there’s a movie trivia contest going on, along with a “putting challenge” on the putting green, located on the top deck. The ship’s marine expert, Paola, is giving a talk on the indigenous, Salish Sea “Salman people” while later in the evening, Jeff Spence is back on piano with “Songs to Sail By.”
We’ll be pulling up anchor and heading for our next stop, Port Angeles, Washington, where we are scheduled to visit Olympic National Park. Let’s hope the weatherman continues to forecast lots of sunshine. Stay tuned.
- Guests wait to board the whale-watching boat
- The captain spots a humpback in the distance
- Constellation docked in Friday Harbor with a seaplane landing nearby
- The marina park in Friday Harbor
Last night, we left Friday Harbor. Sort of.
We did leave, but didn’t go far, anchoring American Constellation offshore far enough so the ship’s lights and engines don’t bother the town’s residents. We want to be respectful visitors, after all.
Speaking of lights, Cruise Director Jerry made an announcement prior to the evening show that caused a flurry of excitement. Due to a magnetic storm on the sun, there’s a chance we can see the Northern Lights tonight between 10 pm and 2 am, a rare occurrence indeed. Since clear skies are in the forecast, we’re keeping our fingers crossed.
At the listed time, Pam and I layered up and headed for the top deck, where we found a few other hardy souls bundled up against the cold night air. Kudos to the captain, who dimmed the lights to give us a better view. The hum of the ship’s generators provided the only sound as we gazed into a canopy of stars, most of which are not viewable under city light conditions.
While the Northern Lights didn’t make an appearance, the Pacific Northwest night sky put on quite a show on its own.
On Day Seven, we are bound for Port Angeles, Washington, almost a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. We read where one of the city’s claims to fame is being the birthplace of Denver Broncos’ legendary quarterback, John Elway. Weatherwise, the sun is once again shining brightly as we navigate through the 400-plus San Juan Islands in Puget Sound.
A quick word about the ship’s Wifi (which is also included in the fare): American Cruise Lines, like many other cruise lines, is using Elon Musk’s Starlink for connectivity. It works as advertised most of the time, but the ship itself has some equipment issues which drops the signal intermittently. They told us a replacement modem is on the way.
All the tours today will take place in the afternoon, since we don’t dock at Port Angeles until 2 pm. The morning agenda features another watercolor class as well as another round of the popular “Boozy Bingo,” although since it starts at 10 am, make mine a Coke. I decide to try my luck at the latter while Pam chills with her music in the Sky Lounge.
Guess what? I hit a bingo! As I peruse the prize table, Hotel GM Rick is practically begging me to take these ceramic dog, salt-and-pepper shakers, which I guess he’s been trying to unload on someone. I look them over (they are actually kind of cute) and decide they were sad and needed a good home. Now we are the proud owners of “rescue shakers.” By the way, Rick also gave me a bonus hat just for taking them.
Today’s Tip: If you smoke (and we don’t), there’s only one place on the ship available to you: The top deck near the putting green. Everywhere else, including staterooms and balconies, is off-limits. The captain made an announcement to that effect. Okay by us — the less smoking anywhere is a good thing.
Lunch in the dining room features Chicken Teriyaki and more dessert goodness from pastry chef Jailaa — chocolate layered pie. Note that lunch in the dining room is always a two-course meal: Entree and dessert. Dinner is three-course, with an appetizer.
There are three excursion options at Port Angeles today, where we’ll be docked for the next two nights. One is a “Heritage Walking Exploration” to downtown, another is a visit to “Olympic Game Farm,” a meet-and-greet the animals drive-through, and “Lake Crescent Lodge at Olympic National Park,” which include a nature walk. We’ll be going on the latter.
Maybe it’s just because we live in Florida where the land is flat, but we can’t stop “oohing” and “ahing” over the snow-topped mountain vistas we keep passing. Mother Nature has done fine work in this part of the country and seeing it from the water is a real treat.
It’s tour time, and we make the short walk from the dock to a waiting bus. Our tour guide is Rick, who’s not only very knowledgeable about what we’ll be seeing, but also funny. It’s about a 30-minute drive to our destination, the historic Lake Crescent Lodge in Olympic National Park.
Nestled beside beautiful Lake Crescent, we learn the lodge’s history and enjoy one of the drinks for which it’s famous: Lavender lemonade. Washington State is home to some of the nation’s largest lavender farms, and you can find a number of lavender products here, including this delicious and unique version of this American classic.
A highlight of the tour is a nature walk, where Rick leads us over a bridge above a rapidly flowing stream and into a grove of giant trees, some of which are over 400 years old. There’s nothing quite like the solitude of a majestic forest. The glacier-fed waters of Lake Crescent are a deep blue, and clear to a depth of nearly 100 feet — the result of the water’s low nitrogen content.
We return from the tour just in time for the daily happy hour in the Cascade Lounge, followed by dinner in the main dining room. Then it’s time to get ready for our next excursion: A trip to world-famous Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia. We have to be ready to roll at 7:30 am, when we’ll catch the ferry that will take us over to Canada.
The headline for this tour is “don’t forget your passport.” We have already heard from one guest they forget to pack theirs, and sometimes, whether you think you’ll need it or not, it’s best to not leave home without it.
One of the crew told us there’s still a chance we could see those elusive Northern Lights if we are watching between midnight and 2 am. Since we are setting our alarm for 5:30, we’ll just have to hope someone takes photos for us.
- The salt-and-pepper shaker dogs Gerry won at bingo
- Pam at Lake Crescent with the lodge in the background
- Port Angeles
- View of the Olympic Mountains from our balcony
It’s Friday, one week since we stepped aboard American Constellation in Seattle for our 10-night, Grand Puget Sound cruise. Hard to believe it’s already almost over, but we’re not going to think about that right now.
Today, passports in hand, we board the ferry in Port Angeles, Washington, for the 90-minute ride over to Victoria, British Columbia, where we will visit the world famous Butchart Gardens. The weather continues to be amazing, with a forecast high of 75 and lots of sunshine. Counting the time getting over to the gardens and back, we’ll be gone virtually all day.
At last night’s dinner, the room was still buzzing about my salt-and-pepper, ceramic dogs that I won playing bingo. We had a big laugh with Hotel GM Rick, who told us the backstory of the shop where he purchased them. Also, he told us he had a third “stray” shaker he would donate to our collection. A spare — perfect!
For those going to the gardens, the day starts at 7:30 am, when we make a short walk, or take a shuttle, to the Black Ball ferry that will take us over to Canada. Once all the cars and passengers are loaded, and we fill out the paperwork for leaving the country, our trip is under way.
Take note that getting to the gardens and back will take roughly half the total 10-hour tour time. The ferry — which moves very slowly — is 90 minutes each way. Once there, you have to clear customs, which takes another 30 minutes or so, before boarding a bus for the 40-minute ride to Butchart. Once we arrived, there was a slight additional delay while the excursion managers got our tickets, so some of the guests were getting a little antsy.
But as for the gardens themselves: They more than lived up to the hype of a “must-see” attraction. Built literally out of an exhausted rock quarry in the early 1900s, they are magnificent. You can easily see why they attract over one million visitors a year. One thing was immediately evident — we dressed too warmly for the nearly 80-degree weather. In fact, the news is reporting a “heat dome” over Canada, Washington and Oregon that is pushing temps as much as 25 degrees above normal. Hello, global warming.
The ship gave each of us a $20 lunch voucher, so altogether, we had around three hours for our visit. Trusty map in hand, we made our way around the Sunken Gardens, the Japanese Garden, the Rose Garden (too early for the roses to bloom) and the Italian Garden. Flowers lovers must feel that found Mecca, as glorious blooms in every shape and color almost overpowered the senses. Multi-colored tulips were everywhere, and we learn our timing is perfect — they are going to be replaced tomorrow.
Here’s a tip if you exhaust your smartphone’s battery taking snaps — you can get a recharge at the Information Booth.
Lunch in the coffee shop made short work of our vouchers, and afterwards, we had additional time for shopping and one more look around before getting back to our bus. Returning to downtown Victoria, which is beautiful in its own right, we had some free time to explore before boarding the ferry back. Pam and I found a nearby happy hour and enjoyed a drink while watching the boats and seaplanes in the harbor.
We get back after a long travel day and have to refresh before going to dinner, where we engage in a lively conversation with four other guests about the day’s activities, the ship, cruising in general and — wait for it — those dog shakers. Remember how Rick was going to get us that spare shaker? He waited until Pam left for the powder room and appeared with it, carefully wrapped in a basket. When she returned, the expression on her face was priceless.
We’ll spend another night here in Port Angeles before leaving in the early morning hours for Port Townsend — sad to say, the last stop on our cruise. Tonight I’ll spend time going through the seemingly hundreds of photos I took at the gardens. Picking a few out is going to be a tough task.
Goodnight from Port Angeles, and stay tuned.
- The whole salt-and-pepper shaker family is finally together
- A bed of tulips at Butchart Gardens
- A view of the Butchart Sunken Gardens
- The Butchart Italian Garden
Day Nine of our 10-night, Grand Puget Sound cruise on American Cruise Lines finds American Constellation docked at Port Townsend, our last port of call on our journey through the San Juan Islands.
Once a bustling maritime hub in the late 1800s, it has survived boom-and-bust, and now serves as a charming, seaport community that has preserved its historic past. Its downtown streets are lined with art galleries, specialty shops, restaurants and museums. What you won’t find are any of the fast-food chains that dominate most American cities.
We are signed up for the “Legends and Lore,” excursion, a walking tour that covers about 10 city blocks. It’s another bright, sunny — you could even say “hot” — day (forecast high is around 80), and I really should have brought more of my Florida wardrobe. As we walk along, our guide refers constantly to a script. You have the feeling this is her first tour.
At one point, we encounter a rusted-out, old elevator standing by itself on a city lot. We learn that once served as an ice cream shop called “Elevated Ice Cream.” It has since become a robust enterprise that offers both ice cream and candy. The town also lays claim to a haunted hotel — ghosts seem to have a fondness for historic hotels.
After lunch, we venture out on our own to visit the Jefferson Museum of Art and History, in the 1892 City Hall building, and climb a set of stairs to see the 1868 Rothschild House. Set on a hill overlooking the harbor, it’s the second smallest state park in Washington. The docent tells us the smallest is the Ranald MacDonald’s Grave State Park Heritage Site, honoring the teacher credited to helping open Japan to the West.
But the highlight of our visit was finding the PT Soda Fountain and Diner, an authentic, old-school soda shop where you can make your jukebox selections from your booth while sipping a float or shake. Talk about a trip back in time. One last note: Port Townsend has one of only two remaining bell towers in the United States. Standing 125 feet tall, high on a hill, it was used to alert volunteer firefighters.
In the afternoon, I’m on the list for a bridge tour. Located on deck four — immediately adjacent to our stateroom, in fact — Captain Bryan Hobcroft (who many of the ladies onboard have said looks like Harrison Ford) gives us an overview of the technology modern ships use to plot their course. He explains how paper charts are a thing of the past, as GPS transponders provide ship traffic, water conditions and weather in exacting detail.
During his talk, a large cruise ship can be seen in the distance. The captain instantly pulls up an ID on the screen: It’s the Holland America Eurodam, heading on a course for Juneau, Alaska at 23 knots. A graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and a resident of Charleston, SC, this is his ninth year with American Cruise Lines.
At happy hour, we don’t even have to order. The bartenders know what we like and have our drinks ready. We share dinner with our new friends from the Houston area, Jerry and Joyce. Jerry tells us his recipe for curing his own bacon — I think we may just have to give it a try.
At tonight’s entertainment, showman Jeff Spence transforms into Elton John, complete with bedazzled suit and oversize glasses, for a set of the legendary rocker’s favorite hits. Later, we relax with a martini on the top deck, enjoying the harbor lights of Port Townsend on a picture perfect, clear night.
In less than 24 hours, we have to be packed and ready for the trip home, leaving us to wonder: “Where did the time go?”
- Jeff Spence performs Elton John songs
- The PT Soda Fountain and Diner
- The 1868 Rothschild House in Port Townsend
All photos by Gerry Barker
With thanks to American Cruise Lines and the All Things Cruise team!
|Day 1||Seattle, WA|
|Day 2||Anacortes, WA|
|Day 3||Friday Harbor, WA|
|Day 4||Cruising the San Juan Islands|
|Day 5||Victoria, BC|
|Day 6||Port Angeles, Wa|
|Day 7||Port Townsend, WA|
|Day 8||Tacoma, Wa|
|Day 9||Poulsbo, WA|
|Day 10||Bremerton, WA|
|Day 11||Seattle, WA|