Alaska Bound! San Francisco to Astoria

This will be an entirely different cruise for us than the last one since we have been to Alaska multiple times. I love planning for visits to exotic locations but every few years, get an itch to experience the beauty of Alaska. For many this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip; for us, Alaska is in our back yard and the easiest place to cruise to from Seattle. The draw for this cruise was its length (two weeks) and the different ports of call from the typical week-long Seattle cruise.

The cruise started in San Francisco. We always like to arrive at least a day early just in case there are any problems. We had been to San Francisco less than a year ago so decided one day was sufficient. Our flight was a bright and early one; we had to be at SeaTac airport in time for a 6:57 am flight. Rather than inconvenience a family member we used Lyft to get to the airport. The flight was smooth; we arrived a bit early. Since we had carried on our bags we were able to head directly to the BART station and catch the next train in to San Francisco.

Our hotel was within walking distance from Embarcadero Station. It was only about 9:30 am so we knew it was too early to check in but figured we could drop our bags off and then do some sightseeing. The woman checking us in to the hotel gave off the aura of someone that had been up all night. She told us she didn’t think any rooms were available yet and wanted to know if we had called ahead to let them know that we would arrive early in the day; that if we had they would have held a room for us overnight. We had not done so; I assumed that if we wanted a room overnight that we would have to pay for two nights lodging rather than one, right? Anyhow, after that she wanted to know if we wanted to put our bags in our room or just check them. What? She had just told us there were no rooms ready yet. We obviously wanted to put our belongings in our room so she gave us our keys.

We decided to get some breakfast and walk along the waterfront. Our hotel was located by the Bay Bridge and so near the Ferry Building. We grabbed a bite at a restaurant there. It reminded me a bit of Pike Place Market in Seattle but a bit more upscale. The weather was sunny but a bit brisk; I was glad I had brought a jacket! We walked to Pier 39 which was about a mile and a half from where we started. We like people watching and this is a great spot to do it. It is also a fun place to watch the sea lions; there were plenty lounging in the sun, barking away. We decided to ride the streetcar back to the hotel. Since we had downloaded the Muni app we could prepay our ticket ($2.25 per person). If you plan on using public transportation (including cable cars) around San Francisco, it is a great idea to use this app (Muni Mobile) and buy a day pass. If we planned on riding the cable cars, we would have purchased the one-day pass for $21. One ride on a cable car costs $7 so if you plan on taking a few rides, the one-day pass is definitely the way to go.

Our main activity for the day was the Alcatraz At Night Tour. I have wanted to see Alcatraz but my husband wasn’t as excited about it so we have not visited on previous trips. This time around, he agreed to go. If you want to take this tour (or any day tour of the island as well) you must book it in advance. The tour left at 5:55 pm; you needed to be at the pier at least 30 minutes ahead of time. There was a scale-model of the island that gave you a preview of its layout.

The boat trip to the island took about 15 minutes. It was a windy day so the ride was a bit rocky. It was also quite cold; if you take this tour, be sure to bring a jacket. The boat drops you at the dock where prisoners arrived (it is the only dock on the island). We were split into three groups; each group had a ranger that gave you some information about the island as you walked up the hill. Be aware that the walk to the prison is comparable to walking up 13 flights of stairs. There is a tram available for those with mobility issues.

The original island of Alcatraz is not the current one. It was named by a Spanish explorer that saw pelicans on the island. He was unfamiliar with this type of bird so named the island Alcatraz, which apparently means strange birds. When the English explored the area they used the name for the current island and made it a military installation. For many years that was the island’s main purpose; to guard San Francisco harbor. It turns out that no one ever tried to invade it so went from being a fort to being a military prison. It became a prison for the “worst of the worst” in the 1930’s. Alcatraz Prison was closed down in 1963. During the 70’s it was occupied for 19 months by Native American protestors. As you pull up to the dock you can see the signs that remain from the occupation.

There is a watchtower near the dock. It turns out that it was built for a movie and was left there after the filming. It was never used to guard prisoners from escaping! We passed by a building that was used for recreation for the guards. Did you know that the guards and their families lived on the island? Their children took a boat to school every day and returned in the afternoons. By the time they got home from school, the prisoners were locked up and so many of them never actually saw a prisoner in all of the years they lived there.

When you reach the top of the hill, you enter the prison. You walk through the same area the prisoners did when they arrived. They were given their clothing and then showered. There were 4 things provided every prisoner: shelter, food, clothing and medical attention. Everything else was a privilege that had to be earned by good behavior, including the privilege of working. From here on, we listened to an audio tour with the provided headset.

Unlike the prison cells of today, the prisoners each had his own cell. They were definitely “step-savers”! All prisoners were locked in their cells from 4:30 onward. Those that had a more difficult time following the rules were locked in a separate area 24/7 (D Block) and were only allowed out once per week to shower. There are pictures posted of some of the more infamous prisoners, including the Birdman of Alcatraz. A side note from a ranger (not part of the regular tour info): the Birdman liked to mix urine and feces and toss the “cocktail” at the guards as they walked past. I will let my pictures tell the story of life in the prison.

Apparently not all of the prisoners wanted to work. Those that did not were put in a special “cage” that was just big enough for them to stand up in. It held them upright for the 7 hours that they would normally be working.

The views from the prison are spectacular (not that the prisoners enjoyed them!). It is said that on a clear night that the prisoners could hear the sounds of revelry from across the bay; that it was particularly difficult for them to hear other people enjoying their lives when their own lives were so dismal. It was an interesting tour and if you are at all interested in the mystique of Alcatraz, I highly recommend it.

We took the 8:40 boat back to San Francisco and caught a streetcar back to Pier 1. From there we walked the few blocks to our hotel. The Bay Bridge is really beautiful at night. The bridge is lit up and cycles through different “light shows”.

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Embarkation Day!

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Although we were only a mile or so from the pier, we decided to take a cab to make it easy on ourselves. Our check-in time for the cruise was 9:30 am so we headed out a bit earlier, arriving before 9 am. Unlike every other cruise we have taken, we were not allowed to enter the port building so had to line up outside. Since we were so early, we were second in line. There were about 100 new crew members waiting to enter as well. At about 9 am, the crew members were called in in groups of 10 to have their passports checked and to go through their own check-in. I assumed that as soon as the crew was processed that we would be called in. It was not to be; the woman guarding the door told us that we would not be allowed to enter until 10:30! What was NCL thinking? Why have assigned check-in times starting at 9:30 but now allow anyone in the building until 10:30? Oh, well! We waited, and waited, and waited. This was the most disorganized system that we have experienced. The porters were wandering around, picking up suitcases here and there. Since the door to the port building was wide open, everyone thought that they could enter it. The woman guarding the door kept telling people that they needed to find a porter for their luggage, and then they would have to join the extremely long line that had formed behind us. She directed some people to the area where you were supposed to drop your luggage off (at the other end of the building); others she told to stand along the wall and hope to find a porter wandering by. Those people that were standing along the wall often waited for 20 minutes or so before giving up; by then, all of the porters were located where they should have been originally.

At 10:25, a new group of people showed up in matching uniforms. Obviously, these were the people that would be completing our check-in. I was pretty impressed that they would be all set to get to work in 5 minutes. And, they weren’t. . .we waited outside another 20 minutes before being allowed to enter the building.

Despite being virtually at the front of the line, a family was allowed to enter first. It was an older man with a young wife and small child. Not only were they allowed in front of those of us that had been waiting (by then) 2 hours, they had a case of juice (a no-no to bring liquids with you on NCL) and a ginormous suitcase (besides the ones that the porters had already taken). They were escorted inside while the rest of us waited. Finally, we were told that we could enter the building. As we were walking through the doors, a man tried to cut in the line. I told him in no uncertain terms to get to the back of the line. He apparently thought I was being rude; he made some comment to me insinuating that I was being unreasonable. After all, the ship didn’t leave until 5 pm; why was I in such a hurry to get onboard? Yeah, after two hours of standing in the cold, I wasn’t too happy that he should be able to jump in front of the hundreds of people that had been waiting!

Anyhow, we rode the escalator up to the second floor of the port building. The “special family” was going through the one security line. That big old suitcase that they brought wouldn’t fit through the scanner. So, we had to wait until the security folks could figure out a way to get it through. They eventually did and screening could continue for the rest of us po’ folks. On the upside, the guy that did our check-in was extremely efficient. He said that the check-in crew had been flown up from San Pedro; NCL rarely sails out of San Francisco so they brought in a crew from elsewhere. NCL has recently implemented a new tiered loyalty system. We are “Platinum Plus” and as such are supposed to have our own boarding area. Those that are in the suites have their own area as well; they are boarded first. Then, Platinum, then everyone else. There was no special area set up for Platinum guests and the employees of the port had no idea what to do with us, so we ended up sitting in the area with the suite guests. As such we were boarded first. Cool! So far the day had been a bit of a cluster mess; maybe things were starting to turn around!

Since we got on board early, we knew that our cabin would not be ready, but decided to see if we could drop our bags in our room before heading to lunch. The hallway was closed off but the doors weren’t locked so we went ahead and dropped off our stuff before heading to the main dining room. The onboard staff always tries to send everyone to the buffet, but those in the know go to the MDR  (Main Dining Room) for a more relaxing start to their cruise. We had a very nice lunch, once we found the dining room. So many of the crew was new that we were given incorrect directions by several crew members before finding the spot. The trick is that you have to go up a level, go to the aft of the ship, and then go back down a level to get there. It is not apparent on the ship’s map that you can’t directly access the restaurant, so we experienced the “grand tour” of the ship unintentionally before finding food!

Muster drill was at 4:30; sailaway at 5 pm. I took some more pictures of Alcatraz as we passed by, and quite a few pictures as we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was awfully cold and windy on the balcony but I really, really wanted to enjoy going under that bridge. We had a small coast guard ship accompanying us through the harbor. There was an armed guard at the front of the boat. At one point we crossed paths with a tour boat. The coast guard ship turned around, cut off the other boat, and kept the gun trained on them until we passed!

Our next day was a sea day. The ship was really rocking all day due to rough seas. There were barf bags strategically placed around the ship. I have never seen that before. I won’t bore you with the details of our day; sea days are all about relaxation. I found myself getting quite sleepy; I think it was the motion of the ship. Rocking back and forth all day apparently makes me drowsy!

Astoria, Oregon

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We have driven through Astoria many times so were not too excited about visiting here. Not that there is anything wrong with Astoria; it is a quaint town located at the mouth of the Columbia River. You need to keep in mind that we are from Seattle and have visited most of the ports on this cruise before, so if I seem unenthusiastic, it isn’t because the ports aren’t interesting; it is that they are familiar. We try to see the places through the eyes of our fellow passengers. If you were from Arizona, I imagine it would be pretty exciting to see all of the trees and water. And, how often do you look out of your cabin to see logs stacked up? Astoria was named after John Jacob Astor in 1811 (though he never actually visited here!). His American Fur Trading Company founded Fort Astoria (the original one; it was later moved). Astoria is most famous for the Astoria Column and for being the place where “The Goonies” was filmed. We didn’t see either place on our visit.

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Some of the excursions the cruise line was pushing were those that visited the Oregon Coast (Seaside and Cannon Beach) as well as those touring a couple of the local historic forts (Fort Stevens & Fort Clatsop). These are all places that we have visited so we decided to just walk through town. The “Freestyle Daily” (NCL’s daily newsletter) advertised a shuttle to town for $6/person. We were not sure how far from town we would be docked so tentatively planned on taking the shuttle.

When we disembarked, there was a tent set up by the local chamber of commerce. We asked how far it was to walk to town and found out that it was only a mile to a mile and a half, depending on how far along the waterfront you wanted to walk before cutting over to the commercial district. We decided to save our $12 and walk! There is a lovely river walk along the Columbia and if you are able to walk on a flat, paved road, is definitely the way to go. It is very picturesque. I took quite a few photos along the way. Come to find out there is also a trolley that runs along the River Walk. It only costs $1 one-way and takes you to the same place that the $6 shuttle does.

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We walked as far as the Maritime Museum ($14 admission) but opted not to tour the museum. Instead, we cut over a couple of blocks and headed to the commercial district. We quickly walked through town. We weren’t too tempted by the gift shops because the items for sale were quite similar to those that we can buy at home. We stopped for coffee at Mickey D’s and then walked back to the River Walk and returned to the ship. Altogether we were off the ship for about 3 hours; most of it was spent walking. It was nice to stretch our legs and see some pretty scenery. Though it was a cloudy day, we didn’t get rained on. We will be at sea for a day and then will be in Ketchikan. It is supposed to rain in Ketchikan, but then again, it almost always rains there!

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5 thoughts on “Alaska Bound! San Francisco to Astoria

  1. Hi Heather and Clayton
    We just returned home from the Dubai to Venice cruise on the Norwegian Star- happy to report that both engines worked!!! Have a wonderful trip and hope we meet up on another cruise soon.
    Patrick and Cecilia

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      • We had a great time on the Dubai to Venice cruise. We are currently booked for the Hong Kong to Tokyo Cruise next spring but are looking at other options as well. I think we may end up delaying that cruise til the following year.

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