No Cranes On Demand

Posted October 19, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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Prepare yourself for an onslaught of Japanese adventures. We’ve been ashore every day, with no breaks, and I’m way behind. I’m going to try to do a rapid-fire catch-up on the last few days, which have been pretty amazing. This was my first Japanese sunrise.


This was what I first saw coming into Kushiro in the early morning. Like every Japanese port it’s protected by a series of low sea walls.


As it turns out, there’s always food awaiting us on the dock, as if the cruise ship were starving us. This, for the donut-minded among you, was one of Kushiro’s offerings. I didn’t try them, but the area around the cart selling them smelled really good.


A small group of us piled into a van and headed north, up toward Hokkaido’s Lake Akan. Our first stop was the International Crane Center, where, disappointingly, we were about a month too early to see flocks of red crowned cranes in the wild.



Instead, the center showed us a few lonely-looking cranes in captivity,



as well as teaching us about the habits and life cycle of the supremely elegant birds.



Our next stop was a roadside rest station, where delicious snacks were available. I love Japanese food, so I was in heaven here. A kabocha fritter and crunchy wakame and sesame snacks made a fine lunch for me.



Next we went to see Ainu dancing and singing. The Ainu are the aboriginal people of northern Japan, and apparently here in Hokkaido is the only place where they have a distinct cultural, as opposed to assimilated, presence. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside or during the performance, but the theater building was beautiful and the performance was interesting.



It’s already autumn in Hokkaido, and so beautiful in the countryside. Doesn’t this look just like Japan should look?



The town of Kushiro itself, though, is absolutely unappealing, at least what we were able to see of it.




DSC00675The townspeople came and put on a wonderful sailaway show on the pier for us, featuring these taiko drummers, seen here from high up on my balcony.


Kushiro’s sunset was spectacular. That’s our ship, in the golden light.


We were in port with the Pacific Venus, the second-largest Japanese flag cruise ship. Here the pilot boat guides us out past her, and onward toward Yokohama.



Beautiful Kamchatka

Posted October 11, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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Petropavlovsk Part Deux. We started the afternoon at a museum of local and natural history. There was impressive taxidermy showing the wildlife of the Kamchatka peninsula, including


the sea eagle, said to be much larger and more powerful that the bald eagle,


the Russian brown bear, which is the world’s largest, as well as the beautiful red fox and lynx.


After the museum we drove out of town to a spot where this vehicle awaited us. We were on our way to visit the home of some championship sled dogs, and the road would be rough. When I saw this behemoth I was sure they were exaggerating, but no, not at all! No normal vehicle could possibly have traversed the roads we followed.


I kept trying to grab a picture as we bounced and crashed our way through a thick birch forest, but they were mostly all a blur. This one must have been taken during a moment when we were suspended in the air some foot or so above the ground, the only explanation for why it’s even partly in focus.


We finally arrived at a beautifully rustic outpost, the likes of which I’d never imagined.


The outpost’s outhouse, although there was a slightly more modern one for visitors.


We were all more or less famished by the time we arrived, but there were audible gasps as people ducked through the small door into the dining room.


Lunch was actually pretty terrible, from my point of view as a person who doesn’t eat carbs, but I was so happy to be there that I didn’t care. There was broth with big chunks of potato and little pieces of reindeer meat, bread, a few sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, and then a dessert of a fried dough and bowls of sweetened condensed milk sprinkled with lingonberries. Andrei and Anastasia, who own the place and raise the sled dogs, have seven children, so I rather imagine that this was a typical meal for them.


There are 126 sled dogs here, and each has its own little house on a pad. These dogs are raised to compete in the Beringia, the world’s longest dog sled race, that covers 1300 miles every year in Kamchatka. Both Andrei and Anastasia have won medals and big checks in this race, with these special dogs.


Here they show us how much the dogs love to run, maintaining a pace of 15 kilometers per hour throughout the race.


Then followed what, for me, was the best part of the day, as a wonderful troupe performed songs and dances of the Koryak, the indigenous people of the region.





People often ask me, about cruising, if it isn’t frustrating to spend just a day or two in each place. I guess it can be, but when a day is as full of wonderful things as this day was, it seems just right.


As we sailed away from the beautiful Kamchatka Peninsula I felt elated to have visited. If you ever get the opportunity to go there, grab it!

No Roads Lead Here

Posted October 11, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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Petropavlovsk, like Dutch Harbor, is a place that can only be reached by sea or by air. Both cities have monuments to Vitus Bering, the Dane who sailed for Russia and forged her path of discovery and conquest of the Aleutians.


But that’s where all resemblance ends. Petropavlovsk (properly called Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky) is a thoroughly modern city of 200,000 people, and apparently about 500,000 cars.


Our own voyage of discovery started with Lyudmila, from the Kamchatintour company, and her thoroughly modern fingernails. The tour bus, though, was charmingly rococo and our driver drove as though we were all precious eggs in a frail basket. Which was a good thing, because Petropavlovsk has an incredible traffic problem, with seemingly three cars on the road for each of its 200,000 inhabitants. Nice cars, new cars, on decent roads, just way too many of them.


Fortunately Lyudmila led us on a little walk of monuments in the downtown center, including one to François Lapérouse, an early French explorer,


and another, built in 1854, commemorating lives lost in the Crimean War. It is said that English and French soldiers are buried on one side of this monument, and Russian soldiers on the other.


Next we were off to this gorgeous spot. This is the Trinity Cathedral, which was actually built in this century, despite its classic appearance.


One of its most striking features is its location. Petropavlovsk is ringed by volcanoes, to the point that there is no place in town from which you can actually see the horizon. We were incredibly lucky to have a perfectly clear, sunny, and warm day for viewing this splendor. Normally it would be cloudy and rainy at this time of year.





From the sacred to the profane, next we headed to a large indoor market to do some shopping. Most of the group wanted souvenirs, but I walked straight back into the grocery section of the market.


I had dredged up a few Russian phrases from my visit there in 1994, and refreshed them with a bit of help from Google. However, it was still a hilarious adventure.


I didn’t mind passing on the many stalls filled with packaged cookies, cakes, crackers, and snacks of all kinds, but when I got to the sausages and cheeses, all was lost. I was too busy stumbling through my 20 word vocabulary and signing about everything to get a picture here, but I finally did manage to procure a selection of local sausages and some cheese from Belarus. The lady made little antlers by her face to signify deer, I made little finger-jumping motions to confirm, we laughed. I showed her my Visa, wrote down a total amount of rubles I wanted to spend, pointed to several different sausages, she offered me tastes then cut me some.


I followed my nose to the smoked fish section, which was enormous. This vendor didn’t have a word of English either, but pointing, tasting, and my few words of garbled Russian got me a side of some delicious fish, tightly wrapped in plastic to avoid offending my bus-mates. I have no idea what fish this is – I can pronounce it in Russian, but that’s it. If you can tell me what I’m eating I’ll be forever in your debt!

I’m sure it seems crazy to bring food on board a cruise ship, but there you have it. I’m still me.

We went on to have an amazing afternoon, which, in the interest of being sure I can really get all this uploaded, I think I’d better describe in a separate post. Stay tuned for Petropavlovsk Part Deux.





Unalaska, Not Quite Russia

Posted October 7, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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The Aleutian Islands, so far away, so little known, so…..Russian. I knew before we landed that there was a surprising WWII history there, and that it was remote and thinly populated. What I didn’t know was the extent of Russian influence, which is great. But let me start at the beginning.


The port of Dutch Harbor does not have a fancy cruise terminal, but is a serious working port. In fact, only five cruise ships were scheduled to dock there this season, and two didn’t make it, so we were the third and last visitors of the year.


This, according to our wonderful tour guide Bobbie, whose praises I would sing more loudly so that you could book a tour with her, but she proclaimed us to be her last-ever tour group. After 22 years in the business and her husband’s recent retirement, she deserves a rest.


However, she seemingly knows everything there is to know about Unalaska, and showed it all to us in the five hours we spent together. For example, this is what she calls the Unalaska National Forest. Look closely. These are scrubby little Sitka spruce, protected by a low picket fence. They were imported, since there are no trees that are native to Unalaska.


There is also no systematic raising of meat animals on the tundra, so this Willamette Valley beef is what you get in the store. There’s no hunting either, as the only mammals here are fox and squirrel. No deer, caribou, bear, or any of the animals you might expect to see.


There’s no dairy production, and the cheese counter at the local Safeway looks exactly like the one at my local store in Walla Walla, reflecting the fact that everything but fish comes up here on container ships, usually from Tacoma, WA.


From the number of containers you see all over the island, it’s like they are the lifeblood of the community. Which in a way they are, because everything comes up in them, and all the fish caught here goes out in them.


This is a community whose entire economy is built on fishing and fish processing. Dutch Harbor is the most productive fishing port in the United States. King crab, halibut, pollack, flounder, and processed surimi, somewhere around a billion pounds of it per year, all flow through the huge fish processing plants here. About two-thirds of that gets shipped overseas, the rest is consumed in the States. I’d had a fantasy of a fresh fish feast while in town, but alas, unless you know a fisherman or catch it yourself, what you’re eating in Unalaska has been frozen and processed before it hits your table.


That’s today. But back in the mid-18th century, this was a place of Aleut subsistence fishing.


Clothing and other necessities were made from fish intestines, and the people lived lives that are no longer remembered. Then, in the mid-18th century, the Russians came.


So thoroughly did they colonize the place that now the Aleut people have Russian last names, attend the Russian Orthodox church,




and little to nothing is remembered about their original religion or ceremonies. Even Bobbie’s Aleut husband, whose last name is Lekanoff, doesn’t speak the native language. I had no idea about any of this.


Another thing I didn’t expect was these concrete bunkers that dot the island,


or the huge number of buildings that date back to WWII. Dutch Harbor was bombed and strafed by the Japanese in June of 1942, and that history is still very much present today.


As is a shameful remnant of that time, the internment of the Aleut people. Many never returned from those camps, and those who did found that their villages no longer existed. Have you ever heard a word about this? I sure hadn’t.


Today there are about 4000 permanent residents of Unalaska. Everyone has running water, sewer, and electricity generated by this diesel-fired power plant. The diesel, of course, also comes here by ship.


This is a part of the local school, the 5th-12th grade section. About 400 children attend.


It’s hard to imagine what would become of this strange, desolate, and beautiful place if the container ships stopped visiting. Fish and blueberries are plentiful, fuel and building materials are non-existent. You can only get here by boat or plane. Often when I travel and visit new places I think “I could live here.”

I’m really glad to have been there, but Unalaska isn’t one of those places.

Bonine For Breakfast

Posted October 5, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising



It’s been rough. It’s not that I’m particularly a wuss, but 15 foot swells make it hard to walk around, or even to stand upright. We were sailing perpendicular to the swell all night, heading north, which made for a pretty wild night’s sleep. Here is where being higher up in the ship, which the suites are, is a disadvantage. I’ve been feeling more rocking, rolling, and pitching than my companions on lower floors. But that has also had the happy effect of improving my French vocabulary, as my Québécois friends on board have schooled me in the difference between brassage (being tossed or jumbled around), tangage (being pitched front to back), and a sea that’s roulant (rocking and rolling from side to side).

I felt very lucky to be able to concentrate on a vocabulary lesson and be distracted from the actual events that inspired it. I don’t know how long it takes to get one’s “sea legs” but I sure haven’t gotten them yet.

So far I haven’t felt actually queasy, but then, I don’t want to. The minute my eyes started to feel funny and a little headache nagged at me, I popped a Bonine. It’s kind of a miracle drug, actually, because it prevents mal de mer without making me sleepy. Nobody else I know has admitted to feeling the need to take it, so maybe I am a wuss, but I don’t care in the least.


The sun didn’t rise today until 8:26 a.m., so it looked like this when I awoke. Soon we’ll be heading west into the Bering Sea, threading our way through the Aleutian Islands to Dutch Harbor, on the island of Amaknak. Dutch Harbor has a lot of interesting WWII history associated with it, plus it doesn’t move out from under your feet when you try to stand on it, which seems like a distinct advantage. And also, crab, one of my favorite foods, is what to eat in town. I can’t wait to get there!

Halfway There

Posted October 3, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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On a long cruise there are definitely “port people” and “sea day people.” I am 100% a port person. Whereas the sea day people on board are pretty happy right about now, I can’t wait to get to our next port. The sea day people bask by the pool, play trivia and bingo and bridge, and revel in their relaxation. Me, I’m always thinking about ports to come, and how to maximize my time there, not to mention being glued to the news via the New York Times. So far I haven’t left it all behind, and I suspect that I never will.

And we’re just halfway to our next port, having come 1200 nautical miles from Los Angeles, with 1200 more to go to our first stop in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Just to add a few more geeky details, we are traveling at approximately 24 miles per hour, some 30 miles off the west coast of the U.S.,  in water that’s 1435 feet deep. The ambient air temperature is currently 61°, skies are clear, and the water checks in at 64°, which is surprisingly warmer than Puget Sound.

Although that all sounds pretty smooth, morning tai chi class has its hilarious moments. “Step left, heel down, now toe down, and shift your weight forward,” says our instructor. The ship pays no attention and suddenly shifts everyone’s weight sharply to the right, causing a roomful of arms to flap wildly as we all struggle to retain our balance. A few people sit down rather suddenly. Moving around the ship I find that I can’t walk in a straight line, although I usually avoid bouncing off the walls.

That’s speaking literally. Figuratively, I am bouncing lightly off the walls with incipient boredom, and am spending a lot of time in my beautiful room. Want to see? This is what Holland America calls a Neptune Suite, and it’s really quite wonderful.


I have a king-size bed,


a really nice sitting area with a desk, which is where I’m sitting right now.


My room has its own espresso machine


and a nice bar hidden behind the mirrored wall.


There’s also a dressing room and closet space just outside the bathroom, which reveals that I still have one suitcase that is not fully unpacked. That’s my next project, putting away all the miscellaneous toiletries and stuff that still haven’t settled in to their proper storage locations.


And I also have a huge balcony that makes me regret that I’m not a napper. I can even have room service meals on the balcony, although I haven’t done that yet.

Last year on this voyage the weather prevented the ship from getting into Dutch Harbor, and I’m fervently hoping that we’ll have better luck. I’m curious about the place and its history, and already longing to get my feet on terra firma, and very possibly trying out my new pack-in-a-pouch rain poncho.

Tonight’s a dress-up night in the dining room, where everyone will dress in black and gold. I’ll see if I can get a few pictures for you of folks in their finery. And I’m going to try to learn to enjoy sea days, which would be a good survival tactic, considering that we have about 40-45 more of them coming up. If you’re a cruiser and have any tips about that for me, please do share!