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Cruise Ship Review
Horizon
By
John Harley

Horizon Final 1997 Alaska Cruise

Celebrity Horizon

One of the great things about this particular sailing was that, while the Horizon is generally rated as carrying 1,300 passengers, only around 800 plus sailed from Vancouver. This made for a totally uncrowded feeling and good seats were always available in the theater or anywhere else. Of course it made for lousy bingo prizes and from the amount of people I saw in there, I couldn't see that the casino was making enough money to pay salaries. It was not unusual to pass through the casino and see not a single person playing the slots and only a few at the gaming tables. About 200 travel agents from across Canada joined the ship in Victoria for the leg to Los Angeles. Even with 1,000 passengers the ship still didn't seem crowded, which is something you really don't notice anyway except when you are looking for a theater seat. Wouldn't you know it? A TA from Calif. won the big jackpot bingo prize. Darn it!

This was our third cruise on the Horizon, the first one being to Bermuda from New York and the second being a trans-canal cruise from San Juan to Los Angeles. This was our 33rd cruise and third through the inside passage. We sailed with a group of 24. While 22 of us boarded the plane to Vancouver, our appointed group leader and his wife boarded the plane for Portland, the gate to which was only a few feet away. Fortunately he was squared away before either plane left the ground but will never live down the hazing which will go on forever. We were blessed with flying directly into Vancouver on Alaska Air, avoiding the boring bus trip from Seattle-Tacoma. A flight attendant handed out Canadian Customs cards, and even though I knew better, insisted that you only had to fill out one card per family. It is only returning Canadians who have to fill out only one card per family. Sure enough the hassle of going through Canadian Customs was further delayed by wives like mine having to fill out their own cards.

We arrived at the cruise terminal at about 10:30AM but boarding didn't begin until 1:00PM. Because of the intermittent rain we didn't feel like going anywhere, so we just wandered around the terminal where the center of attraction at the moment was a small French navy ship tied up at the pier. She was apparently expecting a visit from local VIPs as there were several officers and crew standing around under a canopy in dress blues and gloves.

Finally Celebrity personnel began to appear at the check-in counters so we got in line. There was no designated counter for Captain's Club members, but we thought not much of it since we were already close to the front of a line. After a few minutes someone announced that Captain's Club members could go to a certain counter so that solved that ego problem. Speaking of being a member of the Captain's Club, Celebrity had earlier informed us that as members we were being up-graded from deck 4 to deck 9. Since we knew that deck 9 meant looking out of our cabin window at the hull of a lifeboat, we told them thanks but no thanks and that we were perfectly happy on deck 4, which is where all of our friends were anyway.

We sailed out of Vancouver, always a beautiful sight, around 6:00PM and the adventure began. Saturday was spent sailing through the Canadian Inside Passage. We arrived in Ketchikan at about 8:00AM Sunday. The weather was sunny with a short shower and a beautiful rainbow in the afternoon. If you are a shopoholic, this is definitely the time to cruise Alaska and the Horizon was the last ship out of the Inside Passage for the season. All prices in the shops were drastically reduced to clear out the inventory for next season. A few shops here and at other stops were already closed for the season. We took no tours here nor anywhere else on this cruise, but just wandered around town. There is a free cable car up to a hotel overlooking the area so we took that and enjoyed the view. We visited some of the shops on Creek St. but didn't do Dolly's House this time.

For those who haven't been to Ketchikan, Dolly's House on Creek St. is truly worth a visit. Dolly was a famous prostitute who operated for many years until the operation was shut down by the army in WWII. The house is furnished just as it was when Dolly was operating and her bedroom is a sight to behold. There are concealed cabinets to hide booze during Prohibition and a trap door in the floor so that clients could row up the creek, tie up right under the house, and enter and leave by way of the trap door. You are supposed to believe that the expression "up the creek" originated here and I couldn't dispute it.

As veteran cruisers know, you can often arrange tours on your own at a substantial savings over what the ship charges. The tour operators in Alaska were doing the same thing the shopkeepers were doing, trying to get that last tourist dollar before winter. As an example, the ship offered a two hour tour of Ketchikan by bus for $35/pp. Friends of ours took the same tour in the comfort of a cab for $15/pp. Other than the truly expensive tours such as helicopter flights or the White Pass train ride, there were comparable wide differences between the cost of ship sponsored tours and arranging the same tours on your own in all the ports. We sailed for Skagway at 4:00PM.

We arrived in Skagway at 11:00AM to another glorious day. The sky was only partially cloudy and the temperature in the low 60s-F.

 

Skagway is a far more interesting town to me than Ketchikan. It was the main jumping-off place for miners heading for the Yukon to search for gold and is the western terminus of the still-operating White Horse & Yukon RR. What is left of the RR is now operated strictly as a toursit attraction and it is well worth taking the ride for the spectacular scenery. It is sad that the old steam engines have been replaced by diesels.

The railroad probably wouldn't exist at all today if it were not for WW II. In Jan. 1942 several thousand US troops landed without warning and placed the town and harbor under martial law. The main purpose of this, beside defending the harbor, was to rebuild the railroad for heavy traffic. Several engines and cars were landed and these carried the men and equipment to build the middle third of the Alaska-Canada highway. The first time we were in Skagway, in 1981, the train wasn't running because of a major landslide which had taken out much of the track and its bed, and it hadn't been operating for several years. Instead we took the tour bus to White Horse and saw much the same scenery. It was hillarious to have to stop for a Canadian customs agent at the Alaska-Yukon border in the middle of nowhere.

Skagway is the more interesting town to walk around in among the ports of call, and walking around is what we like to do best in any port. This is the only port on this cruise where the ship isn't docked across the street from the main part of town. It is only about a half-mile walk but there are plenty of cabs and shuttles that will take you for $1/pp. Because of port regulations the cabs and shuttles can not come directly to the ship's ramp. You have to walk a very short distance to get the shuttles. There is a small shuttle for the handicapped that goes from the ramp to where you get the regular shuttles. We walked into town, mainly to look at all of the line logos and ships and captains names that have been painted on the cliffs by the dock over the years.

On your way into town you will pass by the White Pass RR terminal. There is a gift shop inside with a lot of railroadiana. Across the street is one of the old steam engines. Passing this you see the mecca of the drinking crowd, the Red Onion. You can't help but notice the building because it is lopsided and appears like it will collapse any time. I'm sure it must have some hidden structural bracing for the city to let it stand. When you reach the Red Onion you are on the main street and ready for shopping. Like Ketchikan, most stuff is going for give-away prices and some shops are already closed for the winter. The store that seemed to be doing the largest amount of business was the SOS - Skagway Outlet Store. There were a lot of the crew in there taking advantage of the bargains.

There is a nice museum farther down this street. Another place worth seeing is the old cemetary from the gold rush days. It is sad to see the large number of graves of young children who died of diseases. The grave of Soapy Smith, the town's most notorious villain, is here. In front of his grave is the grave of the man who shot him but subsequently died later as a result of the same gun fight. If you aren't inclined to walk, and it is a long walk, the cemetary is included in one of the tours.

On this particular day the engine pulling the train broke down and had to be rescued by another engine. I didn't hear anyone complain about the trip itself but there were probably many unhappy campers who felt that they had missed valuable shopping time.

Three of our travel mates went salmon fishing so our three tables had baked salmon for dinner on board.

Tired of walking, we paid our dollar to take a cab back to the pier. We sailed from Skagway at 8:00PM.

Tuesday was spent cruising Glacier bay from 7:00AM to 5:00PM. Another beautiful day with mostly clear skies. The sun and ship were positioned just right for the upper part of the glaciers to be slightly back-lit, adding to the spectacular color of the ice. The ship was stopped for about 30 minutes each in front of each glacier face allowing every one to take countless pictures and do all their ooh-ing and ah-ing. A National Park Ranger is on the bridge during the day describing the area over the PA system. The last time we were here it was earlier in the year and we saw many seals with their newborns. We had seen one seal that had just given birth on a large chunk of ice and was still cleaning up the pup. This time we saw only a couple of whales.

We sailed through the night, with a little light rain, and docked in Juneau at 7:00AM. Definitely worth seeing here is Mendenhall Glacier, a relatively short bus ride away and available either on your own or as a ship's tour. Another place worth seeing is the Alaska State Museum. We had done all this before so we got off the ship after a buffet breakfast, looked through some of the dock-side stores, stuck our head in the Red Dog Saloon to see if there was anyone in there from our group, and got back aboard for lunch.

The Red Dog has quite a history. The original one, which I was never in, was where the state legislature did its more important wheeling and dealing in the old days. The saloon moved across the street to larger quarters and we were in that one. For the last few years they have been in their present location close to the pier and next door to the new police station. When we were first in this latest Red Dog location, everything looked too clean and new, the walls weren't yet hung with the leavings of visitors, and it just didn't have that frontier saloon ambiance. Now, with a few years behind her, the walls are again hung with lifesavers and house flags stolen from the cruise ships, business cards, police patches, etc, and everything has had time to aquire a much needed manta of dirt and dust. Don't even think about losing a contact lens on the floor. There was so much sawdust on the floor that you felt like you were walking on the beach. I wanted to replace my old Red Dog sweat shirt but they were sold out for the season.

After lunch on the ship my wife decided she had to visit the shopping mall she had heard about in Mendenhall - the suburb not the glacier. It was a $1.25 fare, and about a 40-minute ride on the city bus which we caught right next to the pier. I have to admit that it was an interesting ride through non-tourist Juneau. We were surprised by the large number of very nice suburban homes that we saw for sale. Fortunately for me the mall was quite small and we were there for only about a half hour. On the way back we got off near the civic center and walked down the hill to the pier. Passing the Federal Bldg. I was almost disappointed to see the uglier-than-sin sculpture near the entrance still there. I can't remember its official name but the local taxpayers refer to it as the Jolly Green Giant's urinal.

That was enough walking for the day for me. While my wife continued on, I went into the Red Dog for a couple of beers with friends I found there.

So much for the day on shore. It was great always being the only ship in town. With all the the ships now cruising the Inside Passage, these towns must be as mobbed as St. Thomas during the regular season.

We sailed from Juneau at 8:00PM for Misty Fjord and arrived Thursday at 1:00PM. It is about a three hour cruise into and out off the fjord. The narrow fjord is beautiful and conveys an almost mystical feeling, especially with the sky gray and overcast as it was for us. It has an even more mystical quality when the sea is covered with mist, but a very light drizzle this day prevented that. We were out of the fjord by around 4:00PM and sailed south on our way out of the Passage and into the storm.

Our 8th day, Friday, Oct. 4th, was spent at sea and a very rough ride it was. When we left Misty Fjord on Thursday, the spokeswoman on the bridge announced that the captain had not yet decided whether we were going to continue in the Inside Passage or go south on the open sea. No mention was made of a storm which the captain would have had to have known about. We took the open sea route without further announcement, but it was soon evident where we were. It is purely a guess on my part that the corporate types decided that since we weren't returning to Vancouver, why pay the expense of a Canadian pilot through the remainder of the Passage?

We were soon in extremely heavy, rolling seas all night until we got close to Victoria. I personally didn't care. To me this was added excitement at no extra cost - the E-ticket ride so to speak. Anything not bolted down to your cabin dressers or tables was sliding off or falling over. My wife doesn't actually get sick in these conditions, but her stomach does get a little queasy. She decided to lie down in the cabin and I went to dinner with what few of our friends showed up.

I was surprised at the large number of people who did appear in the dining room for dinner. The last time we were in a storm like this, very few people made it to the dining room. Just after I sat down, a heavy roll of the ship sent dishes stacked at the waiter stations flying to the floor. I heard a large crash coming from the entrance to the kitchen which we were fairly close to. One of the thick glass doors to the dining room swung and shattered. Everyone had a good laugh and dining room service was quickly back to normal. There were no more silimilarly heavy rolls of the ship during dinner but we did grab our glasses or dishes a couple of times. Without my asking, our waiter volunteered to make up a dish of assorted fruits and a dessert for me to take back to my wife.

After my wife ate her dish of fruit, she felt much better and we strolled about the ship, while keeping our balance, to see if there was any other damage. We didn't see any. The casino was still operating and all of the bars that were supposed to be open still were. We went to the America's Cup lounge, the highest and farthest forward lounge, for a drink and to watch the storm through the 270 deg. view afforded by the windows. The bartender told us that he had a lot of sliding bottles earlier but that none had broken. We never heard any stories about any passengers claiming to have been injured.

We awoke Saturday morning, day 12, to very calm seas and close to Victoria. We tied up in Victoria at 7:00AM, an hour ahead of schedule. This was the only port we stopped at where we were plagued by rain, light though it was. Having been to Victoria several times, tired of walking and not intrigued by walking in the rain, and knowing that my wife was mainly interested in shopping here, I opted to stay on the ship. Victoria is a very beautiful city with many things worth seeing--more than you can see in one day. I read the local newspaper my wife brought back and was surprised to read that less cruise ships were planning on stopping in Victoria in 1998. This is sad news to us, both for Victoria and cruise passengers.

We sailed from Victoria at 3:00PM and it was back into the storm all night and most of the next day, Sunday, as we sailed down the coast of Washington and Oregon. This time we were heading directly into the waves and wind causing much pitching instead of rolling. We were thankful that we were in a cabin in the central area of the ship.

The sea had calmed down by Monday morning and we sailed through the Golden Gate close to 2:00PM for an afternoon and evening in San Francisco.

Sailing under the Golden Gate bridge and watching the skyline of San Francisco is always a beautiful sight. I thought it would have been nice, for those who have never been here before, if someone on the ship's bridge had pointed out the various landmarks, at least here and in Vancouver.

We've been here many times over the years, and since it was so late in the day I, at least, didn't feel like going downtown. We walked to Pier 39 and visited the shops and watched the seals. The weather in San Francisco. was clear and cool but very windy, at least on the waterfront.

We sailed at 2:00AM Tue. The sea was calm and, with 30 hours to make it to Los Angeles., the ship seemed like she was going only at about half speed for the rest of the journey.

All day Tuesday the weather finally warmed up now that we were nearing Southern California. For the first time on the cruise the pool deck was filled with people and a band was playing, although it was hardly bikini weather and no one was in the pools.

After another night at sea we docked in San Pedro at 8:00AM Wed. morning, Oct. 8, and my wife and I were walking through our front door around noon.

We had a fabulous 12-night cruise, look forward to cruising on the Horizon again someday, and are now planning this same cruise in reverse next May on Celebrity's Galaxy, a ship we haven't cruised on before.

We don't have a single complaint above the level of insignificant. All of the staff we had contact with were friendly and helpful. Our cabin steward and dining room staff were great and the food was outstanding.

The question of bringing your own liquor on board always comes up. This was the first time in ages that I didn't bring a bottle or two of liquor, only because I didn't feel like carrying it on the plane. With Canada's horrendous taxes, we weren't about to buy any in Vancouver. The price of liquor by the bottle in Alaska is nothing to write home about either. You could buy liquor aboard the ship but you couldn't take it to your cabin which is pointless. Many people did bring on their own liquor even though the literature, as usual, says you aren't supposed to. I didn't see or hear of anyone having their carry-on bags checked. When we took the Horizon out of San Juan in 1996, there was a duty-free liquor store right in the terminal. It seemed like everyone was taking their bags to their cabin, then getting off the ship to buy their liquor. There was no other reason for the liquor shop to exist since it was only available to passengers.

It would have been nice if the captain or his deputy could have bothered to make a little thank-you-and-goodbye speech at the captain's farewell but such was not the case. I guess that from their point of view it wasn't the end of the voyage.

The friendliest and most gracious person on the ship's staff was Adriana the ship's bar manager. She was continually circulating in the lounges, concerned that everyone was enjoying the cruise. I mentioned in my evaluation card that she was far more valuable to the line than the designated hostess who was rarely to be seen.

I found it humorous that the daily paper was encouraging people to join the Captain's Club "...for continual VIP treatment throughout your cruise." All that we got was a 30-minute hurry-up-and-finish-your-free-drink cocktail assemblage at which even the hostess couldn't bother showing up. I wouldn't make a point of this except that with Celebrity you have to pay to join their past passengers' club.

In my opinion the entertainment was mediocre and I have come to expect nothing more from Celebrity, or at least the Horizon, for whatever reasons. Many people walked out of many shows. My wife and I were glad to see Bob (Fluffy) Francis, an entertainer we've seen before on cruises. Bob Francis is a Las Vegas lounge style entertainer who has been around for a long time. He is very good at imitating the voices of popular singers. He doesn't hesitate to mingle with the passengers on board or ashore.

Now that I have my petty complaints off my chest I say again, we wouldn't hesitate for a moment to cruise on the Horizon again.

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