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I just returned from a 10 day Alaska cruise on the Sea Princess (Princess Cruises) out of San Francisco. It stopped in Ketchikan, Juneau, Icy Strait Point, and Victoria (Canada). There was also a half day of cruising in a fjord. Ketchikan was probably the best stop. Juneau had the worst weather (a bit of rain) and felt the most touristy. Icy Strait Point was a long day on a 'semiprivate' island (only one ship at a time). Just about everything there needs a tour which were all pretty expensive. I didn't go ashore that day. The most disappointing was Victoria. We arrived there at 6 AM and had to be back aboard around 1 PM. Since most things don't open until 9 AM, that precluded doing very much. We had wanted to go to Butchart Gardens, but they're out of town and would either have cost $50 to travel there or 2 hours by public transportation. Instead we went to the Royal BC Museum which was very nice. It has a lot of historical artifacts both from the First Nation peoples in the area and from most recent history. Both included reproductions of buildings, original clothing, tools, and so on.

Juneau and Icy Strait Point were both by tender (small boat) which is a hassle. Interestingly enough, both days a tender which broke down. In Juneau, we had already gone back on board. I was on deck and saw black smoke poring from the back of a tender headed to shore. I thought, "That engine's toast." The crew tried for a while to get it working, but it never quite did. They had to send another tender to transfer the passengers, then after more time, tied on another tender and towed it back to the ship. They worked on the engine the entire next day. I didn't see it, but heard another tender broke down later.

The Sea Princess is Italian-built in 1998. It underwent renovation in 2008, but I still felt that there was some sloppy (or slovenly) areas. There were broken push buttons on some of the public restrooms, along with peeling or chipped fixtures. Some infrastructures were visibly rusty. It just felt to me like there could be better care--or the renovations were done a bit too much on the cheap.

A touch I liked in the dining room was twinkling lights in the dark ceiling--starlit skies! We went with anytime dining. Princess still does a formal night or two depending on the length of the cruise. We had two, but I didn't bother to go. One night I went to the 'feeding trough' as we called it: Horizon Court (24 hour buffet) and room service (free!) on the other. The Horizon Court was quite good with a wide choice of food. There was usually some type of Chinese appetizer like fried wonton or spring rolls. Fruit, salad, various vegetables, 'homestyle' dishes, cookies plus nicer desserts. We usually ate lunch there, but went to the dining room for dinner/supper. It had 3-4 appetizers, 3 starters (soups or salads), 5-6 main courses, and a whole dessert menu. Every meal had certain items so for instance, I had shrimp cocktail most nights.

Strangely enough (I hear this is typical on all cruise lines), only water, lemonade, and regular coffee/tea, plus juice at breakfast are free. Sodas (pop) were $1.75 or so each, so I bought a 'sticker' that went on my cruise card so I could get free sodas. The sticker cost $51.75 so we worked out that you needed to get around 3 drinks a day to make it pay. I don't think I quite made it, because I'd brought on board an 8pack of 12 oz bottles as well. There's also an extra drink sticker which includes special mocktails and milk shakes. It's around $80.

We didn't pack enough clothes for the entire journey. We had 3 nights in San Francisco in addition and I'm willing to do laundry if machines are available. There are self-service laundries on board, but only 2 washers/2 dryers per deck. They also closed the facility for about two and a half days due to environmental regulations. The machines were free, as it turned out, but you had to pay $1 (4 quarters) for detergent. We brought our own. When I planned to do laundry, I staked out the room (3/4s deck away from our cabin) before it opened so I could grab both washers and get done sooner. It was a good idea, as up to 10 people would come in to check on them while I was waiting for them to finish. The washers, set for cottons, take close to 50 minutes, and the dryers, also set on the hottest settings, take forever. I ran the dryers until the washers finished for the person after me, then I hung up whatever was still damp back in the room.

I wish this information was available before the cruise.

I thought we had a good room position, it was an interior double (beds shoved together to make a nearly king size bed), on deck 10 (top deck was 15), aft. The hall takes a turn, so our door faced the rear of the ship. We didn't have any exterior rooms across from us. There was a door to crew space next to us, but it wasn't used that much and didn't disturb us. One long wall had two neighbors, but we never heard any noise from them. Some friends also sailed but their room was on the other side of the deck (port; we were starboard). Our room was narrow and deep. The shower was probably the hardest to deal with as it was tiny. Suitcases fit under the bed, and there was plenty of drawers and closet space for our stuff. Our friends' room was more square and felt bigger, partially because the beds were set against the walls so there was more floor space. They said there was less closet space though.

We seem to have had an outbreak of some sort of virus. It might have been Norovirus, which was mentioned in a message from the captain, but it was never stated outright. One friend definitely caught whatever it was and was down for part of a day (and quarantined for 24 hours). The other came down with something about a day or so later, but didn't have quite the same symptoms and never contacted the ship's doctors. Within a few days of the start of the trip, I heard the captain's message--which I'm sure was recorded because I heard the same message several days later--only because I happened to be in the cabin at the time. I think that was very poorly handled. It was midafternoon when most people wouldn't be in their cabins. There was nothing in the daily newsletter beyond some statements about instituting stricter hygiene regulations. The Horizon Court which had been serve yourself became only served-by-crew and you had to use alcohol-based hand wash to enter any restaurant.

Somehow I and my boyfriend missed it, although 3 of us used my generic Imodium at various times (I tend to have problems anyway, so it wasn't unusual that I brought some).

Crew was always very friendly and helpful.

The biggest issue I had was the continual push to buy stuff and the nickel-and-diming. There's the casino, the drinks, the wildly overpriced 'boutiques' including jewelry, the photos, and art. Ugh. I found the art to be the most troubling. It's all prints and most is hardly worth the paper it's printed on or the frame it's in. There are three art auctions where they sell this stuff. There's also an art channel on the room tv, that mostly shows 'documentaries' that are thinly veiled sales marketing shows about some of the featured artists. In the auction, a few popular pieces would be bid up. Once someone 'won' it, the art director would offer copies at the same price to the losing bidders. 

We did partake of a spa treatment the first day aboard. I thought it would be a nice transition to vacation mode. It was nice, but time was spent discussing what your medical problems and stress are, and then discussing a treatment plan afterwards. Our treatment plans entailed buying stuff for $100+. Um, no.

The casino was smoke-free on two or three evenings. Unfortunately, I didn't visit those nights. In total, I lost $4 on the penny slot machines. There was black jack, poker, and roulette.

There's a small library, with books you can check out and some that people have left. The selection is decent.

The ship does have a satellite-based internet/wifi service, but reports said that it was quite slow and quite expensive. It took a day or two for me to adjust to being internet-free.

Weather was surprisingly good for this time of year. Even in Ketchikan which is almost always rainy, we had perfect weather. We decided it was my mutant power. The previous trip by this boat never saw the sun. We also had sunny weather in San Francisco. I've never had any problem with weather in the City.

We didn't do any onshore excursions because we thought they were all too expensive.

I put some postcards in the ship's mail slot while in Juneau. It was around 3:30pm and we weren't leaving until 6pm, so I assumed they would go out. No. I finally saw one and it was postmarked 1 June in San Francisco! (We arrived 30 May, a holiday)

In summary, I would not be averse to cruising again, but would look into other lines. I would want to try to get an exterior cabin next time.

In San Francisco, we went to MOMA for a special exhibit, "The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde". The exhibition had lots of material, although contained a lot of lesser works, I would say. We then visited Chinatown and got some bits and pieces.

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I was in Houston for a conference. I try to make a point to go to at least one Half Price Books when I visit. I dumped into my suitcase about 12 books to trade in. I almost didn't go, but left a little early for the airport in order to visit the store in Humble, Texas. It's just northeast of IAH, so wasn't far out of my way. Two and a half hours later, I left with 2 DVD sets (Castle season 1 and the British Second Sight, series 1 and 2) and 3 movies, 10 CDs, 3 hc, 6 tpb (3 gn), and 3 pb. The trade-ins were worth $11.75 and they gave me a 10% discount just because. I heart Half Price. I could easily have bought more, but I was worried about my suitcase weight and how much I was spending. This store had a lovely collection of graphic novels and SF.
I also try to not buy DVDs unless I'm sure that I don't have them. I have been trying to replace VHS versions, but I keep a list of those. I also keep a list of books that I'm looking for, as I try to replace the mangled versions with like-new ones when I can.
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I traveled to Houston this week. Traveling usually derails reading but there was an exception this time. I'd started a reread of Trickster's Choice by Tamora Pierce, but didn't want to carry the hb with me. Instead I took Aaronovitch's Moon over Soho and got about a third of the way through.

Sharon Lee posted that the e-arc of Ghost Ship was going to be available at this week. An e-arc is an electronic advanced reader's copy. Normally an arc (cheaply published) is sent out to reviewers a few months before the publication date. The text is a beta version--it may or may not have been through copy-editing and will often contains typos and other mistakes. Although they're not supposed to be sold or passed on, there's always been a market for them, and if the book is anticipated...Prices can get into the hundreds. I've bought several over the years, usually for around $10-$40 (usually $15-$20), but I always buy the hardcover as soon as it's out as well.

Jim Baen found that rabid fans were willing to pay for an electronic version, $15. It's also possible to buy a webscription for a particular month. It contains 6 or so books, 3-4 new ones, the rest already published. For the new ones, in the months coming up to publication, another portion of the books can be downloaded. For the July 2011 webscription, the first halves of the new books are now available.

Ghost Ship went live on Tuesday. Due to work commitments, I couldn't get access to it until that evening. I probably got about halfway before I collapsed, then finished it the next night. I'm not going to say much about it and definitely no spoilers. It joins the main I Dare storylines to Theo Waitley's (Fledgling, Saltation). It's closer in feel to Plan B or I Dare--a lot of plotlines and viewpoint characters--than to Conflict of Honors or Fledgling. My thoughts at the end consisted of--Argh! I have to wait for the next book! I want to read more of these people!

So I may be rereading some of the books. I particularly want to read Crystal Soldier and Crystal Dragon again.

On the plane ride home, I should have picked up Moon over Soho. I instead read a good chunk of Justice Hall by Laurie R. King on my android phone. Which kills the battery like crazy.

I've picked up Trickster's Choice again and should finish it today.

London, UK

Mar. 20th, 2010 11:23 am
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I returned recently from a trip to London. The main purpose of the trip was for a OGP Surveying and Positioning's Geodetics subcommittee meeting, but I had a few days holiday as well. There were two museums that I wanted to see: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and Sir John Soane's Museum.

The Petrie museum is located at University College London (UCL), nearest tube stations: Euston Square or Goodge Street. The Petrie museum has a fantastic collection of Egyptian artifacts. I particularly enjoy seeing the jewelry (cases and cases of necklaces and belts generally sorted by color/material). It's only a few rooms and the amount of artifacts is amazing. It's very much an old style museum with as much as possible on display. They even have torches (flashlights) so you can peer into the sometimes dark display cases. Photos of the collection are online.

Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
Malet Place

PUBLIC OPENING HOURS (Note: Closed during UCL's Christmas and Easter breaks)
Tuesday to Friday 13.00 – 17.00
Saturday 11.00 – 14.00
Admission is FREE.

The 2nd museum is the Sir John Soane's Museum. I had never been there before, and only went because of the current exhibit: Mrs Delany and Her Circle (until 1 May 2010). On display are some of her paper mosaic botanical studies and an amazing embroidered court dress. Sir John Soane was a collector and there are many bits and pieces collected from the Mediterranean area.

Sir John Soane's Museum
13 Lincoln's Inn Fields

Admission is free.
Tuesday to Saturday inclusive, 10-5.
Also on the first Tuesday evening of each month, 6-9 pm. (expect long lines)
Closed Sunday, Monday, Bank holidays and Christmas Eve.

Closest tube station: Holborn on the Central Line.

Tips for London travel

If arriving at Heathrow, use Heathrow Express or Heathrow Connect to travel to Paddington Station. I use Heathrow Connect as it's not that much slower than the Express and a bit cheaper, 15.80 pounds (as of March 2010), and takes around 25 minutes. Heathrow Express it 30 pounds (50 pounds first class) and takes 15 minues.

Get an Oyster Card. The Oyster Card is a bit like an ATM card--load money onto it and then freely use it on the underground, buses, DLR (Docklands Light Rail), and national rail (within zones 1-9). You cannot use an Oyster card for the Heathrow Connect or Express services. What's also handy is that if  you make several trips in a day, the amount charged will not be more than a day travel card. At the turnstiles there is a big yellow circle. You touch/hold your card there briefly until the gate opens. Cool!



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