Our Anniversary Cruise - Final Week - Part 5

The drizzly weather as we left Sydney, Nova Scotia, foreshadowed the weather that would follow us for the next four days. Fiona was relentless in her pursuit of us. As we left Sydney, we heard that the storm track had Halifax in the bullseye. That sealed the fate of our other Nova Scotia port, Gaspe, which was also closed by Canadian authorities. The very simplified announcement that the cruise director put out told us that the captain was going to sail into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and put an island between us and the storm. At the beginning, there were no other announcements about port calls or schedule changes.

I want to pause to make one of the few criticisms of Viking policy. I understand why announcements are generally not broadcast into staterooms, but those which have impact on port calls which might be of real interest to the passengers, such as the shortened visit to Sydney, should be. I was in the shower and Linda couldn't understand the announcement in the passageway. As a result, we missed the photo opportunity for the giant violin.

As a retired Navy officer, I recognized and applauded the captain's plan. He would sail into the Northwest quadrant of the storm, the quietest of the four. Sheltering behind an island lessened both wind and any heavy seas. It was exactly the right decision to make. Most of the passengers, however, didn't have my experience and they showed a lot of concern about being near a hurricane. During the three days we avoided the weather, I felt only one time when the seas moved the ship perceptibly. Viking Star is built for comfort as well as safety. With her compensating fuel tanks and stabilizing fins, she can lessen much of the ocean's motion. Later in the cruise, I asked the captain if the storm avoidance decisions were his alone or if he needed to get Viking's permission. His answer was that while the decision was his, the line had to make all the contacts to move port calls and arrange berthing and pilots. For what it was worth, I complemented him on the decision and his seamanship and that of his crew. We wouldn't learn about the devastation that the storm visited on Nova Scotia until later.

With the ship steaming in lazy circles at sea, there was little to do. The crew rose to the challenge. Two tables became the center for jigsaw puzzle enthusiasts and Linda spent some time there working on large puzzles with other passengers. Decks of cards, cribbage boards, and other games could be seen at tables usually reserved for glasses of alcohol. In the main Atrium on deck 1, a cornhole tournament was orchestrated.

The small entertainment group, a quartet of singer/dancers and a four-piece combo, put on a number of different performances in the theater. One night it was an homage to Abba, no surprise there for a Norway-based cruise line. One night it was a Broadway medley. Another it was the Beatles. These were entertaining and intimate shows. Each show was presented twice, once for the early-birds and once, later, for those who wanted to dine at a decent hour and then head to a show. They were also streamed to staterooms and recorded for later viewing. That is good passenger service.

This was also the time when we explored the closed-circuit TV in our stateroom. When Halifax was lost, so was a tour we had paid for. That money was refunded into our onboard account, already flush with credits that we hadn't yet been able to use. We could see, not only our tour schedule and the menus for all the restaurants, but the hour-by-hour events happening onboard. Linda discovered the price list for the on-board spa and, credits in hand, splurged on a massage. The schedule tab on the TV showed her massage schedule and the onboard credits were reduced – but not nearly by enough.

The spa on Viking Star is a full-service unit with a hair salon, nail salon, as well as massages of many varieties for both men and women. It also has its own pool, hot tub, sauna, and cold room, giving it the Norwegian feel. We used the pool, sauna, and hot tub a number of times. A sauna is always great. The cold room was an experience. The swimsuit spinner and small size of the ship made walking the short distance back and forth between spa and stateroom a breeze. Linda enjoyed her massage so much that she scheduled her first ever pedicure. The onboard system allowed the spa attendants to view her schedule to ensure no conflicts with other appointments. Another debit against the onboard credits. Yeah!

We found the Viking TV to be useful. It was entertaining, as well. The presentations in the theater, whether entertainment or informational, were streamed to the room TV. They could also be viewed later. There was a selection of live TV, albeit very generic. I could watch MSNBC, or SKY news. There were sports channels, as well. But we never spent enough time in the room to watch the selection of first-run movies like the remake of West Wide Story.

Finally came the announcement of the revised schedule. With the loss of Gaspe and Halifax, we had cruise days to spare. The captain and Viking arranged for an extra day in Quebec City, but not sequentially. With a little creative scheduling, we would sail down the St. Lawrence and turn up the Saguenay fjord far enough to view the statue of Our Lady of Saguenay perched high on Cape Trinity. This was an unexpected treat for the passengers. Had our voyage not been interrupted, we would have passed by the statue in the dark. As it was, the ship hovered beneath the statue for half an hour, allowing ample time for photos in broad daylight. Then we turned around and sailed for our bonus day in Quebec City. I'm not going to try and relate the story of the statue high on a cliff. Google it.

Quebec City holds an important place in the history of Canada and North America; a place often lost in our own national history. It sits on a bluff above the narrowest portion of the St. Lawrence River.That made it a strategic location, controlling access to and from the Great Lakes. The British finally took it from the French in the battle on The Plains of Abraham. The U.S. failed in 1775 to take it from the British. Had they succeeded, the history of North America might have been significantly different.

The Viking Star berthed near the lower city and beneath the bluff protecting the heights. Since this was an extra day, Viking threw together a few extra tours. Historic Quebec was within walking distance, uphill without a doubt, but walking distance and we took advantage of a walking tour of Historic Quebec City. We had a two-part plan. First, we needed to reconnoiter shopping for souvenirs. Second, we needed to find the perfect place to check off our quest for poutine. Our original schedule had us taking a bus tour that included outlying areas, such as the Plains of Abraham, where the pivotal battle between the French and British resulted in the loss of French Canada to the English. Now, we had an extra day to find our way around the old city.  

Our guide loved her city, and it showed in the presentation as we walked both lower and upper city. We viewed the remnants of ramparts and fortifications as well as the places matched with names like Champlain. As the old city rebuilds itself, artists have painted historically based murals on the blank brick of buildings, telling parts of the history of the old city. We took the funicular (cog rail) from lower to upper city and found ourselves on the broad plaza that was built atop the ruins of the old French fortifications. Overlooking the plaza is the Chateau Frontenac, the luxury hotel that hosted Roosevelt and Churchill as they discussed the North African and Normandy landings during WWII. Statues of French explorers, priests, and nuns were distributed throughout, along with the historic structures that they left behind.

Interspersed, of course, were the many shops on the streets. T-shirts share the cobblestone streets with the art and craft of the 'First People', the Canadian name for the Native Americans displaced and abused by the Europeans. Coffee shops and a popcorn emporium share one block with clothing, post cards, maple candy, and syrup.

As we parted with our guide at the end of the tour, I asked the important question. "Where do we find real poutine?" Every restaurant we passed had Poutine, in many varieties and some with astronomical prices. We wanted the Poutine that the locals ate. She told us to go to the end of the street at the bottom of the staircase. After we reconnoitered a few souvenir shops, we walked down the stairs and found the small restaurant. It was unpretentious, had only 4 tables and the service bar. We learned that there were a few more tables upstairs. The handwritten menu board displayed four poutines and three burger choices, along with wine and beer. Soft drinks were in a small refrigerator nearby. We ordered a Poutine Quebecois, the most traditional and simplest, to split along with two glasses of beer. Our quest for poutine was complete. Even a hurricane couldn't keep us from our goal. Take that, Fiona!

Now, let's be honest here. There is nothing earth-shattering about poutine. We were presented with a Styrofoam container with deep fried pre-frozen French fries, scattered with cheese curds, and covered with generic beef brown gravy. But, like the McDonald's or Wendy's burger, that's poutine. It is what it is. But we had enjoyed it at the source. Quest complete. Box checked. Move on. Back onboard, we prepared to sail back up the Saguenay fjord the next day and a return to the original itinerary before it was edited by Hurricane Fiona.  

Saguenay Fjord is 146 miles long, the longest fjord in the Western Hemisphere. It is navigable by ocean-going vessels and is critical to the Canadian aluminum industry. There is no community of Saguenay. At the end of the fjord is a cluster of four small towns that only recently created an economic unit. North of this cluster there is nothing but a few villages of First-Person tribes until you reach Hudson's Bay. The fjord sports cliffs soaring to 1100 feet in height. It's a remarkable geological experience.

The community where the Star docked is just a small town, sporting piers that service the aluminum mills and the cruise ships. The availability of vast amounts of hydroelectric power makes it a good place for the smelting of aluminum. Bauxite is shipped in from around the world to be turned into aluminum.

There were a variety of scenic tours available, including seaplane and zodiac tours of the fjord. Regrettably, those were cancelled due to low ceiling and rough water in the fjord. Sorry guys. Only the bus tours were not cancelled.

It took a while to understand why we took a one-hour bus ride across the Canadian landscape to the town of Chicoutimi. Small things make up big history.In 1992, two dams on the Saguenay River broke during a very bad storm, causing some 3000 deaths and devastation down the entire valley. One homeowner, right below one of the dams, had decided years earlier to bolt the foundation of his home to the bedrock. That small white frame house survived and is a museum today to the resilience of the people. A view of the 'little white house' and the remains of the pulp mill in the path of the torrent were the reason for the visit. Other than that, it was a pleasant drive through the Quebecois countryside.  

An interesting note about the scheduling of tours. Our tour left at 4:15 with a scheduled 2 ¼ hour duration. The announced time to be back on board was 5:30. Something was amiss there, but the folks at Viking and the tour guide assured us that our ship would be there when we returned. At 5:45, our bus rounded the last bend, and the Viking Star was still there, not departing until nearly 7PM. Must be on Canadian time. Not sure. And it would not be the last time that 'tour time' and 'back on board' time were in conflict. But we never missed ship's movement. That's all that matters.

As we sailed back down the fjord toward the right turn toward Quebec City, it was time to hit the onboard stores. We still had onboard credits to use and only two more opportunities. Time to shop!

Viking Star had three shops. One resembled a mini mart. It offered, primarily, snacks and necessities. Another shop carried Norwegian clothing and other items. If you wanted a foot-tall gnome, this was your shop, along with sweaters, blankets, and other Nordic items. The third is a combination jewelry and cosmetic shop.The first shop held no interest for us. The second sold Linda a new pair of sunglasses. The third offered us an opportunity of a few pieces of interesting jewelry at fair prices. We didn't quite drive our onboard credits to zero. But we tried hard without just 'spending it because we had it to spend'.

Back in Quebec City, we boarded a bus for a tour that encompassed parts of the city beyond walking distance, most importantly, the Plains of Abraham, where the British defeated the French and, ultimately, changed the face of North America and the history of the new world. For a large grassy plateau that now holds a Canadian Army fort and a tourist overlook, the Plains of Abraham has a revered history. Oh, its name comes not from the Biblical Abraham, nor from Abraham Lincoln (why would it?), but from a man named Abraham Martin who grazed his cattle there.

Returning to the upper city, we left the tour and did our shopping. Normally, this would be a side note, but, by luck, the final total used up every Canadian coin I had, leaving me only with Canadian currency that could be cashed back in the U.S. dollars on our return. Sometimes, even the unplanned comes together in a success.

This bus tour of Quebec is one of those that ran beyond the 'return on board' time published in the Viking Daily. But back on board, we headed down to the Atrium for a drink while preparing for our last night at sea, Quebec to Montreal. The entertainment this evening was to be 'An Evening with Bruce and Friends.' The Star's Cruise director, Bruce, is an experienced performer and director. He put on a beautiful evening of entertainment. This was also the last night that the onboard shops were open.

We would spend one whole day in Montreal. The second day was one of a choreographed departure. We were scheduled for a bus tour of Montreal in the afternoon, so we shared a leisurely breakfast in the World Café before our tour. I also logged onto the ship's internet from their small 'office' of four desktop computers to check in for our flights the next day. Time to think about going home.

Oh, just to add a bit of spice to life, Hurricane Ian was climbing the East Coast of the U.S. and we were concerned with disruption of our return as well as storm impacts on our home. For some reason, this cruise was haunted by bad weather risks.

Now, Montreal is a big city, given the cities, other than New York, that we had visited. Most of the bus tour was a blur of interesting, but never-to-be-remembered places. The city sits on an island in the Saint Lawrence, whodathunkit, and Mont Real rises in the center. Our bus rose to the summit of Mont Real. The view of the sprawling city was expansive. It was a beautiful clear day. On the road down, we had a view of the Olympic Stadium, standing above the surrounding city sprawl.

And then, it was over. We were back onboard, thirty minutes beyond 'back on board', but aboard. With the exception of a trip to the airport and a pair of flights, our disrupted adventure was over. We had a final dinner in the World Café. There was no live entertainment that evening, but a special showing of the newly released 'Downton Abbey – a New Generation' was presented, and we attended. We enjoyed the movie and the free popcorn. Then, back to the stateroom to pack. When you pack in roll on baggage, packing for return is easy.

I want to spend some time talking about the debarkation plan, mostly because my readers may not have ever taken a cruise, but also because Viking does it right. When returned from our movie, the room staff had set out the usual turn down service, leafing the Viking Daily and any other information we would need for our final day. Four baggage tags rested on the bed. They were tan and sported the number 4 on them. Checked bags were to have these tags on them and be in the hallway by 10:30. They would meet their owners at the busses in the morning. We had no checked bags. The World Café would be open v-e-r-y early for those with early departures. I would meet a couple with a 0330-departure time. They had an early flight to Los Angeles. (Yawn)

The color and number tag system is designed to see that luggage, passenger, bus, and flight times were all coordinated. We were told to be in the Atrium at a specific time, based upon our luggage tag assignment. In our case, we had to be in the Atrium at 0700. We arose and while Linda was getting ready, I explored breakfast, bringing back, as I had all cruise, juice and coffee to our stateroom. Packed and ready, we ate a departure breakfast and then dragged our roll-on bags to deck one to await the announcement to head to the departure area. I shook my head as passengers scurried about, nearly missing their assigned time because they interpreted the instructions differently than were clearly defined. Colors and numbers were spread by about 15 minutes; enough time to load luggage on a bus and depart before the next call. Remember that we had fewer than 900 passengers. Now, imagine this same departure scenario with 3500 passengers. Yikes!!

Our number, Tan 4, was called and we were off to the Montreal airport. This return was almost anti-climactic. We arrived at the airport, claimed our roll-on bags from the bus baggage area, and headed to the gate. Interestingly, U.S. Immigration is actually there. We showed our passports and were, for all effects and purposes, back in the U.S. That's a far cry from landing at a U.S. airport and standing in a long line to show your passport. Because it was so easy, we had a long wait for our flight, a flight that made a flawless arrival at LaGuardia outside New York.

The only disruption was an unannounced gate change within the same area. It was annoying, but not critical, and we were soon on schedule, on board, and on our way home. Met by Sheila and Natalie, we were finally home. We had missed most of Ian's rain, had suffered no damage, lost no luggage, been infected by no diseases.I must add that I had contracted a cold that demonstrated itself with a persistent cough during the cruise. I never felt that it was anything but a cold, but we were always concerned in these days of COVID. I wore a mask … a lot!

Despite lost port calls and hurricanes, we enjoyed the cruise. Viking is a good line. We've traveled with them before and, if we cruise again, will consider them before other lines. But it's always good to be home: always.

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Monday, 24 June 2024