If a cruise is going to suck, it will probably suck on the days you’re at sea. You paid to visit fascinating places by ship. When you’re not at the fascinating places, you’ve just got ship. I grant that it’s a marvelous ship, with liquor near the hot tubs and pizza a short walk from the string quartet. But in the end it’s a hotel full of strangers you can’t get away from. The cruise line tacitly admits this by packing each day with entertainment and educational opportunities. But at some point you’ll want to choke the hillbilly at the next dining table to death with his own beard, and no number of cha-cha lessons will change that.
However, the ocean offshore of Alaska is more fun than any of the places you might visit on shore. The ship has a guy whose job is to look around for cool things, such as a sea lion climbing the face of a glacier (just as an example). Then he tells everyone to look off the port bow for this amazing thing. After half a dozen people are trampled to death while everyone tries to figure out where the port bow is, people pack the railing four deep to collectively snap a quarter of a million photos of one perplexed sea lion.
Rather than babble about how great it is, I’ll include a few of the 5,000 photos I’ve taken over the past couple of days.
To start with, here’s a glacier. Yes, I know it’s just another wall of ice, but I think the picture is pretty.
I’ll follow that with a couple of humpback whale shots, one jumping around like a dachshund, and two more just hanging out, wondering where to go for dinner.
I happened to catch a glacier calving, which means a hunk of it is falling off. Look for the red circle on the first shot—that indicates the hunk that falls off.
And I’ll finish with a traditional farewell whale shot.
Ninety-five percent of the people on this ship disappeared this morning. The ship has reached its northern-most port of call and will begin sailing back to Vancouver tonight. Most people travel just one direction on this trip, but the cruise line doesn’t object to selling you a more expensive ticket if you want to go both directions. My wife and I are among the few who thought that would be a keen idea.
In the past week we’ve frequently heard the question, “Why do you want to turn around and spend another week seeing all the stuff you just saw?” The people asking this have a point. We will now be forced to once more look at all those mountains and glaciers and whales and sea otters and other stuff we may never see again. Watch us suffer.
By the way, here’s a sea otter we sailed past yesterday:
Hanging in there for the return trip is benefiting us in a way I never expected. A whole ship-full of new passengers came aboard today, wide-eyed and anticipating their passage to Vancouver. And they don’t know a god damned thing about this ship. Their bewilderment binds them together, and it allows us to feel superior to them. My wife and I hear their plaintive cries as they wander the passageways like Spinal Tap, and we smile.
Here are some of their most common questions, along with the answers I’d give them if I had any kind of empathy or pity.
Which way is the front of the boat?
First of all, it’s a ship, not a boat. The distinction may not seem important, since both will drown you if something bad happens, but boats are small and ships are big. I don’t really know where the demarcation lies, but any vessel big enough to host a Def Leppard concert is certainly a ship. Second, to find the front of the ship you should look over the railing and note which direction the ocean seems to be moving. The front of the ship is the other way, unless you’re sailing to Canada in reverse.
What do I have to pay for on this ship?
The cruise line provides, free of charge, everything you need to keep from dying. That includes food, water, tea, and black coffee. Also, they don’t make you pay to sing karaoke, and you can watch all the singers, dancers, musicians and magicians you want. Everything else costs extra.
Do I have to sing karaoke?
No, you can play bingo instead if you want. However, everybody in the karaoke bar is getting hammered and working up the guts to sing Copa Cabana, so they’re a pretty accepting bunch.
Why isn’t there a single clock on the ship?
The immediate reason is that the cruise line doesn’t want to force any time pressure on you that might mar your relaxing, worry-free holiday. The underlying reason is that they sell watches in the atrium every day, and they want you to buy one.
How do you ever find anything around here?
Forget finding anything. Cruise liners are like hotels twisted and crammed into a ship’s hull by omnipotent howler monkeys. The ship’s geography resists human understanding. By the time your one-week cruise ends you may have memorized the path to the closest source of martinis, but no guarantees. Your best bet is herding. If you’re hungry, follow the people who look hungry. The strong ones will lead you to the buffet eventually.
Here’s a picture of our ship. You can see that it’s larger than a mountain, at least from certain angles.
Despite the vessel’s awesome scope, my wife and I are now initiated into its mysteries and can find the hot tubs that are off-limits to kids. That makes me kind of dread going back home where I can’t even find the right laundry detergent at Tom Thumb.
I console myself with this photo of four sea otters floating in front of four glaciers and serenading us as we sail away.
Before I left home, a friend warned me that I must not fail to be on deck to observe Glacier Bay when the ship enters it. She told me I’d have to get up early to experience this event, but it would make the entire trip worth the effort.
So, this morning I bounced out of bed at 5:00 a.m., just an hour after sunrise. I dressed myself in every piece of clothing I possessed. My wife lay under the covers and didn’t say anything. She merely watched me the way she watches one of the cats just before it rolls over in its sleep and falls off the dining room table.
I knew that the ship was approaching Glacier Bay, and I didn’t want to miss anything. By 5:30 a.m. I was standing on the tallest observation deck with my camera, binoculars, and high expectations. I scanned the horizon for magnificent vistas, but we had not yet reached any areas of magnificence. Occasionally another passenger joined me, shivered for a few moments while glancing at the lovely but customary Alaskan landscape, and then they trotted back down the stairs. The wind and cold were ghastly. Had I not been clothed in the equivalent of two sheep, I’m sure I would have died instantly.
Two hours into my shatteringly cold vigil, my wife came looking for me. She found me braced against the railing, examining the coastline for any sign of glaciers, or a bay, or even some chunks of floating ice in the water. My wife said, “You should consider the fact that your definition of ‘early’ and other people’s definition of ‘early’ might not be the same.” Then she led me downstairs to the breakfast buffet.
By 9:00 a.m. I was back in my firing position on the observation deck. Glacier Bay chose that time to show itself. My friend hadn’t lied. It was astounding. I snapped off 938 photos, three of which I consider decent. The rest captured the bay’s glory no better than I could have with a Crayola between my toes.
Here’s a shot of the mountains over the bay:
Here’s a photo of a glacier because, heck, it’s Glacier Bay:
A bald eagle surprised us by springing aloft from a floating chunk of ice and flying past the ship:
Glacier Bay was every splendid thing I’d imagined. I’ll never forget how wonderful it was.
Alaskan Cruise, Day 8 – Glaciers in College Fjord
More ice, more water, seen it all before. Blah, blah.
Today we went on a “breathtaking tour in which renowned naturalists, magnificent wildlife and an exploration of six ecosystems – ocean, estuary, river, lake, muskeg and rainforest – await in this town aptly nicknamed the ‘Valley of the Eagles.’”
That’s how the brochure described it. It could also be called “Four hours on a bus hanging out with Stacie and Terra.”
The brochure was accurate in every respect. Two young women who know more about wildlife than everyone in my hometown put together took us to all six of those ecosystems and showed us animals. Yet the tour wasn’t how I’d imagined it would be. I had imagined we’d be pushing through the brush like mountain men, spying on bears down by the stream as they knocked back a few jumping salmon. I don’t care that watching wild bears eat is about the stupidest thing you can do. It’s what I expected.
Stacie and Terra gave us something infinitely cooler than my expectation, which would have ended with my entrails flying around like streamers on New Year’s Eve. They showed us a few birds as we drove past, and they told us about the dozens of God’s creatures that God decided not to let us see today. They also spent a lot of time telling us about life as an Alaskan tour guide, living in a tent and recycling everything but toilet paper.
The whole experience was like a laid-back party after a day at the renaissance fair, but without the drum jam.
Terra also took advantage of the beautiful, warm weather by leading us on a short walk through a muskeg, which is another name for a bog. She didn’t explain why they don’t just call it a bog and stop screwing with us stupid people. She then led us on a short walk through the temperate Alaskan rainforest, which looked a lot like the muskeg to me, except that the ground didn’t try to suck off our feet.
Here’s the muskeg/rainforest:
Stacie and Terra delivered even more than the brochure promised by visiting two additional ecosystems:
First, we visited the “side garden ecosystem” of a nice lady who let us watch wildlife through telescopes beside her house as long as we didn’t disturb her goats. That was fantastic because bald eagles were nesting across the river. With the naked eye, their heads looked like tiny white blobs. Through the telescope, their heads looked like slightly bigger white blobs.
The day’s final ecosystem was “Haines City Park.” The community of Haines is the town nicknamed “the Valley of the Eagles.” In the park we ate grilled chicken Cesar wraps, Sun Chips, and oatmeal cookies. The brochure had been entirely mute on the subject of cookies, so we had Stacie and Terra to thank for this flourish.
If you’re ever in the Valley of the Eagles, I recommend that you visit Stacie and Terra. In fact, I advise it with immense gravity. Their tour fulfills the only criteria that matter when seeking a successful and enjoyable life experience.
I’ve found that cruising is about three things: food, booze, and karaoke. The booze isn’t free, and my tolerance for $12 martinis is limited. Nobody would ever sing karaoke unless they were lit up like Chernobyl. That leaves food, which is available 24 hours a day in quantities limited only by the fear of your heart exploding.
My wife and I have faced cruise ship buffets in the past, and on this trip we resolved to gain no more than ten percent of our body mass. Our strategy is to never step into an elevator. If we can’t climb the stairs to our destination, we do without. This has two benefits. First, we work off a few calories whenever we go anywhere, because the most interesting thing on our deck is the Laundromat. Second, before I climb the nine flights of stairs standing between me and the buffet, I have to want veal cutlets and mashed potatoes a whole lot. I think the strategy’s working, and I figure I’ve only gained about a pound a day.
We came here with a second strategy to keep us from dropping dead the moment we get home. My wife and I planned to walk around the top deck some heroic number of times every morning to keep fit. This morning we climbed all the way up past the Promenade deck, the Emerald deck, and the Lido deck to the Celestial deck, where we stepped outside and realized we’re morons.
When we left home we were enjoying normal mid-summer weather, which is to say a daily high temperature of about 100 degrees. In Vancouver we adjusted to the brisk 75 degree afternoons pretty well. At sunrise on a ship in the Pacific off British Columbia it was 50 degrees, which we’ve experienced at home several times. The 30 mph wind put us to the test, but we’re pretty tough. However, on deck we learned that a ship sailing at 25 knots into a 30 mph wind on a cold day with 100 percent humidity is what kills people from Texas. Here’s a picture of my wife on deck before we ran back to our cabin and put on all the clothes we’d brought with us.
Okay, we had to buy more clothes. However, buying clothes from a cruise ship store is financially unwise, like cashing in your IRA and giving the money to chimps. We’re scheduled to dock in beautiful Ketchikan, Alaska tomorrow, so we hope to survive until then.
Alaskan Cruise, Day 4 – Ketchikan
Ketchikan is beautiful. It’s dim and awkward, with a disproportionately large number of bars and tattoo parlors. Every house and shop is painted a different color, and in the sunlight it would probably look Disney-esque. Under today’s low, dripping skies it looked like a black and white photograph that’s been colorized in a few quirky spots. But two things in particular endeared it to us: no wind and cheap gifts.
Here are a couple of views of Ketchikan:
I learned from a shopkeeper that 800 people live in Ketchikan, and 8,000 cruise ship tourists swarm the place every day. I expect that’s why the residents need a large number of bars per capita. Today, I think all 8,000 of those tourists were packed into three downtown blocks, picking through gold stores, diamond stores, jewelry stores, gold and diamond jewelry stores, art galleries, and a trendy shop selling bamboo sheets. Another store sold dead and skinned examples of every creature native to North America. Yet another carried smelly candles and lotions and soap, which I believe are all exactly the same stuff but in different packages.
None of those things interested me at all. I wanted to find a crass tourist mega-store that sold reasonably-priced souvenir sweatshirts with glittery wolves and bears glued to the chest. We needed a few of those to keep us warm in the northern ocean. I found the place I wanted right there on the waterfront—we couldn’t have wished for an establishment more crass and tawdry. We purchased the sweatshirts we’d been searching for, and we left with them. By coincidence, we also left with some t-shirts, a Christmas ornament, a novelty hat, a quilt, a pair of white fur gloves that could be worn by a hooker, and two pounds of fudge.
I believe that Ketchikan has saved our lives.
As our ship steamed north towards Juneau this evening, I stood on our balcony, toasty and even sweating a little under three Chinese-made Alaskan sweatshirts. I’d been wanting to photograph the sunset, and now I could endure the cold long enough to do it. One of my shots is below. You might notice that the sun has not set. It’s about 10:45 p.m., and I’m tired of waiting for the damned sun to set already. I’m going to bed.
Jeez, the farther north we go, the later the sun sets…
When our meticulously planned European vacation-of-a-lifetime was canceled by God, my wife and I found a great last-minute deal on an Alaskan cruise. We grabbed it and undertook this new adventure with shockingly little planning. Really, I’ve seen better-organized demolition derbies. I almost forgot to pack underwear and lithium. But now we’re underway, and I will record a few observations here in case we’re trampled to death by a caribou herd, and we never return with our thousands of glacier photos taken from minutely different angles.
Alaskan Cruise, Day 1 – Vancouver
The cruise would depart from Vancouver, and to lower our stress level we planned to get there a day early. Vancouver’s a beautiful city. Well, all the parts that I haven’t seen are beautiful. Our taxi driver took us through the nastiest, busiest, and most disorienting parts of the city to reach our hotel. It was like being dragged through The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari by a surly Filipino in a pea-green Audi.
I now love the people of Vancouver. One lady saw us staring at a directory on the street corner like goldfish waiting to be fed, and she stopped to tell us about all the great restaurants three blocks away. Even though we didn’t eat at them because we didn’t want to spend $120 for lunch, she was sweet. And the wizened guy who ran the dim, claustrophobic crépe shop managed to communicate, through frowns, grunts and extra roasted peppers that he thought of us as his kids.
Alaskan Cruise, Day 2 – Embarkation
We don’t often drink coffee, but Vancouver has coffee shops on at least half the street corners, so we tried one for breakfast. The coffee was lousy, and I didn’t drink much, but the cinnamon roll as big as a baby’s head made sure I stayed peppy even without caffeine.
A couple of hours later we wound through the cruise line’s security/immigration/boarding pass gauntlet. We had arrived early and were rewarded with two hours in a waiting area until the ship was prepared to receive us. While waiting I noticed that we were younger than 95% of the other passengers. I’d been warned to expect that. I also noticed that about half the passengers were Chinese individuals visiting Alaska to examine the parts they intend to buy during the next decade. I spent most of the wait reading Christopher Moore’s Bloodsucking Fiends and becoming increasingly depressed because I’ll never write that well.
We boarded and found our stateroom, which was as far forward as one can get without being cantilevered off the anchor. I didn’t care, since it had not just windows but also a balcony. On a prior Caribbean cruise our cabin had made me feel like I was Cool Hand Luke spending the night in The Box. We unpacked and met Panya, the gentleman who would be taking care of us.
Our packing had been a miracle. My t-shirts, cargo pants and sweaters came out pristine. My suit and dress shirts looked like something pulled out of a wino’s armpit. Panya promised to help, as long as we could pay the laundry bill. I felt compelled to agree, else I’d be attending formal dinners in my Jack Skellington t-shirt. As I looked around at our closet and drawers, a doubt skittered up my back on spider feet and whispered that we may have packed incorrectly.
Tomorrow… Day 3
Our room. Yes, those are real, live balcony doors, through which is pouring real cold ocean air.