Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Floating Hotel

The saying “the journey is the destination” is doubly true when traveling on a large cruise ship. You’re floating around in a giant luxury hotel, spending way more time on the ship doing ship stuff, than on land doing tourist stuff. On our recent one week Alaskan cruise, I figure we were on land for about 8 hours and floating around for the other 160. If you have extra money to spend, which we didn’t, you can maximize your time off the ship by taking various sea, air or land excursions. Upon returning to the ship after a day of wandering around the local town, we often overheard passengers talking about the amazing times they had flying over glaciers or kayaking in the midst of a bunch of whales. We weren’t envious though, for we were very happy with our more relaxed and simpler style of cruising.

One can participate in all sorts of activities aboard ship like arts & crafts, trivia games, computer and dance classes. There are even more activities if you pay extra such as having someone massage and beautify all your various body parts. There were wine tasting parties and art auctions (the cheap motel artwork was not my taste) and jewelry sales. In fact there was so much going I can’t tell you all of it nor can I remember much of it. My wife, sister and I participated in very little. We did arrange for my sister Karen to have her feet massaged for a birthday present. She said the experience was extremely relaxing and her feet did look happy and silky smooth.
The primary activity we participated in that didn’t cost extra money was eating. There were tons of food available at just about any time of the day. On deck number nine, the “Lido Deck”, was a food court, similar to the ones in the mall. 

Everything was prepared on ship and served cafeteria style. You could eat as much of anything as you wanted. There were so many choices, one could easily became frozen in indecision. For breakfast I got into a rut. Three days straight I ate French toast, scrambled eggs and potatoes. It tasted so good the first time, I felt I had to stick with it. On day four I discovered a guy making killer eggs Benedict and next to the salad bar, fresh croissants. I stayed with that combination for several days. My sister feared I wasn’t getting enough vegetables, so each morning she brought me a V-8 juice to add to my morning fare. In addition to the Lido Deck which served Italian, Mexican, Asian and American food with an ever present salad bar and desert/pasty counter, there was the dining room, which also served almost three meals a day. The dining room had a dress code called “smart casual”. For men it meant no jeans, shorts, tee-shirts or caps. For women, slacks or skirt with a blouse or a dress of some kind. We noticed right away this rule was not enforced. We let the staff know it was my sister’s birthday and the wait staff came to our dining table and presented her with a small cake and sang an Indonesian birthday song.  On two evenings it was dress up night in the dining room. It was like a prom for old people. The women wore formal gowns and the men suits or sport jackets and ties. I had to wear a tie everyday at my private high school, so to me dressing up is not fun. Just prior to going up to eat on the Lido on those nights dressed in our not so smart casual outfits, we sat outside the dining room and watched the dressed up people parade by. Some of them cleaned up pretty well, but far too many looked like tired old out of shape bodies draped in fancy clothes. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves though, hum-bug. Each evening offered a variety of entertainment. 

We watched a couple movies in the small theater and attended three of the shows at the main stage in the bow of the ship. These were musical variety shows with a live band, dancers and singers. For the most part, the performers were quite good. There were four lead singers, two men and two women. One of the men was short and stocky and had a great voice, the other man’s voice was weak but he looked good in all the costumes. One of the women could sing well, but the timbre of her voice was high pitched and irritating. The other woman could almost sing well. She sang all the big numbers “The Wind Beneath My Wings” and “Over the Rainbow” and other Julie Andrews type songs. She was attractive, wore beautiful gowns, but had trouble zeroing in on the big notes. It made me very squirmy in my seat and Katie tried to leave during one of her numbers, but I persuaded her to sit back down and suffer through it. At all the official functions and galas on ship, one of the ship’s staff would parade out a little old white haired lady and introduce her to the audience. I forgot her name, but we were told she had been aboard ship for over 6,000 days. That’s over 16 years. Can you imagine being on board a cruise ship for that long? I don’t know why she doesn’t weigh over 500 pounds, but she was small and thin. We wondered what her story was. There were many musical venues aboard ship, a jazz band, a rock band and classical musicians. Usually they started playing around 9 or 10, just when we were feeling like turning in for the evening, tired from all the intense wandering around and eating. Katie and I popped into the piano bar one night to have a listen. The piano man was sitting behind a grand piano surrounded by a bar where 6 or 7 people sat facing him on bar stools drinking and shouting out requests as soon as he finished a number. He was a fairly good musician in a sleazy sort of way. I couldn’t help thinking of Bill Murray’s version of a lounge singer from Saturday Night Live. We didn’t stay too long. Most of the ship’s staff were either from the Philippines or Indonesia. They were gracious, helpful and diligent workers.  They straightened and cleaned our rooms several times a day and when we returned to the room each evening, we were greeted by a cute little animal made out of towels. The passengers seemed to appreciate the staff, but I witnessed a few who were rude to them and behaved in a demanding way. The workers involved took the obnoxious behavior in stride and remained friendly. I don’t know how they did it, but I admired them for it. I wouldn’t have been able to remain nice and friendly to these entitled assholes. If you want an easy way to travel to and witness the beauty of Alaska, I would recommend a cruise. You need to start training weeks in advance though. I recommend going to all you can eat buffets to start stretching out your stomach.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Alaskan Cruise

For her 70th birthday, my sister graciously invited my wife and me to accompany her on a week long cruise to Alaska. Ten years ago for her 60th, we hiked down into the Grand Canyon and spent several nights in a rustic motel run by local Native Americans whose ancestors lived in the area for centuries. It was a memorable experience, the highlight being swimming in the aqua blue pool directly under Havasu Falls. I can’t wait to see what she will conjure up for her 80th birthday. I’m hoping that in ten years wheel chairs or walkers won’t have to be part of the adventure.

I never thought I was the cruise type of person. In fact I still don’t. I’m not interested in the on- board planned activities or purchasing items from the shops like the cheesy art work or over priced glitzy jewelry. I don’t gamble or drink much alcohol and I don’t enjoy making small talk with a bunch of people I don’t know. But I discovered that being stuck on a ship with complete room service, very friendly and efficient service people attending to my every need and delicious and varied food available at almost every hour of the day, wasn’t so bad.

I found numerous quiet places on the ship to sit and read and watch the beautiful scenery pass by and I was able to work out every day. The exercise machines In the ship’s fitness center face huge windows looking over the bow of the ship. On the promenade deck, you can walk or run around the entire perimeter of the ship. Also, there is an outside basketball court that is rarely used and perfect for practicing Tai Chi and Kung Fu.
This was my second cruise. The first one was to Mexico. I discovered then that I liked being on a ship out on the open sea. In October of 1967, I sailed on a Merchant Marine Ship with my Army unit to Vietnam. I remember gazing out over the beautiful, expansive Pacific Ocean and thinking, I would love to be doing this under different circumstances. On our cruise to Alaska, we had stops in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and a briefly in Victoria, BC before returning to Seattle. The Inside Passage was stunningly beautiful. Prior to our first scheduled stop in Juneau, the ship sailed into Tracy Arm to view Sawyer Glacier. As we slowly wound our way through the sheer rock cliffs of the fjord, passing large chunks of crystal blue ice, hundreds of passengers, including the three of us, scurried around the ship from one side to the other and from the lower to upper decks, in an attempt to get a better view. 
We crowded around on the bow of the ship in the cold, drizzly air trying to see everything that passed by. It took hours for the ship to reach the glacier and when it did we were exhausted from standing in the cold and running around. The Captain held the ship in front of the glacier for such a long time, that looking at it became boring. The ship slowly turned around n place before heading out of Tracy Arm and back to sea. 

As we trudged back down to the cafeteria area, tired, cold and wet and ready for dinner we passed through the hot tub/pool area. In one corner was a small bar. My sister noticed that the same people that she had seen hours before starting the exhausting quest for the perfect view were still sitting there drinking. There they sat on bar stools facing out huge windows on the side of the ship. We instantly realized that sitting in one place with absolutely no physical exertion necessary, except of course getting one’s alcoholic beverage up to one’s lips, was the best possible strategy. 

The Captain skillfully maneuvered the ship through the fjords and in front of the glacier which presented a panoramic view of it all. They saw the right side of the fiord on the way in, the glacier as he turned around and the left side on the way out. Never in my life did I think I would admire people who began drinking at 10 in the morning, but there you have it. When we sailed into the Juneau harbor, three cruise ships were already docked there. These huge vessels lined up in front of the small town, completely blocked the towns people’s view of the harbor. I’m not sure what the population of Juneau is, but it probably doubled in a matter of hours when the ships sailed in. The souvenir shops that faced the docks were already teeming with tourists eagerly purchasing Alaskan jewelry, tee shirts and trinkets. The cruise industry must significantly boost the local economy, but at what cost. The quaintness and charm of these small Island towns is almost totally lost because of it. 
Of the three Alaskan towns we visited, Sitka was the most beautiful. Small islands dot the waters surrounding it and the town is configured in such a way, that the tourist shops can’t dominate the waterfront like Ketchikan and Juneau. 
The ship docked in the harbor and passengers were shuttled to shore in tenders. I expected to see more Russian architecture. It seems that the Russian Orthodox Church was the only building from that period. The Russians took possession of Alaska by force from local Native American tribes. At the time they were interested in harvesting sea otter pelts. They killed thousands and thousands of these cute little guys and traded the pelts to China for tea. After feeling the soft silky pelts I can understand why the Chinese wanted to wear them. The Chinese had a way of turning tea leaves into hard blocks which preserved it longer than in leaf form. At the time the Russian people were into drinking a lot of tea. When the political and economic atmosphere changed, the Russians unloaded Alaska to the US for a ridiculously small sum of money. Seward OK’d the purchase and at the time it was thought of as a foolish investment and referred to as “Seward’s Folly”. (To be continued, next blog)