Revisited: My cruise to Alaska

The news story a while back about the cruise ship full of luxury passengers almost being hijacked by decidedly more downscale Somali pirates reminded me of my own experience with the cruising lifestyle. It’s all too easy for everyone to make their own jokes about the prospect of buffet-stuffed tourists brandishing pool cues and miniature golf putters to ward off the boarding party, but I’m sure the confrontation was still very frightening to all those on board.

The real story of vacationing aboard a lavish mega-ship is something I got to experience first-hand a couple of years ago, back when people had something called disposable income (ask your grandparents, kids). My wife, son and I had the chance to get nicely priced package through our local YMCA’s Silver Fox Club, a group of retirees who more typically take rollicking day trips to Charleston rather than the seven-day voyage from Vancouver to Alaska that we had latched onto. I kept asking at the sign-up if it was okay that we weren’t doddering and they insisted that it was, so off we went.

Our group of about 20 departed from Charlotte on a flight to Seattle where we would catch a chartered bus for a quick ride across the Canadian border to our port of departure. We arrived at SEA-TAC airport (so named because it’s both seamy and tacky), collected our baggage and shuffled over to the bus loading area. After some considerable delay – we had to shove our own suitcases into the storage bay, which our elderly companions apparently hadn’t trained for at the Y – we left the airport for the two-hour drive north.

Our driver, a heavy-lidded man who looked like he’d hijacked a few buffets of his own, was just across the aisle from my seat near the front of the bus, er, motorcoach. As our vehicle veered from one side of the lane to the other, I could’ve sworn I saw his head nodding. I’d survived five trips to the south Asian subcontinent without a bus plunge and I wasn’t about to experience one on I-5 just outside of Bellingham, but there was the usual sign that said not to talk to the driver, er, operator, so I resisted. Finally, I thought it might be better if I said “much longer till we get there?” now rather than “oh my god, we’re going off a bridge” two minutes from now, so I did, and he seemed to brighten.

By now, though, we were seriously behind schedule and faced the real possibility that we’d miss our debarkation. Even though the cruise line had contracted with the ground transport provider to get us from the airport to the seaport, I doubted they’d delay 2,000-plus other passengers just to wait for the Foxes, even if we were Silver. After we made several wrong turns around the port facility, we found the ship and managed to get out and scramble up the passageway just in time.

The ship was named Something of the Seas (Empress? Brilliance? Enchantment? I forget now) and was as huge as it was magnificent. Greeted in our stateroom by our steward with the usual joke about how the salt air would make our clothes shrink, we stopped to nosh on the welcome-aboard buffet before proceeding to the lifeboat drill/buffet (all jackets extra-large), then on to the settling-in buffet before a quick nap and the midnight you’re-still-not-full buffet. The next two days we were “at sea” according to our itinerary, churning through the Inside Passage while playing trivia games, going on scavenger hunts, scaling the on-board climbing wall and admiring an outdoor pool that seemed out of place off the coast of western Canada.

We arrived at our first stop on the morning of the third day. This was the famous Hubbard Glacier, a mass of ice a thousand feet deep and a mile wide, inching slowly through the mountains and into the sea. We couldn’t actually get off the ship and experience the glacier first-hand (too slippery, I guess) so we sidled up several hundred yards off shore to watch the glacier “calving.” This is the process where huge chunks of ice fall off into the ocean with tremendous splashes while several cruisers-full of drunken tourists watch and talk thoughtfully about global warning. Though this was an unusually moderate June for these parts, the wind rushing over all that ice made us quite cold, so we switched over to Irish coffees.

The next day we arrived at our first on-shore excursion at a small town with a “k” in it. We were told they only had about 100 year-round residents, who kept several blocks of souvenir shops during the summer and kept indoors the rest of the year. The main attraction was a vintage steam train that carried us about 15 miles into the snow-capped mountains where we enjoyed fantastic views. Probably the most unusual of these was a cliff face with a huge graffiti scrawl that read “Mr. Hamilton made us do this.” The story was that in the 1930s, a high-school teacher from the Midwest brought his students up here for a summer of adventure, character-building and, apparently, dangling from ropes. They thanked him at the end of the summer with this cliff-drawing before those who survived returned to Illinois.

We docked next in Juneau, Alaska’s capital city. As we learned in the recent presidential election, state government in this part of the country isn’t much to look at, so we skipped tours of the boxy administrative buildings for a ride up the skytram to a park perched high over the city. We walked a nature trail hoping to spot any of the Big 3 of the Alaskan outdoors (bear, caribou and eagles) but encountered only these furry groundlings that scampered through the brush in a pale imitation of wildlife. The park also had a Pepsi machine.

Our last stop on Day 6 of the trip was in the fishing village of Ketchikan. We had previously shunned the expensive excursions offered by the cruise line; however, this was our last chance to do something truly special, so my son and I signed up for a seaplane trip into the interior. We joined the pilot and a couple from Arizona for a 45-minute hop to a crystal-clear lake virtually untouched by the outside world. We flew in low over the mountainsides while the pilot played inspirational music (“America the Beautiful,” the theme from “Rocky”) over the intercom and let us all take turns holding the steering thing and pretending to fly. Once on the lake, we taxied over to the shore where the pilot produced a small fishing rod and allowed my son to catch his first fish. On the flight back, the pilot surprised us with short dive, just long enough to photograph everyone’s delighted expression, then maneuvered back into Ketchikan Bay as an unforgettable sunset broke through the clouds. Meanwhile, my wife had been to the totem pole museum, which I heard was quite nice.

All that was left now was our return to Vancouver and the flight back home, both very dreary prospects. Before you get off the ship, they make you gather in arbitrary color-coded groups before you’re allowed ashore, since everyone surging to the gangway at once is apparently a bad idea. All the fees and tips have been paid, so there’s no incentive for ship personnel to be pleasant to you anymore and you end up feeling like you’re in a refugee camp. My group, Camp Yellow, was among the last to be able to board our bus. We drove about an hour through the grey drizzle to the U.S. border where we were ordered off the bus by immigration while our vehicle was thoroughly searched. “We’re old and tired and all have headaches,” I wanted to scold the officials who had delayed us. I doubt that would’ve helped our situation, and eventually we made it to Seattle and barely made our return flight, no thanks to the Department of Homeland Security.

It truly ended up being the trip of a lifetime and I think of it often now that I face a future of lean times and modest vacations. Having been born in Florida and currently living in the heat of the South, Alaska had long been for me an idyllic land of cold and mountains, and in 2005 it was yet to be despoiled by its association with a certain bee-hived governor. Unfortunately, now, when I wear one of my souvenir “Alaska” t-shirts bought on those rustic wooden sidewalks of that town with a “k,” I have the conservative Republicans of my hometown coming up to me, pointing at my shirt, and saying, “Alaska! Alright!”

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5 Responses to “Revisited: My cruise to Alaska”

  1. tom1950 Says:

    My wife and I have made six cruises with HAL – including the Alaska “Adventure”. It is certainly that – an adventure. We can’t fault the cruise line, but viewing it in retrospect (using your hilarious viewpoint) I have to agree with you wholeheartedly. A very good post.

    T.O.M.

  2. WR Jones Says:

    We took that cruise and loved it. You have brought back a fond memory.

  3. delicate flower Says:

    Sounds as if it was a wonderful trip. I bet you could sell the t-shirt for a nice chunk of money!

  4. lookingforbeauty Says:

    I’ve always wanted to do this Alaskan cruise. I’m just waiting for some of that elusive disposable income. In the meantime, I’ve had a good journey reading your post. Thanks
    K

  5. tychy Says:

    i can’t help thinking of paul merton’s joke: “why do they call you the silver fox? is it because they find you going through dustbins late at night?”
    fine writing, as always.

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