I’m not really the cruising type.
I sometimes call myself a “traveller,” but then I clarify that that means I’d rather be hiking a Central American volcano, exploring a cave in Guatemala, riding a camel in India or trekking in the Himalayas than lying on the beach in Mexico or getting fat on a cruise.
When I was in the travel industry we distinguished between “travellers” and “tourists.” To be even clearer, we often used the moniker “adventure travel,” rather than simply “travel.” (There is, in fact, a very large Adventure Travel Trade Association.)There is a huge difference between the two, and between the kind of people that participate in each.
Still, I’ve always wanted to do the one-week cruise to Alaska, particularly to see the giant glaciers terminating in the sea; and, hopefully, to see them calving (i.e., big chunks breaking off into the water).
So, when a $400 (CAD) offer for a 7-night cruise to Alaska landed in my Inbox last November, I grabbed it. After all, a week of accommodations and meals for $400 is almost as cheap as staying at home, with the bonus of seeing the glaciers and four Alaskan communities.
June 3, saw a friend and me boarding a small floating city docked at the Vancouver cruise terminal and, shortly after 5pm, cruising under the Lions Gate Bridge.
The scenery was, from the outset, spectacular! And it continued to be so whenever we were not at open sea, or at night. (Hey, both BC and Alaska coastlines offer magnificent landscapes—and I have probably an inordinate affection for spectacular landscapes!)
I was mighty naïve about cruising, though. Including Alaska cruising.
I didn’t realize that the $400 price tag was just a ticket to confinement on a ship and to become beholden to the operator. Although meals, accommodations, considerable entertainment, and basic drinks were free, the pressure was immense to buy all manner of expensive upgrades, shore excursions, add to the automatic 18% gratuity, and submit to manifold photo ops by professional photographers. All of which could be resisted, of course, with enough resolve. Any drinks with alcohol, for example, were upwards of $9USD.
I’d thought a trip that started in Vancouver would include a lot of fellow Canadians. Wrong! It was likely more than 90% American (I was never able to get exact numbers), mostly from the southern states, it seemed, with a sprinkling of Mexicans, other Latin Americans and a few others from around the world. We ran into two other Canadians besides the Cruise Director, who happened also to be Canadian.
The extant culture on board was that of the southern U.S., with minimal recognition of any variance from that. I was a tiny minority in a foreign culture.
Now, to be clear, I like exploring foreign cultures, especially developing-world cultures in Latin America or elsewhere. I’m not so keen on being thrust into a southern U.S. culture north of the 49th, though.
I was also surprised that it was a grand mixture of families and older people. I’d always thought that cruising was primarily a “seniors” travel style. Perhaps it was the cruise line itself (I’m told each has their unique reputation and clientele), perhaps the fact that summer vacation had just started for Americans, perhaps the affordability of the cruise as a summer vacation, I don’t know—not that I minded; I was just surprised.
I was also surprised by the caste system on board. I had no idea that, not having cruised with this line before, I was in the bottom caste, and that there were at least four tiers above me. The lady at the table beside us mentioned that she was on her 79th cruise (probably top tier). We benefitted from that. While dinner sittings were at 5:15 and 7:45, hers was at 6:30. Before the cruise was over, she ordered the same table for “next week” but an earlier 6:15 time.
Oh yes, and they brought a bottle of wine to her room each day, which she promptly had them bring to her dinner table, and shared with us (bless her heart!)
Except for one night, which was her birthday, because she was having dinner, at the Captain’s invitation, at one of the more exclusive dining rooms. (She left the remaining half bottle of wine from the previous dinner for us, though.)
I’d planned to keep up with the most urgent business while away and had my laptop with me. And also, to watch my Edmonton Oilers final playoff games with the SportsNet streaming package I’d bought specifically for the purpose. But the only internet available was sketchy and had to be bought (at $20USD per day or $24 if you wanted the better service that would allow streaming.)
When I inquired about buying it for the day of the Oilers’ final game, I was informed that it was unavailable while at port and would not be available again until we sailed—which would be about the time the game ended.
I never opened my laptop; I didn’t get a shred of business done. Happily, my colleague did a marvellous job of “keeping the ship afloat” (hehe!) while I was away.
Still, the scenery was spectacular, the glaciers impressive (though I never saw real-time calving), the wildlife thrilling; much of the entertainment on board was really enjoyable (especially the final night when the Captain himself took the mike and, backed by a live band, covered John Mellencamp and Bon Jovi tunes); some of the continuous party games were fun; the meals were great; the service, over-the-top; the shore excursions, amazing (especially the trip from Skagway to the Yukon border); the free whale-watching right beside the ship, delightful (especially considering we’d saved hundreds of US dollars over those who were watching the same whales putting on the same show from their excursion boats but from a more respectful distance than ours); the exposure to diverse cultures, enlightening.
I learned a lot about the cruising lifestyle, about Alaska, about the scenery of the West coast, about southern US culture, about the cruise-ship industry, about the stratification that seemed to be a reflection of America in general, about entrusting my business to another, and about the possibility of being (mostly) disconnected from technology for a week.
And a little about myself:
I’m not really the cruising type!