My whole life I have successfully resisted the hype for cruise ships. The Love Boat to Mexico, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, not for me. But I’ve always wanted to see Alaska. So I agreed to join my family on a 7-day Carnival Cruise: Vancouver to Juneau by the Inland Passage in mid-September.
Cruise ships have been getting a lot of bad press lately, what with Royal Caribbean dumping bilge and other yucky water in inappropriate places; ships plagued by food poisoning and malfunctioning toilets; and most recently, virulent flu bugs hitching a ride into the lower 48 on Alaskan cruise ships.
However, my son-in-law had booked the cruise last year (a Christmas present to my daughter) with a local travel agent, a friend who had taken this trip before with her husband and three children. It was, she said, “family friendly” and relatively informal. (Formal dress was requested at dinner only two nights.) Their family would caravan with us on the drive, yes, drive, to Vancouver (don’t even ask).
Out of a passenger list of 1,400 on the MS Jubilee, about a dozen teen-agers and as many little kids were kept entertained and pretty much in line by Camp Carnival counselors (all on my list for probable sainthood).
Seven days away from telephones, faxes, e-mail, TV news and traffic were, as the commercial says, “priceless.” For everything else there’s Carnival’s Sail and Sign Card, without which one cannot “debark” (isn’t that what they do to noisy terriers?), reboard the ship or even order a glass of cabernet. One’s card is “activated” with a $150 minimum deposit. Don’t think for a moment that’s all you’ll spend.
Food is another story. All you can eat 24 hours a day, in case one craves pizza or soft-serve ice cream at 3 a.m. Dining room meals are more structured, and in deference to the youngsters, we signed up for early (6 p.m.) dinner seating. Bon appetit is a real struggle before 8:30.
Cruise-ship food has a long-standing reputation (salmonella and E-coli notwithstanding) as lavish and luscious. The menu was extensive, the presentation artistic, the execution a bit of a let down. Most egregious omission, Alaskan King Crab Legs. Saving grace, Grand Marnier Souffl — twice.
Open seating for breakfast in the dining room was a good way to meet other passengers: a large contingent from Iowa, many Canadians and several from Mexico.
For Californians, accustomed to smoke-free everything, a rude surprise: the rest of the world still smokes, and cruise ships cater to them. There was a gray haze everywhere: the casino, the children’s video arcade, even the library. Only the gym and sauna smelled like California (and old sneakers).
Choosing shore excursions from a list of dozens took hours of deliberation and proved tedious and in some instances futile. Children under 7 are excluded from everything fun — mountain biking, kayaking, horseback riding (my 5-year-old grandson does all of these at home and was seriously bummed).
Best trip for kids: the train to White Pass out of Skagway (big kids can bicycle back).
Best out of Juneau: a short bus ride to see the Mendenhall Glacier and a wildlife cruise in a covered boat (it rains 300 days a year in Juneau). We saw no moose or bear, but we encountered a pod of orcas and a humpback whale teaching her baby to wave at tourists.
Best trip for adults: kayaking in the Haines Wilderness Area with a naturalist/guide who lives there year round. He drove us, and only two other passengers, in an old bus the 20 minutes up to Chilkoot Lake, explaining everything along the way and stopping wherever we wanted to take pictures. When we got to Chilkoot, a gorgeous, freshwater lake surrounded by forest, he gave us a crash course in kayak handling, and we set off around the lake. We saw several bald eagles, again no moose or bear, but it was heavenly, quiet and clear. We had to do some serious paddling against a stiff breeze to get back, working up an appetite for the best lunch of the whole trip: ale dipped fish and chips, crisp and greaseless, and the best latte north of Seattle. Splendid!
Most disappointing: a canoe adventure out of Ketchikan, too many people and a guide bent on energizing the crew with rowdy rowing songs, sending any wildlife in the neighborhood for cover. Our last chance to glimpse a bear or moose was dashed.
Environmental interest: a short trek through a corner of the rain forest. Tongass is the world’s largest temperate rain forest. Apparently there’s no dirt in Alaska; the forest floor has just a 6-inch mat of decomposing mulch from which plants, mosses and medicinal herbs sprout. Hemlock and spruce grow out of solid rock; seedlings sprout on the backs of fallen trees and spread their roots laterally among the needles and lichen.
Six days without Washington Week, Jim Lehrer and Wolf Blitzer. I was suffering major news withdrawal and made for the Ketchikan newspaper office, where I collected a week’s worth of back issues to read on the way back to Vancouver.
So did Carnival change my mind about cruises? Not really. Would I go back to Alaska? Definitely. I would rent a cottage in Haines for the summer, explore the Haines Wilderness Area with a quiet guide — surely I would see a moose and a bear — maybe rent a small boat and tour the channels looking for orcas. I might even be able to extend my news fast to a month or so. Get real, you say? Okay, maybe I could get by with a weekly paper. But no Sam and Cokie.