Tag Archives: cruise

Down from on high

August rolled around and we were thrilled to take our honeymoon, finally, a little more than a year after getting hitched. This is fine, as it turns out, since my knee is all better and I’ve had time to rehabilitate the joint such that it doesn’t blow up like a balloon animal after short walks.

And the cruise, as already noted, was fantastic, full of animal sightings, a tour of endangered glaciers (as well as one advancing ice pack), and some funny-because-it-sucked shipboard musical performances.

Then we docked back at the Port of Seattle. This wasn’t like disembarking off of an airplane, which has its own annoyances, including the rush to ignite one’s cell phone, waiting for the dumbasses in rows 5-20 to get their bags out of the overhead compartment so you can move forward, and the lovely time wasting exercise of standing in baggage claim. No, to depart a ship, you have to give your stateroom steward your bags ahead of time, thus leaving each person in your cabin precisely one bag of toiletries, dirty clothing from the day before, and all of your valuables-slash-electronics. Then you proceed with your dirty clothing carryon to some previously assigned room, such as the drinking lounge three decks below your stateroom, so that you can wait around until your specific departure time. This departure time, other than seemingly based on how many prior cruises you’ve taken with the line, is an algorithm of the finest mathematics, calculating  your likelihood of throwing a total caniption if you’re forced to sit around next to a bag of smelly underwear for more than two hours.

Fortunately, one dining room out of five is open this morning, so feel free to stand on your head while waiting for a table.

Finally, we were off the ship, roughly at 10 o’clock. We found a cab after standing in a long taxi line, and made our way over to our car across town. One quick cup of coffee back on land and we were off—to the airport. This would have been a great time to gas up the car, but as is my neurotic need to be early or on time, I could only rush down to SeaTac, as if the seconds were ticking away before my sister and her two daughters were landing. Of course, the seconds were ticking away. A full 7,200 of them. So really, we had time to take it easy. But I think our time in the Vista Lounge had addled my brain somewhat, so we did some more sitting as we waited for their flight to arrive.

Finally, it did, and then we were in the car, heading back to Walla Walla, and oh, what was this on the freeway? Traffic?

Bad traffic, as it turned out. It took us 2 hours to travel about 25 miles. Eventually we were able to go faster, and then we were out of the confines of the city, and the metropolitan area, to boot.

At this point I realized we were seriously low on fuel. Now our Honda CR-V is a handy little vehicle, and by handy, I mean it has a computer for everything. It will tell me if a tire is low, as it did on this day. Not which tire is low, mind you, but that one of the four presently supporting the vehicle, take your guess or buy a gauge. It communicates this status with what looks like two parentheses and a very upset-looking exclamation mark, the whole thing in italics, like this:

(!)

That this means “pull over, your tire is low,” is simply an amazing moment for technology to me. Because it SUCKS.

Another attempt at useful computering is the gas gauge. Not only do I have a pixelated series of columns showing me how many twentieths of a tank of gas I have—with 14 gallons in the tank, it’s showing me every .7 gallons per column on my dashboard—but I also have a “miles remaining” calculator. My brain likes this little number, like a friend gently telling me how great the road is ahead. This is so much better than that 1980 Ford Escort I used to drive that actually always pretended I had three quarters of a tank, presumably because 3/4 was just its favorite setting EVAR. I have therefore walked, usually accompanied by rainfall, a couple of miles to a gas station, needing to get a gallon so I can drive to the pump. But now I don’t worry, because my car tells me I have 79 miles left in my tank.

79 glowed at me, all happy and reassuringly. And then it read 78. We had passed an exit with gas a few miles back, well within 78-mile range, but who needed it?

I’d forgotten that the gas calculator takes into account, among other things, and for perfectly understandable reasons, the labor on the engine cylinders. So it was as we began to make our way into the Cascade Mountains, yes MOUNTAINS, that the “remaining gas estimate” changed.

Twenty-seven miles. 27. Fifty miles of level terrain navigating gone, just like that.

We kept motoring, and I saw the road sign ahead. The next town was 42 miles away.

I quickly did the math in my head, because I’m a sentient being, and frankly, it wasn’t hard, and realized we were screwed. Sure, I could turn around, but now we were in the middle of the mountain range, so we weren’t going to get many of those miles, the Lost Miles of 2009, back. I wasn’t sure we’d make it in either direction.

I stopped listening to the conversation in the car, and started sweating instead. It was like I could only do one or the other.

Susanne noticed my silence first, and as she was sitting behind me, she only had to look over my shoulder to read the dash and see the root of my concern. It was at this point that she started gearing herself up, getting ready to start walking for gas when our fumes gave out on us.

Now everyone was aware of our little issue. We had 22 miles, or so the car said. I was grateful for a couple of downhill sections of road, and coasted my way in the right lane. We pulled off as soon as we could, but we were really in the middle of nowhere. Next exit, nothing.

Next exit, down to 17 miles of fuel, and we found a ghost town. It really was like something out of a western movie, with boarded up storefronts on one dusty main street, but darn it, they had a gas station with one pump. You never saw people so excited for crappy noname gas. The girls bounded into the convenience store, and came back out, thrilled to find some kind of purple Monster cocktail that drives parents crazy in 6.4 minutes. And we were off again, 503 miles of gassed up goodness sloshing around in the tank. We may have spiked the sales tax income of that little town for that day.

Catch it if you can

We spent our time on the Pacific hopping around to every function that the ship had to offer. Salsa dance class. A Wii bowling tournament. Big band concerts, large-screen showings of Star Trek and some Jennifer Aniston flick that looks like all the rest she’s made. Lots of time staring at the water, looking for whales. Many, many mohitos served on the Sun Deck. At some point our lower limbs acclimated to the water movement and we didn’t look like drunken sailors during fleet week anymore.

Getting off the ship and into port, however, was exciting for us. So it was with much anticipating that we drew into our berth at Skagway, a once-was gold mining town further up the Alaskan coast from Juneau. Skagway has a winter population of 700 and this doubles in size during the summer months, when the cruise lines bring their business. It was here that I first started noticing the signs, hung over a small portion of the shop entrances, that read “locally owned and operated.” What does that mean, I wondered. Why wouldn’t it be locally owned? Starbucks, maybe, would want to cart all of their supplies up here, but I was sure I wasn’t going to run into a Bloomingdale’s or Red Robin. As it turns out, the cruise lines have bought up most of the storefronts, which is why we saw so many jewelry outfits along the way. I don’t suppose they do much for the local communities, which in Alaska, don’t have a lot of sales or property tax income, most of the state revenue coming from the oil industry. So some of our native shopkeepers had a little chip on their shoulder, and if I were them, I might, too.

restored White Pass train

restored White Pass train

We had signed up earlier to take the White Pass train up from Skagway to the summit of the mountains, just over the border into Canada. This was the route that the gold miners had blasted out to make exploration easier. As we chugged our way up the 18 miles of rocky landscape, I took note of the near-vertical terrain. And then it hit me. These guys were crazy. I can’t imagine the desperation they must have felt to put up with what must have been absolutely horrendous conditions—white out blizzards, frostbite, inaccessible or absent supplies, inaccurate or nonexistent maps, hyper-competitive people. That surviving through years of this place seemed like a good idea was almost beyond my comprehension. I can’t even think of a metaphor for who these people are today, other than daredevils who jump off of city buildings or people who decide living in a broken down bus in the middle of nowhere is the life for them, but they’re not trying to make money out of those endeavors, it seems.

After we drew haltingly toward the summit, we passed the US Customs building, which was 6 miles away from the border. The border itself is barren of everything except rocks, the obelisk marking the actual crossover point, and the few green weeds that can handle the climate here. The Mounties are no more hardy; their customs office is 7 miles north of the marker. I suppose we’re two trusting nations. One person on the train with us remarked that we probably would put up with the elements if the neighboring country were Mexico. Wow, so much for the glory of the Yukon—we travelers today are jaded and cynical.

our train heading up to white pass

our train heading up to white pass

Up at the summit, we saw a quiet and pristine wilderness. It had taken two and a quarter hours to traverse 18 miles. A small creek snuck by the rails on the right, giving way to yellow and purple wildflowers. Maybe this site was a brute in winter, but it was a gentle lamb today. I wished we could have stayed a while, but as we were in Canada, nobody who wasn’t an employee was allowed off the train.

We could, however, go stand on the caboose. We’d climbed into the first car when we set out, but the engineers removed the engine and drove it down to the rear of the train for our return down the mountain. So now we could stand at the end and watch the world go by us, which we did. Wow, was that worth the $200 for our tickets. We gasped the first third of the trip back down.

The next day, we were in Ketchikan, known as the salmon capitol of the world. Come on, I thought. Everyone says they’re the capitol of something, but what does that really mean? Lots more tourist traps, I thought, and I might have gagged if Ketchikan were a place that sold 3,200 versions of jade jewlerly carved into whale tails. I had really seen enough of those.

Ketchikan harbor

Ketchikan harbor

They weren’t kidding, though. Ketchikan had every salmon in the world, fighting through its ocean inlet and streams. More gawking ensued. It was hard to appreciate the natural resource with 9,000 other ship passengers attempting to do the same, but we found some quiet corners that morning. Seeing these tiny pieces of Alaska only made me want to return. Maybe the gold rush is over, but it really had a lot of other riches that a person could get into.

We’re all at sea

Every day the ship prints out a list of all the goings on that passengers can attend—the “Princess Patter.” I of course, having a hard time remembering the name, just call it the pitter patter. I had no idea what to expect of these events before we boarded, this being our first cruise and all. Everything from learning ballroom dancing to bingo to lectures on buying diamonds, we giggled at some of the offerings and were genuinely interested in others. Always, they try to get you to buy a $6.75 drink at these things. We tried to map out a schedule for the day: start off at the gym, take a dip in one of the hot tubs, have lunch, go to a rumba class, get dressed up for formal night.

IMG_3159

The gym didn’t go so well because all of the treadmills were closed due to a lecture on weight loss. This seemed like a mixed message to me, although perhaps the gym director didn’t want someone my size on the treadmill anyway because it would make working out seem hopeless to fat people. We went straight to the next goal on our itinerary, the hot tub. That was a relaxing experience until the boat hit some choppier water, and then the water inside the tub was splashing all over. Susanne said she was starting to feel like she was being thrown about at sea. We changed, and had lunch.

There are many, many options for eating at sea. Because there are two buffets open 24/7, if one wanted to eat all day and all night, they could achieve success. But the buffets are not filled with the foodstuffs I’d imagined. I guess I’d pictured piles of Alaskan king crab and other regional seafood, something like a fancy cafeteria. Instead it was more like the catering Susanne’s college prepares, complete with those perfectly round, kind of bland cookies for dessert. How can anyone make a bland chocolate chip cookie, anyhow?

The dining rooms serve much better fare, and Susanne has discovered a favorite dessert: the Love Boat Dream, a chocolate mousse (in the shape of a heart), over a chocolate brownie (in the shape of a heart), served with raspberry sauce (in the shape of a heart). It is demonstrated in the following picture.

shipboard desserts

We’ve walked around all of the ship now, save a room or two, and have gotten pretty familiar with where everything is, but the going is a little difficult for passengers. I’ve seen more than a few look frustrated and lost. In fact, of all the little annoyances we’ve encountered so far on this vacation, I’d say pushy passengers top my list.

First of all, they’re everywhere we go, except our cabin. There is simply nothing one can do without at least 38 other people being there, attempting to occupy the same physical space you are standing in. The elevator, the lecture on fruit carving, the spa giveaway bonanza—sometimes we’re so pressed up together I have to look around to make sure I’m not on a subway car heading to Foggy Bottom at rush hour. And many of them are just as rude as the day we checked in. I keep wanting to ask if they think their  bacon burger will taste so much better if they bite into it 30 seconds earlier because they skipped someone in line. Susanne is good at giving me those “settle down” looks though, which is good.

That’s not to say we haven’t met some jolly nice people on board, however. At one meal we sat with two older couples from New Jersey, who were unhappy with the matzoh ball soup at lunch.

“Mine is 100 times better,” she said, tasting the weak broth.

“Mine is 300 times better,” said her friend, after her bite.

I’m pretty sure she just said her matzoh ball soup is 200 times better than her friend’s, but I didn’t mention that. I just told them of course their soup is better than the boat’s soup, and they smiled, first at me, and then at Susanne, as if to say, Oh, he’s learning already, on your honeymoon, too. You’ll do just fine with him.

The day at sea was capped off with the first formal night of the week, so Susanne and I changed into our fanciest outfits: me in my tux and she in her wedding dress. Good thing it doesn’t look exactly like the typical wedding dress, so people weren’t thinking we were getting married there and then. We did have “Just Married” balloons outside our cabin, so there is that, I suppose. I feel a little like we’re lying, having gotten married last July, but this is our honeymoon, so close enough, I guess.

Everyone else was decked out in their finery, too, and Susanne remarked that maybe such a night is appealing because it’s fun to play dress up; we did look a little like extras on the set of Days of Our Lives. At one point we spied a few women who had little crinkled tinfoil doggie bags. One wore it like an edible bracelet. Susanne snapped a picture.

The waitstaff had been made aware of the honeymoon thing because we had a card to signal to them that this was a special night among nights. We were rewarded with our own little “special events” cake and a “happy honeymoon to you” song, sung to the tune of happy birthday to you. After three courses of dinner and dessert, we couldn’t even begin to eat cake, so we asked for a to go container, and were somewhat chagrined to see the waiter return with the cake in a tinfoil sculpture. Our very own cake bracelet.

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