Alaska, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the cruise ship Mercury...
Okay, let’s dispense with the whole “cruise” issue right up front — a lot of snobby, pretentious jerks think cruises are tacky, low-brow experiences exclusively for people who’ve never before seen saltwater up-close. And, being snobby, pretentious jerks ourselves, we have to agree. Clearly, it was borne out by most of our fellow passengers. So what’s our excuse? Well, besides being snobby, Amy and I are also pragmatic jerks, and a cruise offers unique benefits not found on most vacations, “going to Alaska” for one.
This is no small benefit in itself, since Amy and I would probably never drive there, otherwise. Then there’s “ease of planning.” We’re busy folks and enjoy booking elaborate plans through travel agents about as much as we enjoy cleaning up our cat’s vomit.
And last, but not least, a cruise provides “protection from howling Arctic winds,” which ranks very high on our list of vacation requirements, regardless of locale. So while a cruise isn’t the prestigious mode of transportation it once was, it certainly beats swimming.
Located about as far away as you can get and still be in the United States, Alaska is a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle, give or take a few favorable bounces. Quite understandably, we thought it would be colder than Hilary after catching Bill with his pants down at work.
Based on my East Coast childhood, North equals cold (N=Brrr). No ifs, ands, or buts. Yet this is the West Coast, where the seemingly irrefutable laws of meteorology fall prey to the jet stream. No sir. Out here, North just means…um, up.
The sun in Alaska was frequently blinding and the air bracing, but it was hardly as cold as expected. My image of miles of barren frozen tundra was, for all practical purposes, misinformed.
Now, to be fair, we didn’t go anywhere near Alaska’s interior (which I believe to be populated by vicious polar bears endlessly searching for unsuspecting Klondike Bars.) And, since we were traveling via an enormous ship, I probably should have guessed that sooner. For the sake of our ship’s hull integrity, our captain wisely chose to sail exclusively in water.
We never ventured out of the Inside Passage, a mile-wide strip of water along the coast protected from the ocean by mountain ranges on either side (except once, when a break in the Western mountain range exposed our watercraft to the ocean’s full fury — a gentle rocking that forced me to turn over before going back to sleep).
To begin our near-arctic sojourn, we flew to Anchorage and hopped on a bus that drove us the three hours West to the seaport of Seward, Alaska (sounds like “sewer”). After an extended sign-in process reminiscent of U.S. Customs sans the full body-cavity search, we boarded our new ocean-going mobile-home for the next six days or until we fell off the back…sorry, the aft.
Anywhere else in the States, it would’ve been dark by the time we arrived at the port at 6pm. But being Alaska in the summer, it was as bright as if it were noon. And it stayed that light until literally 11pm. Yes, we enjoyed 16 hour days of sunlight which slowly drove us insane. Okay, well, more so.
The ship itself did, in fact, “exceed expectations” as the Celebrity tagline had promised. Of course, that’s primarily because our expectations were so low to begin with. After years of watching The Love Boat, we pretty much knew what we were in for. But we went anyway.
The Ship we boarded was named “Mercury,” a four-year old vessel that bordered on the tasteful compared with most of the ocean-going casinos we’ve seen. The decor was trendy (for 1990) and still looked fairly new. They are meticulous about keeping the boat clean. They even paint the hull whenever they hit port. Of course, they could prevent all that work if they’d dock without hitting port in the first place.
Our generously named “suite” on the 9th floor was small and tight, but the relatively large window made it feel that much smaller. Our maid, Ramon, could clean the entire room from the hallway without ever actually entering it. And he never let the dust settle before he’d remade the bed and put chocolates on the pillows. Many times, while we were still in them.
Overall, the ship was a Hamster maze that more often led us the length of the boat and into the slave galleys whenever we were really just looking for the ship’s brothel. It was seemingly the only exercise many of the passengers got, judging from their substantial girth. If the boat went down, they certainly were not going to drown, so we made nice with the larger folks in case of a life-vest shortage.
Our first day was spent at sea. And by “at sea,” I mean on board a floating mini-Las Vegas 500 meters from land. Our ship hugged the coast like a lovesick Grizzly which, we were told, frequented the land that surrounded us. It was little comfort realizing that, had we been forced to swim for shore, we’d be forever remembered by the bears as “the big, noisy, two-legged salmon who were delicious.”)
While still on board, the captain pulled the ship off to the side of the road, put on the emergency flashers and let us view the Hubbard glacier (pronounced GLAY-see-er according to the Discovery Channel).
Roused to the upper deck by a chatty woman droning over the PA system, we were disappointed by the glacier’s apparent lack of size, not because size matters or anything, but simply because nature programs had led us to expect more.
As it turns out, the Hubbard Glacier WAS big. Six miles wide — in my photo, you can only see 2-miles of it! — and 30 stories tall. The problem was, we were really far away. In Alaska, where mountains line the coast, there is nothing to gauge scale with. The mountains are so big; you assume you’re close to them. It was only when someone with binoculars located a small campsite on a silt beach near the glacier that we truly realized how far away we were. And how insane some campers are.
Zipped up in our winter coats, we huddled on deck in 40-degree air whipping around us like the evil spirits from Raiders of the Lost Ark hoping to see the glacier “calve” (when large sections of ice break off) or to see Orcas breech the surface for a seal-snack, but nothing much happened. Previously calved sections of the glacier littered the water between the ship and the coast like Big Mac(r) wrappers in a Bourbon Street McDonald’s parking lot on Sunday morning.
After a half-hour of watching the glacier impersonate paint-drying, we decided to go back into the wind-protected bowels of the ship to gnaw off our now-gangrenous extremities. On the way back to our room, we got the alcohol-inspired idea to return topside and hop into one of the bubbling Promenade Deck Jacuzzis(r). Making the transition from winter coat to a swimsuit took a feat of superhuman drinking and, thanks to a helpful wait staff, we were up to the task in no time. We spent the next hour pondering the dilemma of getting out of a 100-degree whirlpool without turning instantly into an ice sculpture. The solution, we’re pleased to announce, turned out to be running and screaming like a child.
After showering in our phone-booth-with-indoor-plumbing, I threw on a monkey suit and tie and Amy put on her “What, this old thing?” evening gown and we went to dinner. Indeed, this was one of the first times I’ve ever brought a suit with me on vacation. Typically, my vacation attire consists of Hawaiian-themed looks. But on board ship, near-formal attire for dinner is the law (right below “You will eat as much as you can humanly ingest at all times”). Assessing our fellow diner’s clothing choices, the ship’s dress code was too difficult to crack. The dress code was particularly amusing in light of the fact that most of the people seemed more comfortable ordering a Budweiser than a Burgundy. Still, it did give the illusion of being in a fancy establishment, assuming you crossed your eyes enough.
The food, shockingly enough, didn’t suck. Once again, Celebrity had exceeded our admittedly meager expectations. The buffet was excessive as warned. And, better than typical cafeteria food, it was available 22/7 (unfortunately, our later hours meant we usually wanted to eat when the buffet was closed). The Helpful staff spooned out heaps of such artery-clogging fare as red meat, sausage, cheese and fried fat, with processed sugar for dessert. Mmmm, I’ll have seconds!
The Manhattan-themed restaurant was better than expected, too. We opted for late seating (to weed out the Early-bird set) and enjoyed our choice of several appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts right before bed so they’d be sure to turn directly into fat.
The restaurant was a well-oiled dining machine that cranked out 800 four-course meals over the span of three hours. Uniformed men and women flew around the two-floor dining room delivering piping hot meals with clockwork-like precision. With fresh fish literally leaping out of the water a few meters from our bow, the restaurant’s seafood dishes were ironically the least successful. Instead, we coated our heart’s artery walls with the surprisingly good beef and veal entrees.
We seemed to hit it off with our designated waiter, Mauricio, and our busboy, Valdimir (from India and Croatia respectively), but they were probably just sucking up for a big tip. Regardless, they were expedient and cheerful even while regaling us with the horror stories of their job. The staff and crew members spent seven months working 16 hour days (!) with only one day a week off the ship. Afterward, they took two months off before beginning their next seven-month stint. And to think, I used to feel sorry for the Chinese workers making Nike’s…
Our first stop was Juneau, Alaska. It’s the capitol city, although that’s a bit like saying it “has a nice personality.” Juneau has the dubious distinction of being the only state capitol that is unreachable by land, whereas most other state capitols are only unreachable by fax, phone and letter.
Our predawn arrival into port was heralded by an other-worldly shuddering and mournful groaning as the ship’s massive engines reversed, slowing the floating behemoth to a stop. After we hit port — at least that’s what it felt like — we stopped by the breakfast buffet for eggs and sausage, then headed straight for the hiking trails.
Invariably, they led up a steep grade to a beautiful, picturesque clearing and not the Medi-Vac heli-pad my wheezing body was hoping to find. The punishing four-hour hike up a nearby mountain afforded me a fine view of the 100-foot tall Mendenhall Glacier, as well as stabbing chest pains. It started to rain on the way back down, so we walked into town to soak up the local color which, thankfully, was amber and sold by the pint.
We saw one man walking around with a rather loud bell attached to his shoe. Assuming he was clinically insane, we avoided him like Pauly Shore. We later found out that he was wearing a “bear bell,” a 1-inch metal bell that creates enough noise to scare off black bears as well as other people. The joke goes, “You can tell there are black bears in the area by looking for their feces. It’s the stuff with the little bells in it.” Alaskans have their own kind of humor: Bad.
Our next stop was Skagway (originally spelled Skaguay), the entrance to the Yukon. This place was utterly lacking in points-of-interest except for its Gold Rush history. In 1897, Skagway was the port men began their trip up the Yukon to Dawson City and untold riches. Over the course of one year, an estimated 100,000 men traveled to Skagway any way they could, and then — now, take a big breath here — chopped down their own trees, milled them into lumber and used that lumber to build a boat which they then sailed hundreds of miles up the coast to Dawson City in hopes of staking a claim. ALL in the freezing cold! The near-Arctic cold snapped 70,000 of them out of their mass-delusion and they went home to their white-collar jobs, loving families and indoor fireplaces. The rest actually finished the trip and, when they got up there, found all the claims already staked. Ultimately, the only thing these morons got out of gold mining was the shaft.
Since we had a perfectly good boat in the harbor, we opted not to build our own. Instead, we set off towards the trails and hiked several miles up to the Lower Lake (lower than what…nimbo-cumulus clouds?). The mountain ranges around us were truly breath-taking. Of course that could’ve just been the thin air from the altitude. In all, there wasn’t much to see or do in Skagway, but we managed to spend money anyway.
The next stop was Sitka. Located on Baranof Island, it was the capitol of Russian America until 1867, when the U.S. got the Russians drunk and bought the state for $5 an acre. (Sitka played a crucial role in Alaskan history as it was the site of a great battle between the Tlingit tribe and the Russians. History books are divided on what actually caused the battle, but it was thought to be over who had a funnier sounding language. Ultimately, the Tlingit agreed that they could never have come up with a word as funny as Babushka and abdicated the city to the Russians.)
In Sitka, the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is now no more extinct than the common pigeon. Which is to say, eagles are everywhere (and they eat a lot more than pigeons if you get my drift). We spotted 11 of these endangered-list feces-factories perched atop 4-story tall evergreens doing their best back-of-a-quarter pose (I’ll wait while you go look). As we heard it, after efficiently fishing the beejeezus out of the area salmon, the local fishermen wrongly blamed the eagles for swooping down and snatching fishy profits out of their soggy wallets. The local government then proceeded to put a $3 bounty on their bald heads. Or, to be more accurate, their severed claws. For many moons, any yokel with a BB-gun or surface-to-air missile could make a living offing our national bird. And did. More than 100,000 bald eagles were killed in Alaska from 1917 to 1953. Recent legislation, however, reversed this travesty and it is now the eagles who are being paid to kill the yokels.
Continuing to Ketchikan, Alaska’s first city and the Salmon Capital of the World, we threw caution — and our better judgment — to the wind and went sea kayaking in an effort to give our swelling knees and sore ankles a rest. We suited up in unattractive, but easy-to-rescue rain gear and squatted into a two-person kayak for some upper-body workout. For the next four hours we paddled (not rowed, as I was loudly chastised by our guide) around the inlet risking embarrassment and dampness with every stroke. Once acclimated to the strange vessel, our group paddled over to a small island where people can legally dock their self-made floating shacks, free from taxes, electricity, indoor plumbing and any shred of self-respect.
A good 100 meters from shore, our guide decided to inform us that these waters were a favorite hangout for Orcas, better and less euphemistically known as Killer Whales. Not exactly the kind of information you want to hear AFTER you are strapped into a thin, fiberglass boat that looks from below, for all intents and purposes, like a happily playing and nutritious seal. He also told us of a trip he made in this area paddling next to a moose and her calf around the inlet when a pod of Orcas tore them limb from bloody limb before his very eyes. Ah, the circle of life.
Mercifully, we paddled back to shore and the Ketchikan river inlet to see where the salmon ran, or would have, had we been still at that spot three months later. Since we only had the kayaks for a half-day, we decided not to wait.
That night, we set sail for British Columbia. Over the course of the next day, the scenery didn’t change appreciably. The mountains on each side only grew progressively smaller, but we managed to while away the hours sipping vodka martinis in the bar at the fore of the ship. Its floor-to-ceiling windows made the perfect vantage point to keep an ever-watchful vigil for whales, dolphins and our waitress.
We docked the following morning in Vancouver around 9am and schlepped our bags the eight city blocks to our hotel as the wait for cabs was being measured in geological time.
We made reservations at Tojo’s, possibly the greatest sushi restaurant in North America, if not Mexico and Canada, too. The walls are lined with celebrity autographs by the likes of Loverboy, Joan Jett and Bryan Adams attesting to that fact. It was nice to be back on land where we could get good seafood.
The next day, we rented bikes and headed down Georgia Street to Stanley Park, possibly the greatest city park in North America, if not Mexico and Canada, too. New York’s Central Park and SF’s Golden Gate Park pale in comparison. Heck, they downright suck. Stanley Park is essentially an island except for a small section of land that attaches it to Vancouver. It has a walking path and bike/roller-blade path that lines the coast.
On the western Pacific Ocean side, there are two major beach areas to stop and get some sun. The eastern bay side merely offers stunningly panoramic vistas. The interior of the almost-island is predominantly a forest, but often you couldn’t see it because of all the trees. Hiking paths crisscross through the woods passing a large, lily-covered lake where ducks and geese play unconcerned, just inches from the inevitable death bicycle tires will bring. We biked around the whole park in a little under an hour and decided to take a bike path straight through the center before going back. This is where we noticed the counterclockwise thing. All traffic around the island wisely runs in one direction. It ensures that people don’t collide with each other. It also ensures that people stupid enough to take the path straight through the center have to go all the way around again to exit the park. In all we spent 4 hours riding around the park. If we go on any more of these vacations, they could kill us.
We finally staggered back to The Sutton Place hotel bar and saw my favorite BC bartender, Joy, who for some inexplicable reason, actually remembered me from an earlier business trip. Now usually, the place is crawling with celebs, but this time, nobody who was anybody stopped in. So we went somewhere cheaper to drink.
Despite some of our reservations about an Alaskan cruise, I would still recommend it to anyone who hasn’t done it before. It’s probably the easiest way to see Alaska without reenacting the Donner party expedition or ending up as BearChow(r).
Sure, it’s not the high-adventure approach Hemmingway would’ve taken, but then again, he’s dead, isn’t he? Yeah, who’s the tough guy now?