Monday, June 11, 2007

Cruising to Alaska

Dinner on the Norwegian Sun

My wife and I—along with her four siblings and their spouses—just returned from a Vancouver-to-Skagway, Alaska, 6-day cruise. We had a great time with family; the weather, meanwhile refused to cooperate and we spent approximately zero time on deck lounge chairs. The scenery was fantastic and the ride on the White Pass and Yukon Railway was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The food on the cruise was not as great as we remembered it from our previous experience on the Norwegian Sun two years ago, but it was more than adequate and the crew looked after us very well. They’re 900+ from all around the world, with people from the Philippines in the majority. The seas are never that rough on the inside passages, but there were days when a few of us were driven to our cabins for Gravol and an unscheduled lie-down.

I don’t think I’m your average cruise-ship type. I have no interest in the casino, don’t buy jewelery, don’t play bingo and am not that interested in mass dancing lessons. Today’s cruise ships are fantastically comfortable, very large, very well decorated places on which to spend a few days, however, compared for instance to the WWII-vintage Stefan Batory on which my wife and I crossed the Atlantic in 1986. The Vancouver-Skagway cruise attracts primarily retired people with few excesses and we noticed no alcohol abuse, no one was thrown overboard and the partying was all in good taste, as far as we could see.

We filled out an evaluation form before we left the ship, and I registered a few minor complaints. Ships photographers snap people at every opportunity: boarding, on excursions, at dinner, etc. I find that being photographed by a stranger and having my picture posted in the gallery on deck 6 makes me just a tad irritable at times. Some of us also complained that we would just as soon not have waiters offering us drinks every time we sat down. There is a sell, sell, sell mentality on board and on the streets of Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan that characterizes what cruise ships are, after all, about, namely the merchandising of goods to a captive audience at inflated prices. But then, nothing prevents anyone from saying “no,” except one’s own desire to have these things.

I was fascinated by the history of the Alaska Panhandle. The Gold Rush of 1896-8 is the focus of the excursions offered in Skagway, particularly. I bought a pictorial history of that event and read through it as we traveled. The horrendous hardships people were willing to endure to get at the placer gold in the Yukon River area is hard to fathom. It would probably be folly to judge this “lust for gold” by today’s standards, but for me it underlined the human weakness represented by the scrabbling after the apparently easy wealth gold offers—and the modern-day casino attempts to duplicate the gold rush urge. Stories of that era have a great deal to teach us, but when it comes to the temptation to seek easy money, we appear to be slow learners.

The greatest benefit of a cruise, from my limited experience, is that it takes you away from your on-land pursuits and activities quite completely. A change is as good as a rest. Living on the water represents a substantial change so that I’ve found sea voyages “mentally invigorating.” The Alaska cruises in which we’ve participated have also provided us an opportunity to get to know people from around the world—albeit not to any great depth—to hear their stories and to compare them with your own. I find these exchanges tremendously educational to a degree that reading alone can never provide.

There’s always entertainment on a cruise ship. The 800 seat theatre on the Norwegian Sun provides dancers, singers, magicians and comedians twice nightly, and live bands and singers perform in the bars at night. I don’t know what the Norwegian Sun offers on its Caribbean Cruises in the winter time, but on this cruise I found myself getting just a tad tired of the 50s and 60s tone set by the entertainment. I think it was geared to us retirees, but someone forgot that we haven’t been dead since we were young adults.

One question on the evaluation questionnaire asked if we would recommend the cruise to our friends. I think I said “yes” hesitantly. I’m torn between the benefits and the consciousness that cruising is a wasteful, polluting, labour exploitative activity (the Norwegian Sun at full speed burns 40 gallons (151 litres) of diesel fuel per minute; the crew members work at mind-numbing jobs for 10 hours daily with little time off; I don’t know the amounts, but leftover food is dumped at sea in large enough quantities so that whales and dolphins are attracted to the wake of cruise ships). Including the flight to Vancouver, the cost to us was about $220.00 CDN each per day. I’m inclined to imagine how many mosquito nets that could have bought for the fight against malaria in Africa.

It’s a beautiful ship, the Norwegian Sun, and the fjords, islands, mountains and glaciers of the west coast of Canada and Alaska are spectacular. As vacations go, it’s probably still a bargain, and there’s nothing to prevent me from buying a batch of mosquito nets at the same time. Except that I’m a bit short of cash right now.


  1. George, you expressed my sentiments regarding the cruise. i am not sure that I even recommended it, although i must say that overall I did enjoy it (mostly the company and endless food, although the ice cream was inferior quality)
    I also read the earlier blogs and concur

  2. George, did you get a chance to see the sea animals, I still remembered the cute otto, dopl raced our boat ... I spent a whole day browsing and reading the "gold rush" stuff in the museum.

    Alaska was the end of my "2 month across Canada trip". Speaking of short of cash, I took something "marine" from skagway to Prince Rupert, I slept on the observation deck (the fare is about USD100) & I took off whenever the marine parked at the port & got back the marine the same day or following day.

    I would say Alaska is a must see place in one's life, skagway-Vancouver is only a part of Alaska, there are many more attractions in Alaska... ~fion