The enormous floating resort had just begun moving through San Francisco Bay and was approaching the Golden Gate Bridge. We stood as close to the top-front of the Grand Princess as we could get, just above the outdoor swimming pool, hoping to wave at pedestrians as we passed under the bridge. The wind on the bay was howling–we were chilled to our fruits and veggies–but the visual splendor before us was considerable. The Marin Headlands loomed to our right, the scenic Presidio was on the left, and we were leaving one of the most beautiful cities in the world. As we bent our knees and grabbed a rail to keep our balance and prepared to absorb a moment of genuine awe, we were stunned by a sudden blast of noise from the pool – Madonna’s 80’s anthem “Holiday” blared from giant speakers and an obnoxious social host shouted, WE’RE GOING TO ALASKA!!! Our voyage of stark contrasts had begun; experiencing wondrous forces of nature while traveling on a tacky cruise ship.
Alaska is cold and mystical, wild and mysterious; almost too vast to comprehend. Overlay its 660,000-square mile landmass on the lower-48 and you eliminate a sizable portion of the Midwest. The state of Texas would fit neatly inside Alaska, to the good-natured chagrin of a tour bus driver from Houston we encountered who had a T-shirt depicting that with the caption, “Isn’t Texas cute?”
Add California and Texas together and Alaska is still more than 50 percent larger. The state’s Aleutian Island chain covers 1,100 miles from east to west, about the same distance as New York City to Des Moines, Iowa. Alaska’s highway system covers a minority of the state and leaves the deep reaches of the north and northwest unserved, reachable only by air or boat. The state capital, Juneau, is inaccessible by road. Wasilla, Alaska, home of former governor Sarah Palin, is 1,239 miles from the westernmost point of Russia, so–as we all already knew–she can’t really see it from her house. Turns out they still joke about that in Juneau.
The Grand Princess cruise ship is 107,517 tons. It was the largest cruise ship in the world at the time of its construction but is now merely the 12th largest in the Princess Cruise Lines fleet. It has 14 stories, 1,301 staterooms, room for 1,150 crew members, and all the usual refinements – multiple restaurants and bars, a casino, a theater, a spa, and numerous shops. What it doesn’t have is satisfying TV and music programming in its staterooms, consistently free coffee, and reasonable and reliable internet access. Booking a cruise isn’t cheap, and the accommodations and food covered by the up-front fee are just the beginning. We soon learned that a cruise ship’s primary goal is to separate you from your money as quickly and obsequiously as possible.
Our early moments onboard set the tone for our experience. While having our first lunch and trying to grab our bearings, we were frequently interrupted by polite and smiling servers, at least two of which offered a “coffee card” – $31 for a finite number of specialty drinks and unlimited mediocre brewed coffee. Otherwise, we would be charged each time we wanted a cup. There isn’t in-room coffee. You can order a pot from room service, but it tastes like something you might expect at Denny’s and makes the brewed swill from the ship’s coffee shop seem elegant by comparison.
Our first two days at sea we noticed birds tracking the ship’s wake, two or three at a time. They flew low, as if to absorb the wake’s mist, and occasionally set down on the waves. The birds had narrow bodies and long, narrow, pointed wings; watching them fly was intoxicating. But we were many miles from land. What were they doing, and why? It turns out they were black-footed albatrosses, and they follow ships to feed on refuse in their wakes (I wasn’t interested in exploring this any further, thank you very much). The albatross’ range is several thousand miles of Pacific Ocean between Alaska and the southern tip of Baja California. It lives on the water, returning to land only to nest. It’s an OG waterbird.
Much of our cruise followed the course of a critical stretch of Alaska’s history – the gold rush of 1896. It’s widely known as the Klondike period but could just as easily be called the Great Boondoggle of the North. As word spread of gold’s discovery, thousands of people converged on southwest Alaska and the Yukon, including the mayor of Seattle, who sent word of his resignation as he hurried after the main chance.
The seekers, called Stampeders or Cheechakos, passed through Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway on a brutal journey to frozen goldfields, a story told somewhat in Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” the tale of a big dog named Buck that is stolen from California and sold as a sled dog. Ultimately, most of the Cheechakos were hapless fools. Legend has it that fewer than 300 people made money in the gold rush. The rest were broken men (and women, but mostly men), if they lived through it. The story turned out much better for Buck. He ultimately triumphed over the harsh conditions and became an alpha dog in the wild.
After we purchased our coffee card we were confronted with the costs of other beverages – only water from the ship’s taps and iced tea in restaurants are truly free. Everything else–milk, soda, juices and, of course, alcohol–are for sale. If you’re really thirsty you can purchase an all-you-can-drink pass (with limits on alcohol quality) for $52 a day. We passed on that deal and ended up quaffing a lot of water and a small amount of liquor.
Ketchikan is in the far southeastern corner of Alaska, a small but vibrant community in the strip of land that extends down adjacent to the Yukon Territory. During tourist season (May-October) it’s a busy transportation hub with cruise ships and other maritime vessels, seaplanes, and even a small airport that serves Alaska Airlines. The town itself, once you get past a phalanx of gift shops and T-shirt stores, is a charming hamlet that has retained much of its mining heritage, and it hugs the coastline against a dramatic backdrop – the snow-covered Coast Mountains.
But the most striking site of all in Ketchikan was jellyfish – dozens of them, pink and orange, performing their distinctive dance in putrid water under a pier. You go to Alaska expecting to see whales and eagles, and we did, but we saw more jellyfish than anything else.
Let’s talk now about a classic cruise ship money pit, the internet. It’s for sale by the minute, and if you’re even remotely attached (or addicted) to the web for work and/or recreation, they’ve got you by the short hairs. I spent several hundred dollars over the course of our 10-day journey, and I learned right away to log-off the internet, something I never do at home because of unlimited wifi access. The minutes onboard ticked-off quickly. With wifi having reached the stage of a low-cost utility, you might ask why a cruise ship sells access like a high-priced commodity. I know I did. Princess responded with a bunch of indecipherable gobbledygook. Real answer: they’re screwing you because they can. Shipboard internet is painfully slow, so you’re paying for processing time as well as access.
Our next stop was Juneau, which for us was really not much more than a jumping-off point for excursions. However, we were in town long enough to stroll through blocks of jewelry stores and souvenir shops that separate the docks from the actual city. Most of the places to eat were lean-tos with outdoor seating, which makes sense in Hawaii but not in Alaska. Almost all of the prime retail space went to the shops.
Speaking of jewelry, it was one of the dominant themes of the trip, and that seems to be the case for the cruise industry as a whole. The Grand Princess operates a jewelry store onboard (tax and duty free) and staff tried hard to influence our shopping behavior in the Alaskan port towns; to direct us to certain retailers through advertising and discount offers. It seems the cruise lines have a big piece of the onshore action, either through store ownership or percentages. If you lead with your wallet, they’ll take it. We didn’t do a lot of shopping, especially not for jewelry, because we didn’t have confidence in quality or pricing. However, we did look at a couple of watches onboard and were surprised to find them priced very competitively.
We made four stops on our cruise – the three Alaskan towns and Victoria, B.C. We had the shortest stopover of all in Victoria—seven hours—even though it seemed like we had extra time available that we could have spent there. A cynic might deduce the stopover was cut short because the cruise lines do not control the retail action in Canada – better to get us and our money back on the ship. Too bad; there was actually quite a bit of culture and beauty to see in Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia.
The sights in Alaska were often breathtaking. We saw two stunning glaciers – Mendenhall near Juneau, and the Dawes Glacier southeast of Juneau and just a few miles west of the Canadian border. We hiked to Mendenhall, a brisk walk on a cold, rainy day; and the Grand Princess took us to within a half-mile of Dawes, sailing among white and blue icebergs that had recently broken free, a process known as calving. We saw some calving occur and it was memorable. The ice collapses into water in what appears to be silence from a half-mile away, but it’s not silent. The sound is delayed. It resembles thunder following lightning.
A naturalist traveling onboard hosted a discussion about glaciers after our visit to Dawes and revealed that of all the glaciers on Earth, only three are currently known to be advancing. The rest are retreating, or shrinking. And the debate over global warming was placed in an in an entirely new context when she informed us that the current trend, while perhaps accelerated by human activity, has been underway for the last 98,000 years, since the conclusion of the Wisconsin Glacial Episode, or the last North American ice age. Not so coincidentally, she explained, the advancement of civilization has closely tracked this lengthy warming period. At that point I was tempted to ask anyone within earshot if they had voted for Trump.
Time at sea is slow time, and the cruise lines work very hard to keep passengers busy with a wide range of activities. One day I found a lecture called, “Explaining the Da Vinci Code.” As I am a fan of the book and movie and truly love the fictitious story line, I was sucked into an off-the-cuff presentation by one of the ship’s musicians. He had convinced management he was prepared to tackle this subject. He wasn’t. He didn’t touch on the themes in Dan Brown’s novel at all – instead making a far-fetched claim that symbolism in the Mona Lisa, painted by Da Vinci, was in fact a code demonstrating that the artist understood the true history of the ancient world; an alternative history claiming that nomadic tribal nations like the Huns and the Celts were in fact the dominant force on Earth during the time of the early agricultural societies, and that the fall of Rome was the result of well-planned attacks by nomads spanning multiple generations rather than a collapse under its own weight.
Rome fell in the year 476. Da Vinci created the Mona Lisa in the early 16th Century. So why would he attempt to tell that story more than one-thousand years later in a painting? What was his connection? What was in it for him? I asked our would-be historian. He acknowledged they were good questions and proceeded not to answer them.
I learned that actually seeing whales in the ocean is a rare occurrence. I almost saw three. Their water spouts give them away and that in itself is thrilling, but that’s all I saw. I might have caught a glimpse of a back swimming close to the surface, but it’s difficult to know for sure because it just as easily could have been a wave. We also saw roughly a dozen eagles, a small pod of orcas or dolphins, and a confused porcupine that briefly considered crossing a sidewalk crowded with people. A woman rushed after the critter with her phone. Luckily for her, the porcupine disappeared before she could get too close.
Our final two days of travel were the hardest of all. We just wanted to be off the boat. It took its time returning to San Francisco, luring us yet again to the casino, shops and bars. Or we could take in entertainment similar to this (we somehow resisted).
Our voyage came to an end early one morning. The tacky cruise ship passed quietly under the Golden Gate Bridge while most of us slept. Few people were available to wave. No music played. The albatross, which had rejoined us in familiar Northern California waters, stayed out of the bay, choosing to wait in the sea lanes for the next ship’s wake, which was surely coming.
-The food police were one of the most frustrating features of the trip. Our second day onboard we had pizza for lunch. As is usually the case, we had leftovers. We asked for a box or at least some foil so we could stash the pizza in our stateroom refrigerator. Our server refused, with no explanation given.
-Cruise ships carry the reputation of giving you whatever you want to eat whenever you want it, no questions asked. Um, no. One day we strolled through a buffet at 11:20 am and saw some tasty looking cookies in an inaccessible bakery case. We hoped to take some back to our room. Sorry, we were told, you can’t have a cookie until 11:30.
– As we were leaving the ship for excursions in Juneau we carried a fresh latte from the onboard coffee shop. We were forbidden from taking it with us, with no explanation given. A portion of our $31 coffee card went straight into the trash.
-In case you were wondering, the town of Skagway (population 891) does not have a Starbucks. Ketchikan, Juneau and Victoria all do.
-Many of you know I’m a huge Van Morrison fan, and I’m pleased to report he got some run from a band playing on the ship. That’s the good news. The bad news is the song was Brown-Eyed Girl, which I’ve now heard approximately 46,000 times.
-The ship pretends to be an art house, with an onboard gallery full of generic crap you might see for sale on the side of the road; and auctions of the pieces that don’t sell in the gallery, which from the looks of it was pretty much everything. I walked by at the conclusion of one auction and listened to an auctioneer defend–with what seemed like hurt feelings–a reserve price of $5,500 for an unexceptional oil painting of a seascape. “I’m not going to lower the price because someone will pay that for this piece,” he sniffed. My condolences to whoever that is.
-The service onboard was mostly good. Princess Cruise Lines hires largely Filipino nationals. They all speak English, but it’s their second language, and few of them seem to have a grasp of the western colloquial English spoken by most of the passengers. It made for some interesting struggles to communicate, like when I tried to explain to our room steward that the ship’s laundry plant had lost some of my collar stays. I finally smiled and just gave up.
– After purchasing internet minutes for big bucks I was surprised and amused to discover that the ship’s default browser was Google…from the United Arab Emirates. The staff in the Internet Cafe had, of course, no explanation when asked about it. Fortunately, there was an English tab for the Arabic-challenged.