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May 11, 2013 at 11:42 PM

Alaska cruise: I love the smell of Purell in the morning (and big bargain fares)

Ahoy, from the Lido Deck of the ocean-bound Star Princess. It’s 2100 hours Saturday evening as I write this – I don’t recall how many bells that equals – and we’re heading east out the Strait of Juan de Fuca past Port Angeles on a blustery, cool evening after a warm and sunny departure day. The ship has begun a slow, ponderous roll as we meet ocean swells.

At Muster Station B, a Star Princess crew member demonstrates how to don a life jacket. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

At Muster Station B, a Star Princess crew member demonstrates how to don a life jacket. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Topping the news of my day was meeting two couples who had each booked this 7-day Alaska cruise last week at the fire-sale price of $299 a person – showing just how slow bookings must be in the wake of recent cruise-ship problems.

“This is cheaper than the Alaska ferry we took 10 years ago,” said John D’Amour, a retired Social and Health Services investigator from Wenatchee, one of the low-fare finders.

“And we’re stepping up from duct-taping our tent to the deck of the ferry,” said his wife, Nancy D’Amour.

There are government taxes and fees on top of that, but when you think about the basic cost for two, it’s like spending $85 a night – about what you’d pay for a modest motel in Yakima. But you get a sea cruise to Alaska and the full-meal deal included. By way of comparison, when I booked my cruise last September – choosing advance booking because we often commit to our writing projects months in advance – the base fare was $1,358. That included the usual premium cost for a single traveler, but it’s insane that it’s more than double what these folks paid for last-minute bookings for two.

Of course, I booked before the Carnival Triumph debacle.

Carnival Triumph’s disastrous breakdown and sewage system failure in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year was apparently a game-changer for many travelers considering a cruise – on top of memories of the deadly shipwreck in Italy, or continuing scares of Norovirus and other illnesses. Those things were all clearly on people’s minds today as this huge ship – as long as Seattle’s tallest building is high — departed Seattle’s Pier 91.

“That’s probably a really good idea, considering the problems they’ve had,” John d’Amour noted as we snaked through the check-in line and I paused to squirt my hands at the first of dozens of alcohol hand-cleaner stations I passed today. “Eau de Purell” is the preferred scent on the seas now. (On board, no one gets into the buffett without spritzing some on their palm.)

You can't get into the buffet without passing the Purell lady. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell/The Seattle Times)

You can’t get into the buffet without a stop at the Purell station. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell/The Seattle Times)

An Olympia man in a big cowboy hat who was making his first cruise marveled at the size of the ship as we inched toward the boarding ramp.

“When you think how many people it takes, they must have 5,000 toilets on that thing!” We shared the hope for no sewage failures.

“No, they had that huge mess a while back, they don’t need more of that publicity!” he said with a shake of his head.

At 3 p.m., an hour before leaving dock, the ship held an emergency drill in which alarms sounded and we were all instructed to proceed to our “muster station” on Deck 7, where the lifeboats are situated, bringing lifejackets from our cabins. “A requirement of international law,” said a voice over the P.A. system.

More than 500 passengers packed my muster station – actually the cozy, dark-wood Crown Grill, where you might get a nice steak while the boat goes down.

“Due to recent events, you know how important is this drill, so let me please have your full attention,” said a purser, apparently referring to the Costa Concordia shipwreck off Tuscany that killed 32 passengers last year. “Believe me, if you asked people who were on that ship, they all wished they knew what to do.”

That was a quick way to sober up anyone who had started early on the margaritas this afternoon.

I give the Star Princess’s crew credit, though: They seem to take the problems seriously. Reminders to wash hands and use the Purell are inescapable. Nobody wants the Love Boat — and, yes, some crew still call it that — to have the Vomit Bug.

The day got better after the drill. Watching line-dancing by the pool; passengers packing the deck to watch the ship edge out into Elliott Bay, with Mount Rainier peeking through sunny haze; wandering waiters with trays full of mai tais (nope, sorry, not free). Tomorrow, we have a full day at sea, heading for Juneau. I’ll check back then (if my shaky and expensive Internet connection holds) and tell you more about:

–My compact top-deck cabin and how I picked it.

–My formal-dining room choice and the friendly folks I’ll be eating with all week, including one veteran of 30 cruises.

–How Princess has tried to win me over with free champagne and chocolates, a fancy fruit bowl and a big bouquet of roses (all of which I gave away to other deserving passengers). Now knock it off, guys.

One thing: It may have taken bargain-basement pricing to do it, but Princess still managed to sell out this 2,600-passenger boat.

So: HOOOOOOT (in a deep, ship’s-horn fashion). The voyage has begun.

0 Comments | Topics: Alaska cruise, cruising, Princess

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