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May 16, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Alaska cruise: Right people in the right jobs, but a kitschy captain’s party

One thing I like about this voyage: some of the people they’ve brought to their party.

–In a place such as Alaska, where nature is the star, it’s to the cruise line’s credit that they have an on-board naturalist of the caliber of Michael Modzelewski.

Michael Modlesweski, naturalist aboard Star Princess, introduces one of his friends during a slide show. (Photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Michael Modzelewski, naturalist aboard Star Princess, introduces one of his friends during a slide show. (Photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

He grew up in Cleveland, got an Indiana University journalism degree, and ended up living on his own on a wild Alaskan island. An author of several books and an Oprah Winfrey repeat guest (I won’t hold that against him), he’s called “the John Muir of our times” by author Amy Tan.

The Muir comparison seems a stretch, but he’s given a couple well-attended on-board slide-show lectures on Alaska’s natural wonders, tribal customs and wildlife, doing a good job of turning cruise passengers’ thoughts away from the casino and outside to the bears, eagles and glaciers. He’s as much motivational speaker as nature lover, and he likes to quote Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” (I don’t know how many cruise passengers are heeding that, but you never know.)

He plays John Denver’s rousing “Alaska and Me” song at the end of his talk, but I haven’t yet heard him say “Far out!”

–I’m a cruise-ship newbie, but it has quickly become apparent to me that the cruise director, in charge of entertainment, shipboard activities and excursions, can make or break the experience. The best thing about the Star Princess’s Irish-bred cruise director is that she’s a longtime Alaskan, living in Juneau. Sammi Coneen-Baker is unpretentious, likable and energetic. One-time manager of Juneau’s Red Dog Saloon, she has also performed in Skagway’s “Days of ‘98” cabaret show and sings with her band, Moondance. She clearly knows this neighborhood (and she confides she “knows Sarah,” the former governor).

About her hometown, she says, “People ask, ‘Doesn’t it make you crazy that the roads [around isolated Juneau] don’t connect to anything?’ Well, it limits the amount of Martians that can drive into town. Anybody who’s acting weird, you probably know their parents, and you can work it out.”

On the flip side: Not so impressive was the Captain’s Welcome Aboard Party on Sunday introducing the head guy and his executive staff, an international group from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Italy.

Star Princess Capt. Vincenzo Lubrano and cohorts. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Star Princess Capt. Vincenzo Lubrano and cohorts. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

It was a formal night, with all in dress whites, which was kind of ritzy. But the ship’s maitre d’ did a corny “champagne fountain” thing where he poured bubbly over the top of a very high pyramid of champagne glasses while passengers got their picture taken with him – it went on forever — and the ship’s Bulgarian band singer crooned, “I’m on the top of the world, lookin’ down on creation…” (Grab spoon, insert into throat for gag reflex.) I guess pomp is part of the tradition, but it all seemed kind of pointless, and the captain spoke for only about 30 seconds. On other cruises, the captain has done Q&A sessions that were pretty interesting, a passenger from Kent told me.

Comments | Topics: Alaska cruise, Cruise, cruise director

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