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May 20, 2013 at 1:44 PM

Alaska cruise: Do I still hate cruising? Let’s go out for a beer

Homeward bound: Tatoosh Island, with lighthouse, and Cape Flattery pass to starboard as Star Princess returns to Washington waters. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Homeward bound: Tatoosh Island, with lighthouse, and Cape Flattery pass to starboard as Star Princess returns to Washington waters. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

So, do I still hate cruising?

If I were sitting with you in a favorite watering hole over beers, the answer might be easier, though probably not shorter. (Some people tend toward glib in the influence of alcohol; I tend to wax philosophical.)

I might do that anyway, but for the record I’m drinking coffee as I write this. Decaf, even.

Also for the record: One cruise does not an expert make. And all my real-life experience with cruise ships has been gained in one week aboard one vessel run by one cruise line, namely Princess.

Cutting to the chase: I don’t expect I’ll do it again.

That doesn’t reflect on Princess, which ran a pretty tight ship on this voyage and did some things quite well. The bottom line is that travel is a highly personal experience. How and where you travel reflects many choices and sensibilities. Just like I’m not about to trade my Civic for an Escalade, I’m not ready to trade my salty old sailboat for a cruise ship.

That said, as is often the case when one walks a mile in the other person’s shoes, the past week has softened my stance.

Some pros and cons I see about cruise ships:

PRO: They enable people from all walks of life to experience life at sea and see some natural wonders they’d never get to otherwise. That a gray-haired grandma breathing oxygen from a bottle strapped to her mobility scooter could enjoy the wonders of Glacier Bay – along with dozens more like her – was pretty sweet. And kids from Indiana who had never seen a whale before might now grow up to be wildlife biologists and save the whales some day. Stranger things have happened. And many, many people on board simply had an enjoyable vacation, and ticked off an ambition from their “bucket list.”

CON: These really are floating cities, their own complex ecosystems, getting bigger every time they build a new ship. As a skipper of my own little boat, I saw the potential for system failures everywhere I looked, whether a clogged vacuum pipe that stops the toilet from flushing – my cabin experienced that for a few minutes when somebody “upstream” probably flushed a paper towel – or failure of generators fueling the ship’s mind-boggling energy demands. The recent problems aboard cruise ships weren’t flukes, they were just waiting to happen.

And though Alaska’s waterways are vast and huge, a 950-foot cruise ship carrying thousands of people is a big intrusion – and there are many cruise ships plying those waters. This blog isn’t the place to carefully analyze the effects of cruise-ship discharges, but some readers raised legitimate questions. There’s no way a ship has enough storage capacity to not discharge waste on a week’s cruise. A 2002 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation estimated an average cruise ship on a typical one-week voyage discharges 210,000 gallons of sewage from toilets, 1 million gallons of “gray water” from sinks, showers, laundries and galleys, plus hazardous waste such as dry-cleaning fluids, and more. While a ship’s sewage is typically treated by marine sanitation devices, there are questions about the efficacy of such devices in long-term usage. The Alaska Legislature just this February eased voter-approved restrictions on cruise-ship discharges in Alaskan waters in a bill requested by its Republican governor, Sean Parnell, who ran as former Gov. Sarah Palin’s running mate and took office when she resigned. So if you cruise to Alaska, don’t be so naïve as to think you’re not leaving something of you behind.

Full disclosure: My oceangoing sailboat discharges small amounts of gray water and, when far enough out to sea (where legal and when necessary), sewage. I don’t claim to be pure as the driven snow. But my vessel’s capacity is about four, not 3,000+.

PRO: I met many friendly people onboard from across the United States and around the world. They were almost all cheerful and courteous and out to have a good time. People said “good morning” in the hallways and helped push buttons for you in the elevators. We were all on the same ship, big as it was, and there was a bond you don’t feel in a Marriott or Super 8.

CON: The influx of 3,000 tourists – or as many as 12,000 when the port is at cruise-ship capacity – to a town such as Skagway (winter population: 800) clearly and simply changes a place. Sure, the locals prosper on the money that comes in, and they’ve grown to depend on the income. It can mean the difference between a prospering town and a boarded-up one. But they don’t live in the same town they used to, and the old favorite spots aren’t their old favorite spots anymore – they can’t get in. “I haven’t been to the Red Dog for years,” our Juneau bus driver admitted when giving directions to the fabled saloon that is mobbed by tourists. Cheesy jewelry shops from the Caribbean take over main drags in Ketchikan, Skagway and Juneau.

Maybe it’s paradoxical for a travel writer to write critically of tourism, but as with many things that make life better in limited quantities – wine, medicine, good food – too much poisons the patient.

PRO: Cruise ships pamper you, and everyone can use pampering once in a while. The food was not only plentiful but quite good. Head for the formal dining rooms to find the best, though I don’t think you need to do the higher-end restaurants that charge extra ($25 per person for dinner in the Star Princess’s fancy Sabatini’s Restaurant, for example). I thought the buffet was decent – I ate lots of smoked salmon — though one cruise veteran told me he avoided it after the first day. Overall, I give the food an “A-” grade: not the caliber of Seattle’s best restaurants, but very good.

I liked the fluffy robe in my cabin and the no-extra-charge room-service breakfast (though the best you can get is the cruise-ship equivalent of an Egg McMuffin). My cabin stewardess, Jesusa Sierra, from the Philippines — very few of the servers or staff are from North America — was wonderfully efficient at taking care of everyone on her hallway, from a cheerful morning “hello!” to chocolates on the pillow each night.

CON: You can’t do the trip without asking whether the cruise life is great for the crew. Sure, they choose to be there, so there must be things about this life that are better than what they left back home. But because our ship was registered in Bermuda, and makes a deliberate foreign stop every trip (such as our five hours in Victoria, B.C.) to avoid being subject to U.S. labor laws, the crew isn’t limited to a 40-hour work week or minimum wages.  If you buy “fair-trade” coffee at home, do you leave behind such concerns when you go on vacation? Here’s a critique worth reading.

FINAL WORD: Cruise ships aren’t my choice, but the food can make you happy, the entertainment is nonstop, and you can see natural wonders you might never get to otherwise. If you like Las Vegas or Disneyland, and you’re on a cruise with no problems, you might love the experience. I’ve been lucky enough to sail to adventurous ports on my own boat, and when at the helm with no land in sight at 3 a.m., alone but for the dolphin leaping the wake at my elbow, my soul has soared up into the stars. If you’re out there on a big ship – someplace the “midnight sun” doesn’t interfere — try it some night. Set your alarm for 3, step (carefully) to the railing and gaze upward. Find constellations you’ve never seen, pretend you’re steering by the North Star, and we’ll share that bond.

Thanks for reading this week, and for all the feedback.

–Brian Cantwell




Comments | More in Brian hates cruising, Cruises, Trip reports | Topics: Alaska cruise, Cruise, cruise critique


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