Quick Impressions From An Alaska Cruise

September 2008

Luxury, then, is a way of being ignorant, comfortably.
                         Leroi Jones, Political Poem

 

The basic details: Carnival Cruise line. Ship: Carnival Spirit.
7-night Alaska Inside Passage cruise, southbound.
From Whittier (near Anchorage) to Vancouver.
Ports of Call: Whittier, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Vancouver.

As I learned very soon, I had a lot of misconceptions about cruises. Mine was a very flat and two-dimensional view of what a cruise would be like. I expected most of the Inside Passage of Alaska to be one veritable blue wall of glacial ice. I was worried that I would be bored for 7 days in a ship, so I took along loads of books. As it turned out, the reality was a lot more textured, which of course, is why we travel at all. Here then, are the things that intrigued or surprised me.

Logistics

  • A whole lot of people, I found, shared my belief that it must be neat to work in a cruise ship. (The Q&A session about the inner workings of the cruise ship was very well attended.) The jobs all sound so glamorous: You sail to exotic destinations (Hawaii, Caribbean, Alaska), plus all your food and accommodation needs are taken care of. But once you learn more about the details, the imagined glamour quickly fades. Each employee stays on the ship for 6 to 8 months, without full days off. They get time off here and there, but they work eight to ten hours a day on an average, 7 days a week. They cannot wander off the ship as they please since their report times are strictly regimented. Their cabin fever is quite real.
  • An overwhelming majority of the employees were from three countries: Indonesia, Philippines and India. This initially surprised me, but on thinking is very understandable. I am guessing that national wage rates and the fact that these countries have some familiarity with English are the main reasons. (They wouldn't reveal pay scales, of course, but I know that US hourly wage minimums don't apply. Many of the cruise ships are registered outside the US.)
  • The logistics around running the ship was endlessly fascinating. 2300 passengers + 950 crew members, sailing for 7 days. Because Whittier is a non-city (just a bunch of docks), they load up provisions in Vancouver for each round trip to last 14 days.
  • The grocery list price for our 7-day sailing was said to be $450,000.
  • It was embarrassing to listen to the 1000s of pounds of flour, rice, meat, fruits, coffee, milk, ice cream and chocolate that we would all consume in the 7 days.
  • The maitre'd rattled off a lot of figures quickly, but I do remember one: 45,000 eggs were consumed in each 7-day sailing. (45k!)

    Catering
  • There are 1300 guests in the first (early) seating for dinner. Every day, each guest is given around seven different choices for their entrees when their orders are taken. While the guests are working through their soups and salads, blissfully unaware, there is feverish activity in the galley inside. 1300 entrees are freshly prepared and served in under 30 minutes. Each entree (no matter which one or which day) has been subdivided into 5 tasks for teams of 5 chefs to work in tandem. It all has to proceed like clockwork, no room for error. And ninety minutes later, they have to do the whole thing all over again, for 1000 more guests who arrive for the second seating. In a job that I once held, we were trying to attain similar efficiencies for various aspects of an airline the techniques had names like 5S and Lean. (Good times!) But the cruise galley crew had standard work all down pat.
  • The Carnival catering department must have employed some creative copywriters. One night, I ordered lasagna on a Lake of Pomodoro. When the dish showed up, the piece of lasagna had been placed on tomato sauce in the plate.
  • Another night, they held a Midnight Grand Gala buffet. Exquisitely decorated food (like you see in the Food Channel competitions) was on display from 11.30 pm to 12.30am, and once the viewing ended, it was cut up and served. It was well past 1am Alaska time when we walked into the dining room after watching a late night comedy show. The whole place was buzzing with diners. I found this remarkable for two reasons. 1. Most of these people were from the Midwest/East coast of the US, where it was past 4am/5am. 2. All these people had eaten a multi-course dinner just a few hours earlier. (Full disclosure: we ate too)
  • The ship had two 24-hour ice cream self-serve stations and I saw men and women (mostly senior citizens) at all times of the day with huge servings. So now I know what old folks do when their children aren't around to supervise them and they don't have to behave themselves -- their way of being decadent is to gobble up ice cream.
  • We have all been to buffets in restaurants, and attended conferences and events that included dessert stations. But I have never seen people help themselves to so many desserts onto one plate -- numerous slices of cakes and cookies and pies piled into one large unsteady pyramid. (I never did figure out why they didn't make multiple visits, but I did figure out why the ship needed 45,000 eggs.)

    Scenery and Fauna
  • It turned out that Alaska's Inside Passage scenery was not the Grand Canyon of blue glacial ice that I had imagined. (Perhaps I had confused it with Antarctica.) With 99.9x% of the world's glaciers retreating, my expectation was rather naive. The scenery of Alaska never disappoints, and we did see several glaciers. But mostly, we sailed through a lot of plump green-and-brown hills with just a few little dabs of white snow lingering since it was already September.
  • Walking around in one of the ports (Juneau) we had our closest black bear encounter to date. In a creek by the Mendenhall glacier in Juneau, we saw a crowd gaping. Close by was a mid-sized black bear, searching the waters for salmon. I have never before seen an animal focus on something with such intensity. It walked up and down the creek with over two dozen people who trailed it just five to ten feet away, and yet it was completely oblivious to the crowd. The whole crowd was hushed, and the only sounds were the whirs and clicks of a dozen cameras.
  • In Ketchikan (a port of call) I saw some people attempting to fish for salmon. The creek was chockfull of the fish, and it seemed that people were catching one every three minutes. They'd reel it in and pull it out of the water while it struggled. They'd then turn around and pose for the photos, clicked by the cruise ship passengers looking from a bridge. Satisfied, they'd unhook and throw the salmon back in the water Catch and Release. Everyone was rooting for the salmon and some even clapped. (Sporting? Yes. Humane? Perhaps) But what I found interesting was that just a little while later, many of these same people walked into stores selling baked and smoked salmon products.
  • It is natural and easy to cheer for salmon as they struggle their way upstream. They wait, gather their strength and then lunge a few feet up into the air hoping to make their way up creeks. (Salmon always go back to their exact birthplace to spawn.) It often took numerous launches for them to move forward, especially where the water was rushing down fast. Benevolent humans have set up fish ladders to help, but the salmon I saw didn't seem to be using them much. Also, I was disappointed in evolution, disappointed that even after all these eons the salmons haven't found an easier route. By the number of salmon lying dead on certain spots by the creek banks, it looked like the salmon were making quite a few ill-fated and mistimed jumps, landing completely out of the water.
  • I was watching two young women photographing red salmon by one creek. After clicking away non-stop one of them looked up, satisfied. She quickly previewed her photos and said to her friend, "Now I have done salmon!" She smiled, paused. "I have done bears! And I have done people!"
  • The announcement over the ship's PA, "Hello ladies and gentlemen. This is your ship's naturalist Michele from the bridge. I am seeing 3 grey humpbacks on the right or starboard side", would predictably bring 200 to 300 viewers running to the deck, armed with their binoculars and huge telephoto lenses. Those who were lucky got to see small bits of a fin or a tail here and there. Predictably, some passengers would show up slowly, five full minutes after the announcement, when the whales were perhaps a couple of miles behind us. I saw plenty of spray exhalations of the whales, but never saw them to my satisfaction. However, it was always fun to turn around and watch the optimism of the people trying to catch a glimpse.
  • There is a reason why we got only small teasing glimpses unless the whale chose to breach itself for the audience. The ship's Lido deck was on the ninth floor, very high up above the water. Though we were told that a dorsal fin is 4 to 6 feet high, imagine trying to catch a view of something that is 100s of feet away from that high up, in a strait full of frothy white caps. But it was always reassuring because the people never gave up trying to view.
  • Pretty soon, the phrase dorsal fin became part of everyone's vocabulary. As in, "There. There. Did you see the dorsal fin?"
    "No, I think that's just sea kelp."

    Entertainment and Shopping
  • There was nightly entertainment following dinner every night. I didn't care much for the revues, but I was very impressed by the comedians, each of whom had two complete shows each. One for the whole audience which was full of clean jokes. In their very next show (late at night, after 12.30am typically) they'd do a full length show with R-rated jokes. I was always expecting them to slip up and utter something inappropriate in the main shows, but of course, they never did.
  • I wasn't expecting the obvious pride that all the Alaskans we came in contact with (local performers, shopkeepers and even van and tour drivers) had about their governor bringing national prominence to their great state by running to be the VP in the upcoming election.
  • We met an American Airlines pilot and his wife, who would chat with us from time to time. When the ship was docked in Ketchikan, we were having lunch in the Lido deck. The pilot stopped by and said (verbatim), "We just realized that we haven't bought a T-shirt all morning! So we are heading out to those shops over there. See you there." He was poking fun at himself, but he was also serious about the purchases.
  • I have never understood shopping as an activity of leisure I only shop when the need is dire. So, by the third or fourth port in Alaska, I couldn't contain my surprise at the shoppers who'd stagger back to the ship carrying their numerous shopping bags in both hands. Towards the end of the cruise, the ship was full of passengers sporting Alaska sweat-shirts, Alaska baseball caps, Alaska T-shirts, and Alaska shorts. (Yes, the prices were good, but how much apparel with Alaska emblazoned on it does one person need?)
  • I then began to wonder as to how they would manage to fit their numerous purchases into their luggage. And that was when I noticed that people were also buying new suitcases (carry-on size and big check-in sized ones) at the ports.
  • I have great trouble in bringing myself to buy something if I don't think it was worth the price. Which is why I never ceased to be amazed by this: The ship had installed numerous official photographers, whose job it was to click the guests all day long. They'd then make 8x10 prints and put them up on display. People just loved to search those walls, seeking pictures of themselves. And then they were very happy to pay $21.95 per print for these. (All of these people owned very good digital cameras and could get prints of their own photos if they chose to.) I once noticed over 20 people standing patiently in line to pay $22 for their souvenir photos.

    Overall
  • I was taken aback by the number of cruisers who were on wheelchairs and walkers. One explanation (probably the right one) is that cruise vacations are very well suited for those who are no longer as mobile as they once were. But I also think that there is a lesson in this: we should go on these trips now while we still have our health, before we too become wheelchair-bound or reliant on our walkers.
  • One final image epitomizes the whole experience for me. One afternoon, I saw a very old man on the sundeck, dragging a carry-on suitcase with his left hand. Surprised that someone would bring their luggage to the sundeck I looked closely. There was a clear plastic tube coming out of the suitcase and going into his nose. Presumably, his bottled oxygen. He walked with a wobbling stride, slowly and unsteadily. But in his right hand, he was holding a 3-scoop ice cream cone, very steadily.

    I highly recommend that those who haven't been on cruises experience a 7-day cruise and see for themselves.

    Ram Prasad
    February 2009


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