Alaska cruise

And now for something completely different: instead of a 71 ft. bouncy wooden boat on which everything is broken, Lou and I board a 78,000 ton, 2,000+ passenger cruise ship. Less than a year old, its design, fit, and finish are immaculate. It was built in Germany so everything works (if not they would have had the responsible party taken out and shot).

Another big difference is in the passenger profile. Instead of the 20-something backpacker set, this crowd looks like the results of a roundup at Disney World: old people, fat people, and little kids. And I mean fat! A large percentage of this group would be subject to there is a 50% surcharge for people over 250 lbs on the helicopter ride shore excursion.

And they dress like such slobs! Considering how much time and Americans spend clothes shopping why does the assemblage look like a hobo convention? And you'd think we were in the tropics. It's freezing, yet, shorts, t-shirts, and sneakers without socks are the uniform of the day.

We depart Seattle on Sunday afternoon. Because protectionist maritime laws require foreign flag vessels to make a foreign port of call, the standard Alaska cruise itinerary begins in Vancouver. This ship has been built to cruise extra fast to be able to make it to Alaska, stop in Vancouver, and be back in Seattle within a week.

There is closed-circuit TV piped into the cabin but the selection sucks. The movie channel consists of a steady stream of airline-grade movies (e.g., Bicentennial Man), plus There are some educational offerings like How to Gamble. (The players always win against the house! I don't know how the cruise line can afford to do it.) And something else I can't figure out: the daily art auctions offer "museum quality" works at a 90% discount. Well, I suppose I should have taken cruise ship economics in college instead of regular economics.

We spend Monday proceeding north on the Outside Passage. We are running at 22 knots and there is a 30 mph headwind, so it's breezy outside. The seas are 3 to 4 ft. (although they are announced as 10 to 12 ft.) giving the slightest perception of motion. Nonetheless, everyone else is walking around wearing patches and carrying on how rough the waves are and they are just short of dying from seasickness.

By Tuesday we are in Alaskan waters. In the morning we enter Glacier Bay National Park. The scenery is spectacular! The sea is like glass, although it is still cloudy. Only two cruise ships a day are allowed in the park so there is no one else to block our views. Unfortunately, we have to listen to running commentary of eco-babble from a park guide who can barely read her script. Not much in the wildlife department. People race around in excitement in order to glimpse a seal's head through binoculars.

I think our ship can hardly wait to drop off the park guides at 8:00 p.m. so they can reopen the casino. There is still plenty of daylight. As we travel north, the day is lengthening by an hour a day. We get as far as the 59th parallel, where the day lasts from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m.

On Wednesday morning we dock in Haines, a picturesque town notable for Port Seward (the first Army base in Alaska, closed after WWII) and the road to the rest of Alaska. If you want to drive to Juneau, you can go as far as Haines and then take a ferry. There is not much happening in town. We are the only ship at the dock. The purpose of the port call is so they can sell you an excursion to a nearby bald eagle preserve. I decline the opportunity -- at those prices, you should at least get an egg to take home.

In the afternoon, we traverse the Lynn Canal, the final segment of North America's largest fjord. The canal is between 500 and 2,500 ft. deep and the fjord extends 300 miles to the ocean. At its terminus is Skagway, 14 miles away from Haines by water but 360 miles distant by road.

Skagway was built during the 1898 Klondike gold rush. Unlike other gold rush towns, it still exists. The Yukon and White Pass Railway was built from the port to Whitehorse in Canada. By the time it was finished in 1900 the Yukon gold rush was largely over. Skagway stayed pretty much dormant and unchanged until discovered by the cruise ship industry. Now, this town of 700 permanent residents hosts 800,000 cruiseship passengers a year. When we pull in, there are already three other ships, meaning there are close to 10,000 free spending tourists afoot.

There are a couple of interesting National Park Service sites with good lectures and movies at the visitors center. Other than that, Skagway is solid gift shops and "duty-free" stores. During the four-month season, the summer workers live in campers or tents; come September, they go back to school or head to Bali or Thailand where they can live high on their savings. We are being constantly told how the gold rush "stampeders" were subject to price gouging by Alaskan merchants. In that respect, nothing has changed. For instance, trains are still run along the first 20 miles of the railway for tourists. Three packed trains make the trip each day at a fare of $78 a head. Even though I like trains, I elect to admire the railway from the modern highway that runs parallel to the track. The tour via van is majorly scenic.

Thursday is Juneau day. Once again, there are three other cruise ships already in port. Since it is the state capital, I figure it ought to be more a real place and less of a tourist ripoff. Well, sort of; but the prices are still astronomical. The cable-car ride for an aerial view of the city: $20; junky souvenirs: $80-$150; the tourist trolley that runs the few blocks of downtown: $12. Alternatives are available: we eschew the tours and take a bus ($5) to Mendenhall Glacier, which has been the principal tourist attraction since the founding of the city. It's a nice sunny day with temperatures around 60?, warm enough for hardy locals to frolic in the glacial melt stream! Overall: very impressive; nice visitor center. Best part: the explanation of how glacier is receding is not accompanied by a lecture on global warming.

The source of the glacier is the Juneau ice field that covers 1,500 sq. miles and is the reason there are no roads to Juneau. The roads in Juneau are very good -- you may not be able go anywhere on them, but you sure can get to the end fast! Ain't America great!

The state museum is very good. Aside from viewing enormous animal specimens, you can learn what Eskimos do when they are not baking pies.

We leave Juneau Thursday night. Friday is spent traversing the Inside Passage (the narrow waterway that runs between Vancouver Island and the mainland). On Saturday, we arrive in Vancouver. It is an orderly, pleasant, and prosperous city. The souvenir stores are owned by Chinese, who actually believe in competition. They are offering the same junk being sold in Alaska at a fraction of the price.

On Sunday morning we are back in Seattle. It is a pleasant and even more prosperous city. The robust economy and a socialist local government combine to work like a parasite magnet: for a city with a 0% unemployment rate, Seattle has the youngest, healthiest looking panhandlers I've ever seen. Weather-wise, it is a perfect day. Zillions of tourists thronging with the promenading locals give a cozy, Shanghai feeling to the waterfront. Because I am such a lover of humanity, I head elsewhere.

I drive to the airport on Monday as the radio broadcasts heat advisories: temperatures are expected to reach the low to mid-80's. Once again, the plane is overbooked. This time I take the bump, wait, and fly home in first class with a $700 voucher in my pocket. I should be able to get to Japan for that.

Trip date: July 2000