Monday, July 25, 2005

Day 8- At Sea

On Doing Nothing

There is an art to doing nothing. First, you need some good nothing to do. Books are a good choice, or t.v., and the napping option shouldn’t be overlooked. Writing in a blog isn’t a bad choice either. Writing fiction is only for when you get desperate. On board a ship at sea is just about the perfect place to do nothing, as long as you can find a good spot for it. Which, today, was most of my problem. Up until now I’ve been finding myself a spot in the casino when I need somewhere to sit and read and totally fail to work on my story. But I spent a lot of time there yesterday and I got pretty sick of the little tunes the slot machines play, plus everybody else has discovered it, and crowds make for bad nothing-doing. So instead I went to the dance lounge, with my computer and my headphones, and wrote/avoided human interaction until my battery ran out. After lunch (a variety of fried seafoods from the buffet) there was a lecture on ballroom dancing being given there, so I had to find another place. Why didn’t you just sit in your room? I hear you ask (and would you keep it down? I’ve got neighbors, you know). Two reasons, I tell you. One, the only place to sit and read in the room is the bed, since I converted the easy chair into clothes storage, which means that sitting and reading becomes lying and reading, which becomes napping. And two, Megan was in there watching one of those movies where they try to convince you that Jack Nickelson is a romantic lead, rather than his more natural role of serial killer. So I wandered. And eventually my wanderings led me to the back of the ship, which was protected from the wind and largely deserted; so finally I settled down overlooking the wake in a plastic chair and reading ‘The Thin Man’ in one sitting.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Day 7- At Sea: Tracy Arm

Today is technically a sea day, but it’s made a bit different by the fact that we are going in the boat to see something. That would be ‘Tracy Arm’, which would appear to be some sort of geological feature carved out by glaciers. We got to Tracy Arm around five this morning and, since the sun rose at 4:22 today the scenery should have been wholly visible. I wouldn’t know. Megan got up at around seven, to take in the sights and save us seats in the observation lounge/casino (really), but I slept until the slightly more reasonable hour of nine-thirty. After all, you see one spectacular waterfall plunging down a sheer rock wall into iceberg-laden water, you’ve seen them all.
I took my breakfast with me up to the casino, where I enjoyed the view along with my bagel (sadly, more like white bread with a hole in the middle), all to the accompaniment of the constant sound of slot machines. The place was packed- there aren’t a lot of good viewing spots on the ship- and we shared our window with a Spanish-speaking family with two young girls and a set of walkie-talkies that were inclined to feedback. The scenery really was spectacular, and much better seen from outside on the deck, but the freezing wind and spitting rain meant that I only occasionally ventured out for pictures before hurrying back to my seat.
We spent the whole morning in the Arm and came back out the way we went in, so I really didn’t miss that much by sleeping, after all. Just after coming out we passed through an area noted for its large whale population and I did see some- a couple spouts and a fluke. But mostly what I did was try to resist running from one side of the ship to the other as the onboard naturalist, who was doing a kind of play-by-play from the bridge- announced one whale sighting after another, always where I wasn’t.
I stayed in the casino through lunchtime, watching for more whales without luck and finishing my third (or maybe fourth, I’m losing count) book of the cruise. Then, exhausted by my strenuous day and sick to death of those damn slot machines, I came back to the cabin and took a long nap.

Three Eagles and a Seal

Can you find them?

Friday, July 22, 2005

Day 6- Haines

(Forgot to post yesterday. Whoops.)

I’m not sure I love this port day after port day thing- it makes this whole vacation seem so much less slothful. Haines I like, though. It’s the smallest town we’ve stopped at in Alaska, and the least overrun by tourists. I realize that this marks me as one of those travel hypocrites who gets all grumpy because other people want to do exactly the same thing as I’m doing, but so be it. What’s a little hypocrisy between friends?
The people who live in these towns aren’t so fond of the summer influx either, and I can kind of see their point. The cruise people like to talk a lot about the money and the jobs it brings, but that only works if you work for a tour company or store, or you want to. It’s not exactly the same thing as working in the fishing or timber industries, even if the pay is better and you’re less likely to die. That said, I had a really good time in Haines.
Important task of the day: find some salmon. Or else I am going to be even more insufferable than usual for the rest of this trip. Fortunately, for once, this turns out not to be much of a challenge. Several restaurants look promising, but we settle on one just off of Haines’s tiny main street, with Roadfood-friendly red vinyl seats and poster sized old photos on the walls. The salmon was delicious.
We had signed up for another shore excursion today, a ‘float trip’ in a nearby bald eagle preserve. (A float trip is a lot like rafting, only your guide is more likely to have to get out and push.) It was about a forty minute bus ride to get out there, during which we were entertained (which is to say, lectured to) by a very outgoing and charismatic guide who, among other things, made a very convincing case against eating farmed salmon (but, oddly refrained from mentioning what it does to prices of the wild salmon that is so important to the local economy). When we got to the river they outfitted us with life jackets (in case we fell in and were carried away by the eight-inch-deep water) and rubber boots, making this my second consecutive day in borrowed footwear. Our boat had me, Megan and a family of five- mom, dad, two girls about seven and sixteen and a boy around thirteen or so. Only four people could fit in either end of the boat, so most of the family sat up front and the son got stuck in the back with us. Our guide/rower was a good looking guy in his mid-twenties, which I believe caused the teenaged daughter to die of embarrassment at her parents and siblings approximately once a minute.
We took off slowly down the river, our guide rowing while the rest of us sat around like, well, tourists. This was not a whitewater rafting trip. (In fact, at points in the river, it was barely a water rafting trip. Apparently, one of the primary features of glacial rivers is that they have a lot of silt and very little water. So we floated gently along, enjoying the first really nice weather we’ve had so far and taking random photographs in the general direction of eagles.

Apparently, the urban rigors of Haines were too much for our tablemates, so Megan and I ate our dinner in lonely splendor. Not that I’m complaining, mind you.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Day 5- Juneau

My thought, upon taking off for my first ride in a helicopter: There is no way this is going to work.
Up early this morning, because we are going on a shore excursion. I always start out on cruises sure that the shore excursions organized by the cruise line are over-packaged and over-priced, and I am going to be so smart and cool and book everything myself, and I bet you can see where this is going. Our excursion, organized by Princess Cruiseline and booked onboard for a hefty sum, was a trip by helicopter to the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. I never really got over my initial terror towards helicopter flight, but it was absolutely, undeniably spectacular. We flew up below the clouds to the glacier, melting into a muddy lake at the edge of the city. It was white and dirty on top, but where the ice had recently split or slid you could see down to the fresh ice below, clear, bright and sharply blue. We were riding six to a helicopter, plus our pilot, with me and Megan up front and two kids and their grandparents in the back. We flew in a wide loop over the glacier, while the pilot talked about it through the headsets. Then we set down on a flatish area (most of the main part of the glacier is split up by deep crevasses) and the pilots took off to pick up their next load of tourists. We were left to wander around, under the watchful eyes of the guides who were stuck out there all day, watching people come and go and take pictures. There were pools of water on the ice and I stuck my fingers in one to confirm that it was, in fact, cold.
Needless to say, we did not have Juneau to ourselves. This is the height of the cruise season, and ours was the smallest of the five (yes, five) ships in port dumping, by a rough estimate, about twelve thousand unwanted tourists on the small city. The funny thing is, I don’t know where they all went. Sure, the little shopping area right near the docks was absolutely jammed, with slow-moving clots of old people stocking up on t-shirts and hideous jewelry (why would you go to Alaska to buy jewelry? They don’t make it there, and it’s not like it’s duty-free). But you get about a block away from there, and it’s like the cruise ships don’t even exist. We’ve been having good luck with restaurants listed in the guidebook Megan brought (despite my guidebook addiction, I couldn’t find mine when it came time to pack), so we headed off to find it. The place was described as the place where all of the movers and shakers of the city went to eat (Juneau is the state capital, after all) but it turned out to be a fairly modest little place on the corner of a strip mall. Anyway, there we were, in a place listed in all the guidebooks (we looked at some in a bookstore) as the place to eat, on a day the city was absolutely overrun with tourists, and there were maybe five other cruise passengers there (we learned this by eavesdropping). The food was terrific, especially the seafood quesadilla Megan ordered (my halibut tacos were nice too, but a little spicy for me, so I was happy to help her finish them).
I am on a mission to eat fresh wild salmon while I’m in Alaska, because where else am I going to get that? So, since we were in port until eight we thought we’d hang around and get dinner at a place we saw down by the dock. There wasn’t a whole heck of a lot to do in the meantime, so we elbowed our way through the mobs for a while, bought some tourist crap, then took ourselves off to the internet café where five dollars got us a blissful hour of email, baseball scores and general connectivity. I left myself six minutes on my card, or thought I did, so I could check again later. (Pay attention- that’s going to be important).
Having shopped and internetted to our hearts content, we needed something else to do to kill time before we could reasonably eat dinner. I was all for my usual approach of picking a random direction to wander in, but in deference to the fact that Megan already thinks I’m nuts enough, pulled out the tourist map I had picked up. There was a reference to a ‘Mt. Roberts trail’ right near the town, which sounded promising, so we headed off that way.
This would be a good time to point out that Juneau is a hilly city. Very hilly. Now, I grew up in the Bay Area and I am not unfamiliar with hills, so you will believe me when I say that these hills were impressive. They don’t have sidewalks in Juneau, they have stairs. Our route up the mountain, not surprisingly, took us up a lot of these, through an undeniably cute residential neighborhood and into an attractive, if damp, wilderness area. (Book idea: Off the beaten path in cruise ports. I particularly like the idea of doing the research.) The path was nice but, well, steep, and after all the walking we had been doing Megan had had enough. If I was a better person I would have insisted that I was tired too and we both could have gone back and petted one of the friendly local cats. But I think we have already established that I am not a good person, and I am a fiend for walking, so it should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I left her sitting by the side of the path while I headed up the mountain. I didn’t go very far, anyway.
On our way back through town we stopped at the internet café again, so that we could both burn off the few minutes we had left on our cards and check for last-minute responses. When I put mine through I had two surprises: one, I only had two minutes left, not six, and two, I had a response from one of the places I had applied to for a job. So I wrote the fastest reply I could and sent it off with two seconds to go. I’m still not sure if I used my real name or not.
We made a few final purchases on our way back through town and made it to the restaurant a bit after six. Then we found out where all the cruise passengers were- they must have been eating salmon at that restaurant, because the wait for a table was an hour long. So we took the tender back to the ship and ate at our table with our new friends.
Someday soon though, I am going to eat some salmon.

Day 4- Ketchikan

Our first port stop in Alaska, and the weather isn’t cooperating. Not raining, exactly, but spitting a steady drizzle. I guess I really can’t complain too much though, since we are in a rainforest. Apparently this town gets something like thirteen feet of rain a year.
We aren’t the only ship in port here; a Royal Caribbean is pulled up right behind us. All together, I’d guess there’s about five thousand extra people in this small town this morning. Ketchikan has all of the usual cruise port retail suspects- the chain jewelry stores, the cheesy-souvenir megamarts- plus some smaller local places. I end up dropping a fair chunk of money in the latter, as is my wont. We also found a good little bookstore, hidden upstairs in a row of tourist shops built where the town’s brothels once had been. (Romanticizing the sex trade- fun for the whole family!) We stopped on the bridge over the creek to watch the salmon trying to make their way against the current. They didn’t seem to be making much progress.
We had lunch at a restaurant in a lovely hotel on the top of a hill (the town is built on the side of a series of what look like mountains but I suspect are considered hills around here.) The food was terrific, worlds beyond what we’ve been having on the boat. We both had their ‘Crabby Patty’ (why yes, I do believe that’s a Spongebob reference), which was basically just a bunch of pieces of crab with a little melted butter and some cheese on a bun. Neither of us ate the bun. We didn’t have a whole lot of time in Ketchikan, so after lunch we went to see the sight. The Deer Mountain Fish Hatchery and Eagle Preserve is housed in a modest collection of buildings in the residential part of town. They have two injured eagles living there as an enticement for tourists, but the real business of the place is breading and releasing salmon. We were led around by a slightly impaired guide who told us about the facility with a heavily rehearsed patter. (Fact: Female bald eagles are larger then the males. Discuss.)
They have shows on board every night, in the International Show Lounge, and I have yet to go to one of them. Partly because we have the late seating for dinner, which means we get done eating at around nine-thirty, and partly because, in my experience (I went to one once) they are really not very good. Apparently, one of the primary entertainers on this cruise is a comedian whose routine is so unfunny he put one of the people at our table to sleep.
Today, the dumb guy just figured out that the menu changes every night.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Day 3-At Sea

Ambushed By Showgirls

Another day at sea, and I think Megan is ready to go after someone with a pickaxe. More people have discovered the casino, but I was still able to find a spot to totally fail to work this morning. Actually, I only did that for a while, until I realized that what I really wanted to do was go back to sleep. So I did. Got up again around noon, read some more. I don’t know what all these people are complaining about, I’ve got plenty to do here. We tried the pizza place for lunch and found it good: nice crisp crusts and greasy pepperoni. In the afternoon, between my (failed) attempts to get on the internet, we went to the nature lecture on whales, which turned out to be the onboard naturalist showing his vacation slides and telling dumb jokes.
At dinner, the stupid guy was not only still stupid, he was also drunk. His mother seems nice enough, but her total failure to teach her son any table manners speaks against her. Fortunately, the other people at our table, a nice couple from Las Vegas, were there, though the people from Petaluma had abandoned us.
After dinner, as we were leaving the dining room, we found the doors blocked by pairs of the ship’s dancers dressed as showgirls, who wouldn’t let us pass without having our pictures taken. These pictures get posted on a wall where they are, of course, for sale.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Imagine, If You Will...

Okay so, technically, I'm back home now. And the cruise was really great, blah blah blah. The thing is, the internet connection was so slow, unreliable and expensive that I only managed to post two of my ten days at sea. So what I figured is, since I wrote about the rest of the days anyway, I would just post them starting tomorrow and going one day at a time, pretending that it's all happening now. (Except it's not, okay? So don't be asking me to get you some salmon or anything, because you can go to Andronico's as well as I can.)

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Day 2- At Sea

The Glory of Room Service

This morning we had breakfast, not quite in bed, but near it. Every night they give you a card to fill out, with your options for room service, which you hang on your door, and in the morning the food appears, which is really quite miraculous. The choices are limited, and you do have to remember to ask for milk for your tea, but those aren’t what I’d call serious deficiencies.
Today was a sea day, which meant that there wasn’t a whole lot to do. The Regal Princess is a slightly older ship, smaller than the absolutely huge new ones, with correspondingly fewer activities- most of the things planned for the day seemed to involve playing board games with the cruise staff. That was fine by me; I found a quiet spot (in the casino, no less) and settled in read and write for most of the morning (translation: read and play with my hair, stare out the window, think about starting a jigsaw puzzle, check my watch and get about a paragraph down on paper, most of which I’ll probably have to cut in the second draft). Megan’s day was apparently less productive, and she seems to be getting kind of antsy. I don’t think she has as much practice at sloth as I do. In the afternoon we attended the art auction, where the salesman tried to convince all the people who had shown up for the free booze that the cheap reproductions of ugly paintings were worth multiple hundreds of dollars, with some success. I only kind of watched this, because I was involved with the Internet Problem.
Here’s the problem: Internet access for the ship is provided via a connection to a very temperamental satellite. So when I bought my (non-refundable) access code, $10.50 for a half hour, and I sat down to use it, I found I was going nowhere fast. Okay, I thought, I’ll try again later. And I did. I tried again, and again, until Megan was giving me such a hard time about it that I had to retaliate by pointing out how many times she talked about wanting to have cell phone service so she could talk to her boyfriend. Anyway, as of this writing I have yet to actually confirm that this ‘internet’ thing actually exists, but I remain hopeful. I hear they have a library in Haines.
Our two missing people turned up at dinner tonight- an elderly mother and her middle-aged son- and I have to say they aren’t much of an improvement over the empty chairs. The mother isn’t so bad but the guy is a real waste of oxygen, a loser who thinks he’s an alpha male, with the world’s most rudimentary sense of humor and without two brain cells to rub together. Of course he’s sitting next to me.

Sunday, July 10, 2005


Or, Guess What? I’m a Moron!

So, Daisy and Megan’s Cruise Adventure is now officially underway. Actually, it was underway yesterday, but I didn’t get around to blogging until now. Wireless internet is available, but expensive. We are on a boat, after all.
Sailing out under the Golden Gate yesterday was undeniable cool. Also windy. I took many, many pictures, which I will post after I get back because of the aforementioned expense of internet time. I’m not going to waste it on uploading.
San Francisco hasn’t been a cruise port for very long, and the operation is a lot less slick than in Long Beach or Miami. Processing of the passengers happens in a (barely) converted warehouse, with carpet taped to the floor and temporary walls that stop about fifty feet from the ceiling. I like it.
After we got on and had some lunch, we set out and explored the ship. It has thirteen decks, numbered 1-14 (triskadecaphobia strikes again!) and more bars than you can shake an overpriced souvenir shot glass at. There are three restaurants: the dining room, the casual buffet and a pizza place, plus a casino, a movie theater, a regular theater and various lounges. The atrium is kind of a small one, as mega-ship atria go, only three floors and hardly anything in the way of ugly public art. In general, the décor is pleasantly untacky, with a kind of art deco vibe in a lot of brushed steel and wood.
As part of our tour, we made our way down to the spa, located on the lowest floor accessible to the public (I suspect it was added in haste once spas became necessary things to have on cruise ships). They were promoting their services, so one lady rubbed warm stones on our shoulders and talked about lining up our chakras, then another tried to convince us that it would be a good idea to let her smear us with hot seaweed paste and then wrap us in tinfoil for half an hour. We were not convinced.
I did, however, notice the exercise room, which does have treadmills, which I had better use if I want to be able to fit through the door when I get home.
The food hasn’t been completely fabulous, but that hasn’t prevented me from eating a whole lot of it. Dinner last night was shrimp cocktail, mushroom soup, a seafood turnover in cream sauce and chocolate cake. (The menu claimed the cake was flourless, but I don’t think it was. It was suspiciously un-dense.) The other people at our table (at least the ones who showed up; we were short a couple) seemed nice enough, if old. Pretty much everyone here is old, except for the ones who are young. As far as I can tell, the only people on the boat who are our age are wearing nametags and serving drinks.

Anyway, about the moron thing. So, last night I’m taking out my contacts. And I put them into my little contact case with the screw-on lids, and I start to screw on the lids, and I notice little blue fragments coming out of the side of the right compartment. The death of a smurf? Sadly, no. I had just destroyed my right contact lens. It’s a really good thing I brought my glasses, otherwise I’d be spending the rest of the trip blind in one eye.
Like I said: moron.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

And Away We Go

Well, I finally got my packing done. Now I'm at the stage of sitting around, being sure I've forgotten something but not knowing what it is. It'll come to me- probably somewhere around Point Reyes.

I just remembered: socks.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

To Be Read

So, I'm using this cruise as an opportunity to catch up on my reading. Here are the books I'm taking with me:
God Save the Mark, Donald Westlake
The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse, Robert Rankin
Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott
Get Shorty, Elmore Leonard
The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett
The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler (I need to get caught up on my classics.)
The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde
The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, Alexander McCall Smith
The Gunslinger, Stephen King
Grass For His Pillow, Lian Hearn

Now. Guess I'd better pack some clothes.