The family and I are waiting in the Seattle airport for our flight back home. I still feel the ground rolling underneath my seat, a feeling I will very much miss.
You see, we were just on a cruise to Alaska and the thing people complain about – the motion of the ocean as it were – was one of my favorite things.
My dad and step-mom treated the entire family to an all-expenses paid cruise on the Norwegian Pearl. And when I say all-expenses, I mean all. MaryAnn even pressed bills into my hand as I got off the shuttle to airport to tip the driver. Amazing.
Thank you so much Dad and MaryAnn, it was a perfect trip.
Aside from a half-day “cruise” to the Bahamas from Fort Lauderdale years ago, this is my first and only cruising experience, same for Loony and the kids (natch).
I have heard a lot of criticism of cruising culture … the gluttony, the excess, the activities, and the canned experiences at the ports of call where cruisers mingle amongst their own to satisfy their base desire for cheap, Chinese produced souvenirs.
I came prepared for it all but also very hopeful that MaryAnn and my father knew better. They surely did.
First of all, this was a dream vacation for me because I didn’t have to do a thing except pack. I was careful to pack five days in advance because I wanted to go into this trip not feeling bad about verbally abusing my family the day leading up to departure, as is usually the case.
Lest you wonder why it is so hard to pack for a week-long trip, remember that I pack for everyone.
Yes, I can get myself out the door lickety split but this trip was more challenging because we had to be prepared for all weather possibilities. Forgetting rain gear could mean a very uncomfortable shore excursion.
I personally can deal with being uncomfortable, but listening to my kids whine? The horror.
MaryAnn sent me all the information I needed, my dad kept me updated on weather conditions, and I managed to enjoy the day before we left rather than spending it feeling stressed out and unappreciated.
We embarked in Seattle and quickly got a feeling for the lay of the ship. I’ve never been on a cruise ship before – not an enormous one like the Norwegian Pearl – and I wondered how we would ever keep track of each other.
Naturally our first stop was the buffet.
During the course of the week we tried most of the restaurants on the ship but at the end of the day I liked the buffet the best because:
- No waiting. I could pretend that this is about the kids lacking the stamina for a proper sit-down dinner (and after reading them the riot act about how one conducts oneself at a fancy restaurant, they did pretty well) but I was the one falling asleep in my soup. I blame the early mornings. Buffets are great because all you have to do is stake a claim on a table and then everyone can eat, go back for different courses, and finish according to their own schedule.
- The executive chef is Indian which means there were delicious vegetarian Indian dishes at every meal, and I mean every meal. I enjoyed idli sambar for breakfast and gorgeous curries and kormas for lunch and dinner. The Indian food was splendid.
- In addition to the Indian fare there were international offerings at every meal which meant I could eat as many vegetables as I wanted no matter what time of the day it was, especially breakfast. I ate grilled eggplant, squash and tomatoes at breakfast and chased with vegetable congee. I was in heaven.
- Everyone got to eat what they wanted, how much, in what order (for kids that would be dessert first) and everyone was happy.
- There was nothing better than watching Scratchy stand in line and shyly ask for made-to-order pastas and omelettes every day. I loved seeing him try new things and work up the courage to get them himself. Itchy not so much, left to his own druthers he would eat nothing but white rice, hash brown patties and “ice cream soup” but one out of two kids ain’t bad.
The desserts were the weakest link (except for the made-to-order crepes and bread pudding with caramel sauce, oh my god) and for this I was grateful. It was one food group I could sort of say no to.
Lest you think I spent the week dutifully eating vegetables and eschewing all sweets, my waistline would attest to the opposite.
I ate a ton, unfortunately, the food was so good. When I’m at home I’m too busy running around, walking dogs, getting kids out the door, cleaning up, doing errands, etc. to sit around and stuff my face. But left to my own devices and some idle time, I could not ignore the siren call of the buffet.
The specialty dining rooms were lovely but after my early mornings and long shore excursions, I kind of wanted to eat and collapse.
Pamcakes had been on this exact cruise a few years ago and she gave me the inside tip about the Spinnaker lounge on top of the ship. It was full of comfortable chairs (and even a couple of beds and chaise lounges) and it was the perfect place to watch the world go by.
On our first morning I woke up early and did yoga in the library because the health club was closed. Afterwards Loony and I went to the Spinnaker lounge and it was at that moment I discovered where I would spend 80% of my waking (and napping) hours on the ship.
Even though the ship was immense, the lounge was intimate and I never felt overwhelmed by crowds.
In the early morning hours the lounge was very quiet with ambient music playing softly in the background. Come 10am the bingo and salsa lessons kicked in, but before that it was pure bliss. I set my alarm to wake up at 3am so I could bring a pillow and blanket up and doze while watching the Canadian shore and the occasional whale.
Scratchy came up with me one morning and saw a humpback whale spy hop six times next to the ship. I did yoga up there, I napped up there, I read, and yes, I drank.
My folks got us all Ultimate Drink Packages and in the name of getting the most value from their hard earned money, Loony and I did our very best.
Care to have a cocktail before dinner? Of course. Nightcap in the Spinnaker lounge? Sounds like a wonderful idea. Drink-of-the-day with lunch? We’re on vacation! Breakfast margarita?
If you think that cruising is a sedentary activity, well, it wasn’t. All you have to do is one thing.
DON’T USE THE ELEVATOR.
I shit you not, I must have climbed 200+ flights of stairs a day. Our stateroom (doesn’t that sound grand?) was on the 8th level, the Lounge and (more importantly) the buffet were on the 12th and 13th floors. I went up and down those stairs so many times.
I also used the gym (the stair machine, natch) because I could watch the scenery while sweating my ass off.
So why am I easily 10 pounds heavier? Ask my thighs because lately they’ve been talking to each other. Maybe it has something to do with the 1500 calories in mojitos every day, or the second breakfasts, desserts and lunch and double dinners.
Then there were the shore excursions. MaryAnn planned everything in advance. She read YELP reviews and applied the following criteria:
- The had to be outdoors
- They couldn’t be all day because no one wants to be on a tour for that long
- They had to be unique to the area (AKA not shopping at duty free stores)
We walked to the Mendenhall Glacier, took a tram 2000 feet up to Roberts Peak and hiked in the high country, took a historic train along the path of the early gold prospectors, explored a nature sanctuary in the Tongas rainforest (second in size only to the Amazon!) and went on a beautiful hike in Ketchikan.
Here are pictures from our first stop in Juneau and the Mendenhall Glacier.
The only “touristy” tour we did was in Victoria BC, mostly because our time was so limited with a 6pm port of call time. Otherwise, I loved the outdoorsy counterpoint to the cruising life.
One of my favorite days was when we cruised around Glacier Bay. A pilot boat with national parks rangers boarded the ship early in the morning and they took over the lounge for the day.
I was already camped out with the kids so imagine my surprise when the crew set up a coffee, tea and pastries bar, pivoting to hot soup and rolls in the afternoon.
All the bingo and Zumba classes were called off and the music stayed low. The rangers set up a traveling ranger station and narrated our journey through the bay with scientific and historic information. The Stardust theater showed documentaries on Alaska and the culture of the ship shifted from bar and buffet lines to education and quiet contemplation.
The day started out rainy and overcast but cleared up so we could enjoy the splendor of the Margory, Reid, Lamplaugh, and Johns Hopkins glaciers in all their glory. It could just as easily have been socked in with fog so we counted our blessings.
The captain let the ship spin a few times in front of each glacier so everyone had a perfect view. Loony set up his telescope so people could see the ice up close.
I took in every moment.
The fleeting and impermanent nature of this trip wasn’t lost on me. I tried to impress on my boys who were often tired and distracted that they should stop and consider that one day these glaciers will be gone and they will be able to say they saw them in person, that they saw them calve into the bay, skipped stones at icebergs, and regarded the mineral blue of the glacial ice that is unlike any blue we’ve ever seen; that people might ask them what it was like.
Itchy was cranky on our hike to Mendenhall Glacier having fallen asleep on the bus ride. I remember what it felt like as a child to be deep in sleep and then abruptly awakened and expected to sight see. It was hard to switch gears. For his sake, I hope he was able to shake off the mood and be in the moment.
The rangers said the best side of the ship to be on to see glaciers is the outside. We stood outside on that perfect day, where there wasn’t a breath of wind and drank in sheer majesty of the glaciers, as well as the forces that are destroying them.
By the end of the day I was tired from all the intense looking that I did. I realize it sounds very 1st world but it’s true, I felt worn out from attempting to memorize every second. I took a break by editing photos on my phone while sitting in front of a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows.
As I was looking down Loony let out a whoop. I looked up just in time to see a hump back whale, not 50 yards from the ship, jump out of the water right in front of us. Everyone who saw it shouted and cheered. Loony and I jumped up and down, high-fived and drank to the whale and to the marvelous day.
I fell in love with Ketchikan with its Tongas nature sanctuary, sea otters and seals, totems, and raptors. Unfortunately we didn’t see any bears.
On a friend’s recommendation we saw as many shows as we could. I’ll admit that it wasn’t many as I was usually wiped out come dinner time. But the shows we saw were great. There was a nice theater onboard and the performers sang and danced their hearts out. Their enthusiasm was infectious and the set lists were carefully picked to appeal to people of a certain (aka my) age.
We went to a few kids’ events and saw a magic act and a comedian, napped when we weren’t on shore excursions and left feeling thoroughly happy with our cruise experience.
We even had a few afternoons where it was warm enough for the boys to take advantage of the pool.
I realize that not all cruises are about the great outdoors and they funnel their guests into tourist traps, but I would gladly do another cruise like this one again. It was a wonderful way to see a completely remote place without the hassle of long drives, sketchy airplanes, and the endless logistical nightmare of arranging for accommodations in sparsely populated towns.
And then there was the motion of the ocean. I was surprised how stable the boat was and it took a few days for us to get into choppy enough water that I even noticed the rolling movement. I’ve heard people complain about that drunken feeling but I love it, especially when in bed. I slept like a baby every night.
I still have that feeling even as I sit on dry land and I wish it wouldn’t go away.
Thank you again Dad and MaryAnn, for taking care of everything and making this magical week happen for us. We love you.