God willing and providing there is money in the bank, I try my best to take two nice vacations per year. Being a 39 year old Bachelor with no child support and/or alimony is a beautiful thing.
Living in the colder climate of Boston, I look forward to the end of winter. Spring here starts sometime in April - not like March 1st as I was accustomed to in the South for 15 years. So when the shovel is put away, you'll more than likely be reading a review about my Spring cruise. This is my true "fun" vacation per year.
My week of Labor Day vacation is usually spent somewhere near the mountains, perhaps you could call it my "back to nature" vacation. Last year was 2,100 miles in a convertible Mustang for 8 days through Quebec, New Brunswick and Maine. The previous year was 2,300 miles in 8 days and included Vancouver, Seattle, Lake Tahoe, Sacramento, LA and Las Vegas.
This year the choices came down to a B & B tour of Nova Scotia and an Alaskan cruise. Guess I went for the mindless route and chose Alaska. Earlier in the process, I had called Carnival to get Caribbean rates merely on a whim, and was surprised at both the single share rate for the Caribbean and Alaska ($499 & $799 respectively). I checked another line sailing Alaska and a single cabin was $2,300. So, I decided to throw caution to the wind and take a chance of a having a roommate on the Tropicale. I did, and, luckily got my own cabin.
This would be my 16th cruise, so the fact that the Tropicale is the oldest and smallest of the Carnival fleet made no difference to myself. In fact, I do enjoy the intimacy of a smaller ship from time to time. And personally speaking, I still consider a ship carrying 1000 passengers a large ship.
One of my previous articles published in The SeaLetter is one called "Preparing For Your Cruise" (Ed: See http://www.chevychase.com/archives/). I had to chuckle after making my Alaskan plans because I only had 14 days left till departure, and was busy enough at work to allow little time for researching my ports of call and or Alaska in general. I did print a few ship reviews on Alaska and read them on the plane enroute to Vancouver. Just before landing, the article in hand was talking about how this one gentleman and his wife read somewhere in the SeaLetter about bringing "Crystal Light" with them to use as a mixer. (Ed: See http://www.sealetter.com/Sep-96/blender.html) This definitely put a smile on my face because I am the one he got that from!! (he said it was a good tip and worth the small effort since you can purchase liquor on board, but there are no mixers available.)
I decided on the Northbound itinerary because of my work schedule. It starts in Vancouver and goes along the inside passage towards Anchorage. I used some Northwest Frequent Flier miles and got great connections on both legs. My departure date was August 27, 1996.
Embarkation in Vancouver
Upon arrival into the Vancouver airport, I grabbed a limo to the ship. I'm not crazy about public transportation (which sounds pretty contradictory since I fly so often and take a cruise per year), so I turned down the chance to grab the bus Carnival hires to transport people to the ship (about $20 Canadian I think for the bus). Instead, I took a limo for only $35 and had a short tour of downtown.
I was dropped off right at Carnival Embarkation at the Canada Place Cruise Terminal. This was quite painless and expeditious, as only 30 + passengers were in front of me (I arrived @ approximately 12:30 PM). I carried all my luggage on (I do not check it with the baggage or bus people) board and while I must admit it's a pain to do, it's really such a short walk that I'll probably do it for another 20 years.
I checked into my cabin and was pleased with the size of it. For you cruise history buffs, the Tropicale is really the ship that helped set many standards for today's' cruise ships. For example:
Previous ships were either converted to be like a cruise ship or an ocean going vessel that was built for two or three classes of passengers. For myself, this was a bit of nostalgia to embark this important lady of the sea. She's only 14 years old and when you compare that to the age of Carnivals' former Mardi Gras, Carnivale and NCLs Norway, she would still be considered a young kid. Heck, each of those ships were/are 35 years old.
My cabin number was Empress Deck 90, which was port/aft on the highest deck of standard size cabins. Certainly for one person I had plenty of room and the usual "stunning..." trademark colors of Carnival were there as well. After an hour of unpacking and setting up the blender, I took off to explore my new home.
The weather was overcast and a tad bit cool. My departure date was August 27, so I knew it wouldn't be hot in Vancouver or, for that matter, anywhere along our trek. I walked along the deck thinking how sad it was to have this vast, beautiful playground wasted in the arctic waters of Canada and Alaska. There would be no ice carving demonstrations on board by the pool, no midnight moonlit buffets on the Lido deck, or countless hours of cooking in a bath of coconut oil. But in just a day or two, we would be replacing these thoughts with Killer Whales, calving glaciers and bald eagles.
I stopped in the Boiler Room restaurant to get a bite to eat. This is the topside breakfast and lunch cafeteria that has a very appropriate name since there are many brightly painted pipes intertwining themselves everywhere you look. Check out my Dining/food section for my comments on this dining facility.
Afterwards, I explored the public lounges and have recollected a few thoughts on the ones I visited:
The doors to the Disco are opened by pressing a button. The door then opens very slowly and "slowly" was generally the pace of this club for the entire cruise.
This was my favorite lounge, as Tim seemed to bring life to a rather listless crowd. The young at heart and those who weren't afraid to sing along enjoyed this hideaway for many an hour.
The room was nicely decorated and seemed to be busy the few nights I'd take a peak inside. I no longer do the shows, but what I did see seemed up to par with other ships and lines. The Passenger Talent show is always the best.
This was a very popular area while we cruised during the days since the windows are very large and you can get a great view of the great outdoors from a comfortable chair. The sandwiches, soups and desserts served from the carts were nice touches.
The Captain's parties were in here, as well as the Carnival previous cruiser party (quite crowded in fact!), and the live three piece band. The singer had a great voice and played a nice variety of songs. The room was well lit and shared a bar with the ships Library, which was forward and under a large area of tilted glass that looked towards the bow of the ship.
Seemed just as good as any Casino I've been in before to lose your money!! It was functional and certainly capable of fulfilling the needs of an Alaskan cruise crowd. I never waited for a Black Jack table or spot at the Roulette wheel.
The Outdoor Pool
For those of you who have never cruised, ship pools are filled with water from the ocean. In the Caribbean, the water is as clear as glass. However, the waters of the Pacific Northwest are not so clean. It almost looked like water from a pond - kind of green with a brown tint to it. This disappointed me because I was prepared to swim - regardless of the air temperature. The pool was heated so I did try it once, but it was about as inviting as a pit bull at someone's front door.
The Dining Facilities
On the Tropicale, you have the main dining room and the Boiler Room restaurant. Here are a few comments on each:
The Boiler Room
Certainly a place that sees a lot of action, since on your cruising days you hate to be inside in the main dining room that has no windows. The boiler Room and adjacent outside decks is where I ate all my lunches and breakfasts. Sure some days were misty and cool, but when you're passing all this glorious scenery, you just put up with it.
My favorite reason for eating lunch here was the Pasta Bar. It is set up at the cocktail bar and was manned daily by Joseph. Each day he has a different type of pasta and two types of sauce, plus an array of toppings. He got dangerously good at making me a special spicy pasta dish that seemed to warm me up inside and out.
As for the rest of the breakfast and lunch fare, everything seemed fine. The Pasta Bar is the Omelet Bar in the morning and much to my surprise, you can request fresh eggs cooked any way you desire (versus egg beaters). And despite the cold, the ice cream machine saw quite a bit of use in the afternoon.
Main Dining Room
In my opinion, it's very hard to put 500 passengers in a dining room and make it feel "cozy". The designers of the Tropicale's main dining room did a pretty good job at it, as they used quite a bit of wood. It's all on one level, but the design persuaded the noise to go elsewhere, and this was a nice effect. There are no windows, but what good are they if you eat late seating anyway?
In general, the room provided a good selection of large and small tables. On the Sensation for example, you can probably spin your neck and see 100 other passengers, while the same spin on the Tropicale only nabs about 50 heads.
Critiquing food is hard for me to do on a cruise. I almost always walk away content with what I have put in front of me. If I'm not crazy about my entree, I'll finish my salad, order another entree or appetizer, or splurge on two desserts. When you start with soup (which I adore on a ship), follow it up with an appetizer and salad, top it off with the main course, dessert and coffee - and, don't have to pull out the old American Express Card, I'm happy.
I sat at a large table of 8 that was filled with five "solo" travelers. From a very young grandmother from Miami to another single gentleman named "Trago" from California, the five of us shared our comments about our daily activities and our opinions on the food.
For those of you who have cruised more than 5 times, I think you know it's pretty hard to knock the food on a ship. Nothing on this cruise was either terribly good or terribly bad. I came, I saw, I ate, I left.
I did make one midnight buffet, the gala one at the end of the cruise, and was pleased with the variety of food and decorations. But heck, I'm used to eating a Taco Bell Burrito at 1 am when I'm landside, so it's not too hard to beat that.
Note: I am also writing an article where I interview the Head Chef of the ship, so please look in the November issue of The SeaLetter for that as well.
Ports of Call
This was a low budget cruise for moi, so my review on excursions is nil. However, I am adventurous and found fun things to do just about in all the ports. As for the planned excursions, I did suffer mildly from sticker shock for a short while. The prices ranged from $25 to $250, with the average price being $100. I had a hard time signing up for a kayak trip or wildlife boat ride where it might rain the entire time. Yikes, I can stand in my shower, close my eyes and roll around a few times for a lot less than that!! In fact , the first kayak excursion was canceled due to weather and the second trip received a constant deluge the entire trip.
Actually, a fair portion of the excursions on our trip were canceled due to poor weather. This is par for the course as you get into September and or the early May/june cruises. Anyway, here's what I did.
I awoke early and watched the captain bring us safely alongside the dock. If you've never done this, it's quite enjoyable watching a floating city park. As I looked down into the dark green waters, I saw salmon, lots of salmon, and that basically set the tone for my day in Ketchikan.
From the advice of one of the reviews I had read, I walked into town and towards the incline. There's a little street filled with shops that stand on top of the water (sorry if I forgot the name of the street). One was an Art Gallery on the second floor - which I entered and moseyed around in for a while before I began speaking with the lady that works there. She pointed out the window and said that in her 11 years in Ketchikan, she has never seen so many spawning salmon in the river below. As I looked out the window, I realized that one could probably walk across the river without getting wet with all those salmon there.
I descended towards the river to see the fish up close and to see them jumping up the stream, just like in the movies. It was neat to see, but impossible to take a picture of - since they jumped pretty fast, with most of them being unsuccessful and being pushed back down stream and back about 100 places in line.
I followed the path to the local Salmon Fish Hatchery, which was worth the 15 minutes I allowed for it. The river provided almost as much good entertainment, as there were quiet parts of the river that had thousands and thousands of salmon just hanging around and spawning.
These salmon, according to the lady from the art gallery, are born in this stream, swim down to the sea and about 5 years later somehow come back to this same river after spending their entire life in the ocean. They aren't good eating since they are old and most die after spawning, which was beginning to fill the air and sides of the riverbeds.
I continued back to town via the Westmark hotel on the mountain and walked down to the docks, where I met Mike the fisherman. He owns the Paula D, a gill netting boat and has been fishing for 40 years. I was reading a great book called Snow Falling On Cedars and it was about a murder that took place on an island just north of Seattle in a Gill Netting town. Mike spoke for over an hour about what Gill Netting is and all about fishing regulations in Alaska. I wish I had a recorder because in one hour he gave me enough info to fill up 100 pages!!
As I departed the Paula D and waved good-bye to Mike the fisherman, several young boys and their fathers were successfully fishing the river for salmon. I went back to town and met the ships nurse (Brenda from Saskatoon) at the Ben Franklin 5 & 10 cent store. We found a bar to grab lunch and a beer and I learned a little about shipboard life.
Another drizzly day and I was off to explore more urban territory. I meandered a few roads less traveled and wound up at a little museum. It was pouring, so I ducked inside to check out Alaska's history (it's next to the Statehouse). I'm no history buff, but the 30 minutes there were very interesting, as I learned about the gold rush and it's effect on this vast land.
I made my way down to the Red Garter Saloon and ran into some people from the ship. It's a bar where a lot of visitors go, and finding a bar is not hard I noticed in Alaska. Drinking is very much a part of their culture and survival. With winter days producing only 4 - 5 hours of sunlight, something has to help keep the imagination going.
What can you say about a town where the population of each cruise ship is at minimum twice that of her whole town? Brenda and I had a nice lunch at some old hotel that's right on the main street (the Grand Hotel?) and utilized the pool table in the back room. Several more crew members from the kitchen staff joined us and we had a very enjoyable time.
The old railroad here is supposed to be a good excursion, but I was shocked at the $70 price tag. Those who did it said it was nice to get up into the woods, but not really worth the dough.
This is the only port where you take tenders (the small boats on the ship that are lowered to the water) onto shore. It was another misty/rainy day and with the advice of Dennis, the ships' hotel manager (a very big position), I headed towards the Raptor (Rapture?) Center. It was a good mile and a half walk in the rain, but I had on a raincoat and hat, so what the heck.
The center is where all of the damaged Bald Eagles and other birds are sent for rehabilitation. I saw a film and was able to see up close some wild looking owls and Bald Eagles. This was certainly worth the trip. And here is some Bald Eagle trivia:
The College Fjords
The last full day on the ship, we were to visit the Columbia Glacier, which is in the Prince William Sound area. Since the glacier is in such "Catastrophic Retreat", we were unable to get very close to her. The number of icebergs floating around was quite amazing, as were the icebergs themselves. Quite often you would see a nice light blue piece of ice in the water and upon further inspection, you'd notice that underneath the water line, was a piece of ice 10 times that of what is up on top. Apparently, the Captain of the Valdez attempted to avoid a large glacier and in doing so hit some rocks, dislodging the ocean of oil that so devastated this area.
Anyway, this detour turned into our reward, as this was by far the prettiest day of our cruise. The water was clear, the skies were deep blue, the temperature was in the mid 60s, and there were sparkling white mountains all around us. The trip into the arm that houses the College Fjords was spectacular. The 10 or so glaciers are named after Ivy league schools and each one twists and turns its way differently down the mountains towards the ocean.
The most breathtaking one is the Harvard Glacier, which sits at the end of the arm. We had time to kill, so the Captain just sat there in front of her for nearly two hours. I witnessed my first glacier "calving", which means a part of it broke off and tumbled towards the liquid glacier below. Since I did not anticipate any noise coming from this, I was astonished to hear the sound of this calving take place. However, when you consider that what I was witnessing was a 4 story piece of ice breaking away from its umbilical cord and pounding into the salt water below, it's no wonder.
This word has two different meanings on a cruise. In the Caribbean, it's apt to make you feel a little bit groggy the next morning. In Alaska, it's more of a natural high. The first day out along the inside passage, we were on the top deck spotting Bald Eagles. I had just seen my first one this summer in Banff, but it's still neat to see these huge majestic birds sitting atop trees in their perches. Our closest encounter was when we were at the Harvard Glacier and a lone Bald Eagle soared directly over the ship at a relatively close range.
Along with the eagles, we had a steady diet of whales. We never seemed to be very close, but you could see them with relative ease. Our first spotting was of Humpbacks, followed by Orcas (killer whales) and then by Beluga's. On several occasions, sea lions, seals and sea otters drifted casually by the ship. In Prince William Sound, we passed by a whole herd of Sea Lions basking on the shores in the delightful sunlight.
Packing For an Alaskan Cruise
As for how to pack, I've got to level with you and say it was strange putting socks in my suitcase versus sandals, gloves versus SPF 30, and sweaters versus tropical attire.
Many of the articles I read about Alaska suggest that it is wise to "layer" your apparel. This is necessary because of the constantly changing weather conditions. For the most part, the weather on this trip was like Fall in New England. Temperatures ranged from upper 40s to upper 60s and there was no shortage of moisture in the air. Sometimes the moisture came in the form of rain, a driving drizzle, a thick mist or just a damp fog.
Therefore, you're best friend on an Alaskan cruise is a raincoat. Now there's lots of styles today implied with the word raincoat, so let me do my best to explain. First, the coat should be waterproof. Second, the length should be to your desire, but the easiest to tote around and use is one that is waist length. It should be one that can go on a hike, down a river in a raft, walk around town casually or, simply just be up on deck.
Other than your raincoat, here are a few more bring-a-longs you may need:
As for formal night, forget the tux if you wish. Formal nights are much more casual on an Alaskan cruise. Sure there are people all dressed, but certainly less than you would find on a Caribbean cruise. Remember, there are no new tan lines to show off on an Alaskan cruise and most people tend to dress for comfort, not show.
Disembarkation In Vancouver
Getting off the ship is one of my least favorite events. Not just because it's the end of the trip, but because clearing customs usually takes longer than one would imagine and that the simple logistics of moving that many people off the boat, matching them with their luggage, boarding their luggage and themselves onto the buses is difficult.
On the Tropicale, Disembarkation was very smooth. During the week you must let the pursers desk know when your flight (tour, etc.) is out of Anchorage. Based upon this, the night before you leave they will slip under your door the number of the bus you will leave on. These are based, obviously, on a priority basis. People leaving Anchorage that morning will disembark before someone catching a tour to Denali that afternoon.
I was on my own for a day in Anchorage, so I was on one of the last few buses out. This was fine for me since I hate crowds and stayed in the almost empty Boiler Room having a leisurely breakfast till 8:45. I actually ate outside enjoying the view of Seward, the town of disembarkation.
I boarded the bus and got the last seat, which was the bench seat on the last row, next to the toilet and next to a guy who you would have thought I shot his sister because I was ruining his space. This made the 3 hour trek a bit uncomfortable, but I put on my Walkman and read a book. After a while though. I stood up for about an hour looking at the scenery. This paid off as I saw a gray wolf near a stream - which is a pretty rare thing to see in those parts.
We took a 20 minute pit stop enroute at some wildlife refuge. They had Caribou, Elk, Dear, Bison and a Bald Eagle. Anyway, I survived the trip and was dropped off at the airport. Anchorage is a rather expensive town with rooms going for about $125 - $200 per night, so I found a small B&B called Judes. Jude has a house very close to the Float Plane lake near the airport and came over to pick me up. She dropped me in town later, so for $70, I saved quite a bit by staying at her B & B. Jude caters mostly to gentlemen coming off "The Slope", which is what the locals refer to the pipeline operation up north.
After a day/night touring Anchorage on my own, it was time for my 3,000 mile trip back to Boston. My Northwest flights all went smoothly and my luggage made it home safely. Here are a few closing thoughts on the trip:
This was Carnival's inaugural year in Alaska and they went out full every trip. The Tropicale is headed there again next year and I bet that she's replaced with a Fantasy class ship the year after. Carnival has benefited with it's relationship to Holland America Line - since they own so many of the excursions, hotels, etc.. Many people have asked what the average age was of the passengers on the Tropicale and I could only guess that the average is somewhere in the high 50s to lower 60s. We only had a handful of kids on board and about 20 or so solo passengers in their 20s, 30s and early 40s.
Carnival did a very good job their first year in Alaska. They say that they are trying to figure out a way to control the weather, and as big as Carnival is, they'll probably find a way!
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please